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The Slime Gets Everyone Dirty

15 Jun

I was excited recently when I happened to see a link to an article from The Economist on PR. I knew it would obviously be a bit on the sensational side given the title of “Slime-Slinging” that screams link bait but I really love the writing in the publication. The article takes a look at the recent mess that is the Google vs. Facebook debacle and was interesting indeed but I was again irritated by the painting of all PR people as the evil slimy underbelly portion of the “new” media environment.

I think at the core my real problem is that despite the vast majority of PR people operating in an ethical manner it’s seemingly always a fun story to write about the bottom of the barrel. However, if we’re going to get at these issues honestly then let’s really do it.

There are bad PR people who operate very questionably and will sell their ethics

Or maybe they never had ethical standards in the first place. Yes, it’s sad but true and I will concede this but I’ve been working in the communications industry 15 years now and would say that there have only been a handful out of a thousand plus I’ve known who truly missed Morality 101. It’s really unfortunate when things like this happen and chasing a story or the almighty dollar becomes a priority and someone is willing to throw their reputation and career out the window. However, most communications pros understand that all you have at the end of the day is your credibility and integrity. If I am going to work in this industry I must always remain honest, upfront, and seek to provide good counsel to clients, employers, as well as bloggers and journalists. Most of us understand this point.

There are journalists that aren’t saints either

Again, the very, very vast majority of journalists I’ve worked with over the years are honest, credible, good professionals. Yet if we really want to open this discussion up and have a conversation on what our new media environment looks like with the rise of blogs, social media, and citizen journalism we need to acknowledge that there are a few journalists that don’t like playing by the rules either. It happens.  In truth this particular sentence in The Economist bothers me a lot on the hypocrisy scale, “The PR flacks who did Facebook’s dirty work were two ex-journalists who had only recently gone over to the dark side.” Really, just recently went to the dark side? Clearly nobody could’ve been an ethical question mark until crossing into the PR world right? The fact that these journalists weren’t trained in PR ethics is part of the problem as they likely believed the myth that any journalist makes a good PR pro. It showed they don’t know where the line is in working credibly with a client or they didn’t care. It’s the people, not the job.

There are bad bloggers, writers, and social media snake oil salespeople

Anytime there’s a new market it takes a few years to settle in and become a functioning (or at least semi-functioning) environment. It has been a pretty long-standing joke with many in the social media community around how thousands instantly became self-appointed “gurus”, “ninjas”, or “rockstars” in the online community. Opening up to new viewpoints and ideas has been one of the truly great benefits of all these new channels. The ability to connect with smart people professionally or personally regardless of location has transformed how we collectively communicate but it also requires that everyone looks with a critical eye on who is worthy of trust. Because someone has a great looking blog or a large follower base on Twitter shouldn’t grant them a free pass to report or publish anything under the sun as gospel truth.

The Burson Marsteller, Facebook, Google mess is an example of what happens when people lose sight of their ethics. Let’s not look at this only as a PR problem though. It’s a credibility problem, one that impacts all of us working in communications regardless of what “side” you’re on.  The day I compromise my morals and can’t look my colleagues in the eye or can’t tell my daughter that I’m proud of what I do is the day I need to leave.

I think a real discussion of the issues facing PR, media, and bloggers would be outstanding and I’d greatly appreciate viewpoints and representation from all of them here.

How can we collectively work to boost credible collaboration so all of us aren’t smeared with the same slime generated by a few?

*initially posted on http://www.prevolutionblog.com

Time to Think

24 Feb

It’s hard to do when competing in a truly 24/7 world that depends on constant motion to stay ahead of the curve and ahead of your competition. However, there is an essential element to growth and success that requires leaders to make a conscious, and seemingly backward, choice. Stop. Think.

Instead of pushing for faster and more efficient there are times when you need to look for slower and more thoughtful. In just the PR world, if you search on Google for PR Consultant List you’ll get over 3.2 million results on how to be a good consultant, who are the best consultants and much more. The point of all this? There are thousands of other professionals in any field that are tactically able to execute to some level in the same general way.

Finding creative solutions is not a new problem, every great advance in human history is brought on by the need to solve a challenge that required a different type of thought. The industrial revolution for example was a shift focused on economic development that increased the growth of major cities and moved countries away from a predominantly agricultural model. In 2011, as we collectively look at a landscape of economic challenges, significant global turmoil, and rapidly changing technological advances; it’s time to think again. People in every industry are seeking and desperately wanting to find creative ideas. That desire for truly smart thinking is why TED Talks are so engaging and popular. Smart thinking is not a commodity business, churning out tactics is.

Find ways that work for you to think and evaluate what’s next. A few ideas to consider might include:

Blocking time on your calendar – Literally carve out time on the Outlook or Google calendar that pushes you from meeting to meeting. Close the door for an hour to read, think about a challenge in front of you from a different perspective, or write out a few free-flowing ideas (maybe crazy ones) to spark your thinking.

