Mar 9 2011

“Your Fired”

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The following post appeared in the Capitol Communicator, March 8.

Donald Trump’s foray into reality TV has made “you’re fired” an engaging melodrama. But in real life, that’s a very challenging pronouncement.

The recent firing of Kurt Bardella, deputy communications director for the House Committee on Government Oversight, is instructive to all public relations professionals.  From the most junior practitioner to the most experienced executive, we are reminded that we can only be successful if we are credible.

And what is credibility?  At its core, credibility is trustworthiness.  Are you a believable source?  Are you timely and responsive?  Are you honest – when sharing facts and insight – and do you have approval to do so?

For Mr. Bardella, his reputation took a significant hit after Politico reported that he might have inappropriately shared correspondence with a New York Times reporter for a book project – perhaps BCC’ing the NYT contact on emails with other reporters. We will never know specifically the nature of the information, but the Congressional office investigated and concluded his conduct was inappropriate. It was also unprofessional and unethical.

Once Bardella was dismissed from his position, his reputation was permanently damaged.  While I expect that he will, in time, recover from this personal crisis, it will forever be part of his professional history – and Google search results.

Please note, that I do not wish Bardella ill will.  I believe that he will able to demonstrate to future employers that he has learned from his mistakes, which will make him a better practitioner.

What can we learn?  Here’s a refresher on establishing and maintaining credibility.

1)    Honesty is the most important principle of our practice.  Provide information that has been approved for dissemination.  If you can’t disclose facts, say so. Provide a timeline, if you can, for when such information can be made available.

2)    Relationship building isn’t a quid pro quo.  Providing confidential information or sharing information without the owner’s knowledge to curry favor with a journalist isn’t a constructive way to establish a relationship with a journalist. Take time to learn what the journalist needs and be responsive when she calls.

3)    Trustworthiness is essential to provide counsel to senior leadership.  Once you lose the trust and confidence of an executive, you will have a difficult time doing your job effectively.

4)    Follow the PRSA Code of Ethics, which includes among its values the protection of the free flow of information and privacy.

Credibility is an essential part of professional development and advancement. With it, you are a trusted advisor and source. Without it, you risk the pronouncement – “you’re fired.”

Mar 19 2010

PR Career Building

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I recently spoke at a PR/Marketing/Advertising career panel at Georgetown University (before the Hoyas had their embarrassing loss to the Bobcats of Ohio U, where I completed my graduate work). Panelists, representing PR/advertising agencies and corporate marketing functions, were asked to define the profession and offer suggestions for developing a career. Here’s what I shared with the more than 50 students who attended.

Public Relations is: Communications in the public interest. Proactive and responsive communications. The responsibility to promote and protect your organization or a personality. The art of persuasion.

How to build a career?

1)    Identify your goals and be open to unplanned opportunities.

2)    Join a professional organization and one of its committees.

3)    Network.

  1. Practice your introduction. 15-20 seconds about who you are and what you do.
  2. Develop a set of stock questions. Standard: Where do you work?  What do you do? Have you been a member of this group long? Conversational: Could you recommend a book or blog that I should read to build my knowledge? Did you read about _____ story? The writer was very insightful. What do you think? I’m a (name your hobby) and always looking for new ideas. Do you know _____? What is the primary business challenge that you have to deal with? When in doubt: weather, traffic or travel.
  3. Distribute and collect business cards. If you are job hunting, ask for an informational interview and/or if they know 3 people you could call for an informational interview.

4) Have fun.

Feb 26 2010

Crisis On Display

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Chances are you missed this week’s other bi-partisan round table — Cyber Shockwave “We Were Warned” — a war game hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center and broadcast on CNN Feb. 20 and 21. It was compelling television.

This crisis simulation of a cyber warfare attack that cripples telecommunications, air travel and countless other activities that we take for granted was expertly executed. Participants — former national security officials and advisers from the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations — gathered in a mock White House war room to work through the scenario and prepare a briefing for the President.

Former press secretary Joe Lockhart role played the president’s adviser. His participation was critical to the success of the simulation. His counsel throughout the exercise illustrated the balancing act of sharing timely and accurate information with the public without causing panic. Lockhart’s focus on the effect of both the problem (an act of war by an unknown country, terrorist group or individual) and the recommendations for action (e.g. shut down the cell phone network) were poignant.

The communications/PR function must be at the table to recommend and help formulate policy and protocols as well as plan for information dissemination.

To view the simulation on You Tube, search”cyber shockwave”. If you’ve never been involved in table top crisis exercise, this is an excellent example of a crisis scenario.

