Here’s a PR-Related Story With Some Teeth in It

Local headlines the past few months in Chicago have been dominated by some pretty disturbing, and often plain bleak, news.

Kids skipping rope on the sidewalk in front of their home were shot and one killed in a drive by gang-related shooting.  The August 24 housing sales report from the National Association of Realtors revealed that existing home sales plummeted across the nation last month; in Chicago, sales fell by 25.1 percent in July, which put a damper on relatively robust sales activity during the first half of 2010.  And, of course, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was convicted on one of 24 felony counts in Federal Court; he plans to appeal the conviction, and federal prosecutors plan to retry him.

But this week, we were treated to some good news.  The story lead the evening television news reports and even generated a fine editorial in the Chicago Tribune.

The story?  A three-foot-long alligator that apparently had been dumped by its owner into the Chicago River was finally captured unharmed.  The gator, obviously not a native species to these parts, will be kept under observation here for a few months, then released where it belongs — in a Florida swamp.

For a few days, Chicagoans watched as a volunteer from the Chicago Herptological Society paddled his canoe along the river near Belmont Avenue in search of the elusive lizard.  The volunteer would only describe himself as “Alligator Bob.”  He reportedly shied away from the limelight to protect his privacy;  too many people, he said, would seek him out to extract renegade gators abandoned in area ponds and rivers.

“I’m a volunteer,” Bob said.  His intention is to capture big lizards so they can be relocated, not generate more headlines and exposure.

From a pure publicity or press agentry perspective, Alligator Bob just walked away from some potentially lucrative opportunities.  Think about it:  This guy has success in extracting slimy creatures that crawl around in the shadows.  Based on Chicago history, there are a lot of creatures around here that fit that description; and, many wear nice suits and work close to the Chicago River.

But enough political satire and sarcasm.

I’m impressed that Alligator Bob eschewed potential to build awareness for himself during his humble and diligent efforts to save a poor gator that surely would have died once fall and cold weather arrive in the next several weeks.   Lessor men or women would have hired a battery of public relations and marketing professionals to secure appearances on TV and radio and build the Alligator Bob brand.  Imagine him on “Oprah” and the made-for-TV-move rights.

This guy just wants to help alligators.  Compare his actions, his character and his conviction to others who have been in the news lately, and I find Alligator Bob to be a true hero.   An example: Former Chicago Cub Sammy Sosa complained that the team “disrespected” him by letting other players wear his jersey number — 21.  Right.  A showboat player embroiled in the steroids mess who walked out on his teammates the final game of the 2004 season. And, he was found using a corked bat.

For the record, Sosa did hit a lot of home runs, and he’s the only player in history to have three 60-plus homer seasons.  But were they all “legal” roundtrippers?

I can say this with a lot of confidence:  Alligator Bob netted our rogue gator using just a regular net.   And, when the job was done, he packed up his canoe, minus the fanfare.

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Blogging About The Blagojevich Verdict

By Edward M.  Bury, APR (aka The PRDude):

Yesterday’s news that a federal jury in Chicago brought in a guilty verdict on only one of 24 counts against former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich resulted in the expected media hailstorm of commentary.  Today’s print edition of the Chicago Tribune had seven pages of coverage and photos in the main news section alone.

(Yes, even though I’m the blogging PRDude, I do like to read a print newspaper; just s0mething cool about the way you can snap open a broad sheet publication, then bend and fold it to the article of your choosing.  Back to Blago.)

The broadcast media let their collective voice be heard, too, of course.  The television networks and news radio stations sent out a collective battery of reporters and analysts to cover a story that has captivated much of the nation — and embarrassed the people of Illinois — since Mr. Blagojevich was arrested December 9, 2008 at his north side home.

Two aspects of the arrest, pre-trial proceedings, the trial itself and jury deliberations stand out for me:

1. Why is “Public Relations” Involved? During the months before the trial started, the nation was bombarded with Blagoveich “news.”  The former governor appeared on late night talk shows and that reality show hosted by a New York developer.  His wife, Patti, appeared on a realty show set in a tropical jungle; she made headlines for eating bugs.  A local talk radio station gave Mr.  Blagojevich a weekend slot, and he rarely, if ever, passed up an opportunity to proclaim his innocence.  (Unless, of course, his opportunity to testify in court on his behalf — something he said he would do.)

During the months before and during the trial, media reports periodically referenced that Mr. Blagojevich’s antics, as well as the demonstrative actions from his defense team, were part of a “public relations strategy.”  In today’s Tribune, media writer Phil Rosenthal filed a fine piece on the fact that the trial and proceedings took on the air of a scripted reality show.   But why this line: “But Blago, his lawyers and PR pals treated it all along as a TV game show.”  I agree with the sentiment, but “PR pals?”  This is the kind of uninformed nonsense about public relations that continues to find its way into journalism.

A message to my friends in the media: Public relations, at least as I define it, was not behind Mr. Blagojevich’s antics.  It was a legal strategy, and apparently it worked.

2.  Is This the Way It Will be From Now On? In 1988, a very cool funk/metal/rock band from New York call Living Colour put out a great song called “Cult of Personality.”  Along with a killer guitar solo by Vernon Reid, the song delivers this message:  There are people in this world who can get us to believe what’s not true — simply by being force fed wrong information to the point that fiction becomes fact.   This line — “I exploit you, still you love me. I tell you one and one makes three.” — encapsulates that message.

Given what took place before, during and after the Blagojevich trial, was justice influenced by the cult of personality offered by the defendant and his legal team?  Given relenting media coverage, instant access to information, citizen journalism and social media, can a high-profile case like the Blagojevich trial really be “fair” within the limits of existing laws?

I think the Blagojevich trial has set a sad precedent, one driven by the cult of personality and fueled by an insatiable thirst for a defendant to shout “I’m innocent!” so loud and so often that we believe him.

To Measure or Not to Measure (PR Effectiveness) Part II

By Edward M. Bury, APR, aka The PRDude

Let me continue with more thoughts from the August 10 webinar hosted by Thompson Reuters and the Bulldog Reporter on “2010 PR Measurement Practices.” The full webinar audio content and slides remain live as of today.

The second half of the webinar featured comments from Frank Ovaitt, EVP of Makowsky + Company, and questions fielded by moderator Jon Greer.  The highlights, as I interpret them:

  1. Measurement Building Blocks — Mr. Ovaitt began his presentation with a slide entitled, “Measurement Isn’t the Starting Point.” It listed four “building blocks” for developing the metrics used to measure the performance of a public relations program — how well or poorly.  The four components are:  Foundational Research, Benchmarking & Best Practices, Formative Research and Measurement & Evaluation.I’ll have some insight to share later, but I was impressed with a comment from Mr. Ovaitt.  And, I paraphrase: “Too many in public relations use research as a ‘report card.’ We should use it as a GPS to guide us to do better.”
  2. Measurement Declarations Make Sense — Some brief commentary was made regarding the Barcelona Declaration of Measurement Principles, a set of seven standards designed to guide how public relations is measured.  The standards were created during the Second European Summit on Measurement, which was held in June of this year in — you guessed it — Barcelona, Spain!   Five leading industry bodies, including the Public Relations Society of America (I’m a proud member), participated in the summit.Read the seven Principles and make your own assessment of their value and validity. I think they all are spot on, with number seven being especially poignant: “Transparency and replicability are paramount to sound measurement.”  Note: Is “replicability” a real word?
  3. Q & A Was Just Okay — Participants had the opportunity to pose questions via email to the panelists.  Frankly, a lot of the questions were time-wasters and perfunctory.  Here’s an example:  “C-suite was referred to extensively throughout the webinar.  What does it mean?” Earlier in the webinar, the representative from Southwest Airlines had to define S.M.A.R.T. goals — twice.Really?  Someone couldn’t ascertain from the nature of the conversation who comprises the “C-suite” at a company?  Not to come on as being snarky (that is a word), but perhaps the person posing the question could have googled the answer.

And now, my thoughts:

  • I’m a full supporter of furthering public relations measurement practices through effective research. But I subscribe to the belief that there are two basic types of research: Primary (what you initiate on your own) and Secondary (how you use research conducted by others).  With all due respect to Mr. Ovaitt, do we really need to put research into other categories like “Foundational” and “Formative?”
  • The Barcelona Declarations obviously were the product of some really smart people.  I’ve never been to Barcelona,  but I’m sure it’s a spectacular place to visit.  Just wonder why participating groups like the International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communications (AMEC) and others decided to use the city name as part of the name for their guidelines.
  • No disrespect to those who offered questions during the webinar. But I maintain it’s best to use situations like this to pose insightful questions, those that make the panelists offer an opinion or explanation.  And, granted, there were some better questions, like one posed on tools available to provide a rating to print articles.   But in this increasingly search-engine-driven world, answers to a lot of stuff are a few keystrokes away.

To Measure or Not to Measure (PR Effectiveness), Part 1

By Edward M. Bury, APR, aka The PRDude

Yesterday, the nice folks at Thompson Reuters and the Bulldog Reporter hosted a webinar — 2010 PR Measurement Practices.  I was scheduled to participate in the live version, but had a schedule conflict: A visit to the periodontist.

(Full disclosure: Last week I had emergency oral surgery to treat an abscess.  For the uninitiated, an abscess is an infection beneath the gum.  Here’s one reason why I opted for emergency surgery rather than wait: “Untreated abscesses may get worse and can lead to life-threatening complications.”  Enough on my dental situation; back to public relations.)

Today, I caught up with the webinar, which should remain live for a few weeks or more.  First, an account of what I found particularly intriguing from the first 30 0r so minutes, along with a few personal thoughts.

Tomorrow, I will chronicle what took place in during the second half of the hour-long presentation, with particular emphasis on the “Barcelona Declaration of Measurement Principles.”

  1. A Tale of Two Surveys — Participants received the results from two surveys on the subject, “Is measurement of public relations activities important to those in the C-Suite?”  Greg Radner,  SVP at Thompson Reuters, provided insight.  One was a previously launched, multi-question survey of 571 PR  agency and corporate professionals, the other a spot survey of the 343 webinar participants.

    The results were relatively equal on the general question on the value of measurement: More than 90 percent believe measurement is extremely important, important or somewhat important.   However, 1.1 percent of the earlier survey and just one member of the webinar group maintained measurement was “not at all important.”

  2. Who Says Print is Dead? — A question within the formal Thompson Reuters survey asked: “Which quantitative results do you measure and report on regularly?”  Surprisingly, the respondents ranked print coverage of the organization the highest at 84 percent and social media the lowest in the five categories at 66 percent.

    Filling in the middle were TV and radio coverage (72 percent), media impressions from news releases (71 percent) and blog mentions (70 percent).

  3. Southwest Soars to New (Measurement) Heights — Dallas-based Southwest Airlines has long been recognized for incorporating strategic, leading-edge public relations and social media into its communications and marketing initiatives.  Communications Analyst Ashley Pettit said the airline builds measurable objectives into every new program and aligns its public relations objectives with its business objectives.

    Ms. Pettit pointed out that using source codes and other measurement tools for news releases, blog and Facebook posts and employee communications can yield tangible dividends — to the tune of $3 million to $3.5 million in revenue on August 12.

Okay, now my thoughts:

  • Who was the lone dissenter and who comprised that 1.1 percent of survey respondents who believes measuring public relations activities has no value today?  What world are they living in?  Certainly not a realistic one.  Providing measurement related to the objectives of a true public relations plan has long been a challenge. Today’s technology gives public relations professionals many more tools that didn’t exist even a few years ago.
  • Daily newspapers are folding and news holes are shrinking; magazines sell fewer ad pages and have fewer subscribers than a decade ago.  Yet, public relations professionals use print results in higher numbers than broadcast or online coverage to quantify effectiveness of communications.  Does this mean those in the C-Suite still aren’t convinced of the value behind social media?
  • Southwest has garnered lots of industry recognition as a well-run business and great place to work.  But perhaps more attention should be allocated to the way Southwest has made effective — and measurable — public relations and communications a pivotal factor in all business decisions.   This is testimony to the classic definition of public relations, as noted in “Effective Public Relations,” as being a “management practice.”  Southwest’s communications programs are successful in large part because its public relations and marketing teams have the total, unwavering support of management.

