Everyday PR

Words Matter: Lessons From WWI

Never underestimate the value of history. Never stop learning. And never cease to be amazed at the power of words.

A recent study of World War I (I know, yawn, but stick with me) revealed a surprising number of factoids related to modern day language. Not only are these tidbits interesting, but their origins make me wonder what today’s buzzwords, wartime related or not, may mean decades from now.  For instance:

*     Although earlier wars involved global dimensions, the term “world war” was used to signify the extraordinary reach of this unprecedented conflict.

*    “Over the top”, “no man’s land”, “in the trenches” and other similar phrases originate with the trench warfare aspects of battle.

*    Similarly, trench coat, trench foot (frostbite) and trench fever (typhus) were introduced into current vocabulary.

*    “Shell shock” has nothing to do with shrapnel, but rather, a prolonged exposure to the atrocities of battle. Today, the words used are “post traumatic stress disorder” to define the same condition.

*    Historians say steel helmets represent the first use of technology into warfare, followed by machine guns, tanks and submarines. BTW, the word “tank” was actually a code name as it doesn’t accurately describe the hunk of moving metal, but the code name stuck.

*    The British referred to the anonymity of soldiers as “Tommy Atkins”, the American equivalent of John Doe.

*   And on a timely note, daylight saving time was first put into practice by the German government during WWI to conserve fuel and increase productivity for war munitions.

See, who knew?

This 36-lecture series called “The Great War” is by Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Associate Professor History and German historian.



What to Advise Network Execs

Now that the Weekend of Whitney is over, I wonder what network execs are planning next because I’m very interested in the criteria used to determine what celebs get what level of media coverage from a brief mention, a la Danny Gans, or nonstop live coverage, a la Whitney. As a professional public relations practitioner, I also want to figure out how I would advise a network on this subject.

In recent memory, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston garnered truckloads of coverage. Both had phenomenal careers and were immensely talented; both fell from grace; and both were known drug users. So are those key factors for ad nauseam media coverage? If so, I don’t recall such homage given to Heath Ledger or Amy Winehouse.

So how does cause of death factor in regarding to funeral coverage? Is there a sordidness test to pass?

Maybe it’s a talent thing – is that a leading indicator? Does this mean that when Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Glen Campbell, et al, die, their services will receive uninterrupted coverage?

But wait, all those folks are white, so what about race - is that a criterion? Hmmm…..

But wait again, not all those folks grew up in a Protestant church. (I was kind of surprised to hear the networks allow all the references to God and Jesus Christ during Whitney Weekend). For example, Streisand is Jewish. Will that be a good or bad thing in determining the level of coverage her eventual passing receives? What if the person is Muslim? How will that play into the decision making process?

What about the person’s affect on society? There are countless individuals who have made remarkable contributions to society. Billy Graham, Bill Gates, David Ho, Henry KissingerLech Walesa, and the list goes on.  Will these folks get media coverage equitable to the contributions they made to others?

I’m glad I’m not responsible for making these decisions. However, I would caution executives to think about, if they haven’t already, how they’re going to handle media coverage of future deaths of famous people in all walks of life.

In fact, I now know that my advice to decision makers is to start developing a checklist of criteria for coverage – the kind of list that you’d be proud to have splashed on the front page of all newspapers; the kind of list that you’d be able to truthfully state that it’s a “fair and responsible” set of criteria in the public’s best interest; and the kind of list that you’d be able to defend when the family of the next famous celeb wonders why you’re not scheduling a crew to attend.

Any other advice for network executives?


Public Relations: Its Point and Purpose

These days it seems that the most fundamental purpose of public relations is getting lost among trendy tactics, many of which sorely lack in strategy.  Time to go back to the basics. The fundamental point of public relations is to influence specific decision makers to do what you want them to do.  That could be a decision of purchase, vote, behavior or donation, as well as a host of other intangibles like evoking a particular emotion, mindset or opinion.Not to be confused with the definition of public relations as described in the single shortest blog post from earlier this year, public relations actually has a function that directly or indirectly causes a desired reaction.  And that function is best accomplished through a quantifiable strategy.

Take the young woman recently seen on national news who collected more than 300,000 signatures as a measurable way to tell banks to get rid of their newly added debit card fees. (Come on, you want to punish the very customers who entrust you with their money and keep you in business besides the federal government?  Clearly nobody asked me about it, but I digress.)

