Friday, October 26, 2012

Ethics in Public Relations ≠ Public Relations Ethics

Being "rational" isn't enough.  

I'd like to think that I am a rational being, who weighs both sides of an issue and uses critical thinking before coming to a conclusion.  In the study of ethics, however, the idea of 'rational' thinking becomes complicated by the co-existence of two equally 'rational' means of making a decision.  Utilitarianism says that an action is ethically good if maximizes the positive outcomes for the greatest number of people possible.  On the other hand, deontology says we are all duty-bound, and an action is ethically good if it can be universalized (if everyone repeated this action everywhere, would it be okay?), if it maintains the respect and dignity of all people and if it is done with good intentions.  Both are arguably valid ways of analyzing an ethical dilemma, but given the myriad ways in which utilitarianism can be manipulated to serve horrible intentions, I choose to ascribe to deontology. 

What does this have to do with public relations?
In last week's PR theory course, we spent close to an hour debating the idea of whether or not we, as future public relations practitioners, would work for a major tobacco company or other unethical organizations.  The class was split; half of us believed we would do whatever work was available, as we would separate our work from ourselves and our own morals.  The other half of us believed we would not work for such a company, with blatantly unethical practices, even if it meant struggling more with our personal finances.  I would argue that those who would take such a job were applying a form of utilitarianism.  To them, the greatest good would be maximized by them being employed and able to feed their families.[1]  The deontologists in the group felt duty-bound, as members of society, not to lend their skill sets to an unethical cause.  This class debate clearly showed the need for a better instruction on ethics in public relations courses nationwide.  Whether we work for unethical companies, or are simply faced with ethical dilemmas in the course of our work (which is inevitable), we will need to be equipped with the decision-making skills to choose the ethical path. 

Ethics in Public Relations ≠ Public Relations Ethics

As the "corporate conscience" of an organization, public relations practitioners are increasingly called upon to be the ethical voice in a time of tumult.  As such, public relations students must be taught how to be autonomous, unbiased and ethical decision-makers.  However, the day-to-day ethical decisions we will make are not the same as an industry-wide code of ethics to which practitioners must adhere.  While organizations like the Public Relations Society of America do have a code of ethics, such codes often lack enforcement and/or a true understanding of public relations' role as corporate conscience.   

For these reasons, I believe public relations educators must do two things. First, they must integrate some sort of course on ethics and ethical philosophy into their curricula.  Students in public relations must be informed of the pros and cons of applying both utilitarianism and deontology to dilemmas with which they are faced in the real world.  They must be taught to apply ethics IN public relations.  Second, public relations educators must craft their own list, alongside industry professionals, of public relations ethics.  Without these steps, future public relations practitioners will be ill-equipped to face the ethical quandaries they will undoubtedly stumble into during their careers.   Whether or not we would choose to work for a tobacco company, we should at the very least be empowered with the understanding of ethical analyses that can help us make any and all decisions we face in the most ethical way possible.           

[1] However, they were forgetting that a greater number of people are harmed by the manufacture and marketing of tobacco products than would be helped by their employment there.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Syracuse University's Kate Brodock on Social Media

"You will get out of social media what you put into it."
Today in our social media strategies & tactics class, we were given a firsthand look into how Syracuse University manages its social media efforts from Kate Brodock, Executive Director of Digital & Social Media for the university.  Drawing from her experience at Syracuse and elsewhere, Kate provided us with many valuable insights into the world of social media management.  A healthy balance of content creation and curation, providing consistent 'value' to your followers and the importance of social media in a crisis were all stressed.

Particularly interesting were her insights into the use of segmentation of social media.  As such a large institution (somewhere in the range of 14,000 undergraduates alone), Syracuse University has found it necessary to segment its social media outreach.  Users who engage with social media accounts are doing so to serve their own needs; in order to meet those needs, SU has split its main social channels into several social channels.  For example, its main Twitter account (@SyracuseU) serves almost 17,000 followers, all with a variety of experiences, locations and desires.  Some may be alumni, some current students, some faculty and some even local community members.  Rather than 'spamming' all 17,000 followers with content and information irrelevant to them and their connection to SU, the university has divided into several niche accounts, including @SUCampus and @SUSqueeze.  Across all of its platforms and accounts, SU has found a way to brand itself consistently, something many large organizations struggle to do.

"You want likes that will stay with your brand!" 
 In describing the importance not just of the number of 'likes' or followers on a brand's page, Kate stressed that providing consistent value to your followers is key.  Value can be "warm fuzzies," meaning some kind of visual or other content that tugs at a user's heartstrings.  For Syracuse, these warm fuzzies could come in the form of their "Throwback Thursday" photos of SU many decades ago, which engage alumni in a meaningful, even emotional way.  Value can also be humor, however.  Perhaps your organization's users simply want to "crack up" every day, she said, "and if you keep them laughing, you can keep them coming back."  Whatever the type of value your users seek, be sure to provide it consistently in order to increase user engagement with your brand or organization.  

"When a crisis hits, it will hit the social media platforms first, and it will hit us in incredibly high volume!"

