Monday, December 09, 2013

FTC Chimes in on Native Advertising

You can call it "native advertising", "sponsored content," or some other trendy word for the modern iteration of an "advertorial." Whatever you call it, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) may be calling out publishers, as well as advertising and public relations professionals, if they don't make it obvious when any content has been paid for and is not bonafide editorial or journalistic content.

That's the outtake from a December 4 FTC workshop on the subject.  The newly redesigned (as of today) site does not give the detailed results of the workshop. But trade publications including PRWeek have covered the results.

Most interesting in the remarks from FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez is the proliferation of sponsored content. Citing a study from the Online Publishers Association, she noted that 73% of online publishers offer  sponsored content. In addition, she stated that 34% of advertising agencies work with clients to create sponsored content. I have read separately that the PR community is not engaged with this as much, largely because of the belief that earned media has more influence and because those in advertising are already used to paying for reach.

But the FTC's primary concern is deception of consumers. Therefore, any sponsored content must be clearly labeled as such to avoid any potential confusion between advertising and editorial content.

Some might argue that with shrinking media resources the sponsored content idea is a win-win: publishers get content that is harder to come by with fewer reporters, they get revenue, and those seeking publicity have an avenue to reach people.

To a degree that's all true. However, not every organization has the kin of budget to pursue sponsored content to scale, or even at all. Also, if PR pros and others are supplying content, in the online environment people are losing the distinction between old media, new media, and the brand journalism that is increasing via corporate and organizational blogs, online news sites, etc. It's the same as young people grabbing a TV remote and having no idea what the difference is between cable and network TV. Or, using Netflix or some other device to view a show or an episode, with no thought given to the source of the show. Content is no longer tethered to creator or carrier.

But I would add that the FTC concern for consumer deception is a good one when it comes to news, which is entirely different than entertainment content in its importance and the perception of source. As Ramirez notes, the laws already state that connections between endorsers and sellers must be disclosed. That law can have new interpretation in the context of sponsored content.

As I tell my law and ethics students, government regulatory agencies often enact rules and laws where professionals left to themselves fail to follow basic  ethical guidelines. Such is the case here. The PRSA Code of Ethics  principle of "disclosure of information" covers the idea  of making sponsored content transparent. If your professional goal is to ensure that publics are able to make fully informed decisions, you would not hide the fact that content in a publication was written and paid to be placed by a brand or an agency. If your only goal is to persuade people by any means, then you are likely to cross an ethical line.

The FTC workshop merely discussed the issue. But enforcement may come if publishers and advertising and PR professionals think only of persuasion and not of public interest.

Friday, November 15, 2013

New Book on Crisis Communications Offers Deep Practical Insights

James Lukaszewski was kind enough to send me a copy of his new book "Lukaszewski on Crisis Communication: What Your CEO Needs to Know About Reputation and Crisis Management." I was happy to receive it and having read it can strongly recommend it.

Lukaszewski is a seasoned PR consultant who has counseled CEOs of many major organizations. I remember that his workshops at national PRSA conferences are often standing-room only. He doesn't disappoint with this book either.

In a nutshell, this book is a detailed, practical, how-to guide that would be a useful reference for any PR practitioner to have handy. The table of contents is indexed for quick access to specific crisis communications information. There is also a detailed glossary of terms. The 10 chapters are replete with bullet lists of considerations, specific tasks, and other overviews. But each chapter gets into management-level strategy and the philosophy behind them, as opposed to mere tactical advice. I also appreciate the emphasis on prevention and responsiveness to all stakeholders, which is consistent with the academic literature on the subject.

Here is a quick take on the most practical contents of the book:

  • a detailed outline of what should be included in a crisis plan;
  • savvy overview of how reporters ask questions to illicit emotional quotes, and how to respond;
  • sage advice and if, when, and how to hold crisis-related news conferences;
  • the important consideration of using and responding to social media in times of crisis;
  • a very thorough explication of the tactics of activist groups, and how to respond;
  • how to handle crises that involve litigation, with a refreshing downplay of attorney as spokesperson and crisis manager in favor of a professional with actual communications education.
The book could be useful for practitioners and as a companion textbook for classes on crisis communication. I know I may require or recommend it the next time I teach a graduate course in crisis communication as a companion to the academic theoretical works on crisis communications, such as "Ongoing Crisis Communications: Planning, Managing and Responding" by Timothy Coombs, noted for his development of the Situational Crisis Communications Theory (SCCT), "Crisis Communication: A Casebook Approach" by Kathleen Fearn-Banks, or "Crisis Communication: Theory and Practice" by Alan Zaremba. 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Twtrland Offers Useful Brand Planning and Monitoring

A representative from Twtrland, a social media analytics company, reached out to me and gave me a test drive of their services.

I'm an academic and not a brand with a huge budget for such PR service companies, so I appreciated the gesture. I took some notes for my classes, and thought I'd blog an overview of the service here.

Twtrland offers analytics for Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts. All can be connected for aggregated reporting, which can lead to integrated planning. There is a free version and a pro upgrade option, similar to other analytic services.

