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.