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Posts Tagged ‘Public relations’

Oh, teachers – seriously?
I know it’s not politic to say the things I’m about to say, but I’m frustrated and angry. Last week, about 1 a.m. one night, I got an email from a student who’s been having a really rough term. She’s come out of the junior college system, and is one of my students. She’s an older, non-traditional student, by which I mean she’s not in the 18-22-year-old age bracket – and she’s smart. At the end of her email was a statement I’ve heard or seen one too many times:

“All this time in school I have been looking for someone to tell me what I was doing wrong so I could make it right and when it happened, I did not understand it. Up until this term, it can be said that I have been getting by. I have had instructors giving me A’s on my papers and telling me how wonderful they were. When in all reality a high school kid probably could have written better papers… I have you and I have (another professor) analyzing my papers, for the first time in my college life. I appreciate all the hard work and time you have spent on me…”

She’s right in that her papers have needed a lot of work. But hang it all, it’s not her fault. As far as I can tell, it’s the teachers she had in high school and junior college who simply did not drill the basics of the English language into her head.

And no, this is not an isolated Oregon problem. When I first started teaching over seven years ago at a couple of public universities (in a couple of different states), I was shocked at what I was seeing. I checked in with my public relations colleagues teaching all across the country. “These kids can’t write!” I shouted through cyberspace. “They’re darned near illiterate!” To my dismay, they said, “Welcome to the club.” They were fighting the same battles. A whole generation seemed to be slipping away in a muddy whirlpool of illiteracy.

I finally started asking the students themselves what on earth had happened. When we’d get midway through a term and I was still being handed papers that were more or less at a junior high school level, I asked them how they were graded in high school (or in any previous college classes), and what they were taught. What they have said, very consistently, is that they weren’t taught grammar, punctuation or spelling; and that their teachers graded them only on intent.

Are you freaking kidding me? Seriously, teachers? How on earth can you gauge intent if the grammar is so mangled the message is obscured? How can you gauge intent when an entire essay is just “stream of consciousness” writing, rambling and disjointed, with little or no relevance to the topic at hand?

O.K., I’ll throw in something for the benefit of the doubt: maybe the problem is not with the teachers. I’ve never taught in a K-12 system or at a junior college, so for all I know the problem is with school administrators, school boards, and bureaucrats in general. Maybe people who never step foot inside a classroom decide what teachers should teach, and how, and then tie the whole mess to public funding. I don’t know.

Nor do I know if you can blame lack of parental support for the fact that a teacher is grading on intent and overlooking grammar and spelling. Conversely, too much parental support can also undermine a student. One colleague at a public university called her students “sweet little snowflakes.” I asked her why, and she said “Because nobody’s ever told them anything different.”

Sometimes we’ll see a news report about educators who pad grades in order to make test results look good or graduation rates look good – all at the expense of the students, who remain woefully uneducated.

I don’t know where the real problem lies, but I sure have some questions. How can any of us justify turning out minimally-educated students with a casual “good luck” as they try to make their way in the outside world? Why are we – the so-called educators – throwing this burden over to the businesses who now have to tell the students they just can’t cut it? When did we lose the understanding that you don’t give a kid self-esteem – he or she has to earn it? When did we forget that softening grades means we don’t believe a student can learn? When did we lose sight of the fact that constant praise will make a kid constantly feel entitled to more constant praise without constantly doing something to earn it? Deep down, those kids know it’s all a pretense; they know.

When I ran my public relations firm, I used to say I would so love it if I could get paid just for showing up in the morning. Instead, for some perverse reason, I would only get paid if I produced results. So I did. And so must our students. We are expressing faith in them when we challenge them; we are doing them – and our entire society – a terrible disservice if we give them constant praise, padded grades and grade them only on intent. That’s a direct and underhanded message that we don’t believe they can do it.

Seriously.

