Warning: Spinmeisters are Trying to Control Your News!

Stuff like this irks me.

According to a study of Australian newspapers, more than 50 percent of the content was “driven by some sort of public relations.” This isn’t the first time I’ve heard stats like this, and it’s not even the largest percent I’ve seen.

What irks me is the tone. Oh dear God… PR might have an influence on media coverage? Oh the humanity! Those PR people are evil! I am shocked! Shocked, I tell you!

Let’s be real. Without public relations people most organizations, nonprofits, government agencies (even little ones like parks and recreation, human right commissions or your public library), entrepreneurs, start-up companies, etc. would not have a voice in the marketplace of ideas. They wouldn’t be able to tell their stories. If it weren’t for PR people, how would that work?

So, yeah, sometimes that takes a press release or a pitch. And sometimes those releases and pitches pique the interest of the editor, reporter or producer on the other end. Sure, there’s plenty of fluff, plenty of overworked media folks with too much news hole to fill and plenty of PR people who will pitch crap and hope it sticks.

But if you wade through all that, the relationship can be a win-win. We (PR people) understand the media’s job and if we’re good at OUR job, then we make it easier and more efficient and ultimately allow the reporters, editors and producers to tell a better story.

No, I don’t want my paper full of stories driven by PR. But I do expect for organizations to be able to have a presence and a voice…and it takes PR to do that.

photo by CarbonNYC via Flickr

What Does Professionalism Mean?

iStock_000008656215XSmall (1)The PR major in the SOJC is a professionally-focused one. Most students who go into PR understand the importance of perceptions. Or at least they should. And, naturally, our students are concerned with professionalism.

Lately, however, I’m beginning to think some are too concerned. Or their emphasis is misplaced. I’m not sure which. But I think it’s worth exploring.

Maybe we’ll start with what I think professionalism is not:

  • About (just) what you’re wearing. Your appearance is important, don’t get me wrong. It affects that way you feel about yourself and certainly influences first impressions, but style without substance quickly fades.
  • Rigid or doctrinaire. I hear students admonish each other for not being professional or gossip behind someone’s back about some terrible unprofessional misdeed (first of all, judge not, lest ye be judged…). It’s as if professionalism is the new religion for students.
  • Lack of personalization. Where are YOU in this battle for superior professionalism? Scrubbing your digital footprint or even your interpersonal interactions clean from anything that smacks of (God, forbid!) being a 20-something is boring. You’re not a hermetically-sealed-stepford-account-executive-pre-professional just waiting for your assignment. For crying out loud… BE YOURSELF.

Ultimately, professionalism is about the work, it’s about the way you interact with your peers and colleagues. It’s about being gracious and empathetic. What professionalism is:

  • Being accountable. Doing what you say you’ll do, having open lines of communication, telling your supervisor or client that you don’t understand or you’re unclear or you’re in over your head. All of that is part of being accountable. I often see students try to “fake it” and not acknowledge their limitations.
  • Putting the work first. Professionalism is about your professional work. That comes first… before your personal brand. You won’t have a very solid “brand,” by the way, if you can’t do good work.
  • Focused on building relationships by celebrating others successes, having empathy. Being a good person, someone who people enjoy working with is also part of the equation. Professionalism means celebrating your team and giving credit where credit is due. It also means having empathy – not for just clients and colleagues, but any “stakeholder.” Relationships are paramount and the ability to build and maintain strong ones takes a real professional.

What do you think professionalism means?

Walk a Mile in Their Shoes…The Importance of Empathy in Public Relations

It’s easy to think of cool ways to reach your peers, to identify strategies and tactics for and audiences made up of people who are like you. For most students, that means the temptation to focus on students and how to reach students is strong, even when it doesn’t make sense to include a student focus.

But more often than not, public relations campaigns must focus on audiences that are decidedly not like you. Understanding how to reach those audiences takes a skill (a trait?) I don’t think we talk about in public relations much, but I would rank high on the “must haves”: empathy.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s place and understand their feeling, emotions, motivations and values. Many argue it’s a core competency of emotional intelligence, widely seen as crucial to business and leadership success.