Talk with others – Go out, get away from your typical environment. If you’re a social thinker you’ll be well-served by gaining energy from the process of gathering input and feedback.

Shut it down – If your goal is to push a 2,000 pound boulder up a hill, just pushing harder isn’t going to cut it. Same thing happens when we try to solve problems by just pushing. Go entirely away from the situation, find a place where you’re relaxed and can find new perspective. Maybe you’ll find that there’s actually a good boulder on the other side of the hill and you don’t need to push the first one at all.

The communications profession is not just a collection of tactics. It relies on smart thinking, problem solving, and understanding human dynamics which cannot simply be found on a checklist.

There is no right answer and everyone will find their place and style but having a place to think and create is critical. It’s what separates you from the 3.2 million other options out there for your clients and employers. What do you do to think and find focus? What has worked for you?

Five Ideas to Repair the Credibility of PR

29 Sep

Photo courtesy of DoktorSpinn under Creative Commons.There’s an issue that has always been a challenge for a lot of good PR people and it rears its ugly head a few times each year.  How can PR improve its own reputation?  I had a couple of reminders on the need for this work recently from very different sources.

First off I saw an interesting post from Keith Trivitt on PR Breakfast Club titled Ethical vs. Unethical: A Lot Rides on Only 2 Letters that highlighted yet another case where PR ethics were called into question around paid toy pitches that were framed as “expert” opinion.  Of course the problem is the expert was a front.  Transparency? Nah, why bother.  Focus on the audience? Crazy.

The second time the issue of our professional credibility came up was a chat I had with the stylist cutting my hair.  She asked what I did and I explained a bit about my varied communications work. She was surprised by the variety of efforts I mentioned.  She shared that she essentially thought of PR as promoting celebrities. Ugh.  She asked more about if PR could actually drive customers to a business like hers.  I explained that it sure better or you’re wasting your money and your PR person isn’t doing their job.

The professional of public relations has been relegated to the world of used car sales credibility for too long.  What can we do to improve the reputation of our field? Here are a few starters:

  • Highlight broader knowledge: The discipline of PR isn’t just media relations, it never has been.  Working with the media is an important skill but so is understanding product positioning, recognizing the importance and value of strong corporate reputation, and how online engagement has changed the dynamics of customer interaction.  Many PR professionals are handling all this and more everyday and their credibility is undermined by the type of PR people who believe the only credentials our profession requires are a good smile and the ability to raise a martini glass.
  • Industry advocacy: Our industry needs to continue to work on its own image.  At a national level, PRSA has been working to highlight the importance of ethical behavior and has a code of ethics for its members.  However, I think the industry needs to go further to push forward on what essentially equates to a campaign for itself to fight the stereotype of PR that continues to be pushed out by idiotic representations like The Spin Crowd.
  • Greater transparency:  Many of the problems surrounding the industry stem from questions around the motives of professionals and what is happening behind the scenes.  The toy review case mentioned earlier is a great example of what happens when your strategy is “let’s hope nobody notices or finds out.”  If that concept is ever raised in a meeting you know where its going to end up.  The need for transparency is well documented and is more important now than it ever has been as we live in an era where nearly everything can be tracked digitally.  If you aren’t comfortable with your name appearing next to your work on a billboard it’s a sign that you might want to rethink the idea.
  • Training: These issues can be very muddy to discern, especially when you’ve not faced them in the past, and greater training and education would benefit the industry in the long run.  Again, greater emphasis on real-world ethical case studies via PRSA programming could go a long way to providing guidance.  As could commitments from many of the larger agencies in the field.  A high percentage of younger pros get their first shot in PR from agencies and there are certainly some agencies out there that are part of the problem but many could also have a tremendous impact on industry reputation by including ethical decision-making as a key point of ongoing training.  By investing time on employees early on, they also protect their own reputation to avoid train wrecks that hurt the business like the FTC issues for Reverb and the industry.
  • Accountability: We are all responsible for this.  If you care about your own future in this industry and want to be able to hold your head high saying you work in public relations, you need to take steps to hold yourself as well as the companies and clients you serve to higher standards.  Take time to think about these issues and question those that would push you to compromise your values.  It’s ultimately your reputation and name on the line.

What else can we do to improve the expectations within our profession?  How can we take some time to repair our own image?   Add your ideas and share them with others so we can all feel good about the amazing work being done in our field and its future.

Before You Hit Send

20 Jul

Photo courtesy of jannemei via creative commons

Email has been a truly transformational tool in the business world. Information sharing is fast and much more efficient than anything that came before it.  Some of you can think back to the days of faxing documents with hand-written changes back and forth to update materials in development.  Email is also a great too as you can select every word and know it will be delivered exactly as you want.