Brands can enter their brand handle as well as various versions of their brand name to get a variety of reports:

  • Audience analysis. Data is broken down in several categories--by celebrities, power users, casual, and novice; by age and gender; by top countries and cities. I especially like the breakdown of users' skills, and the audience interests with percentages in descending order for a variety of subject areas.
  • Fan base. This section gives a quick tiled view of users avatars and profiles. You can sort by followers, recent interactions, or amplifications (retweets, etc). There is also a conversations tab to see in at-a-glance view who is talking to and engaging with your brand.
  • Monitor. In addition to key words and key people, this section allows you to enter the names of key competitors--organizations and individuals--to test your game and maybe show comparison analysis reports to bosses and clients. It's the 'share of discussion' metric for social media.
  • Outreach. This tab allows you to find influencers so that you can strategize ways to engage them. This is also where your lists can be added to do analytics within your own prescribed groups of people.
There are a lot of social media platforms, and even more third-party services to help brands work and measure their efforts in this space. Twtrland is certainly one that could be considered as an option for social media specialists, as well as for public relations pros who have social media added to their long list of traditional responsibilities.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Ways of Knowing and Teaching PR

An adjunct where I work said to me earlier this semester, "we teach students so they can get jobs." Sounds simple and straightforward. But it's also a little simplistic.

Obviously, the end result for undergraduates will be to leverage their college education into a job. But  teaching is more than mere training, and college is called "higher" education for a reason. Also, most employers actually seek workers who have more than just PR skills, but critical thinking, teamwork, problem solving, and theoretical understanding that enhances strategy and initiative. I wrote about this in a recent post about Learning Assessment and PR Education.

The adjunct made this remark in the context of us undergoing searches for new professors for our faculty. The job posting has the typical "PhD preferred" language. The adjunct made it sound like PhD was a liability, as if a PhD guarantees no practical relevance. (Of course, if this adjunct had a PhD they would know not to over generalize like this).

It is true that candidate pools for jobs teaching PR tend to include young people who went straight through school and have little experience practicing PR. Then there is a batch of candidates with professional experience but no advanced degree. I should point out that the PR professors around the country largely include people, like me, who worked in the field and then later sought the PhD and became professors.

However, this candidate pool and discussion with a current adjunct got me thinking about preparation for teaching PR. In my own doctoral studies I had a research class in which the professor talked about different "ways of knowing." He was talking about the various research methods, their advantages and disadvantages, and the importance of choosing the right method relative to what research would be conducted.

With regard to teaching PR, it is important to know what you're teaching. And here also there are two primary ways of knowing. One is the traditional PhD route. Those who criticize hiring young PhDs with little work experience say that their knowledge is all theoretical. Critics say that as if theory  is a bad thing, and that reveals their own lack of knowledge about theory. Far from being impractical, theory explains and predicts behavior, and therefore is useful for giving students and deeper and broader understanding of PR and all its facets. Theory also is based not on a solitary person's experience and opinion, but multiple observations, vetted scientifically.

However, a professional who may not have an advanced degree and broad research and theoretical knowledge does offer students a primary versus secondary understanding of the field. Their experience can fuel their teaching with confidence and concreteness compared to a more abstract big picture perspective.

In short, taking terms from research, PhDs offer reliability--knowledge based on observations that are repeatable--while professionals offer a form of validity, namely face validity--that what is being talked about is grounded in reality and is actually about PR and not some other concept. Another way of saying this is that PhDs can offer quantitative and therefore generalizable views, whereas someone teaching from personal experience has a more qualitative perspective but it can't be generalized necessarily.

Since good research requires both reliability and validity, and since good research design often includes a combination of methods, it follows that a good way to approach teaching PR would involve combining these "ways of knowing." As I mentioned earlier, there are many PR professors who do have both professional experience and a PhD. But many faculties will have a combination of PhDs on tenure-track and full and part-time adjuncts who have years of experience in the field. It would be good for both types of professor to have mutual respect for the other's way of knowing, and seek to learn from each other. PhDs without much experience--or without much recent experience--should be involved with their local PRSA chapter, stay in touch with alumni to learn about their experiences, meet with local professionals, and read the trade publications as well as the academic journals. Adjuncts with professional experience should seek to see their own experience in the larger context of the field, read books and academic journals, attend conferences, meet with colleagues who do have PhDs to learn about theoretical explanations for their experience and assertions.

John Mellencamp once sang "I know a lot of things, but I don't know a lot of other things." I tell my students, you don't know what you don't know. That's a good attitude to have. In the end, the best way of knowing to teach PR is to have an open mind and keep learning.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Local and National Perspectives on Social Media and PR Education

It was an interesting coincidence that the Grand Rapids Business Journal had a local article about West Michigan colleges not offering social media degrees in the same week that the Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) PR Division tackled the subject in the current issue of the Teaching Public Relations (TPR) monograph.

The Business Journal article (self disclosure: I write the "PR and Media" blog for noted that it "checked in" with all local colleges and universities and that none offer a social media degree. The article included perspectives from faculty at only two of the colleges--Calvin and Davenport--but the comments were relatively universal--that there is not enough substance to offer a full degree or even a course in social media, that existing theory and practice can and should be applied and adapted to social media, and that social media concepts and assignments can be integrated into existing courses.

That matches the national scale views of educators as well as practitioners as reported in the TPR monograph. Professors are cautioned not to get caught up in chasing "shiny new objects" or bogged down in the tactical how-to instruction for each new app and platform. Some of these tech tools advance so rapidly that professors would have to change syllabi several times a semester. 

It was encouraging to read in the monograph that practitioners encouraged professors to teach theory--existing PR and communications theory as well as recent research on social media use and affects--before blending that knowledge with practice. Students should learn not just how to use social media, but how to use it on behalf of businesses, nonprofit organizations, and other clients. This changes the consideration of how to teach social media--professionally, with strategic insight fueled by empiricism and theory and not mere tactical proficiency.

