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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

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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.

A Growing Drumbeat: Diversity in PR and Tech Takes on Many Dimensions

Diversity-1

 

After our post last month on Diversity in PR and Tech, we were reminded that such a far-reaching subject has many diverse perspectives. We recently came across a few that give added dimension to the reasons why the status quo in these industries can’t remain. So here, within one post, is a range of viewpoints on the important issue of diversity in tech and PR.

First, PR Week gives us a summary of panel opinions on why the diversity gap exists in public relations and what must be done, from its PR Week conference in New York. Among the panelists, Shante Bacon, founder of 135th Street Agency, opined:

We don’t need a new generation of African-American interns and assistants; what we need is African-American EVPs, SVPs, people who have a seat at the table, who can make decisions and who are trusted to manage a budget and make strategic divisions.” Read more.

On the subject of diversity in tech, technology vet Mark Luckie, gives us an inside perspective on what it’s like to be a Black employee at a tech company.

The most impactful detriment to diversity in Silicon Valley is the idea of ‘culture fit.’ Employees are actively encouraged to suggest friends or former colleagues for open roles. The premise is if the employee and the candidate have a congenial relationship outside of the company, the new recruit is more likely to work well with other staffers. The recommended candidates are given preference or special attention during the recruiting process. It should come as no surprise then that there aren’t more applicants of color to select from.” More

Another technology veteran, Catherine Lundoff, reminds us that in technology, as well as in other industries such as PR, color may not be the only barrier to a diverse workforce:

In IT, it sometimes feels like everyone under the manager level is 35 or younger. In some shops, even being older than 30 is ancient. It’s a culture that doesn’t value older workers or older tech: anything old is obsolete, no longer new and shiny. Old machines, old software and old people are things to be replaced…” More

Of course, we knew we weren’t alone in the growing drumbeat for diversity in tech and PR, but it’s nice to be reminded. Feel free to share these viewpoints, or your own, in the comment section below.

How Tech (and PR) Companies Can Increase Diversity

A real-life parable on the importance of inclusion

diverse tech workers

We think that diversity in public relations and technology companies—two of the global world’s most thriving industries—is one of the most significant issues of our time. To that end, we write a good deal about the issue. Our post below, a real-life parable on the importance of inclusion, focuses on tech, but could as well be written about public relations today. As always, we welcome your feedback and comments at the end.

Given the opportunity, do you think most African American or Latino youth would opt for an entry-level job at McDonald’s or one in tech? Of course, the answer in our tech-driven world is a virtual no-brainer: most would no doubt choose the burgeoning world of technology. Which is what makes this story so important.

Diversity through Mentoring

Nearly two decades ago, at least one technology company took the initiative to offer a similar opportunity to a few talented high school students. One result of their pioneering and perseverance is Jessica L. Williams, a 34-year-old information networking and technology manager in Chicago.Jessica_intro With the aid of an early start, now at age 34, she’s comfortably immersed in middle management, with 15 years of experience in technology–eight of them as an information networking manager, and the last two working for one of the largest convention centers in the United States. How and why she got to her current position is an instructive lesson for both tech and PR—two industries now under fire for the inexplicably low representation of women and minorities within their ranks. It’s worth noting here that Williams is an African-American woman, whose life experience contradicts the oft-heard canard that there aren’t qualified African-American techies out there. The point is these industries have to do more to develop and/or find diverse candidates.

Back in the 1998, during the early phases of the dot-com boom, an upstart technology firm, SDI Solutions, took the initiative to offer promising high-school students their first exposure to the fields of business and technology through the firm’s First Chance Initiative. Williams was one of those students. A junior at Whitney Young High School at the time, she had no idea what the technology field had to offer, as she hadn’t ever known anyone who’d had such a career. She only knew that she was good at math and science, and that people at school urged her to follow the tech path. The downside—she thought—was that she’d have to give up her job at McDonald’s, which provided additional income that she and her family truly needed. (Williams was parented by a single grandmother). Fortunately, she discovered that First Chance was a paid internship. As she would also learn, it also offered her tutoring and mentoring in a transformative experience that came to be a defining moment in her path to a career.

