“I love it when a plan comes together.” – John “Hannibal” Smith (George Peppard), The A-Team
“I love it more when it falls apart.” – Yours Truly.
The poor Washington NFL Team. Yesterday, someone at the Washington NFL team’s public relations office apparently decided that rallying the team’s fans against Senator Harry Reid and the U.S. Senate was a good idea. For those of you who aren’t aware, many people consider the Washington NFL team’s nickname to be a tad… racially insensitive.
(With a huge tip of the hat to Geoff Livingston’s kick ass post from about a month ago looking at the same topic, it was a huge inspiration for me to finally finish and hit publish on this post. I don’t want to take anything away from Geoff, you should read his post first then come back. I’ll wait.)
A few years back, award-winning photographer/videographer/creative genius Chase Jarvis created a project called “The Best Camera is the One You Have With You.” It wasn’t just a project, it became a movement. In addition to the creative photography Jarvis showcased, it spawned a book and an iPhone app encouraging people to discover their own love of photography, and not be limited by the gear they did (or did not) have.
The “Perception Hole” or “Perception Gap” occurs when your organization begins developing a negative reputation about an issue and refusing to take the time to respond to the incoming attacks. This is a situation that many organizations, large and small, will have to deal with in the future if they haven’t already. Especially in an online world where anyone with a Chromebook and a Smartphone can logically argue that they are a part of “The Media.”
Community relations needs to be a large part of any overall communication campaign, whether you’re working in politics, corporate PR, nonprofit or association communications.
If you’re going to be serious about community relations, you have to be involved in your community (online or offline) long before you actually need them. You’re working to build up community capital that you can cash in later when you need your community to back your proposal. If you’re a local civic leader, you can even beat back the threat of being fired with enough community support.
But like anything worth doing it takes time and hard work.
Community relations isn’t like a spigot – you can’t just turn it on and have goodwill come flooding out. It takes time – venturing out to meet with members of your community, and not just your immediate community, but across a geographical and demographic layer beyond your comfort zone. You have to go to their local summer BBQ’s, shaking hands and kissing babies, much like the best politicians.
You have to be involved in local governmental affairs. You can’t imagine the importance of good relations with local officials when you are trying to work on your university’s master plan, or building support for a Bond Campaign.
If you work at a school, college or university, your job is supposed to be easier. You should have departments dedicated to building bridges to communities. Parent Associations. Alumni Departments. PTAs for K-12. School Spirit Organizations. They are out there. You have to give them reasons to support you. Involving yourself with them matters.
Political season is well upon us in the United States (for my International readers, both of you, you might find this interesting as well) and one of the tried-and-true keys to developing a message in a political/issues campaign quickly is to use a message matrix.
A message matrix lets you set up a grid and take a look at your situation and helps you answer the following questions:
1. What can your opponents/activists/competition say about your organization/product/etc?
2. What can your opponents/activists/competition say about themselves?
3. What can your organization say about itself/product/etc.?
4. What can your organization say about your opponents/activists/competition?
When you take the time to sit down and look at your matrix, this is the time you need to take a critical look at your organization and your competition. Be honest with your organization’s strengths and weakness, and develop your potential messages accordingly. As a part of the message box, you might want to conduct a SWOT and/or PESTLE analysis, depending on your time.
If you look at your competition or activist groups in advance, a message matrix can help you organize your thoughts as you prepare questions, responses and talking points before you need them. It’s always good to show the executive leadership you’re prepared in advance for any media problems they might run into. It can also help you determine those messages, talking points, and possible responses on the fly if you need to.
This is just an overview of the message box, we’ll get into closer detail soon enough. But keep in mind, these messages will probably need to be vetted by your legal department, executive leadership, etc.
(We’re taking a break from our usual lovable business advice column to bring you the following message)
Public Relations has a PR problem.
I know, a lot of people have heard that very lead over the years. But we really have a problem, and it’s getting worse, not better. In the past few years we’ve seen things from prominent PR firms astroturfing online campaigns to loosely-termed “PR Reality TV” shows provide an unrealistic view of public relations, an ABC show that portrays us all with a fine veneer of “we’ll do anything to save our clients” BS, and some of our worst representatives getting the most attention from the press. (Lizzie Grubman ring any bells?)
And what do we in PR do about it?
I remember when I finally received my degree in PR and advertising. Not more than thirty minutes after commencement I was talking with my dad, who congratulated me on finally getting the degree and then dropped a verbal pipe bomb of his own on me.
“Congratulations. You’re now a professional bullshit artist.”
Ladies and gentlemen, we have to step up and take back what it is public relations professionals do for a living. We have allowed this to happen. Years of not pointing out the weak actions of public relations professionals have allowed the media, and those activists who love to attack us as corporate liars, to frame us as unethical, lying bastards.
