CarPe diem Rebuked

Robin Williams

Robin Williams

“As we mourn the loss of Robin Williams to depression, we must recognize it as an opportunity to engage in a national conversation. His death yesterday created a carpe diem moment for mental health professionals and those people who have suffered with depression and want to make a point about the condition and the system that treats it,” Lisa Kovitz, an executive vice president at Edelman, wrote to her clients this week.  Kovitz added that most mental health organizations haven’t commented because they’re “trying to be non-exploitative or stay business as usual” but implies that they shouldn’t pass on the opportunity– and that Edelman will encourage its own relevant clients to “consider another approach that is more visible and aggressive.”

It’s a standard PR technique: advise clients to seek exposure in light of current events. Yet this blog created a firestorm within the industry and was roundly criticized by others.  The problem: its timing and wording seemed cold at a time when a lot of people are mourning and in shock.  Talking Points Memo’s Hunter Walker tweeted that Kovitz “actually wrote a how to guide for clients who want to use Robin Williams’ suicide for publicity.” Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan wrote, “Suicide: only a bad thing if you don’t have a communications strategy prepared,” calling Edelman “soulless.”

Lisa Kovitz

Lisa Kovitz

“I must believe that at the largest independent PR agency in the world, someone must have raised their hand and said, ‘This is not OK.’ If more than one set of eyes looked at the post and thought it was appropriate, then my faith in this profession might just be lost,” wrote PRSA Vice President Stephanie Cegielski.” This screams of ambulance chasing.  Ms. Kovitz’s blog post did nothing more than disgrace and embarrass (the PR) profession…'”

Two days later, Kovitz added: “We apologize to anyone offended by this post. It was not our intent to capitalize on the passing of a great actor who contributed so much.”  But why wasn’t the offensive post removed, which would’ve been more meaningful–and appropriate?  Your thoughts?

CorPoRate communications

One of the highlights of my participation in the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC)’s annual conference in Montreal this week was seeing Michael Krempasky of Edelman Public Relations.  Krempasky presented “Digital Public Affairs: From the campaign trail and corporate communications” to 100 PR and communications educators.

Edelman's Michael Krempasky

Edelman’s Michael Krempasky

Krempasky, general manager of Edelman’s Digital Public Affairs team and adjunct professor at Georgetown, talked about the changes in corporate communications over the last couple of decades.  He noted what was known as “brand advocacy,” when companies focused on creating awareness to sell products and services, has evolved into “public advocacy,” where firms look to build trust, relationships, collaboration, and action.  He said that corporate communications is less about the competition and more about meeting stakeholders’ expectations.  Traditional advertising and marketing approaches have morphed into business relations, government relations, philanthropy, and public relations.

An active Republican, Krempasky pointed to how the Obama campaigns wisely viewed social media and traditional media as one in the same, never treating them as separate plans but instead completely integrating the two.  He discussed the importance of hiring people with diverse skills, and letting them problem-solve without edicts from detached higher-ups.  He said, “math wins,” suggesting that PR practitioners always pay close attention to measurable approaches and results.  He also suggested we “build things,” meaning we shouldn’t accept only what’s available to us, but rather create new infrastructures and platforms to help reach our goals.

Krempasky concluded by talking about the three basic components that make a successful campaign: time, talent and treasure.  He asked us which of the three were most important; most said, “talent.” Some thought “treasure” or big budgets were the key to successful campaigns.  But Krempasky said that it’s “time”which matters more, especially when there’s a final date attached to a campaign (i.e., Election Day).  He suggested that above all other things, we use our time wisely and strategically when conducting our public relations campaigns.  He’s right–it’s not just about meeting deadlines; it’s about using every PR tool you have efficiently and effectively.  Your thoughts?

ImPoRtant work

For most of my three decades as a communications professional I put together content and programs for target audiences on behalf of my employers.  Whether it was my brief time as a reporter or my lengthier tenure as a public relations practitioner, I worked on instinct, direction from my bosses, and trial-and-error.  I also got professional advice and learned about the profession from my colleagues who pretty much used the same approach to do their jobs.

aejmcIt wasn’t until I starting working in higher education, first on the administration side and then as faculty, did I realize there’s a world of academic research examining our profession.  In the area of communication and public relations, university professors, graduate assistants and research teams look at the effectiveness of the tools and techniques professionals use.  They analyze PR campaigns and results, audiences and influencers, pedagogy and practice.  When I joined Hofstra in 2010 I quickly learned that I would also be involved on the research end of our practice, the goal being the advancement of our profession through journal publications and conference presentations.

