Monday, December 31, 2007

Defining PR

There has been a lot of discussion of public relations and ethics in the past few days in West Michigan. So I thought it'd be helpful to post a common definition of public relations. This might be remedial for some practitioners, but since my blog received a lot of non-PR readership in the past few days, I thought I'd add this.

Keep in mind that there are many 'definitions' of public relations. Also, public relations is a very diverse field, with many sub-specialties. Some PR people don't do any media relations, some do nothing but that. Nevertheless, this definition is the most common one used in public relations programs at universities across the country:

"Public relations is the management function that seeks to identify, build, and maintain mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and all of the publics on whom its success or failure depend."
(Source: Cutlip, S. M., Center, A. H., & Broom, G. M. (1994). Effective public relations (7th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.)

It's a mouthful. Let's break it down:

  • management function = PR people don't just communicate policy, they help make it.
  • identify, build and maintain = the work of PR is essentially one of relationship building. Communication is a tool to do that, not an end in itself. PR people identify publics and build and maintain relationships with publics that other managers might overlook.
  • mutually beneficial relationships = the nature of those relationships is inherently ethical. PR, by this definition, does not exploit, it draws together. Another way to think about this is the Latin root of communication, communis, which means 'to make common.' You can also consider the common four-part typology of PR models by James Grunig, which culminates in the "two-way symmetrical" model, meaning that organizations change to adapt to public needs and do not merely attempt to influence publics.
  • all publics = too many organizations focus narrowly on key beneficial publics, such as customers for a corporation, or donors for a nonprofit. Those are important publics of course. But PR as a profession has a much broader view than marketing or development professionals. PR people consider communicating and forming relationships with a vast array of publics, and thus we have PR specialties of employee relations, community relations, government relations, investor relations, etc., in addition to donor relations, consumer relations, media relations. According to this definition, we also must foster relationships with specific publics who may appear to offer no material benefit to an organization.
  • success or failure = that's right, PR is not fluff work. It's vital. All of the above should be done proactively. If you have bad communications, bad relationships, ignore a public, and so forth, you have bad reputation and harm the organization's mission.

    Again, there are other definitions of PR. I admit that this one is 'normative,' meaning it describes what PR SHOULD be, not what it actually is in all cases. I would argue though, that PRSA and its Code of Ethics and Accreditation program are helping to encourage more PR people to think of and practice PR this way. Even if some might say this definition does not match reality in the field in all cases, as a professor, I am unashamedly idealistic in teaching what PR ought to be. That's in keeping with GVSU's mission of "educating students to shape their lives, their professions, and their societies." I hope my students practice ethically, speak truth to power, and enhance the profession as well as society when they graduate and practice PR according to these standards.

    It's also why I maintain this blog.

    Happy New Year!
  • Sunday, December 30, 2007

    Press and PR

    The Grand Rapids Press carries a front page article today about the PR ethics aspect of the Meijer/SST story.

    Ginny Seyferth has spoken to the media and insists she and her firm were ethical. I truly hope so, for everyone's sake. But she wasn't specific beyond a defensive statement. To resolve this clearly, she should say one of two things: either SST did NOT create a 'front group,' or SST does not find such a tactic to be unethical.

    I would add that the media and citizens do not need to be experienced in crisis management to be critical of SST or Meijer. We do not need to hold public office to be critical of public officials. But even so, many critics do have such experience, and their experience shows that transparency and humility are far better than denial, avoidance, and pride in a crisis.

    Again, the worth of public relations is its contribution to "informed decision making in a democratic society," to once again quote the PRSA Code. My hope is that people will make an informed decision about what public relations really is after hearing multiple views on this issue.

    Friday, December 28, 2007

    Seyferth Profile Today

    Thanks for all the comments on the Meijer, SST issue. I've alerted local media of my post and your comments in hopes that the real and ethical perspective of PR by area practitioners could be mentioned in a follow-up article. Unfortunately, the public could think that what SST did in this case defines PR as opposed to being a bad example of a normally ethical profession.

    Meanwhile, as the Mike Meyer character "Dieter" on "Sprockets"--a Saturday Night Live sketch--might say, the irony (and the agony) is delicious! Ginnny Seyferth will be profiled in the Grand Rapids Press today as part of the paper's series on women entrepreneurs.

    Hmmm. I wonder if there has been any last-minute editing.....

    Wednesday, December 26, 2007

    Meijer-y Christmas

    Retailers like extra attention around the holidays, but Meijer probably could have done without the front page attention in the Grand Rapids Press on Christmas Day.

    The Press follows an extensively reported piece in the Traverse City Record Eagle about Meijer's "secret plan" to recall Acme Township officials who were opposed to a Meijer store there.

    The allegations are that Meijer--with the help of local PR firm Seyferth, Spaulding, Tennyson--had strategic plans to remove the local leaders who stood in their way. The Record Eagle reports that SST "crafted recall language, devised election strategy, wrote campaign literature, and used local residents as figureheads in the recall." All of that is fine PR work, if it's done above board. If these local residents known as the Acme Recall Committee were a 'front group'--i.e., put forward as if they came together by themselves and were not organized and supported by SST and Meijer--then that would be a clear violation of the PRSA Code of Ethics. Apparently, SST staffers ghost wrote letters to the editor and other materials that local residents presented as their own. To be sure, politicians employ speechwriters and there are other examples of individuals seeking help to express themselves. But these activities as part of an election campaign smell of an unethical front group strategy.

    The larger trouble seems to be that Meijer never reported its financial contributions toward the recall effort. This is in violation not just of voluntary professional ethics codes, but of enforceable state law. On this one, Meijer's face is as red as its logo.

    Most troubling to me is that SST and Meijer officials say very little. They refuse comment or are unavailable. This usually implies guilt in the court of public opinion. If what they did is not unethical, they should say so and say why. Meijer President Mark Murray does comment in yesterday's Grand Rapids Press, but only to say they will cooperate with the state investigation (as if they have a choice) and that he didn't know about this until recently (even though he was hired presumably for his talents at managing large organizations). Meanwhile, there is nothing about this issue on the news section of Meijer's web site. One would think if there is an explanation or defense of Meijer's actions, they would offer one. The fact that they don't speaks volumes.

    Meanwhile, local leaders in Acme Township--all of whom retained their seats--offer a troubling and heartfelt commentary. As one said: "The democratic process in a little township has been undermined by a corporation's millions."

    Indeed, for PR to be called a profession, it must show it serves our democratic society in a positive way. Engaging in secretive plans in this case seems more self-serving, and by that measure not professional. There is a difference between advocating a point of view openly versus secretive manipulation. The trouble is, the PR profession takes another hit to its reputation in this case. We should all be upset about this--especially those of us who take seriously the PRSA Code of Ethics sixth provision, to "enhance the profession" and strengthen the public's trust in public relations. That did not happen in Traverse City recently.

    Monday, December 24, 2007

    Air Powerless

    I had to hear from a friend in the DC area that the Gerald R. Ford International Airport had a power outage. Sure, there were some mentions in local media, but it's interesting that my friend read it in the Washington Post and then emailed me.

    Another interesting point from my friend--who flies into GR to visit family in the area: no info on the Ford Airport web site about this. I also notice nothing about the parking ramp construction project. In fact, the most recent news release is about the ramp's groundbreaking from way back in September.

    The site has some interesting features, such as real time flight information. It would be a good and easy addition to offer real time info about situations like power outages, how the construction affects passengers, and so on.

    One would think that those involved in aviation would have a more navigable and informative web site.

    Sunday, December 23, 2007

    PR Pay for Placement Debate

    Regarding my previous post, the WSJ managing editor contacted me to verify I indeed sent my comments to their discussion board. They plan to use some of it in an upcoming issue.

    There were lots of other interesting comments posted about what PR really is, how much is media relations and publicity versus other tactics and relationship/reputation, etc. I encourage you to read them here and even weigh in yourself.

    Public relations is the featured topic this month in the WSJ "Small Business Link" section.

    Monday, December 17, 2007

    WSJ Perpetuates PR Stereotype

    I haven't posted in a while because I was busy finishing up two papers. One on social attitudes about the public relations profession, and another on the history of how the media portrayed "public relations" when it first entered the American lexicon in the 1920s.

    So what irony that the Wall Street Journal today has an article about small businesses doing their own "PR" or one pro offering "pay for placement" services. They also have a poll about your opinion of PR, which only amounts to whether respondents think it gets them press or not.

    Once again, a media stereotype that PR is nothing more than publicity perpetuates the myth in the public and among our clients. I responded online and said as much. I encourage you to do the same.

    The article upsets me for two reasons. One, PR is about more than publicity. (It has been since the 1920s among the key pioneer practitioners like Edward Bernays, Ivy Lee, and Arthur Page, all of whom were providing counsel on policy to management like John D. Rockefeller Jr. or the AT&T Corporation). Second, PR measurement has moved beyond clip counting and looks at ROI in terms of whether objectives have been met, namely whether change has occured in kkey publics with regard to awareness, attitude, or action.

    This is why the APR program is important. This is why I teach. I know many PR pros in West Michigan and around the country get it. But there are still too many flacks that give the profession a bad name. (That happened in the 1920s too--CEOs insisting that PR should be one-way promotion instead of two-way dialogue, "press agents" engaging in silly stunts). Sadly, we will always have to define our profession. Unless there's a novel or movie or reality TV show that portrays PR correctly. (But there too, one study I encountered shows that from 1930-1995, novels and films in which a PR person is a character all--ALL--show PR in a negative light.

    Sigh. I'm thinking of a New Year's resolution....

    Thursday, December 06, 2007

    Social Rank

    Out of the blue I got an email yesterday informing me that this GRPR blog of mine was in the top 100 PR blogs. That's satisfying, considering I just intended this to be a local conversation about public relations and advertising. But I'm finding out that communities are topical, not geographical, on the Internet.

    You can see the rankings on a site called PR Voices and maybe check out some of the other PR blogs on the list. Or, find popular blogs on other topics or in other "commmunities."

    You can click on the "social rankings" button at the bottom of the sidebar at right to see rankings at any time. Also, by the way, you can click on the sitemeter button to see data on who's reading my blog. I'm all about transparency.

    Rankings are updated frequently according to an algorithm. So now I have pressure to stay socially relevant, popular, hip, happeninn'. Makes me feel like I'm in junior high at the roller skating party, pondering my social relevance, although I didn't call it that then. But, such is the nature of technology and the blogosphere today.

    Actually, I'm not going to worry too much about my social ranking. You might for your organization, but I'm just a mild-mannered professor sharing his opinion. My attitude is similar to what it was at those skating parties, actually. I usually found a cute girl to skate with sooner or later back then. But if I didn't, I didn't let it bother me.

    That's how I roll:)

    Monday, December 03, 2007

    A Quixtar in the East

    I'm having morning coffee this morning and giving my thumb a workout on the TV remote--trying to find a morning program that atually does news in between the weather, chit chat, and ads--and what to my eyes does appear?

    Quixtar in the East!

    Specifically, a representative of West Michigan based Quixtar chatting it up in Times Square with Al Roker about their donation to the Today Show toy drive. This is cool for several reasons. One, it's a local company getting some rare national air. And second, it seems a good mix of philanthropy and marketing--often a fine line.

    The product Quixtar is giving is a line of cosmetics for older girls, which as Al Roker nicely said in a segue, is a tough age group when donating toys. Meanwhile, it's a great market for Quixtar, who would no doubt love to introduce their line to older girls before they become young women.

    You can read more about the donation in a Quixtar news release.

    Monday, November 26, 2007

    Tagging Tag Lines

    Appropos of my post and several comments about the "Feel the Zeel" campaign in Zeeland, you might be interested in this piece in Brandweek about how taglines are making their exit from advertising.

    The article makes some good points, but I would say taglines may still be effective in some cases. However, they are not enough on their own.

    As one anonymous comment says, the "Feel the Zeel" line and spraypainting are clever and might get them some name recognition. Well, Osama Bin Laden has name recognition; is it a good brand?

    Until more is revealed later today, all we know is that Zeeland has a campaign to promote the city. I "recognize" that. But what MORE will they do and say that will motivate people from West Olive, Fennville and other cities in the region to engage in commercial activity in Zeeland.

    This is my complaint about lots of advertising--raising awareness, cool design, clever tag lines please people in the conference room. But where are the results? What were the objectives?

    If you want to be clever, congratulations. If you want to change attitudes and behaviors, show me.

    Wednesday, November 21, 2007

    GR Chamber Publicity Event

    I moderated an event titled the "Power of Publicity" for the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce yesterday. Panelists included Anton Wishik of Gemini Publications, Deborahh Johnson Wood of Rapid Growth, Diane Kniowski of WOOD TV 8 (and other stations) and Kelly Smallagan Mass of Lambert Edwards and Associates.

    There was a good 90-minute discussion, including a long and entertaining back-story on the return of the weather ball. But the essential reminders included the following:

  • the vast majority of press releases are emailed, and journalists prefer that;
  • photos, audio and video are appreciated and used, particularly on media Web sites;
  • press releases are not dead--well-written ones are better than short pitches because, if interested in the story, the journalist is saved the work of asking for more information;
  • include a contact or several sources for follow up, and be available;
  • journalists and PR people DO get along--it's politicians who spin. PR pros--honest ones--help journalists and are appreciated;
  • news releases only work if its news; there are other ways to reach your publics if its not. Media relations is a fraction of what PR people do these days. PR is far more than publicity.
  • getting a degree in public relations at, say, Grand Valley State University, is essential.

    OK, I added that last one. Happy Thanksgiving.
  • Feel the Zeel Reveal

    The Holland Sentinel reports (link may take you to current day's local news vs archived story) that odd "graffiti" is appearing all over Zeeland--a Z! in a circle spray painted on sidewalks and buildings.

    They report that local officials won't admit that this is a marketing campaign--yet. But c'mon, it's obvious. So much so that it seems the Sentinel is complicit in this little teaser, also known as reveal advertising for teasing people and then 'revealing' what's going on later.

    The gimmick is more obvious by the fact that the Sentinel web coverage includes a video of "clandestine" taggers adding the "Z!" all over town, as well as a "Feel the Zeel" slogan. Word is the frequently awarded, Holland-based Image Group is behind the campaign. Given the Sentinel coverage, it appears to be working so far--in terms of attention.

    But in terms of attitudes and behavior--such as more traffic in Zeeland--we have yet to see. Maybe that will happen after something more is "revealed." I mean, right now Zeeland has alcohol and a slogan, which is more than enough for some college students and rednecks. But it'll take more for other demographics to descend on the cozy suburb of the booming metropolis of Holland.

    Meanwhile, the campaign to promote Grand Rapids (remember "Keep it a Secret"?) is working very well--at last count, the evidence of the campaign for the city is still, in fact, a secret.

    Monday, November 12, 2007

    NonProfit PR

    A few weeks ago I participated on a panel discussion about nonprofits and blogging. It was part of the biennial WMPRSA NonProfit PR conference. Roberta King and Clare Wade did a great job, and I helped, providing an overview of the interesting and complicated subject of blogging and PR as it applies to nonprofits.

    If you missed that and are interested, the New York Times has a special section today on "Giving" that includes some interesting articles. Among them, the recurring subject of people expecting nonprofs to give more, and not just to collect. In other words, people are demanding accountability, transparency, and measurement of results with nonprofits the same as they are with big corporate entities and governments.

    Another good, related, piece is about blogging. In particular, it addresses the fact that more bloggers out there are blogging about nonprofits. One point I made at the workshop is that even if YOU don't blog, you need to monitor the blogosphere using Technorati and other tools to see what people are saying about your organization or your cause/issue.

    I'd encourage non-profit PR pros to read the section and have a discussion at your next staff meeting.

    Tuesday, November 06, 2007

    Journalist, Don't Quote Thyself

    Hoo-boy. I usually enjoy reading the "Street Talk" column in the Grand Rapids Business Journal for its snarky tone and quick update on local news. So I was a little shocked to read the lead item this week about the BJ forming a partnership with WZZM TV 13 (apparently ending the relationship with FOX 17).

    It's an interesting item about this new partnership that you can read for yourself. But what I found surprising and amusing were the quotes from the respective media outlets.

    Carole Valade of the BJ rattled off this ad copy: "As the region's premier source of regional business news for 25 years, Grand Rapids Business Journal is pleased to be a part of this partnership with WZZM."

    Sheesh. I need a chalkboard. First, are you only pleased as a "premier blah blah blah?" Could you not be pleased as a human, or just plain pleased? Do you insert positioning statements in all your conversations?

    And what's with being "part of a partnership." Um, duh.

    Tim Geraghty (why not Janet Mason?), WZZM news director, doesn't do much better when he steps up to the PR plate: "WZZM is excited to be part of this relationship."

    Greater words of love have been expressed at a shotgun wedding.

    Why speak in the third person as (name of organization)? What's with the pedestrian commentary that we are "pleased" and "excited?" For one, everyone says that and it sounds more like formula than feeling. Even if you do feel it, it's expected that you are excited about what you are doing.

    Here's an idea--how about contributing something meaningful with the quote. These spokespersons for WZZM and GRBJ could hold forth on why this is being done, or--gasp--why it's relevant to readers and viewers.

    I teach my media relations students the nuances of offering good quotes in news releases, and have them practice in writing drills. One thing I tell them is to avoid the "LAQ" (a high tech communication acronym that stands for..."lame ass quote"). Journalists would never use dribble in a story, I say. They'd do their own interviews, get something meaningful, conversational, genuine, I explain.

    Well, apparently that's not the case when they quote themselves. Perhaps they've read too many bad press releases, full of LAQs.

    Sunday, November 04, 2007

    Sticky Squink

    Judging from two reader comments from Chicago and DC, sites like "Squink" are making inroads in larger metro markets.

    And this morning, Grand Haven Tribune Publisher Paul Bedient tells me: "After 72 hours, we’ve served up over 16,500 pages to about 850 visitors."

    He's thinking it'll be a sticky site. Of course, 72 hours is early, but those are good stats for starters. It must help when you own a newspaper to promote your site too :)

    Friday, November 02, 2007

    From Ink to 'Squink'

    The Grand Haven Tribune unveiled an interesting Web site yesterday--squink.com

    You can read the Tribune article about the site for more detail, but essentially its a newspaper providing a photo sharing, social media site for local residents.

