Suggestion for Mayor-Elect Lori Lightfoot: Add An APR (Or Perhaps Several) to Communications Team

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

The recent Chicago mayoral election, which led to the election of attorney and prescribed reformer Lori Lightfoot, would have been an ideal opportunity for this avowed real Chicago guy to share thoughts in this space.

But, for some reason — actually several reasons, including school, work and spring break — I did not publish any commentary.

Flash forward: A column published today by Chicago Tribune commentator Eric Zorn provided inspiration.

Sound communications counsel will prove invaluable to Mayor-Elect Lori Lightfoot in the years ahead. Photo courtesy of Chicago Tribune.

The focus of Zorn’s piece, “A lesson for Lori Lightfoot in the lingering Jussie Smollett controversy,” centers on communications, and the value and importance of sound media relations practices in helping Mayor-Elect Lightfoot advance her agenda and remain focused during what certainly will be challenging and contentious months ahead.

Navigating the next development in the Smollett controversy is the most top-of-mind issue, given the international coverage the story has received and the local divisiveness it has caused. But Chicago’s unrelenting street crime, reforming City Hall, pension shortfalls, neighborhood gentrification and an increasing lack of affordable housing also will require that Ms. Lightfoot and her team respond to many, many other media and public inquiries.

Open and honest communications from the Lightfoot administration will prove critical to the success during her years as mayor, and to Chicago, to its citizens, organizations and businesses, and to the way the city is perceived around the world.

Mr. Zorn advises the Mayor-Elect to “Hire the best communications team you can find.” He sagely goes on to state: “They will serve as strategists, not just mouthpieces, and will be unafraid to tell you when you deserve the brickbats.”

Should Ms. Lightfoot or her transition team read this post, I offer this suggestion on one criteria that should be considered in making selections on communicators: Consider professionals who hold the Accredited in Public Relations (APR) credential.

Okay. Some regular readers may have anticipated my recommendation.  And, yes, I am an Accredited professional, have served on the Universal Accreditation Board and currently am the Accreditation Chair for PRSA Chicago.

With the disclosure out of the way, let me share this one thought about the value of Accreditation. As Mr. Zorn noted, modern communicators must think strategically and not dispense knee-jerk counsel.

Those who earn the APR demonstrate through their personal study, during the Panel Presentation process and when taking the Comprehensive Examination that they can provide counsel based on strategies rather than “no comment.”

Should Mayor-Elect Lightfoot or her transition team need recommendations on who to consider, please respond to this post. And, for the record: This Accredited member would respectfully decline any position offered for the simple reason that I have no real experience in the political arena, aside from be a voter.

 

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Does Anyone Else Question Why Jussie Smolette Hired a Public Relations Firm?

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

As of this writing, the afternoon of February 15, the story involving the reported attack here in Chicago on actor and vocalist Jussie Smolette has taken almost as many twists and turns as the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Image of Jussie Smolette courtesy of Wikipedia.

If you’re interested in following the story, this report from CNN chronicles what’s taken place to date.

Let’s let the media and Twittersphere follow the story and provide the next update. What I want to shed light to another aspect: The hiring by Mr. Smolette of public relations firm Sunshine Sachs.

(An aside: Sunshine Sachs has perhaps the most spare, unassuming and uncluttered website of any communications firm on the planet.  Must say, the site certainly is easy to navigate.)

When I learned of this development, my initial reaction was straightforward and driven by my experience in public relations: Why does the victim of a crime — albeit a celebrity who told police he was attacked by two men who hurled racial slurs, put a noose around his neck and poured a substance on him — need public relations counsel?

Public relations support, as I comprehend the practice, helps take advantage of an opportunity or mitigate a threat.

One could argue that in the days following the reported attack, Mr. Smolette’s account of what took place that night in the Streeterville neighborhood was challenged and therefore he needed the advice and guidance of public relations professionals to help counter media inquiries and preserve his reputation.

And, from the other perspective, Mr. Smolette and his story was grabbing headlines and media coverage — especially here in Chicago — and he retained counsel to respond effectively to what assuredly was a deluge of interview requests.

A quick Google search of the decision to hire Sunshine Sachs revealed digital reports that shouted “Jussie Smolette Victim? He Hired Harvey Weinstein’s PR Firm” and “Best Drama: Jussie Smolette Hires Harvey Weinstein’s PR Team.”

Now, my perspective.  Mr. Smolette certainly had the right and I trust the dollars to hire a national firm like Sunshine Sachs.

However, I remain concerned that news regarding the enlistment of public relations support was brought into the unfolding story may prove damaging to the profession and practice. Note the reference to alleged serial sexual abuser Weinstein in the examples noted above.

What I read into this: Public relations, which should be based on truth and adherence to established ethical standards, is becoming more equated with pop culture and tabloid headlines.

Would welcome your thoughts.

