Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Looking Towards the Future: Goals in PR

The other day I read this packet written by Tom Gable, who is one of the most prominent figures in the PR realm (CEO of the Gable Group and Chairman of Public Relations Society of America), that was distributed at a national public relations workshop put on by the PRSA and attended by thousands of PR professionals. The packet was entitled “Five Major PR Issues for the Next Decade,” and outlined just that.

Surprisingly, the problems did not revolve around the horrible economy and issues such as consolidation, mergers, globalization, etc. The problems focused on the core values facing PR professionals in today’s market, which I found to be interesting after writing about crisis management and story spinning in the past few weeks.

The best thing is that the document was written in 2002, and I thought that now, it being 2008 and more than halfway through the decade he was writing about, it would be fun to look at the problems and make sort of a very informal and unknowledgeable progress report, if you will.

PROBLEM 1: COMMUNICATION. Communication with the media is at an all time low with local news holes shrinking, and publications slowly disappearing as many turn to the web for their information. As a result, PR professionals need to change and reinvent the way that we package and pitch our ideas – we are now catering to a different style of publication and towards crowds that think differently. Communication is quite obviously the key to being in the world of public relations, and the way we communicate with each other, our clients, our media outlets, and the public must be constantly re-examined and re-defined.
GRADE: B+. Many companies have moved towards hiring internet or web technology experts to have on staff and help to develop plans and pitches for online media. Website such as Brandweek and PR Newswire help us all to get our press releases out into the public and share opinions on how to better our internet communication. I personally feel that PR agencies and consultants better understand the importance of the internet and the necessity to cultivate plans specifically for online media than six years ago in 2002.

PROBLEM 2: COMPETITION WITH OTHER CONSULTANTS. Gable describes how lawyers, accountants, and management consultants are out for PR business. Many of these professionals demean and trivialize public relations as a field, saying that we are only good at media relations and event planning. However, we are much more than that: we are positioning, brand building, crisis management planning, long term marketing, and managing reputations. We will not let them take our business and ignore our growing importance that transcends over so many markets.
GRADE: C. I think that this is still a major challenge for people in the public relations field. PR as a field does not get the credit it deserves for all of the strategizing and building of brands that it does, nor the extensive crisis management work involved. Even in just doing internships, I have found people treating me like I am interested in working in a “fluff” industry when in reality we do very concrete things critical to every client’s reputation. I think that continuing in this decade, PR professionals must become more business saavy and focusing on bringing attention to their firms about the things we do for our clients that aren’t just media relations or planning a party.

PROBLEM 3: CREDIBILITY. This is a huge one, and one I have discussed previously in my blog. Gable states: “Are we the profession of spin, or the profession of strategic communications and reputations management?” Public relations professionals are put in ethical dilemmas constantly, and as a result must heavily focus on their standards of business. We need to make sure that we are the forefront of truth and integrity so that we can continue to gain credibility not only as PR individuals or firms/agencies, but more importantly to gain credibility as an industry (relating back to problem #2). Right now PR still competes with those I mentioned above plus the advertising industry to have the responsibility to launch brands and build images – we need our credibility to be steadfast to continue to run this race.
GRADE: A-. I believe that the PR industry is doing a lot to improve their credibility and standards. In the past five years there has been an increase in situations where the philosophy is to tell the truth, get it out there, and then deal with the consequences. One of the reasons for this is our improvement and development of crisis management as a serious and legitimate function of a public relations firm or agency. Maybe an A- is just wishful thinking, but I absolutely think the industry is moving in the correct direction here.

PROBLEM 4: DEFINING PR. Gable here explores the questions of how do agencies demonstrate their relevance to potential clients? How do we explain our importance and legitimacy? Most importantly, how do we measure the impact of our work to report it? PR professionals are working hard to create a true definition for public relations for potential clients, but it is difficult when we market values not products.
GRADE: B. From my amateur point of view, I think that businesses across the nation are recognizing their increasing need for help from public relations. Multiple industries from healthcare to tourism to technology now count on the help of public relations to launch new products or produce a positive image in the public. I think that public relations is becoming much more legitimized in the business area and we are moving in the right direction.

PROBLEM 5: STAFFING. Many workers in the public relations field feel that not enough is done in recruiting for PR, and that not enough action is taken to promote the positive nature of the business and make it attractive to college students and young adults. There is always the fear that the industry can’t recruit the types of people it needs to continue on the upward slope.
GRADE: N/A. I can’t really answer this one because I have no idea what it is like to staff a company, but I will say that they can hire me in a year, so don’t worry :)

Overall, this was a really fun and interesting way to take a look at some of the pressures and issues facing public relations as a field. If you would like to read the document by Gable, click here.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Matt Leinart: You Humiliate Me.