    This is an example of a newsprint enterprise trying to be relevant in the digital, Web 2.0 world. It has some merit--the photo staff of the Tribune can share their photos, residents can upload their own, and the increasingly visually stimulated public can browse. It's a way for the Tribune to interact with readers and the community, perhaps community members who are not readers. It definitely has a local emphasis, which is what newspapers like the Tribune need to emphasize if they want to survive in an era of declining readership. In other words, it's a public relations effort to build new relationships and enhance existing ones.

    A few have already posted photos. We'll have yet to see if the site is "sticky." There are ads on the site, from Google AdSense. The publisher says they hope to attract more local advertisers for banner web ads. So there's potential revenue stream and sustainability for the site.

    There is a danger that some ill-advised business or organization will try to "colonize" the site by posting promotional photos. When this is tried on Facebook and other social sites, it doesn't work. However, it could be a good PR opprtunity if the photos follow the existing rules of Web 2.0, in other words if they are of a genuine interest that is not blatantly self serving.

    Tuesday, October 30, 2007

    More on the Service Tax

    Matt Harlow of the Perry Ballard agency sent out this email today regarding the service tax and its impact on public relations, advertising, and marketing agencies....

    "Confused about Michigan's new sales tax on services? Learn more about how the
    tax affects you as a marketer and how you can help to fight it by watching this
    online video.

    In the meantime, here are a few things you should know:

    1) While advertising agencies, media outlets and other marketing oriented
    firms are not specifically subject to the tax, certain marketing related
    services are, regardless of who provides that service. Some of the services
    include:

    * Marketing consulting
    * Desktop publishing
    * Design
    * Packaging and labeling

    2) It is a use tax, not a sales tax. This means that if either the buyer or
    the seller is in Michigan, the transaction will be taxed.

    These two facts combine to create three major problems for our industry:

    1) All Michigan marketers' budgets are instantly 6% smaller in the
    taxed areas.

    2) All Michigan agencies and vendors are now 6% less competitive when
    offering the taxed services out of state.

    3) The ambiguity of what specific services are and aren't taxed is, to
    put it bluntly, an audit waiting to happen.

    The American Advertising Federation-District Six
    has joined the Ax the Tax Coalition with over 50
    other professional associations to stop this tax. We are also staying in
    touch with the several Michigan lobbyists and the American
    Advertising Federation
    in Washington. We'll make
    every effort to keep you informed and tell you how you can help to defeat
    this tax. In the meantime, we urge each of you to join the fight as
    actively as possible."

    Stay tuned...and share your thoughts by commenting on this blog.

    Monday, October 29, 2007

    Taxing Quote

    Must be Halloween week--we have axes and vomit in the news.

    In an MiBiz article about the "Ax the Tax" Coalition press conference, there is this gem of a quote from Tim Wondergem of Wondergem Consulting Inc., a local PR firm with lots of public issue experience:

    “The businesses that are being depended on to create a new economy in Michigan are getting screwed here, folks,” said Tim Wondergem of Wondergem Consulting. “The next time I hear the Jeff Daniels’ commercial about Michigan’s Upper Hand on the radio, I am going to pull my car over and have a vomit moment.”

    But Tim. how do you really feel? :)

    Seriously, this is an issue PR consultants should watch. Should our services be taxed, and not those of other professionals? I'd agree with Wondergem, though I'll try not to launch my lunch for now.

    Friday, October 26, 2007

    Magna Doing It Right

    It's not a good thing to announce plant closings and layoffs. But Magna Donnely's announcement of a plant cosolidation and layoff of 50 employees reported in the Holland Sentinel today reveals a good way to handle bad news.

    First, company spokesperson Tracy Fuerst doesn't mince words. The PR rep says what's happening and why--two plants will consolidate because of a decrease in product demand. Refreshingly honest and clear.

    Second, and more importantly, the article reveals that Magna is trying to honor relationships (remember, that's what PR is about) with those laid off employees by offering to find other positions within the company.

    Things are tough in the auto industry. It's good to see one of our major auto industry companies doing PR right in such tough times. Of course, few media will call this "PR"; they save that for when it's done poorly. All the more reasons for me to point out the good stuff.

    I only wish there was more detail for employees, community and media about this consolidation on the company web site.

    Friday, October 19, 2007

    Selling NonProfit Status

    A local non-profit executive director emailed me about the current Blue Cross campaign touting their nonprofit status. While it's a tagline in some ads, it's the main message in a billboard I saw recently.

    Apparently the execs feel the nonprofit status is an important message to folks who may feel insurance co-pays and premiums are too high. They want to stress they are not profiting from health care dollars.

    But, I find it hard to believe folks who are upset will feel better jjust knowing the organization is nonprofit. There have been financial scandals at nonprofits before--Red Cross, United Way, etc.

    People don't get well merely by talking to a doctor. They don't change their attitudes only by knowing an organization is a non-profit. This current campaign should address the fee structure head on, and if the rates are justifiable, justify them.

    Go Gravity!

    It took a while for me to get caught up on work after being gone, recover from jet lag and a cold, and read the pile of papers and mail. I was most excited to see the launch of "Gravity Six Alliance," a group of local ad agencies collaborating to land national clients. If you missed the local coverage, read the original PR Newswire release.

    I've said it before--West Michigan has talent and shouldn't take a back seat to anyone from Madison Avenue to Madison, Wisonsin and points further west.

    Here's hoping Gravity takes flight.

    Sunday, October 14, 2007

    Quixtar Sues Bloggers

    Interesting item in the AP business wire today about Quixtar suing bloggers.

    At first blush, I'm against this from a PR standpoint. We should allow people to state their opinions and offer our responses publicly as part of a dialogue. Suing those who criticize you would seem to contradict that "two-way symmetrical" model of PR, not to mention garner negative public opinion about a big company snuffing the voices of individuals.

    However, when you read the article, it does seem that these bloggers aren't so innocent. Quixtar alleges that the bloggers (apparently from Ottawa County since that's the court where the suit was filed, unless they feel it is a more receptive venue) are actually an organized group of ex-distributors who are posting items anonymously to Utube. If these allegations are true, then the critics of Quixtar are engaging in setting up a 'front group,' which is clearly derided in the PRSA Code of Ethics (scroll down to "disclosure of information"). I guess we can all watch to see what the courts say about it. It could be a landmark case of free speech for bloggers.

    Friday, October 05, 2007

    WSJ Blog on Countrywide

    The Wall Street Journal returned the favor and mentions me and others in their Marketbeat blog.

    Wednesday, October 03, 2007

    Parley VooDoo

    Even though France is home to Havas and Publicis, two of the biggest five Ad/PR holding companies, they still need humble ol' moi to come teach PR over there. I'll be in Angers next week at a school called ESSCA (French acronym; link is to English version of site) trying to work my magic (parley my voodoo) on some French business students.

    The school is a partner of Grand Valley, and teaches marketing, but not PR. Hence the arrangement with me. I taught there two years ago thanks to the initial legwork from my now retired colleague, Betty Pritchard. We didn't screw up too badly, so they asked me to do it again::)

    I'll to upload a few posts of my experiences, but those French keyboards are challenging. If not, I'll share thoughts when I'm back in the USA October 15.

    Au revoir for now.

    Countrywide HIts Home

    Update on previous post. Local media reports carry story (see TV 13) about Countrywide closing its Grand Rapids office. Locks changed suddenly. Calls referred to another office.

    Yeah. Pep talks are nice. PR is what's needed here.

    Countrywide Mouths

    The Wall Street Journal (online subscription required) has a great article on B1 about Countrywide Mortgage and its PR plans to handle the current crisis of reputation.

    They do a couple things right--they get a good PR firm in Burson Marsteller to help out. They start internally with a conference call for employees.

    However, there's a difference between doing something and doing it well and effectively.

    You can read the speaking points for that employee conference call on WSJ's site--an interesting inside look. I come away feeling like it's mostly a pep rally with the theme "we're tough, we're great, we're getting a bad rap in the press, and trust management."

    Hmmm. Wonder if any employees ended up at Countrywide after losing their jobs at ....Enron, where the same theme was used by management.

    Perhaps, in an enlightened "two-way symmetrical" PR model, Countrywide could LISTEN to their publics instead of launching this loud mouth screed. They might find their reputation is a result of people feeling deceived, exploited, cheated etc--never good words to use in PR reputation objectives. Rather than cheerleading for continuing such aggressive behavior, perhaps the company could change its tone and behavior (see my GRPR: Countrywide and Outside post on this subject from late August). Otherwise their reputation will continue to be suspect, not only by employees, but country wide.

    UAW, GM, and PR

    The UAW-GM agreement is interesting and significant for a host of reasons. It's a landmark concession by the union to take responsibility for its own health and retiree benefits program, thus removing a great weight from GM. GM in turn has promised more job security for workers. How either change and promise will be sustainable is yeet to be seen.

    But the PR aspects of this interests me as well. It's not just about the public opinion on the matter. I look at the relationship between line and staff, management and worker, in such a dichotomous environment. Such agreements are usually comprimises, where each side gains only by losing. It's virtually impossible in a union environment to gain or even seek win-win solutions.

    I know unions are important--Samuel Gompers and labor history and all that. But, as Thomas Friedman eloquently points out, the world is flat. Stomping feet and trying to get what you want isn't really the best posture for either unions or management these days. Radical, wholesale, systemic change is in order if auto companies are to create an environment where the PR mantra of "mutually beneficial relationships" can exist.

