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PR has its own shoes

Big nod to Steve Rubel for finding this juicy article from the Economist about PR filling the shoes of the stumbling advertising business. At the onset I was enjoying it. But the more I read the less inclined I was to not grit my teeth and clench my fists. The unsettling began with this phrase, “PR is an increasingly vital marketing tool” and then proceeded to offend me even more. I took particular issue with this segment:

The goal of PR is usually to secure positive coverage in the media, and the well-worn tactics include calling a press conference, pitching stories directly to journalists, arranging eye-catching events, setting up interviews and handing out free samples. But as PR profits from advertising’s difficulties, it is taking up a host of new stratagems—and seeking to move up the corporate pecking order.

In his book Value-Added Public Relations Thomas L. Harris admits that PR is a great tool for marketers because it gives marketing the credibility factor. Well, yeah!

I don’t know what your personal definition of public relations is, but I do not define it by how it is used by marketing. Can marketing and public relations work together to achieve some great goals? Yes. But I get really tired of people – marketers, advertisers, or any other communication people – who refer to public relations when what they are really talking about publicity. Is publicity a part of public relations? Yes. But I also consider advertising a subset of marketing. I mean, doesn’t advertising belong to one of the Ps? Promotion? Can public relations be used for promotion? Yes, excellently so, but that doesn’t mean that public relations is a marketing tool. It’s making the role of PR subservient to other parts of an organization and I disagree with that. PR is an entity in and of itself. PR is about communicating with the organization’s publics – all of them – not just consumers. Excellent PR affects the environment in which an organization exists, but not just to sell or create buzz about products. The article also goes on to say:

Some PR firms see an opportunity to move up their clients’ hierarchy—becoming not just service providers, but also purveyors of strategic advice to senior management.

Yes. PR is a strategic management function. Management function, not marketing tool. I do wholeheartedly believe that PR should have the ear of senior management; PR should be at the table. But it is not a tool for any specific part of the an organization, like a hammer, it is the arm that swings the hammer, that works in tandem with the rest of the organization.

The article, in my opinion, covers some interesting ground and makes a good point. Advertising is struggling and PR is stepping up to fill those shoes, but I just disliked the wording of the piece. Maybe I’m being oversensitive or unrealistic, but that’s just how I feel about it. Someone convince me otherwise. PR has its own shoes.

Kryptonite II – I blinked and missed it

I hate to rehash what amounts to an enormous and severely beaten topic, but I just have to know. Where did I miss the second half of this debacle? From a PR standpoint, this certainly takes a revisit. Apologies if you’re tired of the subject.

For those of you who don’t know (and I imagine a fair many of you don’t, so that’s okay), I’ll try to sum it up for you.

This is an incredibly simplified version. See the links below for more detailed information.

Kryponite Lock is a company that makes, you guessed it, bike locks. In 2004 several videos circulated across the Internet demonstrating how to defeat a certain type of lock style with a typical ballpoint pen. The news originally broke on an “online forum,” and this is important later on. This spells bad news for Kryptonite, right? Well, the blogosphere went crazy and there was quite an uproar even in some traditional mediums. Things got blown out of proportion – as I hope to detail in later posts – because of the mob mentality of parts of the blogosphere. I say “parts of the blogosphere” not all. But I’m digressing.

So to make a long story longer, this went on for some time and finally Kryptonite offered a lock exchange program to replace (here’s a interesting note) not only the pickable locks, but many other locks as well at a significant cost to the company. Sounds great. Word is that Kryptonite suffered irrepairable losses because of this crisis, which could have been avoided if only they had been monitoring the blogosphere. Is this true? Could it have been avoided? Were they not being constantly vigilant?

Well guess what, maybe they were.

Kryptonite has become the poster child for “Blogosphere Monitoring, how NOT to do it,” and why not? Well, because Donna Tocci, Public Relations Manager for Kryponite, argues that they were watching, they knew about it from day one. I did some online snooping and came across several blog interviews with Tocci that range from April 2005, to December 2005 (see the links below for more information). Here are my new thoughts about the issue:

  • Too slow to see? No. Tocci indicates they knew about it from day one. The interviews go into chronological detail (especially the Naked Conversations blog post). Good eye, but it’s what you do with that information that matters.
  • Too slow to talk? I say yes. Donna admits that maybe they could have communicated better. It’s a relatively small company and they had various angles to contend with during this and it affected their communications. Could be trouble.
  • Too slow to act? I don’t think so. Donna makes some great cases for not implementing a plan until they had every aspect covered. Sounds good and I agree. You can’t institute a lock replacement program until you can figure out distribution, storage, costs, etc. This takes time.
  • Too slow to get the real story out? I might have to agree. The initial story broke in September, 2004. The first mention I see of Tocci out in the blogosphere trying to get the real story out is April 2005, then July 2005, then December 2005, and into 2006. In my email conversation with Donna she wrote, “This was just the time frame that we were able to start some conversations.” Again, back to the fact that they had scads to do during the crisis. Is that a good reason to drop the communication ball? No one would agree if asked, but it’s the pressure of the situation that really determines what kind of communicator you are. Let’s all remember this: no matter what happens, you must still communicate. Either way, Tocci did go out and get the truth out. Maybe late, but she was tenacious about telling Kryptonite’s story. All last year she was doing interviews, on blogs, posting comments, replying to emails, being available. That’s good communication. She even answered my email to rehash what they consider a closed topic. And who am I? Just a student, trying to learn the truth, trying to share a case study that everyone already assumed had gone wrong. But I maintain this: It wasn’t as wrong as people said it was, not by a long shot.