This week I’ll attend the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) conference in Montreal, a several day event which will bring well over a thousand educators and professionals together to share their academic research. Papers will be presented on topics both highly specific (“Chinese Milk Companies and the 2008 Chinese Milk Scandal: An Analysis of Crisis Communication Strategies in a non-Western Setting”) and day-to-day practical (“An Analysis of How Social Media Use is Being Measured in Public Relations Practice”).  Professors and graduate students will discuss their findings and we’ll all get a little smarter.

I’ll also be joining a group of more than 100 of my colleagues to visit the Montreal headquarters of Edelman Public Relations where top PR practitioners and managers will share their perspectives on our fast-evolving profession.  We’ll hear about their staffing needs and they’ll give us their thoughts on teaching PR.  Their positions and the important work of our academic colleagues are essential if we, as educators, are to be effective in the classroom.

Your thoughts?

PeRsonal deception?

Facebook likeEveryone has an opinion about Facebook.  Love it, “like” it or hate it, Facebook has a billion and a quarter users, and roughly half of them use it daily.  For public relations practitioners, Facebook is an extremely useful tool for creating relationships with targeted audiences.  In fact, Facebook and other social media platforms have forever changed the practice of public relations in countless ways.

I recently heard a sociologist say that people are using Facebook to prove to their friends and themselves that they have a wonderful life.  He said users rarely share personal tragedy or misery; it’s a center for self-promotion and even Pollyanna-like personal deception.  He believes that people use Facebook to tell others (and I’m paraphrasing), “follow me, look at me, be jealous of me.”

I put this question to my Facebook friends, sharing this theory and asking for reactions. The feedback was interesting.  Here’s a sampling; I’m using first names only:

Wendy: “That perspective has been pondered as long as FB has existed. There is a growing body of research that supports social media perceptions of relationships, and depression in young people.”

Lisa: “Not always true. Our generation connects to old friends, relatives and people with whom we have lost contact. We share our lives, including sad and happy stories.”

Mindy: “I do believe that people tend to amplify their ‘great’ lives on FB and minimize their trials and tribulations. On the flip side, there are those who share every hangnail and belch.”

Alicia: “I love to share and to see how my friends are doing in this hectic selfish and dangerous world we now live in…I will take as much good news as I can get.”

Ellen: “I think Facebook is the place where you can share, catch up and keep in touch. Only silly people think it’s something other than that!”

Flo: “All I know is, my life is better than your life.”

LOL, Flo!

For PR people, using Facebook effectively often yields positive outcomes for their clients.  Are we, in fact, using the same techniques for our own personal PR?  Your thoughts?


Our Pink pRofession

When I attended my first Public Relations Society of America meeting 30 years ago, just four out of 40 attendees (including my boss) were women.  Go to a meeting similar today and the gender ratios have flipped.  When you attend Hofstra’s PRSSA (Public Relations Student Society of America) meetings or any PR class, it’s the same: a very high percentage of female versus male students.

Ann Friedman

Ann Friedman

This week, in a article titled, “Why Do We Treat PR Like a Pink Ghetto?” reporter Ann Friedman writes that “73 to 85 percent of PR professionals are women,” and goes on to lament, “On a New York Observer  list of fictional publicists in pop culture, every notable character since the mid-’80s is a woman — typically sharp-tongued but not supersmart.”

Friedman also notes that 80 percent of upper management PR positions are held by men. “It’s women, often young women, who are likely to be doing the grunt work of sending emails and writing tweets and cold-calling contacts,” she writes.  In her article, Friedman correctly makes other cogent points about our respective professions, and questions whether journalists are judging these young professional women fairly.

“(They do) the very work that journalists, and the rest of us, are likely to see as fluffy,” she adds, “Even when women are doing promotional work at higher levels, they still struggle for respect.”  She says in many cases, the lack of respect comes from misconceptions about the PR profession, and reporters’ resistance to the idea of promoting anyone.

Friedman writes that promotion and even the necessary self-promotion are core professional dilemmas for women publicists.  “You’d think that in the social-media era, the rest of us would be able to relate… Perhaps it’s time for us all to recognize that walking it isn’t easy,” she wisely notes.

So how do PR women–and men–earn the respect they so highly deserve?  They do it by being reliable and honest resources to journalists and colleagues.  Today’s PR profession is indeed more pink than blue, and helpfulness and transparency are the keys to building respect.  Your thoughts?

A blown Photo oppoRtunity

Gov. Perry and President Obama last week.

Governor Perry and President Obama last week

It seems President Obama got some bad PR advice this week.  Why he didn’t visit a center housing some of the more than 50,000 children who have crossed our borders in the past several months was, frankly, beyond me.

