Thursday, June 27, 2013

Paula Deen Situation Offers Few PR Lessons

I’m not going to rehash the whole Paula Deen saga other than to say if you’re not familiar with it, here’s an extremely superficial summary:

Paula Deen is the countrified and hugely popular Food Network star.  She’s built a mini-media empire out of her folksy, southern-style recipes and rather likable persona.  That all came crashing down over the past couple of weeks because she admitted to historically making racial slurs as part of the legal discovery process into allegations of creating a hostile workplace at one of her businesses.

Then came the bigger story, which was her disastrously failed attempts at damage control.  She posted a few YouTube videos where she apologized and came across as emotionally broken.  Her sponsors started to leave her, the latest one being Walmart.  The media has loved this story, and even made a story out of Deen not appearing for a pre-scheduled Today show interview.  The media then made a second story out of the re-scheduled interview.

Through it all, there has been arm-chair quarterbacking of how she’s handling this.

The fact is, not well. 

It’s difficult to determine what she did, what she said and what are simply allegations.  To be sure, what she already admitted is very damaging and does constitute use of the term “communications crisis.”

But she and her team have not handled it like a communications crisis. They have handled it like a middle school lunchroom drama.

Responsible crisis management in this case would require much more prudence and self-control on Deen’s part.  Let the legal process follow its course.  Issue statements.  To a certain degree, let people tweet or post on social media without feeling the need to respond to every rumor or allegation. 

Maintain self-control and accountability in your media interviews, but pick your spots. Don’t flood YouTube with what you think are sincere, if unpolished videos.  Your fans and the public are used to seeing a much more together TV personality.  YouTube is no exception.

Be more measured.  And when you’ve had time to breathe and regroup, then choose interviewers and interview settings where you can at least tell your side of the story, warts and all but without the emotionally charged, circus-like distractions.

Yes, Deen would still lose sponsors and this would still be a story.  But as it has turned out, her reaction to the story is now the bigger story, and that’s not good.  It demonstrates more of what not to do when faced with a communications crisis.  

Thursday, June 13, 2013

America's Worst Charities

One of the more longstanding mantras of PR is to “do well by doing good.”  This often means factoring a social benefit into the work we do for businesses, industry organizations and others.

Cause marketing is a whole area of communications centered on building a marketing campaign around a worthy cause.  The hope is that the marketing campaign is built on a sincere interest in the cause, that its efforts to raise awareness and donations might in fact help achieve some progress for the cause, and the ratio between the inherent self-serving nature of a marketing campaign doesn’t tilt too far away from actually providing support to the cause.

A good example of a cause marketing campaign is when a soda company creates a new pink can to raise awareness of breast cancer and promises to donate a portion of sales to certain reputable breast cancer charities. 

A bad example would be if the same company created the pink can and did nothing else, assuming that simply by featuring the color pink on the can it is raising awareness of breast cancer and that is enough.  While it may help raise awareness, a situation like that does more to sell soda than anything else, since consumers tend to be conditioned nowadays to presume pink packaging is tied to financial support of certain breast cancer charities.

Unfortunately, many good causes are exploited for financial gain, and the losers are those who spend or donate their own money thinking it will go to the cause at hand.  The other ones affected are those who could easily be exploited to raise donations or sell product – in the example above that would be breast cancer survivors.

Just recently, the Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting published a study that covered a comprehensive review of 6,000 charities and identified some of best and worst of the bunch.

More to the point, the criteria for what the study presumed is a well-run charity is one that maintains its own staff to raise funds, and most importantly, contributes the vast majority of those funds to activities and programs that provide a direct benefit to those who need the help.

Poorly run charities are those who tend to spend more of their budgets on outside consultants to raise funds, and who in turn gobble up the majority of the funds they raise, thereby depriving some of those who otherwise would and should benefit from the donations.

Based on a quick review of the charities who received poor ratings, it seems that the most often exploited causes and constituencies are: emergency responders; children’s charities; cancer; and military veterans.

The Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting ranked the following as the ten worst charities based on cash paid to solicitors and the percentage spent on direct cash aid to benefit recipients:

1.       Kids Wish Network
2.       Cancer Fund of America
3.       Children’s Wish Foundation International
4.       American Breast Cancer Foundation
5.       Firefighters Charitable Foundation
6.       Breast Cancer Relief Foundation
7.       International Union of Police Associations, AFL-CIO
8.       National Veterans Service Fund
9.       American Association of State Troopers
10.   Children’s Cancer Fund of America

Here is a link to the full report:  America’s Worst Charities

Friday, June 7, 2013

Gettysburg, 150 Years Later

I happened upon Gettysburg in much the same way the General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army did – from the south and by chance.  

In August of 1990, I was returning from the beach with my wife and one-year-old son.  We had left South Carolina two days early and didn’t really have a plan for where we’d stay on the return trip.  As new parents, we had learned to build our schedule around our son’s sleep schedule.  We assumed we’d find a nice hotel when he indicated to us he had enough of car travel. 

That happened with a loud, non-stop shriek as we rounded Washington, D.C. on the Beltway.  This was pre-GPS.  Using a paper map and our trusty AAA guide book, we ended up at a Holiday Inn in Fredrick, Maryland. 

