Tuesday, December 06, 2011

When PR is Too Public

A local long-time PR professional shared with me a post he saw on a local reporter's Facebook page.

It started by saying "[Reporter's name] has the BEST PR friends ever." Then it raved, with zeal of a freshman sorority girl, about the gifts received and expected from four named PR professionals.

My friend who sent the message didn't mince words about his reaction to this:

"I miss the days when PR people and journalists maintained some semblance of tension between their respective roles."

It's an interesting thought. Social media has changed much about how the media and PR professionals do their jobs, including the specific PR function known as media relations. There's no doubt that using Facebook and Twitter can enhance the ability to establish and maintain relationships with journalists. Reporters also have opportunity to establish more contacts, enhance their reporting, and make news outlets more personal than institutional.

In short, all the self-appointed social media gurus encourage everyone to be social.

But is it possible that public relations can be too public?

Part of me sees this as an extension of junior high, in which kids talk about who they are hanging out with, not as idle conversation, but to boast and make obvious that other kids are NOT hanging out with them or their really cool friends. Maybe that's not going on, but it leaves that impression.

I also wonder about public reaction. The most important value of publicity is third-party credibility. In other words, if its in the paper or on TV it must be "legitimate" news because it's not just something an organization says about itself. This is also called "uncontrolled" media. 

But if people start seeing stories about the same organizations that reporters have recently cooed about gleefully and transparently in social spaces, especially when it's been about the receipt of gifts, it's not surprising that they would doubt the validity of the story, the reporter, the media outlet and the organization being covered.

It also sends a bad message about public relations, that it's all about schmoozing and manipulation of the media. 

I'm all for the social aspects of social media as applied to any business. But I would hope that does not mean abandoning a sense of professionalism. It might not have to be a 'semblance of tension'  as my friend suggests, but it could at least emphasize actual news value.

If reporters and PR pros want to get into displays of personal affection, they should get a conference room.  

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Jobs and New Media Good News for West Michigan

I received an email yesterday from Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor for Rapid Growth Media, that lifted my spirits. The blast email was to announce expanded job news coverage in the online publication. The expansion launched today in the Innovation and Job News section.

"Our philosophy is this: there may not be many big companies hiring 100 employees, but there might be 100 small businesses creating one job each," Wood explained in the email. "Those businesses are often overlooked as news stories, or the owners are so busy doing the day-to-day they don't think to let us know about their growth."

More than a publication, Rapid Growth has been a cheerleader for the region since its inception. It's not just seeing the positive job news in this economy, and the articles about smaller businesses, that is so uplifting. It's the fact  that a local news outlet is dedicated to constructive coverage. 

A complaint about the mainstream media  has long been the dwelling on scandal and negativity, the "if it bleeds it leads" mentality. Sure, citizens need to be informed  of crime and less  than uplifting news. But the constant barrage of aggregated unemployment numbers don't tell the full story. People need and want to hear about the small scale turnarounds and successes, the entrepreneurs as well as the monoliths. 

That may be partly why Rapid Growth has grown to 30,000 unique visitors  per month, and an email distribution of 15,000, according to publisher Jeff Hill. I would expect that to be a growth story of its own in the months ahead with its good news and the opportunity to peruse 98 jobs available at the moment I write this. It's also encouraging to read about jobs landed--especially when they feature a former student of mine:-)

I realize that the mainstream media has been working to make their coverage  more positive and local as well. But it seems that new media like Rapid Growth, citizen journalism project The Rapidian, and an impressive e-zine from local social media maven StellaFly are leading the way into online, hyper-local, smaller focus, positive news. In a bit of irony, StellaFly recently posted a long feature of Mike Lloyd, the formerly ink-stained and curmudgeonly Grand Rapids Press editor now doing PR for Broadway Grand Rapids.

All of this is good for the news consumers of West Michigan. It's also good in terms of the added outlets for the public relations professionals with small but good stories to share.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Re-Defining Public Relations

An effort is starting today to re-define "public relations" in response to changes in the communication landscape owing largely to social media. The New York Times yesterday had a nice overview of the effort.

A web site to solicit suggested definitions has been opened by the Public Relations Society (and numerous PR association partners) with a word cloud used to show common terms emerging. PRSA hopes to announce an updated definition of "public relations" by the end of the year.

Well, good luck with that! As most introductory textbooks in public relations will point out, there are more than 500 definitions of public relations. There's even a Wiki page of PR definitions to try to make some sense of it all. In fact, talk to anyone practicing PR and they'll seem to have their own definition. I am not entirely unhappy with the "old"definition from Cutlip, Center and Broom in their 1984 textbook: "public relations is the management function that seeks to identify, establish, and maintain mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and all of the publics on whom its success or failure depends." I like this definition because it has all the right emphases--management function (not a tactic), organizations (not just business or agency work), all publics (not just consumers),  mutually beneficial relationships (not just one-way communication). This works even in a social media era.

Nevertheless, I applaud the effort and have already submitted my suggestion. But I'm less interested in a new definition than the attention the effort will get to provide a more accurate view of PR in the minds of several of PR's own "publics." First there are current practitioners, many of whom do not have a degree in PR nor are members of an association. As such they have little knowledge of the breadth of PR, see it as a tactic (i.e. media relations) as opposed to a diverse discipline, and have little comprehension of an ethics code.

In addition to this "internal public," a re-definition effort would hopefully seize the attention and respect of other functions in organizations who, as the academic literature calls it, have "encroached" on public relations functions. Such is the case when lawyers act as spokespersons, or human resources tries to own all employee communications, or marketing tries to steer branding efforts entirely from a consumer  perspective. On the latter point, maybe a new definition could force even some of the industry's own trade  publications to stop referring to public relations as a "marketing discipline" (are you listening PRWeek?).

Of course, the public at large needs to have an accurate picture of public relations, which they currently get from stereotype, criticism of the "spin" of politicians, and popular culture's unflattering insinuations. See my earlier post about PR in pop culture and the public opinion of the profession for more on that point.

