Waiting is Not ALWAYS the End of the World

Feeding the Pigeons

Feeding the Pigeons

It was muggy out, but for July in Texas, it was cold. What better than to take a walk with an old friend? That’s precisely what I did the other night with my old college roommate. During our slow pace around the park we encountered the older, male version of Snow White. He might not have looked like the character, but he was feeding several squirrels and birds from his hands. He gave my friend and me instructions, and after waiting patiently for them to trust us, they ate out of our hands, too!

I have only seen untamed animals trusting people in movies and videos on social media with the all-too-familiar title “You’ve got to see this!” I never imagined that I would see it in person, nor be the person they’re trusting. Call me weird, but I walked away from that experience and immediately related it to public relations.

I recently graduated college and am entering the “workplace” as a “real adult.” In school, I heard about the outrageous public relations stunts or wrote case studies about the catastrophic fails. We watched all the wildly popular advertisements in class to pick apart the details. Basically, I have only seen marketing from a distance, aside from my internships, but am amazed to experience them for myself. I may not have created the most recent viral ad, and thankfully have not caused a crisis of any sort, but I’m getting to experience the things I’ve only heard of for myself. It is amazing and frightening at the same time.

In another way, my bird-and-squirrel-feeding experience also relates because of the patience it required. Robertson Communications from California has a blog post that can honestly apply to all areas of life, but they specifically addressed patience. The author realized that we may live in a fast-paced world where news gets old fast, but patience is still required in our profession.

It takes time to build trust and relationships. It especially takes time to repair trust when companies break it. HKA Marketing Communications even titled one of their posts “Patience is a PR virtue.” It relays the story of a small seed planted for an organization that, after being feed for a year, finally blossomed into a glorious earned media opportunity.

The birds may have eaten all that food quickly, but it took a while for me to gain their trust. Our media-centered environment may consume information quickly, but relationships and trust still take time to grow. Public relations is a practice of fast-paced intricacies, but patience for the long run.

A Working Definition

gradIn one week and one day, at roughly 1 p.m., I will be wearing a black bag-like outfit with a black hat unlike any other. This hat signifies something important. Can you guess? To entertain themselves, I’ve been told the journalism professors rate the outlandish nature of people’s shoes. I’ve also been told we’re not allowed to wear heels, but I will most likely break that rule. In one week and one day, at roughly 1 p.m., I am graduating from the University of North Texas with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

When I first started thinking about college as a high school student, I had no earthly or heavenly idea what I wanted to do with my life. I sat down with my mother and we discussed the things I loved doing. I love to communicate, regardless of the message being verbal or written. I love speaking and writing. We visited UNT during my senior year. I heard about their communications department, but I also heard about something called public relations. I was curious, so I went to talk with a journalism adviser, Nelia Smith, who has since passed away. She piqued my interest when she handed me a paper listing some of the jobs out there for PR.

I decided to major in PR, but started out at Collin College to save money. When I got to UNT, I’d been telling people about my major for two years. When they asked me to explain it, I had no idea what to tell them. I’d picked something I barely understood. After a few road bumps, I’m graduating with that major. Honestly, I still have difficulty explaining the job when people ask. So, I want to share three things I’ve learned about public relations during my time at UNT.

  1. Definitions are tricky.

Public relations is that it can be a part of any industry, in any company and in any country. I find this a highly attractive quality. Lorra Brown posted a blog on PR Daily called, “10 Things to Love About Public Relations.” She and I love PR for many of the same reasons. Specifically, she pointed out that skills you learn in public relations are applicable to any industry. The same aspect that makes public relations attractive also makes it confusing. You see, the roles and tasks performed by public relations professionals vary depending on what country, industry and company for which you’re working. That’s why definitions are tricky. When people ask me about what I’ll be doing once I graduate, I can give them a general idea, but not a definite list of my roles or responsibilities.

  1. It is stressful.

When it makes 6th on the list of most stressful jobs in America, you know it’s real. Forbes author Susan Adams wrote, “Though many people may picture PR execs wining and dining and taking lunch with friends and connections around town, in fact they face almost constant rejection from people like me.” However, I think she missed the largest reason why this job is stressful. Yes, I’ll face rejection, and if you decide to be in PR, so will you. No, the real stress stems from the fact that your actions, from sending a press release to tweeting 140 characters, have the potential to make or break an entire company’s reputation. Not only are you accountable for your actions, but if someone else makes a mess, literally or figuratively, it is your job to fix it. This stress grows exponentially the larger the organization. The burden of such an important reputation on your shoulders is quite large. The pressure to remain in the clear and make no mistakes is constant, and I love it. Every day brings forth a challenge.

