A rabbi and a priest become great friends while communicating messages of tolerance and faith throughout the nation as “The God Squad.”
No, it’s not the opening of a silly joke. It’s a true story about Monsignor Thomas Hartman, known to his friends and followers as “Father Tom.” Father Tom left us last week at age 69 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. He and I often crossed paths through the years; his involvement with media and his savvy public relations skills brought us together on several projects. I can’t name a warmer, smarter and more open-minded man.
Although the “God Squad” became nationally-known, Rabbi Gellman and Monsignor Hartman were primarily local celebrities. Father Tom’s life was quite amazing. After serving at a Long Island parish and hosting religious radio programs, he became director of Telecare, the Rockville Centre diocesan television station. When News 12 Long Island invited Father Tom to talk about holidays, he invited Rabbi Gellman to join him. Later, as “The God Squad,” the two reached 15 million cable viewers a week via Telecare.
Father Tom and Rabbi Gellman children’s book, “How Do You Spell God?” became an award-winning HBO animated special. They appeared on numerous TV and radio shows, won four Emmys, wrote several books and a weekly Newsday column. Father Tom had a cameo role in “The Mirror Has Two Faces,” a film starring Barbra Streisand, raised millions of dollars for AIDS and Parkinson’s research, and helped found the nonprofit food bank Island Harvest. He also once received the Public Relations Professionals of Long Island’s “Long Island Achievement Award.”
Father Tom signed my copy of the duo’s first book, “Where Does God Live?” For me, its most memorable passage challenged us to think about God as living at the top of a mountain. We all want to reach him, but there’s no single, correct way to get to the top of the mountain. This lovely, simple parable of religious tolerance has stayed with me through my adult life.
Thanks, and rest in peace, Father Tom. It was wonderful knowing you. Your thoughts?
President Franklin Roosevelt said this when the country was mired in the darkest days of the Great Depression. Inspiring the nation to remain positive, persevere and help those in need, these words became an American mantra as the Depression lingered. FDR’s skill at communicating positive messages was more than good public relations; it helped Americans through a devastating crisis.
Today’s politicians and the media seem to be doing just the opposite. In the face of recent terrorist attacks in Paris, presidential candidates, members of Congress and others have not only been pushing fear but seem to be exploiting it. Politicians scream that we’re not being protected while the news cycle keeps danger in our faces 24/7. A Newsday editorial disputes this, noting, “The United States is in a much safer position than European countries when it comes to terrorism: We have oceans between us and the Islamic States. We have fewer borders to guard. We invest much more in our security and have better security apparatuses. We have better intelligence services…despite what some believe, the United States has extremely adequate vetting processes…”
Aside from the political rhetoric–and Congressional action–including trying to stop refugees from entering the U.S., a number of schools have cancelled excursions to Paris and other European cities. On Long Island, the Connetquot School District stopped trips to New York City through November and December including Radio City Music Hall and the 9/11 Museum “in the best interests of our school children,” a statement said. NYPD Commissioner William Bratton criticized the decision, saying, “What they’re doing is exactly what the terrorists want, so that is exactly what they should not be doing.”
So why are some pushing fear? It’s true that those in power gain even more authority when people are scared. The fear is real for some, partially because the media’s coverage of terror, while essential, heightens our sense of powerlessness. Students of communication understand this and are witnessing how fear can be exploited as a means to persuade.
When we huddle and hide as a result of terrorism acts, we’ve let the terrorists win. Your thoughts?
At 181 years old and with 350 thousand riders a day, the Long Island Rail Road is the oldest and largest commuter railway in the nation. Its aging infrastructure became apparent once again when service was halted last Wednesday due to what Newsday called the failure of “an ancient electrical cable.” Newsday’s Joye Brown also accused the LIRR of a “poor communications job” for stranding thousands of commuters and failing to inform them of the problem.
No one ever says they love the LIRR and no amount of good PR seems capable of changing our attitude. That’s why the LIRR’s mea culpa after its rush hour service debacle may not move many hearts and minds. “We apologize for the difficulty experienced by our customers as a result of Wednesday’s service disruption,” the LIRR’s statement said. “We regret that because we could not estimate when the signal power problem would be resolved or trains would again be moving, our communication efforts did not live up to either our customers’ expectations or our own standards.” The apology continued, “The LIRR is committed to providing safe, secure and reliable train service to our customers, and we will continue doing everything possible to improve our operation.”
This crisis response strategy begs the question of whether the railroad’s statement is just wasted words. Why does the LIRR’s PR team bother if an apology almost certainly won’t result in a more positive image–and can’t fix its infrastructure problems? After all, positive PR can only work when it follows positive performance.
The fact is the LIRR would lose even more respect and raise more public anger by NOT responding to its latest troubles. Like any utility, service, company or organization, it has an obligation to be as public and transparent as possible when something goes wrong. And while it must keep commuters better informed, given its problems and aging equipment it’ll be an uphill battle for the LIRR to significantly improve its public image through better communication. Realistically, can it ever hope to succeed? Yet, shouldn’t it keep trying? Your thoughts?
