Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Tech Media Now Must Take Role of Journalists

As the media shake-up continues, it seems that the role and responsibility of "journalism' is shifting from conventional news organizations to the modern digital companies responsible for the changes.

Consider the confluence of recent headlines.

Today I read that the Detroit News is offering buyouts to all journalists on staff, no matter the role or length of service, in order to meet new budget guidelines as the economic model of traditional journalism continues to struggle. This is just the latest in a long list of news outlets reducing reporting  and editing staff.

The shrinking of conventional journalism means an erosion of the role journalists should play in our society in several ways.

One is the role of providing a public forum. For years the letters to the editor and op-ed pages were what the taverns and coffee shops were modern communication--a place for what German scholar Jurgen Habermas called the "public sphere", where citizens discussed and informed themselves about politics and other news of the day.

But these days, people don't need the op-ed pages and letters forum to engage in public debate. Even the online comments sections on mainstream news organizations' apps and websites are losing traction, so much so that some news sites are eliminating comments. People talk about news on social media. Traditional media don't host the conversations, they participate.

Another journalistic function being taken away from journalists is the editing and verification role. Sure, the digital revolution made communication more of a democracy, but it also made it more of a cacophony. Tech companies like Facebook and Google--where much of the control of society's information has shifted--are being asked to vet content they allow into the public realm after reports of fake news appearing along side legitimate information. Facebook and Google don't want to take on this function. It means moving from what the law would call providing access to providing content. Essentially, it means they are being asked to move from being a technology company to being news organizations, going from algorithm to journalism.

In a similar way, Facebook has recently been embroiled in controversy over targeting ethnic groups in Facebook advertising. Micro-targeting is a huge advantage in digital advertising, particularly on Facebook, as a speaker to the GVSU Advertising Club recently shared. This is largely an ethical issue, since in some cases--such as housing ads--certain ethnic groups have been excluded. It raises the old question of do we mainstream all minorities in our communication? Is targeting them a positive way of reaching out to them or is it a negative way of marginalizing them? A lot depends on intent, and requires human oversight.

So even as our technology changes, the issues in our society--and our need for a professional class that can report, monitor, verify, curate and edit content--will be needed.

Advertising and public relations professionals who understand ethics and have integrity can and should fill some of this social role.

But I also wonder if certain former employees of the Detroit News and other "old media" will be snapped up by tech companies like Google, Facebook and other companies who realize the formulas of technology can't fully replace the art and wisdom of actual human agents.

Friday, October 21, 2016

PR and Podcasting

A few weeks ago I was musing in a class discussion that podcasts may not be for everyone. As for me, someone who consumes a lot of media, I would prefer to read. I can read faster than I can listen in real time. I can skim, skip, and delete to get through more content faster. So while I have a few podcasts in my iTunes podcast app on my phone and tab in my laptop iTunes software, they tend to add up while I am busy reading through my blog feeds, email newsletters, academic journal table of contents alerts, and even books on both Nook and hard copy.

But then the evidence to the contrary about the popularity of podcasts started accumulating. Local media and a student organization launched new podcasts. I participated in a Twitter chat about podcasts, and I started a discussion in a LinkedIn group of PR professionals to ask about podcasts.

GVSU PRSSA's Podcast.
One new podcast is PR Hangover, recently launched by the GVSU PRSSA chapter. The podcast is a bi-weekly recap of the chapter's meetings as well as interviews with officers and other news about the student PR group.

Student Kelly Darcy, who has a background working for WCKS 'The Whale" student radio, hosts the podcast. She says the primary audience is PRSSA members, from GVSU and other chapters, but also other young professionals. They've had more than 100 listeners on their Mixcloud account already, and more will come as more episodes are released (there are 5 as of this posting) and now that they are also available on iTunes.

"I am using a Blue Snowball iCE condenser microphone (soon to be two of those, for better sound quality) and recording/editing in Garage Band on my Macbook," Darcy said. "There wasn’t much a learning curve, but after being involved with the radio I had a pretty good grasp on how to record, do sound checks, watch my levels, all of that. Google has also been my best friend."

