PoP’s fiRst “bad boy”

A couple of weeks ago, Comedy Central telecast its celebrity roast of Justin Bieber. Pop music’s young icon was lambasted for his numerous dust-ups with the paparazzi, neighbors, fans, and the law. And while Bieber’s bad behavior has sealed his reputation as one of this generation’s “bad boys,” he’s got nothing on Frank Sinatra. The difference–besides buckets of actual talent–is that despite his own “bad boy” image, Sinatra was beloved by most and remains a giant in pop culture history.

Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra

As the anniversary of Sinatra’s 100th birthday approaches, New York’s Lincoln Center is featuring Sinatra: An American Icon, showcasing 100 years of Sinatra’s life and legacy. Although I know relatively little about the man and his music and movie career, I had the pleasure of seeing this superb event.

Before visiting the exhibit, I watched a four-hour HBO documentary titled “Sinatra: All or Nothing At All“, where I both learned and confirmed what I do know about Frank Sinatra– or at least about his public image. This was an Grammy- and Oscar-winning entertainer who, through dogged determination, worked his way from his hardscrabble upbringing as the only child of immigrant parents to become one of the biggest superstars of the 20th century.

Frank Sinatra was hard drinking and hard partying, had numerous brushes with the law and the paparazzi, was close friends with presidents and mobsters, was married four times, and had multiple affairs. Yet despite his very publicized bad behavior, during his lifetime Sinatra also championed racial equality, supported hospitals and scholarships, gave to disadvantaged and physically challenged children, and was extremely generous to his friends and family.

Although he was relatively modest about his countless acts of kindness, perhaps it was this good PR that helped enhance Sinatra’s image and kept this “bad boy” in the public’s good graces. By nearly every measure, Justin Bieber doesn’t compare to Sinatra, and my guess is Bieber and other bad boys and girls in today’s pop culture won’t be remembered with an exhibit at Lincoln Center a century after their birth. Your thoughts?


A dePaRted mentor

Brad O'Hearn (1942-2015)

Brad O’Hearn (1942-2015)

Bradford O’Hearn passed away this week at 74. Brad was a mentor to me and was at least partially responsible for my time in government PR. He was both a great journalist and public relations man, with solid ethics and lots of common sense.

Brad made the transition from journalism to PR look natural and easy; he was successful because he understood the roles of both professions, and also knew that by nurturing relationships and contacts, he’d get his stories written and his clients written about.

My links to Brad were many. While he was a Newsday reporter, I’d pitch him regularly. When he left Newsday after 20 years to serve as Suffolk County Executive Patrick Halpin’s press secretary, he recruited me to work in a similar role for the Town of Babylon. Later, I consulted for the Deer Park School District to help pass its budget, which had been rejected by voters for 10 straight years. My efforts were successful, and I eventually gave up the client and recommended the work to Brad. Deer Park’s budget has never failed to pass since we took it on.

As a PR man, Brad had numerous clients who counted on him to get their stories into the media. He also had an affinity and expertise on the subject of ethics, both in journalism and PR. He delivered presentations on ethics to members of the Public Relations Professionals of Long Island (PRPLI) and other groups, and frequently lectured on college campuses. His hypothetically-based case studies and participatory style became my template for teaching ethics years later; I’ve since emulated and implemented Brad’s approach.

Journalists like Brad O’Hearn often make very good PR people. Their ability to know a good story, put it into compelling words, and create an interesting experience for their audiences is what PR people are doing more and more in our “create your own content” and “be your own media” digital age. Brad’s move from reporter to public relations practitioner was a lesson on how to do it well. Rest in peace, old friend. Your thoughts?

The PRice of shame

While most current undergraduates were pre-schoolers when Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern dominated the headlines, they know Monica Lewinsky. As the president was being impeached, Lewinsky hid from the public, suffering shame, humiliation and abuse from people she never met.

Now, 17 years later, Monica Lewinsky has re-emerged. Ted, the renowned nonprofit “devoted to spreading ideas…in the form of short, powerful talks,” recently posted her presentation, “The Price of Shame.” In it, Lewinsky reminds us that her scandal was unique, noting, “It was the first time the traditional news was usurped by the Internet for a major news story, a click that reverberated around the world.” She laments the ease in which the new media can be used to ruin reputations.

Poised, well-spoken and convincing, Lewinsky was the perfect spokesperson on the dangers of online name-calling. “When this happened to me 17 years ago, there was no name for it. Now we call it cyberbullying and online harassment.

“Cruelty to others is nothing new, but online, technologically-enhanced shaming is amplified, uncontained, and permanently accessible,” she said. “Millions of people, often anonymously, can stab you with their words…and there are no perimeters around how many people can publicly observe you and put you in a public stockade…We have slowly been sowing the seeds of shame and public humiliation in our cultural soil, both on- and offline. Gossip websites, paparazzi, reality programming, politics, news outlets and sometimes hackers all traffic in shame.”