The next morning, we decided to take a more scenic, roundabout way home and hopped on Route 15 North.  We put the map away and relied on road signs, our general sense of regional geography, and our fancy to guide us.

Our next mission was to find a place for breakfast.  We crossed into Pennsylvania where picturesque towns, farms, the roadside produce stands lined the road.

Before we could get our bearings, we started to sense we were nearing a town that wasn’t garden-variety Small Town USA.  The clues presented themselves quickly enough.  The houses and buildings were festooned with red, white and blue bunting.  A young boy “marched” alongside his parents on the sidewalk.  He wore a blue Union Army replica cowboy hat.  He carried a toy rifle over his shoulder.  There were other kids dressed and behaving similarly.  We were near Gettysburg.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, we were in fact entering the town from the same direction, using the same road the Union army used to enter one of the bloodiest battles in American history. 

We drove through the town and then decided this was as good as any place to stay.  We found a small motel to the west of the town center.  We unpacked and went to the coffee shop for breakfast.  After that, I asked the hostess if there was anything to see nearby.  She tapped the wall behind her and told me on the other side was the small building General Lee used for his headquarters during the battle.

That’s where it started for me.  Over the years I’ve gone back to Gettysburg too many times to count.

During that trip, I picked up a copy of Michael Shaara’s Civil War novel “Killer Angels.”  As soon as I finished the book, I wanted to go back to Gettysburg.  Those fields, houses, monuments would start to resonate with me on the next trip, and they did. 

As a family, we found different ways to experience Gettysburg over the years.  I remember staying at a bed and breakfast one weekend with my wife.  We went to antique shops that time. Then there was the father-son trip I took with my older son.  By then, he was one of those boys with the hats and toy guns “marching” into ice cream shops and on sidewalks. 

At different times, we saw the town while walking on our own, riding in tour buses, and driving our car with a park ranger as a tour guide.  But the experience was much more than tours.   Gettysburg is quite accessible.  You can go just about anywhere in the town or on the battlefield and get a sense of history in true three dimension.

The Jenny Wade House seemed to make an impression on my kids, who put their fingers through the hole on the kitchen door created when a musket ball shot through, killing the only civilian casualty in the entire battle. 

After my kids were exposed to American history in this way, even before they entered school, the subject of history in the classroom would be different for them than it was for me.  Most of history for me during my school years was reading from a book and listening to a teacher. My kids learned that there was more to history than dates, proclamations and orators. 

At Gettysburg, the one thing that my kids and I came to more fully understand was the impact a historical event can have on thousands and thousands of regular people, each with his or her own story, and then on the millions of people who somehow were later affected by an event the magnitude of Gettysburg.

One time, we visited the well-preserved room where President Lincoln stayed the night before delivering his famous Gettysburg Address.  A moment of time frozen to today.  We also stood where he stood when he gave that historic speech.  On several occasions, we climbed hills that soldiers climbed, and peered from behind rocks where sharpshooters once stood.

Then there was the time I stood with my kids on a hill called Little Round Top, where some of the most dramatic action of the battle took place.  We came across a group of West Point cadets and their instructors who made a special trip to this hill.

Little Round Top was at the far end of the Union line, and it could have been the weak point that lost the battle for the North.  If the federal soldiers would have fallen there, our country’s history could have been much different.  It all came down to one small regiment from Maine that was running out of ammunition and had no reasonable chance to think it would survive, let alone make a difference.  They were desperate. Their colonel Joshua Chamberlain was a college professor before the war, not a military man.  He was described as more of a romantic.  But he was smart. 

Out of options, he ordered his exhausted troops to fix bayonets and prepare for hand-to-hand combat in a counter-attack, one last ditch effort before they were to give their lives for their country.

What happened next is the stuff of legend, and it’s a case study still analyzed in America’s military academies.  Colonel Chamberlain devised a way to charge downhill, giving the Confederates the impression they were being attacked by larger numbers from all sides.  The Maine regiment held the hill and the battle was not lost.

My boys and I followed the West Pointers and listened in as they learned more about the battle.  What a sight it must have been.  Thirty cadets in military camouflage, two young boys with fake plastic swords and their camera-toting father.

Unrelated to the fighting, another interesting site we visited once was the Dwight D. Eisenhower house, the retirement home of the former World War II Allied Commander and President of the United States.  The tour of the house is interesting because actors portray Secret Service personnel, who give the tour under the pretense that it’s the early 1960s, the height of the Cold War, and the former president is away from the house for a while.

You don’t have to be a Civil War buff to enjoy a visit to the town.  It’s a slice of Americana.

So what does this have to do with PR?
I could say it’s the correlation between the military lessons of Gettysburg and what they could teach us in PR.  Always look for the high ground.  Concentrate your resources.  Never assume you know what’s happening on the other side.  Always know where the opposition is located.  But you don’t need to see Gettysburg to understand these things.

Rather, the appeal to me is much more basic.  The first days of July In 2013, Gettysburg will mark the 150th anniversary of the battle.  Almost fittingly, its anniversary leads up to July 4th, the most important anniversary in our nation’s history. 

