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.