Why the Race of the Public Relations Firm Representing Ferguson Matters

August 21, 2014 Leave a comment

Ferguson PR Crisis and Diversity

By now you’re likely aware of the conflict erupting in Ferguson, MO resulting from the shooting death of an unarmed black man named Michael Brown. The city has done an abysmal job responding to the situation overall (including from a public relations perspective), highlighted most recently by the hiring of an all-white public relations firm to handle the crushing national media response to the race-motivated crisis.

The perception problem created by the hiring of an all-white PR firm was further escalated when the firm failed to immediately respond to critics via social media after the announcement went public. In its defense, Common Ground has since partnered with a minority-owned firm (The Devin James Group) to complement its capabilities. We’re reminded again that a few hours is a lifetime in the age of social media.

Some have defended the decision, arguing that it’s racist to consider the racial makeup of the PR firm hired to assist with this crisis. They are wrong and here’s why:

It’s not the PR firm’s fault, but we should all care that the firm is all white because it’s another reminder (like the Ferguson crisis) that minorities continue to be underrepresented in positions of leadership across the US.

The city has defended its hiring of Common Ground PR on the basis that the scope of the firm’s work is to assist the city’s internal PR staff in responding to the deluge of national media requests that have come in – not to rebuild the city’s relationship with the minority communities. That’s a fair point – but it further reveals the extent to which racism is systemically integrated into American life; the vast majority of the national media are white and can be served by an all-white PR firm.

The origins of this tragedy are at least in part due to the fact that the Ferguson police department is 92 percent white, policing a population that is 67 percent black. The PR firm should have known from the start that the racial composition of their employees was going to be an issue – because the PR industry as a whole is well aware of the diversity problems across the US (and within our own profession – nearly 70 percent of PR practitioners are white). A PR firm dropped into this situation should have first prepared to tout its experience with (and connections to) the African American community even if they weren’t necessarily relevant to the work performed. Moreover, it should be aware that because the PR industry has championed diversity as an issue – it is held to a higher standard when it comes to internalizing diversity.

Experience matters, which is why all of us list it on our resumes – and why PR firms list it (as Common Ground does) on their websites. Unfortunately I see nothing on the firm’s website that would hint at experience working with the African American community, nor relationships therein (not on their Crisis Communications page, nor in their Accolades page, nor their Partners/Memberships page, nor listed among the causes they support on the “Giving Back” page). They absolutely may have it – but the only indicator we’re left with to judge them on their expertise with diversity is the racial makeup of their employees.

Understanding your audiences is one of the most basic components of public relations. It’s well-known in public relations (but rarely discussed) that to work with minority audiences, you need to have minority representation within your organization – it’s an important indicator that you’ve internalized the importance of diversity. That sounds racist, but it’s not – it’s a response to the legacy of racism which excluded minorities from professional positions (which is why they’re still underrepresented today).

That legacy of exclusion is why there are separate professional groups and news outlets for minorities today. The dominant white culture excluded minority professionals and failed to cover news in minority communities – so they had to create their own.

Here’s a thought exercise: if you had to reach a majority white audience, would you feel that you could be best represented by an all-black PR firm? How about your C-Suite? – You’re lying if you say yes. Yet we expect the opposite to be true for Ferguson.

What’s “racist” is pretending that race doesn’t matter – it does.

Mother of Dragons. Breaker of Chains. Master of PR.

June 8, 2014 Leave a comment

Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Master of PR

[Warning: Spoilers. Obvi.]

One of the most dynamic and compelling characters in the “Game of Thrones” universe created by George R.R. Martin is Daenerys Targaryen. Born in exile after her father Aerys II was killed as Robert Baratheon assumed the throne of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros (the mythical world in which GOT takes place), she

She may not carry a smartphone or an insulated Starbucks mug, but Dany has been teaching a master class in public relations over the past few seasons. Here’s what she’s reminded us so far:

Never Forget Who You Are

Throughout the series, Danaerys recalls the strength of her birthright as a Targaryen to forge on against adversity. She trusts her heritage when she sets herself and her stone dragon eggs ablaze, and is rewarded when she emerges unscathed (though covered in soot like a Looney Toons character after an explosion) with her three dragons freed from their shells.

Play to Your Strengths

One advantage frequently used by Daenerys is her underestimation by her adversaries. When securing the army of the Unsullied (slaves trained in combat from birth) in Astapor, she allows their master Kraznys mo Nakloz to assume she does not understand Valyrien (an ancient language of Westeros) because she is Dothraki. While she barters with him for the slave army, he hurls a number of insults at her in Low Valyrian knowing his slave translator will clean up what he has said in the Common Tongue for his prospective customer. In theatrical fashion, she later reveals that she has understood every insult he’s made and orders her dragon to burn him alive in front of all – reminding all of the peril of underestimation (and securing the respect of her new army of freed slaves).

