Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Mary Muses on Mayor, Meijer

Crain's Detroit Business Publisher Mary Kramer blogs about the ethics issues surrounding Detroit's mayor and the Meijer/SST subject. She notes that SST has had a presence in Detroit, thus the commentary on that side of the state.

Hospital Naming in Muskegon

Jeff Alexander of the Muskegon Chronicle has an interesting article about the challenges officials at Hackley and Mercy are having to come up with a new name for the combined hospitals.

Lots of good comments in the article. I chat with Roger Spoelman, the Mercy CEO, at 5Ks and other lakeshore races in the summer. He's a good manager, and I'm sure he and others will come up with something good. But there are two things about the article that I question:

1. Why are all those who are quoted in marketing? All due respect to those mentioned, including my colleague Professor Benet from GVSU's Seidman College of Business, but why not talk to some of the region's Advertising and PR folks? Lots of the trade publications and books debate whether branding is a function of marketing, advertising, or PR. I think all three are involved--all three perspectives would have been nice.

2. Why so much emphasis on the name? As some quoted remark, naming or renaming 'creates an image.' Yuck. That's not what we do in PR. We build relationships. Branding is more than a name and logo. It's a promise, an experience. We need to work on reputation, which is based on behavior, not merely image, which is based on words and visuals.

Alexander has an extensive and interesting article on this. But readers--including many of your bosses and clients--will have the unfortunate reinforcement of the notion that logos and names are all that matters. They are important as first impressions, but those impressions have to be matched with reality. So, discussions about names should not center only on what WE want people to THINK about our organizations. They should be an accurate reflection of what we actually DO and what people EXPERIENCE with our organization. That's honest and creative, and more likely to resonate and be effective. Otherwise, we're just sellin' snake oil.

More Suspicion in Acme

The Traverse City Record Eagle has more news related to Acme Township, Meijer, and SST.

Apparently, some locals didn't follow state rules regarding disclosure of financing for ads taken out regarding a recent vote on an Acme Township zoning issue. The article seems mostly a technical matter about local citizens not knowing the rules. But we have a citizens group that is not registered, ad expenditures related to a ballot initiative that were not reported, and that leads to...suspecting the involvement of Meijer and SST, according to quotes from some local officials.

There are lessons here, whether or not Meijer or SST are involved. If your reputation is damaged, you don't get the benefit of the doubt. People can be fooled once, or at least you can't fool all of the people all of the time. Or, as the Bible says, we reap what we sow. Had Meijer not been under the microscope of controversy, all this might look like a simple oversight. But with recent events in people's minds, this new item is being framed as part of a devious plot.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

PRSA to Wait for Legal Result Before Ethical Statement

I've been asked a lot about the Meijer/Seyferth issue and what PRSA is going to do about it. The short answer is, we'll see.

I heard yesterday that the WMPRSA board at a recent meeting decided to stay silent for now, even though some members of the board advocated stating a position of clarity about ethics on behalf of the profession, if not specifically against the two local companies involved.

Meanwhile, T. Michael Jackson, APR, Fellow PRSA, of Traverse City has shared with me that the national PRSA office has a wait and see attitude now as well. The organization's Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) has a new chair and has not met recently, but will discuss the Meijer/Seyferth case when they do meet on January 25. Beyond that, it appears that this national voice of our profession will wait to hear from the legal profession first. In other words, they will factor in the facts revealed by the Michigan State Police and Meijer's own investigator before commenting. Then, in the words of BEPS member Bob Frause, APR, Fellow PRSA: "When and if we do comment it will be an educational bulletin designed to teach and educate our members and the profession how to practice ethically within the environment of a professional situation such as the Meijer case."

For his part, Jackson has encouraged the BEPS to issue a statement to SST on the matter regardless of whether they determine the firm was ethical or not.

That is in keeping with the charge to the BEPS, in the words of PRSA itself: "As issues arise relating to the practice of public relations, BEPS is charged with providing guidance on such issues within the framework of the Code provisions." You can see ethics resources, including an archive of professional standards advisories issued by the BEPS, on the ethics portion of PRSA's Web site.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Ad Fair

I think I know how I'll spend at least part of my spring break the first week of March this year.