  1. Grammar is vital, but not impossible.

This probably didn’t make your jaw drop. It isn’t revelation material, I know. Let me tell you something I don’t tell many people: I was a terrible grammarian in high school. I didn’t care to know the rules. I didn’t care to follow them. My friends didn’t just look at me crazy when I couldn’t explain my future major. They thought I was insane because I didn’t have a good grasp on grammar, punctuation, or spelling for that matter. Just ask people I used to AIM with. I used to say I had my own dictionary and spelling lists when they pointed out my countless errors. It wasn’t until I started college that I really applied myself. I learned that “it’s” is different that “its.” Even though it sounds odd because people don’t usually say it out loud, whom is still a part of our language. I started reading Grammar Girl’s blog religiously. My favorite article is about keeping affect and effect straight. When I say “my favorite,” what I really mean is, I keep going back to it because I constantly get them confused.

Honestly, I used to think grammar wasn’t a big deal. Boy, was I wrong. I also used to think grasping it was impossible, but it isn’t. If you don’t have an iron grasp on it, and punctuation, and spelling, you look stupid. If you look stupid, and your writing looks stupid, it will make the organization you’re representing look even worse. Let me tell you, editing is your friend!

I am thrilled to be graduating. It still scares me to think that I’m almost done and will have to face the world as a “real adult.” In reality, though, I can’t wait to get a full-time job, representing a company or clients with passion and drive. I want to put my knowledge and experience to work, tell someone’s story, and tell it well. I am so thankful to everyone at the Mayborn School of Journalism for encouraging me and helping me work at a level to remember with pride. I’ll always look back on it with fondness. Now, on to find something fancy to wear underneath that black bag-like outfit.

Take Away

I started my last semester dreading my ethics, law and diversity class. The class was Processed with VSCOcam with b5 presetrequired, and if I’m being completely honest, I didn’t think I’d really learn anything new or get excited. A little Steven Colbert and a few heated discussions changed all of that. I walked in class the first day expecting the same lectures about privacy and the PRSA Member Code of Ethics. I saw it as a class designed so we’d graduate with all that information fresh in our minds. The class surprised me, not only by being ironically applicable to my life, but by being lively and tangibly helpful. It’s a class I know I’ll be thankful for in my career.

One aspect I appreciated was that it combined advertising and public relations studends. We got to have a variety of perspectives on ethical issues. If I had more digital and artistically creative skills, I could see myself as an advertising student. I hate to reveal this, but I didn’t even know advertising had codes of ethics. I assumed they had some sort of ethical code to follow, but didn’t know people had collaborated and published any uniform documents outlining standards. I didn’t know about much aside from the PRSA Member Code of Ethics and Society of Professional Journalists. It turns out advertising has several codes such as the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, or the Principles and Practices for Advertising Ethics. When I got to reading the actual codes for advertising, I realized a lot of it centered around a key principle for public relations: that we must be honorable and ethical in our communication as both representatives of an organization and protectors of consumers, or those outside the organization. In fact, principle one of the Advertising Ethics code states, “Advertising, public relations, marketing communications, news, and editorial all share a common objective of truth and high ethical standards in serving the public.”

When anyone talks about ethics, I love getting involved in the conversation. It’s something I can get passionate about. Honestly, I love having deep philosophical debates over intellectually challenging issues. This class not only gave everyone a chance to get involved in the conversation, it revealed a very important truth about my chosen career.

I love to think in terms of absolutes. To use a fancy word from class, I’d say I prefer a deontological approach to ethics. If I take anything with me to the workplace, it’s that you have to examine each case individually. I’m of the belief that there are some ethical guidelines that will never change. Aside from those few, this class convinced me that consequentialism is an excellent method for evaluating possible choices. The best way I’ve seen it described is the more positive consequences an action brings, the better the action. After all the case studies, absolute rules can’t perfectly apply to all situations. The realization brought me out of my comfort zone, but I know it will help me in the long run.

In addition, my professor didn’t simply teach me about ethical models and various media laws. She helped me learn lessons that apply to all of life. She helped me tangibly understand that I need to live by the ethical standards I hold and not worry about what other people think. It’s been an uncomfortable lesson to learn, but I know that doing the right thing is the right thing to do.

