You’re probably familiar with the fable credited to ancient Greek storyteller Aesop involving a workaholic ant and a carefree grasshopper. While the ant labors to store up food for the coming winter, the grasshopper indulges in its music—until the icy winds blow and the grasshopper faces a season of hunger.
The story is often used to preach the perils of procrastination and failure to plan. We apply it to everything from weddings to retirement.
Recently, a client has applied this moral to public relations.
The client has wrestled with an unexpected issue requiring some focused communication. Over coffee one day, the client told me that the experience has been a revelation. Businesses tend to treat public relations like the cover on a fire alarm—“In case of emergency, break glass.” It serves in an as-needed capacity, a tool to be wielded only when complaints appear on Facebook or a politician takes legislative aim.
That’s a practice that needs to change, the client said. It should be an everyday part of the business.
In one respect, PR is an as-needed function; it happens to be needed all the time. Public relations is about building relationships and ensuring ongoing interaction. It’s about engaging stakeholders, sharing information, listening and re-evaluating. Relationships and credibility are created over time, not at the drop of a media statement.
At a board meeting I attended, a person kept talking about the need to “PR” this or that need. I was chagrined, but I held my tongue out of respect; I plan to educate that person in a private moment.
His comment underscores the widespread misinterpretation of public relations. It's an example of grasshopper thinking.
We need to think and act more like the ant.
Are public relations firms worth hiring? Brian Tannebaum, lawyer and keeper of the blog Above The Law
, answers that question in the first word
of a recent post:
Tannebaum shares his experience with hiring a PR firm when he launched a law practice years ago, back when “social media” meant using a pay phone at the bar. Though money was tight, he knew his venture needed promoting, and he didn’t have the skills or time to try it on his own.
Rarely have I encountered someone outside the public relations field who gets it like Tannebaum does. He laments the rush by his peers to hire digital marketing firms as a single solution, drawing a strong distinction between the benefits of a marketer and those of a public relations practitioner.
While a web presence is essential, he writes, “many of those [digital marketing firms] are former traditional marketers that now want you to believe they have the secrets to the internet because no one wants them to produce a brochure anymore.”
He adds, “You may find it better to actually meet the people that can help you build your business, rather than hope they are pointing and clicking their way to your bank account.”
The key is building relationships—and that’s
quality public relations.
“What a good PR agent does well is to put you together with the right people and events, and keep you away from the wrong ones,” says Tannebaum.
It’s true that the line between marketing and communications continues to blur, hence the “marcom” moniker I often see (and dislike). And PR still struggles a bit with measuring its impact, which isn’t usually a challenge in marketing—much harder to measure a relationship than it is to gauge increased sales from an ad campaign or clicks on a web site.
By no means am I dissing marketing; it’s fundamental to growing a business or service. But I think we’re turning down the wrong road when abandon real relationships for digital ones. This is as true for business as it is for individuals.
Public relations is more than a news release, a Facebook post or a good story in the local paper. It’s about connecting with living, breathing human beings, helping them understand you and your enterprise as you strive to know them and their needs.
More than ever.
This week I had the privilege of attending an all-employee meeting for one of my clients. It was the first such meeting in quite some time; increasing business demands had pushed these gatherings into the shadows.
From what I could see, their return was quite welcome. Between lunch, conversation, a business update and several fun activities, employees left the meeting feeling informed and appreciated. Most important, they seemed reconnected.
Although I wasn’t tasked with taking photos, I snapped a few dozen anyway. When I reviewed them later, I realized that most of them were group shots. At first I chastised myself for not getting more individual views. Only later did I realize that a different thought process had been at work.
We all know the old saying, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” It refers to becoming so wrapped up in the details—the “trees”—that you miss the collective value. The details are essential, of course, but they also serve an even more critical purpose.
That’s what I found my camera capturing that day. It was fun to see the smiles and animated discussions of the individual employees, yet my camera was drawn to the energy and enthusiasm of the whole. It preserved the beauty of the forest even as it preserved the unique identity of the trees.
Communicating across an organization must encompass both views—the needs and skills of the individual, and the value of the collective staff. Both must be heard, both affirmed. When leadership settles for the occasional email or newsletter as the whole of communication, rather than open and sincere dialogue, the trees begin to wither and the forest fades.
At the employee meeting, I found great joy in seeing the forest.