But, will every word be *read* and interpreted exactly as you want?  Probably not. Every recipient of an email has a unique perspective based on their role, their relationship with the author, and environmental factors including whatever else is happening in their world.  It can be a challenge to effectively use email with larger groups to deliver a message that you’d like received and understood in a singular way.

I had an interesting experience discussing this issue based on how members of a group read the same message with entirely different interpretations.  While email is a simple tool, before blasting out that next message to a large group, remember to consider a few essential elements to avoid pitfalls within your audience.

  • Timing: Be mindful of the timing of the message as one sent at a time that can be viewed as inappropriate can create significant problems.  If sending a message to a large team, the day before a deadline isn’t going to endear you to them.  If the message is in response to something that happened recently that should be done differently in the future, be aware it may be viewed as a direct correction to someone who took action and it can generate a response akin to “ooh, who did that?” or “Dave’s in big trouble for that one.”
  • Role of the author: Every organization has a different culture but there are some core similarities.  If the president/owner sends out an email, it is viewed as a big deal regardless of the topic.  Whenever leadership communicates something to team members it conveys the message that this is the official position of the company.  This can be a good thing, when it reinforces the culture and style you want to have in the organization.  When Woot CEO Matt Rutledge send his letter to employees about becoming an independent subsidiary of Amazon it was in a style that fit with the culture they’ve established.  Or it can create a storm of new fires for the company like Dan Gilbert’s letter as owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. (and I didn’t even mock the fact it was comic sans font)   So, when determining who the author should be, take some time to decide if it really needs to be from the top of the  organization or if another member of the team might be more appropriate.  You are delivering a message before readers ever get to the content.
  • Tone:  This is a given but often where everyone struggles due to the nature of email communication.  It’s never good to let someone sit down and fire off a snarky message to everyone because of frustration.  It’s not helpful and will likely just reflect negatively on the author and hurt the success of the team. When communicating with others in the company the tone must remain professional (you must remember how easily these can be forwarded), but think about what the tone should be based on the content.  Does it need to be inspiring and motivating?  It is to solicit feedback?  Policy memo and you don’t want feedback?  All have very different styles that should be used in getting the response you want.

All-in-all, email is a great tool.  However, it is not a cure-all for communicating.  Be mindful of what you’re trying to achieve and evaluate the good and bad that goes along with email to decide if it fits or if you’re better off delivering the message in another manner…maybe even (shudder) in person.

Adapting for Success

2 Jun

I’m a huge fan of nature and often times see things very differently by simply observing.  Now, let me be clear before any of you really outdoorsy types start inviting me on a major hiking, camping or exploring adventure: I like being out in nature and enjoying the beauty…then going home to high-speed Internet, air conditioning, and running water.   =)  Anyway, I believe there is a tremendous amount that can be learned by watching how the world moves without us impacting it.   Observe how all kinds of creatures fit into the world and how the ecosystem has a natural rhythm to it.

However, what I noticed last week had nothing to do with a natural setting.  I sat at a drive through bank waiting for the teller to send me a receipt via that amazing wonder of the world known as an air tube and noticed a small bird flying above me.  I watched him fly into the overhang above.  His feet hopped deliberately from the broad girder to a thin piece of metal tubing running downward for several feet to reach a platform below.   He remained there a moment, picked up some sort of twig, and returned in the same focused manner to the overhang above while chirping happily.

What was it about this that made it stand out and stick with me so clearly?  And, how in the world does this relate to communications and PR?

This little bird has adapted to the environment around it which is by no means typical or natural for him.  In the heart of downtown Minneapolis this bird has created a home surrounded by concrete and steel with a constant hum of traffic moving past it each day.

Public relations as an industry must find ways to  successfully adapt to a changing world.

  • PR practitioners must thing critically to understand the goals of the business.  We cannot depend solely on media relations to validate our existence.  The environment is changing and the barriers to traditional media are being dissolved.  Anyone with a computer and a little creativity can find ways to get information to media outlets.  Maintaining a list of contacts isn’t good enough.
  • PR pros have an ever-increasing list of tools available to us that connect with key audiences. We should take the time to expand our own skill sets to understand how social media, geolocation applications, and customer created content on Yelp or blogs impacts our organizations/clients.
  • For the good of the industry, PR must take an honest look at the traditional models of how we measure success.  Does the typical client/agency model still work?  I don’t know.  What is the value proposition for organizations like PRSA and IABC?  Access to thought-leaders is far different thanks to technology versus 10 years ago…how do we need to provide opportunities for continued learning?

I will never pretend to have all the answers but would sure enjoy hearing what others think on the issue of adaptability for our industry.  Change isn’t always easy but a little birdie showed me that it is possible.