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Feb. 26, 2015
There are a number of people out there calling themselves public relations professionals who are anything but. The most recent example to hit my desk this morning: http://m.motherjones.com/politics/2015/02/cfpb-us-consumer-coalition-brian-wise-elizabeth-warren

This is an article about a grassroots organization called the US Consumer Coalition. Here are excerpts from the first two paragraphs: “Based off its name alone, the US Consumer Coalition—which bills itself as a “grassroots organization” that exists to “build bridges, ensure public awareness and mobilize the powerful voices of consumers and business owners….

“Yet last month, Brian Wise, one of the group’s founders, penned an op-ed in the Hill attacking the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the consumer protection agency that came into existence in 2011 thanks to Elizabeth Warren. The CFPB crafts financial rules to protect ordinary consumers—making mortgage applications simple, preventing banks from hiding fees and charges, and cracking down on payday lenders…”

Turns out the US Consumer Coalition is run and staffed by a public relations firm, and the firm won’t disclose who the client is in back of this. It looks to be a partisan effort, in that it’s apparently a lot of GOP operatives involved, but that doesn’t matter. The point is that it’s a front group. People of all political persuasions can be (and often are) guilty of this.

Our PRSA Code of Ethics addresses this kind of behavior. Under the “Disclosure of Information section is this: “A member shall reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented.” A violation of this section specifically mentions front groups: “A member implements grass roots campaigns or letter writing campaigns to legislators on behalf of undisclosed interest groups.” http://www.prsa.org/AboutPRSA/Ethics/CodeEnglish/index.html#.VO-HBeFc4xI

Though not exactly parallel, my scariest full disclosure moment is worth repeating here. I was hired by a firm representing the Montana Air National Guard and by extension the U.S. Air Force, on a project in north central Montana. The Air National Guard wanted to build a practice (dummy) air-to-ground training range adjacent to tribally-owned land in the area. At the time, I had started a nationwide group to fight the military’s experimental, highly reactive, mandatory anthrax vaccine. On one hand I was working for the Pentagon, and on the other hand I was fighting Pentagon policy tooth and nail. I called the officer in charge of the project and told her what I was doing. She said “Hmmm. I’ll have to run it by our attorneys in the Pentagon.” I had a few restless nights, waiting for the results. About two weeks later the reply came back: Tell her it’s fine; she just needs to keep the two projects completely separate. I did, and we continued our work. Later on I was a real grassroots lobbyist, walking the halls of Congress twice on the anthrax vaccine issue – as a private citizen.

Take care out there. Most of us have issues about which we care deeply, and choices are not easy – especially when money is involved. Never put a price on your own integrity.

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Distractions from fear –James Bovard quote

The news has become overwhelming in recent months.  From the mass shootings in our public places to the first notice of a gun created entirely by a 3-D printer; from the tragic plane crash in San Francisco to the horrific loss of 19 Hotshot firefighters in Arizona – all around us, voices tell us to be afraid.  And they’re telling us we should not merely be afraid; we should be terrified — the world around us holds terrors from the minute we wake up in the morning.  I’ve said for many years that the most frequent headline in the media is some version of, “Could THIS happen to YOU?”

While not minimizing the tragedies of life, it seems to me that fear has a contagious hold on our society – but it is a different kind of fear than that rooted in the dangers of an accident or approaching wildfire.  This kind of fear takes root in a virulent way among some of us who have, perhaps, gotten lost in the echo chamber of the Internet or been too captivated by the evening news.  We tend to listen to opinions like our own and stories that feed our fear instead of gathering information and facts from multiple sources.  A young woman recently posted a suggestion on Facebook that we do without a president entirely and see how that works.  I teasingly wrote back and asked her if she was suggesting anarchy, and she wrote back “That’s what we have now.”  I told her if she’d ever been overseas and seen or lived with real anarchy, she wouldn’t say that.  There was no reply.

I felt in ways I was echoing a recent column by Leonard Pitts, Jr., the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who writes for the Miami Herald.  In his May 11, 2013 column, he examined what he aptly called “the great American panic machine,” which he described as “the mechanism by which the extreme right works itself into spasms of apoplectic terror over threats that don’t exist.”  But it’s not only the extreme right that gives into these spasms of terror; I think the phenomenon is widespread throughout our society right now among people of all political and religious persuasions.  Pitts goes on to give some examples:

“‘We’re going to be under shariah law!’

