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.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

'Churnalism', 'Information Subsidy,' or Good PR?

Stop the presses--journalists are using press releases. It's happening from GR to the UK, from citizen journalism to mainstream media (which is also, ironically, practiced by citizens).

Fellow Grand Rapids PR practitioner and blogger Derek DeVries pointed out on his Imprudent Loquaciousness blog that hyper local citizen journalism site The Rapidian had done a complete copy and paste of a news release about local banker Jim Dunlap receiving an award. But this may not be about unprofessionalism of citizen journalists: the Grand Rapids Press ran an article largely spoon fed by the same release.

DeVries points out that if someone is going to copy and paste from a news release, at least they could eliminate the hastags (###) that indicate the end of a news release so the "article" looks legitimate. In the case of the Rapidian, the Center for Community Leadership is clearly identified as the source of the article and is registered on the Rapidian site as a nonprofit. At least they are somewhat transparent about the source.

As for the Press and other media, the issue seems to be whether or not it's ok for journalists to run news releases verbatim. In the UK this has recently been called "churnalism," based on the notion that PR pros churn out press releases and feed the media. There is even a web site by that name that allows people to paste text from a news release and compare it with articles in British newspapers and the BBC.

What's interesting about this "issue" is that it indicts both journalists and PR pros. Journalists for being lazy and unsceptical tools; PR pros for taking advantage of and manipulating the media.

But I have a couple of other thoughts about this--this is neither new nor terrible.

It's not new because way back in 1982 Oscar Gandy wrote a book "Beyond Agenda Setting" in which he introduced the concept of "information subsidy," which basically describes the reality that journalists can't always meet the burden of information gathering so they accept information in the form of press releases and other materials from public relations professionals. Obviously, there is potential for harm since the "subsidizers" are not always objective.

But PR professionals are not necessarily manipulative either. In fact, if a news release is run verbatim it may not indicate a lazy journalist, but rather a good PR professional who wrote objective facts in appropriate news style. Just because copy is not changed does not mean it is not verified.

Also, PR professionals seem to be damned if  they do and if they don't. People complain about unethical influence on the news if we offer news releases, but if governments and businesses say nothing we are chided for being unresponsive to the public's right to know.

I know from my experience as a practitioner and research as a professor that often people turn to news releases instead of mainstream media for information. They are reasonably confident in their ability to tell fact from bluster and genuine news from sensationalism.

So instead of laying blame on a simple communication tactic, the news release, or vilifying the entire profession of public relations, we should let truth be the guide. There are plenty of good journalists and PR pros who honestly want to serve the public good with accurate information. The bad eggs will be found out. As John Milton wrote in 1644 when fighting government censorship in the Aereopagitica: "Let truth and falsehood grapple; whoever  knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?"

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Branding Grand Haven an Interesting Challenge

(Cross posted from my other blog: Pier Points and also from the March 10, 2011 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

So what is Grand Haven’s downtown brand? Or should I say, what is Brand Haven?

Last week the Grand Haven Tribune reported that Grand Haven is one of four cities chosen to be part of a new downtown branding program run by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA). This is interesting because I would not associate MSHDA with downtown branding—a little branding irony there. I also couldn’t find anything about this pilot program on their web site, possibly because it’s still so new. Anyway, the other cities are Boyne City, Clare and Niles. In 16-20 weeks, downtown Grand Haven will have a brand new brand.

So, you’re asking, what does this mean? Well, often branding is little more than a logo. It started years ago when ranchers used hot “brands”—metal shaped into a unique design, such as a “circle T” or a “triple R”—to sear a mark into their cattle to indicate they belonged to their ranch. I don’t think we’ll see hot metal rods or smell the burning flesh of downtown merchants, but we’ll probably be exposed to some unique Grand Haven logo by the time the first summer tourist rolls into town.

Logos can’t be taken lightly. Think of McDonalds’ “golden arches” or the Nike “swoosh.” People see those iconic symbols and associate them immediately with the intoxicating aroma of French fries or athletic prowess. None of the branding literature I’ve read points out that you should not think of French fries while exerting yourself in sports. For that you need common sense.

Common sense helps in branding too. Because you need more than merely a logo to really be successful. This is especially true when branding a city, or a destination. You probably have never overheard anyone say something like this: “If you have to ask me why I’m going to Podunk, you obviously haven’t seen their logo!” This is why highly paid consultants usually recommend... a slogan!

