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.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Click or Clique? More Specific Social Sites Trending

A group of my students presenting a public affairs case study alerted me to GovLoop, a social site specifically for people who work in government and public affairs. It is based on the Ning platform, which, as their tagline says, allows people to build and manage their own community. It's a "walled garden" approach to social media.

It's not a really new idea. Ning has been around for a while. In fact, it's been years since I joined a PROpenMic, a social community for PR professors and students.

But my own observation is that such specific industry or cause-related platforms are becoming more prevalent as people try to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio on their mainstream social networks.

Of course, it is possible to have lists on Twitter, groups of friends on Facebook, groups on LinkedIn, and communities on Google+. But even there, among my lists of students and alumni, PR profs and PR professionals, someone may share pictures of their new shoes or another cat video.

These newer places keep the social but purge the purely personal and increasingly irrelevant content. A mix of personal and professional has always been a favored aspect of social, but with the increase in users it has become harder to keep that blend suitable.

Some studies show that as few as 11% of new Twitter users in 2012 are still tweeting today. One reason is they feel too busy to maintain it after initial curiosity was satisfied. Another reason for social engagement attrition is the lack of return, i.e. there is little relevant information. These content-specific social communities are an answer for many.

I know some colleagues who have refused to jump on Twitter and Facebook, but they have accounts on Academia.edu because it is more interesting and productive for them to engage exclusively with other researchers and educators.

Meanwhile, some managers who don't want employees "wasting time" (not my view necessarily) on social media and block workplace access to Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn will allow and encourage the use of Yammer, an internal social network for employees.

In the end, some may eschew the mainstream social networks for these specific ones. Others may engage in both and use them appropriately for personal vs professional engagement. But for those of us working and teaching in public relations, it's important to be aware of these sites that are more like cliques than all about clicks. The PR practitioners in particular may need to join ning sites in their industry for business-to-business and other networking opportunities. It may not be a way to get mass reach, but it will be a way to engage a more relevant audience, and one that might not be found elsewhere.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Considering the Optics of Your Nonprofit PR Person

Some time ago a local nonprofit executive asked me an interesting question. They lead an organization that advocates for a particular type of medical condition, not unlike the many specific disease-affiliated associations and nonprofits that are out there.

The question was this: they were hiring a marketing director (don't get me started on why the position is called marketing vs PR--a subject for another blog post) and wondered if I know anyone who is actually affected by the medical situation for which this particular nonprofit raises awareness and support.

I can see the logical basis for this question. It is easier and more genuine for a person to advocate for a cause in which that person clearly has a stake. But I also had a bit of a negative reaction. Does, say, the Lung Association spokesperson need to have lung disease? (The organization in question had nothing to do with the Lung Association).

Certainly, if it works out that way, fine. But I would think any organization would want to hire someone with the best communication skills, someone who knows how to advocate regardless of their personal situation. Also, someone promoting a health related cause who is not themselves affected by a particular disease can have another compelling effect on those who hear the message. If someone who has cancer is encouraging donations for cancer  research, that would seem logical. But if someone who does NOT have cancer is making the case, it makes the issue seem mainstream.

I may be wrong here, but I also think the instinct  to have a "patient" be the PR focus can border on exploitation. The public may not know why the person was hired, or if non-patients were considered for the job. But I wonder about the culture of the organization, resulting communication strategies, and the eventual employee's sense of confidence and respect if they were given preference  because of their medical condition. I hear all the time from personal acquaintances that they do NOT want their disease to define them.

As always, let me know what you think about the issue by leaving a comment.

Monday, June 30, 2014

PR Professor-Practitioner Relationships Need Mutual Understanding

The 2014 Academic Summit, sponsored by Edelman Public Relations along with PR Week, the University of Notre Dame and DePaul University, is an event that brings together PR professors and practitioners for some engaging discussion. I wasn't in attendance last week, but I did note some tweets from the meeting and one in particular caught my eye.

Richard Edelman, the well known president and CEO of the global PR firm that bears his name, made a comment in his remarks that in effect said professors need to get out more and not just stay in their office writing papers.

I have great respect for Edelman, and have used his firm's annual 'Trust Barometer" as required reading in some of my classes. But, for that reason, I was dismayed that he would imply that academic research is not of value.

I tweeted a question just to clarify. I asked Edelman what academic journals and conference proceedings he reads. It caused several retweets, comments, and even caused the editor of a well-regarded PR journal to snort aloud at the meeting.

Mr. Edelman did not respond to requests for comment.