Anyway, her campaign demonstrates the essence of public relations. The dual outcomes of enlisting consumers to take an action step that resulted in the powers-that-be to rethink their strategy is a brilliant example of good public relations. Much of public relations is common sense, combined with understanding human behavior.  Hats off to this lady!

Then there’s Netflix, apparently its own worst enemy as nearly a million subscribers quit the service after a series of confusing changes and higher fees were sprung on customers. This is an example of bad public relations. Do not try this at home or without professional public relations counsel.

As much as I now loathe the color pink, much credit is due to the leadership and PR team for the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Nowhere in the history of professional sports would manly, sweaty, hairy men don pink on the field, but they have in recent years to promote breast cancer awareness.  Gatrillionsof dollars have been raised, breast cancer awareness is prevalent, and consumers can’t see pink without thinking ta-tas. A major public relations coups that continues to lead to purchases, donations and emotions.

To recap:  When someone asks you about public relations, here’s what you say: “Public relations has a point and purpose, which are to sway people to do what you want.”  It’s that fundamental.

Any other questions?

Is Pink All About Green?

Well, yes, pink is all about green when it comes to National Breast Cancer Awareness Month this month.  The more money spent on pink related products, the more money is raised to stop breast cancer.  That’s a good thing, right?

It’s not only a good thing, it’s a savvy thing.  The reality is that heart disease remains this country’s number one killer, but it doesn’t get the play, the media attention and the product endorsement that the Susan G. Komen for the Cure gets. Nor do you see pro ball players donning red during American Heart Month in February or purple during National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month in November.  By the way, did you know that Alzheimer’s and other dementias affect more than 20 million Americans each year including 5.4 million patients and 14.9 million unpaid caregivers (yes, I represent the local chapter here.)

There’s no question that Komen’s CEO Nancy Brinker has done a phenomenal job of bringing breast cancer to the forefront of America.  Without question, these efforts have saved lives through consistent messaging, implicit calls to action and near flawless replication of awareness efforts across the country.

But (and here’s where you start hating me), I’m tired of seeing pink all the time. It’s like the Bubba Gump of shrimp - pink drinks, pink jello, pink cookies, pink candy, pink soup, pink cereal, pink milk, and on and on.  The last straw for me was seeing a set of expensive luggage in a high end department store display that was Pepto-Bismol pink.  Seriously?  Can’t you just tie a pink ribbon around the handle like everybody else?

From a public relations perspective, I have three questions:

1)     Has the issue of color clouded the original intent of the message?

2)     Will consumers become overloaded, indifferent or just turned off by too much exposure to pink?

3)     Has the color of pink become so monetized that it has lost its traditional positive associations with blushing brides, newborn girls or Easter eggs?

Again, from a professional viewpoint, I have to wonder what the next level is for Ms. Brinker and her team and how they are going to get there. I’m sure their public relations counsel is on top of all this, but I have to ask anyway.

What’s the Point of Occupy Wall Street?

When discussing a work project, a business mentor used to constantly ask me, “what’s the message?”  The same question applies to Occupy Wall Street, a headline-garnering, fast-spreading movement taking place in cities around the country. Even watching the local news in New York last week didn’t clarify unified messages or goals for me. Every person who responded to the “why are you here” question by reporters gave a different answer.  On the upside, crowds were entertained by impromptu musical renditions of 60s classics like “This Land is Your Land”.

Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about fixing a broken system. Contrary to Gordon Gekko’s 1980s “greed is good” talk in the “Wall Street” film, I think reform is better or at least as good.  But give me a common purpose, a call to action or an emotional response rather than universal skepticism.  Even the Occupy Wall Street website lacks clarity of message and goals although it does accept donations to fund protest operations.

Vagueness of purpose makes an organization’s mission impossible. A lack of consistent messaging exacerbates the situation. And while we’re discussing some basic tools of a public relations campaign, the absence of a media policy or at least talking points further confuses the audiences.

While Occupy Wall Street is spreading to the point of an official groundswell, any measurable action achieved (other than media attention) will be negligible. Effective public relations professionals know that our clients judge us by results. Successful results start with clarity. Success continues with consistency.

You get my point.

Top Red Flags of Bad Prospects

Gini Dietrich, my bestest Chicago PR colleague, recently wrote about the downside of being a busy service provider.  The good news is that people want to do business with you; the bad news is that some prospects think you’re too busy for them.  She compares it to not being asked to the prom because people think you’ve already got a date.  Since prom night was my worst date ever, I’d rather have sat at home alone, but I digress.