Matt Leinart learned a very good lesson about bad PR last week when several scandalous pictures surfaced on the internet of him partying at his Phoenix residence with several Arizona State University females (who were NOT of drinking age). One picture even displayed Leinart holding a beer bong for one of the underage girls as she greedily (cough, trashily) slurped up alcohol on her knees. Others showed Leinart surrounded by the giddy, intoxicated girls in his hot tub.

Appropriate Matt. Really fucking appropriate.

You idiot.

After the pictures were initially released on a college gossip site,, the media caught wind and the pictures wound up in the hands of media giants and Obviously, word spread to even larger media outlets such as Fox Sports and, and Leinart was instantly roasted by journalists, television commentators, bloggers, and fans.

Leinart, who has had a generally well-liked and well-mannered relationship with the public, really destroyed his good-boy image with this incident. Journalists and other media sources, in conflict with the opinion of the public (round of applause for the USC PR team for keeping his true image at bay), have often reported Leinart difficult to work with and, well, an asshole. Now the public have a reason to agree.

A very select few sports commentators, namely ESPN Pardon the Interruption’s Michael Wilbon, have taken the opposing point of view, declaring Leinart’s actions the actions of a “normal college boy,” or the actions of the “all American quarterback enjoying his benefits.”

Um, pardon THIS interruption. NO!

Leinart, you are NOT in college anymore. These “frat boy” antics are TOTALLY repulsive and completely irresponsible. I don’t feel bad for you crying that you can’t just live a normal life and have underage chicks drinking in your hot tub! News flash: you don’t have a normal life! Part of being an athlete, and in turn an entertainment celebrity, is understanding that while you reap incredible benefits, you also make several sacrifices. When you play on a team, you represent that organization. When you signed your contract, you signed a document bonding you to other members of that team and that organization, and accepted the fact that now when you are in the public eye, it is your responsibility to make your behavior an accurate reflection of that organization.

GROW UP LEINART. Not only did you just totally destroy your credibility as a professional athlete (because you know, everyone wants to trade and pay money for the frat boy gone wrong from Southern California), you alienated your fan base (have fun with your endorsement deals, maybe Coors Light has a spot available), pissed off your coach, and made the Arizona Cardinals look completely stupid and incapable of controlling the behavior of their players. And then had the nerve to cry about it. Do you know how many little boys wear your jersey around?? Do you think they should have to look at you feeding a beer bong to a chick?? Should the sweet old 85 year old USC alumni who plan their year around USC football games have to have their pride in their school destroyed by your childish antics? You should be embarrassed of yourself.

Outside of ranting about Leinart’s incapability to join the rest of the adult world, there is something good to point out in this situation. Building off of my last post when I explored the concept and ethical ties of crisis management, this is the perfect example of a crisis management situation handled flawlessly.
Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt (clearly following the orders of the public relations team) released a statement shortly after the pictures surfaced that said he was “disappointed” in the quarterback, and “reiterated to him [Leinart] the type of behavior we expect at all times from our players.” Whisenhunt continued on to say: “He understands those expectations as well as the level of scrutiny that he’s under because of who he is. It’s being handled internally.” You can read other comments by Coach Whisenhunt here.

This statement was PERFECTION. It completely embodies spinning the story to make the player apologetic and in a nearly positive light, while not telling any lies. Not only does the statement begin with the fact that the organization is upset with his behavior, which protects the image of the Cardinals, but it goes on to show that Leinart has been reprimanded and any other repercussions will be handled behind closed doors. It also shows Leinart to be apologetic, sincere, and understanding of the situation (whether he actually is or not). It gives the media just enough information to dispel rumors, leave little room for questions, and show strength and unity in the organization, while not airing out the Cardinals’ or Leinhart’s dirty laundry in a way that could damage the image of either.

A job well done, a crisis well managed – the press got over it after about a week and are now onto the next thing. Had there been no press release or one that was too vague, the media would still be eating this up with a spoon.

Now maybe Matt will think twice about raging girls that still use fake ID’s. If not, there’s always us PR people to clean up his messes.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Spinning Stories in PR: Unethical or Necessary??

“Spin” is a term used in public relations to describe purposely portraying events or actions heavily in your or your client’s favor. For example, if the Lakers lost a big game, their PR director might pitch a few pieces on what this has done for their motivation or camaraderie, in effect “spinning” the bad events favorably in the media for the organization.