As the project progresses, I would hope all contributors also consider the following:
  • History of Defining PR. The term "public relations" first came into popular use in the 1920s. But then, early practitioners like Ivy Lee, Edward Bernays, and Arthur Page worked to move away from being called "press agents" or "publicity men." For example, Lee wrote in a 1917 article in the Electric Railway Journal “The advisor in public relations should be far more than a mere publicity agent." Eleven years later, in a letter to his largest client, John D. Rockefeller, he pointed out that publicity was not his business: "My job is assisting in dealing with the public." In 1927 Edward Bernays took out a full-page ad in the January 29th Editor & Publisher to stress that a practitioner of the budding profession be called "Counselor on Public Relations" whose job could be described as "he interprets the client to the public and the public to his client." So, in an era when radio was "new media," practitioners were broad minded in defining PR. (See more about the history of PR and its description in my paper "First Impressions: Media Portrayals of Public Relations in the 1920s" in the Journal of Communication Management.) So, I hope the new definition will have a long view, both backwards and forwards, and not just respond to the social media moment.
  • Philosophy vs. Tactic.  I've had arguments with PR bloggers like the appropriately named Strumpette who say "PR is media  relations because that's what the client pays for." Maybe for some, but far from true for all. Note that Strumpette's last post was in 2008. It lasted a long time with that publicity definition given what Lee said in 1928. I hope the new definition will emphasize the philosophy of mutual relationships with multiple stakeholders and not get bogged down in tactical duties. 
  • Aspirational, not Empirical. A definition of a field like public relations should not be merely empirical, i.e. based on observations of what its practitioners actually do. Instead, it should be aspirational in the sense of  setting the bar high and encouraging anyone who dares to call themselves a public relations practitioner to hew to that definition, and not drag the definition down. Lots of so-called "PR professionals" are doing it wrong, either by lack of ethics or limited scope. We need a definition to enable a separation of professionals from pretenders.
  • Breadth of the Field. Defining public relations will be a challenge because of the diversity of the field. For that reason it will necessarily have to be in general terms. The breadth could be considered in three ways: 1) roles.  Different PR professionals perform different roles at different times for different clients and in different organizations. These roles include boundary spanning, relationship management, public information disseminator, and vary from tactical technician to managerial counsel.  2) models. Roles could also be considered as models of PR. The classic four models of PR from James Grunig are publicity, public information, two-way asymmetrical, and two-way symmetrical. 3) sectors. While some indicate PR is all about business, or only practiced by agencies, the reality is that PR practitioners are plentiful in all three labor sectors: private (business), non-profit, and government. So I hope a new definition is inclusive of all the ways and contexts PR professionals can and will practice the profession.
I'd be interested in your thoughts on defining PR as well.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Media Use of Twitter

A PR manager in West Michigan emailed me this morning to ask my opinion about the recent study by the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism about how media organizations are using Twitter. Her question came from commentary about the study on the Gigaom blog.

My own opinion about this is long and nuanced. I have read the Pew report and others like it, as well as some that contradict it, albeit the latter are anecdotal or prescriptive in nature. Just yesterday I also read the latest Journalism & Communication Monographs (subscription required), published by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC). This monograph (i.e. extra lengthy article) is based on participant observation in newsrooms and focus groups with news consumers. The theme of the article is that news is moving from product to process, and while there is variance in how newsrooms respond to this, it is still true that many reporters resist new social media aspects of their jobs as "more work." I have some sympathy for this. When I was reporter (before even the Internet, much less social media), the news process involved some research and interviewing, writing and revision, and then sending a finished piece on deadline to the appropriate editor. Then you were done and on to the next assignment. Today, reporters are expected to actually pay attention to comments about their work, respond to those comments, write blog posts as well as articles, update articles they thought were done to keep the web site and app fresh, and so on. 

That may be why in general media organizations as well as individual reporters tend to use Twitter primarily to tweet headlines with link to main story. I also suspect the author of the Gigaom blog is right to assert that these tweets are primarily automated.  A recent view of my own Twitter news list shows a handful of media--local and national, mainstream and online--tend to basically tweet headlines.

I couldn't find any examples at the moment, but I know a few reporters who have conversations with readers, solicit story ideas or information for story ideas, and respond to audience comments on Twitter and Facebook and in comment sections of web sites. The GRPressNews  tweet above is not bad in that it touts a "live chat" and not just an article--at least the 'old' media is using some new tools. 

But they could do more, which is what we in PR call 'engagement.' I think that is starting to happen, and will happen more. But change takes time, and this change is a big one. It is a paradigm shift where, in business and economic terms, every aspect of the journalistic process is changing: the "production" process in which news starts on a blog or tweet and not always initiated by a journalist or news release, the move from news as "product" to "process" or even service that is ongoing versus single transaction, the "supply chain" of contributors to a story including comments, the "distribution channels" which are not just trucks and antennae but sharing sites, re-tweets, aggregators and readers and so forth.

The changes we're seeing in media, the migration to online, in everything from the New York Times to the Detroit News to the Grand Rapids Press, may accelerate not just where but how news is produced. And that will require a cultural change inside newsrooms. The subject of news routines is well explained in the 1997 book "Social Meanings of News" by Dan Berkowitz. A sequel came out last year, "Cultural Meanings of News," which may already need an update.

Everyone, not just reporters, have to get used to this idea, and the related concept that communication is not one-way, not even two-way, but multi-staged group conversation. I was thinking just recently about all the "extra work" I do just as a news consumer to organize, aggregate, curate and share content. It used to be you read one or two newspapers, listened to the radio in your car, watched a little TV news at home at night and that was it. But with all the freedom and choice afforded "news consumers" comes the responsibility as well.

Public relations professionals also have a ways to go. The trades are full of stories and studies showing how many people only tweet headlines to news releases, or link back to product pages. Other studies show how few corporations or nonprofits have blogs, Twitter and Facebook pages and other active social media sites. The learning curve is there for all of us.

But given what I mentioned above, the resounding mantra is that "every organization is a media organization." That means everyone has content that they are putting out there on all the hot channels and platforms, including Twitter. But, if everyone indeed is doing that, that means to get audience share you have to do more, and that means engagement not mere distribution. That means having conversations, not making proclamations. The media and everyone else needs to re-read the 'Cluetrain Manifesto.'

What interests me most is the 'old' (1962) Jurgen Habermas notion of the public sphere and how social media is making the concept more relevant and popular again. The news media has less control and is more of a participant in the public discussion of issues  of our day. In fact, there are several new organizations set up on this topic, including the Public Sphere Guide and the Public Sphere Project. You can engage with them on Twitter or play their Facebook games :-)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Media Morbidity in West Michigan?

Maybe it's the Halloween season, but two events I attended last week seemed to have a morbid view of media. First there was the AimWest event with the teasing title "What Has Happened to Journalism?"  The very next day, the West Michigan Chapter of PRSA hosted its monthly luncheon on the subject "Is the Press Release Dead?"

Cue the scary music. Do the zombie walk.

What Happened to Journalism?
AimWest bills itself as an interactive organization, so the panelists discussion of journalism, prompted by moderator Bob Taylor, was in that frame. It was a good discussion, with lots of audience interaction. And far from being gloomy, I would say the discussion was straightforward and even exciting. The event could have been named 'What IS Happening to Journalism.'

A few of the common themes that came out:

  • journalism is moving from 'gatekeeper' model to sharing system;
  • related to the first point, news is not so much a product, but a process as the story never ends with comments, replies, updates etc.;
  • social media provides a 'first draft of history' these days, but MSM (mainstream media) provides the authoritative second draft;
  • there are things to do first and things to get right--the reputation of professional journalism is at stake, and lots of things on social media are not correct;
  • citizen journalism does not replace MSM but it does fill gaps, it's more inside-out from the community than outside-in to the community;
  • MSM has a form of responsibility in the public sphere to correct bad information, not in the sense of policing the blogs, but in sharing factual information when they have it;
  • individual journalists have personalities and unique audience as much or more than the institutions they work for because of social media;
I would add that there are still a few 'scary' things about journalism in the current environment. These don't apply to all media outlets, but there is ample evidence of journalists doing less reporting and more 'curating' and 'aggregating' other content. This is done for economic reasons, but a long-term view would say such weak repackaging is less of a service, and therefore less value, for media consumers. Also, the stories that are reported can often be done for financial reasons, called "market-driven" journalism, in which the news is still seen as product to be sold and not information of democratic or personal value to citizens. 