Lewinsky was point-perfect in her conclusion. “We talk a lot about our right to freedom of expression, but we need to talk more about our responsibility to freedom of expression. The Internet is the superhighway for the id, but online, showing empathy to others benefits us all and helps create a safer and better world. We need to communicate online with compassion, consume news with compassion, and click with compassion.”

Has the Internet, indeed, created a “culture of humiliation?” What should we be doing about it? And is Monica Lewinsky the right spokesperson for this issue? Your thoughts?

NOTE: Let me suggest you watch Ms. Lewinsky’s talk before sharing your comments here. You may find it instructive. — JM

PReserving our history

Hofstra students and their protective gloves at the Museum of PR

Hofstra students wore protective gloves as they handled artifacts at the Museum of PR

Edwards Bernays is often referred to as the “father of modern public relations” with good reason. A nephew of the father of modern psychiatry, Sigmund Freud, Bernays was also an observer of human behavior. He understood early on that words and images could be used to persuade attitudes, publishing landmark books on PR including “Crystallizing Public Opinion” in 1923 and “Propaganda” in 1928. In 1923 at New York University, Bernays taught the very first public relations course. He planned and staged numerous events and campaigns on behalf of a wide variety of clients, and worked with several 20th century presidents from Calvin Coolidge to Ronald Reagan.

A chance meeting became a 10-year friendship between Edward Bernays and Shelley Zuckerman Spector, an award-winning public relations executive and faculty member at Baruch College. Professor Spector documented Bernays’ career through a series of videotaped interviews she conducted at his home. When Bernays died in 1995 at age 103, she gathered and preserved many of his books and artifacts. Her devotion to PR history led to the creation of the Museum of Public Relations in 1997, which found a new home just six months ago at the Baruch College library in Manhattan. The museum contains historical items from Bernays and the PR field’s most important pioneers and campaigns.

Shellie Spector

Shellie Spector and me with an early Edison light bulb

Twenty Hofstra students and I experienced the Museum of Public Relations last Friday and I urge all students and practitioners of PR to visit. Hearing and seeing Bernays talk about his life, touching artifacts from communication history (newspapers from the early 19th century, a telegraph, an Edison phonograph cylinder, a turn-of the century telephone and typewriter, books by PR trailblazer Ivy Lee, and much more) made PR’s past come alive for these 21st century students. Oohs, ahhs and wows filled the room as students touched and felt history in their hands.

Kudos to Shelley Spector for her labor of love. She’s preserving a one-of-a-kind time capsule that will ensure PR’s history endures. See the PR museum when you can. Learning history is the best way to learn about the future. Your thoughts?

Pitched stoRies

I gave a class assignment this week: Find an article which most likely originated from a public relations “pitch.” By some estimates, most pitched stories are not hard news but more likely run the gamete of tales of personal challenges and achievements, announcements of new products and services, profiles of companies and individuals, et cetera.

Though they may resist acknowledging this, journalists use press releases and PR pitches as significant source material. They often rely on PR professionals to lead them to stories. A 2014 survey by TEKGROUP backs this up; 74% of 171 news consumers and creators said they make use of press releases when following, sharing, or posting news and information.

Roosevelt Field's new "Dining District"

Roosevelt Field’s new “Dining District”

Pitched stories are everywhere. Open any print or online magazine, for example, and most of the copy was the result of a PR professional’s efforts. Agencies spend a lot of time and energy getting their clients into the “free” media, both traditional and new. I was reminded of this as I was reading a lengthy article in Newsday last week featuring the opening of the “dining district” in Roosevelt Field Mall. The mall, among the top ten largest in the United States, is undergoing major renovations including adding a Neiman Marcus, and has done away with its crowded court. The new eatery choices–and the additional seating and tables–made for a solid local story.

The mall article and future stories about the mall’s upgrade was and will be pitched by Farmingdale, Long Island-based agency Ryan & Ryan Public Relations. Having represented Roosevelt Field and other Simon malls for many years, the staff at Ryan & Ryan has its media contacts in place and will be pitching them whenever there’s something new to announce. Reporters will often use these story ideas because their Long Island audiences want to know what’s going on at their popular local mall.

As journalism and media evolve, PR people will be relied upon more and more for ideas and content. It will become our elevated responsibility to find interesting information and compelling stories to reach our targeted audiences. Your thoughts?


Staying PoweR

Ever have a teacher say something that becomes planted in your brain forever? Yes, teachers do aspire to inspire their students; I often hope I’m speaking words that will push my students to proofread their work, or clean up their Facebook, or read a newspaper, or keep their PR career options open. While teachers may not always be profound, sometimes their words have staying power.

I’ve been thinking back to some of what my teachers said–ideas and phrases which have stayed with me–and have sometimes inspired me.

I remember in high school Mr. Horstmann told us never to use the word “they” as in “They say it’ll rain tonight.” He’d ask us, “Just who is this ‘they,’ anyway? You’ve got to be specific and define your terms.”

Dr. Adrienne O'Brien

Dr. Adrienne O’Brien

My biology teacher Mr. Kalina advised us not to ever risk thinking we know everything. “When you know what you don’t know, then you’re on your way,” he’d say. He also once told us, “Wherever you go, that’s where you are.” I have no idea why I remember that silly line; maybe it’s because it was so perfectly logical.

