WeaPons of mass distRaction

gary ackerman

Former Rep. Gary Ackerman

I first heard the satiric term “weapons of mass distraction” when former New York Congressman Gary Ackerman in 2004 criticized a Congressional bill raising the fines the FCC could impose for broadcasting indecent materials. “It is a weapon of mass distraction to keep us away from the real issues at hand,” he was quoted in the Washington Post.

Of course, the term is a play on “weapons of mass destruction,” a phrase often used by the Bush Administration to justify the war in Iraq. It’s since been used as a movie title, a rock band’s name, a blog, and a headline for numerous articles.

That said, have you noticed how quickly the Associated Press report on Hillary Clinton’s meetings with Clinton Foundation donors–while she ran the State Department–disappeared from the headlines? It happened because she and Donald Trump got into a heated exchange about prejudice; Trump called Hillary a “bigot,” adding during a speech last week, “She’s going to do nothing for African Americans. She’s going to do nothing for the Hispanics.” Clinton delivered a planned response quickly, devoting a major speech to Trump’s campaign of “prejudice and paranoia” and accusing him of “taking hate groups mainstream and helping a radical fringe take over the Republican Party.” Trump responded by doubling down, repeating his attacks on Clinton as a bigot with no regard for minority communities.

The GOP presidential candidate’s history of questionable racial policies in his real estate dealings, his rebuking the citizenship of America’s first black president, and his numerous verbal attacks and seemingly prejudiced comments targeting Mexicans, women and other minorities, have given the Clinton campaign good political fodder. They’ve used the issue very cleverly as a weapon of mass distraction; for the last several days Trump, the media and subsequently the public aren’t talking about the AP’s (now much-debunked) story on Hillary’s perceived conflicts of interest.

Some view “weapons of mass distraction” as a pubic relations tactic–superficial but sometimes highly effective. One has to wonder if it’s a savvy PR technique or an unethical method which PR professionals–and presidential campaigns–should avoid. Your thoughts?

Place matteRs

The value of a home is related to its place; proximity to a major city, good schools, recreation, and shopping ultimately determines its worth. Tourists flock to places which possess historic landmarks, treasured art, beautiful beaches, and ease of travel. People choose to live in place where there are employment opportunities, accessible transportation, housing choices, and lifestyle options.

obama-golf-06 (2)

Obama golfing at Martha’s Vineyard

When it comes to public perception, place matters, too. Take flood-ravaged Louisiana for example. This week, where our top politicians chose to go–or not to go–made headlines. President Obama was criticized for playing golf instead of touring the state’s flooded region where 40,000 homes have been damaged and 13 people died. An editorial in the Advocate, Louisiana’s largest newspaper, suggested that Obama end his Martha’s Vineyard vacation early, saying the president should “pack his bags now” and “(show) his solidarity with suffering Americans.” The White House announced the president is going Tuesday.

Meanwhile, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump visited the region last Friday while Democratic presidential candidate Hilary Clinton announced she wouldn’t go, posting on Facebook, “My heart breaks for Louisiana, and right now, the relief effort can’t afford any distractions.”

Americablog.com noted, “It is common knowledge that immediately after disasters you don’t want presidents — or anyone else with serious security needs — visiting, lest they disrupt the disaster response by sucking away resources for their political photo opp.” While many praised Trump for going and have been critical of the president’s and Secretary Clinton’s decisions, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards stated he preferred that Obama stay away. “Quite frankly, that’s not something I want to go through right now,” he said. “I would just as soon he wait a week or two.”

On the other hand, what was a PR gain for Trump last week may have been lost when he was roundly criticized for his speech addressing the problems of the African-American community. Why? Because the speech took place in a nearly all-white community and was delivered to a nearly all-white audience. As often happens, place “trumped” the message.

In life and politics, especially when you’re courting public opinion, place matters. Your thoughts?

PuRple heartless

Compare and contrast Donald Trump with Irene McPhail.

I had just begun my career a public relations practitioner when I attended a charity event with my new boss, Irene McPhail. Cablevision, the large company we worked for, sponsored many nonprofit organizations and charitable causes, which was good PR for the business and a model of corporate social responsibility. During a raffle drawing near the end of the event, Irene’s name was picked and she won several hundred dollars. She came to the podium and announced she was giving her winnings back to the organization as a donation, because its mission deserved Cablevision’s continued support.