Evidenced by the amount of moments when the entire class sat stunned by bad choices, I’d also say I’ve learned that people can make really dumb mistakes. We’ve talked about everything from the “accidental” US Airways tweet to the various racially stereotypical Summer’s Eve ads. My favorite memories involved the class staring with their mouths open or awkwardly laughing in unison.

It’s regrettable that many of the laughs resulted from the unwise decision of others, but they did give people something to discuss. As I enter the workplace, I don’t want to bend my ethical standards. I want people to write more blogs and news stories like the one from Bulldog Reporter. It explains how PR professionals are stepping up and acting ethically, even when pressured to do the opposite. That is the kind of reputation I want to perpetuate with my actions. I don’t want my decisions to become a topic of discussion in this class. As my final semester comes to a close, the memories from this class will always be some of my favorite. Now, on to apply what I’ve learned to the real world.

Dual Advocacy

In the past, I’ve had a recurring problem with friends: I’ve loved spending time with two people, but they hate one another. I wish it was an isolated incident, but it has happened several times. When it happens, I feel pulled in both directions. I care for both equally, but sadly, the only way to make one happy was by neglecting the other. When these situations occur, I feel torn.

As someone in public relations, I have encountered the same tearing. I am a representative of the organization or client for whom I’m working. Whatever I do needs to accurately reflect the right image. My job is to positively relate to various publics in order to make the company more successful in every way.

However, there is another vital role I must take in public relations. I must also be an advocate. When I center any writing on a word, I like to define it. That way I can make sure I know what I’m talking about, but that way you do too. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines advocate as, “a person who argues for or supports a cause or policy; a person who works for a cause or group; a person who argues for the cause of another person in a court of law.”

Let me also clarify that I am not talking about advocating for the organization. I am talking about being an advocate for the public interest. The Public Relations Member Code of Ethics states, “We serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent. We provide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts, and viewpoints to aid informed public debate.” As PR professionals, we don’t just represent the organization to the world; we represent the world to the organization. These two roles can often seem at odds. It’s quite a challenge to many professionals, including myself.

An author by the name of Kate Cox wrote an excellent essay on the topic. She termed the problem a bit differently. She used the term “advocacy” to mean the representation of the organization to the world. Then she used the term “social conscience” to mean the representation of the world to the organization. She also pointed out the seeming dichotomy between these two roles. They can seem utterly at odds with one another.

She explained an excellent three-part theory by Kathy Fitzpatrick and Candace Gauthier to make these identities work cohesively. First, the professional needs to take the consequences of actions into consideration. Next, actions need to be respectful. This process works under the assumption that everyone deserves equal respect. The third step is being fair. However, Kate also gave her own definition. She wrote that responsible advocacy didn’t just support the organization and the public, but also has a method to check and balance this support. Balance is a key word in her definition.

As public relations practitioners, we are given the task of equally representing both parties. When it seems impossible to decide, that is when you must lean on your own ethics. It is a difficult equilibrium, but not an impossible one.

Take Twitter Seriously

Social media has continually gained prevalence in the lives of people around the world. Increasingly, it is a place for people to rant and joke. People cuss, say mean things, get into fights, vent, complain or post whatever comes to mind. A lot of people don’t realize the seriousness of what’s posted on social media. This applies to every social media platform, whether it’s Facebook, Vine, Twitter, etc. It’s vitally important for you to carefully think through the consequences of what you post.

I would argue that Twitter one of the most dangerous when it comes to consequences. Why? Yes, you can get in trouble no matter the platform, but Twitter is unique in that anyone can see what you post, unless you are private. It is not like other platforms where you typically post things that only a private network can view. When you post something on Twitter, it is out there for the entire world to see.

Perhaps you aren’t taking me seriously. Let me give you two examples. According to The New York Times, Dutch police recently arrested at 14-year-old girl because of a tweet. What could a young girl have possibly done that was so bad on Twitter? As you can see in the screen shot, she threatened American Airlines in a tweet posing as someone from a well-known terrorist group. As far as anyone knows, she is not connected with Al Qaida. The tweet was meant as a joke, but American Airlines does not take these jokes lightly. She learned that lesson the hard way.

Sadly, young people are not the only ones who have made this mistake. In another recent incident, a public relations professional tweeted a rather racist joke before boarding a plane to Africa. You can see in the picture what she posted. According to reporter Ashley Southall, before getting fired Sacco worked as the communication director of InterActiveCorp (IAC). This tweet started a wildfire of fury on Twitter, resulting in her dismissal from the company before the plane even landed in Africa.

