Friday, January 30, 2009

Facebook In Your Face--A PR Issue

Interesting story in Grand Rapids Press/Mlive about a Calvin College student being disciplined for content deemed inappropriate on his Facebook page.

The story is interesting for several reasons, and it seems that the language used in this case by a student about another student is worthy of some sort of discipline. 

But, I find it interesting to think about how all organizations will handle situations of employees posting to Facebook or any social media site. Is it free speech, or some brand of speech that can be controlled by corporations or other employers? I'm sure the law is on the side of the employer if something 'material' or a 'trade secret' is spilled in the public sphere. But, it seems to be a legal gray area if an employee comments on a news article or posts opinion contrary to management in a blog or social media forum. 

Last I checked, the law was still emerging on this new media situation. In the meantime, PR people should be considering policies on the issue. And more importantly, proactively fostering open and good relationships with employees and other internal publics to diminish the likelihood of testy social media scenarios.

PR and YouTube

It's becoming increasingly clear that PR people are going to have to polish their video skills, or know people who can create and post video online.

There's evidence of this here in West Michigan from all sorts of organizations.  Large MNCs like Amway Global (Quixtar) started its own YouTube Channel. The Grand Rapids Community Foundation posts video to its own web site to announce new initiatives. Today I received an email invitation with a link to a video touting Heartside in downtown GR as a hip, emerging neighborhood. The video lends itself well to this reputation.

Educators like myself need to continually respond to changes in the professional world by adapting and incorporating new knowledge base and skill sets into our curriculum. We need to tell students about new media and get them to think critically and creatively about its  appropriate application to PR. Some students need a little hand holding on this. Other members of this "digital native" population jump on the wagon without prodding. Witness my Bateman PR Campaign team, which has created a web site and posted videos to it in an effort to reach bi-lingual, inner city middle schoolers. (Campaign rules don't let me share the video or details of the campaign just yet).

Anyway, stay tuned. PR and video doesn't just mean VNRs any more.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Academic Research in Social Media

In my last post I shared a summary of some academic research I had done. It started with a post to the APR group on LinkedIn, just a sentence about one result of my research I thought would interest the group. I got several responses of interest asking to know more, so I shared it on my blog. I got some interesting responses from academics and practitioners alike, which is a kind of feedback you don't always get in regular conference presentations and journal publications.

That led me to add a blog post to PROpen Mic, a social media site for PR students and faculty. I asked about whether academics sharing research in a social media forum might one day qualify as scholarship when professors are reviewed for tenure and promotion. Not immediately, seems to be the consensus of professors from various points in the country who deal with entrenched 'publish or perish' systems, according to comments on PROpenMic. 

A slow change may be coming. Tiffany Gallicano of the University of Oregon commented to my PROpenMic post and shared information on her PRPost blog that some publishers do not see a blog post sharing research being "previously published" and will still consider manuscripts for journal publication. 

So, we might see more professors sharing scientific research results about PR on blogs and in social media venues. It still won't count for much in campus review committees, but it will be in the original spirit of why professors are expected to do research: to inform the profession.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Value of APR

I recently completed a study that shows, among other things, that when PR professionals possess the APR (Accreditation in Public Relations) credential their organization's PR content output is more likely to stress relationships. Here's a summary of the research:

The evaluation of public relations is much discussed in scholarly literature and among practitioners. There often is tension between public relations professionals and their management colleagues about whether public relations can and should be measured in financial terms or whether some aspect of relationships should be evaluated to determine the success of public relations and the organization. This particular tension has not been studied extensively.

The intent of this exploratory study is to determine what role if any public relations plays in the way an organization evaluates itself, as measured by the thematic content of its annual report. Forty-five community foundation annual reports were content analyzed to determine the emphasis on finances vs relationships. Content in the thematic annual report letters from the president and/or board chair was coded by number of sentences with either emphasis. The resulting “relationship ratio” varied among the annual reports studied from 0-5, with a mean of .724 (the higher the number, the greater emphasis on relationships).

Four potential causes (independent variables) of higher relationship content were considered:
  • the existence of a position identified as public relations/communications;
  • the relative power of the PR position as determined by being in an autonomous dept;
  • whether the top PR staff person is accredited (APR);
  • the total asset size of the organization.

    Statistical analysis showed that when an organization has a staff position designated as public relations or communications and when a staff person is accredited in public relations (APR) there is a greater likelihood the organization’s annual report will stress relationships as well as or more than financial metrics. The relative power of the PR function and the asset size of the organization did not appear to cause a difference in relationship content.
  • Monday, January 19, 2009

    The Public (Mis) Perception of PR

    A student asked me before class earlier today about a situation in which a friend called for a "communication specialist" position and said he was a PR major. He was told "that's just spin." When he gave a reasoned rebuttal and definition of PR, he was told, "that's just your spin on it."

