How Obama and Hagar Help the PR Industry

Not a betting man, but I wager this is the first/only/last time you’ll read commentary on how both President Obama and Hagar the Horrible are advancing public relations.

Stay with me.  I’m not trying to be funny, although Hagar is funny most of the time.  These days, the President doesn’t have much to laugh about.

This is being written a few hours before the President delivers his first State of the Union speech.  Rest assured, he will talk about the economy and job creation, cutting spending and healthcare, government reform and last week’s major Supreme Court decision.

The President also will talk about public relations, in a way.  Specifically, Mr. Obama is expected to point out that an Indianapolis-based communications firm, TrendyMinds, has experienced 200 percent growth, is hiring and has given back to the community in the form of in-kind advertising and public relations support to eight non-profits.  The 2009 volunteer effort was valued at $50,000.   They plan to do more this year. The firm is small:  Seven people and two dogs are listed under the Contacts.

TrendyMinds principal Trevor Yager is expected to be in Washington tonight. I learned about this development from the MyRagan.com PR Junkie blog posted today.  Paid a visit to the TrendyMinds site, but could not find a reference to the State of the Union speech tonight.  But I’ll be watching.

Now to Hagar.  For those of you unfamiliar, Hagar the Horrible is a long-running comic strip written by Chris Browne and distributed by King Features Syndicate.  It chronicles a roguish Viking who likes to pillage and drink beer.  Hagar has a running battle with his wife, Helga, and keeps a nitwit sidekick named Lucky Eddie.

In the January 26 strip, Hagar, Lucky Eddie and other Vikings are leaving a castle, carrying sacks and chests of loot.  There’s another guy addressing the owner of the just-robbed castle: “We’re conducting a survey, sir … We have a few questions about the quality of our raiding … and if our people were courteous and professional at all times?”  Lucky Eddie asks: “Who’s that guy?” “He’s with a public relations firm I just hired to improve our image!,” Hagar replies.

The payoff for those reading this far:  The President is identifying the tremendous work and spirit of a spirited, growing communications firm.  This sends a positive message — that the industry is vital and remains a valuable part of business.  I’m sure Mr. Obama could have identified lots of small businesses that are bucking the trend in this recession.  He selected a firm that delivers messages.

As for Hagar, I’m impressed that he enlisted his PR firm to initiate research!  All sound, effective public relations plans are based on research. Too often our profession is bundled into pure publicity, or as a leading Chicago agency leader said at a reception earlier this year, delegated “to blowing up balloons.”

Looking forward to tonight’s address, and what Hagar is up to tomorrow.

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Supreme Court Ruling: What’s in it for Public Relations

My objective here is to provide some comment on the January 21 decision by the Supreme Court to overturn the laws that prevent private companies and labor unions from spending unlimited amounts of money to promote candidates for federal office.  It’s a First Amendment issue.

This is a public relations blog, so I had planned to give my thoughts on what impact — if any — the high court’s decision had on the profession, its practice and those of us who work in the industry.  One problem: I can’t find the actual decision.

Visit the official site for the court.  Granted, no a work of art, but functional.  I searched but could not locate the complete ruling.  Maybe it’s not up there yet?

So, here’s a few thoughts:

1.  Reading news accounts, I learned from a piece in today’s print edition of the Chicago Tribune — yes, I still subscribe to a newspaper; always will — the ruling overturns a 1907 law that prevented corporations and unions from paying the costs related to “broadcast ads, campaign workers or billboards” that supported or were against someone running for a federal office.  I could not find any reporting related to print, direct mail, social media or — public relations services.

2. It’s gratifying to learn that the justices preserved two elements of the law.  Those prohibit corporations and unions from donating directly to candidates, and all “campaign ads” must disclose the the organization that paid for the advertising.  As a staunch proponent of open disclosure, does that mean campaign workers have to disclose who is paying them to go door-to-door or pass out palm cards at subway stations?

3.  The major dissenting argument against the court’s decision centers on this: Those entities with deep pockets now can bankroll a campaign for federal office.  That, the dissenters claim, is an affront on democracy.  We’ll see.  But since I could  not read the actual court decision, can a public relations campaign be mounted to communicate on behalf of a candidate not “sponsored” by Big Pharma, Big Oil or Big Labor?

