Monthly Archives: February 2009

Communication During a Crisis

I was instantly terrified on Friday, February 13, to turn on the Internet and find the headline of “Deadly plane crash in Buffalo.” Having lived in Buffalo, New York, for my entire life, I immediately opened the story to find that a plane had crashed into a residential neighborhood about 10 minutes away from the place I call home.

This was the exact flight my father used to take on business when he worked for a company based in New Jersey. I read that a young pilot died, along with 49 others, including a woman who lost her husband in the September 11 attacks. Families were waiting in the airport to pick up their loved ones who would never make it home.

When a tragedy of this size happens, it is hard to stop the communication. Although it is tragic, people talk . . . a lot, because you can’t help but be interested. My parents said that this plane crash was one of the only topics covered in the news for days. Every new lead on the investigation of what may have caused the crash was discussed in great detail. Every story about the innocent people who had lost their lives was told, and memorials were held across the city.

After this event occurred, I thought back to the recent plane crash in the Hudson River where all passengers survived. I have never been fearful of flying on an airplane, and since I go to school about 1,000 miles away from home, I am lucky I feel this way. After all of the tragedies and frightening moments experienced in the air, I realized that the public relations practitioners for these airlines must be doing something right.

The communication experts have done a wonderful job ensuring safety. The public was notified that these occurrences are very rare, and it was communicated that the Q400 model of aircraft has had no previous crashes. In a recent Buffalo News article, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, of US Airways Flight 1549, discussed his consulting firm, which applies airline safety regulations to other businesses. The airline industry is so well known for safety that it is looked to as an example.

But what wasn’t communicated clearly was the fact that flight 3407 was not technically a Continental Airlines flight, leading to assumptions that Continental Airlines was responsible. When checking the Web site for Continental Airlines there was one news release expressing sympathy about the plane crash, and discussing the ways in which Continental Airlines will support Colgan Air during such a difficult time. In order to learn that the flight was a Continental Connection flight operated by Colgan Air, I needed to visit the Colgan Air Web site. Pinnacle Airlines Corp. owns Colgan Air, and their flights consist of the Continental Connection, US Airways Express and United Express.

Colgan Air released about 10 statements during the week of the plane crash, providing information about the passengers, pilot and crew, safety policies and actions to support the victim’s families. A question and answer document was released, explaining the investigation to cause of the plane crash, stating that the cause is unknown, but there are suspicions that it was related to excess ice on the wing.

When a tragedy occurs, it is important for the public to know exact details. The worst thing that could happen is for rumors to spread, resulting in miscommunication that needs to be corrected. In this recent tragedy, I feel as if Colgan Air did a fantastic job releasing information to media outlets, and keeping its company’s name away from negative attention. There is no easy way to communicate during a crisis, but giving as much information as soon as possible has proven successful through this recent incident.

My prayers and support go to all of the families who have lost a loved one on flight 3407.

-Sarah Minkel

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Attention All PR Graduates

Three months before graduation, I think I know it all. Knowledge and experience were gained both inside and outside the classroom through public relations conventions, class lectures, projects, campaigns, internships and part-time jobs. I should be feeling pretty confident in my future. I have gotten all the PR experience I could ask for as an undergraduate, but where do I go from here? Each day closer to graduation becomes one day longer without a secured job. It’s only natural for a student to panic.

Did I choose strong internships? Should I have started my application process earlier? Were my peers secretly making all these job connections under the table? Shouldn’t someone with a major in public relations have successful networking tools? Or am I correct in assuming I’m not as PR savvy as I thought? WRONG.

The challenge seems to stem from the excess amount of pressure to land that perfect job. No matter what area of public relations interests you, there are always those coveted jobs it seems the entire graduating class is competing for (but only the overachievers get). You know the type of jobs I am talking about. We build this “ideal” job in our heads –the one with the fresh stack of personalized business cards and country club memberships. We believe unless we are offered these jobs it’s time to call it quits and say, “Renovate the new storage room back to my bedroom—I’m moving home.”

The field of public relations provides graduating students with more unique opportunities than we think. Exploring these opportunities is vital in securing your PR confidence and job options as public relations students. Our mindsets must transition from finding the perfect job to finding the right job. The key to knowing all about the PR job field is realizing we do not know it all as students (although we like to think we do). It’s our responsibility to learn more about public relations by utilizing techniques such as informational interviews and networking beyond the PR surface.

