The People’s Republic and PR

I spent a few hours in China last week.

Well, I wasn’t actually in China. I spoke to several Chinese students through the “magic” of Skype. The purpose of my six conversations was to interview applicants to Hofstra’s graduate program in public relations. Interviews are standard practice for applicants, and it’s especially interesting when I can talk face-to-face to a potential student 7,000 miles away.

Each student was asked why they were interested in coming to the United States for an advanced degree, and each gave me similar reasons. Their primary goal was to obtain an education where they can use the communication theories they’ve learned as undergraduates in China for more practical, real-world applications. They want to accomplish this by coming to New York, where they know they’ll have excellent opportunities to intern, network and be exposed to some of the best and most experienced PR professionals in the world.

Another common thread in these conversations was their interest in learning in an American classroom. They’re used to lecture-style lessons in big classes where they don’t interact with the instructor or each other; their role is to listen, take notes and do little questioning. They all told me they’re looking forward to a classroom environment where they can have actual discussions with their professors and fellow students.

statue-liberty-over-flagOne student’s thoughts about America were especially intriguing. Her perceptions came from first-hand experiences while she was an exchange student at California’s Berkeley University. She was impressed with the openness and helpfulness of Americans, and how willing we are to extend a hand to a stranger who simply asks. Behind her on the wall was a huge picture of the Statue of Liberty and Old Glory.

It’s not easy for an international student to be successful in an American PR program. I make sure they understand the language challenges they face given the writing-intensive nature of our profession. I emphasize how the culture of our PR and media will greatly differ from theirs. If they qualify, we, too, will extend our hand. Your thoughts?


The PeRil of spin

brian williamsIt was a very tough week for journalism. The untimely deaths of CBS’s Bob Simon and The New York Times’ David Carr shocked their colleagues and followers, as did the announced departure of Jon Stewart from “The Daily Show”. While Stewart always insists he’s just a comedian, there’s no denying his profound influence on how we receive the news.

However, little dominated the headlines last week more than the six-month suspension of Brian Williams, anchor of NBC Nightly News, TV’s highest-rated news program. After it was found Williams fabricated stories about his experiences when covering the news, he was removed from the anchor chair. He apparently lied about being shot at while aboard a helicopter in Iraq, and may have made up his report about seeing a floating body in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Both events didn’t happen according to witnesses, and Williams apologized for his “conflated” tale.

The highly-respected and popular anchor is now suffering from the peril of spin. Yes, he was on a chopper in Iraq but it was a nearby chopper that received gunfire. Yes, he was in New Orleans after Katrina, but there was little-to-no flooding in the French Quarter. Other allegations of lies and spinning are being investigated by NBC, with some believing there’s more revelations ahead.

My good friend and seasoned PR practitioner Bert Cunningham wrote, “Brian Williams’ primary mission was to tell the news story, not be the news. Same holds true for public relations pros. They need to remember they are telling the stories of (their) brands. They must not become a story through unethical or questionable practices or expressions of personal opinion–via social media, for example–that reflect badly on themselves and those they represent.”

Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank said last week, “Trust is built in drops and lost in buckets.” Squandering trust through spin and deception can ruin friendships, marriages and careers. No individual, business or institution is exempt from truth. In news, in PR and in all walks of life, trust must be earned and maintained. Can Brian Williams ever get it back? Your thoughts?

Re-Posting for loveRs

Readers: A favorite blog post of my students was titled “PR is for lovers” which was written for Valentine’s Day two years ago. I’ve updated it slightly and am re-posting it. Enjoy!

“When a person brings flowers to a date, that’s good public relations.”

Love PRAs we attempt to define public relations, we can agree on the premise that PR seeks to accomplish one of three responses: to create attitudes, to reinforce attitudes, and to change attitudes. And a comparison to dating and relationships works well.

For example, consider online dating. Two people create profiles–comparatively what PR practitioners call backgrounders–to describe their history and current personal and professional status. When one spots a potential match they contact the other, usually with a clever, enticing online note–in effect, a pitch letter. If the “pitch” works, a first meeting will take place at a mutually selected venue. One of the first get-togethers will involve event planning for which schedules are coordinated, clothing is selected, and grooming is completed so the presentation (date) goes exceptionally well. As the relationship takes root, networking begins, first with friends and then with family. All of these actions are designed to create positive attitudes among the couple’s various publics.