4. So what, if anything, does the high court’s decision mean for public relations?  Not sure, but wonder if corporations and unions can fund campaigns: Could it lead to more business for PR practitioners, greater understanding  of public relations as a management practice and greater awareness for the value of public relations?

Finally, I’m proud to note that a message I sent to a leading public relations professional here, Ron Culp Partner and Managing Director at Ketchum, led to this post on his blog.   Thanks Ron.

Why I Have to Write About Haiti

There is no public relations “perspective” on the tragedy that unfolded in Haiti this week.  At least, there’s nothing that comes to my mind.   Based on the chaos caused by Tuesday’s earthquake and the island nation’s sorry history, I don’t believe “public relations” will enter a discussion on Haiti any time soon.

Yet, I’m compelled to offer some thoughts and observations.

As I noted in my most recent post, a public relations program should have as its goal an outcome that’s good for people, animals or plants.  Yes, awareness should be brought to the countries and agencies providing aid, and to the brave, unselfish men and women who are helping find those buried in the rubble and those left homeless.  And, good people who want to donate to relief efforts should be made aware that there are bad people who want to steal their well-intended donations.

Public relations efforts are needed for these efforts because at its essence, public relations builds beneficial relationships between an organization and its publics.  (I’ve shortened the classic definition from the one posted in Effective Public Relations, the landmark text on our profession.)

But what can be done at this time to help build beneficial relationships between Haiti as a nation and the rest of the world?  This is a country of unthinkable poverty that has festered decade after decade due in part to corrupt leadership.  When can be considered “stability” arrives in Haiti — and that surely will take years — what can the Haitian government do to enhance its reputation on the world stage?  Do they have the resources to do so?

I did a Google search for “public relations agencies in Haiti” and found none. I clicked on the first search result and was directed to a web page set up by a leading U.S. PR firm. The page offers links to more than 20 places people can donate to Haiti relief efforts.

Can Haiti benefit from public relations in the future?  I just don’t know.  But I hope those of us who practice PR can use our skills to help this nation in some way.

While watching reports on television, these stood out:

  • A British TV reporter described streets lined with corpses that were akin to “litter.”
  • In a tent city, a young man kicked a soccer ball.  He found some semblance of enjoyment and normalcy among the death and destruction.
  • Rescue workers from so many nations arrived so quickly to help.  They were driven by a common goal and employ a skill that only surfaces when things are really bad.

Even though my job situation is uncertain, I have donated to the Red Cross. I hope others will, too.  I can escape what’s happening in Haiti by switching off the TV.  Those who live there can’t.

A Blog Post on Blago(jevich)

The former governor of my home state of Illinois has uttered some questionable statements since being led by federal marshals from his home in handcuffs in December 2008. Then, he recently told Esquire magazine he was “blacker than Barack Obama,” reportedly because he grew up in a five-room apartment in a tough neighborhood of Chicago.

For the record: I grew up in a five-room apartment in a much, much tougher neighborhood of Chicago.  Much tougher.

The news of Rod Blagojevich’s magazine comments hit the news over the weekend, prompting the former elected official to apologize.  Quote:  “What I said was stupid, stupid, stupid.” Well, I agree with him on one thing.

But this is a blog on public relations.  While reading the news report on Mr. Blagojevich’s comments in today’s Chicago Tribune, I was struck by reference to, well, public relations.

The article states the piece in Esquire “represents a wasted opportunity for the ex-governor to proclaim his innocence, but his public-relations strategy focuses on more than just clearing his name.” Elsewhere in the piece, the reporters refer to Mr. Blagojevich’s “PR strategy” and “publicity team.”

“Public-relations strategy?” (The hyphens are the Tribune‘s.)

Perhaps I’m riding too high a horse at the moment, but I really don’t think Mr. Blagojevich or his “publicity team” has crafted what I maintain is a concerted public relations campaign.  You know, one based on goals, strategies and objectives and driven by tactics.

One could make a counter point that the ex-governor, indeed is using public relations tactics as a way to build awareness for his innocence and pending federal trial.  In case you missed it, he’s charged with a lot of serious stuff, including allegedly trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat held by the guy he stupidly said he was “blacker” than, Barack Obama.

My counter punch: I maintain a true public relations strategy should have some redeeming social value.  What the ex-governor is trying to do, I think, is create a high public profile to sour the jury pool when his trial begins.  It’s not public relations.

