Taking the high road for the long run

Wal-Mart has been under hot water. Among many public relations incidents and negative press, a few years ago a blog titled “Wal-Marting Across America” was born, supposedly written by a couple who were grateful to the corporation for letting them park their RVs overnight in store parking lots. The entries gushed of happy employees, wonderful working conditions, grateful customers and the couple’s appreciation to the corporation.

Wal-Marting Across America was presumed to be a fictitious blog and a public relations scam. Photo courtesy of www.jennydmizcapstone.wordpress.com

The public presumed Wal-Marting Across America to be a fictitious blog and a public relations scam.
Photo courtesy of http://www.jennydmizcapstone.wordpress.com

Sounds too good to be true? It may be. Because of recent public pressure on Wal-Mart, the corporation has partnered with Edelman to better its public image. Many suspect the blog was an Edelman brainchild and a shining example of astroturfing.

Treading on thin ice

Many companies face looming ethical decisions in their corporate communications departments, a public relations specialization I hope to work in. Public relations is perhaps one of the most ethically-charged fields, comparable to the law profession. By its nature, professionals must make difficult decisions daily as they uphold and safeguard their company’s reputation. Many issues arise every day, but the three primary concerns that continuously resurface in the field include:

  • Using social media for reporting
  • Telling the truth in times of crisis communication
  • Avoid conflicts of interest

It may require more effort, but making conscientious ethical decisions in corporate communications and taking the high road helps companies foster trust, goodwill and generate money in the long run.

Social reporting

Social media’s advantages aren’t contained to the private and personal sphere – they help journalists and public relations professionals reach sources more easily and crowdsource public opinion. However, because social media is a relatively new phenomenon, the rules regarding reporting using social networks have not been clearly established, and during the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, “reporters created Facebook identities to get students’ contact information or started online memorials to solicit postings for their story” (Bowles and Borden, 169).

The ease of social media presents great temptations, but keeping the accuracy and honesty of the story, as well as the wellfare of interviewees in mind is essential to building a better reputation for one’s clients.

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but

While this adage fosters honesty in children, it doesn’t always work with PR. Crisis communications present some of the most unique challenges to PR firms and corporate communications. Professionals must make immediate decisions and tell the public the truth, while apologizing for misdeeds and recovering their reputations through honesty and trust-building.

KitchenAid beautifully handled what could have been a devastating incident last year. A company representative mistakenly sent out a personal tweet on the company account:

A KitchenAid employee thought he tweeted on a personal account, when it was in fact his employer's.  Photo courtesy of Melissa Agnes Crisis Management

A KitchenAid employee accidentally wrote an inflammatory tweet on the company’s account.
Photo courtesy of Melissa Agnes Crisis Management

Cynthia Soledad, KitchenAid brand leader, took control of the situation by issuing statements to Mashable and tweeting apologies to President Obama. She followed all the suggestions for crisis communications recovery operations.

Melissa Agnes, a crisis communications expert, recommends six tips during times of crisis communications:

  • Confront the situation head-on
  • Give quick, real-time responses and updates
  • Offer compassion, sympathy and transparency
  • Humanize your brand
  • See what you’re doing to fix the situation
  • State what you’re doing to prevent this in the future

Managing conflicting interests

Lastly, avoiding conflicts of interest is essential to building trust and goodwill with one’s publics. The Public Relations Student Society of America states, “Avoiding real, potential or perceived conflicts of interest builds the trust of clients, employers and the public.” In potential cases of conflicts of interest, PRSA offers the following guidelines:

  • Act in the best interests of the client or employer, and even subordinate the professional’s own interests
  • Avoid actions and circumstances that may appear to compromise good business judgment or create a conflict between personal and professional interests
  • Disclose any existing or potential conflicts of interest to clients
  • Encourage clients or customers to determine if a conflict exists after notifying all affected parties

Public relations professionals must not only rectify conflicts of interest after they appear, but must take the high road and put themselves above suspicion. The Society of Professional Journalists recommends avoiding involvement with political parties or organizations, not writing about anyone with whom the professional is personally involved, and avoiding covering stories related to businesses in which they hold stocks. Ensuring PR professionals and journalists do not have personal stakes in the stories they cover helps the public receive honest and accurate news.

