Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Documentary on Future of Advertising is Old News

A colleague shared with me this documentary called 'Transmediatic' which purports to be revelatory about the future of advertising. It is actually a summating of the present and a recap of where many have already been for some time.

Some key notions are that the "product is the message" and "clear is the new clever". These are just new clothes for the old notions of transparency, authenticity, two-way symmetrical communications, and mutually beneficial relationships that have popular by most legitimate public relations practitioners and taught by PR educators for as long as I have been one, which is since 2001. The documentary's line "the naked brand" reminded me of a book I once read. Sure enough, on my shelf is "Naked Conversations," by social media early adaptors and gurus Robert Scoble and Shel Israel. It was published in 2006, the year Twitter was launched.

We've kind of been there.

But to people who aren't in advertising or PR, the documentary is useful to give a visually rich explanation of the changes in the field, and indeed in society. Here then is a recap of what the documentary recaps for the initiated:


  • an "institutional speaker box" no longer exists
  • transparency is not a choice--does it happen to you or do you participate?
  • trust is the essence of every great brand
  • The Edelman Trust Barometer routinely points out that people don't trust executives
  • Consumer Sovereignty is an old concept made more relevant in today's media environment
  • 90% of people trust peer reviews; 20% trust advertising (see Yelp)
  • You can't create image (I always point out to students the distinction between image and reputation--one is merely communicated, the latter is earned and based on experience)
  • Related to above, companies have to shift from saying they are great to being great. (PR people have noted this for years, dating back to Arthur Page in the 1920s and the mantra of the Page Society today)
  • There are positive externalities to ads--such as information utility
  • Design thinking is where advertising needs to go (Our GVSU Ad/PR alumnus Mike Rios spoke about this on campus last semester. See this Guardian article about his and a partner's explanation of design thinking and an example of it in use to benefit society)
  • Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a continuing trend. It dates to the 1970s in PR. See CSRWire for stories of CSR. Or see the Pepsi Refresh Project as an example of CSR that provides social branding.
  • A final note: the US is NUMBER 1 in advertising, but NUMBER 13 in R&D. More focus on good products, and the advertising can be transparent, and bette than clever. That's also fundamental PR--mutually beneficial relationships. 

Monday, February 09, 2015

Brian Williams, Journalists Lying, and The Moral Superiority of Public Relations

OK. The headline of this blog was a bit sensational and an obvious attempt at click bait. But a poor blogger has to do something to keep up with the big boys at Rock Center to grab some eyeballs. Do me a solid and read on.

Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News has taken himself off the air voluntarily for a few days because of his unfortunate episode of, to quote him directly, "misremembering" some facts related to report he did on the Iraq War.

Apparently he said he was in a helicopter in Iraq that was hit by enemy fire, and military veterans called him out on that. His statements when covering Hurricane Katrina are now also called into question, according to an article in USA Today, one of many national media stories on the subject.

Leave aside the fact that reporting should not be done from memory. Does not a journalist take notes or record when "reporting"? One wonders what else Mr. Williams may have fabricated in his recently celebrated 10 years in the anchor chair at NBC. Were he not an employee of this fabled (pun most definitely intended) network, Dateline NBC would be putting the finishing touches on a graphic for an expose called "Brian Williams: Decade of Deception."

But let's ease up on Brian Williams a little. After all, he's not the only national journalist to lie. Dan Rather over at CBS has his own wikipedia entry for his famous fabrication about George Bush's military background. Stephen Glass at the New Republic, Jayson Blair at the New York Times, and others are recounted in this Yahoo new media round up of old media journalism liars.

I have practiced both journalism and public relations. Now I teach public relations. And what I hear a lot is how public relations lacks ethics, and implied is how righteous journalists are by comparison.

So let's pause and reflect on this "teachable moment," shall we?

Any profession has good and bad practitioners. In PR, there are some who are intentionally deceptive or do other unethical deeds. But it would be unethical and intellectually dishonest to indict the entire profession. That is especially the case when a lot of research shows that unethical PR deeds are usually committed by non-PR professionals--lawyers, marketers, CEOs--or by people with no bonafide training or degree in PR. In fact, some of the largest whoppers of unethical PR are committed by former journalists (eg. Burson-Marsteller's smear campaign of Google for client Facebook). 