Ever since I was in journalism school, I learned to appreciate the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.  You know, the one that protects freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

For me, a visit to Gettysburg is a chance to see and get a feel for a place where so many from the North and the South fought for their respective causes.  Over 157,000 troops converged on that small town over those three days in 1863.  Over 50,000 died.

In November of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his historic Gettysburg Address, further embossing Gettysburg into the nation’s consciousness.

When I visit Gettysburg it always reminds me of the sacrifice others have made for the freedoms I enjoy.  It’s really nothing more than that. But for me, that is enough.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A Case for Accreditation in Communications

Not that infrequently, a discussion board on a PR blog or LinkedIn centers on the never-ending debate over whether PR professionals should be accredited.  Before digging into the meat of the issue and in the interest of full disclosure, I am accredited by the Public Relations Society of America, so that should tell you where this article is going.

But first I need to cover some very good reasons for NOT being accredited.  PRSA’s accreditation acronym is “APR” for Accredited in Public Relations.”  The Association of Business Communicators'  accreditation program recognizes members with the title Accredited Business Communicator or “ABC.”

If you’re considering accreditation, don’t do it for the letters after your name.  They mean nothing to most people.  Having APR or ABC on your business card is not likely to win you any more business, earn much more respect, or get for you a promotion that your own personal charisma wouldn’t get for you.

PRSA’s accreditation program is for those with at least five years’ experience.  By then, you should know most of the things in the material used to test you as part of accreditation.  Still, the process is a great refresher course where much of what you should know is consolidated and used as part of a solid professional development process.

The fact is, APR or ABC after your name not the same as having the letters, CPA, MD, JD, or even MBA after your name. Those designations reflect a significant amount more preparation than the communications accreditation processes require.

The reason accreditation will never match these other accreditation types of processes is rooted in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  In America, anyone has a right to say just about anything so long as it doesn’t interfere with another person’s health, safety and constitutionally protected rights.  In other words, you don’t need a license to express yourself.

But you do need various forms of licensure to practice medicine, law and accounting.  These are highly regulated professions. Communications is not.  That’s not to say we don’t have parameters.  A few of the federal agencies that lay down regulations that at times govern communication include: the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, the Patent and Trademark Office, and the Securities Exchange Commission.

So why get accredited?

My feelings have evolved on this.  I was accredited in 1990, and did it because I felt it couldn’t hurt.  Over time, I always told those who were considering accreditation was something to the effect, “It can only help, and it’s a great development experience.” 

After all, some of the best PR people I’ve ever known never bothered to get accredited and it didn’t hurt them.

But the emergence of social media has started to harden my feelings in favor of accreditation.

I follow a number of communications blogs and Web sites where PR professionals from around the world contribute content and comment on articles.  In recent years, I’ve been more exposed to more broad and diverse views on communication than I ever had been prior to the age of Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

I’ve found that these are great tools to keep a finger on the pulse of the latest developments and trends affecting the communications business.  But I’ve also learned something else. 

The PR business is loaded with people completely unprepared to call themselves professional communicators in the truest sense of the word. 

To be sure, there are thousands and thousands of solid PR people across the country doing unbelievable work.  But based on what I see in the profession, there are also thousands of people who work in agencies, companies and other organizations who have PR-centric titles who can’t write, don’t understand the basics of communications strategy, don’t understand the role communicators play as problem-solvers, and quite often operate one-dimensionally. 

They may have been hired to handle social media for an organization, and they’ve never spent the time and energy to develop their newswriting skills to create good press releases.  Or they’ve been hired to handle media relations for an organization, but they haven’t learned how to apply that knowledge to crisis communications planning and response.

In order to become accredited, you have to start to take a much more comprehensive view towards communications and your work.

So, now when a younger pro asks me whether he or she should become accredited, I say ‘yes.’  I say this because I don’t have the time to mentor all of them, and there probably aren’t enough potential mentors out there to assure that people with less than five years’ experience are getting the kind of training they need.

Accreditation provides a benchmark for what every professional communicator should know by the time he or she has accumulated five years’ experience.  If you’ve been in the business that long, and can’t pass the accreditation test, there are some gaps that need to be addressed.

So, in the end, what do you get for becoming accredited?

I would compare it to being an avid runner who sets a goal to run a marathon.  You set a goal, you prepare, and in the end you do it for yourself.  And if you decide to get even more serious about your running, having the title “marathon runner” on your resume certainly can help separate you from others who have not run marathons.

This is true for communications.  If you are serious about your profession and want to make a statement about your commitment, accreditation is in line with this.

One final thought, and this one is for those who are not in the business of communications, but who may be in position to hire a communicator or a communications firm.  I’d strongly recommend that you put accreditation on your evaluation criteria. There are simply too many people who have found it easy to call themselves communicators, who may even have their own communications consultancies, who haven’t done the proper work to prepare themselves to work for you. 

Technology has made it easy for novices to package and present themselves to give the impression they know much more than they actually do.  Asking any candidate you are considering to hire whether he or she is accredited, is just one way to begin to determine who is most serious about their profession and deserving of your business.