Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Award Winner Discusses School PR

Michelle Ready was named 'Communicator of the Year"
by the Michigan School Public Relations Association.

I was interested to read recently that Michelle Ready, director of Communications and Integrated Marketing for Ottawa Area Intermediate School District (OAISD), was named Communicator of the Year by the Michigan School Public Relations Association.

You can get the full story of the award from the OAISD press release.

Not only is it nice that a West Michigan professional earned this state-wide honor, but I am glad that an area of public relations--school PR--got a little attention.

As I tell my students, and whenever I speak, public relations is a very diverse profession. There is public relations, and there are public relations professionals, in all three sectors--private, nonprofit, and government--no matter what the job title is called.

As for school public relations, I did a video about education PR a few years ago with Ron Koehler of the Kent County ISD and at the time president of the National Schools Public Relations Association (NSPRA). The video was part of a series I did to show in my Fundamentals of Public Relations class to demonstrate the wide variety of PR practice and job opportunities. You can see the video and others in my YouTube Channel under  the 'PR in Practice' playlist.

I reached out to Ready to congratulate her and ask a few questions about school PR, where she has made her career since graduating from Hope College in 1992, where public relations was her favorite class and her aspiration was to work for a PR firm. But after graduation and assignment at the ISD via a temp agency exposed her to the education field and she fell in love with the people and culture at the ISD. A full-time position opened soon after, and other than a three-month stint at a PR firm, she returned to the ISD realizing that was a better fit.

"It’s rewarding for me to work in an industry dedicated to human development," Ready said. "I love knowing that my work impacts children and families. I get to experience special moments like when students and educators celebrate together milestones that have been reached, or the excitement of students diving into a new learning opportunity and seeing how it builds confidence. I believe our teachers are under-appreciated, so it’s important in my work to focus on ways to elevate public perception by sharing with our communities the many miracles that are happening in and out of the classroom, every day."
The PR work for an ISD is diverse. Providing services to all school districts within the county, and to individuals from birth to senior citizen, can get complicated. Primary publics include students, parents/guardians, community members, tax-payers, business/industry leaders, community agencies, educators, school board members, legislators and media. 

"As a regional service agency, we are positioned to help districts anticipate the impact of important education issues and help them respond in ways that effectively inform their school families and communities and garner support," Ready said. "We provide leadership, counsel and technical assistance as needed. At times, we assist a single district with their unique needs, and other times we help facilitate common messaging for all of our member districts. Our team also strives to advance OAISD’s role and reputation in the education industry as we participate in a variety of multi-region and statewide initiatives."
 Like any area of public relations practice, school PR has its own set of challenges. Among them are the ongoing conversations nationally and locally about the quality of public education, in which perception and reality can be at odds. Also, Ready says it is an ongoing effort to educate key state legislative officials given term limits at the state level. Staying ahead of the message is difficult because of social media and the fact that education is a perennial hot topic.

"As PR professionals, we always try to be proactive in communication, however that’s becoming increasingly challenging in this era of technology and information at everyone’s fingertips, all of the time" Ready explains. "Education is an emotional topic because it involves youth. With social media, there’s a great deal of information flowing between people at any given hour, and there’s no shortage of misinformation. It can be challenging to dispel myths before they get wheels."
One example of a current broad based PR initiative is "Ottawa Area Schools, Doing More. Together", an effort led by Ready and her team at the ISD. It involves collaboration with traditional public schools, public school academies and faith-based schools. Through this initiative, they are sharing stories that highlight the high-quality education that’s taking place in local communities in an effort to build partnerships with business and community groups, elevate public perception, and increase community support for schools in the region. 

"We use a fully integrated approach to building partnerships, creating awareness and fundraising," Ready said. "We do presentations to Chambers, Rotary Clubs, businesses, economic development groups and other agencies, as well as community events. We publicize through social media, billboards, radio and television, YouTube pre-roll, sharing our written and video stories that are housed on the website " .
The campaign can also be followed at and

Congratulations to Michelle Ready for being named Communicator of the Year, and thanks to her as one more PR professional demonstrating the value of the public relations profession in another specific setting.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Community Relations Important Even for Well-intended Nonprofit Programs

This article in MiBiz about the Grand Rapids based nonprofit AmplifyGR needing to address community mistrust caught my eye. It's another example of a news story that does not use the words "public relations" or "PR" even though it is the essence of the issue at hand.