Some of those "old" concepts that need to be applied to social media practice? Here's a quick run-down of concepts and principles that have been taught in existing courses for years:
  • Research--students should be taught how to use social media to gain knowledge of public attitudes, issues, trends. 
  • Objectives--don't just use social media because it's new and cool. We saw a lot of disasters when web sites were new. Have measurable objectives, as in what you want to accomplish for an organization in terms of public awareness, attitude, or actions in response.
  • Strategy--who you reach out to, how you reach them, what you say, the frequency with which you say it, what platforms you choose--all of these and other questions should be carefully considered given the objectives above. If you don't have a strategy, you are just pushing content into the crowded social space. Some old and newer theories are the basis of smart strategy in social media.
  • Tactics--we do teach tactics in existing courses. Social media should be seen as supplementing and not necessarily replacing existing communication tools. Also, social can be integrated with them and courses updated to include them, such as a media relations class now including social media and multi-media news releases, pitching bloggers, integrating hashtags at events and other ideas.
  • Evaluation--I would argue that the emphasis on evaluation has received as much buzz as social media in PR circles. Students need to know that clients, colleagues, and bosses will expect this. This is true of all PR efforts, but particularly social media. Research shows many executives still see social as a frivolous waste of time. Students need to know how to prove the affect of their social media efforts in terms of meeting organizational objectives.
Of course, I'm open to change. In 2006 when Twitter was new, I was the one telling students about it. Now students tweet me before I've had them in a class, and they reach out on many other platforms. I didn't see Twitter and other social media coming or becoming this popular. There may come a day when I have to throw out the syllabus and craft an entire course on social media. 

Then again, the time may come when such a suggestion sounds as ridiculous as having a full course on the fax machine.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Two Books Offer Insights to Investor Relations Pros

I recently caught up on some reading, and on my stack were two short books about investor relations. Investor relations, or IR, is a growing specialty within the broader public relations field. Some consider IR to be distinct from, rather than part of, PR. That may be why there is a National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI) that is separate from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

Either way, there has been an increase in the number of communications professionals who work full-time or at least in part in investor relations--and it's not all about numbers as the books I read show. One book is by a PR practitioner and the other by a PR professor. Both offer a helpful insights about investor relations.

"Managing Investor Relations: Strategies for Effective Communication" by Alexander Laskin gives an interesting history of investor relations, its current practice, and projections about its future. Laskin, a PR professor at Quinnipiac University, does a good job of giving the big picture about the subject.

"Investor Relations: The Art of Communicating Value" by Jeffrey Corbin takes a practitioner's approach with steps to communicate specifically in the investor relations realm. The practical advice includes breaking down the typical types of investors and what they look for as well as the tactics to reach them.

Both books were a helpful read, confirming some things for me and adding some perspective and savvy in other areas. I have refreshed some lecture notes for the next time I address investor relations.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

'Father of PR' Was British, Not Bernays, Book Says

Public relations history is one of my interest areas, just as a curiosity and one area of my research as an academic. So I was fascinated to stumble across an article in the British newspaper the Guardian about Sir Basil Clarke, whom the article calls the "Father of Public Relations."

Now this is interesting for several reasons. For one, I had always heard that name given to Edward Bernays in various books and articles about public relations history. I've always taken that with a grain of salt, because historians try to avoid the "great men" fallacy, which is to tell the history of a profession through the life and experience of just a few famous examples. Indeed there are many others who should be taken to account, including Ivy Lee and my personal favorite, Arthur Page, not to mention countless others who were pioneers even though lesser known.

But I also know, from reading the proceedings and from this past summer attending the annual International PR History Conference, that there can be too much of a U.S. bias in PR history. The Guardian article doesn't say that Clarke is the Father of British PR; it proclaims him as the father of PR, period.

I'm not going to debate whether PR was "invented" by Clarke or Bernays, or anyone else. It's just interesting to see another example of an early pioneer of the profession, and one in a different cultural context. Clarke and Bernays were contemporaries in the sense that both were working in what we would now call "public relations" in the early 1900s. Both also dabbled in government propaganda, before the name acquired its nasty connotation. Like Page and Lee, Clarke also came from a background in journalism. He also was similarly fascinated with the prospects for public relations as an emerging profession.

It's good to know history, especially about one's profession. It's especially good to know it broadly, always encountering other individuals and national contexts. For that reason, I think I may buy the new book about Clarke referenced in the article for an insightful read.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Learning Assessment and PR Education

A few weeks ago I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about colleges offering post-graduation assessment tests. Apparently, some employers (the article makes it sound like all of them) don't trust college GPAs as an indicator of a job candidate's potential work success.

This comes in the context of criticism of higher education generally of offering esoteric topics that are irrelevant in the "real world" of work. I even hear this from adjuncts, and potential adjuncts, who think a college exists only to teach students skills to do specific jobs.

In my opinion, and that of most faculty colleagues and administrators, that's a part of the result, but that's not the only or even primary function of colleges. Adjuncts and others in society who criticize colleges mistake training for education, they fail to see the bigger picture (something a real college education makes easier) that employees need more than skills. They need to know how to think so they can adapt to unforeseen changes in the workplace and society.

So the WSJ article was interesting, because at the same time it casts doubt on the value of college GPAs it affirms what colleges are actually teaching. The Collegiate Learning Assessment (or CLA+) the article features, actually does NOT measure mere job skill ability. It measures what many colleges teach  under the rubric of general education, liberal education, and major-specific courses that go beyond mere professional skills to integrate theory and practice.

