PR Sucks and Other Fallacies.

“…PR people are ruining social media…”

“…P.R. people drive me crazy…”

“…PR sucks…”

Okay, that last one is more of a paraphrase than a quote, but you get the point. PR has taken a bit of a lashing recently.

Beyond being tired, cliche and trite, the “PR Sucks” meme is an informal fallacy – a straw man argument. The assertion of  most of these pieces is that because much of PR (particularly agency work and especially over the last 20 years) has been focused on earned media (media relations), that PR people are not suited/incapable/really bad at social media strategy and implementation. That media relations models don’t work in the social world, so clearly we’re ill-suited.

But media relations of course is only one specialized function – this argument reveals more about the respective writers’ (lack of) experience or limited view of PR and its role in management than it does about the nature of the public relations profession.

The “PR Sucks” argument doesn’t get at the actual discussion we should be having. I would love to see the discussion focused on creating understanding what PR is and what it is not. Limiting public relations to any singular function – whether it’s media relations or event planning or speechwriting is not productive. The authors of such posts are being incendiary on purpose, of course. “If we flame them, they will come and comment and link back! yay!”

But in the process, the broad brush with which they paint is not flattering to them or to those they caricature. And disclaimers like, “some of my best friends are PR people…” doesn’t help.

Defining public relations is complicated to say the least. The nuance and context within which a public relations professional works is hard to pin down and even the scholars don’t agree. However, since this is my blog, I’ll offer that the best definitions of PR have three things in common:

  • The importance of research
  • The primacy of relationships
  • The central requirement of listening and responding

One of my favorite definitions is from Rex Harlow:

Public relations is the distinctive management function which helps establish and maintain mutual lines of communication, understanding, acceptance and cooperation between an organization and its publics; involves the management of problems or issues; helps management to keep informed on and responsive to public opinion; defines and emphasizes the responsibility of management to serve the public interest; helps management keep abreast of and effectively utilize change, serving as an early warning system to help anticipate trends; and uses research and sound and ethical communication as its principal tools.

Another from Carl Botan:

Using communication to adapt relationships between organizations and their publics.

Finally, from the Encyclopedia of PR (which I didn’t know existed), Robert Heath offers:

Public Relations is a set of management, supervisory, and technical functions that foster an organization’s ability to strategically listen to, appreciate, and respond to those persons whose mutually beneficial relationships with the organization are necessary if it is to achieve its missions and values.

“Beneficial” relationships are not necessarily positive or the relationships that you enjoy building and maintaining. In fact, stakeholders may be the readers and viewers of media outlets, but they may also be employees, vendors, investors, neighbors, activists, government agencies, etc. Our focus in PR is not exclusively on the customer.

Creating a shared space for dialogue and feedback has been part of our job all along. Those “shared spaces” have taken real world shapes in the form of town halls, open houses, public comment opportunities, trade shows, desk-side briefings, CEO tours, and so on. But the online equivalents are a natural fit.

The problem, it seems, is the lack of understanding and “world view” of communications management by the PR Sucks crowd. Oh, and there are plenty of PR people who also lack understanding and “world view.” They’re the spammers, the bad pitchers, the flacks, the “smile and dial” publicists. But they are also not the norm.  Nor are they public relations professionals.

I lectured this week on the history of PR and I’m always invigorated by Arthur Page’s position on the role of public relations. Every time I get to this part of the lecture, I’m struck by how clearly his six principles often resonate with me and the work that I do as a public relations practitioner.