Our local Ad Club has an ambitious and innovative idea to celebrate the ad industry in the region. I love their notion that good advertising knows no city limits--an appropriate dig at the "Madison and Vine" and other geocentric events in Gotham, perhaps.

Anyway, in case you aren't on their mailing list, here's the early notice of some cool advertising related events:

Monday, March 3: The “Advertising Goes Hollywood” night at the movies, to be held at the Wealthy Theatre, with a reception for ACWM members and guests sponsored by Hanon McKendry.

Tuesday, March 4: It’s the first annual “AD Fair Creative Crawl”, with ACWM member firms opening their doors (4-7pm suggested) displaying their workplace and work to West Michigan college students, Chamber members, invited guests, and all other interested publics. Any ACWM member company in West Michigan can participate.

Wednesday, March 5: “The Best Practices in Advertising & Design” mid-day (tentative) seminar will be co-sponsored by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce as a service to their members, with speakers and panel provided by the ACWM.

Thursday, March 6: It’s “THE ADDYS”, where the best of our best receive awards for their outstanding creative work. This year our Big Event will be held at the Steelcase Town Hall, and be capped off by a great post party featuring special “name brand” entertainment.

Friday, March 7: “The People’s Choice Awards”. When it comes to effective advertising, it can’t happen without the media or a receptive audience. They’ll all come together during AD Fair ‘08 week, culminating in the Awards presentation on Friday.

For more on AD Fair ‘08, watch for e-mail blasts, check your mailbox, come to our February 20 luncheon program or call the ACWM at (616) 459-9196.

On Giving Ethical Counsel

Many PR practitioners say they are more than publicists, that they provide counsel to management or clients.

But, what is the nature of that counsel? Is it win at all costs strategy? Or is it consistent with the concept that public relations is about building and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships? In the latter case, which is consistent with Grunig's typology of PR and with the way PR is taught in colleges and universities across the country, PR counsel should be inherently ethical. That's because we advise management not only with regard to an organization's best interest, but balance the interests of our various publics--consumers, employees, community, government, investors, etc.

That's the ideal, the normative view of public relations. But, how DO PR people counsel?

I've done several studies on this myself. In one, I interviewed a business editor and PR practitioners about news releases that had been published as business news stories. In justifying why the information was news, both parties--journalists and PR--had organizational interests in mind. It was either to sell papers or product. Ethical considerations emerged only after repeated questions, and then the ethics of the matter--people's right to know versus an organization wanting them to know something--was secondary.

Well, now there's a broader overview of PR professionals and their ethical counsel. Shannon A. Bowen, Ph.D., of the University of Maryland offers an overview of current research-based knowledge on ethics and public relations practice in a new paper published online by the Institute for Public Relations (IPR). IPR is a good organization that brings together PR educators and practitioners. I presented a paper at one of their conferences and fielded questions from veteran professors from the University of Florida as well as the PR director for Goodyear.

Bowen's paper is appropriately interesting for both academics and professionals. She provides a good history of PR ethics, and provides recommendations for those working in the trenches to prepare for ethical issues. Finally, she invites a dialogue on this important subject in a blog hosted by IPR.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Meijer: Next in Line Up

In addtion to the comments posted on this blog, I have received many emails and personal comments about the Meijer/SST issue. As most of you are saying, it is interesting to watch.

Now we are told we'll have to wait two months for the results of a criminal investigation, as reported in the Grand Rapids Press.

This is what we know from media reports:

  • Meijer officials claim they didn't fully know what was happening and wouldn't condone it;
  • Meijer has its own attorney investigating what they did to see if they complied with or violated state law;
  • Seyferth says the firm is standing by its client, Meijer, and that is a form of good ethics;
  • Seyferth insists they did nothing unethical with regard to the recall campaign in Acme township.

    OK. But I have some questions, and I hope the answers emerge in two months when the probe is finished. They are:

  • If Meijer officials originally said they would not condone such behavior, is that not an admission of some guilt, criminal or otherwise?
  • Is Meijer's own attorney going to have the public interest in mind or merely seek to limit liability of his client when he reviews the case?
  • Does not the recently settled lawsuit, in which Meijer paid an Acme official a significant sum, serve as instructive precedent in the current matter regarding the legality of Meijer's actions?
  • Loyalty to a client is mentioned in the PRSA Code of Ethics, but is that reallly the issue here? DId not SST ADVISE Meijer on the matter in question? Meijer is on the hook for activities that were part of strategy planned jointly by Meijer and SST and executed by SST.
  • Is there going to be any definitive statement from SST--or the prosector---on whether or not Meijer and SST set up a front group in Acme Township, or short of that, spoke at public meetings without identifying themselves as representing the interests of Meijer?