Here's how the article describes the CLA+: "Instead of measuring subject-area knowledge, it assesses things like critical thinking, analytical reasoning, document literacy, writing and communication."

Indeed. It may be that some college faculty are guilty of grade inflation, making the GPA less valuable. But that has not been my experience. And if critics of higher education object to what we are teaching, this new College Learning Assessment test measures what we have been measuring at my institution in our own assessment--not just individual grades, but program-level assessment of learning outcomes--for years.

While the critical thinking and other components of the CLA+ are useful in all fields, they are especially vital in public relations. Sure, we should teach how to write media relations tools and how to manage social media campaigns and other specific skills. But if you consider how media relations, social media, and corporate communications has changed in the time it takes a freshman to become a senior, we also need to teach these other things so that new PR employees can adapt to and maybe even create the changes yet to come.

So this recent article, and other criticism of higher education, strikes me as strange. Watch this video about general education at Grand Valley State University and you'll be struck by how much it looks like what the CLA+ advocates.  Or, to be more specific about PR education, look at what is advocated for PR majors and master's degrees by the Commission on Public Relations Education.

I also know from reading student and their employer internship evaluations that basic job skills are only part of what matters--all talk about things like teamwork, cultural understanding, innovation and initiative as well. Much of that talk is positive, in the sense that students are gaining these skills in college.

Perhaps we need less criticism of higher education generally, and PR education in particular, and more understanding of what we teach, and why.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

'Wrecking Ball" PR

On a rare occasion that my university, Grand Valley State University, makes news in the Chronicle of Higher Education, it is for this--students swinging naked on a moving sculpture outside the science building to parody the Miley Cyrus video "Wrecking Ball." The large ball on a cable swings over sandy ground and illustrates various principles of physics.

This followed local coverage in places like

The university had to take down the sculpture because it had become a little too popular with students. The university acted in response to the viral popularity, and then the news media responded to the university's actions.

I taught my media relations class in the science building yesterday (because it's a writing class, and there are limited computer labs in the building where my office is). Students had to do a writing drill and give media analysis reports yesterday, so we didn't have time to talk about this wrecking ball story. But they sure wanted to. Maybe on Monday.

I may ask them to consider why this made the news--local, national, international and the higher education trade publication. I mean, why a story about students swinging naked on a large sculpture and not, say, the academic achievements of students and faculty?

Well, I could tell them, consider the discussion earlier this semester about what news is. This is unusual. There is also a celebrity element, involving Miley Cyrus, albeit indirectly. Also, in our modern era, the social element drives news. Traditional media companies are not always in the public service, reporting on government or higher education issues that affect citizens and taxpayers yadda yadda. Yeah, they do that. But media outlets are businesses. They need to attract audience. And naked students on swinging balls does that better than a story about some student-faculty research that yielded an innovative new idea or understanding of everyday life.

I was proud of my students for staying on task and focused on serious subjects of the classroom yesterday. But now may be the time for a little levity about this as well. So, from a PR perspective, here's how to position the university in the midst of this odd publicity:

This story shows that Grand Valley State University is an exemplary model of liberal arts education. The 'wrecking ball' story illustrates physics, art, video production, communications, cultural awareness, innovation, teamwork, and possibly criminal justice.

OK. I tried. I doubt that will be the message that remains when this flurry of attention wanes. So maybe we can just hope that ArtPrize launching this week in Grand Rapids will divert attention from the university. At least until we make the news for something more significant.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Global Call for Ethical PR Professionals Grows

My major summer project has been the development of a new course to be offered this fall called Advertising and PR Ethics and Law. We have long required our Advertising and Public Relations majors to take an Ethics in the Professions course in our Philosophy Department, but increasingly I felt a course tailored to the advertising and public relations professions was needed. Offered as a special topics course this fall, I hope to make it a permanent required course in a curriculum update over the next year.

The call for more education in PR ethics, as well as more action on the part of PR practitioners serving as ethical counsel to management in their organizations, has existed for years. I have had students in my PR Cases and Management course read Shanon Bowen's "A State of Neglect: Public Relations as 'Corporate Conscience' or Ethical Counsel" since it was first published in the Journal of Public Relations Research in 2008. Sadly, the article points out that many PR professionals do not seek or adopt the role of ethical advisor, even though public relations--as a profession that should seek mutual relationships between organizations and their varied publics--would be well-suited for this role. 

However, some recent articles have shown that practitioners are more often seeking to offer ethical counsel as part of their role. Reams of other research get into that variables that explain why or why not a PR professional wears the mantel of organizational conscience.

But, coincidental to my class development of an ethics course this summer there has been movement among professionals--not just academics--to stress the inherent ethical role of PR professionals. This is not just that PR professionals should practice PR ethically, but as PR professionals they should step up and guide the ethics of the WHOLE organization they serve, whether in-house or on behalf of clients.

One major global effort is the Melbourne Mandate, an effort of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management. Based on meetings held in Melbourne, Australia, this group of representatives of various public relations associations jointly assert that PR professionals can't simply "watch events occur and then convey messages to stakeholders." I heard a presentation about the development of the Global Alliance and this ethical push at a conference this summer in England and was impressed by the scale of the effort.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-based Council of Public Relations Firms launched a new initiative this summer called "Ethics as Culture."  Similar to the Melbourne Mandate, the Council's efforts seeks to get professionals to move beyond a "reflex of compliance" to a more intentional effort to build a culture of integrity in organizations they represent. A new section of their website offers training guides and workbooks for individuals or entire PR firms to use.

