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, 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;
  • 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.