    Another question: why is there nothing about this issue on Meijer's corporate Web site? So far as I know, there has been no judge's gag order. Do they not want to draw attention to the issue and hope everyone forgets? They have some interesting core values that are worth reading and considering given the allegations from Acme. The news releases are all about product and image, including one ironic headline: "No Secrets Here, Meijer Shouts Its Holiday Prices." (No secrets?)

    SST doesn't address this issue on their Web site either.
    (To their credit, they do have an interesting section on "What is PR" that looks like it came stright from APR study materials.)
  • Focus on Event Sponsorships

    PR professors across the country joke about the fact that every freshman female they encounter wants to go into "event planning." I suspect that movies like "The Wedding Planner", the increasing use of events by PR firms, and the ability of Facebook to spread info to young people rapidly has created this influx of interest in doing events as a career.

    Of course, we have to tell them that there are many types of events, that you still need a wide range of PR skills---including writing--to ably handle events, and that you might not be able to or want to focus on planning events for your entire career.

    On that latter point, we may be wrong.

    Witness an article in Business Review about a new firm--8 Point Promotions--started by Pat Driscoll, the former head of marketing for the Muskegon Summer Celebration. Driscoll's agency will focus on the sponsorship aspect of events, ensuring that both the event host and the various sponsors see ROI for their efforts. The article is a recap of his presentation to the Ad Club recently.

    Driscoll (who spoke about event sponsorship and seeking sponsors in one of my classes several years ago) may be on to something. Not only is this a niche area for an agency to capture, he could be a worthy partner with Ad and PR firms, even those that specialize in events, when it comes to the sponsorship aspect. He could handle one of the more challenging aspects of event planning, allowing firms to focus on other aspects of the event. It also provides a great service to area companies who might consider sponsorship as part of their social branding. Sponsors often want to see new business from these events, as well as demonstrate their commitment to a cause or community. But doing both without looking cheezy can be a trick. An agency making sure the nature of the event and the core business of a sponsor are related could be a nice service.

    Health Communications

    MiBiz has an article (scroll down to "Advertising: Good for What Ails You") that provides a nice recap of an Alliance for Health Forum on "healthcare marketing."

    Of course, problematic in that descriptor and in quotes throughout the article is the annoying confounding of the terms marketing, advertising, and public relations. It's nice that the media cover our industries, but it would be nicer if there were consistent clarity in describing what's what. The article does describe all three, but never clarifies what's what. But, maybe this is just the semantic angst of a professor:)

    But to move on for now, I should say the article was an interesting one. Partly because yours truly once interviewed for an turned down a job with Metro Health at a time when their communication philosophy was to fly below radar. My, how times have changed. The article shows how hospitals like Metro, as well as pharmas like Pfizer and insurers like Blue Cross have to be much more intentional in their public communications. All three in this case have sound strategies and interesting creative execution that serve as good examples of what has emerged as a specialty of health communication--there are academic journals dedicated to the subject, and GVSU and other schools offer full majors in health com (we need to hire more faculty to improve our program at GVSU).

    The article touches on national trends as they apply in West Michigan: the notion that hospitals aren't all the same and can have brands; the phenomenon and controversy of DTC (direct to consumer) advertising by drug companies; the wholesale change in the insurance industry and the importance of research to be effective with campaigns.

    I'd give it a read. Not only is there evidence that the health industry has learned lessons about communications, but as they've put those lessons to work it seems to me they offer some lessons to commuicators in other industries as well.

    Monday, January 07, 2008

    GRBJ Adds More to Seyferth, Meijer Story

    The Grand Rapids Business Journal carries an article (subscription required) today about the Seyferth/Meijer ethics story.

    There are more comments from yours truly, Betty Pritchard and T. Michael Jackson.