My own question about the notion in public relations that all companies or organizations should be 'media organizations' (i.e. provide original content directly to the public vs via MSM) was answered in typical fashion from journalists--that the public will trust a third-party journalist more than claims from a company. True to a point--but my own research shows that the nature of information, the interests of the consumer, and the prior reputation of the organization are equal factors. In many cases the MSM does not report certain subjects, and they may not do so thoroughly, so the public satisfies its need to particular information from a company, nonprofit, or government web site, YouTube channel, Facebook page, blog or Twitter account.

Is the Press Release Dead?
Meanwhile, at the WMPRSA event, I was  delighted to learn that the press release is not dead. (Please note sarcasm intended). Of course, when the presented is from Business Wire, one can expect that intimations of death of its primary product are intentionally exaggerated to boost attendance. 

I would say the theme here is that the press release is alive in the sense that most journalists still say it is a primary source of news. But some, maybe even many, news releases are walking zombies. In other words, they need more life in them, using the new interactive tools available, such as multimedia options for actualities as MP3 files, video embeds, hyperlinks throughout the release, and the whole thing written with SEO (search engine optimization) in mind. We teach all this in our media relations class at GVSU, so it was good to hear the affirmation. 

Business Wire, PR Newswire, PitchEngine and other service providers can help PR pros do this. But it is also possible to do yourself in an online newsroom, getting some help from IT or using a simple blog or other CMS option. Although, I met the president of PitchEngine at the PRSA Conference earlier this month, and the basic service is free! 

The point is, you'll see "the press release is dead" as event titles and ranting blog posts again and again. The thing to remember is the press release is still a useful tool, IF you use it well. And it can be more alive if PR pros take advantage of multiple tools that make it more interesting not only to journalists but the public directly as they engage your organization online and in social media. For proof of this, pay attention to the advanced measurement tools that come with using multimedia and interactive press releases. It might add some life to the way your clients and bosses see the value of media relations as part of what PR people do.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ford Follows Up, Gives Better 'Focus'

I blogged in an earlier post about a Ford PR event in Grand Rapids that didn't seem to go too well. I subsequently followed up about how a Ford PR representative reached out to me and offered to visit campus.

That happened yesterday, when Dan Pierce, Environmental Communications Manager for Ford, and engineer Mike Tinskey, who manages Ford's electric vehicle program, came to our Allendale campus with a prototype of the Ford Focus Electric and ample time to spend with some of our Advertising and PR students.

Pierce talked to students about internships at Ford in our student study, then spent some time outside with Tinskey talking to students about the vehicle. From 6-8:30, more than a dozen students took in a presentation about electric vehicle technology and Ford's broad communications strategy with this emerging product category. The students did as much talking as Pierce and Tinskey.

Garret Ellison of the Grand Rapids Press was both outside and in the presentation. You can read his account. As for me, I'll share just a few PR lessons learned in an event that happily lasted longer than I anticipated:

  • Ford recognizes the variance among publics and its "Power of Choice" campaign is designed to let consumers decide between battery only electric vehicle, plug-in hybrid, or gas-electric hybrid. 
  • Timeframe is important in PR campaigns. They acknowledge the need to reach early adopters and allow the popularity of electric vehicles to grow. They showed data and charts that illustrate slow initial growth that is starting to accelerate.
  • PR people have to think holistically. Pierce repeatedly pointed to Tinskey as an example of working with engineers and other internal publics. He also noted that the campaign needs to consider partnerships with companies that make charging equipment, addressing concerns of utility companies and government leaders and many other considerations beyond just sales pitch to consumers.
  • Messaging is important and must be tailored but sometimes a "shotgun" approach of multiple messages is necessary and strategic to reach diverse psychographic differences in a new product category.
  • This blogging thing can lead to great campus visits for students :-)
The best part was hearing the students' smart questions, hearing Pierce and Tinskey tell me how impressed they were with the students, and watching students show off their PR campaign plan books and resumes. Being taken by Tinskey for a short ride in the vehicle afterwards was pretty cool too. My '99 internal combustion looks dated now.

In the end, I'd like to think Ford and the GVSU School of Communications have charged up a positive relationship.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Media Partnerships and PR

At first glance you might think "The Business Times of Northwest Ottawa County" is a bold new journalistic venture. Not exactly.

The new publication is a partnership between the Chamber of Grand Haven, Spring Lake, and Ferrysburg and the Grand Haven Tribune. A Tribune article recently explained the new partnership.

There's no doubt such a partnership has mutual benefits. The Chamber is using the design and production capabilities of a local daily newspaper to upgrade the look of its former newsletter, the "Beacon." Distribution is also a positive from this partnership, with the chamber tucking its piece into the local paper and reaching 28,000 subscribers as opposed to maintaining their own list and mailing process.

Meanwhile, the Tribune gets content and revenue. There's no doubt the Chamber is paying an insertion fee for the privilege of distributing their branded material in the Tribune. The publication also takes advertising. Also, in this era of struggling media, it's a great way for the Tribune to deliver more business related news to its subscribers, provided by Chamber members and others not on the newspaper's payroll.

This is just another example of such media partnerships in this era of shrinking media budgets and staff. The Grand Rapids Press added a health section a year ago to provide more locally focused health coverage from both reporters and staff of area health institutions. The Press also partnered recently with citizen journalism outlet the Rapidian in a series of "hunger challenge" articles.

But in all the win-win for papers and partners, what about the public and public relations practitioners?

Sure, this is a great PR opportunity for hospitals and chambers and other organizations who can use these partnerships to guarantee coverage of their issues and news. But lost in seizing these opportunities may be the realization that this is a transition from "earned" to paid media, or uncontrolled to controlled media. Earned or uncontrolled media means a PR practitioner had to convince a hard-working and appropriately skeptical journalist of the news value of their content. Paid or controlled media means an organization gets to place content verbatim in the space  it has purchased as advertising.

These partnerships may be a middle ground. The Press and Tribune both show some editorial involvement. But one has to wonder what the public thinks. The key advantage of earned media is not just that it is not paid for, but that it has third-party credibility. In other words, the public is less likely to believe and trust something they know has been paid for or controlled by whoever is presenting the information. They are more likely to believe  something if they sense it has been verified by an objective outside person, also known as a journalist.

What this means for those engaging in media partnerships is caution is in order. It will be a mistake to think that achieving reach and "getting the word out" is enough. It will be how such ventures are carried out, with transparency, honesty, and credibility that will not only reach people but inform and influence them.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Ford Friends Me

My previous post "Fords Lost PR Focus" generated some attention from Ford. A Ford representative emailed me shortly after my post appeared asking to speak to me on the phone to clarify some things I alluded to about the Ford Focus event in downtown Grand Rapids.

I had thought the Ford PR team was on top of social media monitoring to respond to little ol' me so quickly. But it turned out that a friend of mine who works in PR in Detroit, and used to work for Ford, forwarded my blog post to a VP there and it eventually got to Dan Pierce, the Global Environmental Communication Manager, who contacted me.