    Rather than heralding their agreement as a good one because both sides caved and benefitted in terms of contracts and benefits, they should take a square one approach that considers the front line of the battle not union-management, but American-foreign autos. If GM makes better cars, competes on quality vs patriotism, and sells more of them at affordable prices.....well then, the company will prosper, jobs will be saved and created, there will be mutual benefit.

    BBut such a "we're in this together" mentality is prevented by the union vs. management culture. I'll be impressed when that changes. It can happen. Davenport University in Grand Rapids dissolved its faculty union a few years ago because they realized it made no sense to pay dues and fight when they were on the same page with administration.

    Blog Busy

    You know you live in a new media environment when you repeat phrases like "I've been too busy to blog." I never would have said that a few years ago.

    But I have lately. Apologies to regular readers who wonder if I left the planet, or at least the blogosphere. It's just that sometimes meeting client needs for advice, media kits, position papers, as well as all the academic demands, seem to eat up time and energy for blogging.

    But i'm back with a few posts.....

    Wednesday, September 19, 2007

    Your Marriott Awaits

    You'd have to be in a coma to miss all the coverage about the opening of the new J.W. Marriott in downtown Grand Rapids. TV 13 has three headlines in my RSS aggregator starting with "J.W. Marriott......" TV 8 is live there this morning. Other broadcast news is all over it. Print coverage has also been extensive, including a special supplement in last weekend's Press and various treatments by our region's three business journals.

    So, publicity is great, right? Well, some of my students and other area pros have wondered if it isn't overkill. It's a good question, and one that needs to be resolved not by basking in a clip count but by reconsidering the objective of publicity for a hotel in media that reaches people who have houses in the area and probably don't need a room. Well, it's an overlap of marketing and public relations.

    On the marketing side, this is a form of relationship and word-of-mouth marketing. We may never want to drive 10 to 45-minutes to stay downtown (although some might; the Grand Plaza had packages for local folks for weekend getaways that involved museum and concert tix etc). But, more importantly, we are the all important referrals that hotels seek. I myself have mentioned the hotel already to friends from DC just last week. And when GVSU has had guest speakers in the past, it occured that there have not been many lodging options. So the publicity will help attract customers through referrals.

    Secondly, this is an example of community relations. In some of the publicity and advertising about the opening, a host of local contractors who worked on the building are mentioned and thanked. Hotel owners made efforts to hire local companies--a good community relations move. Owners no doubt also want to instill a sense of community pride in the new hotel, which will also yield dividends in the form of referrals mentioned above. Also, there are government officials, planning commissions, hotel tax structures and other issues to keep in mind. All of this publicity and public celebnration of the building creates an environment in which local relationships can be fostered and enjoyed in the future.

    Meanwhile, why is the media covering it? It's big and easy to photograph. It's downtown and easy for them to find. It's owned by Alticor. Everyone else in the wolf pack is doing it.

    Monday, September 17, 2007

    Who Knew Beans About Corporate Names?

    I was proud of Michigan coffee franchise Beaners until I read they are changing their name.

    Apparently, they are anticipating that Hispanics could be offended by the corporate name. I hadn't heard this derogatory characterization before, but it seems that this ethnic group has been stereotyped as enjoying a diet consisting mostly of beans, and thus they have been called "Beaners."

    OK, but ya know, coffee is made from beans, and I thought it was a pretty natural name for a coffee shop. What next? Jumpin' Java in Grand Haven will bow to pressure from potentially offended Indonesians?

    I dunno. Multiculturalism, sensitivity is certainly an important public relations concept, if we stress mutual relationship building as the core of our business. But there had been no complaints reported, and political correctness is given too much leeway at times. $1 million to change the name from Beaners to Biggby seems like the owners are seeing too much froth in the latte.

    Watch for an association of big people to sue over the new name.

    Meanwhile, I await the long overdue rebranding of Cracker Barrel. My white southern relatives are as hot as fried okra over that.

    Wednesday, September 05, 2007

    What a Piece of Boatwerk

    Lots of hulllaballoo about the closing of the Boatwerks Restaurant in Holland. The owner is at odds with city leaders over approvals for the eatery that has been open since last year. There are disagreements about compliance with the original site plan for the facility on the water. The owner closed his own restaurant and blamed Holland city officials.

    City leaders consider this a 'publicity stunt,' according to an article in the Grand Rapids Press. In Holland Sentinel reportage, city leaders describe themselves as confused by the owners actions.

    Here's the thing. It may have seemed like a good idea to Boatwerks owner Joe Walsh to move his previously private discussions with Holland into the public forum. After all, city leaders are elected and accountable to the public, and public sentiment about a popular new eatery being closed--and many employees laid off--could leverage the city to give approvals that have not been coming.

    However, be careful of asking for the media spotlight. City leaders responded, and looked like they were doing their jobs and enforcing the site plan. That actually IS accountable to citizens. The public opinion and sentiment may actually make Walsh look a bit silly to Holland residents. He also is damaging his relationship (the essence of PR) with city leaders in the long-term.

    Moving your dialogue to the public media might be a good idea if you're certain public opinion will support you and your cause is just. But it could also expose your weaknesses and reveal your move as indeed a "stunt" without substance.

    Meanwhile, you can see video of the press conference with Holland city leaders on the Sentinel web site. It's always interesting to watch and learn from others' press conferences. Meanwhile, isn't it interesting to live in an era when newspapers are offering video?

    Wednesday, August 29, 2007

    Not So Shocking Recall

    PR students and pros alike can remember the landmark case of tampered Tylenol being recalled by Johnson and Johnson. It's literally a textbook example of putting the well-being of the customer before profits.

    So it's good to see West Michigan shoe manufacturer Wolverine World Wide demonstrating good PR in a recall of steel-toed boots that could lead to a shock if the wearer encounters electric current. Wolverine announces the recall front and center on its Web site by posting the release from the US Product Safety Commission.

    This is not only honest and ethical, but it's good business. It's a time-tested formular: short-term bad press and revenue loss = long-term solid reputation and repeat sales. It's good PR.

    Monday, August 27, 2007

    Power of PR

    Interesting little piece of reporting by TV 8 on how Consumer's Energy works to restore power to customers after a storm.

    Interesting because viewers would wonder about how power does get restored.

    But it also shows the power of PR. Tim Petryga, longtime Consumers spokesperson, shows unfettered access to the process used to restore power in a thoughtful and systematic fashion. He also assures Consumers' consumers (say that 10 times fast) that they are a priority in times like this.

    Because of the transparency, the TV segment is less an indictment and more a supportive explanation of what Consumers does during storm related power outages. That's good. That's the power of PR.

    Friday, August 24, 2007

    Quixtar Chamber

    Quixtar's in court. I've been watching with interest but withholding comment til everything plays out. The Grand Rapids Press offers a decent summary of the complicated court proceedings.

    This is an interesting example of litigation PR. Some nefarious lawyers consider litigation PR to be the practice of blabbing to the media during a trial to try to leverage public opinion for a positive court opinion. A more ethical and practical understanding of the term is to consider a trial a specific form of crisis. A crisis is defined as intense public and/or media scrutiny. If your company or client is on trial, the public forms an opinion, and often presumes guilt. Litigation PR is therefore the practice of getting the facts out to all publics to maintain your ongoing reputation--not to influence the judge and jury.

    One way you can watch the issue play out is on the Real Quixtar Blog authored by the PR folks. The blog mentions and links to an aggregator page for IBO (independent business owners) discussion of the issue. A search will also turn up many independent external blogs about Quixtar.

    This trial is also interesting in the wake of Alticor's decision to rebrand as Amway. As part of that, it seems they are trying to reign in some IBOs who have allegedly been too "independent" and in some ways inappropriate in their business practices. Meanwhile, some IBOs are hauling out the old 'pyramid scheme' label and throwing it back at Quixtar.

    Keep watching. It's better than "People's Court" or "Judge Judy" reruns.

    Countrywide and Outside

    You can't escape reading about the national credit crisis and its effect on home owners and the economy in general. Countrywide, the nation's largest holder of mortgage loans, is mentioned in particular in recent articles. The coverage focuses on the fact that lenders have been too aggressive with loans and now many are in default.

    So why do I keep getting pitches from Countrywide to refinance with an ARM (adjustable rate mortgage), a finanacially stupid idea for the consumer and the cause of current grief? I also get weekly pitches to take out a home equity loan. The company's Web site also seems to lack prudent discrimination in its loan offers.

    These pitches are off base in the current climate--indeed they are wide and outside. When consumers--and regulators--are reading in the papers that the company is trying to clean up its act, they should expect the predatory lending practices would also cease.

    If the company struggles further they will get no sympathy from me. I'm sure the sentiment will be broadly shared....countrywide. Such is the price of relentless marketing taking the place of thoughtful public relations.

    Muskegon Mention

    The City of Muskegon is profiled in USA Today in an article highlighting the city's economic development efforts.

    Normally, scoring an article in a national daily is a huge publicity coup. But, I have long rejected the notion that all publicity is good publicity. You have to think critically about content.

    The article refers to Muskegon as a test case for economic incentives, pointing out they have tried as many as 20 tax breaks and development grant efforts. It then goes on to quote an expert that says such incentives have no long-term effect.

    Meanwhile, one has to wonder what effect such descriptions and comment will have on Muskegon's reputation.

    Tuesday, August 21, 2007

    Shades of Green

    Nice section in this week's Grand Rapids Business Journal about LEED certification and the growing practice of being a 'green' business.