Oct 1 2009

APR & Media: Always Be Prepared

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My APR study group met this week night to discuss the media relations and social media section of the Accreditation in PR exam.  For those of us of engage daily with the media, the three-page section in the study guide is embarrassingly simplistic. Do you have a relationship with the media? Do you know when to call, email or host a press conference?  “Are you always prepared” with Q&As, backgrounders and the facts? “Are the news media an audience or channel?” (This question always stimulates an interesting conversation. Channel first, audience second.)

However, I reminded myself, as I do before I give a presentation on best practices in media relations, that what seems self-evident and common sense to me is often important “how to” information for someone unfamiliar with the world of press releases, producers, editors and media interviews.

As our study sessions often do, we quickly digressed from reviewing the study questions into sharing anecdotal information and real life case studies that illustrate the discussion topics.  For example, we mostly agreed that the Coast Guard exercise on 9/11 was a significant PR blunder and illustrated several shortcomings within the Department of Homeland Security. (See 9/15 post.)

We also had a decidedly brief conversation about press kits. I had an immediate dilemma. Was it acceptable to attend an editorial board meeting without bringing a press kit? After 15 years in government and public affairs, it seemed strange to go to any meeting without a leave behind – relying only on the persuasiveness of the dialogue.

“Reporters want everything electronically,” my colleague answered. “Don’t bother with a press kit. It’ll be OK.” About a year ago, I had made the same proclamation to my boss who looked at me as if I had defamed his first-born.  In that case, I compiled a press kit.

Yesterday, however, I attended the editorial board meeting with a candidate seeking political office without a press kit, handout or business card. I arrived feeling naked. I left feeling liberated. In fact, one of the columnists volunteered that he read the press releases that he received via email and had gone to the Web site to view the policy proposals.

It doesn’t signify that the candidate or I was unprepared for the briefing. Quite the contrary. We knew what our key messages were and confidently communicated those sans press kit and a written Q&A.  It was a first for me.

Back to the APR exam. The challenge to the questions on media relations media relations questions will be that the test assume there are absolute answers, which ignores context at the test taker’s peril.  Nor will the test explore how technology, not just social media channels, have changed the way we interact with the media and created new areas of interpretation for media relations and PR professionals. That would be expecting too much from multiple-choice exam.

However, I look forward to discussing these issues before the Readiness Review panel of APRs. Exploring the dynamic nature of PR among a group of peers is the most satisfying aspect of preparing for the APR exam.

Sep 15 2009

Crisis 101: Plan your work. Work your plan.

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Luke Sharrett/The New York Times

Luke Sharrett/The New York Times

On Sept. 11, I was traveling to Columbus, Ohio, for a football game.  When I first heard the radio news about CNN’s reporting of a gunfire incident on the Potomac that turned out to be a U.S. Coast Guard training exercise, I was anxious to learn more and see this on television.

I trust the Coast Guard’s review of the incident will explore the role of the public affairs office and how field offices share information with central command. CNN contacted the Coast Guard Command Center and was told “it had no immediate information.”

I don’t fault CNN for going with the story. Given the date, time of day (Sept. 11 about 9:30 am) and proximity to the Pentagon, the pressure to report timely breaking news was amplified.  It may have been “ready-aim-fire journalism,” but incident exercise planners and public affairs staff involved in the development of the communications for the exercise should factor the immediacy of news into the scenarios.

What I find troubling is the apparent lack of information held by the public affairs office at the U.S. Coast Guard. Nor does it appear there was a public affairs officer on site during the training exercise.

Anyone who’s been on either side of this business understands that “no comment” or “no information at this time” implies that the public affairs shop isn’t ready to issue a statement but may likely aware of the situation. Unless the phone call(s) was recorded, we’ll never know exactly.

The situation illustrates how critical it is to have a prepared and rehearsed communications protocol for various crisis situations – planned or unexpected.  Did the public affairs office know about the training?  Did they have prepared talking points or statements for media inquiries? Was this information shared with the appropriate staff throughout the organization? What communications tools/channels are in place to share information with the public?

While I was director of media relations for The George Washington University, we conducted regular incident management exercises (aka crisis training), including an active shooter scenario with the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) that closed a city block. While we did not notify the media about the joint exercise, we did notify neighbors and those on campus who would be affected. In consultation with MPD, a responsive statement was prepared for media inquiries, which began to arrive about 15 minutes into the exercise. The public affairs staff at both institutions were well prepared to explain that this was an exercise and confirm that no live shots had been fired. And I was on site watching the scenario unfold.

While the scope of the situations are different, the basic premise of planning and execution applies to both. As my high school drama teacher repeatedly said, “Plan your work, and work your plan.” Isn’t that point of an exercise?