I remember Professor John Hanc (now my dear friend and mentor) defining journalism as “The truth, well told,” a phrase I’ve since used to also describe public relations. It turns out “Truth well told” was also a credo adopted by the McCann ad agency in 1912. It stuck with me.

Dr. Matthew Schure, a professor, college president and my former boss, introduced me to the often-used maxim, “The best predictor of future performance is past performance.” As I’ve grown older I’ve found this life lesson to be extremely accurate.

And then there was Dr. Adrienne O’Brien, another of my wonderful grad school professors, who gave on-target professional advice: “Whatever your public relations skills, when changing jobs the only thing you really bring with you is your reputation.”

I wonder which teachers of yours said something that has had staying power over the years. Maybe after you share them they’ll stick to our brains, too. Your thoughts?


That awful “sPin” woRd

“spin” (public relations) — In public relations, spin is a form of propaganda, achieved through providing an interpretation of an event or campaign to persuade public opinion…While traditional public relations may also rely on creative presentation of the facts, “spin” often implies disingenuous, deceptive and/or highly manipulative tactics. — Wikipedia

As a PR teacher and practitioner, it upsets me terribly when I see the awful “spin” word used to describe our profession. Yet, “spin” remains front-of-mind when people think of public relations. Sadly, “spin” and PR have been linked for a long time.

The first known use of “spin” as related to story-telling appeared in 1812 in James Hardy Vaux’s A new and comprehensive vocabulary of the flash language, describing when sailors would go about, “yarning or ‘spinning’ a yarn, signifying to relate their various adventures, exploits, and escapes to each other.”

Bernays biographer Stuart Ewen

Media and culture historian Stuart Ewen

“Spin” re-emerged around 1980 when the terms “spin doctor” and “spin control” became closely associated with politics. In 1996, Stuart Ewen wrote a best seller titled, “PR! A Social History of Spin.” Larry Tye followed up with “The Father of Spin: Edward Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations.” And just a year ago, an article by Cheryl Connor appeared in Forbes with the headline, “The Death of ‘Spin’ (Will it Kill the Future of Public Relations?)” She wrote, “In many people’s minds, the world of PR is the world of spin. Next to hired assassins or hackers, perhaps, PR is often considered the world’s most ungodly career.”

Stuart Ewen, now a distinguished professor at Hunter College, will be lecturing on March 25 at the Museum of Public Relations on the legacy of Edward Bernays. I hope he’ll take the opportunity to explain–and denounce–the use of the word “spin” in his book’s title. It’s disparaging and disrespectful to those who practice PR ethically.

Thomas Hoog, former CEO of Hill+Knowlton, told participants at PRSSA’s national convention in October, “In PR, we’re all about truth. There’s no place for ‘spin’ in our profession.” As students and practitioners, let’s find ways to forever expunge the association of “spin” and PR. Your thoughts?

PRofound advice

Joining Michael O'Looney were (l. to r.) Hofstra PRSSA's Isabela Jacobsen,  Saralynn Kupperberg, Nathalie Retana and Arielle Barba.

Joining Michael O’Looney at Marist College on Feb. 28th were (l. to r.) Hofstra PRSSA’s Isabela Jacobsen, Saralynn Kupperberg, Nathalie Retana and Arielle Barba.

One of the great mentors in my life was a well-known educator named David Salten, whom I’ve mentioned here before. I shared birthday cake with David at his home as he turned 93, three weeks before he passed away. When I asked him how he stays so mentally sharp, his answer was, “I never stop learning.” Profound advice.

This weekend I attended PRSSA’s Regional Conference, hosted by Marist College’s PRSSA chapter, and featuring several public relations practitioners who shared insights on the PR job market. David’s words echo each time my students and I gain knowledge beyond the classroom.

So what did we hear and learn at Marist? Much was said about skill sets and professional traits, as were words to live by. For example, Tim Massey of Health Quest started with a lengthy list of characteristics employers seek including critical thinking, a global mindset, intellectual curiosity, ability to listen and brainstorm, and confidence.

Michael O’Brien of Ketchum told students they not only need to be exemplary writers, but also must be able to identify and craft great stories. He encouraged PR students to learn how to “make the mundane interesting and the complex simple.”“You need to be reading,” he added. “Read everything–on multiple platforms. Get yourself out of your social media feed and read about things you’d never think about reading.”

Kelsey Donohue, a recent Marist grad who now works in the First Lady’s press office, said, “Develop the skills to talk to people. Practice breaking out of your shell.”

My favorite words of wisdom came from conference keynoter Michael O’Looney, a long-time TV news reporter and later NYPD spokesman. “Don’t let fear trap you into a small life,” he told participants, “and don’t confine your world to social media. You have to get out the door.” He also challenged students to “always hold yourself to a standard of excellence.”

There was a lot more profound advice at the conference, too much to note here, but I’d like to expand on David Salten’s “never stop learning.” I’m adding, “and never top listening.” Your thoughts?

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?


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