More Than Just Random Thoughts on PR & Other Stuff

As the (digital) clock on my monitor clicks down on another year and another decade, here are some thoughts on public relations and observations on the world around me.

PR’s Goal for 2010 and Beyond. Every man and woman who works in our profession should make a conscious effort to deliver the message that public relations is a modern practice built upon strategic, measurable communications.  It’s not marketing, it’s not “spin” and it’s not purely publicity.  It is based on truth, accuracy and full disclosure, and its results should have some redeeming factors to people, animals and/or plants.  Those who think otherwise are practicing something else.

I applaud the Public Relations Society of America for launching The Business Case for Public Relations. Take time to become familiar with this campaign.  And, for the record, I am a member of PRSA.

We’re Not Flacks, Spin Doctors or Propogandists. Or simply publicists for that matter. With all due respect to our friends and colleagues in the media, what’s so difficult about identifying a public relations professional as a public relations professional?  Journalists strive for accuracy, yet they sometimes put forth inaccurate definitions of those of us in this industry.

This is Not Your Father’s PR Industry Anymore. Perhaps I’m showing my age through this reference to a pretty good automotive campaign for a brand no longer on the road — Oldsmobile. But beneath it all, public relations is about communicating.  And the way we communicated a decade ago — heck, even 365 days ago — has changed dramatically and will change as new technology emerges and topples the status quo. Those of us who will thrive will embrace new ways of communicating, but without abandoning such fundamentals as adhering to ethical standards, accuracy, open disclosure and free exchange of ideas.

Hey, We’re Not Miracle Workers. When big, scandalous news stories break — like Tiger Woods reported and purported dalliances off the golf course — there are the occasional references to “bad PR.” Yes, that’s true: The public perception of the subject usually takes a whallop. But scandalous behavior usually is not written into a public relations plan, at least none that I’ve researched, written and presented to a client. Let’s be clear on what PR can do, and what it can’t do.  PR can’t stop people from doing dumb things.

They Like Me! They Really Like Me! Okay. Enough with the references to popular culture (this one from an Oscar-winning film star; you tell me who it was).  Since entering the consulting arena, I’ve found that there is a significant market for my services.  I’ve taken on projects that range from copywriting and research to providing strategic direction and counsel, the stuff I really want to do. This leads me to proclaim that there is and always will  be a market and demand for PR professionals who can deliver good work on time and within budget.

I Hope Tomorrow You’ll Find Better Things*. Wishing all who read this blog a safe and prosperous 2010. I thank you for providing substance to my thoughts and observations. My goal for 2010 remains to secure a new full-time position where I can apply my skills, learn and advance.  Until then, I will continue to seek opportunities through project work, volunteer to make things around me better and write this blog.

*A line from “Better Things,” written by Ray Davies and performed by one of my favorite bands of all time, The Kinks.

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Yes Friends, There is a Santa Claus & He Has Public Relations Counsel

Before the turn of the century — the 20th century, specifically — the New York Sun printed an iconic editorial (“Yes Virginia, There Really is a Santa Claus”) affirming that Santa Claus, indeed, does exist.  Well, at least in the hearts and minds of those who can muster up the Christmas spirit this time of year.

But I’m here to lay a claim on this day after Christmas that will shock the communications community to its very foundation: Old St. Nick maintains public relations counsel.

It’s true.  In fact, Santa has kept PR professionals busy in some way, shape or form since the dawn of mass communications.   Not sure if pioneers like Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays were ever retained by the jolly fellow, but it’s certain that over the decades skilled communicators have crafted effective public relations programs to generate favorable impressions on all things Santa.

What proof do I have for this bold statement? Nothing concrete, yet consider this contention:  Santa comes around once a year and really works only one evening, yet his activities rank quite high in terms of realizing key goals (making people happy, promoting peace and good will) and objectives (delivering gifts, driving commerce, keeping reindeer and elves employed).

Efforts to promote Santa realize classic objectives to create awareness (we all know his busy night), acceptance (everyone — well, almost everyone — believes in Santa), and action (whether you believe in Christmas or not, you’ve probably spent money on something holiday-related, and hopefully you found some reason to spread good cheer.)

As for measuring Santa’s effectiveness on international consciousness, I offer this statistic:  A Google search on “Santa Claus” generated 25 million search results.  This pales to Tiger Woods (56.5 ), million), Barack Obama (76 million) and Taylor Swift (35 million).  Yet, remember, Santa works only on December 24th, and he’s never shot and won in the PAG tour, run for national office and won, or participated in the MTV Video Awards and won.

Note to savvy public relations professionals: Give the old guy a few days to relax, but prepare your RFPs for the 2010 campaign.  Conduct research, brainstorm with your entire team to craft winning strategies and breakthrough tactics. Win the Santa account.  And, if you need a skilled, senior communicator to join your team — to pitch Santa or some other account — I’m listening.

Yes, There Will Be a Holiday Party This Year

This Christmas — okay “holiday season” — will be the first time in my professional career that I will not attend an office/company party.  Well, in retrospect, I could throw myself a party, which is a pretty good idea after all.

