Posts Tagged ‘Public relations’

I’ve been an independent public relations consultant for 26 years now, spending part of that time running my own shop complete with a staff, and part of that time just operating as a solo practitioner.  This week, after years of preparation – studying at Syracuse for my Master’s, moving back to Oregon – I finally add teaching to the mix.  For a time I was unsure about the main message I wanted to impart to my students in an advanced public relations course, and I finally realized it’s the same message I always give to those who ask about becoming an entrepreneur: know your own values.

When you communicate on behalf of others, whether they be clients or the people in the company or organization for which you work, your communication must come from your whole self – from your heart.   Your values have to be a match. In this profession, you really cannot operate on the fence; you can’t take a job just because the pay is great or you like the benefits or the company name packs a lot of prestige with it. When you are interviewing for a job, even in this difficult economy – perhaps especially in this difficult economy – you need to be looking at the company as closely as that company is looking at you.

Likewise, if you are an independent agency or solo practitioner, you need to choose your clients carefully. A year-round retainer fee has anyone’s attention; so does a prestigious name; so does the chance to do work that will be both extremely important and extremely visible.

But the same advice holds.  There are a couple of easy examples which make the point.  Suppose you are adamantly pro-life, and your organization decides to do some work for the pro-choice people wanting to keep the option of legal abortion open for women.  Or suppose you come down strongly on the environmentalist side of things, and are asked to do some work for an open-pit mine.

Are you willing to consider a point of view at odds with your own?  Are you willing to look at a set of facts you may not have considered before?  Are you able to foresee the consequences of the work you’ll be doing? 

How has that company interviewing you reacted to a past crisis in its organization?  Was there any lying or stonewalling?  Did you like the way employees were treated during the crisis? 

These questions are more critical today than ever, because we live in a time of increased transparency and – sometimes – it seems we face increased cynicism out there.  So when it comes to communication, know yourself – and to thine own self be true, as the Bard once said.

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I’m just about to start home after a two-day board meeting with the Public Relations Society of America; I’m in my first six months of a two-year term serving on the PRSA Board of Directors.

For many, many years I was involved with non-profit boards of directors in one capacity or another, either serving on a board or reporting to a board as the person in charge of public relations and marketing.  Over the years, I began to see that people all have their own reasons and motivations for serving on a board; and that some people have their own personal agendas that they want to see fulfilled.  Some boards were very divisive as a result; some were very contentious; some didn’t get much done.

To my absolute delight, this PRSA board is different.  Our members may disagree with each other – and we do, often – but it’s with civility and congeniality.  There are no personal agendas that I’ve seen to date; if there are, people aren’t letting them interfere with the work of the board.  There doesn’t seem to be any grandstanding; people use manners; discussions are intelligent and far-reaching.

And no, I haven’t been drinking the Kool-Aid, as the saying goes.  I resisted running for national office in PRSA for quite a long time – about 6 years, to be precise. Last year, the timing seemed right, and the atmosphere seemed right.  Our fearless leader, Jeff Julin, is indeed a leader.  Among our members, some people are quiet, some are boisterous; some drill down into the details, others are big-picture visionaries; we all have expertise and strengths in various areas.  For those of us who are new to the board and still on a learning curve, there is a great deal of time and patience granted to help us get up to speed.

I’m really proud to be part of this group.  This is a forward-thinking group, genuinely doing all it can to further the cause of our profression and of PRSA.  I’m sure we’ll occassionally make decisions that people don’t agree with; I’m sure there are times when we won’t have explained ourselves as clearly as we should; I’m sure there are probably future difficulties awaiting us in various areas.  All I can say is that this is a group that works really hard on getting through an enormous amount of information, research, decision-making and outlining future directions; and that things are not falling through the cracks, but are being dealt with in every way possible.  It’s a pleasure to work with everyone.  I come away feeling energized for the future, which is exactly how I should be feeling.

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I’ve long said that those of us who work in public relations are actually translators.  We translate the language of complex business issues, scientific research, governmentese, technical concerns and more into plain English.  But we provide at least two other types of translations beyond that, and possibly three:

  • We translate meesages for different purposes: press releases, annual reports, fund-raising letters, blogs, speeches, feature articles and more;
  • We translate messages for different audiences: employees, financial backers, regulators, media, customers, allied industires.

Finally, we may need to translate across cultures, and not just internationally.  There are many cultures within cultures, and both the United States and China are good examples.  Here in the U.S., communicating with Native American tribes takes a different understanding and different language; communicating with people in the West is not at all the same as communicating with people along the Eastern Seaboard or in Washington D.C.

My friends in Missoula’s Rocky Mountain Ballet Theater, who just got back from an incredible two weeks of performing in China as part of the pre-Olympic festivities, tell the story of two towns just an hour apart who did not understand each other’s lanuage – or perhaps dialect? – even though they lived in what we think of as close proximity to each other.

I often think of the beautiful words with which Norman MacLean finished his book, “A River Runs Throught It.”  He wrote:  “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.”

Under the rocks are the words; and sometimes we have to search.

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The Mission Mountains and Flathead River in northwestern MontanaWhat do people see when they look at a scene like this?  Wilderness?  Those mountains are Montana’s Mission Mountains, are are indeed a protected wilderness area.  But the word “wilderness” can be a scary word to some people living in major metropolitan areas, along the lines of “lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”  Well, there aren’t tigers up there, but lions and bears – you bet. 

Sportsmen might see prime areas for hunting and fishing; after all, Montana has famed blue-ribbon trout streams and really big game.  Tourism is a very big part of Montana’s economy.  Yet people living in nearby towns might see a lack of jobs and a close-to-defunct economy, one that sees fewer and fewer people able to make it on one job alone.  They may resent the wealth of the tourists and hunters, and of newcomers to the state, while they struggle with what the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana calls “The Montana Discount” – substantially lower wages. 

Enviromentalists might see something pristine to be protected forever … whether or not they are aware of any mines in the area, or over-fishing, or real estate development without stream setbacks, or plans to drill for oil or gas somewhere within reach …. You get the idea.  All that you see in this photo is withing the boundaries of the Flathead Indian Reservation, home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes; do we hear their voices?

I wrote about this topic of communicating about land-use and natural resource issues in the American West for my final paper at Syracuse University.  It’s a topic I’m passionate about when it comes to public relations.  There is absolutely no one solution to these varied and complex problems; they cannot be reduced to sound bites.  I’ll be writing about them here from time to time, outlining some suggested steps and ideas for improvement.

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