According to CNN, “Texas Governor Rick Perry and others are lashing out at President Obama’s decision not to tour border facilities overwhelmed by a flood of undocumented children, saying the U.S. leader needs to see with his own eyes what both sides agree is a humanitarian crisis.  ‘The American people expect to see their president when there is a disaster,’ Perry told CNN…citing Obama’s trip to the East Coast to tour damage caused by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.  ‘He showed up at Sandy. Why not Texas?'”

Obama later argued, “This isn’t theater. This is a problem. I’m not interested in photo ops, I’m interested in solving a problem.”

Rick Perry was right.  President Obama knows, as all national leaders do, that politics IS theater, and how you are seen and what you are seen doing can speak volumes.  By visiting the border or–even better–taking photos with the children–he would have given us a visual representation of how deeply he cares about their awful situation.

This is not to say that the president doesn’t care.  I truly believe that everyone from Rick Perry to Barack Obama to John Boehner want these children to ultimately be happy and safe.  And while they may disagree on solutions to the border crisis and the immediate problem of what to do with these tens of thousands of children, they all care.

Much like his predecessor George W. Bush was criticized for not visiting the victims of Hurricane Katrina in the days following the killer storm, some are angry at Obama for avoiding the border last week.  I see this as a missed opportunity.  In public relations, photo ops are not only important, they can be essential, especially during a crisis.  The president and his staff knew this–but blew a chance to communicate his concern.  Your thoughts?

Hyping PaRis

Mona Lisa's paparazzi at the Louvre

Mona Lisa’s paparazzi at the Louvre

Whenever I mentioned I was spending a week in Paris this summer, the listener’s eyes lit up, a smile would follow, and there was a trace of envy.  After all, Paris has been romanticized by so many, including the great artists and writers who lived there.  Oscar Wilde said, “When good Americans die, they go to Paris.” Songwriter Cole Porter wrote, “I love Paris in the summer, when it sizzles.”  “I felt that Paris was illuminated by a splendor possessed by no other places,” wrote Isak Dinesen. And who could forget Humphrey Bogart’s immortal romantic line, “We’ll always have Paris,” in the classic film Casablanca?

Even though I had a short visit to Paris five years ago, I became curious and concerned about the hype regarding this city.  After all, we’ve all visited someplace or seen something that people rave about, only to be disappointed because our expectations were raised so high. (For me it was seeing Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, which happened to take place in Paris. Meh!).

When public relations people “hype” their clients’ accomplishments or products, the only time it can be justified is when reality meets expectations. Well, I’m back from France to say that Paris passed the “hype” test.  For me, it met or exceeded the expectations that had been raised.  From the Louvre to Notre Dame, from Montmarte to Versailles, from a boat ride on the Seine to the great food, wine, and coffee, the city is positively overwhelming in its scope, colorful history and splendid beauty.

Paris, of course, is also a crowded city with traffic and subways and crime.  But as a tourist, I appreciated and was awed by many of the wonderful experiences the city has to offer.

Hype without results or good performance is merely hype.  But just about everything I had been told about Paris turned out to be true.  Now I’ll smile and be envious the next time someone tells me they’re going to Paris.  Your thoughts?


PRius envy

My gas mileage

My gas mileage

I love my Prius.  I leased it last summer and I’ve already driven it more than 12,000 miles, averaging more than 50 miles per gallon of gas.  It’s comfortable, has a nice ride, and contains sophisticated technology which makes driving it more fun.  Plus, the dealership is state-of-the-art when it comes to customer service.

After my car developed a noise in the brakes, I brought it in. The dealership was very accommodating, lending me a nice car for as long as the Prius would be in the shop.  The service adviser and technician were pleasant, the dealership is very clean and attractive, and its new customer waiting area is wonderfully appointed with a large screen TV, computer stations, comfortable chairs, and free WiFi.

I’ve been impressed with this dealership since I first arrived for a test drive.  Since I leased the car I’ve completed satisfaction surveys, been checked on by customer service and was invited to a cocktail reception for new Prius owners/leasers.

Car dealerships are so focused on customer satisfaction these days that they have seemingly pulled out all the stops to ensure their customers keep coming back for service and for their next car.

But one weak link in a chain of customer satisfaction can effectively spoil all this hard work.  For me the weak link was the service department, which failed to keep promises to update me on the status of my repair.  Each day I’d have to call my service adviser, only to be told I’d be called back later in the day, and only to have to call again when he did not. This pattern went on repeatedly for more than a week until I got my Prius back.