Except, we’re not.

‘We’ve become a socialist county!’

Except we haven’t.

‘There’s a war on Christmas!’

Except there isn’t.

‘They’re trying to take our guns away!’

Except that it is now theoretically possible for a mental patient to manufacture his own gun in the comfort of his aluminum foil-lined basement.”

That’s where the 3-D printer comes in; such a scenario could become quite real. The point that Pitts is making is one that becomes obvious even in this brief excerpt: we are so busy fighting imaginary terrors that we are not prepared for the real threats that do exist.

The media have been complicit in this arrangement for years.  Fear sells; scandal sells.  The unusual has come to be portrayed as the usual.  We have become a society that does not know the difference between news and entertainment, because the media have peddled “infotainment” to us for a long, long time.

We are inundated with scandal, mayhem and murder, natural disasters and more, until we are sure that is the normal run of our daily lives. And we are fascinated; we get to watch a never-ending horror story, and it captivates us.  It also makes us sure that what we are afraid of has taken over.  The old saying that you create what you fear seems all too relevant today.

At last year’s annual conference put on by my professional organization, the Public Relations Society of America, I started hearing a disturbing definition of the news given by some of the country’s most prestigious PR firms.  “News,” several of them said, “is what’s important enough to find me.”

Gulp.  That means news is what I prefer to see and hear, what I prefer to digest, what I find compatible with my values and opinions – or what most entertains me. News is contained in those keywords I enter into search engines to find out what I want to know, not necessarily what I should know.  We – you and I, the audience out there – are in control now.  I tell my students this, particularly when we study social media and what it means for public communication.

Is that healthy for us? To some degree, certainly: we can find information on nearly any subject we want now, and we have a much greater chance to build perspective and garner insight.  In addition, the concept of transparency has taken on a whole new meaning.  For most of us, doing something unethical or even illegal online means we have about 30 seconds of anonymity left – and that’s not always bad.

But in another sense, it’s one of the worst things that could have happened.  We are free to ignore news and opinions that we don’t like or that make us uncomfortable.  We are free to talk only with others who share our beliefs.  We are free to ignore history, to ignore anything we might ever have been taught about civic life or the structure of society in general. We can concentrate on the alarming, the sensational, the scandalous, and all those things which worry us and entertain us on a daily basis.

In short, we are free to give in to fear. And we do, regularly – you’ve probably heard about the 7-year-old suspended for gunplay using his hands (http://cbsloc.al/X3PPoT ).  When we give into fear, we also surrender to a sense of helplessness. We have learned that there’s really nothing we can do.  A recent Bill Moyers interview made this point (http://www.prx.org/pieces/99843-moyers-company-show-227-distracted-from-democra#description).   Media scholar Marty Kaplan, head of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, notes:  “We are paying attention to the wrong things… we are paying attention to infotainment, which is being spoon-fed to us – and sadly, we love the stuff.  The tragedy of journalism now is that it is demand-driven…   we have been taught to be helpless and jaded, rather than to feel empowered… ”

The consequences of giving into this contagion of fear are at least two-fold. First, we become numb to the next warnings coming down the pipeline, and so may ignore the whole issue of whatever is causing the need for an alarm to be sounded in the first place. Secondly, as Leonard Pitts so accurately states, we ignore or simply overlook those things that truly should cause fear in us. The fact that you can now print a gun using a 3D printer should alarm us, no matter which side of the gun control debate we are on; the erosion of our First Amendment rights continues apace; the corruption of our political system is something we look away from, helpless – and jaded.

I hear echoes of 1967, when Timothy Leary’s misunderstood mantra took hold of so many in my generation: “Turn on, tune in, drop out” – but with more literal electronic meanings today.