  • Tell the truth: Let the public know what’s happening and provide an accurate picture of your organization’s character, ideals, and practices.
  • Prove it with Action: Public perception of an organization is based on 90% doing and 10% telling.
  • Listen: Understand what the organization’s publics want and need. Keep top decision makers and other employees informed about company products, policies and practices.
  • Manage for Tomorrow: Anticipate opportunities and challenges, eliminate practices that create difficulties. Generate goodwill.
  • Conduct PR as if the whole company depends on it: No strategy should be implemented without considering its impact on the public.
  • Remain Calm, Patient and Good-Humored: Lay the groundwork for PR miracles with consistent, calm and reasoned action to information and contacts. Cool heads communicate best. (my favorite)

I would love to hear from you. What do you think?

photo by Richard Sunderland

Smile More: And Other Life Lessons Purple Hair has Taught Me

Earlier this week I was walking through the middle of campus with a scowl on my face. Not an I’m-in-a-bad-mood scowl, but a zoned-out/mind-is-elsewhere glare off into the distance. In fact, my eyes must have been cast downward because, in my peripheral vision, I see a man jogging toward me. He was clearly on a mission to get somewhere. As he approached, probably 10 feet from me, I looked up suddenly and made eye contact.

“Great hair!” he said with a big grin. I didn’t even have time to respond, but smiled quickly in acknowledgement of the compliment.

In that moment it struck me that as that man jogged toward me, I likely did not look very welcoming or approachable. And that moment was identical to millions of moments in my life. Except, now I have purple hair. So that man, the woman at the bank, the hygienist at the dentist’s office, the fellow concert-goer, my barista at Starbucks… interact with me and seem to remember me much differently than when I had plain brown hair. There’s a distinct lack of anonymity.

So, sure, purple hair is an obvious flashpoint/conversation starter/set-yourself-apart kind of thing. But truly, it’s not for everyone. So how can you set yourself apart in your day-to-day life? I’m not talking about in a physical sense… let’s use purple hair as a metaphor, shall we?

Be approachableBe conscientious of your body language, facial expressions and demeanor. No, you shouldn’t care what everyone thinks about you, that’s not the point. But if you non-verbal says, “I’m approachable,” you may be surprised at who you’ll meet or what conversations you might strike up.

Take interest in people – Be genuine, though. Don’t be obnoxious (there’s a certain coffee stand chain in Oregon that rhymes with Hutch Druthers that has the most obnoxious baristas who want to chatter non-stop and ask way too many questions about what you’re doing… don’t do that).

Smile & make eye-contact – I get stopped on the street (literally) and complimented on my purple noggin. No, I’m not always in the mood to smile and say “thank you.” But I do it anyway. People take a risk when they talk to a stranger – even if it’s to pay a compliment. The least you can do is show respect by acknowledging with a genuine response. Or if you’re the one taking a risk, then do so with a smile and eye contact. You’ll find both are usually reciprocated. And if they aren’t, it’s probably not about you.

People don’t always remember what you said, but they always remember how you made them feel.

Don’t take yourself too seriously – I have purple hair for crying out loud. Have fun, and the rest will follow.

I’d love to hear what you think.

Why I Don’t Link My Social Media Profiles

It seems like a good idea. When you update Twitter, why not update Facebook automatically… and while you’re at it, how about LinkedIn?

To me, each of these tools serves a different purpose and therefore needs different content. Certainly there is overlap in many instances, but it’s important to think about how each fits into your overall personal social media use – or how, as an organization, each helps you reach your objectives.

I know that the social media time suck is a big deal and we’re all looking for ways to make the most our time in front the screen – but if you’re going to “do” social media, do it right. And be prepared for how much time it takes.

Twitter: Short updates, more “real-time,” drive traffic to Web or blog, personal appeal. Tweets often don’t make sense out of context and when you add hashtags, RT’s and @’s it can be confusing, particularly for those on Facebook who aren’t familiar with how Twitter works. And yes, there are still plenty of people for whom that’s true.

Facebook Fan Page: More room to wiggle (no character limit), ability to add links with thumbnails for visual appeal. If you update from Facebook, the syncing to Twitter is technically easy, but can look awkward when it goes over the character limit. When Facebook-to-Twitter updates cut off, the result can be just more noise in the Twitter stream. Example:

Picture 7

LinkedIn: Suit & tie network, business-oriented. I see too many status updates that not only have nothing to do with your business-self, but could be less than helpful if a potential employer, investor or business partner happened to visit your profile at just that moment.

