Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Transparency in Government

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy has a new online resource to facilitate transparency in government entities in Michigan. The site,, has spending data on state government agencies and local school districts, as well as voting and contribution records for public officials at various levels. The Mackinac Center newsletter recently noted that more municipal leaders are posting detailed budget and spending figures online for citizens to review anonymously. It would be nice if the new project soon adds a way to search for specific municipalities' financial records as a clearinghouse.

Nevertheless, this is a good project. PR pros in government know that such transparency is good practice. After all, our PRSA Code of Ethics frequently implores us to enable "informed decision making in a democratic society."

Press Timing and Spoonfeeding

I was going to refrain from commenting on Mike Lloyd's column in the Sunday Press. He whines that GVSU did not post news stemming from its July board meeting promptly--the tuition raise, the president's raise, the benefits for co-habitating faculty/staff. (As a former PR staff and current faculty member of GVSU, I thought I'd pass for conflict of interest reasons.)

But given a little item in yesterday's papers, I find there to be enough irony to merit a comment.

First, I do find it ironic that Lloyd complains that the university didn't post news quickly to its Web site. Reporters were alerted to and covered the meeting, and the university was very transparent with internal and external publics. In fact, had the posted on Friday some would have accused them of burying the news on the weekend in the summer. Also, if the university were as prompt as Lloyd suggests, his paper would have been scooped. That's the usual cry from him and his editorial crew--that PR pros don't coddle the Press so they don't get beat to the punch by TV. Indeed, should he not be pleased that the Press broke the stories? All in all, an odd subject to occupy an entire Sunday column.

But there was even greater irony yesterday following a construction accident on GVSU's Allendale campus. The Press ran the story and a photo, the latter of which was called a 'courtesy photo.' Had the Press been more forthcoming in its photo credit, as was the Grand Haven Tribune on the same story, readers would have known the photo came from the same GVSU News & Information Services office he criticized on Sunday.

Apparently Mr. Lloyd is transparent about sources when he wields a fork and knife, but not when he is being spoon fed.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Kazoo in WSJ

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal's special report on economic development featured seven communities that have success stories in that arena. One of them was Kalamazoo, which is leveraging the "Kalamazoo Promise" scholarships to grow a labor force that will attract business.

It always seems nice when local entities make national press. But, you also have to wonder if this will improve the image of Kalamazoo and West Michigan or hurt it. For example, the whole reason Kazoo gets mentioned is because, according to the article, it is in Michigan, which led the nation in unemployment and other dismal statistics last year.

Nevertheless, kudos go to the community, Southwest Michigan First, Pfizer and others for showcasing resolve and positive thinking instead of despair.

Hancock PR

As you can tell, GRPR has been enjoying the slower pace of summer. To follow up on beach reading, I now turn to movies.

You've probably seen or are at least aware of the summer flick Hancock, which stars Wil Smith as a super hero who gets PR counsel to improve his public image.

I haven't seen the movie yet to have a fully formed opinion. I do know past Hollywood characterizations of the PR profession have been stereotypical, portraying PR pros as thoughtless hacks concerned only with spin and deception for selfish gain. Indeed, the fact that the PR guy in Hancock is a hero and the work of PR is depicted in a straightforward way is described as "weird" by Jon Fine of Business Week in his Fine on Media blog post about the movie.

One local PR pro has asked me my opinion of the film, but also offered his own thoughts that I find worth forwarding: "Sometimes we try to manage people who truly believe they are super heroes - but in reality have flaws (just like Hancock) that we must work around to be effective."

Indeed, how many of us have worked with powerful and/or talented prima donnas? How often does public perception of a public figure improve because of the behind the scenes, humble rationality of a PR counsel?