One other academic at the conference noted that the context was that academic research is valuable, but it needs to be presented in ways that are not so full of academic jargon. That is a good point. It is possible for some academic works to be heavy on theoretical concept buzz words or statistical gymnastics seeming more intended to impress than express.

But on the other hand, the broad-brush assertion that academics "don't get out much" is a little heavy. I know from my own interactions with other PR professors that many have professional experience before getting a PhD and teaching full time. I also know that once they become PR professors, many of them stay very much engaged with the practitioners in the field through conferences like the Academic Summit and other regular interactions ranging from coffee with local pros to faculty externships. And the papers that we academics write are largely based on "getting out" there and studying actual PR practice and consequences. We don't just sit in a campus office and stroke our chins and venture a guess. Some of us, myself included, still practice PR as consultants ourselves, and also take on local clients for class projects where concepts are applied directly.

Methods from content analysis, to focus group, to survey and others are all about engaging real professionals. But academics go beyond reporting raw data and percent response. They look for the reasons behind the response, the cause and effect that is consistent and can be predictive over time. That can be hard to understand because of the methodological mumbo-jumbo or precision required in defining concepts. But if the results can be communicated to practitioners, that is of tremendous value and considerable practical. Indeed, informing the field--of academics and practitioners, and of course our students--should be the reason we do research.

Certainly, academics need to have a solid and grounded--we academics might say valid--understanding of what PR professionals do every day. But professionals, rather than eschewing academic research, theory, and unfamiliar words, should seek to understand it and apply it. This is one reason I'm an advocate of open-access journals, so professionals can access research without needing access to a university library or membership in academic organizations. I applaud PRSA for having its PR Journal available online. And, if you read the previous post on this blog, that is why I do a summary of journal articles for PR pros and students periodically.

At the end of the day, the professor-practitioner relationship can have mutual benefit if we all try to honestly understand each other.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

From the Journals--Latest Research on Investor Relations, PR Ethics, PR Law, Communication Management

From time to time I catch up on reading a batch of academic journals and like to share a quick overview of some of the articles I find most interesting. Many PR practitioners can benefit from being aware of this research but lots of academic publications are hard to access other than through a university library. Here then are some interesting points from recent research. (Citations provided in case you want to seek out the full article for yourself).

Investor Relations:

Matthew W. Ragas, Alexander V. Laskin, (2014) "Mixed-methods: measurement and evaluation among investor relations officers", Corporate Communications: An International Journal, Vol. 19 (2), pp.166 – 181
The results indicate that IROs strongly (80 percent) believe that mixed-methods (i.e. both quantitative and qualitative methods) should be used to measure the success of investor relations. Mixed-methods advocates place significantly more importance on measurement than IROs that prefer quantitative- or qualitative-only approaches.

Matthew W. Ragas, Alexander V. Laskin, Matthew Brusch, (2014) "Investor relations measurement: an industry survey", Journal of Communication Management, Vol. 18 (2), pp.176 – 192
Respondents strongly rebuked using share price as a valid measure of investor relations performance. A factor analysis revealed that IROs use four factors to measure program success (listed in order of stated importance): first, international C-suite assessment; second, relationship assessment; third, outreach assessment; and fourth, external assessment. IROs at large-cap companies place significantly more importance on both C-suite assessment and relationship assessment than their peers at small-caps.

Ethics:

Patrick Lee Plaisance (2014) “Virtue in Media: The Moral Psychology of US Exemplars in News and Public Relations,” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Vol 91 (2), pp. 308-325.
This study looks at journalists and public relations professionals who exemplify good moral character and virtue to construct a profile of ethical professionals in these fields. Findings show that they scored higher than peer professionals on the personality traits of extroversion, agreeableness, openness, and conscientiousness. As a group they rejected situational or utilitarian ethical reasoning in favor of a moral absolute approach. Overall, an ethical professional can be described as one who places value on concern for others,  professional duty, and proactive social engagement, all of which demonstrate higher order ethical reasoning.

Steve Mackey (2014) “Virtue Ethics, CSR, and ‘Corporate Citizenship’”, Journal of Communication Management, Vol 18(2), 131-145.
Mackey critiques the PR concept of CSR (corporate social responsibility) and corporate citizenship through the ethical theory of Alasdair MacIntyre, who favors the ancient Greek or Aristotelian notion of character as the only foundation for ethics. He criticizes CSR as being done for strategic reasons and personal corporate benefit rather than as an extension of character. He suggests that PR professionals need to respect and respond to existing social norms and democratic discourse rather than trying to influence them. His points are well laid out, however he tends to have a shallow anti-corporate bias and an assumption of the actual intentions of PR practitioners and collective corporate attitudes and reasons for conducting CSR programs. He cites several PR scholars but does not acknowledge that the notions of two-way symmetrical communication or mutual adjustment based on research in fact are the form of practice he encourages. He also rather naively puts forth government and nonprofit institutions as exemplary of the type of social engagement that would be favored from an ethical standpoint, even though human actors in both of those sectors can lead to greed, selfishness, corruption and unethical behavior as well.