The organization was working to develop 35 acres in southeast Grand Rapids as part of an effort to increase jobs, housing, education and health care in the area. But it recently cancelled community engagement meetings and took a cue to slow down and "develop community relationships" before moving ahead.

This is a typical mistake of even the most well-intended nonprofit efforts--swooping in with solutions before fully understanding the problem, delivering programs without listening to those intended to be served.

Corporations engage in what is known as community relations (or they should) as a way to be less aloof and perceived as merely motivated by profit in the geographic areas where they have a plant, office or store. This helps build mutual relationships with publics beyond merely customers, employees and government officials.

It is always good for nonprofits to do the same, and not assume that their good programs are welcomed and understood by the communities they serve. There is a large operational risk of looking arrogant and insulting if the community members are treated as targets rather than partners.

Good community relations practice involves doing more thorough research of the community culture and not just the broad issue or problems to address. This could include:

  • getting a sense of the community perception about what their most pressing needs are;
  • finding out what has been tried before, by whom, with what result;
  • what are the preferred methods of communication;
  • what ideas do community members have to solve the problems they themselves have identified;
  • to what degree do community members want to partner, lead, or simply benefit from any resulting programs;
  • what community partners would be approved and appreciated partners in the community;
  • what should be the longevity of the program, is it permanent or is their a defined exit timeline and method.
As a general rule, nonprofits  should start by listening and not announcing. It's fundamental community relations, a vital form of public relations. And it is critical to reputation and operational success.

It seems from the MiBiz article that AmplifyGR has taken a step back and is approaching the planning more humbly. It will be a good case study to see the results.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

PR is the Talent that Attracts and Retains Talent

An article in last week's Grand Rapids Business Journal alerted me to another study about "talent." It's become almost cliche' to say that CEOs value "attracting and retaining top talent." This study was no different in that regard, but it did have a refreshing emphasis on communication as a tool to acquire and keep a skilled workforce.

The 2017 Gallagher Benefits Strategy and Benchmarking Survey  had the usual discussion of benefits, salary and quality of life. But near the end it had this gem: communication is a key factor in employee satisfaction. What I especially appreciated was a comment from one of the executives of Gallagher, an insurance, risk management and consulting firm. He noted the need for a comprehensive communication strategy to communicate the solutions human resources provides, but that only 15% of companies have such a comprehensive strategy.

This not a revelation to people who work in or teach public relations, particularly those who focus on what is typically called internal or employee relations. It's a specialty form of public relations, focused on a specific public--employees. When I teach public relations management and other courses, I devote some time to the objectives and strategies of employee relations. I know more than a few PR professionals, including a growing number of former students, whose full-time job is to manage internal communications.

There is an increasing number of books on employee communication, including the recent "Excellence in Internal Communication Management" by professors Rita Men and Shannon Bowen (writing this blog post reminded me to order it!). The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), which has special interest sections for various specialties within the broad profession, has long had an Employee Communications Section.

All of this is to say that it's good to see the CEOs and management consultancies are understanding that communication is vital to the talent problem, and that communication is not just "getting the word out" but requires strategy that is tailored to the public and the goal. This comes from educated and practiced public relations professionals. They may be embedded in the human resources department, or they assist HR from their separate PR department. But however it's structured, a PR professional is both a tool in the talent acquisition and retention of an organization and a form of talent in it's own right.

The fact that PR "talent" is also sought is evident in the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast that there will be a 6% increase in demand for "PR specialists" between 2014 and 2024. I think it will be higher if the definition of "what they do" on the BLS site went beyond "maintaining a favorable image" and "sending news releases." That may have summed it  up in 1914 when "public relations" was new. But the profession is far more diverse than that now, including employee relations.

I would hope that the focus on "talent" will help CEOs and others see the full breadth of what public relations is and can do for a company. One day managers will place as much emphasis on employee relations as they do on consumer relations.

