Monthly Archives: January 2008

Public relations and hiding the truth

My friend and colleague at Kent State, Jeanette Drake, has an excellent op-ed article in the Akron Beacon Journal this morning. (Most likely only available free online for a few days.) She is writing about an issue that honestly I wasn’t aware of, but it’s important and should concern all of us.

 

Most basically, it’s about whether “consumers have a right to know what’s in food, where it comes from and how it was produced.” That’s important, certainly.

 

But equally important, from a public relations standpoint, it provides another example of just how shameless some organizations and companies can be when it comes to dealing openly and honestly with the public.

 

Jeanette combines a strong educational background with substantial professional experience. That says a lot about her and her commitment to public relations and public relations education. I also believe it says something about the overall quality of the public relations program at Kent State. Yeah, I’m an unapologetic booster. But her article reflects the kind of perspective on public relations that our students get in class every day.

And I really believe that ethical conduct is the foundation for effective public relations. Reading Jeanette’s article suggests that in many cases we still have a long way to go.

Public relations plans and reality

Today for me is the anniversary of a day I’ll never forget: Jan. 28, 1986. It was the day that The BFGoodrich Company announced it was exiting the tire business, merging its tire operations with Uniroyal’s to form the Uniroyal-Goodrich Tire Company.

Jan. 28, 1986, was also the day when the space shuttle Challenger exploded almost immediately after liftoff, killing the entire crew, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

Certainly there is no relationship between the two in terms of importance. The space shuttle disaster was a tragedy that touched the lives of almost everyone in this country at the time. Those were the days when the launch of a space shuttle was a big deal – and televised live. And the explosion and the loss of the crew put into question the future of America’s space program.

Still, I remember the events of that day very well. We had planned the announcement about Uniroyal-Goodrich for months. All the senior executives were in New York. We held an early-morning news conference that attracted national news media: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, NBC, CBS and ABC among others.

Those were still the days when the tire industry mattered to the U.S. economy. Thousands worked throughout the country in good-paying manufacturing jobs. Labor negotiations and contracts were closely watched by the national news media and by steel and automobile companies. And Akron was still the “Rubber Capital of the World.”

We made the announcement early in the morning in New York. I remained in Akron to answer questions from reporters – and I received hundreds, literally. And then a reporter asked me if I had heard about the space shuttle? No. But soon as I had the details I called my associates in New York. By that time the news conference had ended – and remember, this was way before the days of the Internet, cell phones, BlackBerrys, etc.

I remember the start of a brief conversation with Foster Smith, then Goodrich’s vice president of corporate communications, like it was yesterday.

“Foster, the space shuttle exploded.”

“Oh my God.”

Foster, like me a few minutes earlier, was stunned by the disaster.

Then after a minute or so he hurried off to tell others; I returned to a stack of messages from reporters.

I guess one point to all this is that no matter how hard you plan unexpected events can change everything. And again, this is an insignificant comment in the context of the space shuttle tragedy, but we lost the opportunity to let a national audience know that BFGoodrich was no longer a tire company. For the better part of the next 10 years we fought that battle, mostly unsuccessfully. But that’s a story for another day.

Today is a day to remember the crew of the space shuttle Challenger. It’s certainly a day I won’t forget.

Public relations and the Golden Buckeye

Last night presented me with one of those moments of reflection. Should I – or shouldn’t I?

It’s overall a good thing from a public relations and public policy perspective that the state of Ohio provides people age 60 and over with a Golden Buckeye Card. The card provides discounts at a host of participating business and also on prescription drugs. That’s great.

And there are a lot of us carrying around the Golden Buckeye Card these days. According to the Ohio Department of Aging, more than 17 percent of people living in Ohio are at least age 60. That’s out of a total population of about 11.4 million. And I’m sure the discounts provided by the Golden Buckeye program are important and valuable to many people.

Truthfully, I’m not one of them. And fortunately I don’t need the discounts on movies and or anything else offered to us seniors. I’ll also admit that I’m not thrilled about advancing through the queue with money in one hand and the Golden Buckeye Card in the other.