    Of particular interest to me is the article on B4 about the practice of "green washing," in which businesses claim to be environmentally pure, in contradiction to their actual business practices. As the article points out, some businesses see the whole green movement as another marketing effort. In other words, they are more concerned with greenbacks than green practices.

    Again, this shows the importance of defining PR as building and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships. Operating by that definition will mean business are genuine in their green practices as they seek mutual benefit. If anyone tries to exploit environmental green just to gain monetary green, they are obviously one-sided. Consumers can also see the shadiness of their green claims.

    It's an over simplification, but this issue shows the difference between marketing and PR.

    PR Style

    I love it. West Michigan nonprofit Safe Haven Ministries is showing some real 'style' with their latest PR effort.

    As a story in the Grand Rapids Press nicely describes, the organization--which helps battered and abused women--is working with hair stylists to identify such victims of domestic violence.

    (Self disclosure--my wife, a social worker, has volunteered with the organization).

    This is great for several reasons:
  • it is based on research that shows women will confide in hair stylists more than other acquaintances about personal issues. So they put good research to good use.
  • it is creatively appropriate to the objective;
  • it is about accomplishing the organization's mission, not merely generating buzz or publicity;
  • it shows that nonprofits can be savvy PR practitioners;
  • it once again demonstrates that PR is about relationships, not just publicity.

    It reminds me of a similar campaign by the Kidney Foundation a few years ago. They had research showing a higher incidence of diabetes, high blood pressure, and kidney disease among African Americans. They also had research showing that the barber shop/stylist salons were popular social forums in the African American community. They had training for barbers and literature in barbershops to educate people about these important health issues.
  • Monday, August 20, 2007

    Women in PR

    The MiBiz special section "West Michigan Businesswomen" profiles 21 women who are successful in the world of business. Six of them (close to one-third for you liberal arts majors) are in the advertising and PR business.

    I have mixed emotions about this.

    On the one hand, I know most of these young women and think they are getting well-deserved recognition. Also, it's reassuring to see that those in the Ad/PR field are considered worthy of highlighting as business leaders along with CEOs and attorneys etc. PR is getting a seat at the management table, as people often fret about at conferences and in the trade publications.

    However, I worry a little bit that some might take the wrong message from this: namely, that PR is "women's work." This has been the case in some other countries (eg India) where PR is listed along with teaching and nursing as careers suitable for the fair gender.

    You scan my PR classes at GVSU and across the countrry--according to faculty colleagues I've spoken to from a half dozen states--and the testosterone has decreased more rapidly than Great Lakes water levels. I'm talking maybe five men in a class of 30. Some of this is due to the fact that more women than men go to college period. But there is a concern that PR is a field perceived as 'feminine.'

    What does that say for us men in PR? It's not as bad as having a name like Gay Focker and being a male nurse (for those of you with no social life, this was a movie reference). But, as our still emerging and evolving field advances, we want to be taken seriously as a profession, regardless of the gender of the practitioner.

    So, kudos to the half dozen women recognized in MiBiz. To me they are more than successful businesswomen. They are "enhancing the profession" on behalf of all of us.

    From Internet to Interstate?

    It's good to know that Michigan.org, the state's tourism promoting Web site, has had more success creating revenue than has the legislature.

    Recent reports show that:
  • hits on the site were up to 7.5 million in July, up from 6.1 million for the same month last year;
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  • 65% of those who use the site for information follow up by traveling to and within Michigan, according to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation's (MEDC) Travel Michigan division, as reported in the Grand Rapids Business Journal.

    It's good PR eval to go beyond rejoicing in Web hits to determine if the Web traffic led key publics to desired behavior. In this case, there seems to be a correlation between the site and travel in Michigan. I have a few questions however:

  • what percent of those people who traveled "to" Michigan vs "within" Michigan?;
  • how did people find the site--billboard ads, magazine ads, radio ads, Google searches?
  • to what extent is increased travel within Michigan more a result of high gas prices and people traveling in-state, as opposed to a response to the heart-string-pullin' photos on the site?

    It could be the site has been a fabulous success. It could be a coincidence with other factors.

    Meannwhile, having just driven though a variety of Midwest states, I'd suggest the MEDC have lunch with MDOT. The first thing travelers to and within Michigan will notice is the poorquality of our roads compared to neighboring states. You can "brand" the first-rate natural features all you want, but if the road is reminiscent of third-world that's the reputation we'll have.
  • Sunday, August 19, 2007

    I've Been Blogged

    I had the pleasure of meeting a variety of other PR and other mass media educators at the recent AEJMC (Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communications) conference. One of them, Karen Miller Russell of the University of Georgia, has a blog about teaching PR. She has worked to find other PR educator's blogs and has links to them on her own blog.
    She recently posted a brief Q&A with me.

    You can check it all out on her blog, "Teaching PR".

    Sunday, August 12, 2007

    Theoretical Discussions

    Final thoughts on the Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) conference in DC....

    As you all probably have experienced, I have conference burnout. This conference is packed for five days with a great variety of sessions ranging from advertising and PR-related topics to all other aspects of mass media. I can't get into everything that Helen Thomas and Bill Moyers said as keynoters, but suffice it to say people are worried about the future of journalism. Not just the financial viability, but the very essence of our democracy. It may have to get worse before it gets better. Or, it may not be as bad as the chin-pullers say it is.

    As for PR and advertising, I've spent a good part of the past two days in sessions about theory--discussing specific theories, how to teach them, how to make them relevant to professionals. Here's a summary of what I'm hearing

    On the one hand, theories are not relevant to professionals partly because we have bad theories. We tend to borrow a lot from psych and sociology and some of our specific ad and PR theories need more testing to be relevant.

    On the other hand, most professionals don't undertand what a "theory" is. As one panelist points out, it's best to speak in terms of empirical research or evidence. That's what we're supposed to do with theory--test them. According to scientific method, if we can't falsify theory, it becomes more robust. There's nothing more relevant than that.

    Still, too many practitioners of PR think theory is merely an idea or notion that doesn't play out in "real life." What's ironi is that these same professionals are willing to stake a campaign on "theories" of their own that have only been successful in a few "real" situations. It's not possible to generallize anecdotal professional experience to all publics, campaigns, situations.

    So, as I kick off another school year, I'll continue to work to make academic theories better, to focus on research that bears them out, to listen to professional input on their practical experience, and to work to bring it all together for students.

    For now, a New Yorker cartoon on the counter of my local bookstore sums it up well: "In theory, theory and practice are the same. But in practice, they are not."

    Friday, August 10, 2007

    DC 2--Educators on Educating

    More from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in DC.....

    Educators really do care about doing a good job of teaching. One session included five papers on the subject. Key results from the research (oversimplified):

  • still today, too many PR programs teach primarily media relations and tactical skills, versus the strategy and relationship perspective the profession has become;
  • some programs have professors not really qualified to teach PR
  • curriculum for PR needs to be multi-disciplinary, involving courses in business, political science and liberal arts
  • some professionals at big agencies prefer to hire someone with a lib arts degree. The feeling is that critical thinking skills is paramount and the agencies can teach the tactical skills.
  • if we included all recommendations to enhance PR curriculum, students would have to be in school for 7-8 years.

    What this shows is that there is a diversity of perspectives on the field. My personal take on PR education is consistent with the Commission on Education in Public Relations report, which is what we do at Grand Valley:

  • the PR major should be its own major, not a track in journalism; if in journalism it tends to be taught as merely a media relations function;
  • the PR major should be within a school of communications, not the business college; if in business it tends to be taught as a ‘marketing’ function only concerned with product publicity and promotion;
  • courses should include skills such as writing but also research, ethics, management, cases, campaigns and other strategic based courses; ultimately students should understand that PR is about mutual relationship building and maintenance;
  • students should consider where they want to work or specialize in PR (such as investor relations vs employee relations, or corporate PR vs nonprofit PR) and then take electives or a minor in appropriate subjects to enhance their education;
  • the majority of students’ courses should be liberal arts so they are broadly educated, adaptable, and able to think critically and solve problems creatively.

    Ultimately, educators and PR practitioners need to keep in touch. We can learn from each other. Educators can learn about current trends in practice before it reaches the journals and books. Professionals can learn that “theory” is not a whimsical idea but a scientifically tested proposition about PR strategies that are likely to be successful.
  • Thursday, August 09, 2007

    Lesson for GRCC

    I see the voters have rejected for the second time a millage increase for GRCC. It'll be interesting to see the administrative decisions, program cuts, and future communications of the local college is now forced to make.

    In spite of an aggressive and tactically diverse PR campaign (see my earlier post), there is a lesson for GRCC in all of this. Building awareness is not necessarily enough. They certainly believed in their message that GRCC is an asset and helps people all over West Michigan, not just students.

    But awareness needs to lead to attitude and action. Even if voters were aware of the GRCC message, they apparently didn't change their attitude. That attitude may have been a positive view of GRCC. Or, they may think well of GRCC but didn't think more taxes are necessary. Or they think GRCC made a good case but the tax level of GRCC and everything else is simply too high. It'd be good to know if any research on this was gathered during the campaign.

    Finally, even if awareness and attitude objectives were reached, the ultimate action--voting--may have been the trouble here. Being aware and holding a positive attitude mean nothing if enough people reached during the campaign did not get out and vote. That's an old story in politics.