Chris Knape, meanwhile, told me no one from Ford had followed up as promised to answer his questions.

As Pierce explains it, the event was not intended to be a consumer event. The Ford Focus Electric is not out of production yet and they don't want to offer consumer test drives until it is and they can make the right first impression. Those invited to the event were representatives of utilities, governmental units, and other early adopters such as hybrid owners who are interested in the concept and prototype before the release. While they didn't stop Grand Valley students and others who happened by from looking, they did not have a drive-able car at this event. The consumer events will come later this year when the car is out of production.

As for Knape's questions going unanswered, apparently there was one official spokesman at the event and that person was surrounded by TV and other media in the scrum that followed the official remarks. Still not good for first impressions to ignore the local business editor in any market in my opinion, but I'll let you decide for yourself.

Meanwhile, the discussion I had with Pierce proved productive and a good example of PR fence mending. He's offered to come to GVSU next month with a prototype car and an engineer to talk about it. Then he will address a group of PR students about promoting an all electric vehicle, sustainability and environmental communication. My students from last winter's Fundamentals of PR courses are already getting out their plan books to show their own ideas on promoting the Ford Focus Electric to a college student market.

More to come.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Some Quick and Dirty PR Lessons on Quikster and Quixtar

The split of Netflix into streaming video and a new DVD service called Quikster has grabbed attention on blogs and Twitter lately. See this post on Ragan.com as an example.

Here are some PR lessons learned, including a West Michigan angle:

  • Apologies should be sincere and address what is really upsetting people. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings posted an "apology" that didn't address the price increase that upset consumers.
  • PR is about two-way relationships, and had Netflix grasped this and learned in advance with on-going dialogue or basic research of consumer brand and price attitudes they may have avoided this crisis.
  • PR involves dealing with multiple publics. Consumers being upset about price led to lots of them bailing which led to a 19% stock drop. Investors are people too. This is why consumers should not just be left to marketing and investors to investor relations or finance pros. PR people should be at the management table advising their management colleagues from all sides about how actions and words affect multiple publics. Some call this "integrated marketing communication"; I call it basic PR and common sense.
  • Name changes don't change perceptions or behavior. Splitting from Netflix to Netflix and Quikster is done for internal reasons. It is not convenient, easy, or better in any way for consumers. 
  • Short-term decisions can lead to long-term brand damage. Notice how Amway and Quixtar are recalled by the Ragan writer? Quixtar re- re-branded recently back to Amway because the name change never worked. But the move--again which probably seemed good internally--backfired consistently. 
Wise leadership and smart PR do not usually come from making quick decisions. They are evidenced by listening, pondering consequences, and managing relationships vs merely the bottom line. It's better all the way around to be patient and clean than quick and dirty.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Ford's Lost PR Focus

My Fundamentals of Public Relations students should have been consulted.

In several of our PR classes at GVSU, we take on "clients" for whom students do PR projects relevant to the class content. In upper level classes, these are clients in the community. In the fundamentals class I have usually taken on a client from an on-campus entity to keep the scale and target public simpler for this introductory level class.

But last winter, I was coming off  sabbatical and had not had a chance to recruit an on-campus client. So I took an idea from the newspaper and had students create a PR  campaign plan book that sought to persuade college students that the Ford Focus Electric set to debut  was a great concept and a car they should eventually buy.

The key word  there was  'eventually.' My students themselves emphasized that, after doing research that showed a number of what we call 'barriers to persuasion.' Their peer students at GVSU and around the country had 'range anxiety,' or a fear of being unable to recharge when they needed to. They also wondered if the power would be adequate. Some felt that using electricity derived from coal wasn't really "green" so what's the point. Others were put off by the anticipated cost, mechanical upkeep, and other questions the students had to address in their communication tactics.

The campaign was complicated when Ford delayed the release of the Focus. So students smartly (with some of my counsel) focused the campaign on building brand and product category awareness and appreciation now for eventual purchase when the product is rolled out and when current college students have incomes that they can afford it.

My students came up with a variety of good ideas. Good in the sense that they were based on research and employed strategy grounded in theory. For example, the "diffusion of innovations" theory would indicate that "observability" and "trialability" are key when getting people to accept a new concept. So having students drive a Ford Focus around campus, and allowing other students to test drive it, was a popular strategy.

All of this came back when I read Grand Rapids Press Business Editor Chris Knape's review of a Ford Focus PR event last week in downtown Grand Rapids. After some prepared remarks, the Focus event lost focus. Knape points out:

  • Ford representatives were unable to answer basic questions, like the natural objections my students had uncovered;
  • there was no actual vehicle to test drive, just a mock-up that Ford representatives cautioned GVSU students who attended to not touch;
  • Knape concludes the event "brought little new information to the market;"
I agree. I wouldn't go so far as to call this Ford event a "stunt," which implies sleight of hand or bait and switch to get people out. But it was  a poorly done PR event primarily because it seemed to favor image over substance. The value of events are exactly what Ford  was unprepared for--live and therefore more persuasive interaction with your publics, hands-on interaction of consumers with product. Apparently, the Ford  people were stunned that an event is not "controlled media." I am in turn stunned by this. If any persuasion happened it is that the Ford Focus Electric should not be a consideration when young people buy a vehicle in the next few years.

My students would have been surprised too. Ford should have consulted with them. The wisest advice they could have given Ford would have been to do some research and have answers to common and reasonable questions as well as an actual product on hand. Otherwise, they should wait. 

The market won't be ready for your product until your product (and your PR staff) is ready for market.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Poll Dancing: PR's Perceived Image

A new Gallup poll, as reported in PR Daily, reveals that more people have a negative view of  PR and advertising. Such polls about the public's view of PR  and other professions are common. That PR is viewed "negatively" is also not unusual. But that's the quick conclusion and not the full story.

First of all, a little critical thinking about polls, which are often taken as gospel or solid science but are really a mere snapshot. First, this  poll could have a context effect in that PR is considered along side  other professions. Is this a valid view of PR or one relative to other professions?

Also, PR and advertising are lumped  together. While the professions overlap (our major at GVSU combines them), the public view of each may be different.

The scale--positive, neutral, negative--also indicates  this is not a real measure of attitudes about the various professions. Mere positive/negative reaction is not an indicator of valence, or strength of opinion. The high neutrals  on most responses could indicate a lack of knowledge. Put yourself in a survey-takers position: are you positive/neutral/negative on the "retail industry"? I worked in a grocery store during high school and college and I shop for groceries--I have no idea what my opinion is about the grocery industry. Far more people have experiences with groceries than they do with PR, so on what basis do they rate PR?

That's the biggest question, which goes unanswered in this poll--what are the CAUSES of public opinion about PR. I can answer  that a bit from other research.

This summer I was part  of a panel at the annual Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in St. Louis discussing "PR in Pop Culture." The panel was based off the work of Joe Saltzman who directs the Image of the Journalist in Pop Culture (IJPC) at  the University of Southern California. Professor Saltzman also completed an impressive and comprehensive DVD of the portrayal of PR in movies and television. Others on the panel shared their own research on PR's image in broadcast entertainment as well as novels. Essentially, public relations has been portrayed negatively or incompletely over the years. However, the researchers did say it was getting better more recently. But we can conclude that the entertainment media stereotypes of PR is a partial cause of the public's perception.

