No matter how hard managers stir, “communications” still isn’t a bucket

A recent column and blog post have created a dust-up over whether journalists should be hired to do public relations. It all started with a column by Jill Geisler at Poynter.org listing the 10 reasons why journalists could help public relations operations. That led to a post by Kathryn Hubbell at the Public Relations Society of America’s blog citing frustration in some parts of the PR profession with journalists invading the PR territory.

The comments at the PRSA blog turned nasty rather quickly, suggesting that Hubbell’s piece was inappropriate, short-sighted and, for some, insulting. I was bothered by the post, too, because it seemed to attack the path I had taken in my career. I was a newspaper journalist — first a reporter, then an editor — before jumping over to the public relations side of the business. I’ve always valued my media background, and so have my employers and clients. Journalists are trained to recognize a good story, write it well and explain it in easy-to-understand terms. Still, there’s more to public relations than that. There’s research, strategy and myriad other components involved in being a good PR counselor.

At first I was going to respond to the PRSA post talking about how off-base Ms. Hubbell was, but then the slew of comments that ensued took care of that for me. And as I watched those comments unfold, my opinion that some PR people are just snooty about their profession and want to defend it from outsiders changed. I came to realize that we’re all a bit like that, whether we specialize in journalism, public relations, marketing, advertising or any other form of communications. We hold our specific training and talents sacred — and rightly so.

The problem now seems to be that economic conditions have led to management teams losing sight of the fact that “communications” is not a bucket into which you can just stir in bits and pieces of professions and watch great products emerge. Journalists and their counterparts in the other various communications fields each have something to bring to the table. Unfortunately, we’ve reached an era where management is looking solely at the bottom line, hoping that by combining public relations, marketing and advertising into one discipline, with half the positions previously considered necessary, they have a winning managerial decision on their hands.

But the reality is all they’ve created is an inefficient and ineffective mess. Here’s a newsflash for those number-crunching CEOs: the people trained in those disciplines get upset when they’re told anyone can do their job, and so they should. Too many CEOs and vice presidents seem to believe that if you’re a journalist, of course you can do public relations. If you can do public relations, of course you can do marketing. And how hard can advertising really be, so why can’t the PR people or marketing staff take care of it? Oh, and internal communications — well, anyone can drop some cute stories into a company newsletter, right?

I’m a former journalist who now does public relations. The leap can be made. There are plenty of people who can be trained to cover more than one discipline. But it takes years of training, experience or both to make that transition and reach a point where you are comfortable saying, “Yeah, I can do more than one job for you.” But even then, it doesn’t mean you want to or that you should have to.

The company managers trying to figure out how to handle media relations, public relations, marketing, advertising and internal communications need to get a grip on reality. They should stop trying to save money by forcing people to work outside their disciplines, and then holding them accountable when they don’t get the biggest bang for the buck.

As I was thinking about this over the past few days while contemplating this blog post, I remembered a great lesson on figuring out the difference between several of the communication arts disciplines. It goes like this:

If the circus is coming to town and you paint a sign saying ‘Circus Coming to the Fairground Saturday’, that’s advertising. If you put the sign on the back of an elephant and walk it into town, that’s promotion. If the elephant walks through the mayor’s flower bed and it makes the nightly news, that’s publicity. And if you get the mayor to laugh about it in the news story, THAT’s public relations.”

Maybe those of us involved in communications should begin communicating more with our managers, starting with delivering a copy of that story.

(Image courtesy of Jake Khrone’s Flickr feed.)

No good deed goes unpunished, but…

As a professional communicator, I’m always intrigued by how many people in the business of communicating can still get tripped up by crossed wires. Sometimes that can lead to the age-old cynical curse that goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.” But sometimes, like yesterday, there’s a learning experience to be had.

The case in point is the Detroit chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and its hosting of the 2010 Michigan PRSA conference, PRevolution, in Novi. Along with the usual sponsorship requests to cover the costs of putting on such a conference, the chapter wanted to do something to help PR students, too. So, they created sponsorships for companies and individuals to help pay the $150 cost for students.

“We want students to attend — it’s a great opportunity, ” PRSA Detroit President Rich Donley told me today after there was a dust-up on Twitter over the way the chapter was handling the student sponsorships.

The chapter asked for a paragraph from students interested in applying for a sponsorship. Other chapters across the state were asked to encourage students to apply.

The official flier stated:

The conference is currently seeking student applicants who would like to attend the conference gratis. To become eligible, student PRSSA members are asked to submit a paragraph explaining why they are interested in attending. A committee of PRSA Detroit members will then choose two students from each participating school.

At Michigan State University, where I’m a professional adviser for the student chapter of PRSA, I know an email was sent out that explained the program this way:

To become eligible, the student has to submit a paragraph explaining why they want to attend the conference. Submitting a name and paragraph does not guarantee sponsorship/attendance, but will greatly help sponsorship efforts by personalizing the appeal.

Unfortunately, not every student across the state received that email. So,several students who applied and sent in their paragraph suddenly found that PRSA Detroit had created a page where visitors could read the paragraphs and choose to sponsor a specific student.

That rubbed some of the students the wrong way, and rightly so. In various messages on the character-limited Twitter, they wrote to me:

When we applied they said two students from each school will be able to go free to represent their university. No one said anything about raising donations. I’m not going to go around begging for people to sponsor me. It just doesn’t seem right to me.

Just wish I knew that my paragraph was going to be online and for donations. That’s all.