As one example. consider the simple "employee life cycle" that mimics cycles for products or consumer engagement. To truly attract and retain talent, companies need to be thinking about what and how they communicate through all stages:

  • before even hiring, reputation matters. Potential employees look at how current employees are treated, and people talk! The goal is to become an employer of choice in your industry or region, the place top talent would love to work if possible. 
  • when hiring, process matters. This is the initial relationship formation stage. Communication needs to be frequent, transparent, and respectful.
  • the employment stage is obviously the crucial one, and must go beyond dissemination of information and policy. That's necessary, but the objective needs to be motivation, morale, and retention. More than cheerleading is required.
  • the exit, whether by retirement, job change or termination, must be managed wisely. Good companies do exit interviews to understand why an employee is leaving, and to get honest reflection on their time with the company. Excellent companies have alumni employee programs and keep in touch years after employment, recognizing that former employees are their best ambassadors in talent acquisition. 
While much of the emphasis on attracting talent focuses on employees in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), I would hope CEOs in those and other industries see the wisdom and benefit in attracting and retaining PR talent as well.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Nonprofit boards--PR vital, pay optional

MiBiz reported recently that the National Association of Nonprofit Organizations and Executives (NANOE) advocates that members of nonprofit organization boards should be compensated financially and also provide more oversight to the organizations on whose boards they serve.

The MiBiz article notes that nonprofit executives in Michigan "bristle" at the notion, and with good reason. For one, pay should be optional. Of the thousands of nonprofit organizations in existence, many can not afford to pay more than an executive director or much staff, let alone board members. Also, many board members work for love of the cause or a desire to engage in some community service. The fact that they work pro bono does not mean they do not take seriously their oversight role.

But what struck me even more is that NANOE suggests there should be four specific nonprofit board roles: an "enterprise development" specialist, a mission specialist, a CPA and a lawyer. I think this roster makes sense but falls short.

My own research, published as a chapter in the book "Public Relations in the Nonprofit Sector: Theory and Practice," is an investigation of nonprofit boards and their public relations capacity, or lack thereof. Based on an investigation of executives of Michigan nonprofit organization, the results are mixed.

While a majority (76%) said that communications with stakeholders was a role and capacity sought in board members, only 11% indicated it was the most important board member ability. Other capacities included knowledge of the organization's cause or mission and fundraising ability. While 52% said they had at least one board member with PR education or experience, this may be due to the fact that 75% define public relations as “getting the word out.”

The good news is that PR and communications ranked high--after some of these other functions--as an important knowledge or skill set for board members to have. But there is work to be done in building understanding in the nonprofit community of what PR is in the first place--including relationship building, branding, reputation management, and strategies both internal and external.

It's interesting to read NANOE's idea for nonprofit boards, but it's short-sighted to impose it on all organizations as a one-size fits all strategy. It flies in the face of tailored strategy and organizational individuality. It also runs the risk of damaging hard-won reputation and community relations. Ironically, a board member with some PR savvy would be able to offer this counsel.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Entitled Employer

I hear a lot from professionals in public relations and advertising about how some (emphasis on some) college students are too "entitled." There are frequent articles in the mainstream media and in various blogs about the concept too. To a degree, there is truth to the assessment.

But unfortunately, too many employers and others have latched on to this "entitlement" meme to the point that it is painting with a broad-brush all college students and recent grads. It is an unfair stereotype.

What's worse, it has gone too far in some cases that it is the employer who is entitled.

Let's be clear about what entitled means. It is the notion that some "milennials" think they are owed a good job with high salary and benefits, even though they have not proven themselves yet. Again, there is some truth among some young people in this regard. I and my colleagues coach them to be humble and patient and the rewards will come, but they can't expect it the day after graduation.

However, an incident and series of interactions with alumni last week made me think about the other side of this story.

One alumna messaged me about an upsetting experience. She had been interviewing with someone about a potential job and got an offer, but it was for less than her current salary and minimal benefits. She countered by asking for a salary that was the same as her current level and noting that she would need benefits to move.

The employer responded by posting a video on social media where he--after narcissistically telling his own story--complains about "entitlement." He did not mention my former student by name, but it implied the video post was a response to her not accepting his low-ball offer.

Aside from the gum chewing and back lighting in the video, this employer makes significant mistakes. Sure, he is an entrepreneur who made his own sacrifices to launch his successful businesses. That is admirable. But that is not a valid reason to exploit potential employees, to make others sacrifice just because he did. He is confusing his past experience for the present labor market, which is often described as a "talent shortage." It's short sighted and a guaranteed opportunity cost for him to turn away good talent because he wants to see the world within the walls of his own business.