That’s not to say that you can’t use the same subject and update each platform appropriately. I do that all the time. I just don’t often update simultaneously. Maybe it’s a control thing. But I want to know that each group of fans/friends/followers is getting the best content for them, at the right “pace” and the most relevant.

When it makes sense for overlap, I prefer to send updates from Twitter. By using “Selective Twitter” on Facebook (where you add #fb to do simultaneous updates) and adding Twitter to your LinkedIn profile (use #in for simultaneous updates), you can be smart about your updates.

My personal rules of thumb are pretty basic. I use my personal Facebook page largely for personal use, so I only sync my Twitter and personal Facebook when I tweet things that are (potentially) interesting for friends & family. But what if you’re helping to manage fan pages and Twitter accounts?

Twitter –> Facebook Fan Page: Updates that translate easily to a Facebook audience. That means knowing what the people connected to the company on each platform want and expect. And, without exception, the expectations are different. For one company in particular, Facebook fans are only interested in updates from the company and I get very little interaction around other information. Twitter friends, on the other hand, like a variety of information and often retweet or reply to non-company-related tweets. When I sync the two, it’s only when the two groups’ interests overlap.

Twitter –> LinkedIn: Updates that are related to my business and add something to my virtual resume. These updates also need to be more “timeless.” That is, I don’t update LinkedIn as often as the other networks, so the updates should add value and not get stale too quickly.

Picture 5

I know full well that people will disagree with me and have a different approach to this conundrum. I’d love to hear what you think!

Eliminate Weak Verbs Once & For All

Ises and ares and to bes.

Blech.

Weak verbs can make your writing boring and wordy. In one of my first agency positions after I graduated from college, my manager went so far as to call them “lazy.”

This same manager and her (sometimes) harsh feedback drove me to make changes in my writing style. But catching weak verbs before they come off the end of your fingers onto the screen or paper challenges even experienced writers.

I developed a trick that I used until I’d retrained my writing brain. My only tool? A highlighter.

  • Take a printed copy of the assignment (work or school) and a highligher in your choice of color.
  • Start at the top of the page and highlight every form of the verb “to be”: am, are, is, was, were, will be, has been, have been, had been, etc. Focus primarily on is, are, were.
  • Work to change as many of the highlighted verbs as you can from weak verbs to active verbs. To be verbs do serve a purpose and it isn’t necessary to change every single one, but strong, active verbs should dominate your writing.

Some other tips:

  • Use your imagination to substitute more interesting words.
  • Don’t start sentences with “There is” or “There are.”
  • Use the simple forms of your verb of choice (listens vs. is listening, for example).
  • Embed the adjective before the noun you’re modifying rather than dragging the sentence out (brand-new baseball stadium vs. the baseball stadium, which is brand new).

Go forth and write well!

*note: you’ll only find one “to be” verb in this blog post. 🙂

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Balancing a Reverse Coaching Role as a Young PRo

Most entry-level PR PRos will start in a technician role, participating in the “craft” side of public relations: writing, editing, taking photos, running special events and doing the legwork of media relations. The technician implements the management’s communication strategies.

I always try to focus on helping students show that, while they have the skills to be a technician, that they have the capacity for the problem solving, planning and counsel that is required of managers.

With social media, I think we’re seeing entry-level practitioners, well-versed in the tools of the trade, being asked to provide solutions, the strategic planning and serve as “reverse coaches.” I was chatting with my friend and colleague Pat McCormick from Conkling Fiskum McCormick about how important this “reverse coaching” role is in today’s business, especially in public relations and communications. CFM has hired several Ducks and recognizes how much its entry-level employees have to offer.

