Monday, June 30, 2008

Coffeehouse coverage

I was happy to see the GR Press cover an actual WMPRSA event in last Friday's paper.

It was a good review of why and how Beaners Coffee changed their name to Biggby, to proactively avoid offending Hispanic consumers in other parts of the country, for whom "Beaners" is an insulting term, before the Michigan company expanded across country.

(I refrain from commenting at this juncture on the potential offenses of monikers such as Cracker Barrel and the Hope College Flying Dutchmen).

My only problem with the article was the brief mention that it was a WMPRSA event, and virtually no explicit coverage or comments about why this is a PUBLIC RELATIONS story. It implies that management was enlightened and hired a PR firm merely to get the word out. In reality, the management exhibited good public relations in the sense of identifying an overlooked public and potential issue, and then the company changed its own behavior instead of trying to influence attitudes and behaviors of others. It worked at the essence of PR: mutually beneficial relationships.

That was implied and perhaps obvious to PR people. But to the mass readership of the Press, it would have been nice to make this plain. Instead, public perception will continue to be as follows: when management makes good decisions it is good management; when management makes bad decisions its called a PR problem. Our profession does react to the negative, but quite often we also are proactively positive. Much of the public--and management--does not get this connection to PR.

Friday, June 20, 2008

PR and Prohibition at GRCC

Interesting article in the Grand Rapids Press yesterday about GRCC banning smoking. It wasn't interesting so much for the smoking ban as the reference to the college's PR campaign to precede the prohibition of smoking on campus.

It's a rare case where "public relations" or "PR" is not associated with a pejorative adjective (e.g. ""mere" or "just" PR, PR "stunt" or "gimmick" etc) when described in the media. Lots of content analysis studies of mainstream media have shown this. This is simply a neutral reference to the fact that the college needs to communicate a new policy to its relative publics.

It would be interesting to know more about the nature of that campaign. Will it be just an education campaign to inform people about the policy? Will it involve persuasion to affect public opinion in favor of this new policy? Or could there even be an component of the campaign that is a health-related cessation campaign, designed to encourage smokers to quit? All three?

Chime in anyone from GRCC; enlighten us. And good luck.

Slap and Hug and Shock and Awe

I have to admit I was puzzled to read about the City of GR's new parking policy that allows people to trade in paid parking tickets and receive a coupon for $15 in free parking. Huh? Why not just not give the ticket, or lower the ticket by the amount of free parking. Or, here's a thought, find ways to offer more parking.

The city's parking director characterized the ticket/coupon gimmick as a "slap and hug." Well, golly, there's an incentive. If PR is about relationships, I'm pretty sure this is an abusive one. I don't even need my social worker wife to tell me that.

Is such a deal really going to generate good will? If someone comes to GR and gets a ticket, they are more likely to not come back than to cash in the ticket for free parking. I dunno, maybe if certain people are regulars to downtown GR they might see it as a friendly gesture on the part of the city. But parking--lack of it, fees for it, time limits on it-- is a key deterrent for many visitors to big cities. People are drawn to places where they can shop, eat, attend events and otherwise recreate without the stress of parking. More effective than the coupons would be promotion of the fact that parking rates are lower, time limits are longer, more parking is available etc

I think Yogi Berra had an insight on this: "that place is so crowded no one goes there anymore." Yeah, people still go to GR. But more might if they could do so without fear of meter maids.

As for me, I think parking is like sex: shame on anyone who asks to be paid for it.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Spin, Rinse, Repeat

I was in a meeting this week and got into a conversation with a business owner. He was offering his understanding of the difference between communication and PR. Communication, he opined, was basically sender-receiver (I bit my lip and refrained from pointing out that we have come a long way from that Shannon-Weaver model of communication in the last 60 years). And as for PR, that's where you spin.....

That's where I interrupted.

It may have been a semantic difference. He thought my objection was to trying to persuade or "sell" things. Well of course you have to do that in business. But spin has negative connotations, and it is neither strategic or ethical to deceive people. I offered to buy him a copy of "Lipstick on the Pig," Tori Clark's mea culpa epiphany that PR should be, gosh, honest.

Actually, what the well-meaning business owner was saying is that we need to have strategies and be persuasive and not merely 'get the word out.' Exactly. But what's interesting is that he, and no doubt many like him, speak of spin as a positive thing. They therefore perpetuate the concept that PR is spin, even though they are not PR practitioners.