Lots  of other research shows that the news media doesn't give fair shake to the reality of what PR people do. Journalists typically encounter only the media relations aspect  of the job and tend to portray that as the full story. They are also prone to describing PR with negative cliche such as "stunt" or "gimmick," or they diminish the value of PR by saying "just" PR or "mere" PR.

However, while media cultivation theory would say this affects the public's view about PR, a recent academic study shows it's not so bad. Respondents to a telephone survey viewed PR as having an important role in society and disagreed that it is damage control or an attempt to hide something. They did see it as primarily media relations, but at least the view wasn't mostly negative as the recent Gallup poll suggests.

As I noted on the panel about PR in pop culture, public attitudes are not usually strong. People with no real understanding or experience with PR answer the survey because they were asked to and quickly select an easy response, often with little considered thought. Because attitudes are not strong, they also are not stable--they can change quickly. I've witnessed this more  than once, such as when a colleague in a faculty meeting comments that something they saw was "just PR" and then after the meeting asks me if one of my students can help them promote something they're working on. It's like people who are critical of lawyers until they need one.

So the lesson is don't get too emotional about these polls. Maybe what we need is a poll about the public's attitude about polls.

Finally, if you want to help improve the public's education and therefore  perception of the PR profession, I have two suggestions:

  • Get a copy of the book "It's Not Just PR" and route it through your office and share it or recommend it to friends;
  • Pay attention to PRSA's campaign "The Business Case for Public Relations" and participate as you can by sharing information with colleagues in your organization or with your clients. Rosanna Fisk (@Fiskey on Twitter), a fellow panelist  with me in St. Louis, is leading this effort.

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Gregarious Introvert on Social Media

"Happy New Year." That's what they say this time of year on college campuses, as a new academic year begins. Since we're appropriating a phrase from January I thought I may as well engage in a tradition undertaken at the beginning of the calendar year and make a new year's resolution.

Here it is: I will be less social.

I've already gotten started over this past summer. It seems a paradox, that with more time on my hands I've engaged in social media less. But during the school year, when the frenetic demands of a professor's responsibility require my being almost constantly plugged in, monitoring and contributing to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn etc. is a natural extension. But in the summer, a time when I enjoy being offline, outside, and more heavily into literature that exceeds 140 character bursts, I have found it easy to be absent from the surge of status updates, the legions of links, the torrent of tweets.

I have also found it delightful, refreshing, and increasingly, necessary.

A university administrator complimented me late last year by saying my extroverted nature made me well suited for additional administrative responsibilities. My first thought was that when administrators compliment you like this, it generally precedes more work. But more importantly, I wondered how it came to be that I am considered an extrovert.

There are two common misconceptions about extroverts and introverts. One is the definition, that extroverts like to be around other people and introverts like to be alone. Not true. In fact, it's not about liking other people or not, but the manner of drawing and renewing energy. Extroverts get charged up by social interaction, and introverts regain energy with time alone. The second misconception is that people are either one or the other, when the reality is that people fall at many points along an extraversion-intraversion continuum. In other words, people have bits of both characteristics to differing degrees.

It's interesting to me how this may play out on social media. The most active tweeters and updaters and commenters may be those closer  to the extraversion end of the scale. This is something for PR professionals with social media responsibility to think about as you engage and segment your publics online.

As for me, I have determined I'm an interesting blend, a 'gregarious introvert.' I truly enjoy social interaction. But at the same time I need more time alone. Maybe I should make the lyrics to "Cool Change" by the Little River Band my mantra, or my ringtone.

It was an unintentional experiment this summer that led me to this conclusion about myself. I dove into a stack of books, both novels and academic tomes. I did projects in the yard. My daily runs were longer. I spent more time on a kayak or bike than in the office. I had more lengthy conversations with my wife (who, by the way, is one of the most social people I know but who so far has refused a Twitter or Facebook account). In all the above activities, I checked email and therefore social media less frequently.

The shocking outcome? I am the better for it. I felt both more calm and more energetic. I felt my thought processes improved.

Actually, this should not be a surprise. The benefits of solitude and deep cognitive activity have long been advocated. Here are a few examples:

I notice now that I've been getting back into the swing of things that social media of course has many advantages in terms of information flow and maintaining distant relationships. But it also has a dangerous negative effect in its cacophony of childish voices. At the beach recently I saw children screaming "watch me!" and then they would do something entirely unremarkable and receive their parents' effusive yet obligatory praise. Too often, that's social media. I found much greater benefit being alone atop a dune, getting reacquainted with my inmost thoughts and true self. In view of the Lake Michigan horizon, the words of the ancient psalmist floated through the modern clutter: "be still, and know that I am God." Indeed, what don't we hear when we think we're "engaged"?

So, Happy New Year. After a brief summer break, you'll be seeing me more active again in blogging, tweeting, Facebooking and other forms of media and personal interaction. But I will also seek more balance and time offline. I'll be thinking deep thoughts, reading long texts, and recharging myself. I know I'll be better for it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Grand Rapids Should Market Its True Population, and Image

This week's Grand Rapids Business Journal asks in a page one article (subscription required) "Is it legal to market GR as being larger?"

Whenever someone asks is it "legal" my ethical red flags start to flutter.

At issue for the city of Grand Rapids is whether to tout itself as having a population of 602,622, which is the number of residents in Kent County. This would be as opposed to describing itself as having a population of 188,040, which is the number of human beings who live within the actual city limits.

This is a question?!

All of this is related to the ongoing One Kent Coalition debate about merging municipalities with Kent County as one larger and more marketable entity. If those who promote Grand Rapids say the city has more than 600,000 residents they would be in league with places like Boston and Baltimore. The idea is to attract employers and conferences to a city with a more impressive number.

Here's why they should not do so:

  • It's not true, not even "technically" so. Do I have to explain this more?
  • Long-term thinking is better. Fudging the numbers is short-term thinking that people will be attracted to Grand Rapids. Long-term thinking considers what happens when site planners, business leaders, convention planners and so on find out the 600,000 was the COUNTY and not the CITY? Probably they'll feel disappointment, have a sense of being swindled, and collectively experience the long-term reputation damage of Grand Rapids trying to present itself as something it's not. Saying that the numbers are "technically" true or "legal" to report that way mean nothing to someone who feels duped, and in fact add to the insult.
  • There are other sources of information. Government and business directories can easily give the true population figures. When objective and credible third-party information is that far off from marketing materials, it is not a good thing. 

A better idea would be to honestly state the facts and then give the context. The heart of the PRSA Code of Ethics is that PR enables "informed decision making"--not inflating the information. A marketing brochure or web site could indicate that the fact that the City of Grand Rapids has a population of 180,000 and then provide the context that the total population of Grand Rapids and surrounding suburbs and other areas in Kent County total more than 600,000. Copy could also address other factors beyond mere  numbers, such as quality of work force, education, accommodations, attractions and quality of life. Target publics would then be fully and honestly informed. Imagine that.

