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April 9th, 2014

Over on the sine qua non of public relations blogs, PRConversations, I’ve inveighed against the provincialism of the idea that we PRs are engaged in some sort of war with marketing over turf and assets. Sure, I still believe that all marketing is communication, but not all communication is marketing, and certainly the measurement challenges are more on our side than on that of our marketing cousins, but that’s no cause to think it’s a binary choice for organizations.  Have a gander — especially at the comment stream — and weigh in.

Many thanks to Judy Gombita and Heather Yaxley for their offer of space for my screed…

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Skills for PR need revision, research finds

March 28th, 2014
Prof. Michele Ewing presents as Dr. Dean Krueckeberg (R) and Dr. Vince Hazelton (L) listen.

Prof. Michele Ewing presents as Dr. Dean Krueckeberg (R) and Dr. Vince Hazelton (L) and others listen.

Public relations educators might need to re-examine the core curriculum to keep newly minuted pros relevant in the current market, according to research by Kent State University’s Prof. Michele Ewing.  A qualitative study of the required skills and knowledge for entry-level advertising and PR majors finds that planning, writing, multimedia and business knowledge are among the most urgently needed competencies.

Professor Ewing conducted interviews with 31 pros ranging from CEOs to mid-level professionals across agency, corporate and not-for-profit organizations, and the results were presented at the 17th International PR Research Conference, March 6-10, 2014.

The findings:

Strategic communications planning: Understanding of research and comms strategy is the foundation of PR education. Students must have critical thinking skills and grasp the basics of planning and measurement.

Writing across multiple platforms: Telling stories appropriately for the medium, including content intended to go directly from organization to stakeholder. Yes, we do need people who know the difference between writing a post-length piece versus a feature versus an objective piece.

Multimedia storytelling: Social, mobile, online — they all depend on imagery, audio, video, text, infographics… Visual storytelling is a great phrase, and knowing the power of graphics and imagery and how to lever them appropriately is essential. So is knowing your Adobe suite.

Interpersonal communication: You’ve got to be able to speak, present, engage, persuade, face to face, online and in print.

Digital: Social media and data analytics, including the strategic understanding of engaging audiences through these new tools, but that engagement is only the beginning. Community management, multimedia for social, online and mobile, and the ability to use data analytics to both develop strategy and measure its effect.  More important, it’s the ability to make sense of the data as applied to business issues and problems to facilitate decision-making.

Converged media: Owned, earned and paid work together, and pros need to know how to apply each in service to wider goals. Paid or sponsored social content was an area of emphasis noted.

Business knowledge: Understanding how businesses work, including entrepreneurship, business development, profit margin and bottom line, distribution and purchasing, basic economics… Yes, we still need to address our aversion to numbers as a profession and be business people who happen to lever communication skills.

Exposure to key practice areas: Internal communications, media relations, public affairs, issues and reputation management — but also industry sectors, B2B, healthcare, crisis, energy and technology communications are growth areas in our practice.  But, specializing as an expert in one or more of these is seen as preferable to the generalist approach.

Congrats to Michele on a terrific presentation of a very important topic.  What would you add in the way of advice to improve the curriculum?

 

 

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Threats to PR practice, or not?

March 20th, 2014

iStock_000009739238SmallContent marketing. Brand journalism. Native advertising. Promoted user endorsements. OK, so is this paragraph just linkbait, or what? No, it’s the subject of research from Kirk Hallahan of Colorado State University exploring whether these trends — some of which have been the provenance of public relations — are eroding the power and influence of PR in organizational communication.

kirkhallahan

Dr. Kirk Hallahan, Colorado State University

Dr. Hallahan presented the early research at the 17th annual International PR Research Conference, March 6-9. He identified five reasons for concern that PR might take the rise of these disciplines with trepidation.

Encroachment and marginalization: Marketers have seized upon all of these activities as traditional advertising has seen issues in connecting with publics. PR’s seeking of third-party endorsement doesn’t guarantee placement for organizational messages, whereas if these elements are part of a paid strategy, do. Ads permeate commercial communications, including TV, radio, and print, and consumers are increasingly turning to media that excludes advertising, including pay-cable TV, satellite radio and internet content that uses less intrusive ad strategies.  It’s an attractive proposition to simply pay for play.