Being wanted requires some sales qualification skills because bad prospects are always out there.  I’m the most fortunate public relations practitioner in the world because I work with clients who are professionals, likable, intelligent, meaningful  inspiring.  But I had to date a lot of toads before recognizing bad business prospects. Save yourself a few migraines and take note of the following red flags.

1)  The Know-It-Alls – These are the ”I know more about PR than you do” types.  While they make a living doing something totally opposite of meaningful communications, they insist on defining public relations, branding, marketing and related disciplines for you like you just fell off the turnip truck.  If they know so much, why did they contact me?

2) The Tightwads – If a prospect begins a conversation with ”how much do you charge for …”, take advantage of the universal “time-out” sign, and refer them to much hungrier colleague. 

3) The Traders – These people apparently have no accounts payable; they’d rather trade you for their product or service.  I don’t care how PC it might be these days to drive an electric scooter, I’m not going to do it.

4) The Family Business – Unless you’re in the bloodline, watch out for family businesses. Your work will end up being judged by some family member with no clue, and you’ll always be the scapegoat. It would be easier to expand your company to include your own family members.

5) The Whiners – These people are eternally unsatisfied.  If you got them on the Oprah farewell program tour, they’d whine.  Nothing short of a major shift in world power that would greatly monetize their product or service would make them happy. 

What other red flags should be mentioned?

“Duh” Research Has PR Application

To quote Nuke Laloosh, the dim and trim rookie pitcher played by Tim Robbins in Bull Durham, “winning is like, you know, better than losing.”  Well duh.

Crash had to repeatedly train Nuke on the right pitches before any winning results.

The same reaction applies to “duh” research – you know those kind of studies that confirm the obvious like rain makes things wet.  While such a grasp of reality is hardly remarkable, the human behavior behind the methodology is pretty revealing.  Apparently we need to be hit on the head with repeated trials, studies and lab experiments to even begin to think about affecting change. 

When renowned sleep expert Dr. Charles Czeisler repeatedly concluded after three decades of studies that too little sleep causes doctors to make mistakes, no radical changes were even considered until 2008.  Only then did the Institute of Medicine issue guidelines calling for limiting interns’ and residents’ shifts to 16 consecutive hours – as if that’s a comforting change of policy, but I digress.

The point is that it takes a lot, and I mean A LOT, to affect change and influence behavior in people, the ultimate goal of any professional public relations practitioner.  The operative word here is “behavior”. Consumers must be hit on the head over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over to have the slightest chance of causing them to act in the manner that you want. 

While this says a lot about people, public relations professionals need to be even more attune to this reality and work with their companies and clients to help them differentiate and be relevant in a society overflowing with information, messages and choices.  “Duh” research also confirms that short-term tactics - like a newspaper story or an irregular customer communication - don’t influence human behavior on any significant or consistent level. Plus, they distract from the original organizational focus and mission. 

Starbucks CEO  Howard Schultz, author of Onward, painstakingly describes what happens when and why shortsightedness happens, usually for financial reasons like quick revenue or increase in share price.  The path of recovery is so much more painful than if they had just stayed on point, on plan and on message.  When decision makers invest the necessary time upfront time to developing a timeless message platform that’s in keeping with their mission, an effective PR strategy can be built on that foundation to ensure that the right messages are going to the right audiences at the right time via the right medium. At the same time, financial objectives also are much easier to meet.

Nuke’s right – winning is better than losing.  But we all lose every time we don’t stick to our focus, our mission and our message.


Is PR a Verb, a Noun or a Career?

I never cease to be amazed at how the words “public relations” are used in strange ways.  A recent episode of the British comedy Absolutely Fabulous, (my all-time favorite guilty pleasure) showed PR being referenced as a verb when Eddie tries to explain to her daughter what she does for a living.  “I PR things! People, places, concepts..I PR darling”, she says as if that clears up all confusion.  She can’t explain it because she doesn’t understand it.

Ab Fab's Eddie and Patsy do a lot of celebrating.

Let’s face it – when someone asks a PR person what they do for a living, half of us want to label the profession as a noun and say “I provide PR services” rather than try to elaborate about branding, messaging, planning and being real.  But how real is real?