At the Hofstra Chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) annual conference yesterday, there was no shortage of expert perspectives from presenters. Approximately 75 students heard from 16 professionals, delivering their valuable experience and wisdom through six workshops and a networking luncheon.
Here are just some samples of the sound advice from our students’ guests. Their expertise speaks for itself:
Jake Mendlinger of Zimmerman/Edelson — “I like to read resumes from the bottom, up. I want to know you can do the job, and that you’ll be able to do more jobs later. I want to see where you were at the beginning and how you came up to where you are now.”
Hilary Topper of HJMT Public Relations — “Use free tools such as Google Alerts! I want to know what people are saying about my clients–and about me.”
Professor Peter Goodman, formerly of Newsday, now at Hofstra — “Make sure the reporter has the beat for the story you are pitching and that you’re pitching to the right person.”
Allison Nichols of Examiner.com — “From a reporter’s point of view, the worst thing a PR person can do is promise something and not follow through.”
David Chauvin of Zimmerman/Edelson — “Never stop being a student. Technology changes and there are new platforms all the time. You have to stay on top of it.”
Lisa Jablon of Hunter PR — “You always have to be on your toes about the world around you. You should be consuming news on a daily basis.”
Kerstyn Dioulo of Glow Connection — “People are always watching you and what you do. I pride myself on hard work and putting the clients first.”
If I could add a thousand words, I’d still be unable to include all the terrific advice from the PR and journalism experts at the conference. It’s always worth the time–even on a sunny Saturday–to listen and learn from smart, experienced people. Your thoughts?
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?
He’s 65 now, short and stocky, and looks more like an everyman than a piano man. He’s been in a mental hospital and rehab, wrecked at least three cars and a motorcycle, lost two fortunes, and has three ex-wives including a supermodel and a woman half his age. Yet there wasn’t an empty seat at Madison Square Garden last Thursday as Billy Joel played his monthly concert. Despite a checkered life, he is, without a doubt, adored by his audiences.
We see how quickly entertainers’ careers can flounder when they have personal struggles and public controversies. Their public images suffer (examples: Justin Bieber, Charlie Sheen, Ray Rice, Lindsay Lohan), and they’re often mocked and shunned by people in their own industry. Some recover from their issues and regain public favor; others never do. Billy Joel has navigated the negatives in his life and has enjoyed the public’s goodwill throughout his career, especially now. Here’s why:
First, there’s his music. His prolific catalog of hits places him among the biggest superstars. His songs’ lyrics speak of people we know and are, events and places we’ve seen and been, and take us to the times we heard them and sang along. And sing along we did at the Garden–more than 18 thousand people belting out “Piano Man”, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and many others.
Locally this summer, Newsday’s “That’s SO Long Island” competition saw 520,000 voters place Joel number one–ahead of 64 foods, attractions, celebrities and activities including Jones Beach! He told Newsday, “My perspective of things all comes from a Long Island point of view.” Joel was born, raised and still lives on Long Island, calling it his “favorite place” in a state tourism ad. He’s raised money for Long Island Cares, Sandy Relief, and joins others cleaning a beach each year on behalf of the North Oyster Bay Baymen’s Association and Friends of the Bay.
Billy Joel’s a superstar who looks and thinks like us, and he spends his time and money on our behalf, too. This–and his wonderful music–is why the Piano Man remains Mr. Popular. Your thoughts?
The newspaper, to paraphrase Monty Python, is not quite dead. To hear Robert Zimmerman, partner at Zimmerman/Edelson, Inc. tell it, the printed paper is still an essential tool in the public relations practitioners’ kit. Zimmerman made this point to the students attending last week’s conference staged by Hofstra’s Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) chapter. He noted that because the Internet allows us to synthesize our news before it reaches us, we avoid seeing countless stories and photos that would enhance our knowledge of the world–and even the neighborhoods–around us. Many of us, especially young people, are only reading slivers of the news from self-selected categories. We also miss stories we might have enjoyed because they aren’t pre-defined as news we care about.
For example, I wouldn’t set my online New York Times categories to include the style section. But because I get the printed paper delivered, I spotted an article today on how parents are defining success for their kids who are going to college, an article I enjoyed and would not have seen otherwise. By flipping through Saturday’s Newsday, I found out that Osama Bin Laden’s son-in-law is on trial in New York, Bill Clinton has endorsed gay marriage and Justin Timberlake is hosting Saturday Night Live. I might have missed some of that important information (my wife loves J.T.!) if I had only read my pre-determined news feeds.”It’s true many younger people get their news online — which for the most part means the headlines — and don’t want to spend the time to read in-depth articles as so many generations did before,” wrote Michael Russnow in a Feb. 19 Huffington Post blog. He added, “…websites do not offer the same quality that comes in the form of a three-dimensional journal. Most online articles are not too substantive…”
He’s right, and so is Robert Zimmerman. When we read online exclusively, we’ve chosen to miss a lot. Good PR people can’t afford be so selective. Knowing what goes on around you is helpful, necessary and expected. Printed newspapers still matter. Your thoughts?
