Saturday, March 29, 2008

Hospitals Get Checkup

Hospitals are now part of the ongoing trend of transparency.

The New York Times and Associated Press both report today on a new Web site sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that allows consumers to see patient survey response data. The site allows you to look up specific hospitals or compare hospitals in a geographic area. Data is on process of care, outcome of care, and information on patients' experiences.

I compared St. Mary's, Spectrum Health, and Metro Health.

I won't tell you the details of what I saw, because the details run deep! I can say that lots of the responses are above 90 percent, but there are some areas for improvement. One biggy--Spectrum has not made data available in one category. Doesn't look good.

From a PR standpoint, here is another specific industry or PR specialty--health communications--that is being effected by "consumer sovereignty". The average person--in this case patients--demands respect and the ability to make informed decisions. (For extra credit, can anyone tell me where the phrase "informed decision making in democratic society" appears numerous times?)

Generally, if you agree that a two-way symmetrical model of public relations is best, you would see this kind of open communication to be a good thing, consonant with good, fundamental PR. This kind of information goes beyond ad slogans or cleverly coined clauses created in conference rooms. This is actual feedback from the public.

But we have to wonder why the government initiated this (and other) efforts at transparency, and not the institutions themselves. It may simply be the task of coordination was huge, and the government agency was the appropriate coordinator of this project. However, it would be better from a PR reputation standpoint in any industry if information flows freely and voluntarily, not as the result of regulation or obligation.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Schooled in PR

Interesting article in today's Muskegon Chronicle about the various public relations efforts of area public, private and charter schools.

Gone are the days when schools just calculated--and counted on--enrollment based on the demographics of residents in their school district. These days, people have choice. There's the "schools of choice" law, and the array of options provided by charter schools. Home schooling is also a huge growth trend.

You also have the phenomenon of suburban growth and the loss of students for urban schools--two trends that are directly related. Some people move to the suburbs primarily because of the schools.

So, PR is as well-known in schools these days as the PTA.

Locally, the Grand Rapids Public Schools brought in PR man John Helmholdt, formerly of Jones and Gavan, to handle the district;s PR. Several of our local PR firms represent charter school organizations or other school districts. Intermediate School Districts (ISDs) all have communication staff. There is a National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA). An entire chapter in the textbook I use for my fundamentals of public relations course is dedicated to education PR.

All of this shows how societal trends that give more choice to people--be they consumers, parents, students, government--inevitably leads to a proliferation of PR people, a new specialty area. In education, choice has blossomed, demands are higher, bad performance leads to tangible losses. Schools, like any savvy organization, can no longer merely expect a public response. They must learn and respond to the expectations of their core publics. That's a two-way, symmetrical, mutual adjustment form of school administration. It's better management. It's fundamental public relations.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Institute for PR Project Brings Pros, Academics Together

One of the things PR educators talk about is the need to bring PR researchers/educators and professionals together more often to discuss the profession. PRSA does this at its national conference and through its publications. The Institute for Public Relations has done this as well through its 10 year history.

Now, IPR has announced an "Essential Knowledge Project" that will make research available online to scholars and PR practitioners alike. The idea is to share key knowledge discovered on a range of topics of current importance and interest to our field. The first several articles are posted to the new EKP section of IPR's web site. Check them out.

So, you're wondering, why do I mention this Florida-based institute when I call this blog GRPR? What's the local connection? Well, yours truly presented a paper at the 10th International Public Relations Research Conference in Miami last spring. Some of you should think about going--the conference brings together academics and professionals. You can read the proceedings of last year's conference, including my paper advancing a model for PR in the public and private spheres, to see if you'd be interested.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Steelcase Sells Cities

One of our region's larger and better known companies, Steelcase, is profiled positively for its innovation in a post on a Business Week blog.

The post reveals that Steelcase has long been about more than furniture. As part of a project called "CEOs for Cities," the company is opening its archives that will help CEOs around the country learn how office environments and corporate campuses can enhance the attraction of a city.

This is a great example of a social brand. Steelcase has always been charitable, but this effort is a win-win for Steelcase's image and its product line. It also is a move that will help any CEO realize he value of community relations as well as consumer relations--thus once again showing the breadth of the public relations profession and the impact that relationships can have on what CEOs usually focus on--profits.

