When learning the 20th century history of public relations, we often focus on Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays. Lee’s 1906 “Declaration of Principles” and Bernays’ 1923 book “Crystallizing Public Opinion” had profound impact on the growth and understanding of the profession. Students of PR history should also know Arthur Page, who built on their early efforts and helped shaped public relations as we know it today.
Page, who served as vice president of public relations for AT&T from 1927-1946, created the “Seven Principles of Public Relations Management.” They are as relevant now as they were nearly a century ago. Here’s a slightly edited version:
- Tell the truth. Let the public know what’s happening and provide an accurate picture of the company’s character, ideals and practices.
- Prove it with action. Public perception of an organization is determined 90 percent by what it does and ten percent by what it says.
- Listen to the customer. To serve the company well, understand what the public wants and needs. Keep top decision makers and other employees informed.
- Manage for tomorrow. Anticipate public reaction and eliminate practices that create difficulties. Generate goodwill.
- Conduct public relations as if the whole company depends on it. No corporate strategy should be implemented without considering its impact on the public. The public relations professional is a policy maker capable of handling a wide range of corporate communications activities.
- Realize a company’s true character is expressed by its people. The strongest opinions — good or bad — about a company are shaped by the words and deeds of its employees. Corporate communications must support each employee’s capability and desire to be an honest, knowledgeable ambassador.
- Remain calm, patient and good-humored. When a crisis arises, remember that cool heads communicate best.
When a 21st century PR practitioner is performing skillfully, ethically and effectively, there’s little question that Page’s principles have greatly influenced their actions. Students of PR–and PR professionals on the front lines every day–must remember to embrace Page’s sage advice. His tenants are what makes our profession uniquely necessary in our world of constant communication. Your thoughts?
‘Why?’ asks the confused waiter. ‘I’m a panda,’ he says, at the door. ‘Look it up.’
The waiter turns to the relevant entry and finds a poorly punctuated explanation: Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
As classes began this week, I created widespread fear when I emphasized that success in public relations requires excellent writing skills. An often-repeated maxim in our industry states that a press release with a misspelled word or a poorly-constructed sentence is the quickest route to the garbage pail or delete button.
The maxim was reinforced in an article this week by Brian Pittman in the Bulldog Reporter’s “Daily Dog” in which he wrote about PR trainer Michael Smart. Smart’s interviews with journalists revealed what bothers them most about PR writing. He listed types of approaches which reporters say are the “seven deadly sins of PR writing:”
- Vague, fluffy
- Few facts
- Rambling, verbose
- Overly promotional
- Jargon-prone, technical
- Indirect, doesn’t get to the point
Smart highlighted other problems including (yikes!) when PR people can’t write a simple, declarative sentence — using a subject, a verb and an object. He suggested those “overly promotional” words including “groundbreaking,” “state-of-the-art,” “cutting edge,” and “landmark” are real reporter turn-offs. Smart concluded by noting how spell check should only be used as a first step in the proofreading process; it isn’t the last word on whether something is written well. “Take a break… read it out loud, start from the bottom, and have someone else look at it,” he said.
Can everyone quickly improve their PR writing? Yes! Get an AP Stylebook, where you’ll find standards on grammar, punctuation, abbreviations, numerals, capitalization, and much more. There are countless similar books available, although I highly recommend “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” by Lynne Truss, which humorously illustrates the importance of punctuation and grammar. The book’s title comes from the joke which began this article. Now go back and read it again–out loud.
A new academic year is about to begin and I can’t wait. Across the country approximately 21 million students will be enrolled in college, more than ever before, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Most members of the freshmen class will have been born in or around 1996, about 37 years after me.
These numbers represent a challenge for educators my age, especially when teaching a subject as ever-evolving as public relations. Many of us can remember when press releases were created on typewriters and mailed in envelopes using stamps we had to lick. Since those primitive tools, we’ve witnessed astounding changes, and as professionals we’ve had to keep our skills sharp and up-to-date. We former PR pros must stay ahead of the curve to teach the latest trends, techniques and tools with future public relations practitioners.
Even during the four years I’ve been teaching full-time at Hofstra University, change has come fast and furious. For example, college students now favor using Twitter and Instagram over Facebook. Online video is rapidly becoming the most effective way to move people to action, and YouTube is now the second most-used search engine, behind Google. These changes in how people are using social media have profoundly impacted the way PR people do their jobs. We don’t just pitch stories, promote clients and diffuse crises; we have to be content providers — creating words, pictures and video for online platforms and web sites in an ongoing planned effort to gain attention and inspire positive attitudes and responses. To do this, we need to be more than good writers and pitch-persons; we must manage and master the current multi-media desktop and mobile tools, and use them to tell our stories very effectively.
For the new PR students who may think the profession is about red carpet events and flashy media moments, it’s more often not. Most of what we do is to use traditional and new media tools create content to initiate, persuade and change opinions. I’m excited about what’s next…are you? Your thoughts?
If you want to seek the latest in public relations case studies, you don’t need a text book. Just watch the news.
In an pre-season NFL game last Monday, Johnny Manziel raised a middle finger as he jogged back to the Cleveland huddle near the Washington sideline after throwing an incomplete pass. The gesture was captured by ESPN’s cameras. Penalty! It became an instant public relations issue for the NFL, the Cleveland Browns and Johnny Manziel.
Ferguson, Missouri was the main focus of news coverage in recent weeks. The shooting of unarmed, 18 year-old Michael Brown by a policeman brought about storms of protest and subsequent riots as angry demonstrations and looters poured into the streets. The public relations mistakes made by the governor, the mayor and by the Ferguson Police Department are good case studies in bad PR. The worst offense came when the department released the officer’s name and simultaneously released an unrelated video of Brown allegedly robbing a store. Ouch! This horrible decision only elevated the anger.
Critics protested when President Obama played golf as crises in Missouri and the Middle East mounted. Although Obama has played more rounds of golf than any of his predecessors, he has taken one-third the vacation days of his immediate predecessor. Meanwhile, he had announced the White House reaction to the execution of journalist James Foley just minutes before starting a round. Bogie! More ammunition for the opposition and another PR snafu for the president.
On a happier note, by now you’ve either seen or participated in dumping ice cold water on someone’s head to raise money to fight ALS/Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a publicity campaign that’s been sweeping the nation. Bravo! The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a wonderful example of a campaign gone viral for a great cause. It’s easy, fun, and the campaign has already raised $63 million dollars.
PR case studies are always right under our noses. Just read a newspaper, follow Twitter, or turn on the TV, and then sit back and observe. Your thoughts?
“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.”
“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…'”
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.
It 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.
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.
This week, in a nymag.com 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?
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?