Understand Your Stakeholders

The portrayal of Daenerys in Game of Thrones is one of a woman who spends a great deal of time getting to know the people around her on the show. Like most good leaders, she spends more time listening than she does talking. Her ability to learn and embrace the culture of the Dothraki is crucial to her rise to power. Unlike many who sit on thrones elsewhere in Westeros, she walks among her people without fear – inspiring loyalty and admiration.

Unlike the other rulers of Westeros, Dany takes an interest in her subjects – investing to learn their cultures, motivations, and needs. The latest season contained a scene in which she heard and responded to the grievances of her newly-conquered subjects and responded generously to their petitions.

When she fails, she takes each misstep as an opportunity to learn something never to repeat (like when her misplaced trust in “the Thirteen” in Qarth results in the death of her men at the hands of the warlocks of the city). She uses her wit and presence to win the support of the mercenary army “the Second Sons,” by impressing Daario Naharis who rejects his fellow sellswords’ demands to assassinate her and beheads them instead as an act of fealty to Daenerys.

Wield the Power of Imagery

It’s hard to top the visual of Daenerys Targaryen emerging from a bath of flames on a funeral pyre to become the “Mother of Dragons.” This sets the stage for a series of stunning visuals that mark Dany’s rise to power, from the incineration of the House of the Undying to the incineration of Kraznys mo Nakloz, owner of the army of the Unsullied (the Mother of Dragons does a lot of incinerating). Nakloz’s death is particularly instructive.

One of the best uses of imagery comes when Daenerys and her armies begin their seige of the city of Meereen. In a dramatic appeal to the slaves of the city to take up arms against their masters, Daenerys orders catapaults to fling the broken chains and yokes of the other slaves she has freed over the citys’ walls. As the slaves pick up the broken symbols of subjugation, both they and their dramatically-outnumbered masters realize perception is the only thing keeping them enslaved.

Women: Stand Strong in a Male-Dominated World

Dany is the lone female contender for the throne of Westeros, a world which mirrors the patriarchal bend of ours. Public Relations is unique among other professions in that it is populated largely by women (by some studies, a ratio as high as 75-85 percent). The respect she commands and influence she exerts reminds me of many of the women in the world of PR.

Forced into an arranged marriage with Khal Drogo (a warlord who commands 40,000 riders of a race called the Dothraki) to serve her brother Viserys’ desire to raise an army to reconquer the Iron Throne for House Targaryen, Dany wills herself to be respected as an equal by her new husband.  She endures abuse, rape, and both physical and psychological violence to overcome the subjugation of her cruel brother and the circumstances of her early life in exile. She asserts an equal status to her husband and eventually takes over the leadership of his tribe when he falls ill and dies.

In point of fact, the fantasy world created by Martin has been the subject of analysis by gender studies academics because it’s strong female characters (like Cersei Lannister, Catelyn and Arya Stark, Olenna and Magaery Tyrell, Brienne of Tarth, Ygritte, and Osha to name a few) buck the traditional depictions of the fantasy genre.

To Achieve Your Goals, Stick to a Strategy

Once the city of Meereen is conquered, availing Daenerys of its 93 ships, she wisely puts off her quest to retake the throne of Westeros by sailing to Kings Landing even though she now has the ships she’s so desperately needed throughout the past few seasons. The cities she has conquered have slipped back into disarray without her direct oversight, so she invests in her future empire by pausing to refortify her rule (an important gesture that demonstrates her loyalty to the subjects she has just freed).

The public relations analogy extends far and wide through the Game of Thrones series; the importance of communication and intellectual brinksmanship are felt more heavily in this fantasy series than in others which are content to coast on magic, mythical creatures and hewing swords. As a result, I’ve doubtless missed many other correlaries between GoT and the worlds of advertising, marketing and PR.

I’d love to hear what lessons or analogies you’ve picked up on in the series.

Valar morghulis.

Life in Public Relations – Corporate vs. Agency

April 9, 2014 Leave a comment

Corporate Public Relations Life vs. Agency Public Relations Life

Social Media Platforms by Monthly Active Users [Graphic]

April 5, 2014 1 comment

A few years ago, I put together a graphic illustrating the size of many of the top social media sites in comparison to one another. It’s about time I did a revision – so here is one for 2014 in case you happen to find it helpful.