A lot of the criticism of PR is co-mingled with a phobic anti-corporate sentiment. But, we must keep in mind that NBC, CBS and other major national journalistic enterprises are also corporations. Big corporations. They shamelessly promote their various interests on their own programs. And they compete with each other relentlessly. They need attention, to have an audience to sell to advertisers, whom they want to charge ever more money.

There are a variety of reasons journalists may lie. Business competitive pressure. An ideological worldview contrary to the person or party they cover. Or simple ego to succeed.

The point is, they lie. We don't even know about all the times they lie. To insinuate that the institution of journalism has any moral high ground over the profession of public relations is just another lie.

Professions are neutral. It's the professionals who vary in their ethics. Brian Williams is the latest evidence of this. It's probably only a matter of time before we have more.

In the meantime, we all get to watch NBC and Mr. Williams engage in some public relations, as they seek to manage this crisis, work on image restoration and re-build the NBC brand. Now THAT should be good television.


Monday, November 24, 2014

The Influence of Ads on Investors

In the context of a law class discussion of the SEC, I was talking to my students about ads and investors. My own research shows that investors look not only at finance tables and "dry" SEC documents, but all manner of PR and advertising tactics when making investing decisions.

That point came up later today when after class I caught up on reading the daily industry trades and blogs. A review of a Dick's Sporting Goods ad in Adweek caught my eye for different reasons.

(Disclosure: I do own stock in Dick's and do not have a daughter).

The review talked about the dads and daughters connection, and making sporting goods seem ingrained in family history. But I was thinking about the class discussion and how as an investor in Dick's this ad was relevant to me for several reasons.

For one, as an investor, I am hoping the ad does well for the company. I am an investor after all. I'd like to see the ad lead to good sales which in turn boosts the stock price.

I also like the ad for the image quality. It makes Dick's look like a relevant and caring company. (Some might argue it is just another company exploiting a religious holiday, but we'll save that debate for another post).

The point is, even when ads push product, they affect more than consumers and purchase intent. They affect other publics, company reputation, and ongoing investor relations efforts too.

I think Dick's scored.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

PR Pros Have Increased Need for Video and Photo Talent

I have been wanting to write a blog post for a while focused on how public relations professionals are increasingly using photography and video in many forms and channels as part of their typical work. So when I caught wind on social media yesterday that well known local photographer and videographer TJ Hamilton is now working full time for Sabo Public Relations I took note.

You can read the announcement on the Sabo PR Facebook page.

I have known both TJ Hamilton and Mary Ann Sabo for a long time, and I worked with each of them in the past on different projects. I have a high respect for both for their talents and integrity. So hearing of the announcement is kind of like when long-term friends tell you they are getting married :-)

But I was especially interested to note that Sabo PR, which grew from a sole practitioner practice to a firm with several employees, had enough demand to hire TJ full time. This one firm illustrates what many firms and in-house PR departments are experiencing--an increased demand for still photography and videography for all the standard brochures, newsletters, annual reports, and media relations. But the need is even greater because of the many organizations needing visual content for web sites, micro sites, blogs, and all the flourishing platforms of social media, especially those with visual emphasis such as Vine, YouTube, Instagram and Pinterest.

Visual PR is on the rise for internal publics as well as external. At an campus event recently I chatted with two recent grads working in large local companies. One just hired a full-time videographer just for employee relations videos and the other talked about her work in photography and video as part of her growing number of responsibilities.

Educators have not lost this trend. We are constantly updating courses to give students basic technical skills and a grasp of visual concepts so they can create visual content or be able to work productively with experts who majored in photography or video production. One example is a video the students in the Grand Valley State University PRSSA (Public Relations Student Society of America) made as part of a presentation they made at their annual conference. It's a take-off on "Mean Girls" to illustrate involvement and leadership. They recently posted it to their GV PRSSA Facebook page. As the students explained to me, they created and scripted the video, and hired a video production major to shoot and edit the video for them. Collaboration is part of creativity, right?