Undermining professionalism in both journalism and PR: Whether it’s former journalists enlisted to produce branded copy (that often still looks like editorial) or marketers writing pithy, short copy reminiscent of advertising but presented differently, paid content could erode the perception of value of journalism and call into question whether organizations are earning coverage or not. Traditional PR could be hurt as expectations rise among organizations that merely buying “eyeballs” is enough.

Devaluation of relationship-building: The “relations” part of PR and the ideal vision of the practice calls for two-way, symmetrical relationships between organizations and publics. There are myriad examples of how strong relationships have helped organizations during times of stress, as well as how the PR/Journalist symbiosis serves the common good in a democracy.  Turning that relationship into a mere financial transaction, and corrupting the concept of user endorsements could be a threat from which the practice might not recover.

Challenges to transparency: All types of branded content are designed to appear as though they are happenstance; this is a deceitful practice that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission hopes to discourage through disclosure rules, but there are powerful inducements to keep such matters opaque from the public. Dr. Hallahan worries that social media users might not realize how “likes” might not represent an honest endorsement from their friends, but the result of a purchase transaction, and that would foster distrust in an age sorely lacking in trust at all.

Confounding of measurement and evaluation: The idea that an objective third party — an editor — might decide to cover an organization’s news and therefore be relied upon to assess that organization’s claims, factually, is fairly essential to the concept of news media. If the lines are sufficiently blurred between paid and unpaid content, how can value be accurately measured outside of the financial result? Perhaps this is the point, that is, to reduce all communication activity to sales, and ignore all other tactics entirely. How do we measure effectiveness beyond the output level?

Dr. Hallahan’s thought-provoking research permits only deep questions — not answers. I’m grateful to have had the chance to hear it and discuss it.  Is this a threat? The marketers will say that if it is, it’s because PRs haven’t done a good enough job leveraging it in service of dollars and cents.

The biggest threat I see is that this all continues a reductivist argument that makes all communication into marketing. That’s what I see as the ultimate threat.

Thoughts?

 

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To German CEOs, PR heads still not ‘equals’

March 14th, 2014

Ansgar ZerfaßIt was disappointing to learn that public relations people, even at the topmost level in an organization, are not seen as the go-to person on communication topics among senior leaders, according to a study involving more than 600 German executives.

In research presented at the International PR Research Conference this year, Dr. Ansgar Zerfaß of the University of Leipzig and newly minted M.A. Muschda Sherzada surveyed CEOs, managing directors and executive board members of German corporations in ten industries. They discovered several interesting findings, including:

  • Mass media is more influential on corporate reputation than social media — 96% to 71%
  • Personal communication by leaders is more impactful than that of professional communicators — 87% to 65%
  • When exchanging views on building public opinion or communication strategies, peers on the board or in functional divisions are most important, versus the contribution of the communicators or communication departments — 87% to 64%
  • CEOs and other top execs say motivating employees, fostering corporate trust and supporting a positive image are the most important objectives of corporate communications, more than fostering dialogue with stakeholders and gaining trust among journalists.
  • Marketing communications and financial communications are rated the most effective sub-disciplines in corporate comms, but internal communication is seen as most relevant.

That comms pros aren’t seen as the first choice when it’s time to talk communication strategy is telling. Many of my colleagues say that they are business people who use communication skills in service of company objectives. But clearly in Germany, our function is tactical, not strategic, and communicators focus too little on internal communications and effective counsel.

What is it like in your organization?

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Feeding mind & soul at PR research conference

March 10th, 2014
Dr. Vincent Hazleton, Prof. Michele Ewing & Dr. Dean Kruckeberg

Dr. Vincent Hazleton, Prof. Michele Ewing & Dr. Dean Kruckeberg

Many of my colleagues in public relations quail when I tell them I make a habit of attending the International PR Research Conference.  It’s an academic conference that features scholars presenting papers they have written (or soon will write) in 15 minute blocks. Half the time they explain the main points of the research, and the other half we listeners get to ask questions and make suggestions. That works great for me, and beginning in 2014, I’m now a member of the IPRRC Research Advisory Board, so will have a chance to be more involved.

For a lot of these papers/presentations — which are requirements for Ph.D.s and doctoral students — there isn’t a direct connection to practice. That doesn’t mean discussing them is not useful, and I admit readily to being enough of a geek that I appreciate the deep mental stretching that the more esoteric topics bring forth. Among the more usual questions I ask: “So what?” Most of the time not quite so bluntly (though one longtime friend of the conference, a practitioner who passed away last year, Jack Felton, felt no such reticence), and always with the desire only to understand the research’s impact on our practice.  We need more of the usual PRs to delve into this stuff, because the academics need our feedback, and we need to be there to give it!