I am happy to see these developments. Public relations as a profession gets painted with a broad brush for the ethical misdeeds often committed by those who are not PR professionals. Rather than taking blame--either deserved or not--for ethical misdeeds, it is high time that PR professionals take the initiative to ensure ethical behavior among all professions represented in the organizations we serve.

Monday, July 22, 2013

'Breakfast on the Farm' Cultivates Good PR

My wife and I attended a "Breakfast on the Farm" event on a recent Saturday. It sounded interesting, and yes, there was free breakfast included.

A program of the Michigan State University Extension, Breakfast on the Farm was started in 2009 and since has treated thousands to free breakfast and tours of a working farm in many locations around Michigan.

I was impressed with the organization of the event from a public relations standpoint. Visitors are herded (pun intended) to the breakfast tent first. While standing in line they can read a variety of informational signs about agriculture in Michigan. Once in the breakfast tent, visitors receive a brochure with a map highlighting by number the various educational stops on a self-tour of the host farm. Farmers--not just the host family but those from all over the county--man the different points on the tour to answer questions.

We learned a lot. We learned about the various farming methods and processes. We learned that agriculture is a significant part of the state's economy. We learned that not all farmers live on a family farm, but many drive to work on a farm just like those who work in factories and offices. We also learned that there is a lot of knowledge, technology, regulation, and planning that goes into farming.

In short, it was a fun and educational morning. It's also a good example of public relations in the agriculture sector, particularly as an experiential event and putting a face on farming.

Breakfast was good too.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Steelcase Demonstrates Importance of Research

It was a unique surprise when I was in the UK last week and read about a company in my hometown conducting international research. I was catching up on magazine subscriptions via my iPhone when I came across an item in BusinessWeek about research being conducted by Grand Rapids-based Steelcase.

The research is a study of corporate cultures in 11 countries, which Steelcase will apply in manufacturing and selling its various lines of office furniture. It's an interesting study, and a good example of the fact that research is vital to communication success and therefore an important skill set for PR professionals and students. This is particularly true in international contexts for NGOs, governments and MNCs.

What jumped  out at me right away in this concise graphic representation of research results is the obvious adaption of Dutch scholar Geert Hofstede's cultural dimensions. In international PR courses, as well as many communications courses, this theory is taught as a way of comparing cultures through specific scales, such as the degree to which cultures are individualistic or collectivist in nature. This should help communicators tailor messages appropriately to avoid cultural misunderstanding or even crises.

I plan to use this article in future classes as a great illustration of research, and this theory, being applied by a major global company. The example is useful in both research and international PR classes.

The Steelcase research is also impressive because it is shared. As Don Stacks of the University of Miami wrote recently for the Institute for Public Relations, it is too often the case that business research is proprietary. So it is nice to see Steelcase not only doing the research but making it available. While some might argue it gives away a competitive edge, I would argue it also positions Steelcase as a thought leader in its industry and international business in general.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Salute to Navy Public Affairs

I still recall many years ago, when I was still in high school, and a Navy recruiter came to talk to me at the dining room table of my parents' home. It was odd that he laid out a scenario that had me on an aircraft carrier, doing reports for the ship's newspaper and on-board TV station as part of my Navy role. I could study journalism and communications and get my college degree in port and on ship. I would get the degree debt free. But I would have to serve the Navy four years after getting my degree as part of the deal.

It was tempting. I could get a college degree for free and see the world in the process. But I thought long and hard about the commitment afterwards, and ultimately settled on attending a state university to study journalism.

But I always wondered what might have been.

Last week I had a chance to see first hand what might have been. A former student of mine, Jennifer Cunningham, who now works as a Navy Reserves public affairs officer for NAVCO (Navy Office of Community Outreach) and also works full time as community outreach coordinator for Navy Region Northwest, based in Bangor, Washington. She nominated me for a program the Navy has called "Leaders to Sea," which allows civilians a VIP and intimate tour of a Navy ship. I went to San Diego and embarked to the USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier about 30-40 miles off the California coast.

"Leaders to Sea is a program through which key leaders from all sectors--corporate, civic, government, education, nonprofit, service--embark on a Navy warship at sea," Cunningham explains. Those nominated  to go on the program pay their own way, including airfare to the port city, hotel before departure, and even cash for food aboard the ship. "Even though the embark does not cost the Navy anything, we get a great deal from it. By educating leaders, especially those in non-fleet areas who may not know as much about the Navy,  we are able to reach a broader audience and teach them about their Navy."

They sure did that. Notice how Jennifer said "their" Navy. That message was loud and clear consistently, in briefs with the rear admiral, captain, and senior aviator. In conversations with sailors, from chief petty officers to anyone we talked to, and especially the public affairs team that led us around for two days, we were constantly reminded that the Reagan was our ship, and that the Navy serves us.

My group of 14 civilians, which included a community college  president, a group from an insurance company, a group from the Kansas state legislature, and several business owners, were uniformly impressed. Access to top leaders of the ship and up close views of many operations on this virtual floating city was public relations at its finest. Conventional tactics are nice, but face to face conversations and personal experience are the most enlightening and persuasive.