Livable communities attract the "knowledge workers" that every company says they want these days. Corporations helping cities achieve desirable public spaces enhances the corporations' own image in the community, which leads to favorable decisions regarding tax base, plant expansion and when feasible, local sales.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A Foundation of PR Success

Corporate and agency PR gets most of the attention. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and PRSA studies, the majority of PR practitioners work in the government or nonprofit sectors. Nonprofit alone is a huge sector for PR pros. So it's nice to see the PR done by one of our region's premier nonprofits getting national awards.

The Grand Rapids Community Foundation won four gold and two bronze--count 'em, six awards--from the Wilmer Shields Rich Awards Program, which recognizes excellent communication by foundations across the country.

When I worked at the Foundation as their first in-house PR director going on 8 years ago (wow, is it that long?) I won a gold award for an annual report. I know how competitive it can be. It's a national award, and the competition is against some very large foundations in other parts of the country. So for my successor, Roberta King, APR, and her assistant (and my former student), Amanda St. Pierre, to reel in a half dozen, well, that's truly evidence of talent, creativity and hard work.

You can read the details about the awards in a news release on the Foundation's Web site. While you're there, check out the blog and podcasts--evidence of a nonprofit getting into new media faster than some of its big corporate neighbors.

CSR in GR?

The March 10 Wall Street Journal special section led with an article (subscription required) about Corporate Social Responsibility. Apparently, a new study shows that 90 percent of companies are doing more now than they were five years ago to include environmental, social, and governance issues into their strategy.

The West Michigan connection?

For one, the article includes a Q&A with John Paluszek, of the PR firm Ketchum. Paluszek spoke about CSR for a WMPRSA/Econ Club event in 2004, when I was president of the local chapter.

Secondly, I wonder how many of West Michigan's companies are intentionally including CSR into their management philosophy. My sense is, quite a few. Our region is known for being ahead of the curve on LEED certified buildings and other green activities. Also, while not the most diverse region in the country, I am aware of many efforts to address diversity positively.

I would be interesting to know two things: 1) the percentage of companies with more than 50 employees who actively discuss and implement CSR, and 2) how much of this is driven by and/or credited to a public relations person in a management capacity.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Nothing Hushed About This Puppy

A street in downtown Angers, France, where I made the decision to purchase some shoes made by, it turns out, Wolverine World Wide. I bought the shoes in Rockford when I got home.

Interesting story in today's Grand Rapids Press about the 50th anniversary of the Hush Puppy brand of shoes, the leader among nine brands of Rockford's own Wolverine World Wide.

For one, it's a good case study of a brand campaign. In this case, the company plans a year-long effort to celebrate the brand's anniversary. The campaign will include a celebrity designer series and some good social marketing including a shoe drive and cross country tour fundraiser for an animal shelter. I would have been interested to read more about the details of the campaign. Perhaps WMPRSA can invite Hush Puppies Brand President Mark Neal and Global Marketing Director Jenni Hamilton in for a program this coming year.

I also found it interesting that, according to Neal, even non-English speakers around the world recognize and can say "Hush Puppies." That means, in academic international branding theory, they are using a standardized or global approach. One name and brand presentation across the globe. Some have argued that a specialized or international approach--with different brand strategies for each country or region of the world--is best. Others advocate a compromise, with broad brand themes consistent but implementation adapted to local markets. It says something about the strength of the brand that the name--which comes from Southern U.S. culture--resonates in many languages and countries.

Incidentally, Wolverine's other brands do well overseas too. In Europe you tend to walk a lot, at least I did. During a trip to France in 2005 (see photo above), I found my causal dress shoes inadequate for the walking in the cooler, wet weather of November. In a store window I saw some shoes that looked both dressy and warm enough for such a situation. Investigating, I noticed they were Caterpillar brand. After flying home a week later, I made the drive out to Rockford to buy a pair at Wolverine's outlet store.

Addys and Peoples' Choice

The annual Addy Award winners have been revealed by the Ad Club of West Michigan. Also, the first People's Choice Awards, part of the first annual AdFair, were announced at week's end as well.