One of my favorites was among the most academic. Denmark-based professors Finn Frandsen and Winni Johansen of Aarhus University are exploring a general theory of intermediaries in PR. That’s trade unions, trade associations, the news media and others as stakeholders on their own account. Finn and Winni pose that there’s a trifecta of reputations at stake — the industry represented, the members of the intermediary organization, and the organization itself might be sharing reputation in a commons of sorts. Made my head hurt a little, but in a good way.

There were several other presentations that made a strong impression. Here’s the first few I took note of. 

Place

Dr. Shannon Bowen listens to Dr. Katie Place

Dr. Katie Place of Saint Louis University, presented on ethical decision-making in public relations. She is seeking to understand how professionals evaluate or reflect on their decisions. Dr. Place has started a qualitative study on the topic, and finds that there are few constants in process, with relying on one’s “gut” one of the few.  It’s a highly personal and rather eclectic mix, she finds, and that matches with much I’ve read on the topic.  We need more research on this, especially as PR Ethics is so often considered an oxymoron.

Doctoral student Arunima Krishna of Purdue University explored a “big 4″ accounting firm’s unauthorized Facebook “Confessions” page, exploring whether the passion, vigor and dedication associated with highly engaged publics (groups of people) who are negative toward their organizations present particular challenges to our practice.  She posits that engagement — frequently assumed to be positive and desirable — might have a dark side. Stay tuned, and look for your organization’s Facebook Confessions page ASAP.

 

Holley Reeves, doctoral student

Holley Reeves, doctoral student

Holley Reeves, a doc student at University of Georgia, looked at corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs as contributors to organization public relations activities. She conducted interviews with PR pros to determine what they thought of their org’s CSR, and sought to determine whether the CSR was primarily used to accomplish PR goals. It’s early, but the preliminary findings are encouraging for those who a) believe CSR is the right thing to do regardless of its business or PR value, and b) that CSR is no replacement for confronting and solving organizational problems and issues. 

There are more to review — look for another 3-4 in the next post, including the offering from my Kent State University colleague, Prof. Michele Ewing!

 

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A study in crisis: Blazin’ Blazek

February 25th, 2014

iStock_000011508802_SmallUPDATED 26 Feb:  If you’re a PR/Comms pro in NE Ohio, you know about @NEOHcommjobs, run ably by one Kelly Blazek.  She recently was honored by IABC Cleveland as its 2013 Communicator of the Year.  You also probably know by now that Ms. Blazek flamed the bejesus out of a young PR person who reached out via LinkedIn, responding with an email best described as more than tart.

KB abides strongly by the LinkedIn credo that you should LinkIn only with those you know well. Thus, a passing acquaintanceship on social media, or mutual “friends” is highly unlikely to meet with a favorable resolution.  Back a few years, I reached out via LI and got a nice note back outlining her policy in that regard, along with the hope that one day we might indeed work together.

I’ve got no truck with that.

Well, as this post outlines, Blazek went off on said young one and impugned the professionalism of all like her in the process.  The process to even join the Yahoo! group that gets you an email summary of NE Ohio jobs in our field requires a brief email to include some background and why you want to join.  Apparently, failure to follow directions to Blazek’s satisfaction is strike one, with a LI invite worth two strikes, two additional outs, and a “blazing” email — which then the offended party shared with several close friends…wait for it…on social media.

Hm.

@NEOHCommJobs is shut down, as is Blazek’s LI.  Bruce Hennes says there are Villains, Victims and Vindicators in any crisis scenario. Right now, it’s all Victims and Vindicators — all that’s missing is the Red Queen shouting, “off with her head!”

Go read the post (it includes images of the offending missive), or watch WKYC-TV and tell me —  Should IABC Cleveland go through with the honor?  And, excuse me, Ms. B., but where is your voice in this?

What should IABC Cleveland do? What should Kelly Blazek do?