Not only was this a terrific PR move on behalf of the company, it showed me how selflessness could be so beautifully reflected by Irene’s simple action. It was a memorable life lesson for this 23-year-old.

trump purple heartLast week during a campaign appearance, a military veteran handed his Purple Heart medal to Donald Trump. The presidential candidate responded by saying, “I always wanted to get the Purple Heart. This was much easier.” He took the man’s medal and put it in his pocket.

In spite of his daily onslaught of insults, exaggerations, fabrications, inappropriateness, narcissistic pronouncements, and downright nastiness, for me no other single act has shown Donald Trump’s true character more than this incident.

According to purpleheart.org, “The Purple Heart is awarded to members of the armed forces of the U.S. who are wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy and posthumously to the next of kin in the name of those who are killed in action or die of wounds received in action. It is specifically a combat decoration.” Democratic congressional candidate Sean Barney, himself a Purple Heart recipient, commented, “I can tell you, no one should ever ‘want’ to get a Purple Heart.”

A smart, empathetic leader would have handed back that medal and thanked that veteran for risking his life for his country. Trump instead reacted with pure selfishness and disrespect. He could certainly learn something about good PR–and leadership–from my PR mentor Irene McPhail. Your thoughts?


Avoiding PRedictions

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington

Photo: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Here we are in August and there’s less than three months to go before the presidential election. After a horrible couple of weeks of ongoing verbal jousting, outrageous comments and misinformed statements, Donald Trump has started to rapidly sink in the polls, with one having Hillary Clinton ahead nationally by 15 points.

I have purposely avoided making any predictions regarding this election, especially since I was among the many who believed that America would never elect a black man named Barack Hussein Obama to the presidency. Almost a year ago, I wrote an observational post about Donald Trump called, “An unPRecedented candidacy” in which I noted, “There are PR lessons to be learned here, both good and bad, as the Summer of Trump is sure to be found in case studies textbooks someday. I wonder what the final chapter will look like.”

I still wonder. In another blog post during the primary season I said, “I feel badly for the other Republican candidates. I’ve blogged about the GOP’s efforts to re-brand the party and how it was reaching out to women, young people and Spanish-speaking voters.  Trump has effectively undermined this agenda with his brash and careless comments.  And the unprecedented 17 other Republicans running have been unable to effectively get their message out because Trump is literally sucking up all the air. He has become a ratings winner, so media programmers are devoting more time to him than all other candidates combined.”

Trump not only sucked up all the air; he emerged as the Republican candidate for president of the United States. There were thoughts he would shift gears and become more “presidential” in his tone. This turned out to be wishful thinking. The opposition worried that nothing he would say or do would ignite the public’s anger and sink his candidacy.

However, the cumulative public relations effect of Trump’s racist, sexist, narcissistic comments are now doing the job. He seems incapable of acting differently, or even nearly “presidential.” I’d like to predict we’re seeing the end of Trump’s flirtation with the White House. But I’m not making any predictions. Your thoughts?

A bumPeR crop of PR

It was an odd circumstance that I was among the first Hofstra faculty to hear the university would be hosting another presidential debate. Melissa Connolly, Hofstra’s vice president of university relations, had joined our group in Rome as part of her department’s efforts to promote our study abroad programs, when she got a phone call just after we toured the Coliseum. Soon after we jumped into a cab she was able to reveal why she was rushing back to Long Island. Wright State University had backed out of its commitment to host the September 26 debate and Hofstra, which had agreed to serve as an alternate, was in. While it meant an abrupt end of Melissa’s trip, it means a bumper crop of public relations opportunities.

Hofstra students showed off their tickets to see the 2012 debate up close

Four years ago, Hofstra students showed off their tickets to see the presidential debate up close

It’s estimated the cost of hosting the debate will be approximately $5 million. It was reported yesterday that three of Hofstra’s alumni–David Mack, Peter Kalikow and Lawrence Herbert–will donate most of the funds. The university’s expenses include everything from providing work stations for a thousand journalists, to staging and technical assistance to dozens of television stations, to beefed-up traffic control and security (in addition to the Secret Service presence), et cetera, et cetera.

There will be disruptions to the campus, including road closings and class cancellations the day of the event. There are certain to be protests on and off campus, as controversies surrounding this election’s candidates are incentives for demonstrations. There will be restrictions of movement as parts of the campus will become inaccessible without security clearance.