The following weeks and months contain acts of caring and kindness, sharing of new experiences, and a calculated effort to compromise. This, much like PR, is done to reinforce positive attitudes.

Eventually a crisis may occur. Someone says or does something they shouldn’t have, and now an all-out effort is made to change negative attitudes. This again may include flowers plus a significant number of “I’m sorrys.” Various crisis management tools must be employed if there’s any chance of success. After the crisis, good behaviors must be sustained because, as I tell my students, good PR is more than clever words or window dressing. Maintaining positive attitudes from your audience must be supported by consistent performance.

So as Valentine’s Day approaches, remember that when your date brings you flowers, that’s good PR. And if your date brings flowers for your mother, that’s outstanding PR! Your thoughts?

PRedicting an apology

“Everybody talks about the weather but no one does anything about it.” -- Essayist and Novelist Charles Dudley Warner (1829-1900)

blizzardLast week’s snowstorm yielded a couple of unexpected results. Forecasters in New York City who labeled the coming event “potentially historic” and used adjectives such as “devastating” and “crippling” were wrong; in fact, they weren’t even close. After predictions of 2-3 feet of snow, New York’s mayor and the governor effectively shut down the city and parts of the state–roads, subways and trains, and schools were closed. But the storm dropped just over a half a foot of snow in Central Park and only came close to the predictions on Long Island and in New England. Then came the finger-pointing, as some folks were angry that businesses and individuals were hurt by the official “overreaction.” But Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo defended their decisions, saying they were based on the National Weather Service’s forecast. “We got lucky,” said de Blasio in the storm’s aftermath, refusing to apologize for playing it safe.

An unusual apology did come, however, from the National Weather Service (NWS). An agency that rarely acknowledges mistakes, the NWS put on its public relations hat and issued a mea culpa. Meteorologist Gary Szatkowski tweeted,“My deepest apologies to many key decision makers and so many members of the general public. You made a lot of tough decisions expecting us to get it right, and we didn’t. Once again, I’m sorry.” NWS Director Louis Uccellini said, “It is incumbent on us to communicate forecast uncertainty. We need to make the uncertainties clear.” Uccellini talked about how the agency will try to use more effective language to avoid similar scenarios in the future.

More than a century after Charles Dudley Warner’s humorous complaint and with all our advanced technology, humans still can’t do anything about the weather, although meteorologists, forecasters and politicians can certainly do better with how they communicate. While the science of forecasting is constantly improving, Mother Nature will always be unpredictable.

But when the National Weather Service gets it wrong, is it a good PR strategy to apologize each time? Your thoughts?

“PRopaganda” is online

Edward Bernays

Edward Bernays (1891-1995), father of modern PR

I was thrilled to see that the Museum of Public Relations (yes, there is one and it’s in Manhattan–more on that later) posted a Facebook link to a book titled “Propaganda” which was written by the father of modern public relations, Edward Bernays, and published in 1928. I had never read it.

And what a fascinating book it is! Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud and a former employee of the Creel Committee which rallied public support for World War I, laid the groundwork for public relations as we now know it. In fact, much of the book’s content could have been written today; just replace the much-demonized word “propaganda” with “public relations” and read this sampling:

“From our leaders and the media they use to reach the public, we accept the evidence and the demarcation of issues bearing upon public questions; from some ethical teacher, be it a minister, a favorite essayist, or merely prevailing opinion, we accept a standardized code of social conduct to which we conform most of the time.”

“This practice of creating circumstances and of creating pictures in the minds of millions of persons is very common. Virtually no important undertaking is now carried on without it, whether that enterprise be building a cathedral, endowing a university, marketing a moving picture, floating a large bond issue, or electing a president.”

“No matter how sophisticated, how cynical the public may become about publicity methods, it must respond to the basic appeals, because it will always need food, crave amusement, long for beauty, respond to leadership. Intelligent men must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help to bring order out of chaos.”

Bernays’ writings and teachings were prophetic, including mentions (in 1928!) of the just-invented television as a means “to approach the public mind.” He understood that to move people to action you have to appeal to their most basic needs and emotions. We in PR could still learn a thing or two from Edwards Bernays. I can’t wait to read more. Your thoughts?

