Monthly Archives: December 2007

Public relations, the Browns and Charlie Wilson

Well, I’ll admit the headline is a little random. But I had mostly random thoughts during my five-five run this morning. So here goes.

  • I managed to run 1,081 miles this year. That was even more important to me this year than usual. Maybe because I turned 60 in November. Anyway, I’ve run at least 1,000 miles each year since the early 1980s – with the exception of 2002. That year I tore my calf muscle on Oct. 14 playing men’s seniors doubles tennis and finished with 940 miles. So long tennis. Men’s doubles tennis isn’t much exercise anyway. About all you do is stand on the court and occasionally walk to the fence, bend over and pick up the ball. I’ve kept a running log every day since 1982. Walter, if you’re reading this, we ran 10 miles in the rain at 5 a.m. on Monday, April 18, 1985. That’s the day the truck turned and missed us by a fraction of an inch. I didn’t drink single malt whisky until after that. Remember? Gee, I wonder if writing this blog will spark as many nightmares as that run did?
  • I came home from running this morning, and I could see the front page headline in The Plain Dealer even in the dark: Browns Are Out. Ouch. That hurts – even though I’m a life-long fan of the Steelers. Let’s see. What’s after “one for the thumb”? Still, I really do enjoy living in Northeast Ohio, and having the Browns in the playoffs would be good for the region. It certainly was a fun fall with the Indians. I don’t watch professional sports much these days on television or in person. I’ve come to believe that rooting for a professional sports team is equivalent to having an emotional stake in whether General Motors does better than Ford. But I’ll watch the Steelers in the playoffs. Even a curmudgeon has to spend some quality couch time when the weather turns bad.
  • Tonight, being New Year’s Eve, I’m going to see Charlie Wilson’s War with my wife, Mary, and daughter, Jessica. Then we’ll go to dinner – but I should be home in time to get an hour or so of quality nap time in before the ball starts to drop in Time’s Square. Even if invited, I never go to parties on New Year’s Eve. Some of them have a tendency to drag on way past 10 p.m. Good grief.

So we’re off to the early showing of Charlie Wilson’s War. I’m sure it will be full of yucks, since it stars Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts and it is aiming for a mass audience. Here’s the preview.

Unfortunately, the book by George Crile, Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History, wasn’t quite as funny. Crile, a producer with CBS’s “60 Minutes” who died in 2006, provides an interesting glimpse at our government and CIA in action (inaction?). Even if you see the movie read the book. It will give you some perspective on why we are in the mess we are currently facing in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I could name other countries, of course, but time is short if I’m going to make the early show.

Happy new year. I’ll be on the road – or the treadmill – tomorrow morning, thinking about public relations and other important matters.

Belichick’s perfect season. Not quite.

The New England Patriots beat the New York Giants last night, making the Patriots the first team in 35 years to go through the regular season undefeated. What’s that have to do with public relations?

Well, the Patriots had a perfect season. Not coach Bill Belichick. William C. Rhoden in today’s New York Times provides the overview and context in his column “Players’ Mark Spotless, Not Coach’s.”

Seems the Patriots and Belichick were caught cheating earlier in the season when they used video cameras to help get an edge in a victory over the New York Jets. That raises issues about character – and ethics — involving management and others that we spend considerable time talking about in our mass communication ethics classes at Kent State. In this regard, Belichick functions very much like a CEO. Why shouldn’t the same standards apply?

We talked about the Belichick misstep in class, and in what was really a lively discussion, all agreed that it wasn’t the right thing to do. No question about it. And it illustrates why organizations get into trouble. Wasn’t there anyone on Belichick’s staff who agreed with my students that this was the wrong, the unethical, thing to do? Or did they just look the other way? Enron, on a smaller, certainly much more insignificant scale, anyone?

David Halberstam wrote an interesting and informative book about Belichick, The Education of a Coach. Halberstam forms a profile of Belichick as an innovative, hardworking coach, with strong family values. Belichick also comes off as someone with a compelling will to win and succeed. (And this is an aside, but if you are interested in good writing – a journalist as historian – read almost anything by Halberstam.)

So if you want to learn more about Belichick, read Halberstam’s book. But if you want to see how ethics apply here – and in public relations and other areas – read a book by Rushworth M. Kidder, How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living. I use that book in my ethics class. And another book by Kidder, Moral Courage, is worth reading as well.