I'll never forget standing 20 feet from F-18s on the flight deck as they made arrested landings with tail hook or took off via catapult. I and the group of civilians did the same, in a C2 Greyhound, also called a COD (Carrier Onboard Delivery), catching a wire to land and going from 120 miles per hour to zero in 2 seconds, and then catapulting off the ship a day later going from zero to 130 in 3 seconds. I've always had a positive view and respect for the Navy and all armed services, but now I have a deeper and personal understanding of all that they do. Seeing a ship at port or a decommissioned ship serving as a museum is one thing, but an active ship in full operations is much more educational.

The public affairs team was impressive too. Not only were they gracious and knowledgeable, they had as healthy an understanding of PR as they did of the ship. Two of them plan to get their master's degree in a special program San Diego State University has for Navy officers. One of them also plans to earn the APR-M, the new accreditation in military communications from PRSA. When we returned to the base in San Diego after two days aboard, they left us with a folder containing a DVD video of our landing on the ship, bios of the officers, informational brochures about the ship, and several of the Navy's publications.

If you're interested in seeing some of this yourself, you can check out where you can see photos, videos, publications, and links to various social media sites, for the Navy overall as well as individual ships. It won't be the same as flying out to a ship, but if you are in public relations you'll be tempted to salute the men and women who are active in our profession in OUR Navy. At least this video should get your heart beating faster:

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

APR Promotion Long Overdue

I received an email from the Public Relations Society of America PRSA yesterday that announced a new effort to promote the value of the Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) designation. Information about the 'Enhancing the APR" effort is also available online.

The timing of this announcement is interesting to me personally. Just last week in my spring Fundamentals of Public Relations course I explained the APR in a lecture about ethics. I discussed the background and pros and cons of licensing public relations professionals, and why accreditation emerged as another option. I explained how a PR professional gains the APR accreditation, how they maintain it, and why they might want to do so.

But I was also honest. I pointed out that the same week I had once again renewed my APR credential. I filled out the requisite form to demonstrate I had earned the points needed in the past three years to remain worthy of the professional distinction. I sent in my $50 with the form. But I also wondered, why do I do this?

As I told my students, the value of the APR is mostly personal. It has intrinsic value. In other words, as young professionals it can be a way to prove to themselves that they possess a broad understanding of a field that is very broad in the numerous specific jobs that PR professionals undertake these days. To earn the APR is to show to yourself that you care about the profession, that you possess contextual awareness of the role of PR in organizations and in society that goes beyond mere technical skills.

I also told my students that earning and maintaining the APR might help them within the PR profession. In other words, some PR agencies or departments may include professionals who have earned accreditation themselves, or through membership in PRSA, they may value it  and give an edge when hiring to those who have APR behind their name. However, there are also those even among PR professionals who are unaware of or unimpressed by APR.

I said the same things to local professions a decade ago when I was president of the West Michigan PRSA chapter and when I was coach for the APR exam preparation class.

Beyond that, the legions of people outside the profession have little or no knowledge of what APR is or why it should matter to them. I have both PhD and APR behind my name on my business cards, and when I do PR consulting and hand over my freelance consulting card, I almost always get asked "what is APR?" I recently published a book and my father-in-law looked at the book jacket and my bio and asked me about APR. I am editing a new annual report for the School of Communications at the university where I teach and the director of the school, a colleague but who does not teach public relations, highlighted the APR behind my name on the masthead and asked "is this some sort of professional designation?

In other words, the promotion of APR and its value to an audience outside the profession is long overdue.

I was surprised to learn in the PRSA materials on this subject that APR is as old as I am--it will be 50 years old in 2014. I earned my own APR more than a decade ago, and remember standing as a delegate  from West Michigan to the national PRSA conference standing and urging the national committee to promote the value of APR not just to members but to those who may be our bosses, clients and co-workers. My remarks received applause, not because of my great oratory skills, but because back then the issue resonated with professionals who had worked to earn and maintain APR and wanted to have more than the intrinsic value I mentioned above.

I am one of a handful of PR professors who has been asked to do some research about the APR based on feedback from professionals who have earned it. I am now more inspired to do such research. In the meantime, I eagerly await hearing more  from PRSA in August about the plan to "enhance the profile and prestige of the APR credential."

I am often dismayed when bad practice gives all of us in public relations a bad name. Many times the person or persons responsible for bad practice are not in public relations, or if they are they did not receive a degree in the field. It is my belief that instances of bad strategy, execution or ethics are even more  rare among those with APR.

I also cringe when PR is shown not as bad practice, but just as a limited profession. For example, when popular journalists are hired by organizations as PR professionals because of their quasi-celebrity status and ability to speak well versus an actual broad knowledge of public relations in its many facets beyond media relations. It would be nice if employers would know and respect the field, and give preference in job descriptions for those with degrees in and accreditation in public relations.

It would also be nice if one day when there is a large scale PR blunder, the public and media would not respond by calling it a "PR nightmare" or a "PR stunt" or worst of all "just PR." That's insulting and intellectually dishonest, to equate one episode with an entire profession. Rather, it would be refreshing to point the blame at the person and not the profession, to explain the misdeeds by noting that the person responsible was "posing" as a PR professional without any background, to refer to incidents as BAD practice of PR and not examples of what all PR people do.

Making public the APR credential would be a step in this direction.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Bad Instruction on Crisis Communications

A faculty colleague of mine shared an email she received  from one of our students who was taking a sports marketing class in a different department. The good news is that our student immediately recognized with horror the bad instruction this professor was giving on crisis communication situations in the sporting industry, as evidenced by a screen shot of a class lecture slide she shared:

Yes, this professor is actually teaching student to lie and avoid responsibility and accountability. 