Law:

Cayce Myers and Ruthann Lariscy (2014), “Corporate PR in a post-Citizens United World,” Journal of Communication Management, Vol 18 (2), pp. 146-157.
This is a very interesting and helpful historical review of case law that led up to the Citizens United case, which is in the long line of debate about corporate vs. commercial speech and the recognition of corporations as “persons” in terms of speech rights. In addition to the back and forth arguments and decisions of precedent cases at both lower courts and the Supreme Court, the paper identifies the practical impact of Citizens United on PR practice: 1) corporate PR can now legally include political relations; 2) corporate political issues may take on a more nuanced structure; 3) key publics and tactics will change to include voting blocks, special interest groups and others in the political arena; 4) a changing relationship of public relations departments with the press, particularly an added strain because of the increase in opinion journalism or punditry in political issue coverage.

Communication Management:

Catrin Johnson, Vernon D. Miller, and Colange Hamrin (2014) “Conceptualizing Communicative Leadership: A Framework for Analyzing and Developing Leaders’ Communication Competence,” Corporate Communication: An International Journal, Vol 19 (2), pp. 147-165
Since PR is supposed to be a “management” function, this paper is interesting for identifying four essential communication behaviors of leaders as well as eight principles of “communicative leadership,” a Swedish concept. This is a form of leadership that may or may not be evident in CEOs and other managers, thus making the case that part of a PR professionals role is to counsel management on their communicative leadership, not just their communication. A communicative leader is defined in the paper as: “one who engages employees in dialogue, actively shapes and seeks feedback, practices participative decision making, and is perceived as open and involved.”

Andreas Schwarz and Alexander Fritsch (2014), Communicating on Behalf of Global Civil Society: Management and Coordination of Public Relations In International Nongovernmental Organization, Journal of Public Relations Research, Vol. 26 (2), pp. 161-183.

Most studies of excellent PR management are about corporations, especially in the international context. This paper takes an interesting look at non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and determines that “excellent” NGOs assign more resources to PR and more frequently consider the cultural context in their communication. More specific characteristics of well-managed PR in NGOs include: communications department contributes to strategic planning and decision making, the head of the communications department is part of the senior management team, the communications department reports directly to the most senior manager, and employees from different gender or race have equal opportunities.


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

City to Hire PR Director (Let's Hope They Actually Know PR)

I read with interest this morning that the City of Grand Rapids is looking to hire a communications director, who would be charged according to the MLive article with being a "spokesperson, connecting to citizens, and help craft a long-term public relations strategy."

I think it does make sense for a city the size of Grand Rapids to have a full-time public relations professional aboard. (It may have relied on various PR firms for services in the past, but an in-house practitioner has advantages). I also am happy the term public relations is actually used, as well as the notion that there needs to be a long-term strategy and not just idle "getting the word out."

I do hope, however, that public relations is properly understood, and that the eventual hire has an actual degree and experience in public relations. I am a former journalist myself, but I have been disappointed to see so many institutions hire people for top PR positions who have little to no understanding of what PR actually is. Good writing and a command of the Associated Press (AP) style only get you so far.

Public attitudes about public relations, according to academic research, show that people either (my words here) minimize of demonize the profession. They minimize it by seeing it as merely a spokesperson or media relations job. This is considering WHAT PR people do. They demonize it by thinking all PR people intentionally "spin" or deceive. This is considering HOW PR people do their jobs.

What management thinks PR is, called the dominant coalition schema or worldview, affects how PR is practiced. When management doesn't have a good understanding of PR, they hire people who don't know PR, or they hire people who do understand PR and are quickly frustrated by not being able to practice it to full potential.

I would hope that the "demonizing" perspective is not one held by city leaders. And while there is no doubt that some PR people have jobs focused on media relations, I would hope that city leaders see PR as more than that, and that the "long-term public relations strategy" involves more than a media strategy.