Is it all worth it? The publicity for Hofstra will be priceless. The sheer number of mentions of Hofstra’s name throughout the world for the next two months will be worth millions. “Hofstra,” an unusual and memorable name to begin with, will be on every journalist’s lips and keyboards, and first-time public awareness of the university will be immeasurable. If previous debates are an indicator, as the prestige of the university increases applications to Hofstra will, too.

I don’t believe there’s any debate about the value of hosting this event. Your thoughts?

Our PRiceless voyage

It’s almost time to say goodbye to Italy and while I’m quite homesick, it’s still going to be tough to leave. Every day here has been filled with visual and intellectual thrills, from the incredibly preserved Roman ruins to the painting-perfect villages built on the sides and tops of so many mountains. We’ve covered a lot of ground through Hofstra‘s SCOinRome program, in no small part because of Professor Randy Hillebrand, whose love and knowledge of this country give him ample tools to craft an amazing schedule of places to be, things to do and people to meet.
20160710_111536_resizedOf course, what truly made this program special were our 11 students, a mix of public relations and television production majors, who spent half their weekdays in class and some afternoons on various sites working on behalf of our Rome-based nonprofit client, Shoot 4 Change. It was a real-world, professional experience for them–held in another part of the world. In addition, the excitement they’ve expressed as they have visited and toured famous Italian landmarks and exquisite natural landscapes has made our voyage priceless in so many ways. Not to mention that most of us climbed to the top and walked the entire circumference of Mount Vesuvius (above photo) and lived to tell the tale!

Lastly, I’ve enjoyed engaging with and working alongside several of this country’s natives. Experiencing Italy through their eyes made my vision clearer. I felt less like a tourist and more like a person who has lived here for a while.

Among its many descriptions, public relations can be defined as moving messages effectively from a source to a targeted audience. There can be no better way to understand how to do so than by living in your client’s environment. The SCOinRome program has spent almost four weeks dwelling, working and playing in Italy, and it’s been an educational experience like no other.

Your thoughts?




PReposterous circumstances

L’Aquila’s history is an essential Italian story. Located in Central Italy, the town was constructed in the first half of the 13th century and quickly became the second city of the Shoot 4 Change 2Kingdom of Naples. In the 16th century, it was taken over by the Spanish and its ancient privileges for freedom were revoked. The city was later sacked by the French in 1799 but became part of unified Italy in 1861.

Earthquakes fill L’Aquila’s past. Serious and sometimes deadly tremors were recorded in 1315, 1349, 1452, 1461, 1501, and 1646. In 1703, more than 3,000 people died and almost all the churches collapsed; an earthquake in 1786 took 6,ooo lives. There was a minor quake in 1958 and then there was April 6, 2009: Thousands of buildings were damaged, 308 people were killed and 1,500 were injured. Eight college students died when their dorm collapsed.

Shoot 4 Change 3Now, seven years later, L’Aquila is still rebuilding and its damaged buildings remain mostly vacant. Preposterous circumstances including blatant government corruption and incompetence, plus accusations of organized crime have left the city limping and abused, and little is being done to help. Last Wednesday, our 11 Hofstra “SCO in Rome” students joined Shoot4Change, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating social awareness through the power of images, and toured L’Aquila’s ravaged neighborhoods. The students shot photos and video footage of the town and interviewed Shoot4Change volunteers and one of the earthquake’s first responders. It was a visually and emotionally devastating experience that our students and I will never forget.

Shoot 4 Change 1Our four-week Italy visit has been filled so far with visits to extraordinary places, and a schedule heavy with sightseeing and experiential learning opportunities. But nothing will compare to our time with Shoot4Change in L’Aquila. Working with this dedicated group of photographers and videographers has been priceless, and our students will continue their efforts to help this organization promote and represent their mission during and after our stay.

Nonprofit organizations need assistance with their public relations efforts, especially because they too often lack resources to competently handle media relations, web sites, social media, and more. Our students have a unique opportunity in Italy and they’re truly making the most of it. Your thoughts?



Positano, Rome, and other revelations

Hofstra SCOinRome students meet with S4C's Andrea Ranelli (c., right)

Hofstra SCOinRome students meet with S4C’s Andrea Ranalli (c., right)

My first week in Italy with Hofstra’s SCOinRome program, a four-week study abroad program featuring class time and touring time, has been both wonderful and exhausting. SCOinRome is designed to enhance the participating students’ learning and life experiences, and I can honestly say it’s done both for me already.