No buffet lines. No sitting next to someone I don’t like or doesn’t like me. No disappointment at the paltry year-end bonus. No less-than-inspiring speech from the boss.

Let’s face it: Many holiday parties (or at least many I’ve attended) were long on food and drink, but short on spirit, giving, fellowship and camaraderie.  You know, the “real” reasons behind Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

Reflecting back to a simpler time in my life, there was one holiday party that stands out.  Not for lavish food and drink at a tony restaurant or spectacular entertainment. This party had food, drink and entertainment; but it also had spirit, giving, fellowship and camaraderie.

Here’s the situation. In the mid 1990s, I worked as the marketing and public relations guy for a re-manufacturer of office furniture here in Chicago. It was an interesting concept: Take used systems furniture (the components of an office cubicle) and give the stuff a second lease on life through new paint and fabric. I did it all, from media relations to direct mail.  Even sold a few file cabinets and systems.

The company was based in a rambling old brick factory building just south of downtown.  Around 90 people worked there: the office staff — sales reps and administration, and the factory staff — the installers, painters and upholsterers. This was primarily a blue-collar bunch, especially the factory staff, which was mainly Black and Hispanic.

The company ran on thin margins, and there was little in the budget for extravagances like a holiday party. But I had a secret fund that let us hold a party that year, one that I believe really did make things a little better for the staff.

My holiday fund was built not on cash, but on barter scrip.  Through our affiliation with a reciprocal trade association (better known as a barter exchange) we traded furniture for scrip and built an account. I used it to get us a banquet room at a moderate, casual restaurant west of the factory.  They provided decent food and drink, and a DJ — also secured with “barter bucks” — provided the entertainment.

For a few hours that December evening, the staff ate, drank, laughed and danced, engulfed in as true a holiday spirit as I’ve experienced. Inhibitions were broken down.  These people didn’t “mingle,” they engaged each other, more so than at any office party I attended before or since.   There was honest, unbridled joy in the room. True laughter. Even the crotchety boss looked like he had a good time.

Many of my co-workers at this company didn’t expect much more than a job.  Hopefully that Christmas, they got a little something besides a paycheck.  Hopefully, they came away feeling as fulfilled as I did.

Glad to Know, the Show Still Goes On

In my past life, okay, professional capacity, one of my regular tasks was coordinating participation of the organization at various industry trade events.  By my count, I must have managed more than 50 events, ranging from one-day events that drew few thousand to three-day extravaganzas that brought in up to 50,000 participants, exhibitors, media representatives and other affiliates.

Trade show coordination traditionally is more of a marketing function; but the organization I worked for required that the public relations department, that was me, handle several show.  Each show provided a singular challenge: Make sure display, literature and give away stuff arrives safely and on time, and make sure all vendor contracts are completed — before the show starts. Oh yes:  And deliver a measurable return on the investment.

Note to anyone who gets this responsibility: Follow the maxim from the 1990’s TV show, “The X Files.” That is, “trust no one.” Make sure you get confirmation from the exhibit company, trade unions, shipping company, caterer, and every other outside vendor. Otherwise, you’ll be scrambling and embarrassed at show time.

I thoroughly enjoyed these trade junkets for several reasons:

1. I got to communicate face-to-face with publics and prospects to communicate the value behind the organization’s education and membership.

2. I got to go to some great destinations — New York, Las Vegas, Orlando, Los Angeles — and attend some great parties and receptions.

3. I gained a sense of fulfillment and completion after coordinating another show that went off without a hitch.

I miss attending trade shows.  I miss the hours and days before “show time,” when the convention hall is a flurry of activity.  When you wonder just how are they going to get that display set up with less than an hour to go?  But it always worked out. A small, temporary marketplace emerged from the chaos.

Earlier today, I attended some educational and networking events that were put on by the Association Forum of Chicago, the local organization that supports the vibrant association community in metropolitan Chicago.  The Holiday Showcase — a trade show featuring 800 exhibitors, mostly hotels, resorts and convention centers — is another major component.

Prior to the official opening of the Showcase, I strolled the aisles, watching the exhibitors carefully arrange their give away pens, note pads, candy and other promotional stuff.  (Small bottles of hand sanitizer are very popular these days.)  They made final adjustments to their displays, resplendent with striking graphics designed to entice decision makers into visiting, even for a minute or two.  Within the 100 square feet or so of booth space, they created an extension of their brand.

Some exhibitors clearly were veterans.  They’ve done this before, perhaps a few dozen times this year.  This was probably their last show of the year.  I envied them.

I arrived home in time to take in a webinar on maximizing an online newsroom using social media resources.  It was fascinating and helped reinforce insight I already have.  Online, one can deliver a message to literally hundreds of millions.

But it’s not as fulfilling as the interaction that takes place at an industry event, where communication is made face-to-face, eye-to-eye in a marketplace that was set up for a short time. To my knowledge, there’s no way to get free hand sanitizer online.

An Average Day: Learning & Enlightenment

Today was a day filled with learning and enlightenment, encapsulated by two events that got me out of the home office and back to downtown Chicago.

The Morning.  A prominent online career company and prominent online educational institution hosted a career fair at a prominent downtown hotel.  I’ve never attended a career event of this type for a key reason:  Decision-makers in the public relations arena more than likely find talent through networking or very specific job postings.