UPDATE — In a story on Cleveland.com by @janetcho, Ms. Blazek apologizes. It’s fairly textbook, and it doesn’t seem to be a “non-apology apology” that you hear from sport figures and politicians.  I do wonder (as do others who’ve commented on Facebook) about its true sincerity. If it’s true that this was, as one person told me, “standard operating procedure” and “the most open secret” then you have to assume that only the social media scrutiny brought about the rejection, no?  If we apply an ethics lens to this, however frustrating it might be to receive off-topic notes from people who aren’t in the target market, and who perhaps are a bit presumptuous in asking for help without first attempting to create a relationship, you don’t have license to be rude, in my opinion.  I try to be understanding and kind, well, all the time. Sometimes I don’t succeed, and when I’ve been a snarky dude I own up and apologize. Because I’ve got a rep as a nice guy, people know I’m sincere. I’ve declined LI and FB invites from people I know only tangentially, but lately I tend to be more open just because I know how hard it is to get connected with the right people.

But seriously — given the fact that people can take offense rather easily (not speaking of this current situation, as I do not know the principals well), is it right to share your outrage publically?  Does KB deserve to be blackballed, banned, placed in stocks in Public Square? What do you think?

 

 

 

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Ethical dilemmas to make one twist

January 23rd, 2014

You’re advising the owner of an online dating service who is a religious person, and he wants to know how to respond to the Hobby Lobby/Affordable Care Act imbroglio.  He has a legal opinion, and he wants a PR opinion, but that PR opinion has to be grounded in ethical practice.

As the PR strategist for a former government official who is contemplating a run for the White House, you’re tasked with developing a position paper on the Edward Snowden/national security-cum-civil disobedience situation. Again, your position must adhere to ethical perspectives.

A fast food enterprise needs to better understand the issues of the living wage debate and its ancillary controversy over low-paid retail employees’ use of government benefits.  The perspective for the enterprise CEO will inform his remarks at the company’s franchisee meeting, and must present the situation in the ethics frame.

How would you approach these assignments, what research would you draw upon?

Thanks to Prof. Stephanie Smith, Kent State University, for a thought-provoking assignment from which this post is drawn. It’s due in a couple of weeks, and I’m sweating a little, I confess!

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A communicator’s manifesto for 2014

January 3rd, 2014

no_year_in_reviewNo predictions, no year-in-review. Instead, how about a statement of first principles? Can you dig it?

Resolved: Whether in internal communication, PR measurement or strategic communications, we will be fearless, ruled by the right thing to do rather than the facile, easy or merely expedient. Therefore:

  • As the internal experts in communication, we will have facts and data at our disposal to support our strategies and tactics. We will do research, ongoing measurement and evaluation to ensure that our activities are having the desired impact on business results. Because we care most about that, we won’t allow ourselves to be wedded to our tools — social, electronic, print, whatever. Instead, we will do as every other department in our organization must do: be judged by our impact and value. We will measure at the output, communication outcome and business results levels (output, outtake, outcome), and if we don’t know how to do so, we’ll educate ourselves.
  • We will not cede the public relations field to marketing, embracing the credo that while all marketing is communication, not all communication is marketing! Neither shall we use marketing metrics for non-marketing activities out of inertia, expediency or lack of interest. Nor will we by word, deed or omission allow social media to be subsumed solely into the “marketing mix,” advocating instead for a truly strategic approach to the use of social tools as well as all the other tools in our cabinet.
  • We will insist on transparency from our vendors, never settling for “black box” methods. We recognize the unique value our vendors may bring to the table, but we will need to understand how their many miracles in return on investment, value of Facebook likes, financial values in nonfinancial situations, etc., actually work in practice. We will compare notes and seek metrics beyond anecdotes.
  • We will develop SMART objectives — specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound — because performance against objectives is the most basic and appreciated mode of measurement for any communicator. It is these objectives — and the process of setting them — that lead us to our strategies and tactics. They give us purpose, drive, ambition and business life, a reason for being.
  • We will embrace the simple fact that we are business people — regardless of industry, specialty or education, we are business people first, using communication skills, tactics and strategies in support of business objectives. We therefore will be more than merely conversant in the language of business; we will employ it when we talk of what we do, who we are and the roles we play in our organizations.

These are weighty responsibilities, my friends. Are you up to the challenge?

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What I learned at Fusion 13 – the IT conference

October 23rd, 2013

iStock_000027047431LargeFish out of water doesn’t begin to describe the experience.  The itSMF and HDI – two professional services organizations focusing on information technology people — held their annual conference this week, Fusion 13, and I presented the AMMO method to about 50 attendees.