A perfect season? No. But a lesson in ethics that applies beyond the football stadium? Yes.

Public relations, the Akron Beacon Journal and Kent State

Well, this should be interesting. I finished my five-mile run this morning and then began scanning the Akron Beacon Journal. Two things grabbed my attention.

First, is it just my imagination or did the Beacon Journal print the same stock market results today as it did yesterday? It is Friday. Right? Anyway, as best I can tell the Dow fell about 193 points yesterday (Thursday). But the Beacon Journal lists the Dow this morning as being up 2.36 points – which was Wednesday’s close. Then I checked some of the individual listings. In Friday’s paper: Goodrich, $73.47, off 58 cents. In Thursday’s paper: Goodrich, $73.47, off 58 cents. From what I have read and heard, times are a little tough these days at the ABJ, but…And by the way, anyone know what happened to the Cavs?

Then – Kent State University is featured again on the editorial page. The Beacon Journal editorial board wrote about what it considered to be the best, worst and most galling decisions in 2007.

Kent State made the “most galling” list, checking in at No. 4: “King Lester doles out our treasury.” I’ll try to add the link to the story later. It’s about 8:30 a.m. Friday — but the Beacon Journal’s Web site still has yesterday’s editorials posted. Maybe the Beacon Journal has shut its doors and left on holiday until the new year. In Akron, how would we know?

Anyway, the King Lester reference is to Kent State’s President Lester Lefton. And the story involves (among other things) his trip to Europe last summer at a cost of $40,000 and a more recent decision to pay another senior executive at Kent State $88,000 to get his Ph.D. in business at another university.
This is a topic that I’ve commented on in past blogs. And it is one that my KSU colleague Bill Sledzik wrote about in some detail and received a number of excellent comments about on his ToughSledding blog. Read Bill’s essay, if you haven’t already. Besides, Bill has tenure. I don’t.

But I’ll comment anyway – and I’ll assume you have read either Bill’s blog or the Akron Beacon Journal story, or both.

I argued several weeks ago that the Kent State administration should have addressed this situation by taking some kind of specific action (modifying the tuition payment, rescinding it, apologizing for it, anything) and then talking about the situation honestly and completely with at a minimum Kent State students, staff and faculty. As best I can tell, the only communication has been to Akron Beacon Journal reporter Carol Biliczky, via e-mail. I wrote about that previously as well on this blog.

I’ve mentioned this before. I’ll say it again. I’m a supporter of Kent State. I’ve received two degrees from the university, I’ve been an alumnus for nearly 40 years, I try my best to contribute at least a modest amount to student scholarship funds and now for the last five years I’ve been teaching public relations and communication ethics courses. Part of my responsibility in the classroom is to help students understand how to handle these kinds of situations correctly. I guess that’s at least partly why this situation at Kent bothers me as much as it does. (That and the fact that I’m tired of going shopping and having someone I know ask me when his son/daughter is going to receive free tuition.) It also bothers me because it unfairly hurts the professional reputations of some friends and colleagues of mine in Kent State’s office of University Communications and Marketing. I don’t know this, but my guess it that they have not been involved in these decisions. Or that their advice has been ignored. Come on folks at Kent State. We can do better.

Public relations, baseball and the news media

Well, here we go again. I wrote in this blog on Dec. 18 about “Baseball’s black eye. Any PR problems here?” Now it’s time for Roger Clemens to take the mound.

I thought about this today while getting my five miles in on the treadmill. Nothing like a cold rain at 5 a.m. in December to keep you inside. And I was in Pittsburgh yesterday, visiting my parents and brothers and their families and talking about football, baseball and other equally important things.

So how did Roger Clemens get involved in all this? Well, he’s a star pitcher (now maybe permanently retired) with the New York Yankees and one of many named in the Mitchell report who was linked to using steroids. But Clemens denies this. And this situation provides a lesson in public relations , media relations and crisis management.

First, Clemens has denied the allegation – most visibly – in a video that he made and then posted on his own Web site and subsequently on YouTube. 

Chris Albrecht, in an article titled “Clemens Makes His Pitch on YouTube” on newteevee.com has a really interesting perspective on this use of YouTube, one that should interest PR pros involved with media relations and crisis communication. Albrecht says, “Clemens sidesteps the pitfalls of traditional press conferences, and gives us a glimpse into the future of public relations.”