Even with her radio experience, Darcy is learning a lot doing the podcast and sees the importance of the skill for aspiring PR professionals. She said her peer millennials are constantly on the go but crave learning, and podcasts serve as blogs for busy people.

Pat Evans, a reporter for the Grand Rapids Business Journal and the host of its new podcast, also expects to reach a younger audience with this extension of the weekly paper.

"As the GRBJ Podcast grows and establishes a footing and consistency, it can help us attract a younger demographic along with the growing segment of people who no longer pick up a physical newspaper, don't get to their email or don't have time to read their news," Evans said.

Evans also had experience in college that helped him, in his case doing podcasts for the State News at Michigan State University. But they brought in a sound engineer and producer to ensure the audio quality is professional. He says the radio format isn't too strange for a print journalist--he just forgets the microphone is there and has a conversation like he would in a regular interview.

Both the college student group and the local media outlet have specific reasons for their podcasts, but they also are using them as a PR tactic that serves to expand their reach, educate audiences, and build their brand. 

I asked about using podcasts for PR purposes in the PRSA LinkedIn group and got positive responses from PR professionals in agency, corporate, association and county government settings. A woman from a law firm said audio is less intimidating than video and the casual nature of the conversations gave the lawyers a friendly reputation. Another professional said the podcasts established their company as industry thought leaders. The professional in county government said podcasting was an effective way to educate constituents about county services. 

One of my pet peeves about podcasts is that the audio is not rich or the participants mumble. Podcasts have to have quality sound or people bail. However, everyone I talked with said GarageBand, Pro Tools and other software make this aspect easier. It's just important to test sound levels and quality before posting. 

I also asked about length. As I said at the outset, I'm busy and can't sit still for too long "just listening." My commute is only about 20 minutes. Evans said the length is determined by the guest and how interesting the conversation is. Darcy said they've tested several lengths and a medium length seems best. For both of them the average length is 20-30 minutes. 

However, in a Twitter chat about podcasts hosted by Ragan Communications, social media guru Shel Holzsaid his listeners are not put off by podcast episodes that last an hour and a half. So the length depends on the subject matter as well as audience interest and media consumption preferences. 

The bottom line here is that podcasts are a good and relatively easy tool for modern PR professionals. They offer a new format with the advantage of intimacy and also efficiency for people on the go. They also are a new media relations opportunity. A 20-minute interview on a podcast by GRBJ or other media is a wonderful long-form media placement.

If you want to learn more about this yourself, Ragan is offering a Podcasting Boot Camp for Business Communicators next Wednesday.

Meanwhile, I'll be listening. In addition to the two podcasts mentioned above, I subscribe to "PR Week Review", "WSJ Media Mix", "Inside PR", "On the Media", and my quirky interest, "Presidential", a series of historical reviews of all US presidents. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

4 Shocking Facts About PR Ethics

September is Ethics Month for the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). So before the month runs out, I wanted to chime in on the subject.

If the headline got you to come here, well good. I used the ethically questionable "click bait" tactics of using a number and offering a list, and the word "shocking" probably had you expecting something negative and therefore compelling.

But what actually will shock you is the four things I will impact here about PR and ethics are largely positive. Read on:

1. PR is inherently ethical.  Many people associate PR as "spin" or deception or mere image gloss. And, to be sure, there are some practicing PR that do that. But when their bad deeds come to light the media and others call it a "PR" scandal. This itself is untrue, unfair, uninformed and unethical to paint an entire profession with a broad brush to imply that PR is by definition unethical. That's the shocker: PR, if properly understood and practiced the way it is taught, is ethical by definition. It is impossible to be unethical if PR is done as,what academics call the "two-way symmetrical" model of PR practice. That means that the essence of the field is to build and maintain relationships of mutual benefit, to balance an organization's interest with the interests of society. Some might say that's easy to say but it doesn't happen that way all the time. No, it is aspirational or normative theory. But it also is empirical--it has been observed that PR professionals DO counsel management and co-workers and clients according to this view of the field. Every profession has bad examples; but bad examples are violating professional standards, not defining them.