Honesty has long been said to be the best policy. It's also best in marketing and public relations, where long-term thinking and relationships yield the best return. That's why PR is about reflecting an actual image, not creating an illusory one. Those who promote Grand Rapids should think about that before they earn a bad reputation.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Whirlpool Represents West Michigan in 2011 PRSA Bronze Anvil Winners

Benton Harbor based Whirlpool has won a Bronze Anvil in the 2011 awards given annually by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).  The home appliance manufacturer is the only West Michigan winner in this years list of awards.

Bronze Anvil awards recognize excellence in public relations tactics, ranging from media relations to annual reports, web sites, social media and other communication tools.

PRSA also gives Silver Anvil awards each year to recognize the best in comprehensive  campaigns in a variety of categories. There were no West Michigan winners on the 2011 list of Silver Anvil winners.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why Did Perkins Slam the Door?

The closure of Perkins Restaurants, including a half dozen here in West Michigan as well as 65 around the country, happened suddenly. A total of 2,500 employees showed up for work to find locked doors and a closure notice.

The restaurant chain has reasons for the large number of store closures. The Wall Street Journal reports they have filed for bankruptcy after struggling like everyone else in this economy. But a business that bills itself as 'family' -- Perkins Family Restaurant and Bakery -- may have seemed a little dysfunctional in closing its doors  to workers without warning. These are the people who tend to work paycheck to paycheck, and a little lead time would seem to be the compassionate deed in a 'family' business.

However, we've seen this sort  of thing before. When Cracker Barrel closes stores, including the one on Alpine near I-96 in Grand Rapids a few years ago, it was also done by note on the door. In retail, decisions like these are often made based on market share, competitive analysis and same-store sales (those that have been open more than a year and are not enjoying sales simply because they are new). It's a business, and it makes no sense to stay open if there's no profit.

But from a PR standpoint, how a business closes would seem to matter. Unfortunately, relationships have two sides. I know an investor in Cracker Barrel who was told at an annual meeting that when they used to announce store closures in advance they would see a rash of employees simply not show up as they looked for new jobs, many of them took store property with them on the way.

So, the sudden closures have become the norm to prevent further erosion of assets from employee shoplifting and reputation damage from bad customer service when employees don't show up.

It's unfortunate from a public relations perspective that a relationship with employees needs to be terminated so abruptly. The spokeswoman for Perkins was vague in statements given to local media about the closings and care for employees. I would hope that, after the fact and behind the scenes, management is giving employees some severance pay, and maybe a chance to say goodbye to each other. "Closure" has different connotations when it comes to relationships, and business reputation depends on that as well.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Grand Rapids Lip Dub and PR Value

There's no doubt the Grand Rapids lip dub video made a big splash. It set records for YouTube hits and garnered an impressive amount of media coverage both locally and nationally. A casual observer would conclude this is fantastic for Grand Rapids.

Certainly there's much to like about it. In fact, the video was almost as good as the one done last fall by the film/video students and faculty in the Grand Valley State University School of Communications (he said without any bias whatsoever).

But a critical PR mind goes beyond the "all publicity is good publicity" simplicity commonly attributed to circus showman PT Barnum. What will all this lib dub hubbub really do for Grand Rapids? There are a couple of questions to consider:

  • Awareness, attitude, action. I call these the 3 As of public relations measurement, whether from media relations or any other PR activity. There is no doubt the lip dub generated awareness, but is it changing attitudes? Maybe, but most of the comments are about the video itself and not necessarily a resulting positive perception of the city. You also have to wonder what people know about Grand Rapids beyond the few downtown scenes--maybe the video will be a catalyst to read more, and social media no doubt will have influence. Finally, will the lib dub result in desired actions by key publics, such as more business and tourist visits to the city? Possibly, but not necessarily.
  • Exposure, outcome, engagement. These are other levels of measurement in PR, similar  to the ones above. Exposure is what has most people excited because of the record number of views and media coverage. Outcome can broken down into the 3 As mentioned above--what was the result of the exposure? Lots of people saw the video, but so what? Engagement has to do with feedback and longevity. Is the city--it's government, businesses, institutions etc.--having on-going dialogue with publics with whom it has not previously interacted, through social media and other means. 
  • Tone, accuracy. Most of the coverage  I have seen has been positive. National media figures give kudos to Grand Rapids for responding to Newsweek calling it a 'dying city' and forcing the magazine to concede it erred. It's a good narrative. Others just liked the video and thought Grand Rapids looked like a great city. But it's always good to not just count clippings--you have to see what all that media is actually saying. Accuracy is another issue--Roger Ebert paid a great compliment to the video but referred to CEDAR Rapids--he corrected his error later. But it shows how messages don't always penetrate intact. Speaking of which, what was the message? Did it get through? To whom? 
  • Lasting effect, brand. Research shows us that attitudes are fickle, subject to change from positive to negative. They are also short-lived, receding to a latent or unconscious state quickly. Sure, we're all the rage now. But in a week or a month the views of the video and the media  reports about it will dwindle, and talk will move quickly to dogs dining in a restaurant or some other meme or amusement. That's why many say initial publicity helps build a brand but ongoing public relations activity is needed to maintain it, whether that be more videos, links from existing on-line presence, social media continuity, or a paid advertising campaign that piggybacks off the lip dub attention. But then you have to wonder what the brand is: "Grand Rapids = American Pie"? "Grand Rapids = The City That Did a Lip Dub"? A strategy is needed to integrate this video with ArtPrize, the entrepreneurial business environment, the medical mile and other aspects of the city's brand.
The last scene in the video was "Experience Grand Rapids" spelled out on the lawn of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum as viewed from a helicopter. I wouldn't be surprised if the staff over there will dovetail measuring the effect of the lip dub with all their other efforts to promote the city.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Enhancing the Profession Means Educating Journos About PR

I think it started when I was president of the West Michigan Chapter  of PRSA back in 2004. Among the broader goals for the organization from the national level was one to advocate for the profession of public relations, or, to take a line from the PRSA Code of Ethics, to "enhance the profession."

I took that seriously, not just because I was in local chapter leadership at the time, but because I think the issue of the perception of the PR profession is important. So I took action that year, including have a joint WMPRSA-Grand Rapids Economics Club meeting which featured a speaker on Corporate Social Responsibility. The idea was to show that PR is something more than what is typically demonized as intentional deception or minimized as mere publicity.

Since then I've tried to respond whenever possible when PR is mischaracterized. This could mean speaking up in a faculty meeting with my beloved colleagues from other majors in the GVSU School of Communications. It has also included commenting on specific media portrayals of PR such as a recent article in TIME magazine that I discussed in an earlier post on this blog. I've also traced the origins of media portrayals of PR in an article in the Journal of Communication Management. In August I will participate in a panel discussion about the media image of PR at the annual convention of the Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC).

So this week, when I read an article in Columbia Journalism Review, a collaboration with ProPublica, purporting to give yet another investigative insight into the profession, I had to respond with a comment. That was noticed by a few people, one of whom is an editor at PR Daily who asked me to edit the comment as an op-ed for today's edition, which I gladly did. You can read that comment here.