Consider that this alumna is not seeking her first job, but her third. She had good internships in college, worked for little in her first job to gain experience, leveraged that for her next job, pretty much is rocking that job and would be an asset for this employer. There are different ways to struggle, to pay ones dues, to move up the ladder. She did not start her own business but she was her own brand, and in fact very similar to this employer. They should see eye to eye, but the fact that they don't means he is not seeing clearly.

Let me give  other examples from talking to alumni in just the past week.

One is a young man who graduated two years ago and I noticed on LinkedIn that he landed a good job as an account executive in New York City. I congratulated him and we had a good dialog. He had done a lengthy internship in Grand Rapids while in college, got a job at a Detroit agency after college where he worked on a national account. But he left because, wait for it, he wanted "more of a challenge." In his job search he had, wait for it again, several offers in New York but the agency he now works for offered more interesting challenges.

Local video-posting, gum-chewing, entitled employer--are you getting this? Multiple offers in New York. Wanted more of a challenge. That is not entitled. That is talent and work ethic.

Later last week two alumna who had driven up from Chicago at the invitation of a colleague who advises our PRSSA chapter made a visit to one of my classes. They both told their stories of networking, working for low pay or a post-graduate internship, staying humble, doing whatever task was thrown at them. Today, a year out of college, they are both happy and working at an international PR firm and a digital agency in Chicago.

There was a time any of these alumni might have worked  for low pay and benefits  for the chance to gain experience with a Grand Rapids start-up. But they did that elsewhere. They have been there and done that. They have their own stories to tell, even if they don't post gum-chewing videos. They were snatched up by employers in New York and Chicago, or they are staying put at their current Grand Rapids employer.

They know the employers to pursue, and the ones to avoid. The latter are the entitled ones.

Monday, January 16, 2017

What's Old is New Again: PR News Bureaus

I was glancing through the Grand Rapids Business Journal's 2017 "Book of Lists," jumping to the advertising and public relations section of course, and read a short article in that section in which a particular sentence jumped out at me:

"In recent years, many PR firms have created in-house news bureaus to aid in getting their stories told." The GRBJ subsequently explained that these news bureaus allow firms to pitch fully packaged news stories versus just a pitch to an editor who has to decide whether to invest time and resources to cover the story.

This is why this jumped out at me: I am currently re-reading Stewart Ewan's "PR! The Social History of Spin". Ewan recounts how AT&T, in the early 1900s, was being innovative by employing a mix of paid advertising and "packaged news items". This activity was formalized in AT&Ts Information Department, later renamed, wait for it, the Public Relations Bureau.

In other words, what the GRBJ states is a phenomenon of "recent years" among PR firms was actually done a century ago by major corporations.

What's interesting to me is why this aspect of PR history is considered "new" again. It has to do in my opinion with the media landscape. In the early 1900s there was an surge in "new" media that coincided with increasing leisure and reading time of an expanding literate public. Publishers needed information to feed their growing audiences, not unlike the call for "content" today. TIME Magazine was founded in 1923 and by two twenty-something Yale grads who proclaimed that people needed a "news weekly" to make sense of all the overwhelming volume of information. Radio came onto the scene in 1919 with a first commercial radio station, and by the end of the decade there were radios in many homes.

These days, with the proliferation of digital content and the shrinking resources of journalism, some packaged content also looks welcome.

But we also have to be careful in the current era of sponsored content and fake news that we PR professionals are honest in our presentation of news whether via earned or owned media. This reminds me of a little bit of "the rest of the story" as Paul Harvey would say.

In 1927 a man named Arthur Page became AT&Ts Vice President of Public Relations. He's a PR hero of mine because he used the term public relations, not "press agent" or "publicity man," and because he was at the vice president level of the largest corporation at the time.

But he should also be heroic to all of us for how he practiced PR. For one, he noted by the late 1920s that he didn't do press releases and publicity much anymore, but counseled management on their relationship with their publics. Yes--that is the essence of PR, not getting publicity.

Page is also heroic for his principles of practice codified subsequently and encouraged currently by the Arthur Page Society. The first two are my favorites: tell the truth, and prove it with action. They serve as good reminders in any era of PR, and especially now when digital media offers opportunity but also temptation to be less than ethical in our communication.

So even as PR practices like news bureaus are both as old as silent films and as new as Snapchat, there are principles that remain timeless. I continue to embrace and encourage innovation in our field of public relations, but also a mindfulness of our history and our responsibility to be ethical in our practice.