    Again, it'd be interesting to see some post-mortem coverage addressing what GRCC knows about this after the second rejection. What was the real problem--lack of issue relevance, poor attitude about GRCC, resistance to tax increases on principle, apathy toward the voting booth? Perhaps folks from GRCC or John Helmholdt could offer an WMPRSA session this coming year. We celebrate the winning campaigns--but it is also instructive to learn together from the times when we don't succeed.

    Dispatches from DC

    I'm in DC for the annual convention of the Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication. I thought I'd add a few comments about what I'm hearing from the assembled intelligentsia and make application where possible to West Michigan, since that is the focus of this local blog.

    First up--a look at media coverage of state and local public affairs. A couple of interesting gems emerged from the research presented in this session:

  • a conservative ideology and a tendency to pay attention to public affairs issues are the most important factors causing people to see coverage of state/local political issues as less fair, less accurate and less helpful'
  • looking at how often conservartive vs. liberal think tanks are used as sources in a given newspaper is not a valid measure of media bias;
  • good distinction to make between "skeptic" and "cynic"--a skeptic is characterized by doubt and will seek additional information and be involved in political thought and discussion; a cynic is characterized by mistrust and will stop seeking information and paying attention.

    Application to PR and West Michigan? Among other things, the psychological motivators of our publics need to be considered, and we should recognize that local and regional news sources remain vital among engaged publics. I would also add that we should not discount the cynics, but try to reach them honestly and aggresively to first get them over their cynicism and mistrust, and only then work to persuade them on the issue at hand.
  • Wednesday, July 25, 2007

    Kirkbride Moves to Trade

    Rob Kirkbride contacted me to clarify by "bylines buzz" post below. He is leaving the Press of his own accord.

    As of August 1, he'll be taking a job with furniture industry trade pub Monday Morning Quarterback.

    Rob encourages all you furniture PR pros to keep pitching him in his home office. He shares his contact info:

  • email: rob.kirkbride@mmqb.com

  • phone: 847-533-3496
  • Tuesday, July 24, 2007

    Paddling and PR

    You may have noticed the long time between posts. I was up north on a week's vacation, doing a lot of kayaking.

    It occurs to me there are some similarities to good kayaking and good PR:

  • kayaks don't spin; they maintain a straight line;

  • kayak paddles, like most issues, have two sides; it's best to consider and both of them;

  • a good kayaker can easily and strongly go against the current when necessary;

  • if it gets too hot, you can just jump out and swim :)
  • Thursday, July 12, 2007

    The Disappearing Byline Buzz

    The buzz on buyouts at the Press is increasing. I had a conversation this week with some senior pros at an area PR firm, and an email from a reporter at another publication about the increasing number of Press bylines going bye-bye.

    The paper, like others in the Booth chain, is losing ground financially, and is resorting to cost cutting by offering buyouts and otherwise reducing its newsroom staff by attrition.

    One inside source at the Press tells me about 20 have accepted buyouts from about 30 or more offered. Another person tells me these are among the names leaving the press either by buyout or attrition: Radigan, Becker, Kirkbride, Golder, Conklin. There are likely more but it's hard to get more than snippets or hearsay. If you've heard confirmation of other Press staffers leaving, share it by posting a comment.

    A few of my own comments.

    One, this is a poor move. In an effort to compete, newspapers are cutting their ONLY competitive edge. Classifieds and other advertising still draws revenue, but at the end of the day, people want solid reporting. Otherwise the daily becomes a "shopper." There is empirical evidence from studies done at Michigan State and other media economics experts that shows investment in the newsroom actually increases revenue. Audiences may shrink, but they will be made up of people many advertisers seek--well-read, educated, opinion leaders.

    Two, beyond the economic interest, this is bad news for PR and democracy as a whole. If PR professionals want to add credibility to their messages, the third party credibility that comes from skeptical journalists reporting is vital. Such objective, informative reporting about matters of civil society is also a fundamental aspect of democracy--a free and vigourous "Fourth Estate." The press is not singled out in the First Amendment for its right to make a profit; it is to inform the citizenry. Call me old fashioned, but it seems the press, generally speaking, has lost sight of this ideal.

    Three, newspapers have caused their own trouble. They have been too market-driven as opposed to news driven. Read books by James Fallows ("Breaking the News") and Ken Auletta ("Back Story: Inside the Business of News") to see what I mean. Newspapers can't compete with video games, cable, and all other forms of media entertainment. Their key advantgage is news, local news, and well reported news. They've given up their USP--unique selling proposition. They cover concerts and recipes and seem to throw their hands up on hard-hitting news. Our own Press hasnn't sunk too low on that scale, but I fear a shrinking newsroom leads to a shrinking news hole, and news that appeals to consumers rather than citizens.

    Finally, you won't see this reported in the Press at any great length. Ironic, given that former TV 8 staffer Colleen Pierson has a column about broadcast media personnel changes. This paper is a significant local organization, on the order of Trussway and Steelcase and Electrolux and Delphi. Such buyouts and reduction in newsroom workforce is of interest to not just PR pros and other media, but to the readers and community at large. But the Press will likely see this as inside baseball, and not newsworthy. That's too bad. Bylines were started in the 1930s by TIME magazine to give credibility to reporting and let readers know who was behind the stories. For the Press to downsize in silence lacks integrity and the kind of relationship they should foster with the community.

    Some might say this is the inevitable reality of a changing media landscape. But ultimately, instead of this throwing in the towel and assuming that people don't care about hard news in print format, they should work harder to convince people why they should care. They should present solid news in a compelling way, and not pander to a perceived interest in fluff.

    Alas, journalism is sliding from "the people have a right to know" to "give the people what they want" to "we need to monetize our various platforms through synergy." De-press-ing.

    Wednesday, July 11, 2007

    Start Spreadin' The News....

    Wow. For the third time this summer, little old Grand Rapids is the focus of an article in the mainstream East Coast media. And all of it is positive.

    There was the Boston-area journalist who attended a wedding and raved about the cleanliness, friendliness and positive growth of Grand Rapids.

    Before that there was the mass attention on the 'women only' floor proposed--and ultimately withdrawn--at the Marriott being constructed downtown.

    Now, the New York Times Realt Estate section has an article (free, registration required) that sings the praises of Grand Rapids' evolving "pill hill."

    I can remember when the 'gray lady' dissed the river city back when the Art Museum hosted the Perugino exhibit and when the Meijer Gardens corraled a DaVinci horse. Now, in typical Gotham fashion, the East Coast scribes are on to us and are pretending they've discovered us for the nation.

    With much to despair about in Michigan--home to full-time yet vacationing lawmakers with unfinished business--at least our corner of the state is reaping some positive press. Now, the question for PR folks of all stripes in the region is this: how to leverage the positive rep of the region. In other words, "Grand Rapids based....." fill in the blank could have more national clout.

    Back in 1985, another era of employment woes, i was in DC as an American Society of Magazine Editors intern at the Washingtonian Magazine. I remember being a little intimidated by the other interns from East Coast and Ivy League schools, afraid they would kick the academic sand in my face. I learned they put on their pants--albeit more fashionable than mine--one leg at a time. In fact, some of them (Kennedys and Clintons mostly) take them off at the wrong time, but that's the subject of another blog. Anyway, I think we Midwestern, West Michiganders don't have to feel or act as if we are second rate to any other region or organization or PR firm.

    Next month I'll be making a swing through both DC and New York City. I'm going to unashamdely announce the fact that I'm from Grand Rapids/West Michigan. At least until I feel I'm intimidating someone. We Midwesterners are too polite for that.

    Monday, July 09, 2007

    Wild PR

    I was pleased to read Grand Rapids Press Outdoors Editor Howard Meyerson's column Saturday. Essentially, he said the outdoors is for those who like to observe wildlife as much as for those who like to hunt and fish. As an avid backpacker, kayaker, and camper, and one who doesn't hunt or fish, this resonated with me.

    There are also some PR lessons here.

    First, Meyerson cites a Fish and Wildlife Service survey that proves his point--71 million Americans observed wildlife in 2006 and spent $45 billion doing it. Research is always the first step in any effort to understand one's publics.

    Second, the entire column shows how important it is to consider ALL publics. FWS and other natural resource management agencies do tend to communicate to and make policy for hunters and fishermen only. We can see in Meyerson's column that there is a huge--and lucrative--public that has been overlooked for too long. How often have you focused on the 'obvious' publics only to realize later that you'd missed an opportunity or responsibility towards others?

    Years ago I wrote a magazine article about a man who made bamboo fishing rods. I'll never forget the sign in his shop: "It's not about catching fish, it's about being where fish live." Indeed. That sentiment applies to PR as well as fishing.

    Friday, July 06, 2007

    Parking Lot PR

    My wife and I watched the movie "Happy Feet" in a tent in a Meijer parking lot last night. Why? Because it was free and we're Dutch. But I was also curious as to this event from a PR perspective.

    If you know Grand Haven, you know the Meijer on 31 just south of town has been a profit-center for Meijer for years. But now, across the street to the south, after much community debate and revisions of site plans, a Wal-Mart lurks.

    So we saw signage and even an airplane banner at the beach touting the free movie at Meijer. Not sure if this is a one-time thing for the Fourth of July weekend. I'm not even sure if this is a conscious response to the head-to-head competition from Wal-Mart coming soon. But it does seem like an attempt to use some old-fashioned community relations to build goodwill toward Meijer.