Case in point: An opposition spokesman to Libya’s Qaddafi described the Colonel’s recent rambling speech as “public relations for the world….We know he’s not being genuine.”  Score one for the spokesman who at least understands the importance of authenticity in one’s image. Or does he? In other words, Qaddafi’s penchant for not telling the truth, breaking promises and manipulating ploys are who and what he is.  Similarly, look at Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinegad.  He’s tyranical, dismissive of the United Nations and repeatedly questions all things Jewish.  But he is who he is, and that’s authentic. 

On the other hand, music icon Dolly Parton is well known for her heart felt sincerity, yet she is totally reliant on her anything-but-real hair, nails, lips, etc.  I guess you could say she’s genuinely fake.  Speaking of hair, Donald Trump loves being himself regardless of if or who it offends.  I guess you could say he truly annoys, but at least it’s real.    

The bigger questions we have to ask ourselves, especially those of us in public relations, include things like:
*  Do we understand our role and what we do?  *  Are we okay with working with clients who don’t understand our industry?  

*  Can we live with representing a cause or a client who may be genuine, but is also a jerk?  

Maybe we should take the lead from Ab Fab’s Eddie, and just use public relations as a verb and say “we PR things”.  Then people would nod their heads like they understood our sincerity.   

What do you think?

QR Codes Are Making Things Easier

QR (Quick Response) codes are quickly becoming more commonplace as yet another communications vehicle among many industries. Not to to be confused with a social media tool, QR codes are being used within the public relations profession on both the agency and the client side.   

According to a recent issue of Marketing Briefs for Printers, the top three reasons to take QR codes seriously are:

  1. They are a natural fit for today’s mobile culture.
  2. Right now, people are willing to try them out to see what they’ll do. Others are watching — and copying.  Usage is growing by peer influence alone.
  3. QR codes are becoming more practical. Advertisers and marketers are using them in smart, helpful ways that take users to places and allow them to use them in ways that actually help them make better decisions and make their lives easier. 

Some examples recently submitted to EveryDayPR regarding the use of QR codes include:

*     From Heather Ripley of CAPBrandMarketing in Sarasota, the agency partnered with The Patterson Foundation (TPF), who joined the Arthritis Foundation Florida Chapter (AFFC) to raise funds.  In addition to matching donations, TPF donated $10 for every person who “liked” AFFC’s facebook fan page, up to $50,000. At the local run/walk event, the agency and the TPF teams wore t-shirts with a QR code printed on the back. Participants could snap a photo of the QR code that would take them directly to the Facebook fan page so they could “like” it and get another $10 donated while at the event. Good thinking for a good cause.

*     From Toni Antonetti of PRChicago – “I’ve been a fan of QR codes since Microsoft pioneered them a few years ago under the name ‘Microsoft Tag.’  I tried adding them to postcards — no use to speak of — since it was a few years ago, I think it was a bit ahead of the curve.”  The point is that she was at least on the curve.

*   From Brenda Jones Barwick, APR, of Oklahoma City’s Jones Public Relations - “We recently put a QR image on the back of our business cards.  We find that most people find it interesting and are curious about it, which provides an opportunity to talk about Jones Public Relations and establishes us as tech-savvy, mobile-savvy and overall, social network savvy.”  A conversation starter?  Yes, indeed.

All of which is to say that it’s not about novelty – it’s about making things easy.

How are QR codes making things easier for you?

What Public Relations Isn’t

Based on my recent post defining what public relations is, let me also tell you what public releations isn’t.

*     It’s not a logo.

*     It’s not a website.

*     It’s not a media story.

*     It’s not spin.

*     It’s not a verb, as in “we need to PR our way out of this.”

*     It’s not a noun, as in “we need some PR.”

*     It’s not advertising.

*     It’s not marketing.

*     It’s not selling.

*     It’s not customer service.

*     It’s not fabricated.

*     It’s not a special event.

*     It’s not schmoozing.

*     It’s not crisis management.

*     It’s not being seen and heard at social/civic events.

*     It’s not social media involvement.

*     It’s not writing.

*     And it’s not about liking to work with people.

What can you add?

Susan Hart

Susan Hart, APR, is an independent public relations consultant with 25+ years of experience. Beginning as a journalist, she represents clients in health care, financial, technology and real estate. Accredited by the Public Relations Society of America, she serves as Co-Chair of the Ethics Committee for her local PRSA Chapter.

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