Social Media Platforms by Monthly Active Users 2014

Social Media Platforms by Monthly Active Users 2014

Notes about the methodology:

  • This version illustrates Monthly Active Users (MAU) instead of Total Users. Total users has become a meaningless number as the use of social media has continued to rise, as many more people have occasion to create multiple accounts (particularly spammers). Moreover, social media is no longer trying desperately to convince the mainstream world that it is important; it’s got that locked down. Now it’s trying to convince the mainstream world that it is relevant and useful (primarily to drive commerce).
  • Several platforms (Flickr, Foursquare, Reddit, Tumblr, Vine, and WordPress) don’t readily publish statistics on their monthly active users. This is almost certainly because those numbers are lower than they would like them to be – so they try to cheat by using numbers like “views” or “posts published.” I thought it important to call out that they’re trying to buck the trend toward disclosure by noting them on the chart.
  • Wikipedia is in the unfortunate position of being a vital centerpiece of digital life, but having comparatively fewer monthly active users because of the passion and knowledge required to be a Wikipedian. Participating in Wikipedia requires coding knowledge, as well as objectivity – to keep entries as objective as possible, people with a connection to topics are discouraged from contributing to those entries.

Linkedin is Killing Products/Services Pages in Favor of Showcase Pages: What This Means for You

March 27, 2014 Leave a comment

Last week, employment-oriented social networking platform Linkedin announced that it was killing the “Products/Services” section of Company pages in favor for what is calling “Showcase Pages.” If you currently manage a company page you have until April 25, 2014 to make the switch.

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What You Lose:

  • YouTube Embed: Products/Services pages permitted Company Page managers to embed a YouTube video on the page
  • Rotating Banners: You’ll no longer be able to rotate feature images calling out special offers or features at the top of the main products/services page
  • Bullet Points: This feature is not available in Showcase Pages – the only option for adding information about a product is to post updates (which tile down in chronological order)
  • Recommendations: The only third party endorsement on a Showcase Page is the followers, whereas Product/Services pages allowed customers to post reviews
  • Disclaimer: Product/Service pages allowed disclaimers at the bottom of pages
  • Special Promotions: Previously users had the option to include some brief text and a link to a special promotion related to the product
  • Contacts: Each product had the option to list Linkedin profiles for employees at an organization that could be contacted for more information

What You Gain:

  • A Giant Cover Image: Showcase pages have a cover image at the top that is considerably larger than the cover image for Company Pages: 974 x 330 pixels (max size 2MB). One note: you’ll want to be careful how you use this image (and perhaps add a gradient at the bottom) as the bottom third is taken up by overlayed content (the page title, a follow button, and an avatar image). This could be an implication that Linkedin intends to change the cover image size for Company Profiles as well.
  • Diversification: Users can now follow individual Showcase Pages without following the Company Page they are associated with. For umbrella brands, this will be helpful for reaching audiences that might be interested in an individual product line, but not interested in
  • Search Visibility: Showcase Pages now appear in Linkedin’s graph search, which is the biggest positive development about Showcase Pages:

Linkedin Showcase Pages Appear in Search


I can’t blame Linkedin for this change; I’m sure it was driven by a lack of traffic to the product/service pages – which tend to be stagnant once they’re created by an organization. Hopefully Showcase Pages will drive more traffic and spur companies to be more active about publishing timely information about themselves on Linkedin, because it’s truly a fantastic platform with a large and valuable audience.



Another Reminder to be Wary of Sales Jobs Listed as Public Relations, Advertising or Marketing

February 18, 2014 3 comments

As predicted, one of the local West Michigan firms that has been deceptively posting sales / event promotion jobs as marketing, advertising and public relations jobs has changed names.  I received a tip from a former employee that Prestige Enterprises is now “Xcell Enterprizes.”

That appears to be confirmed by a job posting on Indeed.com where they used the Prestige Enterprises login to post jobs for Xcell Enterprizes (and the fact that the Prestige Enterprises website is now dead):

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The name change was likely necessary because word was again getting out about the quality of the working environment.  Unfortunately operations like these tend to churn through a lot of employees, so they spend an inordinate amount of time recruiting.  That turnover is also a sign that you should be wary about applying for a job with any organization that has a lot of jobs posted.  Here are some other ways you can tell if a job posting is worth responding to:

  1. Real People?: Check their website and social media presences for photos of actual, real people (look in the “About” section for bios).  It’s a Red Flag if they don’t have any or if the people listed aren’t visible in the community.
  2. Cool Clients?: Do they talk about “Sports Marketing,” “Entertainment Industry,” “Fashion Marketing,” “Fortune 500,” or other really desirable industries that seem too good to be true? – Red Flag: they probably are.
  3. Suspicious Words?: Does the job description use terms like “Entry Level,” “Fast-Paced,” “Competitive Environment,” “No Experience Needed,” “Rapid Advancement,”  or “High Energy.”  Guess what? – “Red Flag!”
  4. Degree Required?: Does the job require a bachelor’s degree?  If not – it’s a Red Flag.
  5. Do They Rank?: Search for the company name in your local business publications (for example the Grand Rapids Business Journal, MiBiz or Rapid Growth) – have they made any lists?  Are there any profiles of their executives or employees?  If not – that’s a Red Flag.
  6. Stock Photography?: Is their website covered with stock photography? – Red Flag.  [If you’re not sure if the photography is stock, try opening a separate browser window and opening Google Images – then drag the image from the website over to the Google Images search bar.  That will do a search for images like that one, and if you turn up a bunch of identical results of the same photo used on other sites it’s most likely stock.]
  7. Registered?: Check your local County Registrar or the Michigan State Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (DLEG) – they will allow you to search for people who have applied for DBA record (“Doing Business As”).  Most, like Kent County, have an online search feature. This can tell you who is behind the company and much more about them – particularly the State of Michigan DLEG directory; it contains the company’s annual report and incorporation documents (watch for companies where the same person holds all of the offices – ie President, Secretary, Treasurer, Director).  Not listed? – Red Flag.
  8. Boilerplate Copy?: Find what appears to be a unique string of text somewhere in their website (usually from the “About” section) and search for it in quotes in Google.  When the results come back, if you see the exact same string of text in multiple other websites – you’ll know they’re not legit.  Note: Google will sometimes omit similar results – so you may need to click the “repeat the search with the omitted results included” link. If you find matches, it’s a Red Flag.
  9. Linkedin?: Look for a company on Linkedin.  They should have a company page (especially if they’re a marketing, advertising or public relations firm).  If they don’t have one, Red Flag.  If they DO have one, you can use it to get more intel on the company: if you view a company page and click “Insights,” it will give you a wealth of data.  You can find out who some former employees are (so you can look up their work history or perhaps even contact them to get insight on how it was working there), who some current employees are, what similar companies people also search for, and the most common places their employees came from.
  10. Lots of Jobs?: Search for the company on job websites (I recommend Indeed.com, which is right now by far the best job website).  If they have a LOT of positions posted and yet they’re small enough that you’ve never heard of them, that should be a big Red Flag.  Just look, for example, at how many positions Xcell Enterprizes is trying to fill (and the variety of titles).
  11. Irrational Exuberance?: Exclamation! points! are! a! Red Flag!!!  The more a job description uses, the more likely it’s not something you’re looking for.

Let me reiterate that I have no problems with sales jobs.  What I have a problem with is falsely advertising a sales job as something it’s not (ie public relations, marketing or advertising).

Contrary to what companies like Prestige/Xcell claim, these “entry level” jobs will not give you experience that is transferable to a career in marketing/advertising/PR.  They won’t build your skills, give you relevant experience, and any hiring manager worth his/her salt can see through the title to discern that the job you came from was in sales.


Go Ahead, Get At Me – Tech and the Blurred Lines Between Advertising, Marketing And Public Relations

February 10, 2014 Leave a comment

The Blurred Lines of Public Relations, Advertising and Marketing

As far as I can tell, the major factor that helped keep communications disciplines like advertising and PR separate was the fact that one had to work through the mass media to get messages out.  On the advertising side, there was the complex process of media buying from hundreds if not thousands of media outlets.  On the PR side, there was a similarly complex process of establishing relationships with a vast array of journalists.

No longer.

The rise of digital has accelerated the pace at which communications efforts are integrating, to the point of almost being indistinguishable.  Here’s how this reality has manifested itself:

Pay Per Click

John Wanamaker famously said “half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”  Now we can track a customer all the way from clicking on an ad through shopping on a website to the final purchase (and beyond, with the proper customer engagement system in place).  Nationwide advertising campaigns used to only be something the largest brands could afford.  Small businesses were relegated to the yellow pages, local weekly papers, and high school athletics programs.

As Chris Anderson wrote: “What matters is not where customers are, or even how many of them are seeking a particular [product], but only that some number of them exist, anywhere.”