 

 

 

What Joe Ricketts and The Cubs Should Have Done

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

It was the contents of a series of digital communications — email messages — that ushered in the scandal engulfing businessman Joe Ricketts and the iconic sports franchise his money paid for.

Cloudy skies, figuratively ahead, for the Chicago Cubs and Joe Ricketts. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Tribune.

But it would take an old-fashioned form of communication to help mitigate the embarrassment and loss of respect (and maybe business) caused by this unadulterated and sad mess.

A quick recap: This week, a website called Splinter News revealed that Mr. Ricketts, the billionaire founder of brokerage firm TD Ameritrade, sent and responded to a series of emails that that in essence equated Muslims with being evil and not welcomed in the United States.

Mr. Ricketts, whose offspring run the Chicago Cubs, both issued somewhat static statements of apology, stating the Islamophobic communications were wrong, uncalled for and don’t belong in modern society — or affiliated with a Major League baseball team.

Apologies certainly are required here, without question. But what both the billionaire and his son Tom Ricketts, the Chairman of the Cubs, should have done is made those statements, live and in person, not through the totally controlled process of a statement issued from a corporate suite.

Hold a news conference, admit from the heart the messages were wrong, offer to meet with Muslim leaders, offer to get some kind of behavioral treatment, host a conference designed to build better understanding of different cultures — do more than just apologize, then close the book.

In an editorial published today, the Chicago Tribune (which we subscribe to) offered this rhetorical question: “While Ricketts and the Cubs responded quickly, they didn’t blow anyone away with the passion of their regret. We wondered whether a public relations consultant and a dozen lawyers had signed off.”

Shout out to the Tribune editorial team: Perhaps a seasoned and competent public relations professional for both Joe Ricketts and the Cubs did propose what I stated above. But, public relations counsel is just that — advice provided to the client.

In some cases, the client does not follow the advice.

 

 

 

If Michael Cohen Practices PR, Can I Practice Law?

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

Well, it was about time, and frankly, I’m not surprised.

President Donald Trump spoke to Fox News from the White House.

The issue? The proclamation yesterday by President Donald Trump that Michael Cohen, his former attorney, actually spent more billable hours practicing strategic communications than law.

So, again, the practice of public relations gets communicated as a non-sequitur, again gets tossed into the national spotlight, again gets misrepresented — this time during a televised conversation with the President of the United States, who actually was doing his best to distance himself from his long-time attorney.

Yes, the President made that statement in an interview Thursday with Fox News broadcaster Harris Faulkner. It comes up early in the conversation, shortly after Faulkner raised a question about the President’s professional relationship with Cohen — who as you may know, was sentenced Wednesday to 36 months in prison after pleading guilty to campaign finance laws.

Here’s the full statement by the President:

“He did very low-level work. He did more public relations than he did law. You would see him on television, and he was OK on television.”

Yes, participating in media interviews can be part of a public relations program, but I really don’t think that’s what the President intended.

A quick check of Cohen’s background reveals lots of work as a barrister, businessman and so-called “fixer,” but I could not find any references to his “public relations” capabilities.

In researching this post, I had hoped to find other public relations professionals concerned about the President’s Thursday comment and misrepresentation of the profession, but none surfaced.

Yet.

I did find this CNN report on the “29 most surreal lines” uttered by the President in the Fox News Faulkner interview.  You guessed it: There was no specific reference to the Cohen practicing public relations comment.

Sigh.

 

 

 

 

Grasping For An Answer On Why The Media Misrepresents Public Relations

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

The venue was outstanding: A cool, modern private club in downtown Chicago.

The event attracted a dynamic crowd: Public relations leaders from across the metropolitan region.

To me, the perfect combination to gain insight into a question that has been a nagging issue for years. First, some background.

The Arts Club of Chicago, shown here in a warmer time of the year.

Last evening, I joined public relations professionals at the PRSA Chicago 2018 reception to honor the Distinguished Leader of the year. The event was held at the Arts Club of Chicago just off North Michigan Avenue. For 2018, the chapter honored Jon Harris, the highly-respected Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer of Conagra Brands.

It would be an opportunity to visit Chapter friends I’ve known over the years, and of course, meet new members of the profession.

But, I had an ulterior “alternative” motive, of sorts: Seek insight from the senior public relations professionals assembled as to what the industry could do to address the misrepresentation of “public relations” by the media.

Navigating between samples of passed hors ‘doeuvres and glasses of red wine, I saw an opportunity to chat with a distinguished man sitting alone. After introductions, the man said he manages the Chicago office of a well-known agency and entered the profession following years as a newspaper reporter.

Outstanding, I thought: This man can bring a perspective from both sides of the equation.

So, sensing the awards ceremony was about to commence, I presented my question, citing a recent example of media misrepresentation, one that was glaring, obvious and to me, stunningly stupid.  He paused for a moment and appeared slightly taken aback.

“Well, you know,” he said, “Sometime we work to keep our clients out of the media.”

I nodded.

The ceremony began.

