Archive for the ‘prsa’ Category
Get enough public relations professionals together, and you’ll inevitably hear the conversation. The one I’m thinking of starts around war stories, then moves to why the corner office folks (or the C-suite, if you’re more modern than I am) don’t listen to us, don’t take us seriously.
You know why? Because we cheapen ourselves. We do things that we shouldn’t, and we suffer the consequences.
Case. In. Point.
In California, water is a big deal. The water 18 million people in southern California use to drink, wash, and take care of their sewage arrives in their houses via a 240-mile pipeline all the way from the Colorado River. So I’d figure that the topic of water there is discussed a bit more than it is here in my city of Ottawa, where a mighty river brings all the water we need to our figurative doorstep.
The Los Angeles Times ran a story yesterday about one of the authorities which manage the water supply for 2 million folks living south of LA, the Central Basin Municipal Water District. The CBMWD apparently signed a $12,000/month contract with a consulting firm to write and place stories about them on a news site called “News Hawks Review.” The documents around this were obtained by the Times:
The selling point? That this would be indexed by Google News as a news outlet. Well, that door’s slammed shut — as of this morning, Google News has de-indexed News Hawks Review. In discussions with the LA Times, Coghlan claimed to have no editorial role with the News Hawks site. However, he was a frequent contributor to the site and was listed as a “reporter” with an affiliated “newshx.com” e-mail address.
Before I start opining, a caveat. I attempted yesterday to contact News Hawks Review, Coghlan (the company seems to not have a web site, which is curious for someone working in social media), and the CBMWD for comment and to ensure that the LA Times coverage was not inaccurate. None of those people responded to phone calls or emails. So if I’m extrapolating from incorrect information, be aware that I tried to verify the facts as reported.
There are two issues here, to my mind. The first is that what was done is, in my opinion, unethical. This was an attempt to create a simulacrum of news coverage without disclosing the financial interests.
I asked PRSA for a comment about this, and here’s what Prof. Deborah Silverman, the chair of their Ethics Board, told me by email:
“This practice is contrary to the Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics, which espouses honesty and accuracy in communication, the free flow of information, and disclosure of information. The Central Basin Municipal Water District’s use of a communications firm to create “news” disguised as media coverage is a serious breach of ethical standards, and the district is operating in a manner that does little to aid the public’s decision-making process.” I’m sad to say that I also e-mailed my professional association, the International Association of Business Communicators, and nobody responded.
Did CBMWD know their communications person or people were engaged in unethical behaviour? Did they endorse it? I don’t know.
Second, this is a ridiculously ineffective use of thousands of dollars. What is the measure of success here? What opinion was changed by these innocuous stories? A youtube video accompanying the story has a whopping 101 views:
Meanwhile the documents posted by the LA Times show the communications folks for CBMWD referring to this as a “unique and innovative utilization of an internet news service to distribute actual news.”
If we as PR professionals can do no better than to use the tools at our disposal in unethical and deceptive and ineffective ways, then why SHOULD the C-suite listen to us? And if the boss thinks this is what we do, why would he or she think of us as anything other than unethical shills?
UPDATE: Thanks to the PRbuilder blog, I discovered two things. First, Ragan’s PR Daily covered this issue, and second, that the LA PRSA chapter has sent a letter to the Times calling this an “egregious breach.” I don’t think the letter’s been published in the Times yet, but the Ragan story has it.
Food giant ConAgra and its PR firm Ketchum found itself in a reheated soup recently, when an event for bloggers in which food bloggers were fed frozen dinners as a “secret surprise” went wrong. At least some of the bloggers took offense, and a retreat was hastily beaten.
The story is an interesting one, as written by Andrew Adam Newman in the New York Times. But I was most interested in the quotes by PRSA ethics expert Deborah A. Silverman.
Here’s what Newman’s story closed with:
The promotion was “unfortunate” and “struck me as being not quite where they should be in terms of honesty,” said Deborah A. Silverman, who heads the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards at the Public Relations Society of America.
In an e-mail message, Ms. Silverman added, “Ketchum has an excellent reputation for high ethical standards,” but “the social media realm (including bloggers) is new territory for public relations practitioners, and I view this as a valuable learning opportunity.”
I have some issues with this. First, Ketchum’s “excellent reputation” has at least one gigantic hole in it in the shape of Armstrong Williams. I wrote about the Armstrong Williams scandal when it happened in 2005. It stank then and it stinks now.
