Sunday, May 31, 2009

When PR is in the news

Occasionally, we in the PR industry will find ourselves in the middle of a story rather than trying to assist a client with one. These situations will generally test an individuals skills in handling the scrutiny. And there is scrutiny from all corners. If we, as public relations pros, are not able to help ourselves in a crisis or otherwise difficult situation, then how can we help others?

Patrick O'Reilly is a good friend. He and I worked for the same firm - Stoorza. Now, he's in the news and, so far, seems to be riding it out well.

As this story points out, Patrick has many supporters. This is no accident. The good will Patrick has built up over the years with a large audience is paying off.

This fact, and a few other thoughts, prompt me to offer an observation.

Should a PR executive hire his or her own outside PR counsel in times like these? Attorneys do, so why not us? The reason to hire outside counsel is simple: if you are under a cloud and being questioned, you usually can't offer objective advice to yourself. Yet, in our industry, we know that hiring a PR counsel actually can increase the scrutiny. "It must be bad because he's hired a PR company."

Well, no one really needs to know about whether you hired outside PR counsel. Chances are, most of us would call a respected colleague, someone we trust would give us honest, unvarnished advice. Free advice is OK, but if the situation requires it - paid counsel should be considered. We would insist with clients to hire us to manage a crisis. It's no sign of weakness to hire counsel. It simply goes back to the simple fact that you can't look at your situation objectively, thus increasing the risk that you may do or say something that makes matters worse.


Saturday, May 30, 2009

Reporters and Twitter

Talk about breaking news..

It wasn't too long ago I thought I would receive "up to the minute" news by signing up on CNN, The Wall Street Journal, MSNBC and a few other sites for breaking news. The alerts would come into my emails. Bam. I would be getting news as it breaks.

But with Twitter, breaking news is traveling even faster - as the editor of LA reports.

And with Twitter, most reporters offer some interesting tidbits and observations that never make it to the final story.

So now the question becomes, how many reporters do you follow on Twitter?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Will newspapers charge for stories?

If you did not catch this, listen to (or read) today's (May 28) story on NPR about how newspapers and traditional news media outlets are now starting to look at ways to charge readers to see their stories online.

Ironically, you can listen to this for free or read it for free. NPR simply asks for a donation. Hmmmm. What if the NY Times asked for donations?

Twitter and the Swine Flu

The still-active-story on the swine (oops, the H1N1 Virus) flu is creating much debate and discussion about a vital part of the public relations process - how to effectively communicate with the general public.

Scientists, especially those at the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization, are concerned that the significant attention (some argue it was needless "hype") given to the initial outbreak may have actually created a "cry wolf" scenario that will make it even more difficult to convey warnings and information when the flu is expected to make a strong comeback in the fall. (See today's Wall Street Journal about what we may be facing).

And if indeed we now have a general population who won't heed warnings and messages in a few months because they felt over-sold at the initial outbreak, how will public relations strategies be crafted to ensure an effective information campaign when it's really needed?

Let's start looking at this from the beginning.

It appears the public relations situation we now face is rooted in two phenomenons:

1. The "Body Count" and comparisons. The public is keeping track of how many have been "stricken" and how many have died. A low number of deaths (95 so far worldwide, 11 in the U.S.), seems to tell us that this flu is not all that bad - especially when you look at what other diseases are doing! (A few of my colleagues like to make these comparisons, and others like to make jokes about people wearing masks). We PR types sometime compete against one another, especially when it comes to health issues. For instance, it's difficult to conduct a swine flu informational campaign when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation receives a lot of worldwide public attention (rightfully so) for spending millions to prevent the nearly 900,000 annual deaths from malaria.

2. Speed of news and attention spans. Our concern for issues is now resembling the memory capacity of a goldfish. As we get news faster (from Twitter, especially), our capacity to maintain a focus on any story is diminished. If we begin to talk to a friend about a story that happened last week, we immediately get dismissed for bringing up something that is "old news." (My favorite line among my Twitter-savvy friends is "Yeah, I read this yesterday" as if I was being told to "move on" to a new topic.)

Did we over-react to the swine flu warning?

If you listen to various pundits or even some of my colleagues, their conclusion is: Yes.

If you can get some scientists to talk publicly about it, they would say: thank God we did over-react.