I posit that the blogosphere is like TV or Radio News at times. If it isn’t sensational, it’s not going to make the cut. Bad news is always news, but good news is fluff. (At least that’s how some journalists make communicators feel at times – oops, my PR is showing). My point? When it hit the fan for Kryptonite everyone and their grandmother was writing about it, but when the real story comes out, people don’t care. I indicated this to Tocci who wrote, “This is a very big generalization. The news of our lock exchange program did get out lots and lots of people through the internet and traditional media sources. But, yes, as in most mediums controversy ‘sells’.” And that’s why I actually had to search to find the second half of this story. You couldn’t read a PR blog, listen to a PR podcast, or read books about the blogosphere without hearing about this mess when it first came out. But after that I had to search for it. And – oh boy – it’s out there.
There is also a thread of information in the following posts that Kryptonite knew about the faulty locks since 1992 when a British publication wrote about it. I’ve read enough articles to gather that Kryptonite Locks weren’t specifically mentioned, so people are putting too much emphasis on that article. However, brand name listed or not, why didn’t they check it out? Do we have a problem here? In crisis PR we call that a prodrome, noticing circumstances that have the potential to become crises. None of the Tocci interviews go into detail about that, she states the article never mentioned Kryptonite Locks.

But the myth remains, blogs nearly destroyed Kryptonite, blogs discovered the ineptitude of a shoddy company, you have to monitor the blogosphere, Kryptonite did a lousy job, etc etc. You can think whatever you like, I don’t care. What I care about is researching the truth. How many other people did that? From a PR standpoint, It’s true that you need to monitor the Internet, it’s true you need to know what your publics are saying about you. But it’s also true that you need to communicate as often as possible, especially during a crisis. Maybe Kryptonite knew from day one, maybe they could have done more, been better communicators. Even in the aftermath, why does it take so long to get the real story out, over so many channels, over so long a period of time? PR is about communicating effectively, right?

Check out the links below to read interviews with Tocci, opinions and all. If you read on, make sure you read all the comments as Tocci usually follows up to people’s questions. PR flack or honest communicator? I’ve formed my opinion, but let me know your thoughts.

Graduate Life I

Beth and I thought some ongoing discussions of public relations education would be beneficial to anyone thinking of going into the PR field, changing majors to PR, or going on to get his/her Masters in Communication or Public Relations. So we’re going to do a multi-part Graduate Life ongoing post. We’ll welcome questions and obviously, we’ll open discussion to anyone interested in discussing the topic.

For our first couple posts, we’re just going to talk about why each of us chose to go back to school, to continue our educations at the graduate level, and why we choose Public Relations.

Luke writes:

I guess I had always planned on getting my Masters at some point. Several years into my original college experience, I packed it up and went home. I wasn’t sure in which direction I wanted to go in so I couldn’t see me wasting all that time and money at a University. I worked in a machine shop for several years until I decided it was time to go back to school. I got my BA in Speech Communications from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, a small state school in NW PA. Initially I was a psych major – a carryover from my earlier college days – but when I discovered the communication field I knew I had found what I was looking for. Interestingly, I don’t ever recall having been exposed to the communication field. If I had, I probably would have focused on that from the beginning as it seems a natural fit for me. I’m loquacious, personable, mildly entertaining to a few people, but I also have a natural interest in human communication. But why Public Relations? I’m not sure, what I’m about to write may seem controversial, but I never wanted to go into advertising because it seems so fake, it’s creative yes, but with an air of single-sidedness I didn’t like. PR is so much more – to use a current buzzword – transparent when it’s done properly. Public Relations has overcome a major obstacle of it’s youth in the last decade or so – steering away from lingering “spin artist” stereotype. Unfortunately, there are people out there still practicing in such a way as to foster this stereotype. But just looking at the PRSA Code of Ethics or the PRSA Statement of Values gives me a sense of hope and pride in the profession. But I’m straying away from my point. Getting the story out, getting the news out, helping an organization communicate with its publics – it’s an amazing thing, and one I’m glad to be a part of. Plus, say what you want about advertising and marketing, but Public Relations is also an excellent outlet for creativity.