It’s hard to step outside your comfort zone, to think beyond your life experience and to stretch as a communicator. It’s scary. And an imperfect practice. But it’s also exhilarating! And to be able to do so is powerful. Empathy is the glue that connects everything we do in public relations. At the core, PR is about building and maintaining relationships, right? That must take more than carefully crafted messages, well-designed material and expertly-delivered speeches. People connect with people, not messages and not talking points. Being an empathetic practitioner requires making human connections and making those connections scalable (one-to-one communication is not always an option).

I think empathy is complicated and multi-faceted. But you can start with the first step of any PR campaign, research.

When you start a project where you’ll be reaching a new (to you) audience, do your research! In addition to the standard instruments (surveys, focus groups, questionnaires), try more “informal” methods, too: talk to people and observe. Just talk to people – as many people as you can that might give you some insights and increase your understanding. And observe – look for opportunities to observe how your audiences interact, where they hang out, how they move through time and space. Listen more than you talk and think more than you react.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Do you consider yourself empathetic? How do you know? And how can you develop better skills?

Wheel of Shoes by Sarah and Mike …probably, via Flickr

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life…Promoting Spamalot in Eugene

I was recently approached by Heather Fornataro of Powder Hound Marketing with an offer of two free tickets to Spamalot in exchange for a tweet or blog post about the show and specifically a tweet or blog with a promotion code for others to get tickets. The show was at our local performing arts center, the Hult Center. It didn’t work out that I was able to take Heather up on the offer – I’d already bought my tickets for the next night.. blah, blah, blah. But on Twitter and in my classes, I heard students chattering about the same offer. So I thought it would be interesting to ask Heather about the promotion and how it turned out.

Here’s our Q&A:

Q: How did you decide who to reach out to in Eugene with the ticket offer?

This was our first time experimenting with this type of outreach and promotion. I focused on trying to connect with people who were chatting about Eugene entertainment (especially Broadway related), local press (tv, radio, newspapers, critics), and people who have a large following.

Obviously, people who only met the “large following” criteria weren’t the most qualified for the promotion, but it only takes a few from this group to respond to create a buzz. I did my research on Twitter search & Twitter directories (like LocalTweeps & WeFollow), and found bloggers through Google & blogrolls.

I gathered about 3-4x the number of names than we had tickets and prioritized by # followers, relevancy, and how easy it was to connect with them (were they already following me, could I find an email address). This is the piece of the project that took the longest & from there I was able to stagger invites up to the day before show opening. We’ll use this list for future promotions in the area, though.

Q: Did you get a good response for the tickets?

Actual tickets sold using the coupon code communicated were relatively small, but it did not apply to all seats or showtimes. From reading the resulting buzz, it seems that people were interested in going after opening night & were purchasing tickets. It’s impossible to know if people saw a tweet and purchased a more expensive, better seat for the show. We ran a similar promotion around the same time in Seattle and the code used there sold a significant number of seats. The code was not unique to the promotion I was running, though.

Q: Have you seen much response from the promotion yet? (this may be hard to gauge at this point, I know.)

I tried the best I could to follow up on all of the people who accepted the tickets and record the blog postings & Twitter mentions. It’s extremely difficult to measure the impact of a viral marketing buzz, but the promotion did seem to help bring awareness of the event to people on Twitter.

There were several RTs of the promo code and it was picked up by a couple of media accounts. (Again, this was amplified in the Seattle example). The blogs helped, but didn’t seem to make much of an impact for organic search since indexing of content isn’t immediate as it is in Twitter. The most useful blog postings appeared on media & entertainment websites.

One thing happened that was extremely interesting to me. I also manage locally targeted paid search accounts in Google for each event. Typically, show specific keyword searches in Eugene tend to be relatively small (keywords like “Spamalot” or “Spamalot Hult Center”). I rely on more broad searches, like “Eugene Musicals” to bring in visits. As soon as I started to notice some buzz about the show on Twitter, there was an immediate spike in Google search traffic for the keyword “Spamalot”.

“Spamalot” ended up being the second highest click volume keyword for the entire campaign and there was relatively little traffic prior to the Twitter promotion. While I cannot prove anything, I have to assume that the Twitter buzz did drive some curious people to learn more about the show through Google. It was very interesting to see first-hand how social marketing can contribute to and fit into a larger, more comprehensive online marketing strategy.