So we are caught in this cycle whereby critics of the profession criticize us for being spinners, and then people outside the profession criticize us for counseling against spinning. I have to defend PR to critical theorist professors who point out examples of unethical PR practice (probably carried out by business owners who thought spinning was good) and then generalize to the whole profession. Then I have to advocate for ethical practice to people who think college professors are out of touch--discounting the fact that most PR professors I know have worked in the profession and are in touch with countless scientific studies that show spin doesn't work. The public can't all be fooled all the time. Your spin will find you out. Read up on source credibility and related concepts and you'll see what I mean.

Science and Art

I'm always interested in how West Michigan organizations are getting into social media. Like the rest of the nation, we are just getting started. But it was interesting to read in the Grand Rapids Press about Perrigo using a YouTube video in an effort to recruit scientists as employees at the Allegan drug maker.

You can see the video here.

It's a great attempt to use new media to reach an audience. But I have some nagging thoughts:
  • The Press reported Tuesday that the clip had 5,000 hits. But (as a scientist should ask), what does that mean? Is it good? WHO were those people? Scientists looking for work would be great. But what if they were pimple-faced kids distracting themselves in an American history class? And ultimately, how many scientists applied for jobs at Perrigo as a result of seeing the YouTube clip? THAT's the metric that matters. Maybe it will come.
  • O.K., I admit that my 'white guy shuffle' won't get me past the first round of auditions for "Dancing With the Stars," but the dancing in this video is less than exciting. It looks like, well, scientists dancing. I have a lingering memory of the Intel ad of years ago where scientists making computer chips wear lab suits that would make MC drop his hammer, and they really got their boogy down!

    All in all, it was a clever video. And it was locally produced, which always warms my heart. I even have a suggestion for a sequel. Instead of showing beakers, show a periodic table of the elements. And then proclaim that, at Perrigo, scientists enjoy periodic table dances.

    I shouldn't give this stuff away for free.
  • Wednesday, June 04, 2008

    Spectrum Crisis

    The Aero Med helicopter crash last week captured lots of the community's attention. Kudos in order:

  • To Spectrum Health, for their rapid response, having a plan, executing it, keeping people informed with repeated press conferences and updates online, and a nice touch with the full-pager in the GR Press last night thanking the city's fire and police departments;

  • Local media for their coverage. TV 8 provided good perspective with its chopper and press conference coverage; other TV handled the coverage well; radio was on spot with the news; the Press reacted well to the timing of the incident at their press time and had two subsequent days of interesting depth and multiple-angle coverage, showing what print does best.
  • Quitters Never Spin

    In all the buzz about former GW Bush press secretary Scott McLellan's book, there is a local West Michigan angle. Jerry terHorst, who was Ford's press secretary, quit the gig after one month because he disagreed with the pardon of Nixon. The PR trivia has been reported in the Grand Rapids Press as well as national media, including a mention in a Slate podcast.

    Yep, GR's claim to PR fame is a guy who quit after one month on the job.

    I would have to say this, though. terHorst quit because he disagreed with policy. That's his right. But was there really an ethical issue there? Just as lawyers represent people and policies they don't agree with, PR people advocate points of view for those we represent, whether WE agree or not. The job, particularly in politics, is to convey information so people can make informed judgments. The key is doing so truthfully.

    Quitting a PR job is more important when you're being asked by a client or boss to lie. Or when you're kept out of the loop so you have "plausible deniability." Bad form. Icky. Time to go.

    I often tell my students that in any career, including PR, you sometimes have to choose between your profession and your job. A prof I know from Brigham Young tells students to have a 'freedom fund,' meaning enough cash to live on for several months in case you need to tell a boss you'd rather quit than spin. Practically speaking, that can be hard, and truth can be murky at times. But PR pros should consider their personal reputations and enhance the reputation of the PR profession.

    Monday, June 02, 2008

    May Media Month Encore--Media View of PR

    May ended peacefully, and it's time for my local PR blog to move on from its focus on the news media.

    But then I was alerted to this gem from the national media, namely a rant about PR related to Scott McLellan's book on "CBS Good Morning."

    More like good grief! Another TV reporter painting the PR profession with broad and irresponsible brush. (His lack of reporting is the reason the world needs PR people--we often care more about truth than the often sensationalistic media--known collectively as the sensationalistas--particularly when it comes to national TV).

    Good to see PRSA was on the job over the weekend and rapidly posted this letter in response. It's also reassuring to read the comments from many PR pros posted at the end of the "CBS Good Morning" item.

    At least here in West Michigan the reporters don't have such a narrow view of PR. Many express appreciation for getting ideas and access from us. At least they are smart and honest enough to understand that there is good and bad PR, depending on the ethics of the practitioner.