The speaking part went very well from my perspective — the people in my session were great — upbeat, positive, involved — and they really seemed to get a lot out of putting the Audience-Message-Method-Objective method to work.  With just an hour to work with, it was a crash course, but judging from the visible reactions and the comments, they found it valuable.

The trick for them now is to put AMMO to work — that’s always the conference imperative, right?

I attended some sessions as well as two of the keynotes, and confirmed my earlier assessment that every staff function — IT, Marketing, PR, HR, whatever — has the same strategic issues. Namely, how do we increase our perceived value in the strategic sense?

Change management was a hot topic, and Paul Wilkinson of  the Dutch company GamingWorks and Sharon Taylor of Canada’s Aspect Group evangelized on the need to articulate the value to the business, the desired business outcomes, the costs and risks of a change initiative in order to have any shot at success.  These are the four key words that describe a service. Wilkinson mentioned that he’d asked about 6,000 IT professionals, 90% of whom had completed their ITIL coursework (the framework for service management), what those four key words were. A large majority got them wrong.

One participant mentioned that this had been the case in IT for 30 years — if we asked the question of communicators “what are the keys to getting budget and people in your department?” what would they say?  I hope they’d say that success depended on articulating value, cost, risks and business outcomes!

Barb Dombrowski of Progressive shared a case study of their knowledge management program. This KM stuff involves creating specific content that the service desk (including multiple levels of support) uses in the course of working with callers. The goal is “production readiness,” and adopting a standardized template for the “articles” enforced search criteria and ensured the right material got to the right support people for the right issues.   Progressive went from 3,000 KM articles just three years ago to more than 19,000.  Now, Dombrowski and team are working on the quality of those articles, seeking to measure extent of use and weed out the weak items

We communication folks think we’re the resident experts in communication in the organization. Maybe reaching out to the IT people, in particular those in KM, will make us smarter.

I’ll also mention the terrific keynotes I caught – Cindy Solomon burned up the stage with a high-energy, often hilarious talk about the four types of courage — blind courage (just leap!), crisis courage (expressing calm when the world is blowing up around us), role courage (the confidence of knowing your authority in a given role) and core courage (the courage that comes from servant leadership, being unafraid of admitting you don’t know something, etc.)

Josh Linkner talked of creativity — of being willing to let go of the past and look to the future, to fail well and often and learn from the experience. He says we can learn from jazz — how to be creative and a great teammate.   He’s the founder of ePrize, which he sold for a boat load of cash, and now a venture capitalist based in Detroit. He, too, was an entertaining speaker who’d have been at home at a marketing, PR or HR conference.

I had client meetings to run home to, so I missed the Tuesday night party, but the Monday receptions and jam-packed Gaylord Opryland Hotel (vast, huge, capacious) made for a fun environment.  If they are interested in having me back, I’d gladly go!

 

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Look out IT: You’re getting AMMO

October 22nd, 2013

fusionsquareToday I’m in Nashville, for Fusion 13, the itSMF/HDI international conference, where at 11:15 a.m. I’ll teach a batch of IT folks how to transform their communication skills.  I’ll brief them on using the AMMO tool (audience, message, method, objective), then they’ll practice using it on their business issues.

Fusion 13 is a massive conference — nine tracks (which means nine sessions per breakout period) — primarily hardcore IT stuff. The centerpiece of the program is IT service management, which essentially says that IT needs to be a strategic competency of an organization.  I got some exposure to itSMF through its Cleveland local interest group. I attended their conference and was struck by the similarities to marketing, PR or HR conferences: bring us in at the beginning, we can add value, we’re not just tactical…etc.

All of that is true, and my hope is, as (with respect) IT isn’t renowned for its communication skills, that there might be a couple of forward thinking organizations who might like to have me help them address the shortfall. Stay tuned.

My engagement with this conference is a toe in the water for a broader effort to talk less to communications/PR people, and more to people who are in the business — kind of a continuation of the “outcome-focused” measurement that many of us say is missing from PR. I’ve got experience in a number of industries, and worked with the IT department at one global company on a number of initiatives, so it’s hardly a foreign concept.

Banking, of course, is another area of potential application – after spending more than half my career at KeyCorp and NationalCity, having been a branch manager (albeit briefly) and worked in the business of the business, I have a different perspective on communication than a lot of my peers.

In the meanwhile, it’s here in the artificial but stunning confines of the Gaylord Opryland (2800 rooms), carrying the communication ball forward to the unknown realms of IT. Wish me luck.

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