I was most delighted to read additional comments from other PR practitioners and professors. PR is a diverse profession, with an impressive array of talents and perspectives. But if there's anything that is in common among the majority, it is that the media, while right to point out bad apples, do a disservice to the profession and the public when they focus ONLY on that and insinuate that PR is defined by the few. It's akin to pointing out pornography and saying "that's photography."

Part of "enhancing the profession" means we all have to make sure our own work is honest, ethical and a service to society as well as the organizations we serve. The more positive examples of PR there are, the better reflection on the profession. But when so much good work is ignored in favor of sensational discussion of a few episodes of bad practice, we all must speak out not just for ourselves, but the profession as a whole. I hope to see even more PR pros engaging the media and public not just for their clients, but for the profession. And while academics don't get many points for publishing in non-academic periodicals, I am happy to see an increase in the number of  professors engaging trade publications and mainstream media to offer an honest perspective on public relations.

Friday, April 22, 2011

When TV Stations Do PR

The whole episode of the sudden departure of longtime WOOD TV 8 anchor Suzanne Geha from the air this week is interesting for several reasons. But mostly, its interesting because of the hilarious hypocrisy and bad form of a local TV station handling public relations so badly.

People forget that while they know TV 8 and other media entities as "the media" and consider them a special institution in society, they are nothing more than another business. Their product is news, or actually, a platform for advertisers to reach potential customers--news is just the hook to draw viewers to entice advertisers.

So, as in many other cases, it all boils down to the money. Geha and the off-camera managers couldn't agree on a contract, and she was sent to the curb with the recycling.

But what is most interesting is how badly WOOD TV 8 managed the public relations of what is a significant event for any business--the loss of a high profile face of the organization, a significant part of their "brand". You would think a business that trades in public communication would have been ready for this. But instead they exhibited the same type of reticent corporate behavior that the news staff at WOOD TV 8 complains about and fights against every day to bring news--First! Best! Live!--to the community.

But their own news generates only a terse and insincere statement covered by competing media, namely the Grand Rapids Press. Had this been any other business in town WOOD TV 8 would have been all over it, and Suzie herself would have intoned the details, breathlessly, at 11 pm.

Less than a month ago my wife and I and a small crowd of Spring Lake residents heard Geha speak at the local library as part of a series of speeches by prominent local women. How ironic to think back now of how she complained in her stump speech about corporate executives who try to 'manage the news' and avoid being accountable to public interest.

So now her former employer trots out the lawyers to say the public curiosity does not translate into a right to know. Get that? A TV station using a lawyer for media relations with another media outlet! If you read the comment in the Press, be sure to scroll down and see the comments. Local media consumers are not stupid people. They see the irony, hypocrisy, and the dents in the WOOD TV 8 brand.

In fact, the day the news hit the streets, I noted on Twitter that it was Geha's own Facebook page that provided her the civil farewell that WOOD TV 8 seemed incapable of doing. She had 229 new friends that day. The Press--which has a Geha desk now I think--reports that her Facebook page now has more than 3500 friends. She may use this platform to compete with EightWest.

Several years ago I went to Washington D.C. to teach a certification course to a group of people who are part of NBACA--the National Broadcast Association for Community Affairs. As I told the group, they were basically the PR staff for their respective stations. I've had several of my own PR students intern in the Community Affairs department at WOOD TV 8, something they call "Connect With Community." The station has invested lots of time and resources to getting their on-air personalities out there between broadcasts to meet people at events.

Too bad that in this case when they lose a personality who has been with the station for 30 years that they inexplicably cut that connection.

Friday, April 08, 2011

West Michigan Represented in 2011 Bulldog Awards

Hot off the press release, Bulldog Reporter announced the winners of its 2011 Bulldog Awards for Excellence in Media and Public Relations Campaigns.

Among the winners is Grand Rapids PR and investor relations firm Lambert Edwards & Associates (LEA). The firm won gold in the category "Best Integration of PR and IR in a Business Campaign" for its campaign for SNAK-ing Success.

There are a variety of categories with winners representing large and small agencies as well as in-house PR departments. LEA appears to be the only winner from Michigan.

You can see the full list of 2011 winners here.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Young Creatives and Workplace Needs

Grand Rapids advertising firm Hanon-McKendry recently invited a group of professors to come in and discuss what the local professionals are seeing in the workplace in terms of skills needed from recent college grads seeking employment.

I was invited but couldn't attend because the meeting took place during one of my class meeting times. But the gist of the meeting is that advertising agencies need the communication and story-telling skills of "digital natives" again, after several years of looking to hire only people with several years of experience. You can read an article about it in MiBiz (free registration required).

The timing of this meeting was coincidental with a broader national discussion about how universities should be preparing aspiring advertising and public relations professionals.

In the "Firm Voice", the blog of the Council of PR Firms, a recent post summarized the views of a panel of educators and professionals. Essentially, PR students need more experiential "hands-on" learning (which is why we have real class clients and require an internship at GVSU) and professors need to continue to keep up with technology and the changes and needs of the workplace.

An article in the Autumn/Winter 2010 issue of Journalism and Mass Communication Educator notes that advertising management--which includes the subjects of strategy, branding, positioning, research, planning, teamwork, agency structure and operations etc--is viewed by professionals and professors as an important part of an undergraduate curriculum. Nationally, 60% of programs in advertising or advertising/pr have a required advertising management course, and the remainder offer such coursework as an elective.

An article in the Fall 2010 Journal of Advertising Education stressed the following after depth interviews with a dozen senior creative directors from across the country: agencies need "hybrid" creatives with a broad understanding of interactive and traditional media; young professionals must have a better appreciation of strategy than ever before; conceptual ability as well as craft (i.e. skills) are important; familiarity with technology is expected but expertise is not; portfolios should be online or many in the position to hire won't bother looking at a resume.

There are lots of interesting changes in the advertising and PR professions. It's important that educators and practitioners continue to listen to each other. It's even more important that students pay attention to what professors and professionals are saying about the requirements for entry into the profession.

Friday, March 25, 2011

WMU Gift: A "Good Crisis"?

Earlier this week Western Michigan University announced an anonymous $100 million gift to support a new medical school.

If you are in public relations, you might be thinking this is a great day to be in the profession. Such a positive announcement to make. A day of "good" news. The coverage was great, including stories in the national media such as the Wall Street Journal as well as the obvious local stories on MLive.com (including both the Kalamazoo Gazette and Grand Rapids Press) and the higher education trade publication Chronicle of Higher Education.

It's all good, right?

Sure. But it also could be considered a case of crisis communications. We always assume crises are related to negative and dangerous situations, such as natural disasters or tragic criminal activity. They get most of the attention and are labeled as crises. But a "crisis" has been defined as instability, a turning point, a sudden change. That could be good or bad. In public relations terms, crises are defined for the purposes of crisis communications as sudden scrutiny by the public and/or the media.