I’m sure I’ll get past that in another decade or two. But not last night. We went to see Juno, which was great. But certainly not the movie that you want to buy tickets for as the teenage cashier yells, “Hey dude. You really 60?” So I’m a buck poorer today.

But then this morning during my run I had another thought. Why doesn’t the state of Ohio give a Golden Buckeye Card to everyone? Give it to children without health care. Give it to low-income families who are struggling in an economy that appears headed for recession. Give it to those who are losing their homes because of the sub-prime mortgage disaster. There are plenty of Ohioans who could use the discounts. More than 11 percent were living below poverty levels in 2004. I doubt the situation has improved any, if at all, today.

I’ll gladly give up my card if state officials give one to someone who really needs it. Now about Social Security – well, that’s a different matter. I’m gonna need that.

Here’s what students want

I wrote a week or so ago about what I’ve learned about teaching since I joined the faculty at Kent State five years ago.  Many of the points were aimed at friends and former business associates who take delight in telling me that they are thinking about teaching after they retire. Good. I hope they are successful. We need more outstanding teachers. But it isn’t all that easy.

Among the excellent comments to that essay was one from Brittany Thoma. Brittany is a student this semester in my PR Tactics class, and I met her previously but I don’t know her at this point in the semester very well. And I asked her if it was OK to use her name in this post. She said yes. So here goes.

Here’s her comment:

Rob, I agree with your comment of “Many teachers should talk less and listen more.” And because you are an educator, you can offer insight to a burning question of mine: What’s with the power trips? I realize we’re students and professors have all the big, bad degrees but why do some make it a priority to make us feel two inches tall? What’s in the joy of scaring students?”

My reply to Brittany is in the previous post – and I would certainly welcome any other comments on this. I’m sure Brittany is sincere in this – and I give her credit for posting the comment. That’s the way it should be – open communication – certainly in education and elsewhere as well. I don’t know many teachers from personal experience who appear to take delight from scaring students. But it has been more than a few decades since I sat in a classroom facing a teacher. Sometimes you lose perspective on these matters.

So while running I thought about this: What do students want from teachers?

During the five years I’ve been at Kent State full time, I’ve had an amazing opportunity. I get to spend time with students who work with me at Flash Communications, a student-run public relations firm on campus. And I get to – or at least try to –apply in class many of the things the Flash Communications students tell me are important to them.

Here’s the short list:

  • They say they want teachers to be organized and to outline clearly the expectations for the course overall and for individual projects. Most are not afraid to ask questions. But it’s interesting to me how many times I hear them saying: “I’m not sure what he/she wants.”
  • They want teachers to be fair and consistent with their grading. Students are OK with teachers having high standards. But they want to know what is expected of them. That takes some communication skills — sometimes on both sides.
  • They want timely, honest and constructive feedback. That’s part of how they learn. But I hear students say that they have received a certain grade and really don’t know why. Try that in business some day during a performance review. For students, grades are important. Many won’t ask about the grade. Giving good feedback is a skill and it’s just as important in the classroom as it is in the workplace.
  • Students like schedules. They are busy with a host of other commitments – most likely including work. The highly motivated students in particular take the class syllabus and on the first day plug the key dates into their calendar. They aren’t pleased when teachers change the dates for major projects or exams – unless it really is for an emergency or something that can’t be avoided.
  • And mostly they want to be treated like adults, with a sense of fairness and kindness. Most really do want to learn. And what they are looking for are teachers who are willing to help them succeed.

The teachers I’ve met at Kent State – certainly those in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication – really do work hard and spend an enormous amount of time helping students in the classroom and outside. But maybe from time to time it’s important for someone like Brittany Thoma to remind us that how we relate to students — even the way we talk to them — really does make an impression – and a difference.

With the Flash Communications students I get to be a mentor as well as a teacher. I’m still trying to improve as a classroom instructor – and it sure helps listening to students talk about what is important to them.  And for anyone thinking about moving from the business world to education, spend some time now learning how to be a good mentor. You’ll be glad you did.

And Brittany, if I do anything to scare you this semester, please let me know.

