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The Perennial PR Problem: Tone-Deaf Companies, Tone-Deaf Messages, Tone-Deaf Workplaces

The long-standing, and often contentious issue of diversity in the media industries (news, PR, advertising, social media, etc.), was raised anew in a recent spate of events. Of course, diversity in these industries, as well as in tech, has long been an issue close to our hearts. We’ve blogged about it, advocated for it, and been adherents to the practices and principles of diversity for a very long time. Yet, as we are frequently reminded, many of our major companies still apparently don’t subscribe to the importance diversity in key parts of the workplace. A few recent examples come to mind … (Mind you, while we do not know for certain that any of these examples are not the creation of “diverse” work teams, you’ll see why we have our suspicions when you examine the evidence.)

First, probably most spectacularly is the video commercial released by Pepsi, quickly tagged the #PepsiKendall ad, featuring top model Kendall Jenner. As you’ve probably already seen or heard, the commercial, although pulled from circulation almost immediately after its release, featured Jenner, abandoning her high-fashion photo shoot and blonde wig to join a passing multiracial, multicultural street protest conveniently passing by. After some lingering glances at an attractive male within the protest group, she quickly circulates through the crowd joining the front lines, where she ostensibly leads the group until they meet up with a line of waiting police officers who, as Stephen Colbert has described them, look every bit “the world’s least intimidating police force.” Bottom line, Kendall hands the cop a Pepsi, they both smile, he looks at the other cops down the line, then drinks the Pepsi while Kendall leads the other protesters in a rousing round of cheers. We’ll stop the action here, but we hope you see the problem. The Internet certainly did.

Within hours, a storm of protests, mocking and mimicry of the ad broke out on social media, causing such a furor that Pepsi pulled the ad and issued an apology—to Kendall Jenner, that is, for “placing her in that position.” For the rest of humanity who were offended and weren’t a paid part of the ad, Pepsi issued this rationalization:

This is a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony, and we think that’s an important message to convey,” they said in a statement.”

And regarding the creative development of the ad, they added this:

The creative showcases a moment of unity, and a point where multiple storylines converge in the final advert. It depicts various groups of people embracing a spontaneous moment, and showcasing Pepsi’s brand rallying cry to ‘Live For Now,’ in an exploration of what that truly means to live life unbounded, unfiltered and uninhibited.”

Where do we begin to unpack what went wrong here? Let’s start by raising the question we first posted in a tweet immediately after we head of the furor:

For us, this ad immediately raised the question of diversity on the team who created it—not to mention the marketing and other pros who approved it. What is it they missed that the rest of the world found immediate outrage in? This, we think, is the saddest part of this debacle: that highly paid professionals in major corporations and professional services agencies couldn’t see the offensive nature of this ad.

Any team member schooled in media stereotypes and commercial (cultural) appropriation–which should be everyone involved in creative development as well as the marketing of brand images–could have advised Pepsi to steer clear of its approach, for the clear reason it appears to trivialize people’s struggles for social justice and human rights. Certainly, we think, most persons of color involved in the creative development and marketing of corporate and brand messages (but perhaps not all), should have foreseen the trouble with this ad; so, our guess is that none played any major role in the creation of the spot. So instead what we got was among the worst demonstrations of what insular, self-perpetuating kinds of privileged and homogeneous teams produce for the rest of us. The ad looks good and paints a “pretty” multiethnic picture, but is completely devoid of any real sensitivity to the often life and death circumstances, struggles and ideologies that drive people to protest in the streets.

The lack of authenticity in any part of the #PepsiKendall ad is antithetical to the very democratization of media and media messages that social media has been so effective in producing in the US and globally.”

Yet, sadly, this misguided advertisement doesn’t stand alone. Not long before, but to much less, but surely well-deserved furor, the Switzerland-based company Nivea quickly dropped its ad touting “White is Purity” for its skin creams. We’ll just let the Internet make our case from here …

And, ironically, the backdrop for all this uproar over media messages and images was the very real-life ongoing saga at Fox News regarding sexual harassment and gender discrimination against its female employees.

Finally, as if to show that no contemporary industry is immune to calculated colorblindness and insensitivity, the fashion industry produced this outrage a short time ago. It’s what we called some of the worst kind of commercial/cultural appropriation, as this remnant from international slavery–a face mask forced upon workers in the fields to prevent them from eating corn and other crops they were being forced to harvest—was re-created as “fashion” for adornment on the runway.