Now that anyone can advertise to anyone at an affordable price simply by filling out the equivalent of an intelligent online form, it’s reducing the need for specialization and expertise.  Over the past few months alone, Facebook has made dramatic changes to its advertising platform to simplify the process to the point where even a novice can run a competent digital ad campaign (with A/B testing no less!)  Both Facebook and Google have robust educational resources (from chats to webinars to tutorials) so that anyone can learn how to advertise.

Everyone Needs Creative

Decades ago, it only made sense to pay for high-quality photography or video if you had the budget to pay to have them viewed.  This usually meant traditional advertising campaigns with big budgets.  Digital has rendered this paradigm obsolete.  Public Relations pros, used to relying on the written word and some well-placed phone calls, are now finding themselves pressed for content to fill the insatiable newsfeeds of their clients.

Better cross-train.

No matter who you are, if you work in a communications-related discipline it is now your duty to be able to produce visual content.  Photos, illustrations, infographics, videos, vines – you’ll need them all to help tell your company’s story in a fashion compatible with the media-rich, attention-poor sea we all swim in.  “Creatives” are still important – but the economics of marketing/advertising/pr today mean that they can’t be the only producers of visual media.  So voracious is the public’s appetite for new and original visuals that we need to train ourselves to see every meeting, visit, tour or walk down the hall as a time to keep our eyes open for what could turn into the next tweet or YouTube upload.

Understand IP Law

Another reason it’s important to produce your own original content is that it’s so easy to take what someone else has produced and share it as your own.  This is verboten, however, unless you do it within the carefully-prescribed parameters of the Intellectual Property (IP) law (something PR people had little occasion to worry about in the past).  You need to know what is “fair use” – and beyond that – what is fair play (even if you’re not risking a lawsuit, your actions could risk the reputation of your organization).

When you need a visual, fight the urge to type ‘images.google.com’ and bogart something from there for your next blog post.  Even if you’re web-savvy and know to click the “Search Tools” box and specify “labeled for commercial reuse with modification” under “usage rights” – you could still run afoul of copyright trolling law firms tossing out demand letters like singles at a strip club.  You don’t know that the person who uploaded that image and gave it a Creative Commons license actually owned it in the first place.  You can’t even trust the royalty-free stock image websites – colleagues of mine have been shocked to find that some of those services steal images and leave users to suffer the legal consequences when the actual owners find the unauthorized use.

Turnkey Visual Production

Even the highly-technical field of video production is changing at the hands of the blurring effects of tech.  Here there are two factors at play:

  1. The Public’s Changing Appetite: Viewers (particularly younger ones) no longer require that everything they watch be well-produced.  Tastes are changing as a result of the democractizing effects of social media.  In some cases, a piece of video that is too slickly-produced can actually have an undermining effect.  A similar phenomenon happened with the advent of digital music storage formats (particularly MP3): teens have grown to prefer the crispy, tinny quality of compressed digital music over the warm sound of analog records that are prized by audiophiles.
  2. An Explosion of Automated Tools: One no longer needs thousands of dollars of equipment and software to produce visuals worth sharing.  YouTube offers free tools to correct and enhance video (and it even automatically detects and alerts users to possible problems).  Easy-to-use apps and software will bundle images with pretty transitions and set them to music.  Google+ is earning praise for its “Auto Awesome” tool which magically improves images and even bundles them into a multimedia experience.

SEO and Two-Way Communication

PR pros aren’t the only group displaced by this shift in how we produce and consume media; on the flip side of the equation marketers and advertisers are being confronted with the need to up their game with respect to writing and relationship-building (traditionally the wheelhouse of PR).  No one will watch a gorgeous video or view an amazing graphic if they’re not properly described and tagged so they can be indexed by the massive social media machines whose algorithms determine what we see recommended in our newsfeeds.  Further, it used to be that you aired an ad and the only feedback you might get was an industry award or write-up in a media trade column – but now every company is confronted with instantaneous feedback in the form of likes and comments.  Responding to the “trampling herd” can be critical to the success of a campaign.

To some, all of this change comes as a crushing blow.  Unfortunately decades of specialized expertise and experience are being rendered irrelevant.  I sympathize with them, but in the end all of this is for the better.  Now you get to use virtually all of your ideas – the barriers to executing them are much lower.  Moreover organizations that have always had stifling budget limitations have a new universe of opportunities to connect with stakeholders (look no further than the power granted to animal rescues that have harnessed the photo-sharing abilities of Facebook to find adoptive homes for previously-unwanted pets – something they couldn’t do if they had to do ad buys in newspapers or on TV).

Onward and upward.