Every year, it is impressive to see the range and depth of local talent. Every year, I have two nagging thoughts along with that.

1. Why doesn't the local media cover the WMPRSA Awards to the same degree? (Because they don't want to admit the influence we have on them, because they don't fully understand that PR is far more than publicity, because PR is not the revenue stream that advertising is for media, all of the above?)

2. What are the criteria for the awards? There's voting, based on how creative they are. That's fine. But I always wonder, what was the objective, who was the target audience, what did you want them to think or do, and did they do it as a result of this ad? I know, I'm a wet blanket. Maybe all of those questions can be answered, I don't know. But if that info is there, let's share it.

Another thought on the People's Choice Awards. This was a great effort to get the community, not just the advertising insiders, to recognize the local ad talent we have in West Michigan. But, a peoples' choice (Peeps?) award means.....what? As Tim Wheeler said in a Saturday Press article about the awards, it is meaningful to know that an ad got the attention of the public. But did it? Or were they merely voting. And, was attention-getting the only goal? Were attitudes changed, behaviors encouraged?

It may be hard to gather and present such info and judge future Addy's accordingly. But not necessarily. Entrants could include an evaluation of evidence of the ad's effectiveness. Peoples' Choice entrants could be asked to indicate if the ad affected their attitudes or behavior intentions. Just a thought.

A final thought for next year--ad a social media category. We had Web sites, but what about the vast array of Web 2.0 creativity going on, from gaming to online ads etc.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Coast Guard Campaign Ignores Coast Guard City?

AdWeek reports on the launch of a new recruitment campaign by the Coast Guard. From this article, it appears the campaign is national and includes rescue footage from salty waters only. No inclusion of Grand Haven, aka Coast Guard City USA?!

However, if you go to the Coasties' own site,, it smartly reads your IP address and you'll see a banner for current reserve opportunities in Michigan. Apparently, the campaign will include lots of Web material including actual footage of Coast Guard work that won't be in the radio and TV ads.

Still, I'd like the nation to be exposed to some of the Great Lakes work of the Coast Guard. We get some wicked weather here too!

Maybe the campaign could latch on to the "Boston Legal" subplot in which Denny Crane and Alan Shore try to join the Coast Guard and fail the swim test in the pool. What a great opportunity for "product placement." The story line could be they get to do some reserve duty in Grand Haven. I missed my chance to suggest that now that the writers' strike is over.

But it could have been good. Maybe I could have snared a cameo role for suggesting it. I could have greeted the two stars at a reception at Snug Harbor:

[Alan] "We're new to the Coast Guard. Where do they keep the Scotch?"

[Denny] "Denny Crane!"

[Me] "C'mon, I'll buy you a Coke and a pronto pup.

[Denny] "Are you with the Coast Guard?

[Me] No. I'm Tim Penning!"

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

PR Behind the Scenes

The Press business section yesterday had two articles about prominent local companies, Spartan and Perrigo. They did not mention PR at all, but I was thinking about how much PR played a role in both cases.

With regard to Spartan, the story is about the success of their stock under a new CEO. Good story. But how much of the credit goes not only to the CEO, but to the Investor Relations (PR) efforts of Spartan staff or a PR agency? Certainly stocks move on the basis of confidence in management and corporate performance, which is under the influence of a CEO. But how does that message and reputation get to investors, analysts, and media? Spartan has a good investor relations section on its Web site maintained by Jeanne Norcross. The general public does not understand this aspect of PR.

As for Perrigo, here's a company in mostly rural Allegan kickin' some business butt overseas. Here too, the CEO is appropriately the lead in the story. But was PR playing a role here too? Could be Perrigo PR staff is quietly at work behind the scenes, or a major firm with offices in Shanghai and other global hubs helps the generic drug producer. But clearly, there has to be relationship building with foreign governments, manufacturers, distributors and the end market. Who is running that show? Perrigo also has a nice Web site with sections for various publics. Here again, there's a well-managed PR effort for the company that lots of folks don't equate with PR.

Such is the nature of our business to work hard and gain satisfaction when the CEO gets good press.

Social Media Separates PR, Marketing

The Grand Rapids Press on Monday localized a Business Week story about young people steering away from social Web sites because of increased advertising.