The Tribune piece is just an example of how public relations gets thrown into the discussion for all the wrong reasons.  It also means those of us who practice public relations need to do a better job promoting our profession.

More Random Thoughts on Public Relations & Life

Periodically, I like to just let the thoughts flow.  This is one of those days.

What’s a Placement Worth These Days?  Don’t Lie to Me.

There’s been some “spirited” discussion on two public relations LinkedIn groups.

One discussion centers on a “formula” for a contractual “pay-for-placement” publicity program.  It was initiated by a practitioner who operates a web-based service that is “the nation’s premier provider of copyright free content.”  The discussion has been going on for 14 days and to date has generated 145 replies, many by the originator and many over the top in terms of tone.  (Don’t these people have anything else to do? Why do they have to use all caps and multiple exclamation points?)  My perspective?  Any communications program built around media placements is “publicity” only and is not a strategic public relations program.  Pay-for- placement as a concept is ludicrous and an assault on the profession because it addresses only one aspect of public relations.  Advertising is pay-for-placement.

The other discussion topic centered on public relations and lying.  It included a brief survey.  This one did not generate nearly as many replies and the exchange was more reserved and scholarly.  Still, I found the general topic distasteful.  Lying violates ethical standards I support.  Even a “white lie” is a lie. It has no business in public relations.  Period.

Vox Populi is Alive and Well.

Those of us who studied Latin know the translation of vox populi:  “Voice of the people.”  Its origins are from Imperial Rome, I gather, but today it’s more akin to a man-on-the-street interview.  But back when the Empire was flourishing, it was a form of mass communication.  Often, news and information was posted in a public place for the citizens to absorb.

While strolling my Avondale/Logan Square neighborhood on this sunny, yet frosty, January day, I noticed several paper signs affixed to utility poles and adorning the windows of our hipster caffeine center, The New Wave Coffee Shop.  The messages promoted apartments for rent, guitar lessons from a local rocker, the January line up at local rock clubs and more.  One that really stood out: An area resident offered round-trip $5 rides for the auto-deprived to the local Trader Joe’s grocery.  (I applaud this person for their industriousness.)

It’s heartening to know that even in this era of Craigslist, social media and message boards, the most basic form of mass communication — a paper sign in a public place — still has believers.

Something Dim Beneath the Dim Job News.

Like all of us job-seekers, I was hoping for better news on the employment front. But Friday, Washington announced the economy shed 85,000 jobs in December.  This comes after relatively encouraging updated news that we added 4,000 jobs in November — a month when we reportedly lost 11,000 positions.

Continued job losses and minimal to no new job creation is disheartening.  What’s perhaps more disheartening is this projection:  More and more people have dropped out of the labor force and stopped looking for work.  In essence, they’ve given up. This is a sad development.

Since my job was eliminated just more than four months ago, I been busier than ever.  My days center on finding another great public relations position and include:

1. Networking, networking and more networking.
2. Taking on project assignments.
3. Learning more about social media and Web 2.0 applications.
4. Meeting colleagues and contacts for coffee.

This is a time of opportunity for me.  It’s a time for me to reinvent myself and be poised to charge ahead and make a difference.  Yes, it’s been tough. We’ve curtailed many expenses, and I haven’t had a real vacation since April.

Yet, I’m thriving. I’m energized. I’m ready for the next challenge in my life and my career.  If you’re listening: Bring it on!  If I can offer any advice or direction, please reply.  I will respond.

November Housing Slump a Blip as Buyers Took Wait-and-See Attitude

At the moment, much of my PR activity is geared to one of my other favorite subjects: real estate.

In our ongoing series on the national housing market, my friends at Network Mortgage, LLC of Chicago have this to say about Tuesday’s news that home sales contracts dropped 16 percent from October to November:

“Sour news on housing sales for November does not signal a major market downturn, but rather a temporary retreat by prospective homebuyers who stayed on the sidelines to learn whether Congress would offer more help.

Residential mortgage experts at Network Mortgage, LLC maintain initial uncertainty regarding extension of the first-time buyer tax credit prompted homebuyers to hold off on making a purchase.”

Read the full story

CONTACT:  Juan F. Lopez, Network Mortgage:
773-404-7800 or info@network-mtg.com