Is there anything we can do as individuals to make a difference?  My experience tells me there is.  Back in 2000, my son, then in the Air Force, was required to start the series of anthrax vaccine shots.  He and his wife were thoroughly alarmed, and asked me to look into it.  I happened to be visiting them between John’s first and second shots, and so one night I borrowed his computer and spent long hours researching.  At first, everything was reassuring.  However, the more I dug down through the pixels, the more alarmed I became.  Here was a vaccine that was not licensed; that did not have peer-reviewed, published research in back of it; that was causing multiple, severe, life-long health problems including grand mal seizures, complete loss of testosterone, severe hemorrhaging, tumors, cysts, severe bone and joint pain, and more – including death.

Long story short, I joined with others across the nation to protest.  Our protests – which included walking the halls of Congress – stayed largely within the military community.  We realized that it was only when people were personally affected that we would see a change in the civilian population.

Years later, there was a proposal to conduct an anthrax vaccine research program on children – civilian children.  It was soundly defeated.  All our years of trying to get the word out had paid off; people had seen our information online, they’d read the stories in the.  They knew enough to be alarmed – and they said no.

Wherever we are, whatever our interests, we can make a difference. We have to make a difference.  We need to get involved in our own corners of the world because even the smallest of actions can have a ripple effect.  Courage, faith and critical thinking can be just as contagious as fear.  Turn on, tune in – and engage.

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I’m a news junkie – no question about it.  I’m sure it started just before I went to journalism school back in the late ’70s, when I was writing for a tiny weekly newspaper in southern Oregon.  As I moved into my public relations career, it became a growing addiction.  I have to monitor the news, I often said during my years in Montana. I hate to wake up and find a client on the front page for the wrong reason.  That had some validity to it at the time.

But then I started teaching at the university level, and it all got worse.  I have to monitor it, I say, because I have to know what’s going on in order to give my student real-world lessons and help them see the changes in our society.  That has some validity to it, too.

But still, I think all that news watching and monitoring may be doing me in.  Most of the so-called news is nothing I can do anything about – yet the news is presented in such a way that I actually find myself asking if I have an obligation to care.  There are a couple of pieces of news this week that may (or may not) affect my life and that have my attention: there’s a former teacher, into child porn,who has escaped prison and appears to be wandering around in the next town over.  There’s a new school bond issue coming up, and I should probably go to one of the informational meetings about it.  It looks like it’ll stop raining by the weekend and I can get out and get more yard work done.

Here the things I’ve learned from the news this morning, however:

  1. Donald Trump has no sense of humor.  That’s actually not news.
  2. If I have a hankering to visit Acapulco, it’s probably best to postpone.
  3. This person named Arias, who has admitted to killing her boyfriend, or fiance, or whoever he was?  Why do we need to be subjected to her entire sex life?
  4.  More and more people are being brought up on sex charges – or sexting charges.  Senators.  Teachers.  A police chief.    A prison guard.  This is new?  Or are we just now obsessed with it?
  5. Our military is going to have a decreased level of readiness because of budget cuts.  They haven’t paid our troops well in years; many enlisted families use food stamps and live in substandard housing.  Who’s the decider on this one?
  6. Hollywood celebrities apparently have great sway with Congress when it comes to gun control.  Either that, or our esteemed Senators and representatives want to see what they look like without makeup.
  7. Japan and China continue to edge closer to war over those tiny islands.  Uninhabited, I believe.  And Korea threatens to launch a missile that will reach those of us here on the left coast.  These things feel like trying to be prepared for an earthquake; I’ve got my supplies stashed in an outbuilding, but should I wander around in constant fear?
  8. Across the (Columbia) river in Washington state, an accidentally released inmate is now back in jail.  Not the first time; won’t be the last.  We jail more people per capita than any other country in the world.  Are staff shortages the real problem?
  9. Diets are bad for you.  Not dieting could risk your health.  Soft drinks are bad for you.  Caffeine may actually be a boon to your health.  Is there an IV nearby?  One that will make these decisions for me?
  10. The game of Monopoly seems to have gotten rid of the wrong piece.  Does that mean the game I keep for guests at my summer cottage is now completely out of date?