We met with representatives of Shoot4Change, a nonprofit organization based in Rome dedicated to creating social awareness and action through the power of the image, first in our classroom and later at its headquarters in an old warehouse. This wonderful group of photographers and videographers are truly dedicated to their cause, but recognize they need help to promote and represent their mission more effectively. Our students will work with S4C to improve its web site, enhance its social media activity, improve the Italian-to-English translation for three short documentary videos, and also create new video content for its various platforms and media outlets. Next week we’ll head to L’Aquila, an earthquake-ravaged city in which students will find ways to tell the stories of how residents are managing after six years of ineffective government assistance.

If I thought all of this was exciting, getting to know Rome with its ancient history and rich religious culture has been fascinating. So far, I’ve only had five days there but I’ve already figured out how to get around the city, and I’ve learned much about the history of its ancient ruins plus where to get the best sandwich on the planet.

But there was more: This weekend was filled with new discoveries for me, visiting places I never had on my bucket list but places to where I’d like to return. Being in the city of Sorrento and its active nightlife has been a revelation. Positano is positively the most visually stunning city I’ve ever seen. And the island of Capri was — if I may be corny for a moment — absolutely magical.

There’s much more to see and to do, and we’ve got less than three weeks left to do it. It seems every coming day will bring more stunning revelations and experiences. Your thoughts?


Plans Revised


rome groupThose who follow my weekly posts for “Public Relations Nation” know that I haven’t missed a week in almost six years and I almost always post my latest “350 words or less” early Sunday mornings. This time Mother Nature herself did me in via New York, Dublin, Paris, and Rome.

Last week I mentioned my plans for July — four weeks in Rome co-leading a study abroad program for Hofstra’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication. Eleven students, colleague Randy Hillebrand and I met at JFK airport on Friday at 3:00 p.m. for a 5:30 p.m. flight, only to take off more than four hours late due to a huge storm over New York. This forced us to miss our connecting flight from Dublin to Rome, and so we wound up flying Saturday afternoon from Dublin to Paris, and then Saturday evening from Paris to Rome. We landed at 11:00 p.m. Saturday, making for a 32 hour ordeal just to get to our destination.

Our students were troopers, though, taking it all in stride. Despite not enough sleep over the last couple of days, we began our Rome adventure with a four hour walking tour of some well-known locales, which I urge you to read about in the students’ own words. They’ll be posting photos and keeping a blog diary at https://huromans4change.wordpress.com/

I’ll be adding my own impressions of the experience but for now, I apologize for posting late. I’ve got some napping to do before we head to dinner tonight and then start our class tomorrow morning. Rome seems wonderful. I’ll be able to see it better and write more about it with less bloodshot eyes.

Your thoughts?


Next stoP: Rome

“Nothing of any importance could be undertaken anywhere in Europe at the time (the Renaissance) without first travelling to see what the Italians had lately been up to and what they had recently discovered or invented.” 

Thus wrote Luigi Barzini in his famous 1964 treatise The Italians: A Full-Length Portrait Featuring Their Manners and Morals, which I’ve been reading as I prepare for my own big adventure: a month in Italy as a faculty leader in Hofstra’s “SCO in Rome” study abroad program. Hofstra University’s Randy Hillebrand and I, along with 11 students majoring in either public relations and television, will begin our travels next weekend for a unique learning experience.

shoot4change_logoWe’ll be working with Shoot4Change, a Rome-based nonprofit organization, described as “comprised of both professional and amateur photographers, designers, artists and other dreamers who share part of their time for shooting humanitarian reportages for non-government and other social organizations which connects stories and storytellers.” The group uses social networks and new visual communication tools as “weapons of mass storytelling to raise awareness on local social issues through the engagement of our community.” Shoot4Change also runs free educational programs for “those who cannot afford it (refugees, homeless, disadvantaged people, etc.) because everybody should have a chance to learn how to express himself and unleash creativity for social change.”

Our students will serve as a public relations and production agency for Shoot4Change by creating content for its website and social media, and working on special projects within fascinating locations.

Every student I’ve known who has studied abroad has come back with a much-broadened world view and a life experience that many say has changed them forever. Having never been to Italy myself, I’m expecting the same result. The opportunity to connect and work with colleagues in a different country is a thrilling prospect, and I can’t wait to be a part of it.  I’ll be tracking and blogging about our work in the coming weeks, as well our students. Like the quote in Barzini’s book, we, too, want to learn what the Italians have been up to lately. Your thoughts?


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