Most readers of my blog probably don’t know much about–and maybe never even heard of–New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who died this week at age 88. Koch served three terms from 1978-1990, and is often credited with turning the city around at a time when it was in terrible decline. Ed Koch was also a public relations dream; he was accessible, opinionated, honest, colorful, proud, funny, and very media friendly. Most importantly, he loved New York City and he loved people.
Brought up in Brooklyn, Edward Irving Koch was a decorated soldier in World War II, became a lawyer, and served in the City Council and the United States Congress before running for mayor. After he left office he was a radio talk show host, author, online movie critic, and was even “The People’s Court” judge on TV. He loved people, talking and joking and listening and asking his trademark “How am I doin’?” wherever he went.
Dr. Evan Cornog, dean of Hofstra University’s School of Communication and a former assistant press secretary to Mayor Koch, recently wrote in a Newsday op-ed that Koch’s success was more than good PR. “And what impressed me above all,” wrote Dr. Cornog, “was that nearly all the time, the question he was trying to answer was: What was the best choice for the entire city?”
Like every politician, Koch had plenty of folks who didn’t agree with him, but he still got an amazing 78 percent of the vote in his third run for mayor. From a PR perspective, he put the “public” in public relations because he was able to take the city from its economic and emotional doldrums, in part, by becoming its cheerleader-in-chief. He lifted people’s spirits by the sheer force of positive thinking. For a dozen years he was the face of a city that was down but not out, and New York is a far better place today because of him.
Ed Koch is proof that putting people first is good politics and good PR. Today’s nasty, divisive, lobby-funded politicians should look to his example. Your thoughts?
This week my numbers became faces. Fifty people came to Hofstra to attend my conference titled, “PR on a Shoestring Budget for Nonprofits” which was designed to offer real help to organizations who are often unsure about how to “do” public relations. These folks were from many of the same nonprofits who responded to my survey of Long Island nonprofits last year. Fifty-eight percent said they devote less than 2% of their budget to public relations and marketing, 70% have no full-time staff member handling PR, nearly all PR functions are grouped with other tasks, and little or no training is given to the staff and volunteers who do the PR work.
My goal, with grant support from the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, was to provide the basics to these nonprofits, which are clearly struggling to get their messages to their audiences. We kept our three workshop sessions simple. “Social Media vs. Traditional Media was presented by PR pros Debra Scala-Giokas of Certilman Balin and Donna Rivera-Downey of Girl Scouts of Nassau County;”Writing for Public Relations” was “taught” by future Hofstra adjunct professor David Norman of Kitchen Public Relations and me; and “Pitching the Media” was given by current Hofstra Adjunct Professor Laurie Bloom of Rivkin Radler and David Chauvin of Zimmerman/Edelson Public Relations. Our keynote speaker was Carl Corry, who runs Newsday Online. And assisting us were student volunteers Sophie Krall, Abby Littleton, Marilyn Oliver, and graduate assistant Vania Andre.
The attendees’ appreciation for the program was heartfelt. We received numerous accolades for the conference content and even more for staging it at all. There’s a real hunger out there for help, and public relations professionals should be providing these nonprofits with pro bono services and guidance as often as they can.
Getting messages out among all the media clutter is not easy. So I was kinda proud of myself this week. It felt good to lend a hand to people who need much-needed help. My colleagues and I made a lot of people happy–and a little smarter. And after my next survey numbers are published in early 2013, I’m planning to do this again. Your thoughts?
Last week I visited the Fair Media Council’s headquarters to present “Public Relations on a Shoestring.” An audience of not-for-profit organizations participated in the two-hour workshop to learn how they could boost their PR efforts despite thin budgets. The feedback I got during and after the program confirmed what I already knew: not only do not-for-profits spend very little money on public relations efforts; they also know very little about what PR tools are available to them both online and off.
They understand they need to use social media but they don’t really know how. They want their organizations covered in Newsday but are unaware of the many other media venues they could be pitching. They send press releases when their organizations have “news” (<airquotes here) but don’t ask themselves the question, “Who cares?” before spending time to publicize an event without finding a way to relate it to an audience.
This is anecdotal, of course, so I’m readying research to prove it. This fall a small team of Hofstra students and I will survey more than 1,000 Long Island not-for-profits and ask them how small are their PR budgets, which PR tools they use, and how much PR training their staffs possess. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to spread the word on “doing PR” for very little money through a series of workshops and seminars. The next few months we’ll confirm what we already know: tiny budgets force low priority for PR within the not-for-profit world, yet these organizations crave the benefits of a good public relations campaign. They just need to learn what’s out there for the taking. Your thoughts?