Academics have traditionally broken down PR practice into four models of observed practice. Briefly, one is press agentry/publicity, in which practitioners seek media attention sometimes with dubious methods. The public information model is characterized as more straightforward and using various tactics, not just news media. But it is still limited to one-way communication. (This is a common form of practice in government contexts because of the obligation to communicate with citizens and taxpayers; professionals are often called PIOs--public information officers). The last two models are two-way asymmetric and two-way symmetric. Both are two-way, which means more listening to publics and talking with them, not just to them. Asymmetric communication, though, involves listening primarily to meet the organization's objectives and not allowing the public to initiate conversation. This may make sense in some situations, such as health campaigns. Symmetrical communication means either party can initiate dialogue, and sometimes the organization changes its actions to respond to public concern. Academics and advanced professionals consider this form of PR the most ethical and advanced.

That last paragraph is a lot. But it only scratches the surface of knowledge about what PR is and should be. Seasoned PR professionals know more than communications tactics, but understand research, public segmentation, action planning, measurable objectives, theory-based strategies, persuasion, evaluative methods, and more.

It will be best for city leaders, citizens, other publics and the PR profession if the eventual communications director has a deep grasp of PR and participates in making city decisions, not just communicating them. The city will get the attention it deserves, citizens will feel well served, and PR will not be demonized or minimized, but seen appropriately for its positive role in society.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Big Data Marketing (or just PR)

I just finished reading a book called "Big  Data Marketing: Engage Your Customers More Effectively and Drive Value."  Written by Lisa Arthur, the Chief Marketing Officer at a marketing software company, the 160-page volume is a clearly written prescription for how marketing and communication professionals can simply understand and begin to apply big data in their daily work.

As a side note, someone contacted me about the book via the social site Goodreads . They had noticed I added another big data book to my "to read" list, and contact me to let me know that the author of that book had written the forward to Big Data Marketing. They sent me a copy for free to review. (The other book I still have to read is "Big Data @ Work.")

So big data was at work to promote a book about big data. Are you with me so far?

The central theme of the book is that marketers need to move  from the dark ages to the enlightened age of marketing, embracing the technology and available data to make real-time, strategic decisions. In other words, marketing needs to be more data-driven.

While that seems to make intuitive sense, many organizations have not embraced and used big data. The hurdles Arthur identifies include being trapped in tactical vs strategic marketing, managing marketing manually, data stored in silos vs being shared across an organization, and a simple lack of talent or training in dealing with data.

A big emphasis of the book is that too much data is seen as a "hairball" that is hard to unravel. Arthur predicts that the issue will be handled in four potential structural changes for marketing: unifying the CIO and CMO roles, adding the chief marketing technologist role, creating a chief digital officer to work across the organization, or collaboration with the chief customer experience officer.

The book concludes with a chapter each on the five steps to becoming a data-driven marketing organization: get strategic, tear down silos, untangle the big data hairball, make metrics your mantra, and a new process for  marketing. The latter step of course means a re-naming the traditional "four Ps" of marketing--product, price, place, promotion--to people, processes, performance, and profit.

While I would recommend the book, as a PR professor and practitioner I noticed much in this book touted as "new" for marketing that resonates as rather tried and true PR perspectives. For example, PR people have for years emphasized segmenting publics and not treating all customers the same. Beyond that, PR people don't see customers as the only public, but consider  employees, community, investors, government and many other groups of people whose relationship with the organization is different than fiduciary.

With regard to breaking down silos, the PR scholarship has a concept called the "boundary spanning role" of public relations. It's very purpose is to communicate across internal and external organizational boundaries, or to break down silos. PR  folks have been saying this for years, and it is the main argument why the top PR person should be part of senior management, also called  the "dominant coalition," in order to function in this capacity effectively.

While the volume and variety of data is new in recent years, PR people have for  decades advocated research as a first step for campaigns, following a process known as RACE--research, action plan, communication, and evaluation. Within that process, there are other components that "Big Data Marketing" touts as new. These include measurable objectives (with benchmarks coming from data), defined strategies based on research, and a plan for evaluation, which is what the book stresses as  metrics.

So, the book does have value for anyone trying to get a handle on the buzz about "big data" from a communications perspective. But my reaction to the book was more "of course" than "aha!"

By the way, in my graduate class a book I use is "Communicating for Managerial Effectiveness" by Phil Clampitt. The relevant chapter in this book has a helpful process with which to consider big data. It's called  DIKA--data, information, knowledge, action. The point is that data on its own is not helpful. Information is data that is relevant. Knowledge is information that has meaning. Action is the application of this knowledge to meet organizational goals. It is the communication manager's role to find data and move it toward action.

In the end, I hope any of the books I mention are helpful to my blog readers. But I also hope you don't get blown away by tech jargon about data, and keep in mind the tried and true PR process and perspective are worth applying to the new flood of data and information we all contend with now.