Why is it so Hard to Define Public Relations?

By Public Relations

PR people themselves have a tough time defining their own industry for ages. There are blurry boundaries between PR, marketing, advertising, and other disciplines. No one knew where to fit social media when it exploded on the scene fifteen or more years ago, and now it fits under the PR umbrella in some ways, as well.

It’s not that complicated, if you think of PR as the deliberate management of shared information about a person, brand, corporate or nonprofit entity and the public. 

Tell your story (correctly, in a way that influences action) by hiring a PR firm, consultant, or employee. HOW it is done, is where all those other disciplines (media relations, social media, grassroots outreach, networking, etc.) come into play.

Stop it with the Spin Already

“Spin” is a word that makes ethical PR practitioners cringe. Spin is propaganda. It is the practice of pushing a biased interpretation to your audience, to influence outcomes. This is quite common in politics. If a prospective client were to ask us for this kind of service, we’d turn them down. It’s not what we do.

We work with people who have stories to tell about their business, what they offer, who does the work, and what audience they serve. We’re honored to help our clients tell these stories, to connect with the right people, to engage and build relationships, and to grow in their success. That’s good PR, and that’s what we do.

How Bad PR Tactics Can Damage the Industry

By Communications, Crisis Communications, Public Relations

I’m concerned. The whole situation with the ouster of UVa President Teresa Sullivan by, among others, Board of Visitors Rector Helen Dragas has turned into one of the biggest PR headaches I’ve ever seen a university battle. And then . . . news that Dragas has hired PR firm Hill + Knowlton to represent her and “burnish” her image was released.

As a PR professional, is this a job my firm would take? Hell, no. We’re firmly in the camp of taking only clients who agree to be transparent; who have a prayer of repairing damage done; who  agree to and act on recommended counsel.

That being said, witnessing how Hill + Knowlton is handling the work concerns me further. Evidence of their counsel, thus far includes:

  1.   A letter to the editor published by Dragas’s sister; not an entirely credible source in mending the Rector’s reputation.
  2. Some suspected blog lurking and commenting from unidentified sources offering support for Dragas, sometimes out of context.
  3. A terribly written statement (that was, later, translated into plain English by Waldo Jaquith, underscoring the lack of clarity and, yes, SPIN, the firm is attempting).

I’m puzzled over how a firm could allow their client to walk, unescorted from the Rotunda to her car at 3:00am, facing media and protesters and enabling this:

“As reporters urged Dragas for comment, she replied, “Don’t believe everything you read in the papers.” — as reported in The Hook

A responsible firm with a client in this kind of crisis should be glued to her side for the duration of the engagement. I can’t imagine letting a loose cannon like that out of my sight for a minute.

Come on, Hill + Knowlton; either have the guts to fire an indefensible client or bring your A game and get her to do the right thing. You’re giving the public relations industry a bad name.

Good Community is a Timeless Social Media Value

By Communications, Corporate Strategy, Marketing, Social Media, Uncategorized

We were at a client meeting last week presenting social media strategy, and Marijean was kind enough to mention my past history as founder of a company called Rowdy.com. Rowdy was known as a “social network” and was focused on NASCAR racing. We built a platform to blog, share photos, video, comments, and observations on racing. Facebook wasn’t out yet, so we had to build it ourselves.

We produced award-winning podcasts, video, and content on our own to get the conversation started, but our primary goal was to create a place where real fans could get to know each other and get closer to their favorite sport and those involved in it. Rowdy grew very quickly primarily because we gave the fans something they could not get on their own–a singular voice that was about the real sport, not corporate spin. Our tagline was “Rowdy: Tell It Like It Is” and that’s exactly what we did. It was truly cutting edge and and was one the best examples of online community available, regardless of the topic.

One of the participants at our meeting remembered the site and was truly complimentary. I think it enhanced our reputation and credibility just a little and I was flattered to have had a positive impact on a race fan through that effort.

Cool, you say. So what? That stuff is old hat now! The takeaway is that even though that site was shut down earlier this year (after a two-year stint as a property of The Sporting News), folks still remember the quality of the content and the friendships they had there. Many fans are still offline friends–one couple who met there are actually getting married! Fans remember fondly meeting IRL at the races after friending one another at Rowdy. It was a true bonding experience because it was real people, useful and engaging content and a friendly, open forum for sharing and celebrating a passion.

So…are you creating that environment for your customers? Are you providing an open, engaging resource full of good content, friendly people, and social connective tissue? Are you using the tools currently available to maximize connection and interaction? If not, why not? Quit acting like this doesn’t matter. It does.

Ethics and PR: When your client’s values are not your own

By Uncategorized

The question of ethics and PR was raised on Twitter, in response to this article about Alex Bogusky leaving the advertising business. My friend John asked:


It is a tough call. It almost always means walking away from money. Sometimes it means quitting or being fired from a job.

Unfortunately, when you work in public relations, these issues do arise; it comes with the territory, particularly if you are in the business of reputation management and practice crisis communication and issues management, as we do at my employer, Standing Partnership. However, there is a difference between representing the client with a bad reputation, rising to the challenge of ferreting out and sharing the stories of the good they do or how, when things go horribly awry, what they’re doing to make it right.

I have faced the mismatched values situation more than once. I have left jobs (not immediately, but can point to events that occurred that marked the day I started to look for a new job). I have also recommended clients be fired or made the decision to let a client go based on a lack of values alignment. These issues can present themselves in a variety of ways.

  • Lack of openness. I worked with a client once that would NOT own up to activities we knew were happening. There were lies of omission and then, when directly questioned, flat out lies. That was a situation where I had to recommend that we fire the client and the firm agreed (and were glad we did once certain facts came to light).
  • Lack of financial respect. This is one ethical area that people don’t always discuss but I have a real issue with clients who don’t respect us or our work enough to pay on time. Chronic delayed payers disrespect our team by making it difficult for us to manage our finances. Also, on the corporate side, I was the contact for a number of vendors who weren’t getting paid on time, or at all. It was not just awkward, it was awful, and led to my lack of respect for the way the business was being run.
  • Breaking the law. In the early days of e-mail marketing, blasting an e-mail list with content was pretty commonplace. When the CAN-SPAM act was passed, marketers were very careful about opt-in regulations. Unfortunately, I had a boss who just didn’t respect that law and when I objected to blasting a borrowed list, was told to “just do it.” It took awhile to find something new, but I started looking right away.
  • Family comes first. I wrote about a situation I had that caused me for a few moments to skew my own value system, racing to work when I should have been caring for a sick child. When it was evident that my company’s values when it came to my role as a parent were out of whack, I knew it was time to move on to another work environment. (P.S. I was interviewed by Parents magazine on this topic for an article that will appear in the September issue.)
  • Moral, religious or personal objection. Sometimes, what a client does to earn revenue just rubs you the wrong way. Sometimes it’s against your personal moral code or (rarely, I suspect) your religion. I’m lucky that I work for a firm where if we have a client I’d rather not represent (I’m not a huge gambling fan, so it’s possible if we had casino work that I would opt out, for example) then that is A-OK with the firm. In fact, they’d rather have the client’s team be comprised of members who can really get behind what it is they’re selling. This may not be true at every firm; and if most of the firm’s work becomes work you object to, it’s time to move on.

Have your ethics and values been called into action on the job? How have you handled it?