One of the PR lessons that all these corporate affronts, miscalculations and misjudgments tells us is that despite the current “zeitgeist” toward diversity, human rights and social justice that many companies are clamoring to tap into, too many of these companies remain bastions of privilege, homogeneity (in regard to race), and social and cultural isolation. One thing many public relations professionals have understood for decades is that sometimes the greatest challenge or threat to good PR isn’t external, it can be internal, exemplified by tone-deaf companies, tone-deaf work environments, and tone-deaf messages—often with toxic results.

What Will PR Look Like in 2017?

2017-countdown

Hello, and Happy 2017!

We’ve read a lot of predictions and assessments about public relations and media coming into 2017. Here’s one reposted here from AdWorld, that pretty much describes that landscape that we see. If you’re not familiar with the terms media convergence, reputation management, influencer marketing, big data, etc., you’ll surely want to read on. Even if you are, this is a good read to make sure you’re ready. We’re also eager to compare notes and find out what you’re thinking and seeing for 2017, so please don’t forget to comment at the end.


Like many industries, the world of public relations is changing rapidly. Michael O’Keeffe, chief executive of PSG Communications looks at ten key trends that will have an impact of PR professionals

  1. Convergence

There was a time, not long ago, when you knew who your competition was. They offered the same services more or less, charged in around the same as you and looked and talked pretty much like you did. Now however, all has changed. Read more.

Exploring the Evolving World of Media, Technology and PR

Alternately as publicists, communications strategists, social media marketers, and general media advocates—in other words, as Public Relations professionals—we’re highly interested in the evolving world of new media, technology, and new methods and distribution channels for reporting. We understand that these developments are an integral part of what we do, and we’re pleased to be actively involved in some of these spaces. In the past few months we spent time away to examine more closely what’s happening in the fields of journalism, media, technology, and therefore public relations. We’re excited to post our first findings here.

Capping our activities, we participated in Illinois Humanities People-Powered Publishing Conference, subtitled “Innovation, Community, and the Future of Journalism.” As it turned out, this conference gave us a national picture of what’s happening in these areas.

A Changing Sense of Audience

To begin with, perhaps in the future, the whole concept of “audience” will change, or even diminish. Hearken, the company behind its namesake community engagement platform for news organizations, describes the audience as all of us, and the relationships we share with others.

audience-silhouette-black-large-panoramic-view-35594276

 

By this view, the “audience” isn’t consumers, or for PR purposes “publics,” sitting out there waiting to engage with us and what we do; the “audience” is our network of friends, associates and even strangers who we interact and engage with in some way on an ongoing basis. Think of it—as a practicing or aspiring journalist, PR person, social marketer, content developer or thought leader, you view yourself as an integral part of whatever community you’re looking to engage with, and not separate from it. Otherwise, you’re missing the point.

Giving and Receiving Feedback

When you’re in almost any business, especially media, PR, journalism and social networking, how we share information and receive feedback is vitally important. There’s a lot of study, development and, in some cases hand-wringing, going on related to how best to share, then receive and process feedback. In the real media world of today, much of that receiving feedback focuses on comments—how to receive them, what to make of them, and how best, or even whether, to respond them. Here’s a peak at how much actual science is going into how individuals are managing daily, or should be managing, such interactions as comments.

____________________________________________________

Are you thinking about two-way conversation and feedback? Important questions:

1) whether comments are allowed;

2) what are the rules/guidelines for commenting and how are they customer-engagementcommunicated or monitored;
3) are comments curated or moderated, and who’s assigned those duties;
4) when we solicit feedback, especially in social media, are we too limited in our range of choices (e.g., like, share, comment, etc.)

_________________________________________________

While we’ve always agreed that it’s not the best judgment to assign digital and social media curation to an intern, as many do, we wondered how much actual forethought organizations are giving to addressing crucial questions like those above, directly tied to audience engagement. It was also exciting to see that one group, the Engaging News Project makes the case for and offers additional feedback tools such as downloadable buttons for Respect, Important, Recommend, etc., for posted content.

Of course, your individual goals, objectives, organizational culture and policies, should guide answers to some of these questions. However, it was great for us as consultants and counsel to re-examine some of these questions to make sure we consider a wider array of options in making recommendations to clients.