2. PR is the ethical conscience of the whole organization. Because the public relations function is the only one that considers all publics and works to build positive relationships with all of them, it is best suited to ensure an ethical conscience and culture not just in the PR department or function but throughout the whole organization. An educated PR professional is well trained to listen to all publics, see the big picture, and advise management of all functional areas in ways that ensure ethical considerations are put in practice. If so, crises are prevented, operations are productive, employee retention is enhanced, and profit is achieved.

3. PR problems are most often caused by other people. When an organization is caught in activity that is seen as unethical by a reasonable public, it is called a 'PR scandal,' as mentioned previously. But closer examination of situations reveals that often and even most of the time the deed was done by a CEO, someone in marketing, someone in law, or any other functional area. They may not have sought or did not listen to advice from a "real" PR person. If they had, the ethical lapse is less likely to have happened because, as noted in number 1, the public interest would have been considered.

4. PR as a profession contributes as much positive to society as medicine, law and technology. Ethicists talk about a profession's "role morality," or what is it that the profession contributes to society. Some think that an occupation does not deserve to be called a "profession" unless it has a positive and vital benefit to society. Public health and civil management of disputes are why medicine and law are considered as obvious professions. As for PR, it is all about enabling informed decision making in a democratic society. Whether promoting a product or advocating a point of view on a cause, the public is well served if they have information representing all views. If PR people practice ethically according to a code of ethics and do not manipulate or hide information, they are fulling not just their occupational role but a necessary social one as well.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

No-Show Events A Bow to Busy Culture

I recently received an invitation from an area non-profit organization that really caught my eye. It was for a 'No-Show Gala."

I was cordially invited "NOT to attend."

"No need to hire a sitter. No meed to buy a new outfit. No need to remember how to tie a black tie. We've got NOTHING planned!" So went the hilarious copy.

Then, of course, came the response card.

"Don't go out. Send it in."

I loved it, partly because of the creativity. But also because it seemed to acknowledge a feeling that I have and suspect is not unique--I'm busy, I'm overwhelmed with invitations and requests to get involved and sponsor and support and attend.

In fact, a simple Google search on "no-show gala" yielded quite a few images of similar invitations. This is now what the young people call "a thing."

As a  PR professional and professor, I know of the value and purpose of events. But my skeptical side often says, what a lot of hullabaloo when you're really just asking for a donation. This latest direct mailer cut to the chase and I felt it was refreshing.

But it also is a cautionary tale. If people are so overwhelmed then it gets more and more challenging for PR pros to break through and not just get attention, but foster relationship and earn involvement and support.

So while this invitation I received acknowledges that society is busy, it also caves in to making the appeal a simple fiduciary relationship. And we all lose something there, something simple yet big. We lose a sense of meaning and human bonding. We lose the essence of PR--relationship.

My advice to non-profits and businesses and political candidates and others is to stop thinking of events as mass appeal and think of them as intimate opportunities. Also, stop thinking of events in terms of an occasion to make the case for a cause and use them as a venue to celebrate achieving it. Have interesting speakers, positive messages about what has been done. Make it feel-good, not fill-the-bucket.

People might then send it in later with greater feeling of connection, and possibly therefore in larger amounts. If you tell them "don't go out" too many times they may just go away.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

On Being a PR Adjunct Professor

At college campuses across the country, adjunct instructors are common in the classroom. In any public relations program, there are likely a good mix of part-time adjunct instructors and full-time professors. As one who currently has responsibility of coordinating the schedule for classes in the Advertising and Public Relations major at my university, I can say it is not a cliche to say that "we could not do it without them."

However, there is a good and bad way to do it.

Most of the adjuncts who teach for us have a relationship with me or one of my full-time colleagues. They have solid experience in the field, ideally a master's degree at minimum, and proven ability to teach. With a little initial coaching, coddling and setting them up with resources, they do a great job. But there are some behaviors of aspiring adjuncts that need correction.