Podcasting and garbage trucks

Sorry, couldn’t think of a good headline for this post. But this was what I was thinking about during my run this morning: podcasting.

I have an iPod, but I don’t use it much. I never run and listen to music. I figure that the chances of me getting hit by a garbage truck at 5 a.m. while running in the dark most days is pretty good. And if I’m going to check out of the Hotel Ohio, I would prefer not to do it while humming along to Gretchen Wilson singing Politically Uncorrect.


Actually, I got the iPod with the idea that I would listen to podcasts while driving to Kent State. But even on a bad day I’m only in the car for about 45 minutes. Some of the podcasts on public relations and communication topics are just getting warmed up by then. At best, most are just recordings of talking heads – but unlike TV, you can’t even see the heads.

Saying that, I’m not being critical of those who are producing podcasts. Someone needs to be out front on this; I’m obviously not the one.

And maybe it’s just me. So I asked the students in my PR Tactics class how many of them listened to audio podcasts (as opposed to episodes of Lost, etc.). Nary a hand shot up in the affirmative. Did they download and listen to music? Yep. But listening to 90 (OK, maybe 60) minutes worth of crisis communications strategies doesn’t appear to be high on the charts as yet.

At that point I figured that podcasts were pretty much like AM radio: Good to have when you can’t get any other reception but not much value otherwise.

Then yesterday I read an article on AdAge.com, Marketers and Content Providers Tune in to Podcasting’s Potential. The article raises a number of excellent points about advertising and reaching new audiences, but it also focuses on content.

And content here – as elsewhere – is king.

I’m not an expert on Web 2.0 (or most anything else for that matter). But I know enough to recognize that even with all the new technology people – listeners, readers, friends sitting talking at a local bar – still want interesting, engaging and informative content. And they aren’t going to invest a minute’s worth of time – let alone an hour’s – if that expectation isn’t met.

I didn’t originate this saying, but I use it a lot in class: What’s in it for me? From the standpoint of strategically using podcasts as an effective public relations tactic, I don’t believe we have answered that question as yet. Maybe we will.

But it’s going to rely on content that is professionally produced. Anyone remember the early days of industrial video? I do. After a while just showing a poor-quality video in a dimly lit lunchroom wasn’t good enough. Today there are media outlets – such as NPR – that are producing excellent podcasts: interesting, engaging and professionally done. Something tells me most organizations don’t have the resources to match this kind of professionalism. And I would swallow hard if I had to approve the cost of producing a professionally done podcast – without knowing how effective it is going to be.

At some point we’re going to have to take a critical look at podcasting – and blogging? – and ask if the results warrant the time, effort and expense. I still don’t see a lot of discussion of this topic of how to evaluate the effectiveness of the so-called new media. I expect that will happen as clients/organizations are encouraged to spend more money on these tactics.

Still for everyone out there pushing Web 2.0 without considering effectiveness and results, I’m sure what I said was not politically correct. Gretchen Wilson anyone?

Britney, a recession and a cold weekend

Well, I’m sorry. I guess like most of the nation I have been too preoccupied with the latest escapades of Britney Spears. I’ll admit it. Seeing her being wheeled into the hospital was compelling TV, even after the 100th or so time it was on the news. But then this morning as I was getting in my five miles on the treadmill the talking heads were opining about a recession.

What? Can a recession happen that quickly? I don’t know. I guess that’s why public relations majors at Kent State these days are required to take some business courses.

Now just about everyone in Washington is racing around, recommending an economic stimulus package. Hmm. Must be an election year. President Bush outlined his plan yesterday – a proposed package of about $145 billion in tax cuts for individuals and businesses. Mission Accomplished! Well, not yet. Even with bipartisan support in Congress it will take months before any money actually gets into anyone’s pocket.

And Dana Perino, the White House press secretary, didn’t have any specific details of the president’s proposal. But she did tell Today’s Amy Robach that markets go up and markets go down. Admittedly, that is taken way out of context. But that’s why I’m blogging and not working as a journalist. I also wanted to include a reference to Dana Perino so that I would have a reason to link to Bill Sledzik’s ToughSledding blog. There is really an interesting and important discussion there about women and public relations.