Go ahead. Take a look. But then come back. I’ve got a few other points to make.

And they involve working with the so-called traditional media. In addition to trying to take control of the story with his YouTube video, Clemens has embarked on a series of interviews with reporters, broadcast and print. He is scheduled to appear on CBS’s “60 Minutes” on Jan. 6, for an interview with Mike Wallace. And Clemens apparently is going to talk to other reporters in conjunction with the “60 Minutes” interview.

Interesting strategy. Here’s my take.

  • Clemens says the Mitchell report was inaccurate, he never used steroids and he wants to protect his reputation. If he is being honest, he should have been more aggressive in making his case earlier. He didn’t step up to the plate until days after he was associated prominently with the allegations. Maybe Web 2.0 changes the game of crisis communication, but it has been my experience that the sooner you can respond the better.
  • If Clemens is going to be interviewed by Mike Wallace and others, he better not try to hide anything – and he better talk straight and honestly. Remember when Mark McGwire and some other heavy hitters appeared before Congress to testify about steroid use in baseball? When asked directly if he had used steroids, McGuire’s tongue turned to mush. What did he think he was going to be asked about? The designated hitter rule?
  • In this regard, Clemens would be well advised to prepare for the interview and seek the counsel of PR experts in this area. If he strikes out on “60 Minutes,” well, the game may be over. And I hope Mike Wallace does a better job interviewing Clemens than Larry King did in a similar situation with Paris Hilton. I also hope Clemens is telling the truth. Wouldn’t that be refreshing, coming from an athlete and a celebrity?
  • Yet I wonder why reporters are giving him a pass until Jan. 6? Gee, every time I was involved in a tough story, reporters were fairly insistent that I (we?) provide information and access to interviews immediately if not sooner. Maybe with Web 2.0 it is a new ballgame. Or maybe Clemens is enough of a celebrity that he can control the media.

This should be interesting. If the YouTube strategy works (again, look at Albrecht’s article), we can expect many PR pros to give it serious consideration. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that will be a good thing. Get your story out honestly, quickly and as completely as you can. Yes. But if the wizards in our organizations think they can hide behind the curtain and control the news media, well…Play ball!

Public relations, marketing and holiday sales

Bet you’re wondering how I am going to link the topics of public relations, marketing and holiday sales, Well, me too. But I did think about it during my five-mile run this morning.

So here goes.

My wife, Mary, and sister-in-law, Donna, ordered Christmas presents for me online from an outfit called The Territory Ahead. I’m not going to provide a link or phone number for reasons that should be evident in a few keystrokes. I knew they were ordering two shirts for me. I picked them out. They ordered the shirts; they both arrived and were under our tree days before Christmas Eve. I knew that. I still shake the boxes. So far so good. Our family basically orders presents this way. It reduces stress, conflict and trips to the Post Office after Christmas. And I like the clothes offered by The Territory Ahead. It has a different selection than what is available at most brick-and-mortar outlets in our area. Although I’m not sure that anyone stills leaves home anymore to shop.

Then on Christmas Eve our mail arrives. And there is a new catalog from The Territory Ahead. And on the front cover in type that even I can read without my reading glasses it boldly proclaims: “The Biggest Sale of the Year! The Winter Sale. Up to 65% off original catalog prices.” Go ahead. Take a look and order one of the shirts if you want. But if you’re in one of my classes Spring Semester, please remember that a lot of the grading really is subjective.

Anyway, my reaction to the biggest sale of the year: Say What? I’m getting two shirts that someone just a week or so ago paid full price for. Now both are substantially reduced. Where’s my blood pressure cuff?

Maybe this is good marketing. But is it good public relations? No, I don’t think so. My memory isn’t what it used to be, but I’ll never order anything from The Territory Ahead again until I’m convinced that the item is priced as part of the “really, really biggest sale of the year.” And I’ll never order another gift from that company again before Christmas. Like Bob Hope once said (and I’m sure this isn’t exactly accurate but you’ll get the point), one of the virtues of entertaining U.S. troops around the world during Christmas was that he could return and buy all his presents on sale.