Re-Emergence of Civic Journalism

What’s old is new again! Remember back in the 1990s (for those of you old enough to recall) the trend in journalism toward more participatory, collaborative reporting between journalists and community members toward what was considered the greater good. It was called civic journalism, and though the trend fell out of vogue, it never died in some places. With the further decentralizing of the news media, and news reporting capabilities now made possible widely via mobile, social and digital media, there’s a renewed push for more collaborative journalism between news reporters and community members. Be on the watch again for the terms civic journalism and “engaged journalism,” even “public journalism”—all of which speak to what the Democracy Fund, one of the organizations spearheading this media transition, describes as “transforming the relationship between news consumers and news producers.” (Overholser, Democracy Project)

cropped-impact-of-social-media1

Some of the other organizations actively promoting more open and collaborative efforts include The Pew Center for Civic Journalism, which describes itself as “an incubator for civic journalism experiments that enable news organizations  to create and refine better ways of reporting the news to re-engage people in public life”; the Coral Project, dedicated to creating open source tools to further empower news content developers of all sizes; and university-based research centers such as the Engaging News Project, at University of Texas/Austin, mentioned above.

In addition to all of these, there are a number of working models and examples of collaborations between media and community organizations aimed at diversifying news gathering and news content. At People-Powered Publishing, several of those featured included experiments in Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia and Kansas City, to name a few.

Technology

More specifically on the technology front, Mozilla OpenNews, enables peer-to-peer networking and problem-solving by techs, journalists and digital content producers to “help journalism thrive on the open web.” It’s an example of the kind of high-stakes networking, research and development, and collaboration taking place to maximize and support technological developments in the news business.

At behooves all PR pros to at least be aware of these initiatives, and to perhaps look for ways to participate and engage on behalf of their organizations or clients. The news business is changing radically right before our very eyes. It’s important for public relations professionals to be on the cusp of those changes.

PR Or Lobbying? Astroturfing by Another Name

So, we’re back briefly on one of our favorite topics–public relations vs. lobbying. This time, Public Relations (PR) Concept.
U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren weighs in on astroturfing, or lobbying under the guise of public relations, via the New York Times video.
“This Is Thinly Disguised Lobbying,” she says. Check it out here: http://nyti.ms/2aGaAYo

When PR Pros Are Required to Register As Lobbyists: A Case Study

business interactions

From Ireland, here’s a case study that shows what happens when PR people aren’t vigilant against legislation that equates public relations activities with lobbying. In sum, PR pros register, others don’t.

Calls to ‘name and shame’ non-compliant lobbyists

PR industry believes legal and other professions have not reported lobbying activities

Legal firms engaged in lobbying activity are not thought to be complying with the legislation to the same extent as public relations professionals.

Organisations that do not comply with lobbying legislation introduced last September should be “named and shamed”, the Public Relations Institute of Ireland (PRII) has suggested. Read the full story from Irish Times here: http://www.irishtimes.com/business/media-and-marketing/calls-to-name-and-shame-non-compliant-lobbyists-1.2653590

Blurred Lines: When Marketing, PR, and Content Overlap

Worth repeating … we ran across this article a short time ago and thought it caught the essence of what it’s like for PR pros and marketers in this new world order of content development and social media. So we’re re-blogging it here to share ideas on how you can competitively maximize the potential of a truly integrated marketing effort. We’re sure you’ll enjoy reading, and perhaps learn some new ideas too! Be sure to let us know below.

Blurred Lines: When Marketing, PR, and Content Overlap

by Aly Saxe  |

March 17, 2016   |  4,165 views

From social selling to new opportunities with mobile advertising, every marketing organization now has a cornucopia of channels through which to work its magic.

Yet, different channels and opportunities demand different skills, and the effort needed to coordinate all the necessary components and team members is immense. It can be confusing at best, unproductive at worst.

Let’s take a simple example: an infographic.

You’ve compiled the information and applied beautiful design. Now what? You probably have 10 different channels to send it through. Should one person own every channel and strategy for promotion? I mean, it’s just a simple infographic, right?

The answer is “no,” and here’s why.

Read more: http://www.marketingprofs.com/articles/2016/29554/blurred-lines-when-marketing-pr-and-content-strategy-overlap#



 

bigstock-public-relations-concept-in-th-17050577

More noteworthy news: If you’re a regular, or even occasional reader of the PRDoctorChicago blog, you know that a subject near and dear to us is the difference between public relations and lobbying. We frequently write about and advocate for a better understanding of the differences between the two communications disciplines. To that end, we express kudos to major PR organizations and firms who stepped up in March to challenge the New York State Ethics Commission ruling equating public relations communications with lobbying. This is a significant step, and one that bears watching, as the industry moves forward to challenge the efforts of those outside of PR to define what the industry is. In case you missed, simply click this link for an overview of event.

It’s Public Relations, Not Lobbying!