What some scientists and public health officials privately say is that their "heightened" attention and the level of concern publicly displayed at the start of the outbreak actually did its job. Because so many people took precautions and countries, like Mexico, took drastic measures - the flu was effectively contained. The low numbers of infection and death are the result of people actually taking steps - because they were warned to do so.

So now, these scientists and health officials say, they are being penalized for a job well done. The current discussion should be turned around from one of unnecessary hype to job well done and let's remain vigilant.

For my colleagues who are using Twitter for their marketing and product campaigns, take a look at the ongoing study by two Stanford researchers who are tracking Twitter responses to the flu. So far, this study provides a fascinating peak into what may be a momunental shift in public perceptions and behaviors.

Also, keep track of online surveys, such as the one is conducting, begging the question: Are you afraid of the flu? (Spoiler alert: Most responses say "No" because they feel it's an over-reaction.)

Finally, to my PR colleagues who will be involved in developing and implementing flu-related information campaigns later this year, I envy the lead time you have to develop an effective strategy. It will be educational to watch the fall informational campaign and how you overcome the obstacles I mention here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

More about water and public sentiment

Perhaps the San Jose State University survey was correct. (see earlier post).

A story in today's San Diego Union Tribune points out that consumers are snapping up water conservation rebates so fast, the program operated by my former employer is running out of cash.

According to the people quoted in the story, they want water-saving devices and products because (a) they understand the value of water conservation and (b) it saves money in the long run.

These were the two prime motivating factors among respondents to the San Jose State survey.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Motivating the public to save water

Convincing Californians to save water is no easy task.

Ever since the state received a "wake up call" in the early 1990s about water supply and how to manage the state's periodic droughts, dozens if not hundreds of smart, experienced communicators and public relations professionals (me included) have developed and managed various programs to get the average resident and the typical business owner to use less water.

Success with these programs is varied, yet more outreach campaigns with various themes and messages are being launched this year. (What's your reaction to this one?)

Public outreach programs are critical to the success of water conservation programs because, like save energy, saving water is controlled largely by individual choice. With energy, we humans turn off the lights, make a conscious decision to buy CFL bulbs or turn up the thermostat and live with a warmer house or office. With water, we humans control water consumption by how often we water our lawns or replace lawns with native plants, the length of our showers and using a broom instead of a hose to sweep the driveway.

As with any public relations/public outreach campaign, research is critical to the process in terms of figuring out what will motivate people to change behavior, run to the home improvement store to buy drought-tolerant plants or take advantage of a rebate program to install low-flow toilets and other water-saving devices.

Today comes a study from San Jose State University's Survey and Policy Research Institute that suggests prime motivators to conserve water in 2009 are protecting the environment and saving money.

We'll see.

Right now, a handful of cities and water agencies are declaring water emergencies to force conservation. The list will grow as the impacts from the governor's drought declaration continue and our reservoirs dry up.

The state recently launched a "Save Our Water" program based on the success of the "Flex Your Power" program for energy (which was born from a statewide energy crisis). Behind the Save Our Water program are some fundamental issues about our state's water supply, how it is managed and the well-documented need to invest billions of dollars in water infrastructure improvements. It also is part of the state's response to the governor's executive order for a permanent 20% water-use reduction in urban areas by 2020.

So, it will be interesting to watch public reaction in 2009 and beyond. Will grand social experiments work? Will mandates be the answer?

In some regions, residents will change behavior because they are forced to (like in Long Beach and other cities with emergency declarations).

If we believe the San Jose State study, many of us will use less water because we are reducing our expenses, or because we are living a "green" life. Or, a combination.

And will water-saving behavior remain a permanent way of life? Or, like in the last drought that ended in 1992 - will we forgot all this as soon as the reservoirs are full again and the emergency declarations are removed?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Change the RFPs

Public relations colleagues have long complained about the complexity and investment of submitting a response to a public Request for Proposal.

Now, it gets worse.

In the current economy, some public agencies have cancelled bids AFTER the deadline to submit.

I experienced this situation not once, but twice. One with a California water agency, the other with a state north of California. In both cases, the agencies woke up suddenly and realized they would not have the money to pay for the services due to the recession. At least, that's what we were led to believe because the agencies did not disclose the reasons for suddenly cancelling the bids. Just a dry statement - "Cancelled. No rebid."