My question remained unanswered. Rest assured, I will keep searching, keep asking.

What I Took Away from PRSA 2018 Assembly

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

DATELINE: AUSTIN, TX.

Thought I would incorporate that now bygone phrase and practice as a way to provide a “newscast” kind of perspective to the following, a post about what I learned and observed as a delegate at the 2018 PRSA Assembly on October 6.

Like any organization comprised of passionate, strong-willed individuals, there was often spirited debate during the 2018 PRSA Assembly.

The gathering of Public Relations Society of America leadership, staff and members earlier this month is the Society’s one day to have delegates present thoughts and cast ballots on how PRSA is governed. As this was only my second time as a delegate, I took my responsibility seriously.

(A disclaimer: Please excuse the delay in sharing this post as three things got in the way: Work, school and life.)

Without precedence, here are a few thoughts I scribbled during my time at the Assembly.

Ready, Set, Debate: From a parliamentary perspective, the Assembly opened with a debate on how to debate: Specifically, the time allowed for delegates to address the big issues on the agenda — proposed Bylaw changes.  (More coming up.) Some found this a poor use of time; I found it a reflection of the passion some members have for PRSA and its future.

State of the Society: In his remarks, 2018 PRSA Chair Anthony D’Angelo, APR, Fellow PRSA, cited accomplishments made by the Society, including growth in diversity and advocacy issues; but he cautioned that the profession itself was “losing market share” in the communications arena due to factors like apathy and “free stuff” — digital resources. Millennials, he noted, find some forms of governance (like PRSA) irrelevant.

The Bylaw Debate: Prior to the Assembly, five proposals were made to amend existing Bylaws; learn more from this report published in June, but the focus was on ethics. I’ll refrain from much commentary. I had to depart to catch my flight home and missed some of the debate on the Bylaw proposals; however, I provided my proxy decisions to colleagues from PRSA Chicago. Two of the five amendments passed. During his remarks, Mr. D’Angelo noted that the issues were not relevant to the challenges facing the Society. But from this perspective, I’m glad PRSA gives members the opportunity to undertake changes to the way the Society is governed.

APR “Self-Improvement” Project: Of course, I had to comment on news shared that relates to the Accredited in Public Relations credential. What I learned is that there are plans to institute modules in the APR program, award “badges” to candidates, allow for online Panel Presentations and launch an online mentor match benefit. Good — no great — news.  More needs to be done to encourage professionals to seek Accreditation; more needs to be done to keep the credential a vital factor in the growth and development of public relations professionals today.

Other things learned: PRSA has developed a Speakers Bureau database, the Society is on good financial standing, membership (21,550 as of this month) has been static but is trending upwards, and there’s a new Strategic Plan being crafted.  I look forward to following these and other developments in the months to come.

But a final thought on the Assembly: PRSA will only be as vital to public relations as its members contribute to the way the Society functions and the profession is perceived in society.  After leaving Austin, I’m encouraged by the future.

 

 

Two Corporate Blunders That (Fortunately) Were Not (In All Instances) Labeled “Public Relations Disasters”

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

This space has remained stalwart in addressing occurrences of corporate operational or administrative mistakes that were unfairly categorized by the media as “public relations disasters” or better yet, “public relations nightmares.”

In a sound strategic move, Papa Johns will remove its founder from print marketing materials. Image courtesy of the New York Post.

The rationale, as I comprehend it: A company gets grilled when news breaks (and these days, news often is accompanied by a video account) that results in an embarrassment, loss of business or possibly a fine or legal action. This constitutes unfavorable media coverage or “bad PR.” Hence, the correlation — albeit inaccurate and unfair — to public relations.

Well, any reference to a “public relations disaster” was, remarkably, absent in some news reports I read in print or online of two recent corporate blunders:

  • Papa John’s International.  On a conference call, pizza chain founder John Schnatter uttered a racial slur, leading to his resignation as chairman of the board from the publicly traded company.  As a way to mitigate this crisis, the company also is removing Mr. Schnatter’s image from its marketing materials.  I’ll also bet Mr. Schnatter will no longer be featured in TV spots.
  • Build-A-Bear.  Yesterday, this company that allows kids to design and build their own stuff animal created pandemonium — and left a lot of kids and parents unfulfilled — when a “Pay Your Age Day” promotion drew overflow crowds at shopping malls across the nation.  Parents received $15 vouchers as an appeasement, and the company CEO promptly issued a video apology.

But, doing a Google search, yes, I found some references to “public relations crisis” in both stories noted above.

I had hoped the media would dissolve an instance of outright stupidity and callousness (Mr. Schantter) and one that failed to comprehend the consequences of a marketing initiative (Build-A-Bear) from the realm of having anything that originated with a strategic public relations plan.

Assuredly, the public relations teams for both organizations — departments that did not initiate what led to the negative publicity in both instances — will marshal its crisis communications plan in the days to come. Perhaps both companies will get some “good PR” in the future.