Informational Interviews
It may be hard to believe, but these simple 15-minute interviews can consistently provide young PR practitioners a job market advantage. The key to informational interviews begins with understanding the benefits resulting from their implementation. “While one out of every 200 resumes–some studies put the number as high as 1,500 resumes–results in a job offer, one out of every 12 informational interviews results in a job offer,” says Katharine Hansen, author of A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way Into the Hidden Job Market.

Informational interviews can provide job-seeking students with:

  • Grapevine information about non-publicized job openings 
  • Job specifics that go beyond the general job description, including daily demands or challenges
  • Ability to ask follow-up questions in a more casual setting
  • Confidence in your personal interview skills

PR professionals highlight these interview benefits through social media and other communication tactics. PR Channel Blog’s “Advice for the PR Grad-Networking” references several experts endorsing informational interviews. Media Genesis President Antoine Dubeauclard suggests, “Call people with the objective of learning what they do and what it’s like. It removes all the pressure. You’re not asking them for a job. You’re just trying to understand what their job is like. If you do this well, you’ll get a mentor who may be a good referral source to other opportunities (shhh don’t tell people, but that’s how people REALLY get jobs).” Professionals like Dubeauclard note that informational interviews should be taken advantage of through every communication vehicle possible including personal interviews, phone interviews, lunches and even e-mail. As long as you are networking, you are gaining a competitive advantage.

Some specific informational interview tips

  • Complete Your Homework: Prepare ahead of time your elevator pitch and specific career questions 
  • Active Listener: Minimize your note taking and provide valuable two-way communication 
  • Just Ask: PR professionals are usually willing to refer some other beneficial contacts 
  • Think Smarter: Look beyond general PR professionals and meet with effective and successful communicators within any job setting. 
  • Pick Their Brains: Take advantage of your 15 minutes and ask about any PR related questions you have

The right job for you is out there—surrounding yourself with these advantages will increase your job options. Even if one interviewee recommends attending graduate school and another suggests a nonprofit internship, you are learning more about how to obtain your right job. Remember that each meeting, each phone call, each RSS feed, each conversation will move you one step closer to gaining more than just a job—you will launch the beginning of a successful PR career. Who knows, maybe someday you will have the right job plus the country club membership.

 

Louise Crow

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G is for Gatorade; that is NOT good enough for me!

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”
– William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 2.2

No offense to Shakespeare, but I don’t think he ever studied public relations or the value of brand identity.  Nor do I think he had to watch the “G” ads.  These black and white TV commercials scroll past athletes and pop cultural icons by the likes of Misty May-Treanor, Kerri Walsh, Muhammad Ali, Derek Jeter, the JabbaWockeeZ, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Michael Jordan and Peyton Manning while an announcer answers the question, “What is G?”  “G” is of course “gifted,” “glorious” and “golden.” Duh.

I am sure that you have all guessed correctly that these commercials clearly refer to Gatorade.  What else could “gifted,” “glorious” and “golden” mean?  And if that wasn’t enough, I know all of America is up-to-date on its pop culture and American history.  The JabbaWockeez won MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos are infamous for their salutes protesting racial inequality during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.  And if anything is going to fuel consumption of a sports drink after exhausting physical activity, it is these figures.

In my personal opinion, Gatorade wasted its money on these ads.  In no way does this commercial reflect the hydrating, vitamin-filled, flavorful qualities that we have come to identify with the blue-sweating, turbo jet running athletes in its past commercials.  And I’m not alone in this line of thinking.  John Swansburg wrote in his blog post on Slate, “It’s as if Gatorade execs had thrown everything they’d read was cool these days into a pot and stirred. Viral campaign: check. Hip-hop dance crew: check. Lil Wayne: check. Barack Obama: check.” 

Gatorade is a sports drink and its main consumer is athletes.  So how do pictures of Obama in a suit or dancers in masks inspire heart pounding activity after which Gatorade is necessary?  It doesn’t.  Now, I’m not saying its older commercials such as, telling consumers about its conception at the University of Florida or showing athletes performing rigorous activity, were breathtakingly original.  But at least we knew what they were when they aired.  What is ‘G’?

My friend, Sam, just summed it up like this, “It actually discouraged me from getting Gatorade, because I didn’t want to get anything with just a ‘G’ on it.  I didn’t know what it was.  So I just got one of the old bottles of Gatorade….But for real are the ‘G’ bottles special Gatorade or normal Gatorade?”