Sure, it's understandable that a public agency suddenly realizes the economy is screeching to a halt, revenues are declining and it's time to eliminate projects. But how these situations are being handled pose two problems.

First, be open and honest. If you are going to cancel a bid, tell us why. Actually, we will understand that "hiring a PR firm" when revenues are down and you're cutting services may create complications. We get it. Public perceptions about PR agencies working for government are tough enough in a good economy.

Secondly, try to make this decision BEFORE we spend considerable time and money in preparing a bid. A down economy hurts us, too. To take time away from paying work - or the search for work and our own desperate marketing efforts - hurts our pocketbook, too.

Now, let's look to the future. In this down economy, one can assume there are fewer bids being prepared. With some extra time on your hands, this is a perfect time for the contract departments to review the bid process and make it more business friendly. The lengthy process actually discourages some of the best and brightest from submitting. We know you have heard this before, but give us a call. We'll give you some constructive suggestions.

And, let's use this "down time" to have open and honest discussions about the value of using public relations services.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A company's asset is brand equity

In this article in PRSAY (the PRSA blog) about the financial status of the public relations industry, PRSA President Mike Cherenson reminds us that nearly half of a company's net worth is tied up in intangible assets like brand equity and reputation.

Who manages these assets?

How many unemployed in PR?

While I track down the Labor Department statistics, we may get a good idea of the employment scene in Los Angeles when the Public Relations Society of America/Los Angeles chapter on May 20 holds a unique (and rare daytime) session called "Don't Get Kicked in Your Career."

I am hopeful that colleagues - whether they are out of work, struggling to get by on freelance jobs or fear they are next - will put aside any pride issues and show up.

From personal experience, I know that half of 2008 and all of 2009 have been a rough time for all levels of practitioners. Agency owners tell me of the difficult task of laying off valued staff. Budget cuts have transitioned dozens into new eras of their careers. Newcomers to Los Angeles are nervous after spending months looking. College graduates entering the marketplace this month and next are perhaps the most concerned.

One group that doesn't appear to have too many problems are former journalists. At least the veterans. Agencies, governments and others are quickly snatching up these former reporters - primarily for their connections. (Who wouldn't want a business reporter who was on the phone with corporate CEOs?)

One thing PRSA and other organizations can provide, besides a shoulder to cry on, is networking. And that leads to jobs. Case in point: At a recent PRSA/LA social mixer, I introduced an unemployed transplant to the owner of a start-up PR consultancy. Within a few weeks, the transplant is back doing what she loves. It's not full-time work, but it's a start. Mediabistro recently discovered there is a place called LA and held a social mixer here last month.

I would like to hear your stories on what you are doing to survive. Started your own firm? Changed careers? Start now.

Monday, May 4, 2009

It's here, but too late

For those who have known me since college, I always dreamed of the "next step" for newspaper delivery. This would be one that saves costs and eliminates the minimum-wage delivery system. No offense to the paperboy or the guy who is trying to get a little extra cash for the family (heck, my brother-in-law did this to help make ends meet).

But if technology could find a way to get me a newspaper to my home without the occasional interruption or failure, that would increase a newspaper's net worth. At least, that's how I viewed it. Think about it. A newspaper spends a considerable amount of money on reporters, editors, photographers, printing presses, paper, etc., and leaves the final step to some poor kid on a bike or a guy driving a beat up car. And you hope his throw doesn't send the paper onto to the roof, or that one puddle in front of your house.

Saving money. Increasing reliability. Improving customer service. Keeping up with technology. For those who knew me back then, you got sick of this former journalist's rants about delivery improvements.

When I worked at newspapers, I kept a hope alive in my thoughts that technology would help advance newspapers in some way. With college lectures about how Ted Turner's 24-hour TV news service would spell the end of newspapers still vivid in my psyche, I always held a fear that other forms of communication would someday have a negative impact on the profession I so dearly loved.

My dream was to use cable, telephone lines or some other "electronic routing" to homes to somehow magically make a real newspaper appear inside your home. There would be some kind of tube where the printed edition is formed and I would just reach in and grab it. Gone would be the middle guy. Reliability was improved. Costs are cut. Everyone wins. (Well, except for the delivery folks).

So, now, as newspapers collapse around us, comes Amazon and a new Kindle to handle newspapers. This was the dream. It's here.

But, I think it comes too late.