Q: Is your “client” the Hult Center? Or the show?

My client is the presenter (NewSpace Entertainment, or Broadway in Eugene). They help to coordinate with the show, venue, & producers to bring shows to venues, like the Hult Center. They also produce several other shows & upcoming tours (101 Dalmatians, Wedding Singer, Walking With Dinosaurs).

Q: Any particularly challenges with this promotion?

Yes!! In short, the biggest challenge was trying to create credibility for the company & offer. I found some great potential invitees that were relevant & had a high number of followers, but had no way to connect with them. I tried to avoid publically inviting others on Twitter so if someone didn’t follow back, I had to ask them to follow me.

As a business, you want to be careful to protect your reputation and I worried a bit about the “creepy factor” in reaching out to people out of the blue. I got a few questions like, “are the tickets really free?” and I’m sure quite a few people were skeptical. The project was also a bigger time-sucker than anticipated. There was quite a bit of follow-up & coordination required with individuals who RSVP’d. In sure this is something that long-term will become more streamlined with experience. I did not get any negative feedback about the campaign, though, other than one person who mentioned that being called a “tweeter” was patronizing!

You can follow Heather at @BroadwayTweets. The season finale of Broadway in Eugene is May 30-31 (Spelling Bee Musical) and you can expect a tweet from me about the show. My tickets are waiting at will call. It’s fun to support my fellow PR and marketing peeps in their efforts and who doesn’t love a good show?

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

PR Taking it in the Teeth

The wide, wide world of social media is great. It’s a great way to build relationships, to have a conversation and to make new connections. However, it’s also uncharted territory for public relations and, well, some of us aren’t doing such a great job.

There has been a lot of buzz in the blogosphere lately about the crap that PR people send to bloggers. You can read about it here, here and here (in the posts and in the comments). In fact, Kevin Dugan and Richard Laermer have a whole blog dedicated to PR crap.

In most cases, the heavy lamenting about PR is well-deserved, although not well-targeted.

The problem is, that there are a lot of good PR people and they are doing really good work. But it’s the crap that seems to be dominating the conversation and creating and overall shift in attitude. You can find lots of great media relations tips all over the blog-universe.

At a recent conference, SES: San Jose, speakers Rebecca Lieb and Brad Berens, with the incoming Global Content Director of SES, Kevin Ryan moderating provided these tips. It’s a nice summary, (thanks RB Digital Rodeo), and encapsulates what I’m reading elsewhere.

I’ve taken my favorites and rephrased in the form of advice, but go to RB’s post for the full list.

  1. Don’t PR Spam. No one appreciates when releases are sent without any real understanding of the aims of the firm that they’re pitching to.
  2. Don’t take the “Bazooka approach to his masthead” – This is when multiple people from the same PR firm contact multiple people in the organization to which they’re pitching, and having the same meetings with these different people.
  3. Set Up a Briefing – PR firms tend not to do this, but it would allow them to understand the audience.
  4. Make sure that your CEO can engage in a real conversation and drop the sales pitch.
  5. Pick up the phone, don’t just assume that an email will get the story read.
  6. Your CEO sneezing is not a news story. A real news story is something that actually makes a change within your organization.
  7. Know your customers, and who they read. If you don’t know, ask them. That’s who you should be pitching your stories to.
  8. Make executives and PR people available for comment, don’t expect a story to be published if the release is the only source material.
  9. Subject lines such as “Please post this to your site”, don’t get a story written.
  10. Don’t always focus all efforts on one editor, people aren’t always at work, you may lose a story if the one person you have a good relationship with is out.
  11. Look for the right person to pitch to, don’t just pitch to the top person treating them as a receptionist / traffic cop.
  12. If you pass on stories about other firms rather than just pitch about your company, you’re going to be viewed as more of a trusted resource.
  13. Don’t hide from the news people. Understand that journalists will look at both sides of a story.
  14. A rumor is not a news item.
  15. Understand who the industry experts are.

What would you add?

We Were Here First: On the Johnson & Johnson Playground

Johnson & Johnson, the world’s largest healthcare company is suing the American Red Cross.

Suing the American Red Cross.