We can only hope--and we do suspect--that whomever is teaching this class is an adjunct completely ignorant of proper  crisis communications theory and practice. I would bet this professor has never in their own past taken a bonafide public relations course or mingled with public relations professionals at a Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) meeting.

Such instruction saddens me for several reasons. In the first place, it is wrong ethically. Secondly, it is wrong strategically, as many studies show honesty in crises maintains and increases positive reputation. Third this "professor" (I put the word in quotes because I'm tempted to call this ignorant sleazeball some terms that the FCC still does not allow to be broadcast) perpetuates the myth that public relations is about intentional deception, lies and spin. The fact that the word spin is actually used as an advocated  option sickens me: I insist with my students that "spin" is a four-letter  word that should never be spoken or practiced.

Here we have a root of the ongoing problem of the perception of the public relations industry. What this rent-a-prof is proposing is not even close to the educated, ethical and strategic practice that people who know what they are  talking about would teach. In other words, it is NOT public relations. But if the public witnesses denial, silence or "spin" they will call it PR even if done by a person whose job title and education background has nothing to do with public relations.

Again, the only good news to come out of this is evidence that one of our PR students learned well, so well that she identified the obviously ignorant instruction and shared her horror  with us. The next step is for all PR pros, even current students and recent grads, to speak truth to power and say NO!--PR is not about spin!

Monday, April 01, 2013

PR and Social Media Measurement

I get a lot of questions about measurement of social media. One of those questions came in response to a recent post on my 'PR  and Media' blog on

So I followed up with another post about the evaluation and measurement of social media efforts by organizations. Keep in mind that many professionals in a recent survey said they do no measurement at all, and others only a routine count of "friends" and "followers." The reason for that may have something to do with how busy people are, but others simply say they don't know where to begin.

Read my follow-up post on social media measurement on

Friday, March 01, 2013

How Do West Michigan Organizations Use Social Media?

While professionals in businesses and nonprofits are using social media more often on behalf of their organization, there could be more to "like" about why and how they do so. 

A recent study I completed, along with Mike Yoder of LinkedUpGR and Jeff Gartner of Gartner and Associates, shows that West Michigan is not unusual when comparing our local study results with some national studies about social media use. It's also interesting to note that college degree, job description and authority in an organization are associated with using social media for conversations as opposed to mere promotion.

You can learn more about the study in my PR & Media Blog on 

Or, you can come Monday March 4 to a LinkedUpGR event at 6 p.m. at the Ramada Plaza Grand Rapids to see a presentation of the study and participate in a discussion of the implications. The event is free, but please RSVP.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

There's a Reason They Call It Earned Media--Why Proposal to Pay Journalists is Wrong

I got a tweet today from Mark Sanchez (@masanche),  Senior Writer for MiBiz, asking me for comments on a PR man offering to provide articles to a journalist, who could then apply his own byline. This dandy was reported in Jim Romenesko's blog.

Basically, a PR guy points out that with media contraction it is hard to get good content. So why doesn't he offer prepared articles to the journalist that could be used edited or not with the journalist's byline on them. PR guy gets publicity, journalist gets content, everyone's happy. So he says.

Here are my thoughts:

  • History always informs modern public relations. Ivy Lee is considered to be one of the fathers of modern public relations and the inventor of the first press release. He wrote articles and even laid them out in newspaper columns so journalists in the early 1900s could literally "cut and paste" his handouts verbatim for use in their newspapers. I have an example from a PR history book I show my classes. A bit of foreshadowing is that the title on top of these handouts was "public relations." Here's an account of one of the first verbatim articles supplied to media, and it's actually in a crisis situation.
  • The notion of PR people providing content which journalists use is called "information subsidy" since a 1982 book by Oscar Gandy. It has been debatable whether this is a bad thing or not. On the one hand, journalists being spoonfed is poor journalism, if not unethical. But on the other hand, many news reports would not see the light of day were it not for a PR person alerting journalists to the idea or helping facilitate interviews and other information for stories. It's not to uncommon for media to occasionally use news releases verbatim. In fact, I wrote a blog post on this before.
  • There is no doubt that economic pressure has journalists today doing more "aggregating" and "curating" of other people's content and less original reporting. This comes in the form of newswire, shared content from other journalists, and inviting content from non-journalist sources. Locally in West Michigan, one example would be the Sunday Grand Rapids Press health section, where representatives from local hospitals are given space to hold forth on health issues. Another example is me blogging for free about PR and media issues for the Grand Rapids Business Journal. In both cases, the publication gets free  content and the guest writers get name recognition, brand building, and the opportunity to establish themselves as a thought leader or community servant on a relevant subject.
  • Ethics is always debated. In Nigeria and some other countries it is expected that a PR person will pay a journalist to run a story, in the same way a waitress here expects a tip for serving food. The situation in the Romenesko blog does not involve paying a journalist, but it is unethical because the public is not fully or honestly informed of authorship. It's not about the money, it's about the ability to make informed decisions. If readers read an article with a well-known journalist's byline, there is an expectancy that the journalist investigated, verified, examined alternative views, and finally wrote an article that was fair and representative of multiple perspectives. If that article was supplied by someone with their own interest in mind--or even if you argue that the content is in the public service--denying the public the ability to know the actual authorship is deceptive and therefore unethical.
  • If I remember correctly, bylines were first used by TIME Magazine in the era of tabloid and sensationalistic journalism, in an effort to give their articles more credibility, legitimacy, and accountability. It is ironic that nearly 100 years later someone is trying to use the byline for opposite purposes.
  • Bad ethics ultimately hurts everyone. The reader is misinformed, as I noted above. Journalists will in time only corrode their own brand and the value they provide readers. And PR people will only be seen to be sneaky manipulators, as opposed  to honest professionals who balance the interests of their clients with the public interest and seek to work in an honest, transparent fashion. That's what Lee stressed in his "Declaration of Principles" way back at the time of the first press release. That's a theme of the PRSA Code of Ethics. It's what I teach my students. Its the way the West Michigan PR pros I know practice. 
  • The reader does  decide. In time people will know that articles are supplied and not original and legitimate news. The articles will then lose value and be seen with the same consumer skepticism as ads. The whole point of publicity, and why it's called "earned media," is that skeptical journalists and editors weigh information carefully and then decide whether and how it should be published. The value is the third party credibility when information is presented, not merely getting it out there at any cost.
I'm disappointed to read about this "indecent proposal" from a PR person. But I'm glad Romenesko exposed him, to prevent other unsavory idiots from trying the same to the ruin of us all.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Danger of Assumed Ubiquity in Social Media