1. The "Put Me in Coach" Approach
It's great when a professional comes to me and inquires about teaching. But there are some who grate on nerves when this is an announcement as opposed to an inquiry, as if we can just make room for them because they now want to teach. Professionals who want to teach need to realize that adjunct positions, even though part time, are like any other position. There needs to be a need or opening. There likely are several other candidates. We need to see a resume showing relevant experience--ideally both professional practice and teaching.

2. Disrespect for Subject Matter
I recently chatted with an associate who is an adjunct in a completely different field. She in turn has a friend who recently was downsized out of a teaching job in yet another completely different field. She advocated for her friend as a potential adjunct for me. "But she's in (name of field)," I said. "Oh," my associate puffed, "she can teach anything."

Well, no. There are people with actual experience in PR who can't teach it, or at least not well. There are people with advanced degrees in something related to PR who just don't have the depth of understanding, the "savvy" of the field to sustain them in front of a room of 30 bright and eager students for a semester. Also, I look for passion, integrity and commitment for the field of PR. Saying you "can teach anything" shows a lack of all of those. I would add that those with PR experience should look at the curriculum and say which specific courses you want to--and are well-suited to--teach.

3. The Over-Eager Innovator
Once on-board, it is a common behavior for a new adjunct to suggest large-scale "innovation." I put that in quotes because we probably have thought of it already and done it or rejected it with good reason. Every hiccup or blurb or trend in the trades becomes occasion for "a new class." Take some time, as in any job, to learn the landscape of the program, university, and curriculum before making suggestions. We love ideas from professionals and adjuncts, but they need to be sound. Also, consider the implementation factor--will the idea replace a class, be a required or elective class, how many sections, what is the staffing plan? Higher education is our "business," You're new here. Keep that in mind.

4. The Event Planner or War Story Blowhard
I had another woman from out-of-state planning to relocate to my region contact me about the prospect of being an adjunct. Her main selling point is that where she taught before  she brought in PR professionals from near that campus for every class period. Well, any of us can do that too. And sometimes we do. But not to replace our own teaching. We don't need event-planners or talk show hosts who bring in guests to tell stories. We also don't want adjuncts who only tell their own war stories of how they did or do things in their singular experience, however stellar their career. Students like this to a point, but they want instruction and not just entertainment. We want students to see the big picture. Examples should supplement and not replace sound teaching. We need adjuncts who can put together structured lesson plans, with learning objectives, integrating theory and practice--you know, "teaching." 

5. The Anti-Intellectual
Another potential adjunct actually bragged to me that her classes have no theory. She only discussed practical things. This is a sure way to lose favor in the company of academics. While adjuncts do have the advantage of being in the trenches with current practice experience, they lack the theoretical perspective that is why college is called "higher education." It is not mere job training. This person poo-poohed theory in a way that revealed she did not have a grasp of it. There is nothing more practical than theory. Theory actually describes the "real world" (a term I despise) better than one person's experience. Good theory is the result of the empirical observation of multiple people--professionals or the public--tested repeatedly, analyzed statistically  or formally. In my program--and in those of many around the country judging from the many professors I talk to--we talk about integrating theory and practice. We need adjuncts who can do that, not arrogantly and ignorantly diminish educational value.

So, if you have thought about being an adjunct one day, I encourage you. But please, go forward thoughtfully, with a game-plan and some respect for the institution and the classroom.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Journalists Move from Mainstream to Trade Publications, and Offer New PR Opportunities

IIn the early weeks of the semester in my media relations class, I go over the media landscape for students. College students typically are not well aware of the various media outlets or how and why they cover news. This has been especially interesting in this era of media transformation, where legacy media have apps and multiple digital platforms in addition to traditional formats.