I think I’m going to be glad when the post office stops delivering Saturday mail.  I can postpone a whole batch of useless information and bills until Monday.  Meantime, registering as someone with chronic depression brought on by the daily news has crossed my mind. I’m wondering if there’s an app for that.

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I recently posted an article for my students entitled “The skills employers desire in today’s PR pro.” (http://linkd.in/rFp1fz)

Written by Arik Hanson for Ragan’s PR Daily (Nov. 17), the article is actually a series of short interviews, asking working professionals what skills and attitudes are most valuable to them when they hire new practitioners.  Good writing and storytelling came up frequently, as we would expect; so did a driving curiosity.  Strategic thinking, conceptual thinking, the ability to use metrics and analysis – these all come up as well.  One person mentioned creativity and resourcefulness, and several mentioned the ability to combine the effects of social media and traditional media; I think any of us who have been in the field for any length of time would agree with those thoughts as well.

But in today’s marketplace – and particularly for those looking for a job – I want to add a couple of things: dogged determination and a willingness to go back to Square 1.  I was an entrepreneur for over 25 years, and still work independently for various clients in addition to my teaching duties.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to remind myself of my brother’s very good advice:  “Turn over every stone.”  The willingness to look everywhere and anywhere for the next job or the next client is critical in a down market; the ability to keep going without giving up is both exhausting and necessary.

Couple with that determination has to be a willingness to go back to Square 1, and by that I mean a willingness to start at the beginning – again.  The salary or hourly rate may be lower; the benefits may not be there; you may have to build from scratch all over again, or – if this is your first time out in the work world – you may need to lower your expectations and be willing to accept a less-than-ideal job.  In this market, a job is a job.  Being open and flexible to something that is not what you have hoped for – or indeed, even worked for – will take you farther in the log run than waiting until that perfect job or high-rolling client comes along. I’ve often told my students that if they can’t find an entry-level PR job they should consider something in media sales – selling advertising space and time.  Learning the other side of media and learning to sell are two extremely valuable sets of skills to have for anyone in public communication.  You learn to deal with people; you learn what makes people tick.  You learn the differences between advertising, promotion, marketing and media relations from the inside out.  You’ll never forget any of that training.

Remember that looking for a job while you’re employed – at all!  – is the best way to look for a job.  Your relationships are still there, and you still have the opportunity to build new relationships; you’re not holed up somewhere just wishing.

Last spring I asked a couple of students what they planned to do after graduation.  One said, “Oh, I don’t know.  I haven’t planned, really.  I’m sure something good will come along.”  I cringed.  Good things don’t just happen to us; we have to go out and make them happen.  As I used to say when running my public relations firm in Montana, “No one pays me just for showing up.  Somehow or another, I always have to produce results.”

That’s how it is now for anyone changing careers or just starting out in the work force: no one’s going to pay you for being a great, competent person who is simply out there looking.  You have to turn over every stone; you have to persevere; you have to remain open and flexible; you have to lower your expectations or be willing to start again at Square 1.  You may be really lucky and land something fairly quickly that proves to be a great fit for both you and your employer or client.   But more than likely, you’ll find you need patience, resourcefulness, and a dogged belief in yourself and your future.  The future isn’t what it used to be; but it’s there.

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I’m about to start teaching my two seminars in social media and public relations again for Marylhurst University, and although I’m always really excited about these classes, they also take the most amount of research and preparation for just about any class that I teach.  The social media world changes so quickly that I’m generally in a small panic just before the first day of class, hoping that what I present is both timely and relevant.  Then I remember that in these particular seminars, we’ll all be teaching each other; my job is simply to present the road map for how to get where we’re going.

Nevertheless, here I am on New Year’s Day researching again, and grateful to fall back on some of the best social media minds out there.  For example, just before Christmas Deidre Breakenridge posted some tips on engaging with Twitter and Facebook: http://www.deirdrebreakenridge.com/2010/12/how-to-engage-on-facebook-and-twitter/.