Most of the exhibiting companies offered banking, sales or security jobs; not my industry. But, a very, very prominent Chicago-based advertising agency was listed as an exhibitor, which intrigued me.  And, the event was no-cost and an opportunity to network and learn.

Upon arrival, I encountered people of all types:  Those in tailored suits who clearly had been successful in the business world, and those in denims and sweatshirts, those still searching for a career path.  The mood was relatively upbeat, the organizers encouraging and supportive.

Learning the very, very prominent agency did not send representatives, I sat in on some eduction sessions.  At one entitled, “Building a Wardrobe That Works,” the moderator, an image consultant, asked me to the front to comment on my ensemble: Navy sport coat, dark khaki slacks, brown loafers, blue shirt and red and blue tie with a simple pattern. “What kind of work do you do?” she asked.  “I’m a public relations professional,” I answered.  “You’re dressed very appropriately for an interview in that industry,” she remarked. I liked here immediately.

I felt proud, and somewhat relieved.  Image is everything, to quote a popular campaign, and I’m glad my dress that day hit the mark.  Learned one more important fact from this nice lady: Always wait until the interviewer invites you to sit down before sitting down.  Makes sense.

The Afternoon. In my lifetime living in Chicago, I never stepped into the City Council chambers in City Hall. Today, I not only went inside, I got to speak!

The situation: I spoke before the Community Development Commission in favor of a local development company that bid on redeveloping a landmark manufacturing building in my Avondale/Logan Square neighborhood into apartments and an arts center.  Other members of the community — from those involved with local business groups to artists — spoke in favor of the request by the developer.

The issue will be voted on my the full City Council some day, and hopefully our community will have a prominent — but vastly under-utilized building put to productive use.

This request was one of 10 key agenda items this afternoon.   Champions for these other causes also had their respective turns at the microphone. I felt enlightened that the issue involving my community and nine others within Chicago generated so much passion and support. People took time out of their lives to spend a few hours making their voices heard.

Three Months Later, And It Snowed Today

Well, the sun also rose today, the start of the third month since I became unemployed.  And, winter made a debut, leaving the first few flakes of snow. But perhaps “unemployed” is not at all the right word.

Since being let go from my former full-time position in public relations, my days are a whirlwind of activity:  Networking initiatives;  responses to posted jobs; calls, emails and research into places I’d like to work at; more project work than I imagined; volunteer work on behalf of the Universal Accreditation Board and the Chicago Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America; learning more about the increased role of Web 2.0 in public relations and business; meetings and more meetings.

Perhaps I’ve forgotten something?

Oh yes.  I still take my morning walk, usually after 9 a.m. when the streets in our Chicago neighborhood are quiet.  Those with “real” jobs are at work, leaving the thoroughfares of Avondale and Logan Square to me, a few joggers and others out for a stroll.   There’s a certain tranquility in mid morning on these streets, framed by century-old stone and frame homes, some quite grand and stately.

Newer parts of the city can’t match the sense of permanence we have here. Generations ago, this part of Chicago was built up by developers who sold two-flats and single-family homes primarily to European immigrants.  They stayed for decades, raising families and building futures.  Most moved away in the 1960s and 1970s; but their presence will forever be defined by what’s left, the streets where I walk each morning.

It’s late now.  I look forward to waking up some seven hours from now to a new day filled with challenges and activity, another day searching for an opportunity where I can contribute my skills in public relations, another day of being “unemployed.”  And, another day to walk the streets I have all to myself.

This Time, Tiger Woods is Not Burning all That Bright*

Since Tiger Woods wrecked his SUV outside the gates of his Florida mansion, all forms of media have reached out to public relations professionals for commentary. The general consensus: The greatest golfer of our time — perhaps all time — and one of the most admired, accomplished, recognized and wealthy athletes on the globe knows how to win tournaments, but he doesn’t know how to manage a public relations crisis.

Experts with credentials that range from the White House on down pointed out that Woods blew it. Regardless of why he was cruising around his gated community (at an apparently high rate of speed) at 2:30 a.m. or thereabouts November 27, Woods should have stepped forward and provided an explanation. The truth behind his day-after-Thanksgiving escapade may be embarrassing, but classic crisis communications procedures maintain:

1. Tell the truth early. (Woods should have made an initial statement Saturday in person.)
2. Have the message delivered by the highest-level source. (Woods.)
3. Offer to provide further details. (Like his ability to play golf in future tournaments.)

Well, clearly Woods did not follow these time-honored procedures. Why? Perhaps he did not want to. Perhaps he did not believe he had to because he’s Tiger Woods.

One must believe that a man who’s been in the public spotlight for many years, one who’s earned millions and millions of dollars, would have been counseled on how to effectively proceed following his “accident.” Apparently, the greatest golfer in the world ignored advice from those around him.

The point here: public relations professionals give advice to clients during a crisis and in other situations where someone wants an answer. That advice is not always followed — for whatever reason.

*With all due respect to William Blake (1757-1827) the British poet who penned “The Tyger,” one of the greatest poems in the English language.