Finding a Niche in a Varied Industry

As an intern, my first introduction to a technology career was in marketing, then later coding. It was only by talking to people on the job that I learned about information systems technology [as a career option].”

Williams also found other supports at SDI, which led to her scuttling her plans for a post-graduation pre-med education in college, and put her on a path through business and marketing, coding, technology networking and systems design—all within the same tech company—during the heady days of the dot-com boom. Those varied work experiences led her to her niche in information systems networking. She finished her Bachelor’s degree with a concentration in business, with emphasis on technology. The company also provided support in her senior year of college to become a Cisco-certified networking associate. In all, through a series of progressive work and learning experiences, she became an established technology veteran with more than a decade of career stability at the same company.

Which is not to say the path to her current position as Technology Infrastructure Manager at Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center, was without challenges.

Challenging Workplace Insecurities


Jessica_talking2

My first [career] challenge was being typecast as a ‘young intern’.” As I grew professionally, “it was hard for me to be taken seriously for project management and other leadership roles.

It was only through proving myself by working on ‘special projects’ that I got the chance to show what I could do.”

One of her biggest challenges, she recalls—a challenge not uncommon to women, especially women entering the male-dominated fields like technology—was insecurity.

I had to learn to overcome the mentality that if I didn’t know something 100 percent initially, that I couldn’t do it. Instead I learned how to figure things out while working on the job.”

Asked about the current criticism of the tech industry as not being diverse enough and whether the dominant tech companies are prepared to live up to the corporate social responsibilities expected of other leading industries, Williams responds,Jessica talking 2

It doesn’t matter whether the tech industry is ready or not [to play a leadership role in social responsibility]; the social expectation is there, so the industry simply has to step up and meet [that societal expectation].”

Watchwords for PR: Be Brave

Courage-CS-Lewis
Over the course of a PR career, you’ll have many opportunities to stand up–or stand down, as it were–as a professional. The choices you make will define your life and your career. Looking back, our enduring words of advice for PR folk is “Be brave.”

We sat down to reflect on different experiences we’ve had along our public relations paths that may be fairly comparable to what any pro may face over the course of a lengthy career. We share a few of them here, not specifically as a how-to guide, but with the hope you’ll view them as “opportunities” to learn to be brave and handle some adversities you may encounter as a PR pro. Ultimately, isn’t this is our raison d’etre within an organization?

Internal Conflict/Office Politics

This simple adversity, may be one of the hardest. Why? Because, at worst, it can be toxic and demoralizing to a vibrant and productive organizational culture. One of our colleagues here once worked in a supervisory position where one of her reports had set her sights on our colleague’s position as a supervisor. It was a messy situation, characterized by dishonesty, subversion of work and intentions, and lack of accountability on the part of the report. How to deal with it? Protect your flank: 1) document instructions, expectations, and policy/processes; 2) challenge threats, attacks and subversions directly, using accumulated documentation. Don’t be afraid to have difficult conversations. Be prudent, be thoughtful, never speak in anger. Take a walk, if needed, before or after hard conversations. But don’t hesitate to cast down negative aspersions. Also, if you have the authority, don’t be afraid to realign responsibilities to ensure more accountability. If you don’t have the authority, make sure you create an open line of communication with someone who does.

