In Defense of Public Relations: Take That Meghan Daum

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

Ah, the New Year.  We wipe the slate clean. We enthusiastically embrace new challenges. We gang tackle the roadblocks thrown haphazardly before us.

Okay. Enough senseless hyperbole.

Columnist and person who needs to get a better grasp of "public relations," Meghan Daum.

Columnist and person who needs to get a better grasp of “public relations,” Meghan Daum.

Today, The PRDude will address an all-too-often misuse of the way “public relations” is employed in written and spoken communications.  The culprit this time is columnist Meghan Daum, a terrific writer and essayist based in California whose work I read regularly in the Chicago Tribune.  (Print edition, of course, as regular followers will attest.)

In a column published Friday, January 4, Ms. Daum takes on one of the world’s most popular social media platforms — Facebook, known for being founded by a guy who likes to wear hoodies and for frequently changing its privacy settings.  She bashes the site over the course of 722 words (thanks Microsoft Word), claiming Facebook has devolved into an online resource that let’s its users:

“Brag brag brag. Bait for compliment. Self-promote. Promote someone else so as to be able to self-promote later. Brag.”

I trust you have grasped the thrust of Ms. Daum’s perspective: Facebook today can be defined as the online equivalent of that Beatles’ song from Let it Be, I Me Mine.”220px-LetItBe

And, The PRDude certainly respect’s her opinions and even supports some in this piece. But, let’s get to the focus of this post.  As, stated by Ms. Daum:

“(Facebook) used to make you feel connected to the world, but now it makes you feel bad about yourself. That’s because it’s becoming less a place for exchanging ideas and more an unmitigated, unapologetic opportunity for public relations.”

Gloves off time, Ms. Daum!

“Public relations” has been defined in many ways by many people.  The Public Relations Society of America (of which I’m a long-time member) has posted a definition of the practice to meet the modern times.  And, there’s definitions printed in textbooks and espoused by those of us who practice public relations.

At its essence, public relations involves communications.  (So far, Ms. Daum is on target.) But at its core, public relations is driven — or it should be — by sound strategies.  I don’t envision a Facebook user who publishes  a “look at the cake I baked today” post being guided by a strategic process.

I’ll stop picking on Ms. Daum, because there are plenty of instances where “public relations” is thrown into the modern lexicon because it seemingly fits. Well, most of the time it doesn’t.  And, it’s up to those of us who practice effective, strategic and ethical public relations to set the record straight.

I welcome comments, including those from Ms. Daum.

Why I’ll Continue to Pay to Receive Home Delivery of a Real Newspaper (Even Though I Could Read It Online for Free)

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

The above arguably is the longest title for a blog from a communicator ever written. Well, at least by The PRDude.

It was inspired by an invoice we received last week from the Chicago Tribune for seven-day-per-week home delivery of the newspaper to the front door of our Chicago home.   The invoice  of $97.50 covered home delivery of the Trib through mid April.

We had the option to pay for home delivery through July of this year, or even through the second week of 2013 — and the second week of 2014!  But we’ll stick with the quarterly rate, which was a bit higher than in the past.

Will the Trib — at least the version we now receive, with sound reporting, commentary, features and The Jumble puzzle  — be around past 2014?  I’m sure it will, because people like me need, make that demand, a daily broadsheet or tabloid print publication.

We demand it because:

  • We were raised on newspapers, the source of serious news for us, our parents and their parents.
  • We like the whole process of unfolding a broadsheet and snapping it to the page we want to read.
  • We like the feel of newsprint, fragile paper that’s designed to be tossed in the trash after its value is consumed by the reader.
  • We’re loyal to our hometown and in turn, institutions like newspapers.

Loyal followers on this blog recall that The PRDude began his career as a hard news wire service reporter before transitioning into public relations a few decades ago.  In the late 1970s, reporters for the Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and the long-gone Chicago Daily News were heroes to guys like me, those of us who typed our stories on manual typewriters.  They were newspapermen (and newspaperwomen, of course.)  They reported and covered the news and we read about it the next morning or afternoon.

Aside from some columnists, a few beat writers and sports reporters, all of the Tribune and Sun-Times reporters I worked with and pitched stories to are gone, corporate casualties.  Most have left the business; the fortunate have found other careers (like public relations perhaps?) or teach.  I’m told “newspaper” reporters now write online content first in most cases, which is okay because that’s the direction mass communications has taken and that’s the direction it will follow.

Only a luddite would disagree.

Like all print mediums, the Tribune and to a great extent, the Sun-Times, are struggling to remain relevant, and of course, in business.  Last summer, the Trib launched an expanded print edition that offers home delivery readers more news, features and commentary.

The Tribune says us home delivery readers get an “an additional 40 pages of weekly coverage.” My only complaint is that I just don’t have the time to read all the new stuff; but I try.

I start my weekdays reading a newspaper, the Tribune, while riding a CTA el train. Usually, I’m the only person reading a newspaper.  I end my day working on the Jumble with Susan; she usually unscrambles the words faster than me.

As long as someone prints a newspaper, I’ll continue this practice. What about you? Do you subscribe to and/or read a print newspaper?



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.

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.

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.

The Reinvention of a Media Company

Yesterday, I attended a reception sponsored by the Chicago Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.   The venue was one few Chicagoans have experienced, at least in recent years:  The 28th floor terrace at the Chicago Tribune Tower on North Michigan Avenue.  (From a geographic perspective, it’s a stone’s throw from where Oprah Winfrey held her “street festival” to kick off her 24th season.)

The views from behind the Gothic arches were spectacular; but the public relations practitioners on hand got more than a bird’s eye perspective of the Magnificent Mile, some nice wine and coconut shrimp.  They got to hear from the publisher and editor of the Chicago Tribune how the company has reinvented itself from being a major newspaper that owned broadcast outlets, to a media company poised to be successful in a very changing media environment.

We heard about how advertisers were now offered packages for print, broadcast and online, rather than being offered these as separate media buys.  We learned about, a Trib sponsored “blog for locals.”  We learned about the new breed of journalist, one skilled in online and video communications, rather than just news gathering.

But the most poignant note was how the Tribune, which once billed itself as “The World’s Greatest Newspaper,” recognized that it had to change.  The world is a lot different, and the company had to do things differently to survive and eventually thrive.   The changes had to come from the men and women in the corporate suite to the maintenance crew.

A newspaper is a relatively modern invention.  Online communications is even newer.  Public relations, a modern discipline itself, should take note:  We provide strategic guidance and counsel, but we must recognize that tried and true tactics will not always prove successful in reaching client goals.

Public relations must take a leadership role in shaping the way business communicates.