But these same people never want to be held up to the same standard of professionalism. The irony in this is that the same members of the media and activists (right or left, anti-corporate or not) who decry public relations as craven “spin masters” and liars who are busy “telling people what to think” use many of the same tactics created by public relations practitioners throughout the years on their own supporters. If we’re going to hold PR people up to a predisposed view, then these detractors need to be held to the same standard.
(It’s called the “Agenda Setting Theory” and we’ll get into a soon enough. But let me say with the increase in digital media, PR people have many new means to hold the media up to our own standards.)
It is because of public relations’ poor image that those professionals whose work is exemplary, people who should be held up as examples of ethical practitioners with a strong work ethic are immediately under suspicion of being “just another flack.” It’s true that there are poor PR professionals, those who haven’t been trained in PR (yes, a successful PR pro is trained beyond just the regular view of “I’m a writer” or “I’m a people person”), just like there are unethical journalists, or bad teachers, or misleading activist groups.
“If we’re not running offense, we’re running defense. And if we’re not playing defense… there’s some clever sports analogy that explains what happens then.”
Allison Janney as “C.J. Cregg”
“The West Wing”
Our default view as communications professionals appears to be one of “we’re writers. We communicate. We’re ‘people’ people.” What we don’t promote enough, or study enough, is the importance of strategy in communications and in business. (which involves quite a bit of research (which you’ll learn when you start to study for your APR or a business degree)
We are rarely brought into the upper echelon decision making, because we’re not only seen as, but want to promote ourselves as, just “writers.” According to a 1999 white paper by crisis management expert Jim Lukaszewski, a management consultant explained to public relations professionals why they would rarely be able to address the concerns of the C-Suite. And it was a shock to many of the PR professionals in the audience. For all of our talk about the importance of communicating and writing in public relations, few professionals are able to show the C-Suite the impact that we have on those numbers that are important to them. Finances, sales, increase in profits.
(And don’t give me the “advertising equivalent” argument – that’s the biggest load of BS that public relations has ever come up with)
I give PRSA some credit for trying to improve the professionalism of practitioners around the country, with the APR program and now the organization’s new MBA initiative, tying public relations closer to business schools (where it needs to be). This is only the start of the necessary push to improve public relations’ image. It took us a long time to dig into this hole, it’s going to take us a long time to get out of it.
Why should PR professionals stick up for what we do? I’ll let Ron Silver’s character from “The West Wing” respond for me. (please ignore the politics if it’s not your thing, but the underlying sentiment is solid.)
Many, many moons ago, when I was svelter around the waist and with less gray in my beard, I wanted to be an EMT. (emergency medical technician… you know, a dude in an ambulance) My interest developed after taking a first responder class in college, and I wanted to carry on my studies, possibly even working my way through school as an EMT.
(Thankfully, I passed the class but didn’t go on with becoming an EMT. It was fascinating and fun, but not for me.)
One of the first, and most important lessons I learned as an EMT were that the two most important words to an EMT were “It Depends.”
As my instructors drilled into my brain repeatedly throughout class, it was difficult understanding with certainty what was happening to a patient, because symptoms for a problem (i.e. a stroke) could manifest one way in one person, and a slightly different way in another person. Just enough to leave you wondering for sure what the problem was.
(There you go, you’ve just spared yourself 6 months of EMT classwork. You’re welcome. 😉 )
So what does this have to do with business, communications and social media?
I’m glad you asked.
Businesses, like people, are multifaceted. Large or small, Fortune 100 or Mom-and-Pop shops, they are all different entities mostly looking for the same goal – profit. Some consultants want to tell you that all businesses should act like the small, family-owned business, listening attentively to each customer. While that works for the small business, it’s harder to change the culture ingrained into larger companies into acting like a small business.
That doesn’t mean that larger businesses shouldn’t engage in social media. Hell, many large companies have greatsocialprograms. It does mean that each company has a different way to achieve social media nirvana, locating what works for them. It means that cookie cutter social media programs won’t necessarily work. You don’t just add water, mix and cook at 400 degrees for a successful program or strategy.
Each company, large or small, single people (athletes and celebrities?) or Japanese Zaibatsuconglomerates, needs to sit down and assess their communications and interaction goals, work on a pre-program audit – looking at their needs, the audiences they want to reach, how best to interact with those audiences. Developing lists of Twitter handles to engage with that make sense (why would a college need to interact with a 30-something professional, non-alumni with no kids? Is there a reason? There might be. What would it be? NOTE: I work at a university, and this is just an example that popped in my head and is not indicative of anything in that university’s strategy)
In short, you need to do your research. Do your homework! Conduct your communications, social media and other audits, ask questions. Make sure any social media company you work with knows how to do this, ask for definable and measurable goals.
Will the same social media strategy that works so well for Dell work for you? Remember…