    More interesting is Ginny Seyferth's defense of her firm. Her most assertive point:

    "We were publicly visible for almost a decade,” Seyferth said. “We worked side-by-side with supporting Meijer. It was very, very public.”

    Once again, I hope so. People who know me and this blog know I am a cheerleader for PR, especially those who practice in West Michigan. However, I wonder where this assertion of public visibility was weeks ago when the allegations first emerged. If SST's activities were so clean, why not say so immediately and put all this to rest?

    The lag time in denial of wrong doing will tend to favor the accusers. People might wonder if this assertion of ethical behavior is factual or just backpedaling, putting "lipstick on the pig." Now, in response to the late assertion that SST was ethical, there will be a demand for evidence. How were they public? Exactly what was their role? Was the citizen group formed on its own ? Was it clear that their communication services were provided by SST? If it was clear that SST was retained by Meijer, was it really clear that they were actively engaged in the recall? Can these questions be answered quickly, publicly, without having the lawyers parse everything? Legal involvement leads to doubt among the public.

    At least this "very public" debate we're all having about this PR ethics issue should inform the community that PR professionals and educators alike are concerned about ethics and the public trust. We wrestle with the impact of our collective activities on society--as we should. That's the mark of a professional.

    Friday, January 04, 2008

    PRSA Alerted of SST, Meijer Issue

    T. Michael Jackson, a PR professional in Traverse City, has alerted PRSA of the Meijer/SST issue and recommend that the national body take "appropriate action." You can read his op-ed in the Traverse City Record Eagle for more of his opinion on the matter.

    I'm not sure what such action will be. It would likely start with a clarification of the situation and a reminder of the ethical issues that apply. Seyferth should be given a chance to explain and defend its actions as in compliance with the PRSA Code. Otherwise, the most severe action might be termination of PRSA membership and non-renewal of accreditation for those involved who are APR. We'll have to watch to see.

    Jackson is one of only three members of the PRSA College of Fellows in the West Michigan PRSA Chapter. He is also the brother of PR legend Pat Jackson, who passed away a few years ago. The other two Fellows are Jim Lovejoy, who was with Wolverine World Wide for many years, and Fred Chapman, who taught at GVSU before me.

    Muskegon Chronicle's Pledge

    I was delighted to read a New Year's pledge by the Muskegon Chronicle editors recently.

    We live in an era of declining newspaper readership, at a time when too many newspapers are following the dollar and pursuing what has been called "market driven" journalism. In other words, newspapers cover stories that will attract readers, which will attract advertisers, which will improve profits.

    Ironically, this has proven to be a downward spiral. People can get the puffy entertainment, sensational scandal, and other trivial content in many other sources. Local newspapers need to do what they do best--local news.

    The Chronicle pledge speaks to this. They primarily assert their democratic duty to help readers make "informed decisions" that will improve the quality of their lives. They do mention providing content that will inform, educate, and entertain readers, but entertainment is ok to a point. The key is this: they stress a vigilant coverage of local news, and an editorial opinion policy that has the community's best interest in mind.

    That's not only a sound formula for traditional journalism in the democratic spirit, it is a good business plan. For all the information out there today, people are overwhelmed and many will "satisfice"--try to simplify--their decision making. Newspapers that get this provide a valuable information service. In local communities, they often are a rare commodity in doing this. Sure, local school board meetings and planning commission hearings may seem drudgery to reporters at times. But that's what is most relevant to people most affected. And that's the news that sells newspapers.

    All of this has been proven by some media economics studies at Michigan State and elsewhere. Newspapers that invest in the newsroom and in the community actually do better financially. I'm glad the Chronicle gets this, for both economic and civic reasons.

    Meanwhile, we PR pros should get it too. The voice of newspapers in local communities will remain strong in public opinion influence. But we should not use the newspapers for "free publicity" (I hate that term) toward our narrow self interests. We should be partners with newspapers, providing information about which reporters and editors might not otherwise be aware orto which they do not have access. We should do so with the community interest in mind as well as our own or clients' profit. In other words, the bottom line harks back to our own code of ethics which is replete with this phrase: "informed decision making in a democratic society." If we keep that in mind, there will indeed be mutual benefit--PR people, those they represent, the media, and the community.