They’ve also been sharply criticized for their use of Video News Releases (VNRs) — criticism serious enough to cause PRSA to issue a bulletin about their ethical usage.
Second, the idea that social media and blogger relations are “new territory for public relations practitioners” is hokum and hooey.
A quick Google on blogger relations found articles from Lee Odden in 2006 and John Cass in 2007 on doing blogger relations right. Neville Hobson wrote an article for IABC’s Communication World magazine in May 2006 about blogger relations (I’m not a PRSA member, so don’t have access to their resources as I do IABC’s). I pointed to some guidelines from Cory Doctorow in 2008 on this blog.
I asked Deborah Silverman, who is a PR prof at Buffalo State in New York, if she wanted to expand on her view, and she did. Here’s her response:
“The social media realm, including bloggers, is relatively new territory for public relations practitioners, as evidenced by the large crowds who attend social media workshops. Social media have been around for only about five years. Although many practitioners may be familiar with social media, there are numerous new ethical issues that are arising; one of those is where bloggers fall within the consumer-advocate-journalist continuum. So I do believe that this situation was a learning experience for all of us. Above all, it reiterates the ethical tenet in PR that disclosure of motivations, intentions and/or sponsorship is paramount.”
First, it’s unfortunate that Silverman chose not to respond to the concerns over Ketchum. Second, I disagree with her on a number of points. First, the fact that social media training attracts crowds doesn’t necessarily mean it’s new. People still go to speechwriting workshops and speeches aren’t new; people learn to write news releases and the news release is more than a century old. And while this may be a “learning experience” for Silverman, ConAgra, and Ketchum, I think a lot of social media practitioners only learned a new way to screw up blogger outreach.
One could be charitable and say that it’s too soon to REALLY know how to do this. But it’s not true. There’s no reason to not know how to do this well, and to do it.
May have more about these issues soon.
UPPERDATE: Tonia Ries at the RealTime Report has more thoughts and references related to this story, as does the always readable Jen Zingsheim at Media Bullseye.
Apparently, PRSA in Washington conducted a December 6 seminar for staff at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). You may remember FEMA for such public affairs triumphs as having staff pose as journalists at a press briefing, or the immortal compliment “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job“, aimed at the inimitable Michael Brown.
PRSA issued a news release in the wake of the fake news conference, stating:
“The credibility of the public relations profession and every practitioner who provides public information depends upon open and honest communication,” Weiss said. “Strong ethics is the central touchstone that guides public relations professionals every day in how we advise management leaders to communicate. We encourage FEMA and all government agencies to adopt the PRSA Code of Ethics, and PRSA offers its assistance in order to establish effective guidelines quickly. PRSA looks forward to working with FEMA, the government and other agencies and organizations in helping craft and implement comprehensive ethical policies and standards going forward.”
Here’s information on the day-long seminar via PR Newswire.
Apparently topics included:
- analysis and discussion of the PRSA Code of Ethics
- societal expectations for ethical communications, trust and reputation in the age of new media,
- response strategies for hostile stakeholder groups,
- crisis communications management,
- relationship-building with partners in government,
- addressing the specific needs of multi-cultural and multi-generational groups,
- case study analysis for applying the PRSA Code of Ethics day-to-day at multiple levels of decision-making.
I wonder if they talked about “Bullies, bloggers, bloviators, and bellyachers.” Could be.
One would hope that they didn’t run out of conversation.
While I am not a US citizen, I have to say that I can’t imagine an organization that has had two such high-profile, critically important failures as FEMA surviving long.
It would behoove FEMA’s management and leadership, starting with administrator David Paulison, to honestly and publicly admit its failings and set out a series of milestones to improve its relations with the American public.
And PRSA could learn how to write a news release that’s a bit catchy. God, the two I read researching this post are as dull as toast.
Testify, KD: Yet another proof point that PR doesn’t get it. The Public Relations Society of America has a teleseminar later this week with the charming title: “Surviving in a World Where Everybody Is a Journalist: Overcoming the bullies, bloggers, bloviators, and bellyachers in this “new media” environment”.
Man, do I have better things to do with $200 US for a teleseminar that puts together a title like that.
The other thing that just does not compute is the choice of speaker. I’ve mentioned Jim Lukasweski before, and he appears to be a pretty top-notch crisis communicator.
But having a crisis specialist deliver this program seems to me to be the wrong choice — why not talk about this in terms of relationships, rather than attacks.
I note that KD is doing a PRSA teleseminar on new measurement tools in January. Let us hope that PRSA isn’t stupid enough to cancel or to muzzle her.