And Brian Solis, who is not just brilliant but a lot of fun in his presentations, has written a post titled “Once More, with Feeling: Making Sense of Social Media:

http://www.briansolis.com/2010/07/once-more-with-feeling-making-sense-of-social-media/

I start to relax a little when I realize how many sources are out there, and how many more sources my students will no doubt contribute to the class.  Online learning becomes a team effort, and we all move forward together: that’s one of the best things about it.  Rather than serve as some kind of authoritarian instructor, which puts almost unbearable pressure on me, I can simply open a few doors for my students and encourage them to walk through; they get it almost immediately.  Empowered, they go beyond what I realized what possible in any given class.

I’m also re-doing a client’s web site, have plans to re-do my own web sites – one for my private consulting, one for my particular service to our troops and veterans – and I swear, this year, I’ll be more consistent about blogs, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Plaxo.  I do find, as some of my colleagues do, that after and eight- or 10-hour stint on the computer each day, I’m not always amenable to chat time or computer games.

Meantime, I’m preparing to teach another Marylhurst seminar on the law and ethics of public relations and a class in public relations writing for the University of Montana.  My students range from traditional college-aged students (up to their early 30s or so) in Montana to mostly older working adults at Marylhurst, with a few younger exceptions.  Without fail, these students really want to learn – but they also have vastly different learning styles across the generations.   One of my over-arching goals is to help equip all of my students with some of the skills they’ll need to compete in today’s difficult economic climate.  That’s not an easy task, for any of us; I research and write, they read and write, we talk and discuss and collaborate and dig in.   But by the end of each term, there are those students whom you know are going to zoom for the stars.

And that keeps people like me chugging right along… so here’s to 2011 and the adventures that I know lie ahead!

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A reply to this blog:

http://bit.ly/dxV6K4

 This is getting curiouser and curiouser, as Alice said. Mr. Adler, if you’ll permit me, a couple of corrections to your blog, to wit:
1. Jill Geisler’s column in no way led to my post. My post, as clearly stated, was in response to a friend – a public relations colleague who teaches at the university level. It was in response to a private e-mail, and with her permission, I made my response public.
2. There is no way that I feel journalists have “invaded” public relations; I don’t know where you got that. What I said was that companies need to provide former journalists more training if they are going to hire them for public relations jobs – in no small part because public relations does not consist solely of media relations.
3. I made a point of saying that I teach former journalists in my public relations classes. They themselves recognize they need new and different training. What upset both me and my colleague was something you said fairly well in your blog – managers tend to think it’s “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to professional communications. Good journalists are great at a lot of things; none of us is great at everything.

I remain a little astonished at the harsh feelings this created. I made a point of saying that we all need continued training in this day and age, no matter our original discipline. If I were to stop practicing public relations and go back into journalism, I would fully expect to get more and updated training – possibly very different training, since 30 years have passed. I have no feeling of injured pride about that in the slightest; I would just want to be good at what I do. And if that took different training for a different discipline, I would go and get that training. That’s all I’m saying about journalists. If they are being hired by companies who expect them to do a full public relations job without more training than that required by the media relations end of the discipline, then it’s those companies which are in error – not the journalists.

There’s nothing wrong with needing more training when moving to a new and different discipline, no matter how strong one’s current skills are; there IS something wrong with managers thinking one good journalist can be bent and molded to fit all other aspects of public relations without some help. Nor would I expect an experienced marketer to suddenly cross over from product promotion to managing reputation or handling crisis without more training. I’m just not sure why that’s a cause for injured pride, or why anyone should take this so personally. It was never meant that way, but certainly a lot of people feel this is a touchy subject. I still say we all need all the training we can get in this day and age, and it’s no black mark on any of us. In fact, it only generates admiration and respect from me when I find I have a former or unemployed journalist in one of my classes; that person is committed to growth in the face of enormous change, and that person has guts.

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