One of the things I always tell my students is to consider small, niche outlets, such as suburban weeklies, minority media, bloggers, digital-only outlets, and trade publications. These media outlets may have smaller reach, but they are more likely reach the audience most appropriate for the content a PR professional has to share. If a trade publication, there is an increased likelihood they will be interested in your industry-specific news release or pitch.

So I was interested to see another local example of a former mainstream media reporter striking out on his own to fill a gap with a new series of trade publications. In this case, it's Rob Kirkbride, formerly a business reporter with the furniture industry as part of his beat, launching several new global publications to cover that industry with greater depth.

He recently launched Bellow Press with two partners, a company that produces "Business of Furniture" and "Workplaces" magazine. Shandra Martinez, business reporter at Kirkbride's former employer Mlive (before that the Grand Rapids Press), offers a nice overview of the new venture, including one industry PR pro's positive reaction to the depth of coverage the trade publications will provide.

It has been interesting to watch what happens to former journalists who have left newsrooms across the country as the digital revolution spreads audience, lowers advertising revenue, and thus shrinks the size of newsroom staff. Many have gone into public relations, some taken to freelancing for newly created media outlets, such as Bridge Magazine in Michigan. Some, like Kirkbride, are getting entrepreneurial and finding a niche subject and market for trade publications.

This matters to PR professionals for several reasons. Primarily, as old media decrease and change, we need to be constantly monitoring the media landscape for new ways to reach audiences. Much of what we do now is owned or shared media, but old fashioned earned media also has new opportunities. We need to think not in mass reach to impress clients and bosses with numbers, but focused, targeted and strategic messaging. Trade publications offer this piece of a media mix. PR professionals in a given industry should watch for more emerging publications in their arena to monitor competition, spot and respond to consumer trends, and position their companies as industry leaders to grow and maintain business-to-business as well as consumer relationships.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Going LIVE! Can Kill Relationships

The new Facebook Live is popular. I know this because my phone is blowing up with notifications that so-and-so is now live.

These live posts are from everyone. There are friends showing their antics at the lake, or an activity at the office. There are self-appointed gurus of advertising, public relations, or something else posting live commentary. The various media outlets I follow have been going live, even the print ones that used to mock TV for going LIVE! for nebulous reasons. And of course various consumer brands and nonprofit organizations are going live at their events and for other reasons.

As I posted recently on my own Facebook account--those who go live too often will soon be dead to me.

Here is the problem with all technology: too many people use it because it is new, because they can, or because others are as opposed to harnessing some discernible value for themselves or others they are hoping to serve. This is now evident again with Facebook Live.

Many people are jumping on the bandwagon, going live because they can, not because there is some merit or reason for real-time proclamation or airing of whatever content they have.

There's a current ad that speaks to this, the one about the lawn mower. "It's not how fast you mow, it's how well you mow fast." The humor in the ad is that this silly statement becomes a meme. But it inspires me to offer a suggestion about live posting, on Facebook Live, Periscope, or other platforms: it's not that you can go live, but why and how you do it.

So let me offer some cautionary commentary to individuals and brands about going live. You can read this right now or later, it's up to you.

  • Everyone is doing it is not an excuse for children or professionals. If you see others doing something, you do not need to also do it. It should not be about how cool you look or keeping up with others. It should be about offering value to whomever you want to or expect to view your content. 
  • Consider the context and environment. Again, if everyone is going live, then your live offering will more likely be seen as an annoyance than a contribution. We quickly cross a line from interesting to intrusive and inundation. 
  • Time-shifting is also a thing. A key motivator in media consumption, particularly TV but other media as well, is the public control of WHEN. We record programs to binge watch later. We stream music playlists more often than listening to radio. We catch up with friends and any brands we follow on social media when we have a moment. So the live movement is contradicting this media convention. 
  • Having something to say is a better motivator than having to say something. Content itself can not be a commodity. There has to be something meaningful there, or it is only noise. How you say things also matters as much as what you say. So Live content must have an urgency or timelines to it that justifies a live notification--another one along with all the others--that justifies it.
In a nutshell, PR and Ad pros responsible for social media management need to be judicious about live content. Try to be interesting and instructive, not merely an interruption. Just as sending news releases daily to a newsroom has a "cry wolf" effect in which you'll soon be ignored, posting too much and too irrelevant live content will get you unfollowed in real-time. Here are a few ideas that might merit going live:

  • Legitimately urgent information. This could be really positive information, your own version of 'breaking news,' that has actual urgent interest to your publics, or it could be an added means of transparency and efficiency in crisis communication.
  • Live events. A nonprofit donor-recognition dinner, a corporate product launch event, a government speech. We can be the media with these and other types of events. Remember to base the decision to go live on viewer interest and not personal or organizational ego.
  • Engagement. Live offers the opportunity for virtual conversations and presentations, a Facebook version of a press conference. Allow people to ask questions via email or some other social platform, and respond on camera in the Facebook Live platform. 
I'd be interested to hear from anyone who has used Facebook Live creatively, if you've measured the response of intended viewers, or other thoughts you have on the topic.

Monday, June 06, 2016

West Michigan Firms Win Awards for 'Good' Advertising and PR

It is interesting to me that a conversation with students about certain professors in other major programs bad-mouthing the ethics of advertising and public relations coincided with news of two local West Michigan firms that earned awards not only for their work, but the fact that it exemplifies socially conscious communications work.

In my spring Fundamentals of Public Relations course, during a discussion of ethics in public relations, several students complained that professors in other courses labeled PR or advertising as nothing short of evil. While it is good to have students consider the negative consequences of some  in the field, it is also paradoxically unethical for someone from outside the field to make such a broad brush stereotype declaration about an occupation. It's what scholars call a synecdoche, in which a part (or one bad example, often of someone not even in PR) serves as representative of the whole profession.

So I was delighted to learn of not one, but two West Michigan firms recently lauded for their ethical and socially aware practice.

First, the Image Shoppe became the first marketing firm in Michigan to be certified as a Benefit Corporation, also called a B Corporation.  Basically, a B Corporation is one that meets rigorous standards we in PR call the "triple bottom line" of sustainability, which includes positive impact on the "3 Es"--economic, equity, and environment (some also use the "3 Ps" of profit, place, people). Learn more about this award in this RapidGrowth article.

Then just last week, Lambert, Edwards and Associates earned a Silver Stevie Award in the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Program of the Year category. The award is part of the annual American Business Awards.  LEA won the award for its 10,000 Scoop Challenge cause marketing program that was created for Denali Flavors, the developers of the legendary Moose Tracks® ice cream. The campaign combined grassroots networking, experiential marketing, media/celebrity engagement, media relations and product sampling into one event. Attendees are encouraged to help eat ice cream for a cause, with every scoop eaten, Denali donates $1 to the local chapter of The Salvation Army, with the goal of raising $10,000 in a four-hour window.

We celebrate creativity and meeting business objectives in our field, and we laud local examples of excellence. It's good to know that we have local firms who are also leaders in terms of not just doing good work, but doing work that does good.

Monday, February 22, 2016

5 Things Educators Want Employers to Know About PR Internships

Employers--we educators love you. We love that you hire our graduates. And we love it when you take on one of our students as an intern, giving them workplace experience and often proving us right about professional standards in the process!

We know having an intern is more than just doing a favor to your local colleges. It's also more than just getting free or cheap labor. It takes an effort to hire and manage interns.

A friend and colleague with her own PR firm recently offered up a blog post to help students do a better job of presenting themselves when seeking an internship. Called "How Not to Get an Internship,"  it recounted the unfortunate story of one enterprising student's sloppy cover letter.

I should say that professors and their college Career Services office do a lot of training to help students avoid embarrassing first professional encounters. We wish all students would put such advice to use, but we can't be ever-present.