So here’s the point. I equate marketing with sales. For those interested in this kind of work, it’s an honorable profession. But let the buyer beware (just like with advertising). I equate public relations with honest and accurate communication and with building and maintaining relationships and reputation.

What would happen to a publicly traded company that took a marketing approach to disclosing quarterly earnings? Suppose it put out a news release one week disclosing a small loss for the quarter. Then it put out a news release a week or so later with this headline: “Just kidding. Here are the real numbers. Biggest loss of the year!” I know. I’m a dinosaur with a laptop, but I still think that honestly and treating others fairly over the long run are virtues.

And what I’m talking about doesn’t just apply to retail outfits like The Territory Ahead. Even Apple and Steve Jobs made s similar mistake involving pricing with the introduction several months ago of the iPhone. The early adopters waited in line to buy an iPhone at a substantially higher price than others bought the phone for just a short time after. This was such a big issue that even students in my ethics class had read about it – and had a strong opinion, all negative regarding Apple. But Jobs eventually did the right thing, offering the original buyers a $100 Apple store credit. This came after a flurry of comments made its way through the blogosphere. I’m just a lonely voice with a laptop and two over-priced shirts. Don’t expect much action from The Territory Ahead.

Yeah, I know. I guess I could return the shirts, get a credit and try to buy them again at the now-lower price. But I’m blogging these days. I don’t have time for that.

And besides, I’m going to Pittsburgh today. I try every year at this time to visit a city where the NFL team is still in contention. Since I live in Northeast pittsburgh1b.jpgOhio, Pittsburgh is the only option.

Also, I’m going to visit my parents and brothers and their families. I might even wear one of my new shirts. That will give me something else to be cranky about, particularly if the traffic is bad or my brother runs out of Iron City beer.
iron_city.jpg

Public relations and giving print a chance

I received a nice comment from Meg Roberts about my posting yesterday on public relations and newspapers. Meg is a runner and a PR student. Hard to beat that combination. I hope that Meg and other public relations students and young professionals will read this blog and comment often. I really believe that their perspective on public relations and public relations education benefits us all.

This morning at 5:30 a.m. there weren’t many runners or cars on the roads. Maybe because it’s Christmas Eve; maybe the 25 mph wind was a deterrent to the few others in my neighborhood who run before the sun even thinks about getting out of bed. But I got my six miles in. And when I came home, there was The Plain Dealer in my driveway and the Akron Beacon Journal on my porch, both encased in plastic bags. That got me thinking. First, I only subscribe to The Plain Dealer on Sundays. Maybe one of the editors read this blog yesterday and made arrangements to have a copy delivered to me today. If so, that’s great marketing. But, more likely, it’s an attempt to take customers from the ABJ. That’s another story.

But here’s the point, I like reading newspapers, magazines and blogs online. It’s immediate. You can see video and hear audio. Gee, just like TV. And you can engage reporters, editors and bloggers with immediate comments and feedback. So far so good.

But I love reading the print edition. For those of you who have not read a newspaper on anything other than a computer screen for a while, I encourage you to try it. To steal and modify a saying that was widely used when my generation was engaged in our war in Vietnam: “Give Print a Chance.” Try it. You’ll like it. The printed version is actually pretty well organized. And you can navigate it with almost no training. Just go to the section you are most interested in at the time and turn the pages.

The real point though is that newspapers are changing the print editions. Maybe to attract a new generation of readers. Maybe to drive more eyes to their Web sites. I don’t know the answer. It’s a question I’ll ask Lauren Rich Fine next time I have a real-world chat with her at Kent State. But regardless, public relations pros need to understand the changes that are taking place throughout the news media, print, broadcast and online.

Consider The Plain Dealer. It’s making an effort to feature only local stories on the front page. You can check that out yourself by getting the newspaper. Or you can read an interesting article by Rick Edmonds, “Plain Dealer’s All-Local Fronts,” that was featured on Poynteronline on Thursday, Dec. 20. I suspect that the Akron Beacon Journal is making an attempt to highlight more local stories as well, but it may not have enough resources to make a substantial change. The great thing about blogging is that you can say something like without knowing anything about the management decisions involving content or the resources available to the newspaper and its staff. Maybe Jan Leach knows. Jan was the editor of the Akron Beacon Journal. Now she is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State. I’ll ask her next time I see her.