P.S. Hofstra’s PRSSA will be hosting a trip to the Museum of PR on March 20.  Look for details online.

Re-shaPing the Release

3D Press Release CrosswordAfter I saw yet another blog post titled, “Is the press release dead?” I decided to look at more than 50 trade journal articles and blogs from credible and expert resources. I wanted to see what was said in 2014 about the health of the PR practitioners’ most venerable tool.

The press release–also called a news release–is defined by the Free Dictionary as “an announcement of an event, performance, or other newsworthy item that is issued to the press.” It is often used as the primary tool for enticing media coverage; it’s sent to reporters, editors and producers to pitch a client’s story. The argument from some PR pundits has been that there’s no longer a need for the release in light of social media, because there are countless ways to get your story to the public.  

But is the release dead? Clinton Colmenares proclaimed in‘s site, “The press release is dead. Or it should be. Press releases are proclamations. Retire that prospective.” Robert Kravitz of Altura Solutions wrote, “I am finding them less and less effective. Many tech companies have stopped (sending press releases) entirely.”

On the other hand, Michelle Garrett wrote in, “I work with editors who actually request press releases…It’s a format they find useful.” And in a 2014 survey by TEKGROUP, 74% of 171 news consumers and creators said they make use of press releases when following, sharing, or posting news and information. Valentine Smith concluded in, “Reports of the press release’s death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Of the 52 articles I reviewed, only seven authors believed the press release is dead, 33 said it’s alive and 12 think it’s “evolving.” After more than 30 years in PR, I believe press releases are still thriving, serving to move compelling stories to the media by using words economically and effectively through traditional and social media platforms. Clearly those of us teaching and using press releases are not only utilizing a time-honored, sturdy old tool of the trade–we practitioners are re-shaping the release for an ever-changing world of media content.  Your thoughts?

The PResident’s free degree

“Students who started at community colleges…and then go on to a four-year institution — they essentially get the first half of their bachelor’s degree for free. People who enroll for skills training will graduate already ready to work, and they won’t have a pile of student debt.”

President Obama in Tennessee this week

President Obama in Tennessee this week

President Barack Obama’s address to an audience at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee highlighted higher education as a way to upward mobility. “A college degree is the surest ticket to the middle class. It is the key to getting a good job that pays a good income — and to provide you the security,” he said.

The president certainly isn’t wrong. Study after study shows a direct correlation between levels of education and levels of income. On average, the higher your degree, the more money you make. Of course, this isn’t true for everyone, but most Americans do feel the practical benefits of higher education.

The president added a condition to a free community college education. “You would have to earn it,” he said. “Students would have to do their part by keeping their grades up. Colleges would have to do their part by offering high-quality academics and helping students actually graduate…For those willing to do the work…it can be a game-changer. Two years of college will become as free and universal as high school is today.”

Mr. Obama’s plan would cost $60 billion over 10 years. There are already opponents balking at funding this program. But think about how much our government will spend in 2015: more than a trillion dollars goes to health care and nearly a trillion is spent on defense. Almost $100 billion is budgeted for transportation and $394 billion is for welfare. And this year, the government will spend an estimated $131 billion for education.

Whether an 18-year-old wants to major in public relations or a 45-year-old wants a degree to enhance career options, surely $6 billion a year to help people succeed is a very worthwhile investment. I want to hear more but I’m inclined to support the president’s proposal. Your thoughts?

The hazards of transPaRency

It has become a public relations practitioner’s role to create content and monitor social media on behalf of their clients. We then encourage transparency by allowing our publics to comment. But it can be a hazardous policy.

Senator Harry Reid

Senator Harry Reid

I was reminded of these risks when Senator Harry Reid had an unfortunate home accident last week. Online news platforms provided a place for comments both sympathetic and downright nasty. Examples: “Anyone really believe a story of this wimp capable of breaking exercise equipment? I think the real story involves a car and a bottle of scotch,” “Maybe it knocked some sense into his liberal head,” and “There is a God.” And these were the more tame comments. Some wished the senator an early death–and worse.

After Robin Williams’ suicide a few months ago his daughter Zelda received numerous “cruel and unnecessary” comments, according to an Instagram post she published. There were also terrible Photoshopped pictures of her father’s death, leading her to shut down her social media pages. “I will be leaving this account,” she wrote, “Mining our accounts for photos of dad, or judging me…is cruel and unnecessary.”