Shortly after this tweet, IAC responded by sending out the statement, “This is an outrageous, offensive comment that does not reflect the views and values of IAC. Unfortunately, the employee in question is unreachable on an international flight, but this is a very serious matter and we are taking appropriate action.”

It does not matter who you are or what your job, it is vital to be wise in your posts on social media. BBC News reporter Bill Thompson wrote an article titled “Be careful what you tweet.” In it he explained that social media has created a space where people feel free to fire quick responses, a space that encourages informality. People often use it for conversations that were previously private. I agree with his point. I think social media platforms have given people a feeling of freedom because they’re sitting behind a computer screen. Honestly, I’ve been tempted to feel more safe saying something rude on Facebook or Twitter because I am not saying it face-to-face.

What we all need to understand is that being online doesn’t negate the consequences of unwise decisions. Writer Joel Lee wrote a helpful article listing five ways Twitter can get you in trouble. He listed slander, self-incrimination, inappropriate jokes, threats and rule breaking as terrible ideas. I agree with everything he had to say, but these are not the only posts that can get you in trouble.

Especially in public relations, where we are representatives of the company or client, it is even more important because the entire company’s reputation is at stake. At all my internships, I haven’t had free reign on social media. I could choose to get upset and see it as them not trusting me, but this will be the same whether I am an intern or a full-time employee. Having someone else double-check the posts gives an extra level of security to the company reputation. It allows PR professionals to hold one another accountable, catch any mistakes and avoid possible disasters. As a rule of thumb, regardless of who you are or where you’re posting, always run it through what I call “the consequence test.” Think about the repercussions of what you’re about to post. Ask yourself if it will offend anyone. Use good judgment. If you’re unsure about something, ask another persons opinion. At the end of the day, take Twitter and every other platform seriously. Choices, even on social media, have consequences.

 

“Be Prepared”

I have two younger brothers. They’re both boy scouts. If there’s been anything drilled into their brains, it’s “Be Prepared.” This isn’t simply an overused phrase quoted hundreds of times in dozens of movies. It’s wise advice people take for granted because it’s heard too often. Being prepared is the best safeguard against bad things. Being prepared can make a big difference in any aspect of life, but especially in public relations. Being prepared in PR can be the difference between the life and death of an organization or it’s reputation.

Prepare for crisis

In public relations, we prepare for crisis by living what we call proactive public relations. Proactive means we’re actively thinking about and working on a plan for a crisis before the crisis happens. The Disaster Recovery Journal had an article warning that the time to start thinking about crisis planning is not during the disaster. It should be “an ongoing methodical process that is put into action long before it becomes necessary.”

Why be proactive? 

To put it plainly, crises are not scheduled events. They aren’t going to appear on your calendar with advanced warning. They don’t politely give you time to plan. Crises are crises because they’re unexpected. As author Jonathan Bernstein pointed out, crises aren’t confined by anything. They can happen to anyone at anytime. No one’s immune. He cautioned that failing to prepare can end up causing more damage. That makes sense. Think about it. If your company ends up in a crisis and you don’t know how to respond, you look stupid. People will think worse of you because you’re unprepared and unequipped to handle the situation. Typically, the sooner the crisis is dealt with, the better. If you aren’t prepared, it’ll take longer to fix.

What to prepare

Now on to the part where I calm you down. I hope I didn’t frighten you at the prospect of future crisis. You’re probably thinking, “there is no way to prepare for everything that could happen!” You’re right. Author Michelle Gilbert admitted the same, but she said it’s possible  to plan for the unexpected. If you are competent enough about the organization to relate to various publics, then you should know it well enough to plan for possible disasters.

1. Prepare inside the organization. Preparing inside means you have a designated plan. As Bernstein suggested, this plan needs to have a defined crisis team and one spokesperson. Each person needs to know their role and what will be expected. People within the organization need to communicate well with one another. Nothing will work if the internal part of preparation isn’t solid.

Photo by Corrie Scaggs

Photo credit: Corrie Scaggs

2. Prepare the reputation of the organization. The Disaster Recover Journal listed three aspects a company needs to develop before a crisis hits, namely: credibility, a positive reputation and good will. If a company has these aspects firmly in place before a crisis, when these qualities come under attack, it’ll go much better. As the Journal stated, “None of these qualities can be generated during a crisis. They need to exist in advance.”