    It might work. It might not. There's no telling whether a free screening of "Happy Feet" will retain and enhance customer loyalty. But it was interesting to be greeted at the movie's close by store managers thanking us for coming. I'm sure they want us to be happy and shop at Meijer rather than shuffle our feet across the street to Wal Mart.

    Thursday, June 28, 2007

    No Small Frey PR Effort

    A long time ago, a certain vice president at a certain organization where I worked told me with great incredulity in her voice that a private foundation would never need PR. Her reasoning was simple, simplistic actually, and indicated a common misperception of what PR is.

    She thought PR was only needed to attract donors, and a private or family foundation doesn't need to attract donors.

    My response was lengthy and, I can assure you, profound. But it boiled down to the fact that a foundation has more publics than just donors, and more objectives than collecting money. The money is a means, not an end. Foundations want to affect positive change, which often means raising awareness, addressing attitudes, and sparking action.

    So I was delighted to see the photo of Frey Foundation President Milt Rohwer adorning the current issue of MiBiz. I'm acquainted with Rohwer as a board member of a client, and have come to know him as someone with wisdom and insight, as well as a good balance of patience and boldness.

    The MiBiz article shows all of the above. He boldly challenges conventional wisdom and action and prescribes action to ensure that Michigan can turn itself around economically in the new global economy. He's engaging the media, and through them a vast variety of publics, about a key issue of interest to the Frey Foundation board.

    That's what foundations do. That's why they need PR.

    Tuesday, June 26, 2007

    LEA Earns Two Silver Anvils

    Kudos to Lambert Edwards and Associates for hauling in two Silver Anvils from PRSA.

    LEA was the only firm in Michigan to land the prestigious awards this year, one for work for Spartan Motors and the other a campaign for Zondervan. It's the second year the LEA was alone in the state in receiving the high national recognition.

    Not only is this a national feather in the West Michigan chapter's cap, it's good advocacy of the profession. As the brief in the Grand Rapids Business Journal and LEA's own news release note, the campaigns were honored not just for gathering press clippings, but actual metrics. In the case of Spartan Motors, that meant a significant increase in stock value. In the case of Zondervan, the measure was increased sales of a new product.

    Congrats to LEA for the awards. And thanks for demonstrating on behalf of all of us that good PR is about tangible results, not only publicity.

    Friday, June 22, 2007

    GRCC Campaign Part Two

    While area colleges are dealing with national rankings (see earlier post), Grand Rapids Community College is looking for some local love. (Note to GRCC--have the messages for the campaign on your Web site).

    You'll recall that GRCC was unable to prevail a few months ago when voters voted down a millage increase proposal. Now they have a campaign to go back to the voters, thinking that since they lost by a small margin they can prevail in August with a new vote.

    I see some good in the new campaign, described in an article in the Grand Rapids Press. In particular I like the media and the message.

    As for media, the direct approach involving direct mail, meetings with community members, and even door to door visits is the way to go. Mass media is best for getting people to pay attention, but FTF (face to face) is best for persuasion. It shows once again that PR MUST be more than media relations with ad support. You want people to feel close to you and your cause, ya gotta get close to the peeps.

    Meanwhile, with regard to message, John Helmholdt of Strategic Communications Group (used to be called Jones and Gavan) is correct to stress not that GRCC needs the revenue to survive, but to point out to residents what the community college contributes to the entire community. Fundamental theory applies here--appeal to self interest, the public need, not just your organization's need.

    That praise aside, a few thoughts come to mind. Why didn't people know the benefits of GRCC before they are being asked to approve to have their taxes increased? PR needs to be proactive. As a tax-funded institution, it's incumbent to show accountability and relevance to all publics--i.e. taxpayers--all the time, not just when you need their support. This principle applies to all organizations.

    Secondly, in this FTF campaign, I hope the Helmholdt and his crew, and preferably some folks from GRCC, don't do all the talking. I hope they listen as well. It can be admirable to stay "on message," but if your message doesn't address the public's resistance, your message is meaningless.

    Good luck to GRCC. If they succeed, I hope the FTF campaign will provide a lesson that public relations is more than publicity, and is best evident by relationship building employed in this campaign.

    Thursday, June 21, 2007

    Muskegon Chronicle Reporter Caught in MSNBC Investigative Piece

    It's rare that the news media does investigative stories on itself. So it's unusually exciting that MSNBC did an investigative report on how journalists--who are supposed to remain objective politically--have been secretly giving money to partisan political campaigns.

    Relevant to this local blog--one of the reporters caught up in the story is Terry Judd of the Muskegon Chronicle.

    Here's an excerpt from near the end of the story:

    At the Muskegon Chronicle, a daily newspaper in Michigan, reporter Terry Judd gave $1,900 to the Democratic National Committee in six contributions from 2004 through 2006; and $2,000 to Kerry in March 2004. "You caught me," Judd said. "I guess I was just doing it on the side."

    His editors said they're not sure there is an "on the side."

    "This information makes us want to think farther and more deeply about what we encourage and discourage in reporters," said the metropolitan editor, John Stephenson. "We have always historically said, you guys can have any political beliefs you want. Just don't wear your hearts on your sleeve or your bumper.

    "Truthfully, this sort of thing may be the new bumper."


    And to think I've been arguing with popular PR blogger Strumpette on MyRagan. She says PR is nothing more than media relations, because we need third party credibility. I say PR is about relationships, and media relations is merely one of many tools. Credibility actually can be gained better through direct communication with our publics, IF we have a good reputation. The media does not always have the reputation to lend itself credibility. This MSNBC piece is evidence of that.

    Wednesday, June 20, 2007

    Something Rank in the Newsroom

    I was happy to read in today's New York Times that presidents of liberal arts colleges will no longer participate in the annual college ranking survey conducted by U.S. News and World Report.

    This national issue is relevant for my local blog because West Michigan is home to several liberal arts colleges that have done well in rankings, Calvin, Hope, and Aquinas among them.

    It might seem like a bad PR move to stop providing survey data to a major media outlet that annually provides this resource for students and their parents to make college selections. The issue could be seen as one relating to reputation as well as a key driver of applications. However, I think the move is good for several reasons:

  • There is strength in numbers. A majority of this group of 80 liberal arts presidents has indicated they will not respond to future surveys. This prevents any single college from looking like it is bitter for being low on the list.

  • It's the right thing to do. As academic leaders would know, the annual survey lacks validity. It does not really measure what it says it is measuring. The survey asks for information that may not actually affect the quality of education a student will get. In that sense, the survey is bad PR by not showing all relevant information appropriately.

  • It's calling the bluff of US News. This is only one of an annoying number of "Best......" lists the magazine puts out. It's no secret that US News is always third place among the three national newsweeklies. Has been since I visited it's cozy offices as a journalism intern in 1985. The rankings are less news than they are a market driven attempt to sell something. But that leads to my last point:

  • People don't "buy" it. The annual college ranking issue may have good sales, but people don't really buy the information in a figurative sense. I know from my work in higher ed administration that college students surveyed place this and other rankings low on their list of influences for choosing a college. Other factors like having the right program, affordability, personal visit to campus, word of mouth from other students, and even sports success and mainstream media coverage weigh in before the rankings. Of course, there's also the view books, CDs, and Web sites the colleges' PR departments put out to high schoolers.

    The college presidents say they will put together their own criteria and possibly have a third party gather it for a more meaningful list. US News' editor has said he would welcome that. Either way, I applaud colleges in this case of ignoring the media. It's the better PR move, for both ethical and strategic reasons.
  • Tuesday, June 19, 2007

    Teaching Ethics

    I am continually frustrated by how the national media portray--or fail to recognize--public relations.

    Take today's article (subscription required) in the Wall Street Journal about teaching ethics in business school. The essence of the article is that ethics should be taught in all business courses, from marketing to accounting, so that students become aware of social and environmental implications of business activities.

    I'm not against that. But I feel like going into a period of personal head slapping for once again seeing concepts that are fundamental public relations expressed as a unique concept in the business world. Here's what I mean:

    First, public relations is about mutually beneficial relationships. A student who studies PR should learn about the "two-way symmetrical" model. If they practice PR according to that relationship perspective, PR is INHERENTLY ethical. It will be natural to consider social and environmental impacts.

    Also, people sometimes tell me PR should be taught in a business school. This article is one of several good reasons why it should not be. Not only is PR a communication discipline that can be practiced in non-business settings, it has a refreshingly "outside the box" perspective. Those trained in business are, perhaps appropriately, told to get bottom line results. Profit is king. They see everyone as a "customer." PR people are more broad-minded, see people as having relationships with an organization that may not be characterized as a simple financial exchange. Thus, the PR person at the table offers the kind of unique thinking that managers often say they want. That unique thinking often has ethical components to it (if the PR person took a PR class and/or is APR and understands that PR is about relationships, not publicity).

    I've actually written WSJ about this sort of thing before. Got a lovely note--no change in editorial perspective though. The same is true of other national and local media, and even PR trades like PR Week. Getting people to understand that PR is not about spin but in fact about honest relationship building is a long-term process. Journalists and business leaders are too comfortable in their conceptions of the PR profession. We are a convenient whipping boy to make them feel smugly superior. Changing it will take persistent examples of ethical practice. That's why the PRSA Code of Ethics includes the provision "enhance the profession"--so make sure all your practice exemplifies the fundamental ethics that the business schools are still grappling with. People are watching. One of these days, they may actually understand.