So, whether you have the tech talent yourself or not, if you are in PR you will find yourself talking more and more about visual aspects of messages with greater frequency. You'll have to if you want to be relevant in our increasingly visual society.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Arthur Page--Thoughts on Social Media from a Time Before TV

Several years ago I received a pleasant surprise in the campus mail. It was a copy of the book "Words from a Page in History," which is a collection of speeches given by public relations pioneer Arthur Page from the 1920s into the 1950s. The book was sent for free to faculty in public relations around the country by the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Penn State University. The center is dedicated to research in the area ethics and responsibility in corporate communication and other areas of public communication.

I finally got around to reading it, and is often the case with history, I marveled at how prescient some of his comments were and how much they speak to the field of public relations still today.

But first, a little background. Page was a journalist who became a public relations professional and by 1927 had the title of Vice President of Public Relations at the largest company of the time--AT&T. The "Page Principles" are themes gleaned from his many public speeches and documents and are heralded by professors and practitioners as solid guidelines for PR practiced as ethical counsel to management of organizations. You can learn more about Page via the Arthur W. Page Society, on the Arthur Page "exhibit" at the online PR History Museum, or by reading the excellent biography of Arthur W. Page by Noel L. Griese.

So, as I was reading through Page's speeches, I got to thinking about the famous Page Principles that summarize the man's philosophy of public relations practice and how they might apply today to social media. Here's my quick application of each principle from before the TV era to the social space today:

  1. Tell the truth--always be genuine on social platforms, from your profile to your posts, and what links and other content you share.
  2. Prove it with action--don't automate and aggregate content. Don't present an image on social media but fail to live up to it by replying, sharing, and responding to comments. Be sure your offline presence is consistent with your online and social projection. Do what you say and say what you do.
  3. Listen to the customer--don't blast tweets and updates without first listening to conversations in the social space. And if people respond, reply back in kind, not just with your own agenda but to satisfy the questions and issues of those who reply to your social messages.
  4. Manage for tomorrow--social media is in the moment, but it's still wise to think long term. Analytics are great, but daily, weekly or monthly numbers of engagement should not be the sole driver or reward of social media management for a brand. Consider how social media is an extension of bigger objectives and a piece of a larger media mix that may not yield results for a year or more.
  5. Conduct public relations as if the whole company depends on it--Consider that all publics may follow social accounts, on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest and others. Do not see social media as merely a marketing megaphone, but an effort consistent with broader organizational goals and open to the views of many. 
  6. Realize that a company's true character is expressed by its people--many organizations only allow public relations or marketing teams to represent the company on social media. Consider engaging in a "distributed PR" model in which every job function is allowed to tweet and post as part of their job. People engage with multiple publics in many ways. This requires a healthy culture, but in the social space this especially makes sense to allow the organization to be visible in a positive way. As Page said, every employee, active or retired, is involved in public relations.
  7. Remain calm, patient and good humored--this is especially true in social media. Be careful what you say, and don't resort to anger and incivility. Allow comments, respond to them, engage in other social accounts to represent your organization transparently and honestly.
Clearly Arthur Page never had to handle social media. As I noted, the bulk of his career was completed before TV was ubiquitous in American households. But his principles of PR practice are timeless and a good reminder again to contemporary practitioners. Even the social media and digital communication are new, the concepts of integrity, honesty, ethics in PR practice are timeless and transportable across any medium or platform.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Award Winning Annual Reports--from a Municipal Power Utility

The Holland Board of Public Works has earned another recognition for its annual report, according to a story in the Holland Sentinel.

The work behind the creative annual report comes from Randy Boileau and Boileau Communications.

Apparently, this is the latest in a four-year run of awards for annual reports Boileau created for the municipal power concern.

What's interesting is that most people think "corporate" when they think annual reports. They also might think of thin paper, black and white pro-forma template content, and dense tables. Of course, many corporate reports do offer a basic 10K in compliance with SEC requirements, but also offer more colorful and creative content either on paper or online.

But nonprofits, governmental agencies and non-public corporations also should and do issue annual reports. This is because the annual document is not merely an act of compliance, but an opportunity to build and maintain stakeholder relationships and reputation.

As Boileau notes in the Sentinel story, annual reports are a great form of storytelling. Doing so in digital format not only saves printing and distribution costs, but allows an expanded reach and the opportunity for social shares and interaction.