By those definitions, even a sudden GOOD event or turning point could be a "crisis." As evidenced by the swift coverage  from local to national media, WMU had to deal with sudden scrutiny. That meant having a good plan to unveil the announcement on their schedule, and being ready to handle the inevitable follow-up conversations, such as speculation about who the donors are, the impact on other medical schools, the need and capacity in Kalamazoo for a medical school.

WMU has been handling it all well. But this episode  is a good reminder that PR people can't sit back and enjoy after releasing "good" news. We need to always be in "crisis" mode in terms of planning communications, monitoring response, and being ready to follow up, even when the news is good.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Michigan Gains First Nationally Recognized Student-Run PR Firm

ALLENDALE, Mich., March 23, 2011 - GrandPR, a public relations firm of Grand Valley State University students, is the first nationally affiliated, student-run firm in Michigan, as of Monday March 21st, 2011.

While there are more than 100 student-run public relations firms nationwide, only the elite are nationally recognized by the Public Relations Student Society of America’s (PRSSA) national board. Being nationally affiliated ensures high standards in three segments: a strong connection with PRSSA and the parent chapter, Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), an advanced level of professionalism and a solid organizational structure.

In April of 2010, GrandPR consisted of two staff members, zero clients and was in the process of creating a new brand and structure. “Our goals for the school year were to become established, reputable and nationally recognized,” said Sarah Myles, GrandPR CEO.

In addition to meeting national-level expectations, GrandPR set high standards to ensure results for its clients. The current staff of 23 has worked with ten clients in the past seven months, including Erb Thai, Boardwalk Subs and the Allendale Area Chamber of Commerce.

Teams of an account executive and account associates researched, created and executed campaigns from start to finish. Results included media placements, social media interaction and overall brand awareness.   

“We have met all the national standards on paper, but what makes GrandPR stand out is the journey we have experienced in the last seven months,” said Myles. “Endless hours and sleepless nights fueled by a passion for the public relations industry was the driving forces behind our recent success.”

“National affiliation was one of our wildest dreams,” said Myles. “Our wildest dream has become the sweetest reality.”


About GrandPR
GrandPR is a full-service public relations firm of young professionals. GrandPR is a firm within Grand Valley State University’s Public Relations Student Society of America chapter. All GrandPR staff members are full-time college students and national PRSSA members. GrandPR commits to providing strategic public relations counsel with innovative communication tactics from a fresh, young perspective.  

About Public Relations Student Society of America
Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) is the student chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA.) PRSSA allows members to network with other public relations students and professionals, educate about the public relations industry outside of classroom lessons and help launch careers. PRSSA follows PRSA’s footsteps in ethics, diversity and business cases.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

What I Learned at the International PR Research Conference

I attended the 14th International Public Relations Research Conference in Miami March 9-12. The conference is coordinated by faculty and graduate students at the University of Miami and is associated with the Institute for Public Relations. Check out the web site if you never have before—it’s a great resource for PR practitioners and scholars alike, especially the archived research. See this recent IPR blog interview with BYU Professor Brad Rawlins about the importance of research.

At this year's conference there were PR faculty and students, as well as PR practitioners, from the U.S. as well as other countries, including England, Germany, Turkey, Spain, Brazil, Japan and Korea. More than 100 presentations were given in roundtable format, also called the “speed dating” version of academic research presentations. Each hour participants can visit four of six tables to hear and briefly discuss current research in public relations.

I’m giving a rapid fire, bullet list rundown of only some of the key research reported. I would hope this is interesting for my PR students as well as PR professors and professionals who may be interested. You can check for the proceedings of the conference—i.e. full copies of all papers presented—on IPR’s web site in a few months.

  • A representative from Determinus explained their Metric Model for measuring engagement and influence on a simple 1-5 scale;
  • Work is being done to automate trust and relationship measurement, but more refinement is needed and it only works for organizations with lots of social media conversations;
  •  Practitioners have very vague and mixed notions of what ROI (return on investment) means for PR. Writing guidelines for ROI measurement standards supported by best practice models was suggested;
  • Katie Delahaye Paine was present with her new book “Measure What Matters” which is infused with social media concepts.

  • PR professionals fall into three main groups in terms of their views about their role in handling ethics: managers of organizational values, autonomous and principled decision makers, advisors on the public interest.
  • In Brazil, where practitioners must be licensed to do what is defined as “public relations,” those with a license were no more ethical than those without a license. Personal standards and the organization where they work were larger influencers of ethics.
  • An examination of the government response to the BP oil spill crisis shows government communicators perceive ethical responsibilities in terms of accountability, reciprocity and social responsibility.

Crisis Communications
  • There is a natural tension and paradox of organizations wanting to be autonomous but also being dependent on their publics for success. Organizations should be authentic in their relationships—especially in crises when that tension is heightened--to recognize and understand this paradox rather than seek to suppress it.
  • An examination of the Toyota crisis found that blog coverage was more negative, less civil, and tended to blame Toyota more than newspaper coverage.
  • A positive reputation prior to a crisis, defensive response to the crisis, and CEO visibility in first response to a crisis led to the best stakeholder attitudes and purchase intentions.
  • Another study found that an initially negative reputation was actually improved during a crisis, which may be explained by sympathy (if not human error caused) and is called a “crisis bounce” in reputation.
  • Several studies called for more research and refined practice in international and multicultural aspects of crises.
  • A review of Robert Gibbs statements to the press show that the role of press secretary has evolved from journalistic/public information approach to one of continuous image maintenance or repair.

Social Media
  • One study identified five “tribes” of PR professionals in terms of how and why they are using social media: information gatherers, information promoters, social networkers, organizational outreachers, internal communicators.
  • Communal (vs exchange) relationships are more likely to increase the behavioral communication intentions of a public toward an organization. Interactivity also had a positive effect.
  • Corporations often want social media separate from corporate site because they fear complaints and open dialogue on their site. Also, they see staff time and capacity for required dialogue to be limited.
  • Most corporations talk about importance of social media measurement but only one-third do and it is mostly output vs outcomes measurement.
  • A PR pro’s years of experience in PR, years with an employer, a manager role, and being top level all lead to more relational vs promotional content in organizational blogs.

Sports PR
  • Attitudes toward a team and behavioral intentions (ie game attendance) were not affected by severity of a crisis or exposure to negative media coverage. This is especially true for those with high initial team identification.
  • The success of global team brands such as Real Madrid come from players creating content, segmenting publics, and turning regular events into massive spectacles.

International PR
  • Cross-border product PR requires intercultural thinking, local knowledge, and contextualized strategies.
  • Teaching international PR is enhanced when using a virtual model of learning (VMOL) in which classes from two countries collaborate to do campaigns for organizations in each others’ countries.

PR Education
  • A study of employers and young professionals largely confirms that we are teaching what should be taught in PR programs—more than tactics, criticial thinking, writing, video, research, knowledge of the workplace (business, nonprofit, or government), hands-on experiences as well as deep theoretical understanding.
  • Entrepreneurship is a “missing chapter” in fundamental PR courses. PR students need to know how to help entrepreneurs and also how to be entrepreneurs.
  • Teamwork needs to be formally taught within classes, particularly upper level campaigns courses.
  • Employers expect it, and there is ample literature on teamwork and small group communication.