Organizational strength comes from a united, respected, mission-focused staff. Leaders who fail to consider the forest and the trees risk losing much.
Rick Chambers at the start of the 1982 Boston Marathon
Every morning when I wake up, I try to wake with a Smile on my face, Enthusiasm in my voice, Joy in my heart and Faith in my soul.
-- Dick Beardsley
, 1982 Boston Marathon “Duel in the Sun” competitor
Tomorrow morning I will rise at my usual, bleary-eyed hour. I’ll sip my morning coffee, check my email, study my Bible, then lace up my shoes for a run. At the moment, I’m skeptical that smiles or enthusiasm will show up. I hope a semblance of joy and a deep-seated faith will somehow carry me.
As the whole world knows by now, two bombs exploded
today within yards of the finish line of the Boston Marathon. As of this writing, three people are dead and scores are injured, some critically. Newscasts are looping video continually, repeating that ugly moment when the first bomb detonated, sparking screams from some and snuffing them in others.
I’ve competed in two marathons in my 34-year running career, never managing to qualify for Boston. But I did attend that storied event once. It was in 1982, the most historic (until today) Boston Marathon ever. That year, world record holder Alberto Salazar—whom I’d interviewed just a few months earlier in one of my first assignments as a journalist—and fellow American runner Dick Beardsley battled across the 26-plus-mile course in unseasonable heat to finish within two seconds
of each other.
I still have photos from that trip, and the memories are razor-sharp: steeping myself in the simmering eagerness at the starting line in Hopkinton, scaling a stately evergreen for a bird’s-eye view of the start (which earned me a blurry appearance in The Runner
magazine), a desperate car drive to Newton to catch runners at the 10-mile mark, then a second ticket-tempting ride into Boston in time for the breathless finish.
What I remember most about the ’82 Boston was the pure bliss that permeated the event, flowing in and through every runner and every spectator. We were sharing something magical, something joyous. Maybe, just maybe, the tiniest glimpse of Heaven, or a world where politics, ideologies and selfish gain are surrendered for something greater.
After my accident in 2004, I gave up ever qualifying to run Boston. But I’ve never abandoned reconnecting with that feeling each April as I consumed marathon coverage.
So in the midst of my grief for the victims and families who suffered so much today, I grieve, albeit selfishly, for the loss of the innocence I embraced every year at this time.
And yet I will rise and run tomorrow. I will think upon the words of Dick Beardsley—a man who has faced incredible trials of his own
, and yet manages to find the smile, the enthusiasm, the joy and the faith.
Perhaps the secret is not to await their appearance. The secret is to seek them out and embrace them, regardless of the ugliness, the inhuman acts of heartless monsters.
That may be what’s needed to summon the healing we all need in the wake of this horror.
I’ve seen this word once too often, and it’s time my colleagues in the public relations field stop using it. The word is newsjacking
Coined by marketing and PR strategist David Meerman Scott, newsjacking
is the practice of inserting one’s brand, ideas or perspective into breaking news. At its simplest, it’s about making emerging news relevant to a reporter by providing a local angle or a unique element that involves your client’s product or business.
As a philosophy, much of it makes sense. The ever-urgent, hypercompetitive world of journalism demands exclusive angles and content that’s relevant and meaningful to the audience. Outlets that aren’t relevant will not survive. If there is an opportunity for a PR professional to make that connection, then everyone benefits—the reporter, the consumer and the client.
But as a term, newsjacking is the worst choice imaginable.
Let’s start with connotation. The word is ugly and dark, reeking of wrongdoing or, at the very least, moral grayness. Rather than helping the media generate coverage that’s relevant to their audience, newsjacking sounds as if it wants to co-opt the news by nefarious means.
And, sadly, there is a touch of darkness when it is unethically or incompetently applied. As Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast last October, the online dating site HowAboutWe posted “18 of Our Favorite Hurricane Sandy Dating Ideas
.” Incredibly, a web designer’s blog
called this insensitive post “a light-hearted piece that also represents the identity of its target audience.”
I’m sure the 285 people who were killed by the storm would beg to differ. If they could.
Putting aside the misuse (or just plain stupid use) of the tactic, the word itself is one that the serious PR professional should rebuff. Our industry struggles with reputational issues; does it make sense to embrace a term that sounds “trendy” yet hints at ethical ambiguity?