The current 2014 BPW Annual Report, released the same day the award for 2013 was announced, illustrates the power (yes, pun intended in this case) of an online annual report. There is significant visual appeal, content is packaged and navigated easily--I like the "stories, facts, impact" outline of the current issue--and the substance of the content is informative and reader-centric. In short, it provides a great service to stakeholders.

So, congratulations for an award goes to the Holland BPW and Boileau Communications. And thanks also for an example of best practice work to practitioners and to the positive impact of PR to the public at large.




Thursday, October 30, 2014

Defining PR a Challenge Amid Dishonest Media Cultivation

It happened again. A major PR association set out to define "public relations", and the media responded by calling the profession "spin."

This is getting old.

But to get up to date on the current matter, here's a rundown. The Council of PR Firms has rebranded itself and in so doing taken it upon itself to re-brand the entire public relations industry. You can see more about this effort in their "manifesto." (I immediately cringe when they position public relations within marketing, but that's the subject of another post).

 This follows on the tails of PRSA's work to come up with a new common definition of public relations in 2012. The resulting definition pleased some but critics remain.

But, as always, the news media covering the PR industry couldn't resist resorting to diminishing the effort with smug references to PR as "spin." Witness the effort of New York Times scribe Stuart Elliott, whose column is touted as about advertising, but he lumps public relations within it, thus broadcasting some professional ignorance or at least courtesy as to what public relations people actually do.

Industry trade PR Week took on Elliott and the Times directly with a commentary by editor Steve Barrett. I appreciate the effort and agree with the perspective. But this won't be the end of it.

In a paper I wrote in 2008 for the Journal of Communication Management ("First Impressions: Media Portrayals of Public Relations in the 1920s"), I point out how the media persistently refused to give a complete view of the profession in the decade it was first commonly called "public relations." Pioneers from Edward Bernays, Ivy Lee, Arthur Page and others argued and demonstrated that public relations work was already evolving to be more than publicity and was about honest relationships with multiple publics on behalf of organizations. Time Magazine and Editor & Publisher were wickedly scathing in their assessment of the "new" profession of PR, hypocritically resorting to subjective commentary over objective reporting.

So this latest kerfluffle with the Council of PR Firms and the New York Times take on their efforts is more of the same.

I know Stuart Elliott. He graciously came to speak at Grand Valley State University at my invitation in 2003 when our School of Communications celebrated its 20th anniversary. He was a delight to spend a few days with, and he enjoyed seeing neighborhoods of Grand Rapids as I drove him to and from a TV interview about the history and future of advertising, the subject of his speech to us. It may have gone so well because, ahem, the New York Times PR office assisted in the trip.

But I wonder if his resorting to casting PR as "spin" in his recent article is the tired habit of trying to find an engaging lead over an honest and balanced report. Or kit could be laziness in falling on a cliche or stereotype rather than really listen to the subjects of the story and report it, even if it means interviewing several sources in the field to show a balanced perspective. I worry that Elliott lets his opinion out, and his opinion is not well formed, as evidence by some passages in his article that assert attempts to influence are at odds with transparency and honesty. I would love to ask his opinion of newspaper editorials.

None of this is to say that PR should be without criticism. There are, as in any profession, bad apples who should be called out for bad practice. But journalists should not over-generalize or stereotype entire professions. A little reporting might actually reveal, as I've noted previously, that some of the worst offenders with regard to unethical PR practice come from journalism, or are non-PR people doing PR, or have no education in PR.

But no, this media cultivation and framing of PR by journalists will likely continue. The hope comes in that many journalists, especially when you get out of the biased bi-coastal media centers, have more full and productive relationships with PR professionals. Witness a recent event sponsored by the West Michigan Chapter of PRSA in which morning news producers or anchors from all four area network affiliates stressed their need for help discovering content for their programs.

In the end, I think it best that PR people don't get too morose about select examples of journalists putting forth opinions of our field as if factual. They over-generalize PR people, let's not as PR people over-generalize journalists.

I am launching a study about this next semester. I'll be working with an undergraduate honors student looking at journalists' opinions about news releases and pitches they receive and associating their assessment of them as helpful or annoying and looking for variance based on the sender's PR credentials, actual job function and other factors.

I can't wait to report the honest results.