    My student, understandably, was frustrated by this. Unfortunately, the equation of PR to spin is not new, and won't go away soon. Ironically, there are others outside our profession who think PR is spin and think that's a good thing (I've had arguments with more than a few of them).

    Here's a quick list of reasons why this public misperception of PR persists:
  • PR people practicing unethically
  • PR people who did not get a thorough education in what PR really is
  • people in other professions--marketing, politics, law, etc--encroaching on our profession and spinning, which is then called "public relations"
  • cultivation of the perception that PR is spin in the news and entertainment media.

    So, what to do about this?

  • Refer to the 6th provision in the PR Code of Ethics: Enhance the Profession. Remember that everything YOU do in public relations affects the reputation of the profession as a whole.
  • Explain what you do and why you do it the way you do to your clients, colleagues, co-workers, dinner guests, family...even cab drivers.
  • Blog about PR, the way it really is
  • Be persnickety--correct people every time they utter throwaway lines like "it's just PR." I do it in faculty meetings every time a colleague from another discipline says that. They expect it now. Be like the English teacher who always corrects grammar.
  • Be honest. Point out that there are people who spin, deceive, and are otherwise unethical. Some of them are PR people. But spin does not define an entire profession--it exhibits the character of one individual.
  • Appeal to reason. If people insist that PR is spin, ask them if they prefer the truth, and the complete truth. And then ask them if it is truthful to stereotype an entire profession based on media image or incomplete information.
  • Speak of your own experience with PR people. In my view, the vast majority I meet in West Michigan are intelligent, honest, and industrious.
  • Enlighten with evidence of how PR provides advocacy for and gives voice to the otherwise unheard in society (does Habitat for Humanity 'spin' when they communicate opportunities for volunteers or request donations?), or how PR people provide access to management that might otherwise be reticent, or how PR people counsel management to listen to, and not just communicate at, a variety of otherwise overlooked publics, etc etc etc.

    Finally, remember to look on the bright side. There are still more jokes about lawyers.
  • Friday, January 16, 2009

    PR to Warm Your Heart, and Toes...

    Too often PR gets a bad name because marketing wants to send out press releases that read like an ad or brochure about a product. But here's a nice example of a West Michigan company making PR hay while it's freezing outside--i.e., they found a genuine news hook for their product line. Check it out at WZZM TV 13.

    Michigan's Anuzis on National GOP Reputation

    Saul Anuzis of Michigan is running to be the new chair of the Republican National Committee. If you look at his appeal for this position, you notice the focus is as much on public relations strategy and tactics as it is on policy. In other words, Anuzis says, the party doesn't need to change its policies and platform so much as to be more effective in communicating them.

    You'll see what I mean when you watch this video of Anuzis making his appeal to be chair. You can learn more by looking at his Web site.

    This is all another reminder that an integral part of politics is public relations, whether people realize that or not. As I told a class yesterday, the value of PR to society is helping people make informed decisions. Regardless of your ideology, you have to agree that getting clear and consistent messages to the people is vital to any political success.

    Shades of Brand Recovery for XRite

    I enjoyed this little piece by Chris Knape of the Grand Rapids Press.

    West Michigan's own XRite, which specializes in all things color related and recently acquired Pantone, is doing a promotion in a New York Gap store to hype the fact that mimosa is the hot new fashion color. They are also doing a mimosa colored t-shirt giveaway with the Grand Rapids Press.

    As executives say, they are leveraging the brands to seek greater reputation for the company this year, after a year of tremendous stock decline (self disclosure: I hold some stock). I like that they are positioning themselves in New York and, while some might think the t-shirt thing is cheezy, they are not neglecting the community in which their HQ is based.

    On a related note, XRite has a gorgeous web presence to demonstrate exactly how global their brand is. Gives me a headache thinking about maintaining updates and keeping the brand ID relatively consistent, but they seem to do it seamlessly.

    Wednesday, January 14, 2009

    West Mich Bank is Case Study for NY Times

    Ionia-based Independent Bank is the focus of an article in today's New York Times about American banks taking bailout money but not extending credit yet to consumers.

    At first blush it might seem like the Great Gray Lady is picking on a West Michigan institution to portray the nation's ill feelings towards banks and other bailout recipients. It would seem like bad publicity for Independent Bank, to be made poster child for an industry in turmoil.

    On the other hand, the bank's officials who are quoted make a good case for themselves. They admit past mistakes, and stress that their caution and prudence with regard to lending in this economy is with the best interest of customers in mind, and perhaps overdue given the collapse of the money markets. There is good information in the article about the fact that Independent Bank IS extending credit to businesses and consumers who show merit that they can be successful.