Customer service is public relations.  Creating, maintaining or changing impressions and attitudes takes work, but above all, it takes consistent performance.  All the effort that went into making this dealership special were, in effect, spoiled for me by one weak link in the service department.  Good customer service requires excellent performance by everyone or it doesn’t work.  Your thoughts?

Good news from top PRos

GAP center-nameI occasionally like to focus this blog on trends in the public relations field, both in the practice of PR and the potential for jobs for new graduates and current practitioners.  There was good news for present and future public relations professionals this week, as the USC Annenberg Strategic Communication and Public Relations Center released its eighth biennial Communication and Public Relations Generally Accepted Practices (GAP VIII) Study.  Participants included 347 senior communications professionals in corporations, government agencies and non-profit organizations, and was supported by the leading professional associations in the field.  Here are some encouraging results from the 50-question survey:

  • In 2014, 40% of public company respondents expected their PR/communication budgets to increase over 2013 levels.  In 2013, 60% experienced budget increases over 2012.
  • The survey noted that 40% of the respondents experiencing staff growth in 2014 over 2013 outnumbered those expecting flat or reduced staff size.  Thirty-eight percent (38%) reported staff growth in 2013 over 2012.
  • Almost 40% of respondents reported that PR/communication plays an active role in organizational strategic planning, while 15% strongly disagree and 45% are neutral.  Fifty-nine percent (59%) agree that PR/communication’s recommendations are taken seriously by senior management, while 9% strongly disagree and 32% are neutral.
  • Of the GAP VIII study respondents, 44% agree that their senior leadership believes PR/communication contributes to financial success, while 6% strongly disagree and a substantial 50% are neutral.
  • Forty-three percent (43%) have a solid reporting line to the CEO, president or chairman (collectively referred to as the C-Suite), and 43% have both a dotted line to the C-Suite and a solid line to another function, including 26% who have a solid line to marketing and a dotted line to the C-Suite.  Only 14% have no line whatsoever to the C-Suite, which is good news for PR practitioners who understand the importance of having a “seat at the table” when decisions are made.
  • According the GAP VIII, “Industries in which the majority of respondents expected staff growth in 2014 include energy, natural resources, finance, insurance, manufacturers/marketers of B-to-B products, professional services, retailing, and transportation/shipping.”

PR is not only an exciting field in which to work with a plethora of career options, it’s vital and growing and important.  And a survey this comprehensive proves it.  Your thoughts?

PooR response

Bert Cunningham

Bert Cunningham

My good friend and mentor Bert Cunningham had a distinguished public and private sector PR career spanning more than four decades. More recently, Bert taught public relations at Hofstra and occasionally contributes ideas for this blog. He’s guest-written this week’s blog and as always, Bert’s words are timely and wise:  

The outspoken part owner of California Chrome, Steve Coburn, blew the goodwill his horse earned by winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with his post-Belmont Stakes rant. Last week, he doubled down with more sour grapes. He didn’t apologize until the following day, which was too late. Other news stories took center stage by then. And, most importantly, the 20.6 million who viewed the race on TV had moved on.

Here’s the lesson: Coburn didn’t have a PR plan for a loss. He believed his own hype.

Coburn knew going to the Kentucky Derby it was possible fresh horses could be entered in the Belmont if his horse made it that far and that it was possible his horse could lose.

He convinced himself California Chrome could not lose, despite the odds against a win. In any business there is always the possibility that things can go south despite all the hard work and positive PR. That’s why it’s necessary to have a “Plan B.”

The day before the Belmont, June 6th, was the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. It was marked with moving ceremonies in France, New York, and other places around the globe. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the overall commander of the invasion, was ready with a statement in case it failed. After more than a year of planning, build-up and training, Ike was ready in case things went south.

Coburn, unfortunately, didn’t take the time to pre-plan a gracious statement just in case. Had he simply acknowledged he was disappointed with the loss, but still believed California Chrome was a champion, he would have gained a great deal of empathy. When the news came out Monday that Chrome was clipped by another horse out of the gate and ran the race injured, the horse would have gained even more sympathy for running a gritty race.

Now, Coburn is viewed as a poor loser who blew his 15 minutes of fame with hot-headed remarks that made him look foolish. He also put his sponsors and others on his team – and it is a team effort – in awkward positions.

Brands cannot survive in the long run with that kind of short-sighted PR strategy. Leaders of organizations, and chief communicators, must understand they carry a huge responsibility to protect reputations in good and bad times. It not only makes good business and PR sense, it’s a moral/ethical imperative.  Your thoughts?


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