I would also like to encourage employers to do a few things to ensure they get good interns, and to help us in education by reinforcing the standards we set for what an internship is. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Remember that an internship is considered the application of concepts and skills learned in class. Some employers seem to take any available student--a "warm body"--without consideration of particular preparedness. Don't assume all college students are the same.
  2. Have a clear job description for your internship. If the student is doing an internship for credit, an appointed faculty internship supervisor will examine the job description to see if the student has met the course requirements to be ready to fulfill described internship duties.
  3. Have students formally apply, and interview them. Internships are job experiences, and that includes the interview and hiring process. It also protects employers and saves grief for faculty members. Ask students what year they are in college, which specific courses they have had that prepare them for the internship duties as defined.
  4. Supervise the intern. In PR this can be a challenge in some cases, because some employers hire a student PR intern precisely because they have no PR staff. In that case, it's especially important to hire an upper-level student who knows what PR is and how to do it. If you are a PR professional, remember that an internship is a bit of a trade-off--you get someone to help with the work load but you have to provide the oversight and assist them in this hands-on learning and application experience. Give candid feedback remembering that this is about the student learning.
  5. Pay them. This is a challenge for some, but even a stipend to cover gas, or a lump sum to help cover the tuition students pay if the internship is for credit. Remember that federal law says interns must be paid and/or getting credit or it is not an internship. They can have both, but if they have neither you have to call them a volunteer. Also remember that paid internships attract the best students.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Some Thoughts on Being an Ethical PR Professional

I spoke earlier today on an ethics panel at the monthly meeting of the West Michigan Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (WMPRSA). I was joined by Jim Wojcik of Central Michigan University (and my college media advisor more years ago than I care to count). 

Jim went over some specific PR ethics cases and issues. I gave the broad strokes, focused on what motivates PR professionals to be ethical, or what influences them into unethical actions.

I started by sharing information from a couple of studies on the subject. A study of PR students (McKinnon, L.M. & Fullerton, J.A. (2014). Public Relations Students’ Ethics: An Examination of Attitude and Intended Behavior. Teaching Public Relations. (90)) showed that students identify certain behaviors as unethical (eg. lying, overbilling, copying work of others, posing as someone you are not etc.) when discussing it in class. However, they also said they would be likely to do these same unethical deeds on the job some day, in a statistically significant difference.  This can be explained by social norms theory and social judgment theory in the sense that a personal ethic in the abstract is less motivating than the organizational or social environment in concrete practice.

Another study about whether PR pros embrace the role of  “ethical conscience” of their organization (Marlene S. Neill & Minette E. Drumwright (2012): PR Professionals as Organizational Conscience, Journal of Mass Media Ethics: Exploring Questions of Media Morality, 27:4, 220-234) showed that increasingly PR pros accept this role, but barriers still exist:
  • Competence in ethics
  • Position in org structure/dominant coalition
  • Management view of PR and ethics
  • Organizational culture

The study concludes with some prescriptions to improve organizational ethics, dependent on the public relations professional: PR must influence the culture, PR must be management function, PR must speak truth to power (no yes men), PR pros must enact a management (not mere tactical) role,
and the PR professional must make the ethical case strategically and creatively to management. 

The question often comes up about how to convince a bottom-line focused management to be value ethics. Some recommendations include:
  • Tie to business goals, reputation, crisis and risk management, brand
  • Ask the “what if this headline” question
  • Stress long-term, multiple publics/objectives over short term financial metrics

I also told the professionals assembled about the PR Council (formerly Council of PR Firms) “Ethics as Culture” initiative. It's worth a look by PR pros who want to influence their organization to be more organically ethical and not treat ethics as an afterthought.

I also addressed the four types of motivations motivations to be ethical. 
  1. Personal. This motivation reminds me of Socrates, who cautioned to not do not damage to your soul. In other words, if you do things because you can get away with it or others don't object, you still may be violating ethics. It also relates to personal branding--your personal reputation could be harmed if you do something unethical even though a boss or client pressured you.
  2. Organizational. This relates to culture as mentioned above, or a policy or specific organizational code of ethics. 
  3. Professional. Another motivation is to be proud of and not wish to damage our profession of public relations. This is why the PRSA Code of Ethics has as one of its provisions the notion of Enhance the Profession in anything a practitioner does.
  4. Societal. This is the most altruistic and shows a higher order of ethical thinking, in which PR professionals balance organizational with public or societal interest. It's about the 'R' in CSR—responsibility.