“Mad Men,” Public Relations and Reality

By Edward M. Bury, APR, aka The PRDude

At a recent series of meetings I attended, public relations professionals from around the nation offered comments on what really defines our profession today.  The general consensus is that public relations — as practiced at its highest level — is based on strategy and bound by high ethical standards.

One member of the group bristled as she recalled being labeled a “publicist” by a new acquaintance.  To the uninitiated, however, public relations is, indeed, publicity.  Clearly, public relations remains one of the most misunderstood professions, probably because so much of what we do is strategic in nature.

Strategy is not sexy.  Perhaps that’s why public relations does not lend itself to good fictional plot lines that make for good movies or television.  From another perspective, our communications colleagues in the advertising arena do work in an industry that’s incredibly sexy.  And there’s a hot TV show that takes advantage of the medium.

On July 25, millions of televisions were tuned to the AMC channel as fans of the retro ’60s series “Mad Men” debuted.  You’re probably familiar with the series, which is set in a fictional Manhattan advertising agency inhabited by a cast of characters bent on drinking, smoking and carousing.

Sometimes, they actually make some pretty good advertising.  What struck me about the season opener was the title of Episode One: “Public Relations.”

No, the new firm of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce did not switch practices, nor did they open a division to take on public relations business.   The title referred to what amounted to a tactical maneuver by lead character Don Draper (portrayed with a steely reserve by Jon Hamm) to generate some positive media exposure.

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in "Mad Men."

For the few uninitiated, here’s what happened: When the episode opened, Draper was being interviewed by a reporter from Advertising Age magazine.  Draper is the creative director at the shop, and apparently he didn’t like the role of chief spokesperson for his renegade agency.  He delivered uninspired answers to the Ad Age reporter’s questions, resulting in a flat, unflattering article.

This did not sit well with partner Roger Sterling, who blasts Draper for not delivering the “sizzle” the fledgling Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce needs to compete with major Madison Avenue shops for new business.

At the end of the episode, Draper is lunching with another reporter, this time one from the Wall Street Journal.   This time he not only delivers sizzle, he outright lies by proclaiming the agency occupies two floors of the Time-Life Building.  (They only have one floor; in fact, they don’t even have a conference room table.)

Hey, I’ll bet an honest, ethical public relations pro would never utter such a false statement!

The episode did feature a sub-plot that did comes right out of “Publicity Stunt 101.”  Two agency creatives hire actresses to battle in a grocery store over a ham product — an account managed by Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce — as a way to generate media exposure.  It works, but of course, the stunt is contrived and unethical.

Last Sunday’s “Mad Men” episode, “Christmas Comes But Once a Year,” did not continue the “public relations” plot line.  Instead, main story featured the client-from-hell — an adult brat who controls the Lucky Strike account — who forces the upstart agency to hold a much more expensive than planned Christmas party.  It’s a raucous affair, complete with a conga line, staffers locked in embrace in plain sight and Sterling as Santa passing out cartons of Luckies as holiday gifts.

No references to public relations this time, or even references to any “good PR” from the  Journal piece.  But there was a sexy scene, with Draper plying his charms upon his secretary.

“Mad Men” is fiction, of course; and the show addresses lots of themes — sexism, the workplace, greed — under the guise of being a period piece set in an early Cold War advertising agency.  Much of what happens on “Mad Men” probably did happen along Madison Avenue.  We get a glimpse into the creative process at an ad agency, along with the drinking, smoking and carousing.

It’s sexy stuff.  And, it’s not public relations.