3. Prepare outside the organization. Media relations may be the single most important relationship during a crisis. If not the most important, it’s definitely a top priority. During these disastrous situations, the media have a lot of influence over a company’s reputation based on what they cover, what they say and how they say it. If you have a good relationship with the media built on trust and mutual understanding, it will be easier for you when these situations arise.

One aspect of proactive PR I hadn’t considered was consistency. Author Brian Hill recommended updating the plan on a consistent basis. He recommended doing a yearly evaluation, but I think it will be different based on the organization. In the end, I think proactive public relations fits into the four-step PR process of research, planning, implementation and evaluation. You have to understand the organization and plan for possible crises. If a crisis occurs, you implement your plan and then evaluate the effectiveness of your efforts. My professors always warn that evaluation isn’t just something you do at the end, but at every stage. Proactive public relations is the best way to be prepared for a crisis. If you don’t have one yet, there’s no time like the present!

 

Inescapable Boundaries

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” – The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America

Freedom is a tricky word, especially for this generation. Author Wendell Berry described our time as an era of illusion. We have fooledfos ourselves that freedom is limitless. He rebuked the idea by stating that boundaries, even within freedom, are inescapable. Freedom of speech is one such liberty, wrapped up so much in that illusion that we use it more as an excuse rather than a freedom. When you add public relations to the mix, the boundaries are often made even hazier. Some practitioners would argue that they aren’t restrained at all by the first amendment because they don’t work for a news organization. I would say they’re wrong. Although not always direct, public relations does have boundaries within the freedom of speech.

It may seem contradictory to have limits on freedom, but take this next situation for example. After becoming an adult, I realized I could do whatever I wanted because I was free from my parent’s authority. However, not getting sleep or spending all my money brings negative consequences. I need to protect my health and well being by operating within restful and frugal boundaries. Similarly, the U.S. government has limitations to the freedom of speech to protect us from certain dangers. The Encyclopedia Britannica explains that the government can place restrictions on the time, location or way we speak as long as we have other options or ways to communicate.

The government also limits us from certain categories of speech for the protection others. The Encyclopedia Britannica lists speech of provocation, false statements, obscenity, fighting words and threats as some. Provocation, or incitement speech, is meant to bring about some action against the law. False statements, such as libelous statements, are unlawful. Anything seen as obscene, such as pornography, especially child pornography, is not protected by the government. Fighting words or threats are tricky. These must be direct and clear to be punishable. Unfortunately, hate speech and racist comments are not always punishable.

The walls public relations practitioners run into most often deal with false statements. These include defamation, libel and things of that nature. The government also creates boundaries with regulations via government organizations. Take the example of the FTC’s restriction on Reverb PR because of an update in how the Commission defines “material connections.” CBS News explained that the ruling made it so that public relations professionals couldn’t post online reviews for products from their clients. This is a restriction of the first amendment freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech doesn’t just apply to words coming out of someone’s mouth. The National Paralegal College pointed out that freedom of speech covers all forms of communication. This means blogs, posts on social media, telephone calls, emails, posters, etc. As a reminder, that also means that limitations apply to all forms of communication. Author Kerry Gorgone blogged about the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruling that bloggers have the same freedoms and restrictions as journalists from news organizations in Obsidian Finance Group vx. Cox. Public relations centers around communication. There are two layers of communication. Practitioners communicate for the brand, company or person they represent. Sometimes, this is the only layer of communication. The second layer of communications is seen clearly in an agency. Not only are they communicating for clients, they are also communicating for the agency. In both layers, and all forms of communication, the government restricts practitioners.

The most visible part of public relations is media relations. Public relations has a plethora of tools to communicate with the media, including but not limited to: press releases, media advisories, fact sheets, op-ed pieces and email pitches. In my last post I covered the validation of third-party media. If the media uses the information from those tools in a positive way, it is a huge success for practitioners. It is the journalist’s duty to fact check and ensure their article is within the boundaries. I would argue that it is our job as communicators to the media to help them abide by first amendment limitations. James Horton wrote that public relations does not have limitless freedom, but has more than just legal boundaries. I would put this duty to make journalists jobs easier as one of those boundaries.

Public relations does not have much regulation, but this does not give it unlimited freedom. Practitioners are held accountable for both layers of communications. In addition, they have a duty to be truthful, to avoid defamation and libel, and overall help a journalist stay within the boundaries of the first amendment as well. If we want to be taken as seriously as journalists, we need to hold ourselves to the same standards.