Many of my colleagues in PR opt for newsjacking’s synonym, real-time media relations
. True, it’s not as macho, but I’ll argue it’s more accurate—assuming the practice is about relevancy, not co-option.
So, with all due respect to Mr. Scott, an accomplished author and consultant, I hereby banish newsjacking
to the same abyss to which I sent spin
years ago. Words having meaning, and these do a disservice to our craft.
The Gazette in the 1930s (left) and its digs today. Photos by MLive.
Although I haven’t been an active journalist for many years, I still get a thrill whenever I visit a newsroom. The venue isn’t quite as frenetic as it once was, given the silent electronic wizardry at a reporter’s fingertips these days—does anyone remember the choirs of clacking IBM Selectrics, telephones that actually rang and noisy teletypes spewing rivers of paper? I thought not.
For a newspaper reporter, there’s something almost religious about the atmosphere of the newsroom, a worship center for the faithful of the Fourth Estate. And if the newsroom is a sanctuary, the building in which it resides is its cathedral—old, stalwart, constructed in a manner suggesting strength, permanence, resilience.
Or rather, that’s how it was in the olden days. Not so much now.
An article in the April 1 edition of The New Republic
discusses yet another victim of the upheaval in print journalism: the demise of the newspaper building. Once representing the power and influence of a free press, these facilities—some dating back over a century—are now considered too big, too outmoded and too much of a barrier between journalists and the communities they cover.
“It is impossible to imagine anyone being drawn to a downtown newspaper building today to receive the words of reporters on a still-warm paper product,” writes Inga Saffron, an architectural critic. “[A]s news has ceased to be a physical commodity, so too has the big-city newspaper building lost its meaning.”
I’ve seen this happen in my hometown. Last year, the Kalamazoo Gazette
moved its news center to a remodeled retail space downtown, a block away from its mammoth home of 87 years. From a practical point of view, the move made sense; the Gazette
simply didn’t need all that space anymore. The newspaper had cut its staff and embraced a digital-first approach. (It still provides a daily print product generated at an out-of-town facility.)
And yet … it saddens me when I pass by that empty old building. There is so much history there, so many tales still seeping from its darkened corners. Sure, a developer has plans for the facility—thankfully, no wrecking ball—but it won’t be the same.
And that, says Saffron, is the point.
“The traditional newspaper building, with its hierarchies and tribal rituals, is a thing of the past, left over from the days when news traveled in one direction—handed down from the great newsrooms to the working masses. Nowadays news is dispersed from multiple directions and from multiple content producers, some professional, some not,” Saffron writes.
I’ve been to the new Gazette,
and I admit I’m impressed by what I see. It’s an open office layout surrounded by windows that offer a view of (and by) the downtown populace. There is no sense of being removed from the heartbeat of the city. Conference rooms host everything from impromptu editorial boards to community groups to live online chats. Reporters move in and out, laptops in satchels, filing stories there or on location.
It’s new and familiar all at the same time—the old energy of community journalism expressed in a different way.
Journalism remains a field in turmoil, so time will tell if this energy has the staying power of yesteryear. But I’m hopeful even as I am nostalgic.
My wife and I have a game we play when traveling: looking for misspelled ads. One of my favorites was a fast-food joint with a sign proclaiming, “Busses welcome.” I wondered what would happen if I walked in and promptly kissed the cashier (other than my wife ending my pitiful existence).
A few days ago, I stopped at a gas station to buy a soft drink. Inside was an erasable whiteboard urging donations for a cancer charity with these words: “The money stay’s in our community.” This annoyed me so much that, when the attendant turned her back, I reached over and erased the errant apostrophe.
Humor aside, the death spiral of correct spelling and grammar disturbs me. Language is fluid, of course, but there’s a difference between linguistic evolution and mere laziness. Sadly, the latter is what we see far too often in the communications field, posing greater risks for messages to be misinterpreted or ignored.
The Harvard Business Review
posted a blog
about a small study that suggested a correlation between grammar skills and career advancement. While hardly definitive, “this data set clearly supports the hypothesis that good grammar is a predictor of professional success,” author Brad Hoover writes. He posits that attention to spelling and grammar is a sign of a person who is detail oriented, a critical thinker and intellectually solid.
A restaurant sign’s extraneous “s” may not signify the demise of humanity. But what are we to think when newly minted college graduates – including those with communications degrees – try to start their careers without the ability to write correctly? Or when what was once the bastion of proper prose, the newspaper, has all but done away with its language warriors, the copy editors?