 

-Jarrett Cocharo

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Well informed. Well in advance.

Over the past two years you saw the commercials and billboards, heard the radio service announcements and received information in the mail about the big change in February 2009. Well here it is, February 2009, and as you know television is moving from analog to digital signals.

The FCC has placed many regulations over the past few years on how consumers are informed about the switchover. There have been commercials explaining how and why this change is taking place and telling the public about the much needed update of technology. There have also been commercials offering information on how to get coupons to receive a converter box, which will transform the signals into digital ones for older televisions.

According to Yahoo! news about a quarter of the stations switched over February 17, 2009. The remaining stations should begin converting between March and June 2009. This is considered a grace period to offer emergency broadcast information and local news via analog, as well as provide information about the switch to those few who have not heard about it.

Bottom line, the FCC provided all of the information to the public in a timely manner with plenty of preparation for the public to react to the news. Another great aspect of this campaign is the DTV Web site, which explains the change, how it affects certain people and how to make sure you are covered during the switch.

Although everyone was informed, of course there are those of us who procrastinated and did not realize the switch was taking place until we discovered that some of our channels had been dropped. No fear. Just get on the DTV Web site and there is a how-to section on nearly every aspect of the process.

Another reason some people have not made the switch is because of the cost. However, there were alternatives to buying a new television like buying a converter box. The FCC also provided information on how to get a coupon for the converter boxes. According to Blorge, the Senate approved the delay of the switchover to June 12 to give people more time to switch to digital signal.

The FCC was well prepared for the campaign and created awareness through several different outlets, including direct mailings, PSA’s, news releases, billboards, commercials, the Web site and others. This is a great case study to look at because of the broad audience and the quality of campaign produced. Television users were well informed, well in advance.

by Amy Hannah Burkhalter

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Public Relations for Africa


Africa.

What thoughts come to your mind when you see that word? AIDS…Orphans…Poverty? Those were the images that used to come to my mind. The pictures we normally see in mass media portray a negative image of Africa. Mocha Club is trying to change that.

Mocha Club is a nonprofit organization that works to raise and deliver aid to Africa. It supports six different projects: child mothers, education, HIV/AIDS, job creation, Sudan regrowth and orphan care. On December 1, 2008, Mocha Club launched the “I Need Africa” campaign. The goal is to change the public’s view of the continent by showing the joy the African people have—through a public relations campaign.

The interesting thing is how Mocha Club did it. A few weeks prior to the campaign, Mocha Club members were asked to blog about what Africa meant to them. The goal was to start a new conversation using social media. Barrett Ward, Mocha Club director, started the conversation. He said, “It’s true, there are great tragedies playing out in Africa every day, suffering that’s unimaginable. But the truth is, in Africa I find hearts full of victory. I’m not saying Africa does not need our efforts. But for me, I’ve come to understand that I need Africa more than Africa needs me. It’s Africa that has taught me that possessions in my hands will never be as valuable as peace in my heart.” Almost 100 people blogged about the campaign before it started. On Dec. 1, a shirt was put on sale to promote the campaign and raise money.

Since the start of the campaign, more than 1,000 people have purchased the shirt and $50,000 has been raised.

Africa. What do you see now?

- Melinda Williams

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A Long Look in the Mirror

Your image is what others see and think of you. Your image is what gives you a good or bad reputation. Your image also follows you through personal endeavors and your climb up the corporate ladder. So what if 60 million plus people thought differently of you just because one picture leaked onto the Internet?

As an avid reader of entertainment magazines and Web sites, I have viewed every swimsuit photograph and make-out session of the celebrities we’ve come to know as friends. Their rises and falls appear as front-page news, sometimes even overshadowing homeland security issues and the latest in presidential activities. So how do you fix your image if it has been tarnished?

Publicists, or maybe a record label’s publicity department, must morph into crisis mode. Rehab happens to be a favorite of celebrities such as Amy Winehouse, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, as noted by the Blog Herald . These stars are whisked away to extremely overpriced rehabilitation facilities only to emerge a few weeks later. Some change for the better, but most return in only a few days.

