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."