Making good judgments, promoting transparency and taking the high road in corporate communications, especially with social reporting, crisis communications and negotiating conflicts of interest, will ensure happy clients and consumers and generate more revenues in the long run.

Writing a newsletter? You need these message and design tips

Years ago, Matthew Bregman asked a colleague to write three paragraphs for a newsletter on a company  recycling project. The employee spent days holed up in a conference room, and a week later produced four or five pages on the subject. The organization ran the story in the company newsletter, but he doubts anyone read the article besides the two of them.

The techniques of effective email marketing also apply to newsletter marketing. Photo courtesy of www.websolpro.com

The techniques of effective email marketing also apply to newsletter marketing.
Photo courtesy of http://www.websolpro.com

These days, consumers usually find corporate newsletters they subscribe to in their email inboxes, skim over the shapes, colors and content, and delete the email. Editors and writers put much thought and detail into creating a successful newsletter that catches and maintains a reader’s attention, but the first and foremost step in creating a successful newsletter is conducting an audience analysis and keeping the reader’s goals and interests in mind. Strategy is key in keeping consumers updated about organizational affairs. The following points are crucial in producing a newsletter that will be opened and read:

  • Produce real news suited to the audience’s interests
  • Use aesthetically pleasing layout that follows design rules
  • Measure, measure, measure performance

Communicate the message, not the art

While appealing layout is the first step to catching attention, it is not the end goal of the newsletter, write Bowles and Borden (275.) The most important step in creating effective newsletters is having news to communicate. Don’t spam your audience with sales or deals or self-promotion, because if you’ve destroyed your credibility, your readers will go elsewhere.

Don’t waste your audience’s time – efficiently give them the information they want to see, otherwise they won’t keep reading. Don’t write five pages on a story when it can be condensed into one page, because readers have little time. Determine what the audience wants to see in the newsletter, and cater the message to their preferences. The audiences may differ: some may interested in cutting-edge technology, while some may be stakeholders in a corporation, but all receive the newsletter because they want to stay in the loop. For a newsletter intended for younger people, use sans-serif fonts because they are more casual and easier to read on screen, which is where that crowd will likely be finding their newsletter. For an older crowd or a print newsletter, serif fonts will be easier to read and are more suitable for that audience.

Re: Can I have your attention?

Once the newsletter’s message is devised for the audience, marketing and branding tips are essential to catching initial attention. The video below explains the importance of a catchy subject line in an e-newsletter. Include a nugget of news in the subject to attract interest and show readers that your newsletter contains real content.

When producing an e-newsletter, Media Buzz recommends not exceeding 90 kilobytes. Spam filters generally claim emails with attachments exceeding 100 kilobytes, and attachments with too much data are slower to download and may deter readers from clicking the link or following through on reading.

Additionally, all four design principles should be applied to newsletter layout, whether print or electronic (266):

  • Balance: The design doesn’t have to be symmetrical, but include white space and color
  • Proportion: The ratio between elements on a page should be 3:5
  • Contrast: Have a focal point, with smaller elements that don’t detract from the central image or text
  • Unity: Carry the same design themes throughout all pages
This newsletter adheres to all four design principles. Photo courtesy of www.downthelinedesign.co.uk

This newsletter adheres to all four design principles.        Photo courtesy of http://www.downthelinedesign.co.uk

Does it measure up?

Determining metrics for readership is the last step in creating a strategic newsletter. Software such as GroupMail Email Newsletter Software measure open rates for emails and can play a large role in creating effective future newsletters. Click-Through rates measure the amount of clicks on a link divided by how many times the impression is shown, and provide an effective metric for measuring newsletter readership. For an email newsletter, a Click-Through Rate of 10 to 20 percent is considered successful.