So why grad school? I don’t know about you, but my undergraduate program wasn’t all that thorough. I really felt incomplete when I left school, maybe that’s why I struggled so much trying to break into the field. I hadn’t done an internship [Note: DO AN INTERNSHIP if you have the opportunity] and I was a little unprepared. I graduated with top marks, so it wasn’t like I hadn’t done well, I lacked the experience and – most importantly – the confidence to work in the business.

Grad school allows you to focus on what truly matters to you. There aren’t any humanities or world cultures classes needed, you just focus on communication, specifically the area you’d like to study. You learn about theory, research, and writing in a whole new light. Write papers, get published, attend conferences, speak at events, this is what grad school can offer if you choose to let it. But, choose a school wisely and consider your instructors well. I cannot stress enough the importance of a good mentor, whether you’re going on to your PhD or not, a good mentor will make all the difference in your education.

I hate to sum up like this, but graduate school is also a good place to weather a stormy job market. I moved to Ohio from Alaska where I had been working for the federal government. Moving to a state with a -3% job market made it difficult to land a job in a competitive industry. Grad school seemed to hold the answers. The contacts you can build, the experience you can get – not only in school, but how you use your time to reach out and find other creative outlets for learning – is unparalleled. The experience may be better if you’re working full time and getting your Masters as a job requirement or to increase salary – depending on your beliefs. I have enjoyed being a full time graduate student, but it isn’t for everyone, money can be tight and time is short. Either way, I encourage anyone in PR to get more depth, more refined in their chosen profession.

Beth Writes:

Some days I don’t know how I got to grad school, it just happened. I took some detours and sidesteps to where I thought one day I would end up, in Communications/PR. I got my BA in Political Science from Northeastern University in Boston, MA. “The Duke” a.k.a, Governor Dukakis was one of my professors. He is brilliant and remembers everyone and thing. I learned about policy and the mortar that (kind of) holds society and government together. Early on I took an interest in politics. I was a young environmentalist, writing letters to corporate and government polluters. Writing and communicating worked for me. The power to express and impact with words, images and voice seemed profound. In politics, communication is needed, especially PR. Every politician has PR counsel. I thought a degree in political science would help me get a job in PR. I didn’t have any communication related internships. (Do an internship, it is so important). I was actually a substitute teacher at an inner-city charter high school and then a summer school writing teacher. My students were awesome, inspiring, taught me patience and challenged me to rethink the way I communicated.

An act of love brought me to Cleveland from Boston. Sorry, but at first I hated Cleveland, it wasn’t Boston and well it still isn’t – I secretly miss the accent. At first I enrolled in a Masters of Teaching program and as I was sitting at orientation I had an epiphany and bolted. I ended up getting a job at Cleveland Intern.Net and Cuyahoga Community College’s career center informing students about internships and marketing the program to employers. This was undeniably a great way to learn about not-for-profit work and I found my niche.

Then as an account assistant at a media-buying agency, I learned about ethics and what it’s like to work for a dishonest company. However, I did meet one of my mentors. You never know who you are going to meet and how that person may impact your life and career. Lesson learned ethics and honesty are paramount. If something seems fishy and goes against your beliefs don’t risk your name and reputation. Needless to say I quit.

After that lovely bout, I went to work as a Sales/Marketing/Lead Administrator (Slash jobs are wonderful – they are the ones where you have many job titles.) for Robert Half International a temporary placement firm. It was here that finally I realized I needed to go back to school to get to where I wanted. I didn’t have a degree in communications, the perquisite for most entry-level jobs. It was “Grad School or Bust!”

Why PR? PR has the power to inform, find/establish relationships that are meaningful and valuable. It embodies creativity. Also, I am a passionate person. I think you have to be passionate, charismatic about an organization/company or product, etc. to want to share it with the world and see it flourish. PR can help do this in a transparent and purposeful way.

Grad School Tidbits:
1. If you decide to go to grad school, choose a school with a range of professors and focus areas. I suggest talking to a few of the professors or alumni at your schools of interest. The program you choose will make all of the difference-trust me!
2. Explore, take risks and maybe work for a while before you go back to school. Because you might change your mind once you get out there in the ‘real world.’
3. Mentors and teachers are like butter to bread-totally essential. Mentors are real life teachers there for guidance, support and can be great contacts. Don’t be apprehensive about finding a professor or professional to be your mentor. The relationship will only help you.
4. Grad school lets you to explore, refine and analyze a topic you are passionate about. You become part of it and own it through the work and research you do and knowledge you gain. You will seriously do more thinking, learning and analyzing in your life in 1-2 years than you could ever imagine. Resilience, patience, and ORGANIZATION are key.
5. Grad school has to fit in your life. I have the opportunity to be a full-time student and I enjoy the immersion.

The end…You never know what you will learn and what will inspire you…