Good intentions, but I don’t beg for money. If I just had to go, I would pay my own way. And posting the essays without permission is bad.

When I contacted PRSA Detroit about this situation, they were quick to act. They looked into what was causing the confusion and quickly edited the web page to remove the students’ names and paragraphs. Now, the page is set up to accept donations via PayPal, but you’re contributing to a pool and not to any specific student. (By the way, I urge everyone to visit the page and chip in. Donley said they need $1,350 to cover the cost of all the students who want to attend.)

“This wasn’t set up to be a fundraiser, it’s always been a sponsorship,” Donley said. “We will work hard to make sure two students from each school get to go.”

Donley said he felt terrible about the mix-up and that some of the students felt wronged by what had happened. He said it was definitely a breakdown in communication, which he admitted was interesting considering everyone involved is a communicator. Last night, an email was sent out from Rich to everyone involved explaining what had happened and how PRSA Detroit was trying to make things right.

I decided to write this post to help everyone learn a lesson. PRSA Detroit certainly learned to more carefully describe their program to applicants. Hopefully the students learned a lesson, too. I happened to catch the chatter on Twitter and tried to help. I did so not by continuing the berating of PRSA Detroit in a public forum but by taking the discussion “offline.” I went to private messages with the students to understand their position and then I reached out to PRSA Detroit to find out what they thought might have happened.

By making contact with everyone involved directly I got the whole story. And, more importantly, I got the problem addressed and amends made. Now, perhaps, things can now move forward with only good intentions and no hard feelings.

Donley noted that PRSA Detroit would be reaching out again to folks to try to secure additional sponsorship money, or, you can also go offer some support here.

Oh, and in case you missed it, you can go here to sponsor students.

Why are you still reading? Shouldn’t you be at this page sponsoring a student?  🙂

(Photo courtesy of Macca via Flickr.)

Some tidbits from PRSA ’09

Bausch_and_Lomb_logoI’m in San Diego at the Public Relations Society of America national conference and I attended a session today that I was tweeting from a lot, which tells me there were plenty of good tidbits. I’m going to share the tweeted items and some of my own thoughts with you in this post.

First, however, a tip of the hat to Mike McDougal, vice president of corporate communications and public affairs at Bausch & Lomb. He did a great job packing a lot of information into the session despite being let down by the convention’s lackluster audio/visual capabilities.

So, here are the tidbits and thoughts, in no particular order of importance:

  • “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” That’s a quote attributed to Winston Churchill. If that’s how he felt about things back in his era, imagine what he would think of the world we live in today! The session Mike was speaking at was advertised as “how to deal with the 24-second news cycle.” It was a fitting description.
  • Through video examples of news broadcasts, Mike proved his statement that “we’re living in a world where ‘unconfirmed’ is the new norm.” That should scare journalists and PR professionals alike. But it also should scare the public. We must find a way to get the news media back to where it values facts above opinion and accuracy over expediency.
  • As a matter of being prepared for trouble, Mike suggested that companies should consider using a truth squad with the media to defend themselves against stories that weren’t fact-checked, but also to poke holes in your competitor’s statements. I like the idea; I’m just not sure many reporters won’t just give you the brush-off because you are the competitor. Mike claims it worked when he was at Kodak and they took on some claims Hewlett-Packard was making, so I’ll defer to him on this one.
  • Mike also offered a bit of commentary during his session and one item in particular caught my attention. He said, “More and more, the media isn’t reporting news, it’s making it.” Maybe that stuck out to me more than other comments because we had just come from the convention’s opening general session where we heard from Arianna Huffington. She noted that in order for a story to be picked up by the media anymore, it has to have “drama.” Are we letting the media focus too much on the dramatic? Why can’t solid information still be considered newsworthy? Why the drama, drama, drama? I was watching the news this morning in my hotel room and caught a piece on CNN where they were conducting interviews about an interview FOX News did recently with Rush Limbaugh. So, essentially, CNN was doing an interview about another network doing an interview. What was the point? From what I could tell, it was to show the world that CNN is more newsworthy than FOX – but if that’s how they are going to try to prove it, then they’ve already failed.
  • As I mentioned earlier, part of Mike’s session was talking about the “24-second news cycle.” To deal with that, Mike suggested having some evergreen news ready to push out online as a way to either push your unflattering news out of the way or to push your competition’s good news aside and get your news into the cycle as well. It’s not a bad strategy to consider, but I’m wondering if it’s really getting you in and out of a news cycle or just impacting organic search. Even affecting searches has merit, but I think that’s different from news distribution.
  • At Bausch & Lomb, they “deputize employees” to have help monitoring the news and reviewing what it means to the company and its customers. That’s an awesome idea. To keep up with today’s crazy glut of nonstop information, it would be incredibly helpful for communications departments to have the eyes and ears of every employee working with them.
  • Finally, a note about something I’ve been saying for some time now and it’s good to hear others say it, too. Mike noted that despite all the technology and all the changes, “the basics still apply.” That’s a great point and I wish more people lusting after social media would remember it. I don’t care what kind of slick new delivery system we have for sharing news – the bottom line is that public relations, media relations, government relations, employee relations, etc. all rely on one main ingredient: relationships. Having great relationships that you can tap into and that others can tap into your expertise through are invaluable when it comes to communicating effectively and efficiently.

If you want to follow along with what I and the thousands of other people at this conference are talking about, get on Twitter and follow the hashtag #prsa09.