    One bad moment--Independent Bank Senior Vice President Keith Lightbody is described visiting bank properties in his Mercedes. I'm not going to take that away from him personally, but it is not the best image in an article essentially about belt tightening.

    But the bank redeems itself with this concluding quote from CFO Robert Shuster:

    “There is no stone we won’t turn over to make sure we are good stewards of this money. We feel an enormous responsibility to this Treasury. I am a taxpayer too.”

    Moral of the story--don't fear the media. There could have been an inclination to avoid comment on this story. Instead, Independent Bank made its case. Sure, some might read this article and conclude banks are sitting on taxpayer bailout money. But that was the general opinion before this article came out. Independent Bank took the opportunity to advocate its point of view and let the public make a more informed decision about the issue. I think the bank did a fine job, and I extend them my own "credit" for doing so. I'm sure they'll have enhanced street cred in Ionia as well as Manhattan.

    Saturday, January 10, 2009

    Countywide Customer Service Survey

    Countrywide recently asked me for my feedback as a customer. Since I've always resented that in the mortgage market you don't get to choose to be a customer--you arrange a home loan from a local bank and that loan is sold to big mortgage companies without your consent--I decided to respond to their survey.

    In PR, it is good to listen to feedback from all publics, customers and others. But the real test of legitimate PR is whether such feedback, when negative, is treated honestly as opposed to with some pro forma and defensive response. I'll see.

    Here are my comments for the one open question they included:

    I find it distressing that I never agreed to be a Countrywide customer. My loan was originated locally and sold to Countrywide without my consent.

    It is unconscionable that Countrywide continues to send mail that could be considered predatory even with all the trouble with the housing market, credit, and Mozillo's own troubles.

    Recently I was coldly informed that you did not have proof of my homeowner's insurance. For 10 years I have had the same policy, paid premiums personally and in full on time, and both my agent and the insurance company notified Countrywide of my recent policy continuation. Your letter seemed to 'threaten' me that you would provide lender supplied insurance if I did not act by a certain date--as if I was the one to blame for Countrywide's sloppy service. I seriously suspect this was a ploy to get more business--insurance--from people who do not pay attention to the relentless mail you send out.

    Tuesday, January 06, 2009

    WSJ Repeats Tired Portrait of PR

    A Wall Street Journal book review of "Where's My Fifteen Minutes" by Howard Bragman had me feeling mixed.

    On the one hand, reviewer Toby Young is right to point out that many of Bragman's tips amount to stunts and tricks and actually contradict his introductory statement that good PR people ensure their clients tell the truth. It's people like Bragman, who is a founder of the Entertainment PR firm Bragman Nyman Cafarelli, who continue to perpetuate the notion that PR is all about image. It's striking that the review uses the term "press agent," which is something the profession tried to move away from way back in the 1920s with the efforts of Edward Bernays, Ivy Lee, and Arthur Page, who proposed the term "public relations counsel." Back then the profession was associated with Broadway and used faked kidnappings of actresses and other stunts to get press attention for shows. Lee offered principles for honest media relations. Page was the first VP of public relations at AT&T and still noted for his principles.

    But just as in the 1920s, the media has none of it. Young responds to Bragman's description of PR as an honest profession as "complete rubbish, of course." Of course? Why is there such certainty that ALL PR is ALWAYS bad ALL the time? Why can't Young see that there are PR people who do live up to the ideals of honest, two-way communication used to facilitate mutual relationships?

    Perhaps it's because, as the bionote on his review informs us, he is "currently appearing as a judge on 'Top Chef,' a food reality show on Bravo."

    That might explain why he follows the tried and true recipe for painting the PR profession with a broad brush, setting up straw men, looking at specific anecdotes and drawing general conclusions. He throws out the broth with the bones.

    Bragman's book is laughable for suggesting that the gimmicks used for Hollywood starlets could garner attention for a city councilman in Iowa. The lessons may actually flow the other way.

    But Young's review is laughable for suggesting that Bragman speaks for all of us. Would that this chef had examined the varied ingredients in our broad profession. Unfortunately, his stew of a review has a hint of truth, but is missing something that would make it more satisfying. .

    What PR Students Should Know

    The special "Knowledge" section in the current MiBiz couldn't have been more timely. I brought in copies of several articles and referred to them when speaking to my fundamentals and corporate communications classes this week.

    An article about teaching communications (featuring yours truly) gives a broad overview of PR education and how programs are responding to changes in technology. I talked a long time with reporter Joe Boomgaard so it was interesting to see what he decided to stress.

    There's also an article featuring a panel of WMPRSA members. I shared that with my students as well, stressing the uniform insistence that students understand the difference between PR and marketing and have an ability to write persuasively, among other things.

    It made me feel good that I know and admire the professionals in the roundtable article and have exchanged ideas with them regularly. I think that's a "mutually beneficial relationship" between West Michigan practitioners and professors.