I recalled a 2013 episode of Bill Maher’s HBO show “Real Time” in which he editoralized (warning: R-rated content) about the culture of hate we seem to have created via the Internet. He observed how when Miss New York, Indian-American Nina Davaluri was crowned Miss America, “Twitter exploded with so much racist hate that you’d have thought President Obama had just made a reasonable remark.” He showed Twitter feeds that fired expletives to innocuous targets–even one directed at a popular restaurant: “F*** you, Cheesecake Factory.” “Who wastes their time telling Cheesecake Factory to f*** off?” Maher added. “Why has hate become the national pastime?”

We often walk the line in America between free speech and nasty, hateful language. PR people must monitor social media for their clients, but they have to tread lightly when deciding to edit or delete comments. Transparency includes allowing voices in, but I often wonder when–or if–it shouldn’t. Your thoughts?


PRomises to myself

ResolutionsWe’re approaching another new year and many of us typically make a list of resolutions. It’s always good to look toward accomplishing goals, changing habits and getting into better shape both physically and mentally in the coming year, so here are my PR promises to myself for 2015:

1) Enhance teaching — I’ll be teaching courses I’ve taught before, so I’m promising myself and my students that I’ll find ways to enhance every class. I’ll insert more creativity, more interactivity and more technology, and I’ll always be working alongside my academic and professional colleagues to improve and augment our public relations program. I’ll also work even more closely with our PRSSA chapter’s terrific members and leaders to make 2015 the group’s best year ever.

2) Start a five-year program — It’s only a concept, but we’ll explore ways for students to earn their degree in public relations and then earn a master’s in, say, journalism or media studies by taking graduate courses during their senior year. They’d then finish their second degree in year five. Similarly, journalism and media studies students will also be able to earn a master’s degree in PR through a five-year program.

3) Research and write — One of our obligations to the university and our profession is to advance the body of knowledge and understanding. I’ve implemented three surveys of nonprofit organizations to learn how they fund, staff and run their public relations efforts, and had a paper published on the results. In 2015, I’ll take on a new research topic and work to have my findings shared.

4) Get into shape — Always fighting my tendency to take on more than I can handle, I’ve promised myself to put together a better filing system (paper and online); improve ways I prep for classes, meetings and advisement; and yes, I need to lose 15-20 pounds. That effort starts now, too.

Whether you’ve made and will keep your resolutions for the coming new year, I hope it’s a happy and healthy 2015 and you achieve all you set out to achieve. Happy New Year and thanks for reading! Your thoughts?

PRedicting a crisis

The_Interview_2014_posterI don’t think that anyone at Sony Pictures ever conceived that their $40 million film “The Interview” would be derailed by a cyber-attack from North Korea. I would guess no one said, “We better be careful or our executives’ email will be hacked and internal gossip will become fodder for the media.” I bet no one thought that the cyber threats would spread to the movie theater operators, who decided that fear and caution should preempt the showing of this particular film. And they didn’t anticipate that Barack Obama, George Clooney and others would be publicly critical of SONY’s decision to kill its release.

I wonder if some savvy public relations person was at the table at Sony when it was first decided to produce “The Interview.” Would she or he have thought to present a “what-if” by saying, “You, know, if you release this comedy, you risk raising the anger of the North Korean dictator on which it’s based. He’ll sic his best hackers on us and wreak havoc on our holiday season?” Again, I doubt that this possibility was in anyone’s mind.

PR professionals are often the conscience of an organization, sitting at the table when business decisions are made that may have deeper public ramifications. They also try to anticipate “most likely” crisis scenarios so management can be ready to act if something bad happens. For example, a manufacturer would plan for a product defect, a bank would be prepared for a security breach, and an airline would have contingencies in place in the event of an accident.

Preparation means identifying potential problems, having a method for reaching internal and external publics, identify decision-makers and spokespersons, and have a communication plan ready. In the case of “The Interview”, however, Sony Pictures may have produced the crisis unwittingly.

It’s an important sidebar to our lessons in crisis management. Sometimes, no amount of foresight will help to predict a crisis. Now Sony faces a $40 million loss and an ongoing debate over its post-threat decision-making. I wonder what they’ll do next–or if they even have a plan. Your thoughts?



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