For those of you thinking about retiring some day (even if it is 40 years away) now would be a good time to take a look at your 401k plan and/or IRA. I’m fairly fortunate. I’m one of the older baby boomers, and I have a vested pension. That was typical years ago. Not so anymore.

So as long as you are working you are going to have to follow the wisdom that markets go up and markets go down. And hope for the best, I guess. Because good investment advice is tough to find. I have an IRA with Merrill Lynch, the nation’s largest brokerage firm. Merrill Lynch just reported a fourth-quarter loss of $9.8 billion, related in large part to bad investments in home mortgages. I’m hoping that my account fared at least a little better. Seriously, give your retirement and other savings accounts some thought. It’s important and there are good sources available online. Check out The Motley Fool, as one example. And particularly for those of you just getting started, ask advice from someone you trust.

In this environment where a recession has now been added to our mix of other problems, voters go to the polls tonight in South Carolina in the Republican primary. I don’t know if this means anything or not – but remember, Mike Huckabee is at1_huckabee.jpg marathoner.

And that gets me to my last random thought. For my running friends who now live in Florida and Georgia, remember when we used to run in the winter when the temperatures were well below zero? Well the wind chill forecast for tomorrow morning in Akron is minus 10. Any chance you guys want to get here and meet at the state park at 5 a.m.?

Baseball and ethics

Johnny Podres died last Sunday. That most likely doesn’t mean much, except for members of his family and friends. But it means something to me.

Johnny Podres, in October 1955, pitched the Brooklyn Dodgers to their only World Series championship. An excellent obituary in the Jan. 15 issue of The New York Times by Richard Goldstein gives the details. Podres was 23 at the time and an unlikely hero on a team that included Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Don Newcombe, Carl Furillo and a host of others. For comparison, the Brooklyn Dodgers winning the World Series was the equivalent of the Cleveland Browns winning the Super Bowl – recognizing that at the time baseball really was the national pastime.

Reading about Johnny Podres and the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers provides a striking contrast to the news these days about major league baseball and steroids. Podres, Snider, Reese, Robinson and the rest strike me as having integrity – and they became heroes to an earlier generation by playing by the rules and striving for success: honestly and fairly. I wonder what future generations will say about Roger Clemens and others who are about to make the long trek down the halls of Congress to talk about the alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs. I have said previously that I hope Clemens is telling the truth. But I have some doubts based on some recent press reports. See an excellent article about Clemens and reputation management in an article written by Alan Schwartz in The New York Times.

Well, here’s the point. There’s no separating personal integrity and ethics. Not in baseball. Not in public relations.

I remember the 1955 Dodgers. I came home from grade school in time to see the last out of the seventh game – in all its glory on black and white TV. That was a different era. But it’s too bad that we don’t hold our public figures to the same ethical standards today.

If you’re interested in reading an exceptional book – not just about baseball but about our nation only 50 years ago – read The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn.

As a young reporter he covered the Dodgers for the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune. Then as the Boys of Summer, the Brooklyn Dodgers of 1955, left baseball and became relatively (from my point of view) old men, Kahn visited with them and wrote about their lives as baseball heroes and after they left the spotlight. These were guys who didn’t make a lot of money. And they returned to “regular” lives and jobs after their days in baseball were over.

Interested in profiles that depict personal ethics and integrity? Take a look.

Here’s a sample from the book:

The team grew old. The Dodgers deserted Brooklyn. Wreckers swarmed into Ebbets Field and leveled the stands. Soil that had felt the spikes of Robinson and Reese was washed from the faces of mewling children. The New York Herald Tribune withered, changed its face and collapsed. I covered a team that no longer exists in a demolished ball park for a newspaper that is dead.

But the lessons of the Brooklyn Dodgers of a generation ago don’t die easily, particularly when looked at in the context of today’s news: character, integrity and ethical conduct really do matter. And playing by the rules is just as important in public relations as it is in baseball.

And for my poet friends, here’s the source for the title for the book:

I see the boys of summer in their ruin

Lay the gold tithings barren,

Setting no store by harvest, freeze the soils.

Dylan Thomas