Celebrities need the same brand maintenance as any corporation. Their image is what sells products, which in turn creates revenue for their brand. A celebrity’s fall can result in reduced revenues for future projects. For example, Lindsay Lohan, who has encountered drug problems and run-ins with the law, can still demand $2 million for a film. After a DUI charge in 2007, her publicist released a statement admitting to her drug problems. Lohan attempted to rebrand her image as a girl with a troubled home life and has since risen back on top. Lohan’s attempts did not, however, steer the recent media coverage away from her romantic relationships and late night partying.

Kate Moss is another example of publicity that went right. After pictures of the model doing drugs were released, she issued a statement apologizing to the public for her actions. Moss spent a month in an Arizona rehab facility and since then has retained her endorsements and advertising campaigns. While she will also have a drug incident on her Google search record, Moss has re-emerged in the public limelight.

Probably the most recent case of celebrities hitting rock bottom is pop singer Britney Spears. Her life consists of tumultuous events stemming from her teen years: cast in the Mickey Mouse Club; dated Justin Timberlake; had a quickie marriage in Las Vegas, which was annulled shortly after; married to backup dancer Kevin Federline; had two boys; divorced Federline; shaved her head; went to rehab; and performed a drunken Video Music Awards performance in 2007. And what a circus it has been. Let’s also remember that Spears is only 27 years old. Now in 2009, she is gearing up for a new world tour and has recaptured her 20-year-old physique. Spears’ album has reached number one, and her life may finally be back in order. With a new management team backing the pop princess, scandalous activities have remained out of sight in the last few months. Even after all of her downfalls, Spears has come out strong and has a new image to prove it.

A recent celeb blunder has been the infamous Michael Phelps caught with drug paraphernalia. His publicist immediately released a statement issuing an apology to his fans for his “bad judgment.” Phelps’ endorsements with Speedo and Omega watches seem to still be in tact, but Kellogg’s will not renew its contract with the Olympian.

Celebrities and corporations are in similar circumstances with image management. If a crisis or mess-up occurs, someone with a public relations background has to run to the rescue. If a person or company’s image is tarnished in the eyes of the public, chances are that they will not survive the media’s scrutiny. However, only those who actually look in the mirror have a chance of surviving.

Take a long look in the mirror. Do you like what you see?

-Julie Brown

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Customer Service: A Stepping Stool to Public Relations

“The customer’s always right.” This is the common motto spoken by managers across the nation, over and over again. 

Since the beginning of October I have worked as an account executive selling advertising space to local businesses for my university’s student newspaper. At this point, rushing to my office first thing in the morning and in between classes has become an addictive routine. Now February, I realize what it is that urges me to be in my office as often as possible: My clients. 

On a typical day I arrive at the office with a couple voice mails. One might be from a prospective client, while the next is from a regular client who is somewhat infuriated that today’s ad had a blue tint. This reoccurring “blue” problem is no one’s fault but the printing and I have to remind the client of that in a respectful way: “Yes, Mr. Hodson, the printer had another malfunction that was out of our control. I apologize and can assure you we are working on the problem right away. If it’s any consolation, we will give you free color on your next ad. And no, I don’t mean blue color.” My day progresses with new and weekly visits, constant e-mail check and telephone calls (many on my cell phone that’s on the verge of dying…again.) 

But the truth is, I enjoy the constant communication with clients. It is my job to know their business, cater to their needs, respect them, keep them happy and tell them they are right. I know that each customer interaction only contributes to the way in which the customer views the overall company. As an account executive, I am the face and the voice for the newspaper. If I act poorly, then it is only a poor reflection on the company I work for.

Some may wonder why I’m working in sales and advertising when I am a public relations major, but interacting with a customer contributes greatly to public relations. This is the revelation I have come to in the past four months, with the help of some fellow bloggers.

Jeremy Pepper, a public relations practitioner at Marcom in San Francisco elaborated on the idea of customer service as the first step to public relations. Pepper explains that if you are going to understand your publics, shouldn’t you first learn what they are saying about your company? In his blog he says, “If you are in a public relations department, here’s a suggestion: work down in customer service for a day. Then, work with the head of CS to ensure your messaging is consistent across the board.” He concludes that customer service and public relations should not be connected but should work together.

Another blogger, Kami Huyse states plainly that public relations IS customer service. Her blog tells us that, “Public relations must stop looking at itself as a telemarketer of pitches and press releases to media and instead become a champion for the customer and the communities that they serve.”