By minimizing the importance of writing correctly and well, aren’t we diminishing the value of the traits Hoover cites?
One of my favorite quotes is this one from playwright Tom Stoppard: “Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”
That should be the guiding principle for every professional communicator – and every person who wants to communicate effectively.
When I founded this public relations agency, I embraced six words as our guide: Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly.
Not only do those words govern my work and my business, they also strongly influence my sense of responsibility to my community.
So now that Rick Chambers & Associates is about to celebrate its one-year anniversary, I wanted to do so in a way that gives back to my community and helps people in need.
Enter the RC&A Underwear Bash! This event will be held on Thursday, March 14, 4 p.m.-6 p.m., in partnership with Old Dog Tavern
in downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan. As we mark our anniversary, we're asking those who attend the Bash to bring a package of newly purchased
underwear -- men's, women's or children's, any size. Those who donate will receive a coupon for $1 off any food or beverage item at Old Dog Tavern.
The donated underwear will be given to the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, a homeless shelter serving the greater Kalamazoo area. More information is available on a video posted on our News page.
Why underwear? Because it's an ongoing need among those facing exceptional financial hardship. Something as simple as new underwear for someone who can’t afford it is one way we all can help those who are struggling.
I want to offer a special thanks to the good folks at Old Dog Tavern for hosting the event. They share the same commitment to making a difference in the community.
Thanks, too, to everyone who has been so supportive of RC&A throughout our first year. I hope to see you at the Underwear Bash!
Microsoft Corp. appears to be shrugging its shoulders at the simmering consumer discontent over its Office software licensing practices.
In an article in Computerworld
last week, the tech giant (more or less) confirmed that users of Office 2013 and future versions no longer have the option of transferring the software to a new computer when the old one dies.
For folks who hang onto Office software suites until it’s no longer supported, that’s bad news. But let’s face it: Microsoft has that right. Those frugal users are not replenishing Microsoft’s revenue stream often enough – part of the reason behind the company’s paid-subscription, cloud-based service known as Microsoft Office 365
But from a public relations perspective, Microsoft took the cowardly approach to communicating this change: by merely rewriting a few lines in the nobody-actually-reads-this end-user licensing agreement.
Computerworld picked up on the rewrite and asked Microsoft if the change was true. The company’s emailed response was a celebration of brevity: “Correct.”
So what happens, Computerworld asked, if a user buys Office 2013, loads it on a computer, and that computer dies a week later or is stolen? “No comment.”
Companies that enjoy loyalty and resilience among their customers are those who treat consumers with respect. That means communicating changes like this openly and honestly, inviting dialogue and answering questions with somewhat less arrogance, real or implied.
It’s early days yet on this news, so widespread gear-grinding among consumers has yet to begin. But expect another public bashfest upon the company that brought us Clippy and WindowsMe.
And when that happens, one wonders if the keister-covering at Microsoft will be as succinct as its media statements.
Seems like every few days someone comes up with a list of best or worst companies, industries or careers. Each comes with varying degrees of fanfare depending on what the list is about and who determines it.
While a company may gloat or grouse about its ranking, the truth is that the list itself is meaningless. More important are the behaviors and actions that earn a company its place.
Take a recent example from 24/7 Wall Street, which compiled the top 10 most hated companies
in America. Read through the rationale for each firm’s result, and you’ll find consistent themes:
- Poor external interactions, particularly customer service
- Short-sighted business decisions
· Lack of respect for employees
Yes, these shortcomings ought to give pause to any company. We can hope those on the “naughty” list will take such failures to heart and rebuild their reputations through meaningful change.
But from a PR perspective, companies who see the “nice” lists as an end unto themselves are equally misguided. Earning a “best-of” spot ought to be the result of consistent quality, integrity, performance and respect, not because certain statistics can be assembled to check off the right boxes. And if the motivation is about the list, not about doing the right thing, the truth invariably emerges.
Few things are as damaging to a business’ reputation as touting a place on the “nice” list while operating in a disreputable fashion. Any PR benefit from the placement quickly rings hollow, the company comes off as insincere, and the downward reputational spiral continues.
My hope is that public relations professionals will serve as the counsel of truth and reason when it comes to these lists. Celebrate what is truly earned, own up to the shortcomings, and find ways to let the positive actions of the company speak volumes.