Finally, I encouraged PR professionals to consider what ethicists call the "role morality" of public relations. In other words, what good does the ethical practice of our profession contribute to society? Essentially, it boils down to enabling all publics to make informed decisions. If we do this, if we span the boundaries of the organization to reach all publics and listen to them, if we respond to public interest and don't merely try to influence them, we are practicing what is called the "two-way symmetrical" form of public relations. If we do that, the profession of public relations--criticized by many--is actually inherently ethical. 

I would hope that would be a motivational thought.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Storytelling: A Renewed PR Focus

Storytelling is big. Again.

In many ways, public relations has long been about storytelling. From the early 1900s, practitioners like Ivy Lee, Edward Bernays, Arthur Page and many who aren't famous today worked to inform and influence the public largely by telling stories.

Well all that's old seems new again. I've seen the word 'storytelling' come up in conferences, job descriptions and agency titles across the country and right here in West Michigan.

For example, PRSA alerted me to a "Master the Art of the Storyteller" workshop is set for next month in Phoenix. Advertisers are in on it too, as this Adweek article about the debut of the Sundance Digital Storytelling Conference can attest.

But it really stood out to me with a couple of local announcements recently. Tom Rademacher, the long-time columnist for MLive, this week joined friend and former fellow journalist MaryAnn Sabo  at SaboPR. The news release from the firm touts Tom's title as "lead storyteller."

"Lead Storyteller is a new title for us, although my team and I have been telling our clients’ stories for many years," MaryAnn Sabo told me.  "Our team is looking at new titles that better reflect what we do and add a little fun.  Really, what does associate or senior associate — two of the longtime staples in PR — tell you about someone?"  

Rademacher as Lead Storyteller and former press photographer T.J. Hamilton hired last year as Visual Guru are the first two descriptive titles at SaboPR. Both Rademacher and Hamilton reflect a renewed emphasis on storytelling, in a multimedia fashion, versus mere information dissemination. One example of Sabo's multimedia storytelling is seen on the Children's Healing Center Facebook page.

"When I started my firm 13 years ago, most of what I did was straightforward business communication," Sabo said. "I’ve seen a significant shift over that time to more of a storytelling format — in fact, our logo (which has been around for 3+ years) and our new website (rolled out in December) reflects that shift."  

Rademacher is already hard at work, writing social media, web copy and media pitches. He'll soon be putting a lot of effort into client newsletters, donor solicitation letters, and anything where writing is key. He'll also be leading the firm's "Writing Matters" writing coaching sessions for staff and clients.

Meanwhile, Tom Hanley, formerly of Wondergem PR, launched at the beginning of the year his own firm, aptly named HanleyStory. He explains why in his new firm's first blog post. As a former journalist himself, he has long believed in the power of stories, and adapted storytelling to PR practice. 

"Our brains are hardwired to remember stories," he told me, referring to some of the articles he references in his blog post.  "Memorable stories help break through the clutter of messaging noise, and gain our attention. The arc of a story follows a path of dramatic tension that forces us to pay attention, and rewards us when a happy ending releases the feel good hormone dopamine. Advertisers and PR practitioners use these techniques to get people to buy a product, or make up their mind about an issue or an idea."

Hanley is particularly interested in helping nonprofits make fundraising case statements. He notes that in an era of diminished capacity of traditional news media, organizations can use social media, blogs and other means to tell their stories directly to their publics in more compelling ways. Part of the problem, he shares, is that many people don't see or share the big picture of what their business or nonprofit is about, and storytelling is a way to do that.

"I have found in my career that people in business or non-profits wear blinders to focus on their own jobs and miss the big picture of the impact created by their company or organization," he said. "I believe a storytelling approach of asking the right questions guides people to think about impact and outcomes rather than the day-to-day operations."