It will be difficult to know if viewers of Hancock will see PR in a different and more respectful way. It is only one film among legions. I also suspect more talk will be about Will Smith and the special effects than about the PR profession.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Some Light PR Summer Reading

In the summer I try to get away from the grind of academic life, but you can never escape PR even in light summer reading. So, here's a quick review of some PR articles I read recently at the beach and patio:

The New York Times Describes PR Pitching

This article points out that PR pros (in Gotham at least) use key buzz words to pitch stories and have greater success when they do. This makes PR sound seedy and tricky once again, which can mean that NYC PR pros are seedy and tricky. No doubt some of them are. But at the same time, stressing what journalists perceive as newsworthy is only a natural inclination, if there is substance behind the pitch. As one pro says in a quote, it's good to put the pitch to the "so what?" test before calling a reporter. If these buzz words work to generate publicity when they should not, that says more about journalists who respond to buzz, don't do the due diligence and reporting on the story, and are given to marketing news as product instead of providing needed info to readers. As always, I wonder what non-PR readership of the article think about the PR profession after reading this article. If I were the guy described in the article as a "PR stunt planner," I would sue for libel. If the guy actually calls himself this, I will take him out for lunch, or just take him out, in a Gambino family sense of the phrase, when I'm in New York later this month.

TIME Magazine Describes Fundamental PR Without Actually Mentioning It

Interesting one-page "Curious Capitalist" column in TIME's July 7 issue that describes the 'Employees First!" philosophy of the CEOs of the Container Store and Whole Foods. Essentially, the article says that maximizing shareholder value is not the primary purpose of business. They stress that happy, empowered employees beget happy customers, which of course leads to shareholder value as well. They humbly predict this will be "the dominant philosophy in business in the 21st century." Well, gosh, I guess I'm a precocious professor. I've been talking about the dotted line to the bottom line, the PR management philosophy that you need to balance mutual relationships with ALL publics, for years. Actually, I can't take credit for that. Arthur Page, who took the role of VP of public relations for AT&T in 1927, had this philosophy, as did many of his contemporaries. As TIME shows in this article, managers who stumble across fundamental PR philosophy often think they've invented it. I think many CEOs have grasped this for years actually, and some have even acquainted the idea of employee empowerment with PR. I wish more did, and saw PR as a management function associated with setting policy and not merely a communication function announcing other managers' decisions.

The Atlantic Describes PR Role in GM Push for Electric Car

A fascinating article in the July/August double issue is all about the backstory on the Chevy Volt, the electric car GM hopes to bring to market in 2010. But the backstory to the backstory is how GM's PR was actively involved in the project from development to public exposure. GM is going through a cultural change, and PR has been key in this process. A good read. I believe WMPRSA had Steve Harris, GM"s top PR officer, speak to a chapter event in West Michigan about 6 or 7 years ago. It would be interesting to have him come again and talk about electric cars, the whole shake up of the auto industry currently, and the role of PR in all of it.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

TV 8 and Charter

Mediaweek reports that LIN TV (parent of local TV 8) has reached an agreement with Charter Communications that means Charter subscribers in West Michigan will get to see TV 8 programming.

It's interesting to ponder what might happen if the talks had broken down. The FCC has debated 'must carry' rules for years, although this debate was about whether and how much Charter should share revenue with LIN TV. Mediaweek reports the deal is only described as 'fair market value.'

A larger issue is whether a local TV station, particularly its news programming, is a commodity or a necessity for public information. That's particularly interesting if local viewers have other local stations to turn to. I suspect the argument emerging would be about whether people are customers of entertainment content or citizens seeking news content.

As for PR people who do media relations, the loss of TV 8 as an outlet (at least to Charter subscribers) would be interesting. Do you stop pitching 8 with as much energy knowing that other local stations would be reaching more viewers via all cable companies? Would the local PRSA chapter write a "friend of the court" brief to the FCC encouraging a quick mediated settlement to provide all local cable subscribers access to this local station, which provides over 30 hours of news programming per week?

In any event, I'm glad the agreement was worked out. I need the news, and the Olympics are coming on NBC.