The balance, however, is that while, as new employees, you bring much-desired skills to the table, they have much to learn that only experience and strong senior mentors can bring. The way that young PRos get information, exchange information and build relationships is shifting fundamentally the way that we all communicate and they are the natives. I also think that as educators, professionals, employers – and even students – we’re just starting to really get a handle on this shift.

We have the responsibility to help prepare our students for this “reverse coaching” role, and also help them to approach that role with grace, professionalism and an open mind. They have much to learn to from their colleagues to fully realize their potential to be remarkable strategists, problem solvers and counselors.

What do you think about the changing face of communications and the entry-level practitioners role in it? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Blog Clearly & Purposefully: Transparency for Newbies

We talk about transparency a lot in social media (in public relations, too, for that matter). But what does that mean if you’re a blogger? And particulary, if you’re a new blogger.

According to Paul Gillin‘s book The New Influencers, “transparency is about a lot more than just not lying. It’s about opening yourself up to inspection, analysis, judgement, praise and ridicule.”

Gulp.

That sounds a little frightening. But the blogging community has, over time, worked out some standards and guidelines that are not that difficult to follow and understand.

When you get down to the nuts and bolts, transparency in the blogosphere means adhering to these community standards. Some basic rules:

  • Be familiar with the basics of copyright and fair use limitations. It’s important that you don’t plagiarize content (just link to the source!) or present others ideas as your own.
  • Your posts should be well researched and complete, try to avoid sweeping generalizations and jumping to hasty conclusions. Honestly, this is the biggest mistake I see new bloggers, and students in general, make in their writing. You can have opinions, even strong ones (please do!), but make sure your opinions are well-founded and you build a foundation on which to stake your claims.
  • Once you’ve pushed “publish,” don’t edit your post. If you need to make a change, do a strikethough the old information and insert the new. It is worth noting, however, that a strikethough doesn’t always mean that the author has made a change, sometimes it’s done humorously. (exception: you can correct typos if you need to, but don’t change anything that alters the post’s content)
  • If you need to make major revisions to your original, leave a comment on your post as a way of public correction.
  • Deleting a post is considered a major no-no. The only time this might be an option is if you think the post might result in harm to someone or could be seriously misleading.

Consider adopting a codes of ethics for your blog (either formally included on your site, or informally for you to know and abide by – I recommend the former). This example from Charlene Li has laid the groundwork for many ethics policies including the GM Fastlane blog.

  • I will tell the truth.
  • I will write deliberately and with accuracy.
  • I will acknowledge and correct mistakes promptly.
  • I will preserve the original post, using notations to show where I have made changes so as to maintain the integrity of my publishing.
  • I will never delete a post.
  • I will not delete comments unless they are spam or off-topic.
  • I will reply to emails and comments when appropriate, and do so promptly.
  • I will strive for high quality with every post – including basic spellchecking.
  • I will stay on topic.
  • I will disagree with other opinions respectfully.
  • I will link to online references and original source materials directly.
  • I will disclose conflicts of interest.
  • I will keep private issues and topics private, since discussing private issues would jeopardize my personal and work relationships.

What guidelines or standards have you seen, or do you recommend for bloggers? I know I’ve missed some of the deeper/more nuanced aspects of transparency and ethics, but anything I’ve missed here on the basics?

What Horses Have Taught Me About Being a Communicator

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that there’s been a little horse drama in my life. It’s a long, sordid tale (ok, maybe not that sordid) with the end result of needing to find a new home for my Thoroughbred mare, Journey. It turned out splendidly. The whole process had me thinking hard about what having horses has meant to me generally and specifically about what they’ve taught me about being a better communicator. Sometimes you can learn to be better at what you do in surprising places.