External Disinformation Campaigns

As PR people, we’re always looking to build greater awareness of and loyalty to our product, service, cause or organization. Occasionally in a career, you may run across an intentional effort by others outside your organization to damage your brand, reputation or cause. You’d be wise not to ignore it, but be prudent in your response. Don’t overreact: match the resources expended to the degree of threat. On a few occasions while doing grassroots coalition building and field work for public policy or civic causes, a couple of us have encountered these intentional efforts to mislead. Frequently, these astroturfing efforts–as they are known–are disguised as another grassroots effort, but most often they’re backed by special interests with a particular business stake in a public policy issue. It’s during these occasions that we’ve found your networks, partnerships and collaborations to be invaluable. Creating feedback loops among these partners can be an effective early warning system to dangers in the environment; moreover, their ability to quickly reach their respective constituencies via owned, social or other media can be crucial.

A Life-Threatening Situation or Life-and-Death Crisis

This involves situations, although not on a mass scale, where people have been (or can be) hurt or injured, sometimes fatally. While we hope no one has to deal with this kind of crisis, given the times we live in, the possibility always exists. With that in mind, here are some of the situations we’ve experienced and what we’ve learned.

Tragically, on more than once occasion, a couple of us have been involved in communications related to loss of life. The circumstances vary quite a bit. In one situation, an employee was found dead (presumably killed) while performing his job responsibilities. We know of another where a client was accidentally drowned while swimming in a pool. In yet another, a client was hurt in an attack by another on-site visitor. In situations such as this, what you can say will be limited, initially, due to unfolding circumstances, police or other law enforcement investigations, and sensibilities to family, friends, fellow employees, even legal considerations. Recognize that at some point—preferably sooner rather than later—you’ll have to say something. You’ll have to explain, give account, reassure. You’ll need to balance fact, with empathy, compassion, and noting appropriate safeguards. Choose words carefully, demeanor cautiously, and perhaps most importantly, the company should speak with a human voice.

Again, our purpose isn’t to claim expertise in dealing with crises; PR crises are all different, but we have been through a few. We also aren’t looking to provide a how-to guide for coping with or managing a crisis. That’s well beyond the scope of what we’d do in this post. Yet, one continuity running through all of these situations is the requirement to be brave. That, in turn, means being level-headed, informed and in control of emotions, which will help in taking control of events. Our mission here has been to describe a few of the most difficult PR situations you might encounter, which demand knowledge, grace and empathy. Most of all, they require the PR professional to summon up the courage to respond insightfully in these situations.

Be sure to let us know below what you think, and difficult PR experiences you’re aware of.

PR In a Box?

Can good PR come in a box?Open_cardboard_box

In other words, can effective public relations be done so pre-planned and packaged that it literally can be delivered in a box? Before you respond viscerally and suggest a resounding no, recognize that we’re not the only ones pondering this question

Our 30 years of experience in PR tells us that effective public relations can come in a box. We’ve done it, to much good effect, and we know others have too.  So this post is about how, and under what circumstances, pre-packaged public relations can be accomplished.

Several years ago we worked under contract with a government agency that was opening numerous satellite offices almost simultaneously. Two things quickly became clear: Local staff were too new and too busy (after all, they were opening an office and gearing up for local operations from the ground up—think logistics, hiring, training, etc.) to handle additional preparations required for an office opening event; also, there wasn’t sufficient PR staff or budget to dispatch an on-site pro to handle every satellite event. What to do?

Here’s where our experience kicked in. We realized that when you have multiple events/activities, so similar in purpose, nature, format, goals, etc., and they are occurring repeatedly or quick succession, the process almost begs for a formulaic or template approach that borrows from previous experience. In fact, truth be told, most PR people would readily admit that success in one aspect of PR automatically provides a kind of template or reference sheet for handling a similar activity in the future. That’s the benefit of experience. Nonetheless, we clearly want to make the point that pre-packaged PR is clearly not all that’s needed for success. Implementation, and what happens on the ground, is still the key. What’s done by those charged with delivering on the pre-packaged plan is still crucial to overall success. So, these are the things that we think can be pre-planned, or created from a distance, and delivered in a box by thoughtful pros attuned to the local situation:

  1. Strategy: What is the situation on the ground and what role will this activity play in addressing the situation? What is the purpose of the activity? Its goals and expected outcomes? Who needs to be involved, and how should the event be orchestrated? The answer to these questions will constitute a plan and checklist.
  2. Messaging: What are the messages that need to be communicated during this event and who’s most effective in delivering those messages? The answer to these can be the beginning of a script.
  3. Project Deliverables: The culmination of the strategy and messaging as copywriting in final formats to be used on site, e.g., news announcements; suggested invitees and invitations; correspondence (letters of invitation and confirmation) event programs; event scripts (as needed); informational collateral as well as posted decorations or videos for on-site exhibition ; suggestions, advice or implementation tips, based on previous experience; scripted remarks for opening, transitions and closing. In some cases we know where suggestions have even been offered for food and menu selections.
  4. Methods of Evaluation: As always, it’s important that evaluation be part of prior planning. What will success look like and how will you know if you’ve achieved it? Benchmarks and methods of evaluation should be included—e.g., participant surveys, subscriptions or sign-up quotas; referrals; media participation and coverage, etc.

In our case, after disseminating these materials and following up with several teleconferences to discuss further planning, implementation and technical support needed, we paved the way for each office to have a successful event that met all organizational benchmarks, with a decidedly local look and feel.

So yes, we’ve learned that public relations in a box and be accomplished and achieve its objectives, if it’s well thought out, fits the existing situation, and is well coordinated on the ground for proper execution.

That’s an example of our experience. We’d love to hear yours. Send us your comments about PR in a box!

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Starbucks, Pushing the Bounds of CSR: Is That a Good Thing?

We knew when we first read about it, that we’d write a post about it. Howard Schultz and Starbucks had done it again—proven to be an agenda-setter on public engagement and corporate social responsibility (CSR). No, we’re not talking about the #RaceTogether initiative—but we’re including our thoughts on that in this post too! The impetus really began with Starbucks’s salute to military veterans in its For Love of Country recognition.Starbucks
For Love of Country may not be as familiar as Race Together, but it predates and overlaps with the much ballyhooed #RaceTogether. For those who may have missed it, Starbucks joined forces with journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran to produce a book and related advertising and media push to herald not only the courageous service of military veterans, but to also raise some prickly social issues–namely, who fights our wars in America’s all-volunteer army (and who doesn’t), and how those who do are acknowledged for their service.  (Not nearly meaningfully and substantively enough by the rest of us.)

We were impressed that Schultz, as a corporate leader, not only stepped out front on this sensitive topic, but then went one step further—in the minds of many, one step too far—by prodding us to talk about the contentious issue of “race.”

Starbucks tweet

 

Whether you thought well or ill or the #RaceTogether effort, or even question a company raising pangs of consciousness about the social justice of an all-volunteer army, or any other societal woe, we think there’s a lot to be gained by companies taking leadership on social issues.

There’s a long history of companies doing well by doing good. You’ve read some of our posts on Henry Ford and a whole array of others before and since who’ve put their money and their mouths to lead or join important social and civic conversations. Indeed, it’s well established that a socially active or PR savvy CEO brings added value to a company and even an industry

As further affirmation, just look at what tech moguls were able to help accomplish when they found their collective voice against sex bias and discrimination in #Indiana.

So we think it’s a good thing that CEOs like Howard Schultz embark on campaigns that remind us that companies share  our social pains and that, even better, they have the means to affect changes that make things better for us all. We all know that companies often engage their collective voices behind closed doors to secretly lobby for things they believe represent their corporate interests. We think it’s time more CEOs join the public dialogue about the things more enduring and sustaining that impact us all. Wanna’ talk about #RaceTogether? We’re game. And while we’re at it, let’s talk about For Love of Country, too!
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23 things you’ll only understand if you work in PR

If you’ve ever wondered what daily life in public relations looks like, this article will give you a quick look of some of the highs and lows of the profession. Gotta’ love it!


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