But as newspapers – and the so-called traditional media in general – continue to evolve, more emphasis on local coverage in print isn’t the only thing that’s going to change. New technology means we’re going to have to understand how to engage reporters not just with words but with audio and video. I haven’t quite sorted out the implications of the so-called social news release. But I guess it’s coming. It means that we’re going to see stories develop more quickly and remain public longer. Changes involving the news media — print and online — mean that we better figure out how to be available 24/7 – and how to monitor more effectively what is being said about our organizations and respond accordingly. (Check the blog by Mindy McAdams. It’s on my blogroll).

Regardless of the changes resulting from new technology, for public relations pros the same standards will continue to apply: build relationships with reporters and editors, be ethical, be responsive and responsible and know what you’re talking about, in news releases and in interviews. And be as available during a difficult story as you are when pitching the newest and greatest whatever.

And try reading – in print – at least some of the newspapers that are important to you and your organization. Go ahead. Give print a chance. It’s still about content. And about excellent writing, which I believe you get a better sense for in print than online.

Tomorrow is Christmas. It’s the one day of the year when I know I’m not going to run. Most likely won’t write anything either.

Hope everyone has an enjoyable and restful holiday. And especially at this time of the year, consider the things that are really important. I’ll bet news media story placements don’t even make the list.

Public relations and newspapers

Still trying to attract the attention of the wizard of search engine optimization. Maybe he/she doesn’t consider public relations important enough of a subject to highlight in the blogosphere. Or maybe she/he has public relations confused with marketing. Like most people these days.

I’ll keep writing and plugging away. In fact, I’ve had several hundred visitors (does this mean readers?) to this blog since I started a week ago. And I guess that’s not bad since my sense is that no one really wants to read anymore, either in print or online. Even the Queen of England has joined the YouTube generation.

I know that students in my classes don’t read the dead-tree version of newspapers. I don’t know exactly why. Maybe Lauren Rich Fine (see my blogroll) does. At the start of every semester I ask students – generally 40 or so in total — in my classes at Kent State a few questions. How many of you read the print edition of a newspaper daily? Maybe 4 or 5. (Remember, these are journalism students.) How many get news from the Internet? (Twenty or 30) How many watch local TV news? (Twenty or 30) Network TV news? (Say what?) The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or The Colbert Report? (Almost all – wahoo.) That’s not the kind of research that earns you tenure. But it probably is ever bit as enlightening as some of the academic research reports.

I on the other hand love to read the print editions of newspapers. I went out in the rain (after running in the rain) this morning to get the Sunday edition of The New York Times. I’ve been reading that paper even more regularly for the past year or so, ever since the Akron Beacon Journal stopped publishing. (Just kidding. I still scan the ABJ each morning. It only takes a few minutes. Actually, I’ve read the ABJ every morning for almost 40 years. It used to be an excellent paper. And I’ve had the opportunity to work with many talented and dedicated reporters and editors there, including Ron Kirksey, now a friend and colleague at Kent State.) The Plain Dealer in Cleveland is regaining its position as a must-read newspaper, certainly in Northeast Ohio, under the direction of recently named editor Susan Goldberg.

It’s important for those of us in public relations to read newspapers and understand the news media in general. And it doesn’t matter if we read in print or online. Just read. I hope we don’t get away from teaching effective, responsible and ethical media relations in the rush to understand and use YouTube, podcasting, blogs, MySpace, Facebook and dare it say it, search engine optimization. We need the next generation of public relations professionals to know how to best work with reporters and editors and why it is important. And we also need to help students gain skills in writing, video and audio. That’s the way of the world these days, for those in journalism and public relations.

One of the courses that we require of our public relations majors at Kent State is called Print Beat Reporting. Here PR students spend a semester covering a beat on campus and writing stories for the Daily Kent Stater. The result. They see that some sources are pathetic when it comes to working with reporters: no return phone calls or e-mails, not prepared for interviews, etc. That helps our students become better public relations practitioners. They learn how not to do it. And they learn how to research, interview and write for publication. Bill Sledzik offers an interesting perspective on the emphasis that PRKent places on writing in his blog, ToughSledding.

Well, it’s time to start reading The New York Times. The Browns are playing the Bengals this afternoon. Good grief. Wonder what’s on C-SPAN?