    Tuesday, June 12, 2007

    Subscribe Now! Comment Whenever.

    Those of you who have aggregators or news readers via Yahoo, Google or another provider can subscribe to my blog. The site feed is linked above and in the links sidebar. Click on RSS and paste that into your news reader according to its particular instructions. Then you'll be notified anytime I've posted something new.

    Also, I've changed the code on my blog so you can comment without needing to be a Blogger member. So chime in! You can also email me directly at the link above.

    IA and GE

    International Aid of Spring Lake has formed a partnership with the Healthcare division of mega-corporation General Electric.

    Smart move on both parts. GE is a well-run company whose CEO Jeffrey Imelt gets that corporate philanthropy and nonprofit partnerships are both noble and strategic. And for West Michigan based International Aid, the help and high profile of the relationship with GE will be significant.

    I'm not sure what role the PR people played in this. But since PR is a management function that is about relationships, it would make sense for the top PR staff from both organizations to be intimately involved.

    Bethany's Albanian Connection

    Bethany Christian Services is making some hay with First Lady Laura Bush's visit to an orphanage in Bethany.

    PR Specialist John VanValkenBurg's press release generated an Associated Press story that had play in a variety of area and I presume national media.

    In a quote, Bethany's President William Blacquiere admirably had priorities straight in stating he hoped the visit would draw attention not to Bethany, but the needs of Albanian children. That's good restraint in the midst of national media attention. Nevertheless, I would think Bethany could extend this opportunity by using photos and interviews with the First Lady to gain attention to the broader topic of international adoption and the significant role Bethany has played in this issue for years.

    New Era of 'Employee Communication'

    It used to be that employee communication was a function of PR in which we organized the communication TO employees. In the modern, social media era, employee communication also means monitoring and perhaps responding to communication FROM employees that is available for the world to see.

    Jennifer MacLean, a former student and now communications and public relations manager of the AirZoo in Portage, shared this interesting article on the topic from the Indianapolis Star. She relates that she regularly visits Technorati to monitor blog comments about the AirZoo posted by visitors (smart idea) and has come across some negative employee commentary.

    This reminds me, I neglected to blog about the excellent WMPRSA presentation last month on social media by Robin Luymes of Quixtar. His primary advice: don't ignore the conversation out there in the blogosphere. In his case, that meant monitoring and engaging disgruntled IBOs (Independent Business Owners) and others who had negative things to say about Quixtar. He said they had actually been able to correct false accusations or at least present their side. You can see how Robin is active in the conversation on his own blog.

    I agree. PR has always been about transparent communication and seeking mutual relationships with all publics. On a case by case basis, it might not be practical to respond directly to every blogger or rogue web site out there. But you should know what's being said and join the conversation when necessary and appropriate.

    It's good strategy. It's also consistent with the PRSA Code of Ethics provisions of "free flow of information" and "full disclosure." If we're afraid to join the conversation in the blogosphere, there are probably bigger problems than an employee sounding off. It would have been better to engage in old-fashioned employee communications first--communicating openly TO them--so you don't have to see them communication about you to all the world.

    The days are gone when we can control the communication about our organizations. But, since PR is a management function, we can counsel management to be more genuine in their communications to hopefully limit the negative commentary in the blogosphere.

    In the end, the old fashioned notion of John Stuart Mill applies. Let all have a say, and the "truth will out." We have to expect that many will be talking about our organzations and ensure that we are presenting our honest point of view. If your company or nonprofit has a good reputation, chances are people will believe us and see the mouthy bloggers as whiny malcontents.

    Wednesday, June 06, 2007

    The PR-Journalism Two-Way Street

    It's often been said that it's easier to go from journalism to PR than the other way around. As evidenced by many PR practitioners in West Michigan, it is relatively common to go from journalism to PR. I myself have a degree and background in journalism before I went through a 12-step program to recovery.:)

    I think the difficulty of going from PR to journalism is based on the perception that PR folks lose their sense of journalistic objectivity. I maintain that it can be difficult for journalists to go into PR because they discover PR is a much broader profession than merely writing news releases and corporate articles.

    Nevertheless, the masthead of the Grand Rapids Business Journal shows that journalism-to-PR is a two-way street. Gary Pullano takes the managing editor post from recently departed Tim Gortsema (see earlier post). Pullano had been with the GRBJ before handling PR for Herrick Library in Holland.

    Meanwhile, former public relations pro for the Grand Rapids Public Musuem and other places Pete Daly takes a staff writer slot vacated by Elizabeth Sanders. So that makes two additions to the masthead coming from the PR ranks.

    The punster in me can't help but point out the irony of someone named Daly working for a weekly. Of course, some of our area dailies publish weakly in terms of business news, so he may be in a good spot.

    Tuesday, June 05, 2007

    Local Hotel Issue Gets Play in Trades

    The new Marriott in downtown GR got lots of attention regarding it's proposed "women only" 19th floor (see earlier posts in this blog). Now the novel concept has created some controversy and is covered in this week's PR trade, PR Week (subscription required).

    When the national buzz saw started, Alticor (owner of the new hotel) turned to a national firm to handle national mainstream and trade media. But local pro Andrea Groom of Wondergem handles the interviews with PR Week.

    There's an example of good PR here. Marriott, instead of sticking to its guns and being defensive, is listening to all sides and opinions regarding an all-women floor. Some feel it's great, some feel it's disciminating, and Marriott's posture seems to be one of seeking a mutual benefit for all concerned. As Groom says, men seeking a room on the 19th floor will not be denied.

    However, it seems hard to have a win-win here. Either it's an all-women floor or it's not.

    Monday, June 04, 2007

    A dearth of copy editors?

    Grand Rapids Press editor Mike Lloyd's column yesterday had an interesting misspelling: he referred to a "dirth" of information on West Coast locations in a recent Michigan travel ad insert.

    The correct spelling, of course, is d-e-a-r-t-h.

    Doncha love it when the editor has a spelling error? Makes you wonder if he writes his own columns, or if he has anyone edit them for him, or if the copyeditors are too timid to point out mistakes.

    Meanwhile, the column was interesting. It's a good reminder to us that the public doesn't always distinguish between advertising and editorial content. There's an ethical issue there in making paid-for media with a persuasive intent look like actual reportage, which is supposed to remain objective. But, usually that's clear by printing "paid advertisement" or "advertising supplement" on a piece. Also, most people should be able to infer by the tone and lack of familiar bylines that an item is adverising and not journalism.

    Mike Lloyd makes the good point that advertising content is as useful as reporting to many people. This is something we academics call "ad utility." It's easy to assume that it is hard to get people's attention with advertising in this fast-paced, high-tech environment. But many people seek specific, useful information in ads on a regular basis.

    I, meanwhile, will be seeking a humble correction for the spelling error from "his Lloydship."

    Thursday, May 31, 2007

    Metro's Good Donor Mojo

    The Grand Rapids Press business lead story is about Metro Hospital exceeding its fundraising goal. But the larger story is that they did it with a lot of smaller donations, as opposed to securing one large check from someone who's name begins with 'Van' or 'De.'

    Nothing against the generous philanthropists in the region, but I think this Metro success is exemplary of good nonprofit PR and capital campaigns. It may seem harder to get many small gifts to reach a capital goal, but consider the benefits:

  • you can demonstrate broader community support for your organization and cause;

  • you start building relationships with "smaller" donors who can support you in the future;

  • many donors feel a personal relationship with your organization, whereas they feel less engaged if one major donor foots the bill.

    That last one is key. In the end, PR is about relationships, not money. If you have the former, the latter follows.
  • Local Tech Coms Firms On a Roll

    I've said it before in this blog--with the new technology in advertising and public relations, it is not far-fetched to say that the epicenter of the media universe can just as easily be Grand Rapids as Manahattan.

    Further evidence for that claim is reported today in the online publication Rapid Growth. First, there's a piece about local Internet ad brokerage firm Adtegrity.com adding staff and revenue rapidly.

    In another piece, Rapid Growth reports that a new company, Foxbright, is opening in the Waters Building in downtown GR to help people record podcasts.

    Finally, Rapid Growth repurposes a Muskegon Chronicle story about Grand Haven-based Brilliance Audio Inc., an audio-book producer, being acquired by Amazon (ever heard of them?!)

    Friday, May 25, 2007

    PR and Politics

    It's always interesting when a PR firm gets coverage in the business section front in the Grand Rapids Press. Usually, because of some dislike of PR hungover from j-school days, they don't like to talk about us.

    But yesterday's story about local firm Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson forming an alliance with law firm McInerney and Associates and public affairs/lobbying specialists Public Affairs Associates was big enough news.

    I think its good news too. Nice to see a local firm getting more active in state and national levels in political PR. I just wish the article had made it more clear that PR is not necessarily a separate function from public affairs. In fact, other local firms specialize in political PR. My "Fundamentals of Public Relations" students must read a chapter about politics and PR. In the case of the Alliance, it looks like they are bringing together various specialities. But the article makes it sound like PR is about publicity and message crafting only.

    By the way, this is another reason I roll my eyes when people say PR programs should be in business schools. Many of my students may want to focus their PR practice in the political arena. In that case, some political science electives are as valuable as a marketing or finance class.