The number of unsubscribe requests per month also allow insight into the most successful and most boring newsletters. Editors should use these metrics to determine effective strategy, messages and layout for future newsletters to gain the highest readership possible among identified key audiences.

Speaking more than a thousand words

The Pulitzer Prize photographs in the Newseum feature decades of winning photography.

The Pulitzer Prize photographs in the Newseum feature decades of winning photography.
Photo by Abigail Jaffe

When a news story breaks 5,000 miles across the world, a journalist is there to cover it. Armed with questions, a smartphone and a quick tongue, journalists ensure the news reaches the public within several minutes or hours.

But long after the reader skims the text, the pictures remain, the powerful ones forever embedded and seared into the memory.

The best and most stunning photos we remember are awarded with the Pulitzer Prize, the most prestigious prize in photography. Pictures of humans in their most vulnerable states, featuring raw and extreme emotion, are what capture our attention and move us to action.

The Newseum’s Pulitzer Prize exhibit enables the range of human emotion to its fullest. Viewing the sheer number of photos in the gallery, which capture the height of emotion, is an awe-inspiring experience.

Spurring laughs and tears

As a public relations student, I’ve learned the value of social media and aesthetics, as well as the potential of appeal to emotion. There is nothing as powerful as photos of people at the height of euphoria, depression, anxiety or worry to accompany blocks of text.

After my visit to the Newseum this Sunday, what I’ve been taught in the classroom rang true in the real world. As I watched laughing groups of people enter the exhibit, they quieted as they began to absorb the photos. Some brushed away tears and others sighed, and I realized the power of a fellow human’s facial expression forever seared in ink.

Eddie Adams' words are the introduction visitors receive to the Pulitzer Prize photography exhibit.

Eddie Adams’ words are the introduction visitors receive to the Newseum’s Pulitzer Prize photography exhibit.
Photo by Abigail Jaffe

Approaching a competitive workforce of professionals safeguarding reputations that we call public relations, I want to incorporate powerful photography into what I do. Crisis management should be a prime recipient of this trend, because people want to witness far-flung events through their computer screens or morning newspapers. Photos of people’s homes singed by wildfires or buried under banks of snow speak volumes and quiet dissent.

In a world where human interaction is rapidly declining, the plight of strangers still holds an eerie sway over us and contains the potential to spur laughs, tears and calls to action.

Copy editors for world peace

Noam Chomsky was accidentally credited online with being the gravest threat to world peace.

Noam Chomsky is the gravest threat to world peace, according to the headline of an article republished from the New York Times on www.alternet.com.

The web site could use some better and more thorough copy editors. What most people don’t realize is that the copy editor’s role extends far beyond correcting grammar and punctuation. While these tasks are important, “Creative Editing” asserts that duties of the copy editor include:

  • Making dull copy interesting and concise
  • Guarding against libel and legal issues
  • Writing catchy headlines
  • Keeping up with the newest technology

In fact, copy editors must be better writers than journalists, because they must know what pieces to tweak to captivate people and keep them interested. They are proficient in enhancing the style of a piece while keeping its unique tone.

But their jobs don’t end there. Good copy editors’ roles extend into the artistic arena, too. Their jobs may include:

  • selecting and cropping photographs and art
  • page layout
  • designating headline and body type style, size, width and leading

Guilty until proven innocent

Where were Alternet’s copy editors when they published “Noam Chomsky: The Gravest Threat to World Peace”?

The editors meant to attribute Chomsky’s detailed analysis of the Middle East conflict to its rightful author, but instead they attributed the Gravest Threat to World Peace to a pacifist cognitive scientist.

While the headline is grammatically correct, the copy editors made a critical error in judgment. Semicolons should be used sparingly, and one simple word could have made all the difference. What if the headline read, “Noam Chomsky on the Gravest Threat to World Peace”?