A blog post by Dave Fleet parallels Huyse’s by stating that, “…customer service function has always had an element of public relations to it.” Every interaction you have with your customers via telephone, e-mail, in-person or social media has the ability to either “build loyalty or breed dissatisfaction.” Every time you are disloyal to a customer you are not just harming that interaction. You are harming your overall relationship with that customer, and who knows if they will ever come back?

The other day, a friend of mine raved about Zappos shoes’ customer service. He needed specific shoes to wear while he worked in a hospital. He ordered them one night with hope that the shoes would come within the next week. But to his surprise, the shoes were on his doorstep the next morning.

This story seemed too good to be true, but I stood corrected when I read a Business Week article on Zappos’ customer service. Sure enough, it says that customers can order shoes as late as 11 p.m. and still get next-day delivery. Zappos’ “fanatical customer service” doesn’t stop there with free shipping and returns. Additionally, customer service reps do not use scripts and are never forced to cut calls short. CEO of Zappos Shoes, Tony Hsieh says, “If customers know that they’re going to get the best service from Zappos and they’re going to get it overnight, then anytime we’re going to add a product category, our customers will be loyal to us.”

I guess one could say that my work at the school newspaper is “fanatical customer service,” as it is practically an addiction checking up on my clients and welcoming new ones. I am just happy to know that the skills I have obtained do apply to my major and will not go unseen.

So my advice to those dying for a public relations job right out of college but can’t seem to land one: Try a customer service job. Try a sales job. This is PR. This is great PR practice that will only prepare you for a future job. Oh, and don’t forget: “The customer’s always right.”

- Carly Jayne Rullman

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A Time of Transition

Barack Obama’s campaign trail was paved with technology and innovation. During his two-year campaign for change, Obama and his staff utilized social media networks like Facebook and Twitter and technology like text messaging to connect and to establish reciprocal relationships with voters. Change was not only apparent in the promise for healthcare reform and economic growth, but also in the way information was communicated. These forms of communication created strong, grassroots support and allowed voters to shape the campaign.

On January 21, as President Obama took his oath of office, change was occurring at the White House. Not only were movers unloading boxes at the President’s new home, but the new White House Web site was being unveiled. During the transition from the campaign trail to the White House, the administration’s new staff worked to seamlessly shift the brand of Obama the candidate to Obama the president.

Director of New Media Macon Phillips introduced the site through the White House blog. It uses Web 2.0 elements to complete the administration’s mission to bring communication, transparency and participation to the White House. The site includes a briefing room, blog and e-mail updates to communicate better with the public. To aid in transparency, all bills and legislation will be posted, and whitehouse.gov readers will then be able to participate by commenting on the new legislation. Weekly video addresses can be watched on the Web site and on the White House’s You Tube channel.

In a NY Times article, Jim Rutenberg and Adam Nagourney said, “One of the many obstacles the White House faces…is transforming the YouTubing-Facebooking-texting-Twittering grass-roots organization that put Mr. Obama in the White House into an instrument of government.”

While Obama had a large and passionate following during his campaign, he must now focus on reaching those who did not vote for him. Supporters are tired from a long campaign and he must reach new supporters to increase his approval rating.

“Along with the new Web site, his aides — including his campaign manager — have created a group, Organizing for America, to redirect the campaign machinery in the service of broad changes in healthcare and environmental and fiscal policy,” said Rutenburg and Nagourney. “They envision an army of supporters talking, sending e-mails and texting to friends and neighbors as they try to mold public opinion.”

It is evident that the Obama administration understands the importance of a strong public relations campaign that utilizes many different communication outlets. They must continue their innovation, but also remember the ultimate goal is to build relationships.

Mark Penn, CEO of Burson-Marsteller, who was recently interviewed by The Firm Voice on the administration’s communication efforts, successes and challenges said, “I think the question will be whether they can speak directly to a fervent group of supporters and get them behind their legislative proposals in the same way they were behind the candidate before. We can anticipate that the president for the first time will not just do a website, but will communicate actively via e-mail, social media and the Internet in general.”

All eyes are on the new White House. The administration not only will be held accountable for their communication, transparency and public participation, but on the relationship they create with its key public – us.

“Innovations aside, I think the televised presidential addresses—as led off by the inauguration and the State of the Union speech—will be his most important communications ahead,” said Penn. “They are the Super Bowls of political communications.”

Mary Allison Milford

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