Despite arguments to the contrary, New York State’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics has ruled to expand the definition of lobbying to include PR professionals–a prospect we called chilling, and now actually alarming.

To help make our case against this ruling, we call forth this missive from the nation’s “community organizer in chief.”

“To my mind, there’s a difference between a corporate lobby whose clout is based on money alone, and a group of like-minded individuals–whether they be textile workers, gun aficionados, veterans or family farmers–coming together to promote their interests; between those who use their economic power to magnify their political influence far beyond what their numbers might justify and those who are simply seeking to pool their votes to sway their representatives. The former subvert the very idea of democracy. The latter are its essence.”

-Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope

Barack Obama campaigning on street

Public Relations vs. Lobbying-Part II

business interactions

By far, one of our most popular posts was on the topic of Public Relations and Lobbying, published back in 2012. Since that time the post has been continuously circulating. With proposals potentially impacting public relations now being reviewed in the legislatures of several states, the circumstances call for a timely update.

The most well-known of those bills now being considered is in New York, which follows the pattern of similarly controversial proposals in Massachusetts and Los Angeles. These bills range from proposals requiring public relations professionals to register as lobbyists to those that would restrict lobbying efforts by nonprofits. As we said before, such proposals would seem to us to have a chilling effect on the public relations profession, but to also raise the alarming spectre of infringements on free speech and social justice.

The blurring line between public relations and numerous other disciplines, including lobbying, calls for PR people to be alert and vigilant on understanding the differences between these professions.

As we said in our previous posts, citizens have a long history of organizing and petitioning our government for redress and for actions on behalf of the common good. We liken such grassroots movements to the Federalist Papers, which helped establish the basis of governing in our democratic society. And yes, while we are aware and watchful of many disguised special interests who have, and continue to hijack or simulate grassroots movements to achieve self-serving ends—a disingenuous practice known as astroturfing—we, nonetheless, think the right of citizens to organize and to use legitimate public relations practice to raise awareness and advance their causes is a protected right. Such is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. It is the tenets of the profession—not occasional overlapping methods—that we believe favorably distinguishes public relations from similar activities and pursuits.

Public relations

does not seek

negative

outcomes.

In more than 30 years of public relations practice, our mantra has always been: Public relations does not seek negative outcomes. In other words, PR doesn’t seek to tear down something else; we use it to constructively demonstrate the positive attributes or reasonings behind our cause—in other words, building something up: an idea, a cause, a product, a service, a solution, etc. And we do so with persuasion as our principal tool. It’s the honest value, true belief in and understanding of the benefits of our client’s position that fuels our work.

So, despite a popular belief, especially during this political season, that “going negative” in method, outreach or advertising works, we firmly believe that going negative in outcome, approach, message, methodology, etc., will never achieve big-picture goals and the objectives needed to anchor public relations. On those rare occasions when we make comparisons, the differentiations are based on real differences, and not on the cynical notion of winning by making the other side lose.

New Marketing, New Media, New Public Relations: Why it’s a Great Time to Teach Communications

Communication concept isolated on white

Happy 2016! As we reflected on the lessons learned from the past that guide us into this new year, it dawned on at least one of us what a great time it is to teach communications. New approaches to marketing, new media channels, new public relations techniques all lead to newer business models, so it’s an exciting time to practice and to teach aspiring professionals. As PR pros, we’re enjoying the transition from older methods of practice to new technology and newer standards. And in teaching, we find an exhilarating exchange with students of older wisdoms to newfound truths. With that in mind here’s our list of why we’re not only thankful to be in PR, but equally excited to be teaching communications as a career path for the future.

Revolutionary Changesocial-media

While energy, dynamism, and, in some cases disruption, has always been a characteristic of PR, at no time in recent memory has it occurred as such a tidal wave on so many fronts. Today, changes in branding, images, skill sets, tools and channels is occurring at such a fever pitch, which is why “disruption” is now part of our modern vernacular.

Do-You Style

It would be hard imagining another time when personal style, branding and imprimatur were more celebrated. PR and communications today reflect more individual style, preference and prerogative than the industry has ever afforded. Beyond essential skills and expertise, success today is less the result of a well-worn pattern or formula, than of hard work, energy and verve. Consequently, all manner of creativity is being unleashed—some for good, some otherwise, but the marketplace of ideas will sort it out. For aspiring and practicing pro communicators, the path to a successful career has never been more open to different personas, styles, acumen, knowledge, interests and lifestyles. Consequently, it’s tremendously exhilarating to help developing pros find their own brand and voice.

