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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.

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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

When is a Marketing Job Not a Marketing Job? – At Grand Marketing / Cohesion Inc / [Future Name Here]

July 23, 2013 18 comments

I feel an obligation to protect the students that I teach and mentor.  Whenever possible, I try to steer them away from mistakes I’ve made or lend them some of the limited wisdom I’ve acquired in nearly two decades of being a professional.

The latest effort to help students and young professionals out is advising them to stay away from “Cohesion, Inc.” (formerly “Grand Marketing”), “Prestige Enterprises,” and other similar companies, which are essentially door-to-door sales or telemarketing jobs falsely promoted as jobs in marketing, advertising or public relations.

These companies target college students and 20-somethings with promises of jobs in marketing and advertising, when what they really offer is commission-based sales.  They claim to represent companies in the “Sports” and “Fashion” fields because they know these industries are top targets of young professionals.  In reality, students end up selling undesirable products (like health supplements) and work on commission – and often they’re set up as multi-level marketing operations (ie pyramid schemes).

In doing some digging, it appears that many of these companies are all franchises of Cydcor (the Mother Ship). Their entry on PissedOffConsumer spells out many of the same complaints that others have had.  The parent company, be it Cydcor or some other group, provides the franchisees with canned website copy and direction on how to set up their business (which makes them all easy to spot – see below).

Fortunately social media gives former employees and interviewees a way to share information about the deception with others, resulting in this long entry about Grand Marketing / Cohesion at PissedOffConsumer.com.  In fact, social media could be what drove the company to switch names as the negative reviews rank higher than the actual company website in Google search results:

Grand Marketing Google Results

Another company of the same variety in Grand Rapids has come to my attention: Prestige Enterprises Inc.  They appear to be the same type of operation, as the copy from their website shows up on the sites of dozens of other similar “marketing” companies around the country.  I took a unique phrase from the websites of Cohesion and Prestige and googled it – these are the results (so either they’re all plagiarists, or they all are using the same website template):

These companies also share similar Facebook page characteristics (inspirational quote photos – some even use the same ones, group photos, and a “careers” page that links to the Jobcast recruiting app).

Prestige Alpha Comparison

Impulse Adamant Comparison

These companies are starting to get more savvy about how they recruit, as they’re realizing that people are figuring them out.  They’ve even started to infiltrate the job boards at colleges and universities (so you can’t even trust that those have been vetted properly, a fact I was disappointed to find out).  Moreover, Cohesion appears to be trying to get out in front of the negative reviews, and mysteriously a couple of rave reviews have shown up on the company’s Glassdoor.com page (and somehow the same photos from their Facebook page are uploaded to the Glassdoor profile on the same day as one of the reviews):

Cohesion Similar Pics

As many young professionals need to be warned about these deceptive outfits as possible – so if you’ve had a bad experience with a company like this, post a review to Glassdoor.com, RipOffReport.com, or PissedOffConsumer.com, or give us their name here. If you’ve received a job offer from a company you’re suspicious of, please feel free to contact me and I’ll be happy to help you do background research on them to see if they’re legitimate or not.  If you want to do your own research, here are some tips:

How to Tell if a Company is Really a Marketing / Advertising / Public Relations Firm

  1. Check their website and social media presences for photos of actual, real people.  Most of these companies rely heavily on stock photography (because real photography of real people is expensive or time-consuming to produce).  If they do have photos of “real” people – they’ll typically be large group photos which make it appear like there are more people working there than actually are.
  2. Do they talk about “Sports Marketing,” “Fashion Marketing,” or other really desirable industries that seem too good to be true? – They probably are.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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 Prestige Enterprises is trying to fill (and the variety of titles).

Update – Burger King’s Twitter Account Hacked; Finally Suspended 1 1/2 Hours Later

February 18, 2013 Leave a comment

[Update: the @BurgerKing account was finally suspended about an hour and a half in.]

As I write this, Burger King’s Twitter Account (@burgerking) has been hacked by Anonymous and turned into a McDonald’s account with the parody storyline that BK has been acquired by McDonald’s.  It’s still posting updates (including photos of drug use and links to rap videos on YouTube) unabated.

What’s particularly amazing about this situation is that it’s now almost an hour into the hack and no one has taken action (neither Twitter, nor Burger King), though that may attest to the resourcefulness of LulzSec – the security wing of the unofficial hacker collaborative Anonymous.

Image

@BurgerKing Account Suspended

Case Study Update: Family Promise GR Receives Toyota Truck

October 27, 2012 Leave a comment
Family Promise GR Receives Toyota Truck

Family Promise Director Cheryl Schuch, right, accepted a ceremonial key for the program’s new pickup truck at Toyota of Grand Rapids Thursday. (Photo courtesy of Michael Croff)

I was fortunate to work with a great team of people who helped Family Promise of Grand Rapids win Toyota’s “100 Cars for Good” competition this year (a full case study is available here).  Yesterday, the organization took receipt of the car which was another great public relations opportunity from the competition (which has given the organization a great platform to reach more members of the community).

West Michigan charity takes delivery of Toyota truck it won through Facebook contest
By Jim Harger | Grand Rapids Press | on October 26, 2012 at 11:49 AM

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Family Promise of Grand Rapids took delivery of its new Toyota Tundra pickup this week thanks to its success in Toyota’s 100 Cars for Good competition earlier this year. (More)

How Not to Handle Controversy You Invited Upon Yourself – ArtPrize at The BOB

September 20, 2012 Leave a comment

ArtPrize Controversy at The BOB

As ArtPrize opens in Grand Rapids, an actual controversy has finally broken out.

It’s not the usual controversy (ie art snobs being upset that “commoners” are allowed to express opinions on what constitutes “good art).  It’s actually controversy over work considered to be obscene. Read more…