A “spin doctor” is a term used, mostly in the UK, to describe a professional who has essentially become an expert or a specialist in the art of spinning situations. This is generally not a favorable term; it is generally thought of to be the same thing as calling a journalist a “hack.”

Spinning events or stories is often seen as unethical. Many feel that it is the job of PR professionals to report the whole truth to the public. I would argue that it is not the job of PR professionals, but the job of the journalists and the media to report such truth. It would be completely out of the question to ask public relations professionals to not spin stories in favor of their clients, firms, teams, or political candidates. We are supposed to be biased! We would be doing our clients a disservice if we were not biased towards them! Moreover, our job description is not to accurately provide information to the public – it is our first responsibility to protect our clients.

A huge part of a PR professional’s job is something called “crisis management.” This means that if something unfavorable happens to your client, it is your job to figure out how to fix it. This could be applied to a range of things: on a broad scale, if Dell is getting absolutely killed by HP and their sales are slipping, they would hire a crisis management team to pitch a new PR campaign to improve their brand in the public eye and bring back up their revenue and reputation. On a smaller scale, in the jobs of publicists or in house PR teams, everyday can be a crisis management situation; maybe your star player says a racist comment in the media, or your politician inadvertently insults the culture they are currently visiting. It is now essentially your job to clean up the mess.

How do you begin? Well, one way, and usually the first way, to start is to brainstorm ways to spin the event so that it either puts your client in a positive light, an ignorant/made a mistake light, or at the very least an “even ground” light. This obviously often involves bending the truth.

This is a bold statement, but the in the field of public relations, bending the truth is a professional necessity. Every single day in PR you are faced with an ethical dilemma about how much truth to tell the public. And honestly, some days the answer to that question is not very much truth. And I don’t believe that is wrong. It is our job to keep our client’s positive image in the public – we can’t just sit by and watch that go down the drain without doing damage control – which sometimes means telling lies or lying by omission to cover up what happened.

I’m not advocating completely lying to the media in every bad situation – this can be just as damaging. The media is smart – lots of times, if you make up a lie, they are going to be able to tell, or at least tell that something deeper is going on. Also, in a world of connections and leaks, often the media already knows the truth; and if you are caught lying, get ready for a whole additional crisis management board brainstorming session, because you are about to get skewered. If you chose to lie to the media following a situation or event, you put not only your professional credibility at risk, but also the credibility of your firm, client or organization.
In fact, a recent public relations issue has been brought to my attention by fellow bloggers Privileged Indifference, Politiosauras Rex, and Of Ignorance in their discussion about the new cover of Vogue featuring African-American NBA superstar LeBron James and Brazilian supermodel Giselle. While some point to Vogue as being criticized for depicting their cover as "racist," others wonder if Vogue planted the controversy themselves, with the "no press is bad press" mentality. This is a perfect crisis management situation - the Vogue PR team must now decide how they want to spin the story to the public. They have already milked plenty of attention, negative and positive, which did allow them to accomplish their goal: selling magazines. However, now they are faced with the task of reestablishing their bond with their readers and fixing those who they may have alienated. It will be interesting to see what they come up with!

I personally believe that the key to maintaining your ethics while balancing your job of protecting and promoting your client lies both within experience in the field and finding a moral balance inside yourself. Experience is nature’s best teacher. If you don’t spin something one time and it toasts your client’s reputation, you will probably work harder next time to find alternatives. If you tell a blatant lie to the media and get called out, you’ll probably answer “no comment” next time.

It is always OK to answer “no comment” to the media, or, even better, use phrases such as “we are still investigating this matter internally,” or “we are discussing/solving this matter internally.” You don’t owe the media answers, but at the same time, you better give them some or they will make them up and roast you in the papers no matter what. Do you have a little bit more respect now as to what we go through day to day?

All in all, before going into public relations, you have to know your personal ethical limits, and be ready to have those limits pushed, tested, strengthened, and molded. You have to go into that industry understanding that each day you will be tested with dilemmas: the media v. your bosses, the organization v. the fans, etc. PR people work a lot harder to provide the media with ethically correct information that also benefits their clients than they get credit for.

Next time you read a news/entertainment/sports story, I would encourage you to read about the same event from a different media outlet – it is especially beneficial to try to find a media source v. the statement from the PR team. Try to pick out the differences between the stories and see how the PR teams attempt to put positive spins on sticky situations – you might be surprised as to what you find!