Advertising "clutter" has been studied for years by academics and practitioners. It is an even more interesting concept these days because media has proliferated into multiple forms thanks to technology, and with each new medium or platform comes efforts by marketers to "monetize" the medium. That usually means charging for content, or supporting it with advertising.

The trouble is, these days, consumers have more choices not just of content or channels within a medium, but of media. To attract sought after demos, often the 18-29 age group, new media starts out as free content, and often uncluttered. That has been the appeal--more content that you want, little or no advertising. We have seen it in satellite radio, social media sites like Facebook, mobile media like cell phones and MP3 players, and all manner of streaming audio and video online, from YouTube to specialized sites.

While the producers used to have so much control when offerings were limited, today Adam Smith's "invisible hand" has given the media consumer more control. What does that mean for communication professionals?

Well, it is changing the advertising biz. Consumers have more clout to control the ad environment. Most are savvy enough to understand that ads support the content, allowing them to receive it free. But, there is a point of diminishing return when an environment has too many ads--clutter. So advertisers and programmers have to keep the number of ads to a minimum. This benefits advertisers though. If your ad sits out in an uncluttered environment, you get more attention. Media can charge more if they can show that.

With so many changes in medium, the format of ads is also changing. Already the pre-roll for online video is being replaced with opaque overlays in a portion of the video so viewers don't have to wait to view their content. Pop-ups and banners online are being replaced with integrated and animated ads. And that leads to the third change....

Ad content must be increasingly more relevant to the program content. In satellite radio, you can see some ads sponsoring an hour, a program, and even an entire channel. This form of uncluttered co-branding is going to be increasingly evident in other media as well, including conventional radio, television and online applications. It harks back to the golden days of radio in the '40s with the "Texaco Opera" and so forth.

In sum, consumers in new media are demanding ads be limited, short, unobtrusive, and relevant. Those who ignore that and see people as a target will end up annoying, and losing. Those who take a PR approach, and use ads and other tactics in new media to cultivate mutual relationships, are on the cusp of huge opportunity.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Few View Fairs Films

There was a sparse crowd at Wealthy Theatre last night for the inaugural event of the inaugural Ad Fair. But promoters are hoping the traffic will pick up at events later this week and at Ad Fairs generally in subsequent years.

I, for one, enjoyed myself. I made some new acquaintances, chatted with folks I know, and enjoyed the two films. I even got to sit with my wife. Maybe next year we could have a panel discuss the image of advertising in popular culture. Both films portrayed the ad industry and those who work in it as liars. Indeed, advertising was a subplot to larger film themes of the human search for truth and meaning in life, and the preeminence of relationships.

Relationships. So, one could argue, the wicked are mired in self-indulgent deceit (advertising) until they see the light and come to the temple of genuine relationships (public relations).

Discuss.... :)

Monday, March 03, 2008

Tuesday Creative Crawl, Wednesday Seminar Details

The map of the agencies participating in the West Michigan Ad Club's Ad Fair "Creative Crawl" Tuesday night is available. Looks like a fun opportunity to make some relationships in the ad community.

Also, I just got the full scoop on the AdFair Wednesday morning seminar with insights from ad agency heads. I'm particularly interested in the agency/client relationship subject, and have a doctoral student friend who plans to do her dissertation on this very subject.

I had plans to sleep in and do some writing over this week--GVSU's spring break. But these events might be worth attending. Perhaps I'll see some GRPR readers there.

Meijer Product Recall

I learned in a news alert from the Holland Sentinel that Meijer has voluntarily recalled 12-ounce packages of Discover Cuisine Red Curry Chicken and Jasmine Rice. The news item informs consumers where packages have been purchased and that refunds are available, and most importantly, that the problem was contamination with a certain microorganism and that no illnesses have been reported.

Kudos to Meijer for the voluntary and quick recall. In fact, the retailer has a special product recall section on its Web site. Not a bad idea for a retailer of such large volume and diversity of product.

The only problem is this current recall isn't online yet--presumably the news release went out before the web update. Also, current product recalls should be more prominent on the home page along with the marketing info so consumers potentially in danger would not have to go hunting for it.