I was talking to my graduate communication management class  earlier this week about deciding on if and how to use various communication technologies. A text we were discussing stressed the importance of weighing the difference between benefits  and costs  to determine the value of a communication technology.

One point I made to them was to beware of assuming that because something is popular with you and your friends, or seems to be getting a lot of buzz in the tech media, that it is the best medium to reach your intended publics, be they employees, customers, investors, B-to-B partners or others. I called this "the danger of assumed ubiquity." In other words, just because a bunch of public relations people are raving about the latest social media platform, don't assume that it is everywhere, that everyone uses it, or more importantly, that the specifically segmented public you want to reach (you DO segment your publics, right?) is using it.

The day after that class  met, Pew released a new study on the demographics of social media use by Americans. The study is useful to see  which platforms appeal to which demographics, such as gender, age, college  education, and race.

But what is also interesting is the fact that overall use of even the most popular and established social media sites is quite low as a percentage  of overall population. Two-thirds (67%) of Americans say  they have used Facebook, especially  women and the 18-29 age group. But other social media platforms are  not as popular as those of us who use them like to think:

  • Twitter -- 16%
  • Pinterest -- 15%
  • Instagram -- 13%
  • Tumblr -- 6%
Generally speaking, your tweet may often fall in the woods when no one is there. Also, keep in the mind that the study doesn't get into frequency or purpose of use. So we don't know how often this small minority  of people are using certain sites, or why they are there (i.e. are they just socializing with friends, or do they really follow brands?) I know from other studies that engaging with organizations via social media is happening, but the reality is there are not a lot of people there to begin with, they are not there often, and they don't go there to keep up with your company or nonprofit organization.

I still think PR pros absolutely have to have a social media presence, because the study shows upward  trend lines from 2010 to 2012 in use. But there are several lessons learned:

  • Don't use social media for mass reach, use it for interaction with specific segments;
  • Remember that social media supplements, and does not replace, other traditional forms of owned, earned, and paid media;
  • Your content has to be conversational, not promotional. Think engage, not just inform;
  • Keep monitoring for which platforms are growing, which are useful for your targeted public segments, and which are best for meeting your organizational objectives.
And of course, don't assume ubiquity of any medium.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Real PR is Inherently Ethical

It's sometimes hard to believe that people still refer to public relations as nothing more than publicity or a marketing tactic. A worse characterization is the public relations is intentional deception, spin and communications associated with this are called "just PR."

Part of that is because there are bad practitioners who perpetuate this negative conception. But such practitioners often don't have a full grasp of PR and should not be the sum total definition of the field. Also, much deceptive communication comes from CEOs, lawyers and other professionals in organizations and it should not be labeled PR if such bad practice is carried out by others.

But there's good news. A recent study involving interviews with 30 seasoned public relations professionals shows that having a complete and accurate understanding of public relations not only leads to ethical PR, it shows how the PR function serves as the ethical conscience for the entire organization.

Read more in my latest blog post for

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Michigan 'Right to Work' Starts External PR

A full page ad appeared in yesterday's Wall Street Journal under the bold headline "What Happens When Michigan Makes History." The headline and copy are similar to what appears on a new micro site ( from Pure Michigan and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

The ad and site tout the recent right-to-work legislation signed by Governor Snyder as "a once-in-a-generation transformation" that has Michigan "poised to become the preferred place to do business."

It makes sense to tout this, since that is the argument advocates of the law made all along. But what is interesting from a PR perspective is that the law was controversial inside the state. One wonders if business owners and site selection specialists will also consider the negative detractors that are also part of the state's business environment, regardless of the new law. You can see the mixed bag of opinion on the issue with a simple Google search on "right to work Michigan."

But, in PR you are always going to have detractors, and you can't always please all publics. There is often a dynamic of external messages not reflecting all internal attitudes. Businesses have to balance employee, customer, investor and other public concerns. Non-profits have competing interests from donors, board members, community leaders and volunteers. Certainly in politics there will be variance in issue opinion. Leadership requires staking a position and moving forward. How that's done is what requires communication ethics and savvy, and why PR is a management function.

In this case, time will tell if the "right to work" law and subsequent campaign will be successful. Union membership and new business in the state will speak louder than ads and web sites.