Apparently the Red Cross is using the red cross on health & safety kits and J&J claims they have exclusive rights to the red cross. It’s theirs. They were using it first. From its statement.

Johnson & Johnson began using the Red Cross design and “Red Cross” word trademarks in 1887, predating the formation of the American Red Cross.

J&J brings in $15 billion a year and is demanding that the Red Cross hand over all products for destruction and pay all J&J’s legal expenses, hand over proceeds and pay punitive damages.

Liz Gunnison of Daily Brief from Portfolio.com asks this question:

So, J&J, exactly how strapped for cash do you need to be to resort to haggling with Hurricane Katrina victims and tsunami survivors over spare change?

Really. Wow. Nice move, J&J.

Some point/counterpoint from around the blogosphere
Seth Godin: What to do when you’re wrong…
Dillon Communications: Sorry, Seth…
Mary Schmidt: Branding Stupidity…
Darby Darnit: Goliath Sues David

Oh How I Wish…

The Friendly Ghost has a great post with an Edelman Europe corporate video that makes PR work looking pretty darn exciting:

This is a great video, and I am thankful that it’s not PoweR Girls-esque. When more than half of students, it seems, want to do celeb PR or event management, at least this is relatively meaningful stuff.

Sign me up!

Early Adopters are Not the Majority

The Dells, the GMs and even the Marriotts are not the norm when it comes to corporate blogging. In fact, a small percentage of Fortune 500 companies have an external blog.

Todd Defren at PR Squared posted recently about his chat with Fortune 500 marketers asking very basic questions about blogging. The good news, he says, is that they are interested and engaged… even cautiously experimental.

Over at MicroPersuasion, Steve Rubel talks about the new Forester Research report from Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff called Social Technographics. Their research uses the analogy of the participation ladder that looks a little something like this:

The majority of people are “inactives” (52%). This group does not read blogs, watch peer-generated video (YouTube, Google Video), listen to podcasts, use social networks (MySpace, Facebook), use RSS, tag Web pages, comment on blogs, publish or maintain a blog, upload video or publish a Web page.

Borrowing a phrase from the diffusion of innovations theory, as public relations PRos, we understand that innovators and early adopters are not the majority of consumers (or clients or stakeholders). The category breakdown looks like this: (from Wikipedia, which does a nice job with these descriptions).

  • innovators – venturesome, educated, multiple info sources, greater propensity to take risk (2.5% of people)
  • early adopters – social leaders, popular, educated (13.5%)
  • early majority – deliberate, many informal social contacts (34%)
  • late majority – skeptical, traditional, lower socio-economic status (34%)
  • laggards – neighbours and friends are main info sources, fear of debt (16%)

Early adopters are important for communicators to reach because of the “social leader” and “popular” ideas in the categories above. But the higher the costs (financial, social/reputational, opportunity), the longer it takes for an idea to diffuse. And really, participating in social media has a high cost.

As you think about recommending social media strategies to clients in the future, or how to participate in them yourself, consider these categories (both Li’s and the diffusion categories). Based on where your audiences are on the participation ladder, what strategies and tactics will you need to use?

Who Do You Trust?

Edelman released its annual Trust Barometer survey results in early February. I’m always fond of nicely defined and clearly labeled categories. Categories provide a nice heuristic for linking new information with what we already know.

Based on seven years of research, the agency is able to draw some conclusions and segment influencers into categories.

Trust Holders provides an overall umbrella term under which several categories fall. Each category has a distinct way in which they “form or share opinions and how they act on trust in brands.”

From Richard Edelman’s 6 a.m. blog:

There are Public Activists who engage in outspoken public actions, Social Connectors who share, seek and value public opinions, Solo Actors who take personal action and the Uninvolved whose opinion of brands is not driven by trust reputation. We see that different spokespeople and media will reach these segments; for example, a Social Connector responds best to peers, employees and friends and family.

(Click on the image for a larger view)

I like it! I can easily see how most people I know would fit into one of these categories and even where I fit (I’d say I’m a social connector). I can also see how you could use this information to help your clients understand the importance of trust in the marketplace and that to build and maintain that trust you have to be consistent, but think about different channels, different spokespeople and different media to help get your messages across.

Read the full report and media coverage here.

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