Slogans are short phrases that capture the essence of a brand. Nike made a lot of hay with their “Just do it” campaign. I should know. I just did it. So Grand Haven needs more than a big GH inside a circle or something. It needs a slogan. Something like “Just come here!” Or maybe, “Grand Haven: Between Holland and Muskegon.” I could offer something really compelling, but I am not being highly paid for this column.

I will tell you what some of our neighbor cities did recently, to give you an idea. Zeeland garnered a lot of attention with its “Feel the Zeel” campaign. You can see how that’s going on their blog. Downtown Grand Rapids launched a campaign with a counter-intuitive, reverse psychology slogan of “Keep it a Secret.” If you never heard of it you can see how fabulously successful it has been!

But if brands are only a logo and a slogan, they can really backfire. If McDonalds’ food was overpriced or unsatisfying, if Nike’s products were cheaply made, their logos and slogans would be the source of laughter and not positive association. It’s what those of us who teach and practice ethical advertising and PR call “putting lipstick on the pig.”

So Grand Haven needs more than a logo and slogan. It needs to ensure that the experience people have when they come to downtown Grand Haven is unique, special and positive. It has to be so positive and unique that they tell others about it. This is why the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention and Visitors Bureau recently renamed themselves “Experience Grand Rapids.”

Grand Haven does have some unique characteristics. There already are people who choose to come from Grand Rapids and places farther away to enjoy the area, including downtown. But while logos and slogans are fun and creative, the most important part of branding is often a combination of a unique offering and some very routine basics that will help meet and exceed visitors’ expectations. That means downtown merchants who offer things that people want and they can’t get anywhere else. It means a unique environment, such as the new streetscape and the proximity to the channel and Lake Michigan. But it also means adequate parking, stores that stay open past 6 p.m. and free coffee for college professors. I threw that last one in to see if you’re paying attention. But, it could be a unique part of the brand.

Even more important than all of the above is that everyone in downtown Grand Haven “lives” the brand. That means actually believing in and working to deliver the experience that the final brand proposes to offer. We’re between the windy city and the motor city. We can’t ask people to “feel the zeel” or experience Grand Rapids. But we are who we are.

I’m eager to see and hear what that is exactly.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

More Social Media for Small Business

If you read the article offering social media tips for small business in this week's Grand Rapids Business Journal (subscription required), you should know two things.

One, the lead says four local people who are social media savvy offer tips, but five people--including yours truly--are pictured. Since I appear last, I will assume I am the one of the five who is not savvy:-)

Two, GRBJ reporter Elizabeth Slowik only had room for some of what each of us said. So, even given the realities of my first point, I offer the rest of my quick thoughts in response to her query for the article.

 Listen first
The usual process of getting into social media is: listen to conversations, respond, and then initiate and host conversations. Again, the metaphor is like going to a meeting or social gathering where it’s bad form to jump into a small group without first understanding what those who were there before you were talking about.

It’s about the quality of relationships, not the number of followers.
Having a lot of followers on Twitter and “likes” on Facebook can be an impressive metric. But some research shows large percentages of people retreat from social media after an initial experience. Or they follow or like you but your messages are competing with a lot of other clutter in their feed or stream. So you have to measure “engagement,” or how often people are talking to you and your company, re-tweeting or sharing what you say, complimenting you and recommending you to their networks.

Understand the unique nature of each channel.
A common mistake for newcomers to social media happens when they figure out they can connect their Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn accounts. Soon they send all their tweets to Facebook and LinkedIn. Next they stop checking Facebook and LinkedIn and responding to people who engage them there. Sure, this is convenient for you. But you should cultivate different networks, and different types of conversations in each social medium. A good metaphor is that Twitter is like a party, Facebook is like a reunion, and LinkedIn is a business conference. When you have the exact same message in all three it can not only lead to "inappropriate" messages, but it is tantamount to shouting loudly and boorishly in a restaurant so you are heard not only where you are, but in every other booth in the joint. If you are a guru maybe people won’t mind that you shout through all networks. But there’s a better chance you’ll look like a narcissist.

Think “distributed PR.”
Some businesses have one person or department in charge of all social media engagement. Another option is to empower all employees to tweet and engage on behalf of the business. This makes a lot of sense because more people equates to more conversations and impressions in the social space. Also, the nature of the conversations can be better; a product engineer will have a different way of engaging, with specific information and perspective, as compared to a customer service representative. This requires a good social media policy and training for employees, as well as a solid internal organizational culture. Services like co-tweet and Facebook pages with multiple administrators enable sharing the social media conversations among employees.