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.
[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.
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):
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!”
- Degree Required?: Does the job require a bachelor’s degree? If not – it’s a Red Flag.
- 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.
- 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.]
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
Earlier I wrote about some companies in the West Michigan area that attempt to recruit young professionals into direct sales jobs by positioning those jobs as careers in advertising, marketing and public relations. To clarify my position – I have nothing against sales as a vocation. I have family members and friends that work in sales. What I take issue with is recruiting people under false pretenses. Though Sales and Marketing work hand-in-hand, saying a job in Sales is the same as a job in Marketing is like saying a Comptroller is the same as a Firefighter.
“Marketing” is a word that has been bastardized (and is frequently used interchangeably with Public Relations and Advertising). True “marketing” requires that an organization have control of the “Marketing Mix” or the “Four P’s”: Product, Price, Place and Promotion. Direct sellers do not control any of those things (save occasionally the promotion).
If anyone is unclear on the difference between Sales and Marketing, here’s an excerpt from an article by Dorie Clark in the Harvard Business Review that outlines the larger difference:
“Recognize the difference between marketing and sales. There’s often a lot of confusion about marketing and sales. Indeed, many executives have both in their titles — where does one discipline end and the other begin? Here’s my quick definition: marketing is what you do to make clients come to you, while sales is about you reaching out to them and closing the deal. They’re both important and complementary — the former is longer-term and creates a valuable pipeline for the coming months and years; the latter is what’s going to help you make payroll next week. Ideally, your company should have a strong mix of both to keep your cash flow balanced; if not, you’re going to have to adjust accordingly.” – (2012), “Marketing for the Extremely Shy,” Harvard Business Review
In a more specific, occupational sense, jobs in Advertising/PR/Marketing almost universally require college degrees whereas jobs in Sales almost universally do not.
Why this practice concerns me is that it stands to negatively affect the careers of young professionals. This entry level work in sales will not readily translate into experience that a future employer at an actual Marketing, Advertising or PR agency would value in a hiring decision.
Here are a sampling of some misleading job descriptions I was just able to find today with a quick Google search, including jobs from another company I haven’t seen before falsely selling itself as doing “marketing” – T.E.M. Inc. :
Other companies that fit this model include: