Don’t panic. PRepare!

It’s that time again, when college seniors go into panic mode over graduating and finding a job. Concerns about particular companies, starting salaries and limited opportunities fill them with anxiety. Some thoughts about common questions may be helpful to consider as you seek a first job–or even an internship–in public relations:

Get started now. There are very few job offers made immediately after an interview. It’s often a painfully slow process. An application today may mean an interview in a week or two, possibly followed by two or three more interviews over the course of a month, and then the wait for an offer. So now’s a good time to start looking for a job or a summer internship.

Be careful of misleading ads: Job listings under the heading of “public relations” and “marketing” are often thinly-disguised sales jobs. You probably didn’t go to college to find yourself doing cold-calls to sell extended warranties or pet insurance, so get an honest job description before you go for the interview.

Know before you go: Learn as much about the organization as possible before the interview. If you know who you’ll interview with, find out what you can about him or her. Information is power, so know as much as you can before you go through the process.

Have questions ready: I knew a very talented student who wasn’t offered a good Manhattan agency job because she didn’t ask any questions during the interview. It’s often better to be more interested than interesting, so arrive armed with good questions. They’ll be impressed that you asked.

Pause before taking the first offer: If something feels wrong, avoid taking a job just because you’re afraid you won’t be offered another. And don’t agree to a ridiculously low salary for the same reason. Understand that YOU have value. Don’t sell yourself short. Which leads me to…

Trust yourself: You’ll know when an opportunity feels right. Use your heart and your head. Trust your instincts and go with what you know. There’s no need to panic if you’re prepared. You’ll do fine.

Your thoughts?

SuPeRb advice

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Briana Cunningham, president of Hofstra’s PRSSA chapter, said it was the best speech about public relations she’s ever heard. The keynote address at PRSSA’s annual conference, delivered by Ketchum’s former global CEO Ray Kotcher to an audience of nearly 100 students and PR professionals, was the centerpiece of yesterday’s program. Mr. Kotcher’s talk was filled with superb advice and observations, and while it’s difficult to capture its full impact here, there are a few important quotes worth repeating:

Raymond L. Kotcher

“In the beats of your life, how are you going to make a positive impact on this world? As you set out, how are you going to continue to build upon your communications studies?…One needs to be a master story teller…One also needs to see all 360 degrees of the media universe…Anyone in PR should have an insatiable curiosity about the world in general.”

“Become what has been called a ‘learner for life.’ Continue to hone your hard skills such as verbal communication, writing and content development, social media, technology and computer proficiency. And your soft skills. The social ones…and other soft skills such as problem solving. And to grow in your career, develop and nurture relationships with mentors. Develop and nurture your network. Volunteer. Give back to the industry through participation in professional organizations just like this one. In so doing, you will not only help yourselves but you will help define the future and fulfill the promise of this great profession.”

“Character counts. It’s about integrity. When everyone is able to create or react with the tap of a finger, when everyone knows everything, doing our work to the highest moral standards is not just a value, it is a practical necessity. In this constantly morphing landscape, a strong sense of integrity must be the core value of our work. We must do it right – with verity, credibility, truthfulness. High standards must remain our guiding principle. For us and those to come, this is the clear path to continued, sustainable success for our great profession.”

Which of this highly-accomplished PR professional’s words of superb advice had impact for you? Your thoughts?

PRaising a life in PR

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Howard Blankman (1925-2017)

Most students probably never heard of Howard Blankman. Yet, as he passed away last week at age 91, it’s important to note and remember how much this one individual influenced so many PR “students,” particularly those, including me, who had the chance to work at his side.

I paid tribute to Howard in this blog in June 2015 after we celebrated his 90th birthday. “Like most PR veterans,” I wrote, “Howard took a serpentine route to a public relations career. A Jewish kid who grew up in Amish country, he was a young bandleader, a playwright, and later became a Tonight Show writer.” He worked in theater, writing and producing plays, and eventually opened a PR firm, The Blankman Group, in 1968, with a diverse client list including Cablevision, King Kullen and MasterCard International.

In my previous post, Howard’s dear friend Bert Cunningham noted: “In many respects, Howard has been the career father to a number of PR pros on Long Island. He also fathered the concept of an independent, full-service PR firm that also used advertising and marketing techniques to support PR. At that time the vast majority of PR was done in-house. The independent outside PR consultant was a fairly new service on Long Island.”

Howard also spent countless hours volunteering his expertise to promote the arts and economic development on Long Island. In 1997, he was presented with Public Relations Professionals of Long Island‘s (PRPLI) Lifetime Achievement Award; notably, it was Howard who was instrumental in founding PRPLI after the Public Relations Society of America’s local chapter had folded. His vision to create an organization where Long Island PR pros could network and learn resulted in scores of lifelong friendships and mentors; PRPLI still serves to enhance our PR skills through its excellent professional development programs.

To his last days, Howard was actively writing, mentoring, and starting new projects. As a fitting tribute, PRPLI will introduce the Howard Blankman Mentor Award at its annual dinner in May. Howard’s former “students” and I will celebrate his life by always striving to be better PR people, just as he did. Your thoughts?

Being Sean SPiceR

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“Being John Malkovich”

In Spike Jonze’s crazy and imaginative 1999 film, Being John Malkovich, people pay $200 to inhabit the mind of the award-winning actor for 15 minutes, sensing and experiencing whatever he does. The unique “ride” begins through an office portal and ends with the person being dumped on the New Jersey Turnpike.

As a public relations practitioner, I wonder what it’s like to be White House spokesman Sean Spicer as he defends the crazy and imaginative notions of his boss. In an article in Vanity Fair titled, “The Agony of Sean Spicer,” Jim Lo Scalzo wrote, “As a long-tenured creature of Washington…Spicer was a generally well-liked communications director at the Republican National Committee, with a quick wit and a sense of humor. One reporter who worked with Spicer described him to me as a ‘chill’ and ‘very reasonable guy.'” Lo Scalzo added, “During the bizarre, shocking, and occasionally Constitution-bending…Trump administration, few have appeared to suffer more, perhaps both publicly and privately, than Spicer himself.”

Last week’s accusations that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower before the election seemed incredibly challenging for Spicer. He and the president won’t let go of the notion, quoting less-than-reliable sources and creating realities that reasonable authorities don’t support. One wonders what goes through the mind of this reasonable guy while he’s behind the podium, defending alternative facts to the watching world.

“The press secretary’s job is to explain what the president is thinking and why he’s thinking it,” Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s press secretary, told CNN’s Dylan Byers. “Still, previous administrations have believed the most effective way to advance their agenda was by maintaining at least the veneer of an open and respectful relationship with the press corps. At the Trump White House, hostility toward the media is the agenda. This anti-media posture makes Spicer’s job all the more difficult…the militant propagandism he channels…feels like a performance for the audience-of-one watching him almost daily from the Oval Office.”

I’d pay $200 to be Sean Spicer for 15 minutes to experience how he feels as he twists and spins. Just don’t dump me on the New Jersey Turnpike when it’s over. Your thoughts?

The PRice of PooR writing

Ashan R. Hampton

True story: I once lost a well-paying client because an employee spelled his name wrong in a press release. The client interpreted the mistake as incompetence and fired our agency. He was right.

“Poor communication skills often leave bad impressions of you and your organization. One brochure with one little typo, widely distributed to various channels, can cost money and clients,” wrote teacher and author Ashan Hampton in Why Good Writing Matters. “Would you excuse away faulty writing with any number of justifications, such as, ‘Perhaps someone else wrote this message? Not everybody is a good writer, but they’re still good at what they do.’ As a result of this mode of thinking, many professions receive passes on bad writing, spelling and grammar. Who cares if they can write as long as (they are) successful?”

In iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens’ I won’t hire people who use poor grammar he wrote, “Applicants who don’t think writing is important are likely to think lots of other (important) things also aren’t important.”

Ashan Hampton made similar points:

1. Writing errors breed distrust. Hampton cites an article, “Bad Grammar is Bad for Business,” noting 59% of 1,029 people polled by Global Lingo said bad grammar and spelling errors would make them reconsider patronizing a website.

2. Writing errors suggest inattention to detail. “As a seasoned professional or budding entrepreneur, you will be judged on the quality of your writing in the business sector,” said Hampton. “This is especially true for job seekers. Many hiring managers toss resumes with even the slightest misstep in punctuation. Spelling or typographic errors are definite deal breakers.”

3. Writing errors intimate education levels. Hampton wrote, “Like it or not, written communication intimates your level of intelligence and thoughtfulness…Deficient writers are perceived as less than smart, whether or not this characterization is true or fair.”

I, too, tend to base my perception of a person’s competence by their written work. So seek out the countless online sources on good writing, including Ashan Hampton’s new YouTube site featuring writing tutorial videos geared toward K-12 and college students. Don’t let poor writing cost you. Your thoughts?



A SuPeRvisor’s ethics

In this new age of “alternative facts,” the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Code of Ethics has taken on far greater importance for those who care about our profession’s reputation. Public relations, like journalism, isn’t regulated by the government, nor are its practitioners licensed by any professional body, so we’ve established codes of ethics to help guide our activities. PRSA’s code encourages honesty, confidentiality, fair competition, avoiding conflicts of interest, transparency, and other essential values.

Last week my PR Fundamentals students and I looked at several case studies in which I posed hypothetical ethical situations and asked how they would react. For example, we talked about what they might do if they were asked to exaggerate facts within a press release, how they’d approach a CEO who won’t let them talk to the media for fear of lawsuits, and pondered how they’d respond to a reporter who suggests a bribe in exchange for covering a client’s story. Some of these events actually happened to me in my quarter-century as a PR practitioner; they’re the kinds of situations in which we could–but hopefully won’t–find ourselves.

One real-life ethical question came to me after I began teaching at Hofstra University. A student of mine (I’ll call her Betsy) was doing a summer internship at a Manhattan PR agency that represented various entertainment venues including restaurants. One particular establishment was getting negative reviews on Yelp and wanted the agency to fix them. Betsy’s supervisor ordered her to write several positive reviews of the restaurant; she was to use a fake name for each so the negative comments would be pushed down and become harder to see. Betsy called me and suggested that she wasn’t comfortable doing this, but wondered if she should anyway. Besides, her supervisor at the agency told her this kind of thing is done all the time in the industry, and paying clients’ needs come first.

What should Betsy have done? What would you have advised her regarding her supervisor’s directive, and how should she have responded to him? Is the ethical answer obvious here? Your thoughts?

A PooR public image

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Bill Gates

“If I was down to the last dollar of my marketing budget I’d spend it on PR!” – Philanthropist Bill Gates

“Public relations specialists make flower arrangements of the facts, placing them so the wilted and less attractive petals are hidden by sturdy blooms.” – Novelist and former PR man Alan Harrington

Discussing reputation management in the classroom is always interesting, especially when we create lists of organizations and individuals with poor public images. From Wal-Mart to Kanye, we have lively conversations about bad reputations and how to repair them.

However, as we consider those with PR challenges, we should point to the PR profession itself. Public relations practitioners are often disparaged and misunderstood. Journalists have been historically critical; many see their own motives as pure while PR people work the “dark side.” Journalist and novelist George Orwell famously wrote, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.” American Revolution writer Thomas Paine called publicity “a black art,” even while using early PR methods to influence public opinion in support of anti-British sentiments. Sci-fi writer Graham Diamond said, “PR is…learning to psychologically manipulate…It’s devious exploitation, taking advantage of the human psyche.”

But like Bill Gates, others view PR as an essential and noble profession. “Public relations (is) a key component of any operation in this day of instant communications and rightly inquisitive citizens,” American Express founder Alvin Adams wrote 100 years ago. Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson exclaimed, “Publicity is absolutely critical. A good PR story is infinitely more effective than a front page ad.” Charles Evan Hughes, a Supreme Court Chief Justice, New York Governor, Secretary of State, and Republican presidential candidate, noted, “Publicity is a great purifier because it sets in action the forces of public opinion, and in this country public opinion controls the courses of the nation.”

Despite the welcomed praise, PR practitioners often feel the sting of a poor public image. We’ve been called “spin doctors,” “flacks” and “propagandists.” Perhaps the profession could use a reputation management campaign of its own. But how would you change attitudes about PR? Your thoughts?

PRopaganda and PoweR

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Joseph Goebbels

After weeks of unprecedented assaults on the media by the president and his representatives, it’s worth remembering Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s minister of propaganda. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “Goebbels was responsible for presenting a favorable image of the Nazi regime to the German people…He took control of the national propaganda machinery, controlling the press, radio, theater, films, literature, music, and the fine arts.” Here are some of Goebbels’ infamous observations: 

“Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play.”

“There is no need for propaganda to be rich in intellectual content.”

“…the rank and file are usually much more primitive than we imagine. Propaganda must therefore always be essentially simple and repetitious.”

“Arguments must therefore be crude, clear and forcible, and appeal to emotions and instincts, not the intellect. Truth was unimportant and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology.”

“It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. They are mere words, and words can be molded until they clothe ideas and disguise.”

“Propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated are confident they are acting on their own free will.”

“The essence of propaganda consists in winning people over to an idea so sincerely, so vitally, that in the end they succumb to it utterly and can never escape from it.”

In his 1928 book Propaganda, Edward Bernays, known as the “father of modern PR,” wrote, “The use of propaganda, carefully adjusted to the mentality of the masses, is an essential adjunct of political life.” But he never disparaged the media. This weekend Senator John McCain told NBC, “If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”

By demonizing the press and telling reporters not to question power, our leaders are dismissing history and are going to a very dangerous place. Your thoughts?

PRetty flowers

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Readers: My students have told me one of their favorite “PR Nation” posts was written for Valentine’s Day in 2013. I’m continuing a tradition of updating and re-posting it each year. Enjoy!

“When a person brings pretty flowers to a date, that’s good public relations.”

When we attempt to define public relations, we can agree that good PR strategies seek to accomplish one of three responses: to create attitudes, to reinforce attitudes, or to change attitudes. Well, isn’t that what dating is all about, too?

Consider matchmaking, set-ups and online dating, for example. People create profiles–similar to a PR practitioners’ backgrounders–to describe their personal and professional status. When one senses a potential match he or she contacts the other, usually with a clever, enticing note–in effect, a pitch letter. If the pitch works, a first meeting may take place at a mutually selected venue. These early get-togethers involve planning significant events for which schedules are coordinated, clothing is selected, and grooming is completed so the presentations (dates) go well.

As the relationship takes root, networking begins, first with friends and then with family. Each action is designed to create positive attitudes among the couple’s various publics. The following weeks and months will contain acts of caring and kindness, sharing of new experiences, and efforts to compromise when necessary. As in social media, there will be likes, shares, interaction, and even occasional analytics. This, like PR, is done to reinforce positive attitudes.

Eventually, a crisis may occur. Someone says or does something wrong or hurtful, and then an all-out effort is made to change negative attitudes. Various reputation management tools must be used if there’s any chance of success. This may include providing flowers and apologies. After the crisis is over, favorable behaviors must be sustained because, as we know, good PR is more than just clever words or nice appearances. Maintaining consent from your publics must be supported by consistent, positive performance.

So on this Valentine’s Day, remember that when your date brings you a gift or flowers, that’s good PR. And, more importantly, if your date brings flowers for your mother, that’s superb PR. Your thoughts?

DisapPeaRing credibility

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“I bet it’s brand-new information to people that President Obama had a six-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized, and were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green Massacre. Most people don’t know that because it didn’t get covered.”Kellyanne Conway on MSNBC. 02.02.17

President Obama didn’t impose a six-month ban on refugees and there was no Bowling Green Massacre. The story Kellyanne Conway was referring to as justification for the president’s immigration ban was the 2013 sentencing of two Iraqi citizens living in Bowling Green, Kentucky, after they were found guilty of providing material support to Al Qaeda in Iraq.

If the new president’s top communication adviser had simply misspoken as she later claimed, reporters and social media critics might have brushed it off as an unfortunate verbal gaffe. But Conway was lambasted for the mistake because her credibility had already been disappearing. The former pollster and political commentator had twisted the truth–a.k.a. “spinning”–far too often when talking to reporters, most notably when she defended Press Secretary Sean Spicer after he inflated the size of the inauguration’s audience by saying he was providing “alternative facts.”

As Conway has taken on the difficult task of representing and often defending her factually-challenged boss, she’s damaged her own reputation to the point that reporters have come to expect her to twist reality. “For sheer, jaw-dropping wonder…a typical Conway television interview…is a circus of euphemisms, a festival of distractions and a testament to the stamina of a willed smile,” wrote Frank Bruni in The New York Times last month. “No claim is too laughable or denial too ludicrous if it counters the supposed insidiousness of the other side.”

After a spokesperson or a PR practitioner loses the trust of the public as well as their media relationships, it can almost never be recovered. Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” are now subjected to daily ridicule of pundits, reporters, and comedians (watch “SNL”) alike. She’s become an excellent case study in why the truth really matters, and why spin on behalf of any client–especially the White House–is ultimately destructive. Your thoughts?