  • Honesty: A horse that offers few surprises with her intentions is called “honest.” You know what to expect because she tells you how she feels. And, by extension, you can trust her. That doesn’t mean she does exactly what you ask every time, but when she doesn’t, it’s not a surprise.
  • Authenticity: You have to be yourself with horses. No point in trying to fake expertise or skills – the horse will be confused and won’t be able to respond the way you (or she) wants to. She’ll know when you’re off balance, nervous or even upset (ever had a horse-hug?).
  • Patience: It may take try after try, day after day or even month after month to perfect a skill. Being patient about how quickly you can both learn new skills and translate that into perfect execution is important.
  • Clarity: Be clear about what you want your horse to do. You can’t send mixed signals and expect to get a positive result. If you’re clear about what you want, you can translate that into voice, leg and hand cues that will help her figure out what you need.
  • Humor: Owning horses is not terribly glamorous. You have to shovel their poop, for crying out loud. There is always room to laugh at yourself.

Horses are remarkable creatures and make you a better person. I’ve been very lucky to be involved with them for most of my life (although only an owner for about 6 years).

Are there unexpected places, things or people who have taught you about being a better communicator?

Picture: me with Journey in 2006

Setting Yourself Apart: A Job in PR is Possible

It’s scary to be a university senior right now. In just 6 months, the market will flood with recent graduates clamoring for what could be fewer entry level jobs than we saw in the last few years. I don’t think it matters much what your major is, this is likely to be the reality for a lot of folks.

But you’re interested in PR, so does that mean you should forget about working in public relations? After all, the media is dying (say some) and PR departments are downsizing.

Well, if your dream is to do traditional media relations in an old school model of public relations… um, yes. Yes, you should forget about PR.

However, based on my own experience with a wide variety of clients, as well as watching my students’ careers, I say that if you can come to the table prepared for the PR career of the future, you’ll be in demand. That doesn’t mean it won’t take hard work. It will take tons of work. Work beyond your classes. You have to set yourself apart in a sea of recent graduates.

What does that mean?

A “smile and dial” (aka telemarketing) approach to traditional media relations is out. To succeed, it’ll take the ability to be strategic and provide good counsel (even at a junior level), a broad skill set and the ability to measure and show results. Let’s break it down…

Be a Strategic Counselor
I find myself telling students that they need to be “strategic thinkers.” Let me explain.

The are a dizzying array of communication channels available. Being able to do meaningful audience research, think and then make smart recommendations for what tools to use to get the results you seek is crucial. Katie Payne suggested recently that this crush of options means that you need to make decisions based on data. I agree. You can’t just trust your gut instincts. The audiences are too complex, the media too fractured and the landscape changing too quickly.

With some audiences, traditional media is still the gateway to their mind, but for many, that is far from the truth. How will a company, cause or organization know the best strategy? By relying on a smart communication team (and “by relying,” I mean hiring and paying a salary).

Develop Broad Skills
Would YOU hire someone who only brought traditional media relations skills to the table? If that were my own skill set, I’d starve. This is a snapshot of skills that I need to have on any given project:

  • Web sites: navigation and site maps, Web copy, design recommendations, basic HTML and updating (I don’t do the design).
  • Marketing collateral: copywriting for all sorts of things, design & format recommendations
  • Social media: blog writing and editing, blogger outreach, research, social networking
  • Research: focus groups, survey construction
  • Planning
  • New business development & pitches
  • Presentations
  • Media literacy: read, understand, distill information from varied sources
  • Traditional media relations: press releases, media lists, pitching

Traditional media relations is still part of the mix. Most recent graduates work in agencies where they focus on this aspect of public relations. But to be valuable for the long term, you need a broader base. Having even rudimentary design skills, for example, can really save the day.

Measure & Be Accountable
This should probably be first on the list. If you can’t prove that what you’re doing is contributing positively to the organization’s bottom line (either contributing to revenue or saving costs), then you should be worried about your job (your budget, your career, etc.).

There are lots of smart people talking about measurement. I highly recommend reading Katie Payne and Don Bartholomew, for example. Both have blogs. You can also check out the Institute for Public Relations, where you can find lots of research on measurement and evaluation.

What Now?

The job market will probably be tight this year. It may take longer to get a job. You may be slinging lattes for a bit while you find a PR gig. But if you work to set yourself apart from the average graduate, you’ll still be able to find a good job in public relations. It’s just not likely to look like the jobs of the past.

I would love to hear what you think.

Photo via Flickr by AtomicJeep

When Work Gets in the Way

I have so much empathy for students who have to work to make ends meet and pay for school.

During my first year at the University of Oregon as an undergrad, I worked full time. I had worked full-time for about four years between high school and college. I sold cell phones and managed a retail store. It was hard. I didn’t want to work full-time, but I was paying my own way through school and had plenty of expenses, so there was no way around it.

After the first year, I realized this situation wasn’t feasible if I wanted to get internships, be involved with PRSSA and succeed in my classes. Something had to give. I chose to move home with my parents, work part-time and seek public relations opportunities. But I know that’s a tough choice and not one that some students have.

What if you have to work 25, 35 or 40 hours a week, go to school and you still want to get some hands-on experience before you graduate? Well, we already know you’re industrious, now you just need to be extra creative about beefing up your resume. Some tips:

  • Determine how many hours a week you have to invest in gaining some experience. Likely you’ll be volunteering (at least at first), so figure out where you can carve out three to five hours.
  • Ask around or find a nonprofit organization that has a mission that you believe in or a cause that you support. Connect with the executive director via a phone call or an email to ask if they need any public relations help – maybe write newsletter articles or send out press releases.
  • If the executive director thinks you’d be a good fit, find a time to meet and create a plan for what you will do, who you’ll report to, and realistic expectations about your time and abilities. Be proactive. Come in with ideas and focus on projects that will help you gain portfolio samples and build your skills. If you can take on a project from start to finish and be involved along the way, that’s golden!
  • You can also find “virtual opportunities” via Volunteer Match. On the home page, click “search for virtual opportunities” and then enter public relations as the keywords. If you try this option, I’d recommend either finding a local organization or a national one. I don’t think it would make sense, for example, to volunteer for an animal rescue in Okalahoma if you’re in Oregon and local animal rescues need your help.
  • Look for freelance writing and part-time paid internship positions. If you could make $10 or $12 an hour doing PR, maybe you could supplement or replace your retail or barista job. For those able to secure these types of positions, it was a matter of listening, networking and letting people know what their interests are. You never know what will come your way if you’re diligent.

If you’ve had a creative volunteer or internship experience or you have other pieces of advice, leave them here! I’d love to hear your ideas.

Don’t Forget Your Manners – Tips for Reference Relations

Searching for a job or internship? Part of the process is tapping your contacts and supporters for references. Whether it’s a formal reference or an informal introduction, your references can be a crucial factor in your successful search. I’ve talked about this before, but a recent incident brought it back to my attention and it’s certainly worth another post.

Your personal & professional references do need some care and feeding to ensure that they are able to help you in the best way possible.

Some tips:

  1. Ask your prospective references if they are willing to speak to potential employers on your behalf. I have received calls about a student and had no idea that I was listed as a reference. Awkward!
  2. Provide your reference with a copy of your CV or resume.
  3. If you anticipate that your reference will be called, give him or her the heads up. For me, a quick email works just fine. Include a link to the company or the specific job post for which you are applying. I know how to talk the talk for PR gigs and can speak to the specific position for which you are applying.
  4. Keep your reference up to date on how your search is progressing, particularly if they have provided a recommendation for a particular job. Whether or not you get the job, let your reference know. Recently, I introduced a former student to a friend of mine at an agency who I knew was looking for interns. I heard from my friend that the student was hired, but never heard a peep from the student directly.
  5. Say thank you. Send an email or a card. Make a phone call. Providing a reference takes time. I’ve had reference calls that have taken 30 or 45 minutes. That’s a good chunk of time! Just let your reference know that you appreciate their effort on your behalf.

Use common sense and be polite – who knows, it may help you get your dream job.

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