Evolution of cellphone graphic

Changing Business Models

Change isn’t solely the domain of the communications industries; structural change is occurring daily in our economy and changing business models are rampant throughout the entire business sector—retail, manufacturing, technology, professional services, healthcare, etc. Even the business model for nonprofits is in flux. Communication pros and businesses are experiencing it all together, and pro communicators who take the time to understand and invest in being a part of this new and still emerging economy will be on the cutting edge of future growth.

DiversityDiverse Businesspeople

We take our colleagues at their word that efforts to continue to strengthen all levels of the profession through diversity are not only real, but they’re also a priority. But it’s also exciting to help push and shape the agenda for a world that’s increasingly diverse and for a more diverse profession. We hope to continue to be a part of that continuing drumbeat for diversity inside classrooms as well as in the work-a-day world and professional ranks. Greater diversity is the only honest option for communicators in all media-related professions in a now-global, and increasingly diverse world.

 

Don’t Undervalue the Expertise of Baby Boomers

In PR, technology or anything else

Proud to be in business

 

It certainly wasn’t the first time it’s happened. We were sitting in a seminar about PR 2.0, digital PR and content marketing, etc., when one of the panelists began holding forth on marketing to Millennials. As she began talking about Gen-Xers, then Millennials (she, herself, clearly being one of the two), she announced how much they love “authenticity,” and conversely, hate “marketing and spin.” She then gave the requisite nod to Baby Boomers, asking if there were any “Boomers” in the room, adding condescendingly, “I love them.” So it began …

As she continued, she gave an example of “marketing spin” from a high-end, luxury auto brand, describing its auto-industry jargon as almost unintelligible. This, she more or less declared, was the kind of marketing-speak perpetrated by Baby Boomers that Millennials had come to deplore. Sprinkled in between were plaudits about the necessity for transparency in business, with a passing reference to her own marital woes and even infidelity. At another point she laughed and denounced what appeared to be an obvious misspelling of the word “command” (spelled ‘COMAND’) on the auto company’s website. In the meantime, from the start of her profanity-laden presentation, some of us couldn’t help but be struck by the continuous misspelling of the word “Millennials” (displayed throughout her slides as “millenials.”) Need we say more?

It’s become vogue in some circles of media, PR and technology to bash Baby Boomers as somehow out of step, out of date, and whose expertise is now expired (even if one of them happens to be your boss). And sadly, except perhaps at the C-suite level—these same industries of PR, social and digital media, and technology, etc.—are giving increasing deference and higher visibility to those espousing such cliché notions. Well, we understand why—it’s all about the dynamics of marketplace. According to the Case Foundation, Millennials now make up a majority of the workforce: 53.3 million, or 1 in 3 American workers. Nonetheless, we wanted to be among the first to denounce the underlying fallacy behind this trend of ‘dissing’ Boomers. (BTW, think we’re alone? Check out this post about the “age” problem in the advertising world.)

Sure, at this site we’re mostly Boomers, but that’s not the critical point. The critical point is today we’re giving more and more credence to and putting more of these “youth” marketing (or should I say anti-marketing) masterminds on a pedestal, not bothering to question in even the slightest the real value of what they’re saying or the consistency in the standards that we normally apply to good marketing and good business. (Is it really necessary or appropriate to explain your marital infidelity or use profanity to punctuate each point to demonstrate “authenticity?” Isn’t one misspelling in professional copy as bad as another?)

Without pillorying anybody, we simply want to point out that while Baby Boomers have been party to many things that need fixing in this world, they’re also responsible for some of the advances that have radically changed the world for the better on many fronts—socially, politically, economically, technologically, culturally, etc. And while others or now picking up the mantle, many Boomers continue to be engaged and involved in advancing our respective fields. We’re not all on the march to retirement. We know, for example, those of us behind PRDoctorChicago, take considerable effort to stay current in communications technology and trends, not only for our own expertise, but for the benefit of our clients.

So, despite the growing trend to associate everyone over 40 in PR, media and technology as modern-day dinosaurs, let’s recognize that many Boomers in these fields have gratefully accepted the challenge to learn new skills and up-end old ways of thinking to help pioneer a whole new communications industry; and that while these industries have no doubt evolved, we’ve evolved right along with them. Today many Boomers not only bring newly acquired technical skills and understandings, but also have the added value of proficiency in judgment and critical thinking that come with experience. Increasingly, gauging from business and industry headlines, these are assets in uncommonly short supply.  So, to our way of thinking, in a few words, the tagline to Robert DeNiro’s latest feature film, “The Intern,” says it all: “Experience never gets old.

Share your thoughts below.


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