A line like that is simple, concise and straightforward. Copy editors need to constantly ask themselves, “what would the reader think?”

Ethical dilemmas

Turning a sighted eye

All too often, people like to turn a blind eye when ethical dilemmas arise. For communications departments, which seem to be “jacks of all trades” when it comes to organizational management, it is especially important that employees are aware of potential ethical issues and are prepared to approach them without turning the other cheek.

Am I involved in an ethical dilemma?

What constitutes turning a blind eye to an ethical dilemma? For the most part, it is failing to report suspicious inconsistencies, untruths, or violation of the organization’s code of ethics, whether intentional or unintentional, to senior management or appropriate personnel.

Examples of improper practices:

  • Releasing new product information as if the product was finished, when it is incomplete or non-existent
  • Failure of PR practitioner to counsel client to change bad behavior
  • Failure to correct an executive’s incorrect message to the media

Following the Fitzpatrick method

Kathy Fitzpatrick advises completing the following steps when approaching an ethical dilemma:

  • Define the specific ethical issue/conflict
  • Identify external/internal factors
  • Identify key values
  • Identify affected parties and define professional’s obligation to each
  • Select ethical principles to guide decision-making process
  • Make a decision and justify it

Considering the golden rules

PRSA’s best advice when confronting an ethical dilemma is “if you see something, say something.” Look for suspicious activities or inconsistencies, and don’t be afraid to report it if something doesn’t add up. Ask whether the ethical perpetrators knew whether they were doing something wrong, and how they responded. Always go to the individual first to provide counsel, and then report to higher management if the perpetrator doesn’t accept criticism.

NewsU advises a more probing approach. They say, “we should ask lots of questions, and listen hard.” Although we should listen to our gut, we shouldn’t always trust it.

Justify, and don’t freeze

Fitzpatrick’s advice to “make a decision and justify it” is the most important step in the process. If one acts to slowly, the organization may get into a lot of hot water for failing to act. Once professionals reach ethical decisions, they should justify them. Briefly outlining the rationale behind a decision is a good tip to make sure the decision was not a hasty one, and it can be justified later on if the issue comes to light in the public sphere.

Multicultural diversity

SEO: UMD student draws on diversity for Discovery Communications

UMD student explains how a key feature will shape the future of the public relations industry, specifically for Discovery Communications, and gives valuable tips for maintaining equilibrium in the field.

Shaping the future of public relations

Diversity is more than just variations of cultures, or races, or heritage. Diversity is about channeling the rhythms of each human being into a multifaceted, tightly woven tapestry whose strength emerges from the abilities and talents of each individual.

Diversifying diversity’s definition

Traditionally, white women have dominated the public relations industry, and white men have held executive positions. We must integrate other cultures and men’s and women’s roles in the industry. We also must look past the externals of dominant skin colors and learn to appreciate the valuable variations of thought and perspective that each individual brings to the table.

I chose to attend the University of Maryland partially because I believe I can learn from the cultural and individual perspectives each person displays. As a Jewish student who speaks conversational Hebrew, I offer valuable skills and perspectives that will be useful to Discovery’s international broadcast and communications work.

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Building a diverse community

To hear the voices of minorities, employers should actively seek to promote women to executive positions to allow for a more diverse approach to problem-solving. This new dynamic will create a stronger community where everyone’s voice

is valuable and heard. Discovery Communications is committed to valuing each employee’s unique point of view and to hiring employees that represent the culturally rich communities the organization serves, and as an intern, I can add diversity to the group with my culture and by speaking another language.

Breaking cultural communication barriers

When speaking about people of color, Poynter and SPJ recommend using the term “black” instead of “African-American.” The author should ask a source how to refer to his or her ethnicity. Unless the subject specifies otherwise, the author should use “black.” “African-American” refers to individuals who are originally from Africa. When in doubt, accuracy is best.