As the social media director for a major university, Kate has been exposed to several recent crises at SU, including the Bernie Fine scandal that rocked campus last spring.  While these experiences were by no means an easy job for those running the SU social channels, Kate and her team were able to learn quite a bit about social media's role in a crisis during those times.  Her instructions for crisis response are:

1) When hearing rumblings of a crisis, stop & listen.  Gather as much information as you can.
2) Acknowledge emotions.  People are feeling a certain way, and those emotions are valid.
3) Respond with 1st party content (from your organization) when ready.
Lastly, Kate stressed the importance of coordination and collaboration during a crisis.  "Cross-department coordination can make or break a crisis," she said.  If social media managers are not allowed a seat at the crisis management and preparedness table, they will be incapable of effectively communicating with an organization's publics during a tumultuous time.    

Many thanks to Kate Brodock for sharing these insights (and many more below in my Storify) with our class!  

"Social media tools are not free, unless you consider your time valueless!"


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Chancellor Cantor will leave Syracuse University
Last Friday, students and faculty at Syracuse University were made aware that in 2014, at the end of her contract, Nancy Cantor will end her reign as Chancellor of the university.  The university community seems to be split on their reactions to this announcement.  After months of criticism by free-speech advocates (including this article by The Daily Orange in April 2012), who see her management and communications style as detrimental to the University, many cheered this news.  However, many others in the university see this departure as tragically ending what will have been ten years of increased diversity, community outreach and engaged learning.

In terms of the public relations impact of her departure, I see a long road ahead in effectively maintaining relationships with the university's stakeholders.  The difficulty lies in Chancellor Cantor's "Scholarship In Action" programs; these new initiatives of engaged learning have created a multitude of new stakeholders who are now strongly tied to the university.  Prior to Chancellor Cantor's reign, these individuals or groups may not even have existed as stakeholders.  For example, the Imagining America program at Syracuse did not move to campus until 2007.  Today, there are eleven graduate students whose studies are paid for in part by this program, in addition to three full-time employees running the program and student work studies managing the office.  All of these individuals now have stake in not just the university, but in Chancellor Cantor's initiatives and her leadership.  This may seem like a small group, but there are countless groups like this across the university, and all will want a voice during this time of transition.

I will let the hallways and classrooms of Syracuse work out whether Cantor's departure is for the best or the worse, but regardless, from a public relations perspective, the university is in quite a pickle.  Due to the growing criticism of Cantor's work, should the university start from scratch, and leave behind many of her initiatives? Or, due to the influx of stakeholders who now have brand-new or stronger ties to the university, should it continue Cantor's initiatives in the interest of maintaining good relations?    Either way, the university will need to proceed with transparency (some would argue a new concept for Cantor's Syracuse...), two-way dialogue and respect for all stakeholders involved.  If public relations is not at the table during the important decision-making processes of this transition, it is unlikely the university will come out of this time unscathed.  

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Dalai Lama's Visit to Syracuse University

On Monday, October 8th, His Holiness the Dalai Lama (yes- THAT Dalai Lama) graced the Syracuse campus with his presence.  77 years young, he surprised the crowd with his sassy comments and contagious laughter that rang through Goldstein Auditorium and the Carrier Dome during his lectures.  One of the most interesting questions put to discussion was about social media's role in spreading peace and changing the global consciousness.  NBC's Ann Curry, the moderator of the panel, acknowledged the power of social media in revolutions like the Arab Spring, but also asked whether the opportunity to care about the world can be dulled by social media.
While the 77-year-old holy man was (expectedly) not able to give tremendous insight into this question, Roxana Saberi (wrongfully-imprisoned journalist) sparked a great dialogue on the issue that continued in classrooms and coffee shops across campus.  Roxana rightly pointed out that the impact of social media, in terms of either a dulling or positive effect, depends on how we use it.  Ultimately, Roxana believed that social media is a powerful tool for giving a voice to the voiceless.  "People are searching for meaning beyond themselves," she said, "and they are finding their oneness with others through faith, education or hardship...when we don't have a voice, we need other people to speak out for us, and we should use our skills and technology to be those voices." 
However, I happen to believe that social media absolutely does have a dulling effect on the global consciousness.  To understand my perspective, we have to look to the past.  During the Vietnam War, Americans protested vehemently against the war.  During the first and second World Wars, protests were few and far between.  Why the difference? The Vietnam War was the first time America saw the real, on-the-ground violence of war.  Nightly news shows covered the war with foreign correspondents and graphic video of the violence, and America's consciousness was shocked.   Thousands of Americans were moved enough to protest the war and call for peace. 

Today, images and news of violence have become so prevalent, that I would argue our consciousness has been dulled.  We hear every day about soldiers and citizens losing their lives, and see almost daily vivid video depictions of the violence in Syria.  But just minutes after the news ends, we casually return to our family dinners.   We've seen it before, and we'll see it again tomorrow, and we accept it.  "Just the way it is," we say.

I'd like to think social media will play a powerful role in a long term trend toward world peace.  Sadly, the cynical academic in me quickly kills that optimism.  The more we hear bad news, the more routine it becomes.  Rather than being awoken by social media's spread of news of world violence and unrest, we are lulled back to our perpetual state of what I call "functional unconsciousness", and the world spins on.  

" Functional Unconsciousness: The state of being by which one functions through submitting oneself to a sleep-like state with regard to global events and problems. "

Video of Dalai Lama panels:

Thursday, October 11, 2012


         Blogging about newsworthiness in public relations and journalism is, ironically, not particularly 'newsworthy' itself.  Rather than spewing the seven elements of a newsworthy story (timeliness, significance, proximity, conflict, human interest, surprise, consequence), I thought I'd talk about why an orange (yes, orange), is like a newsworthy story.
 Why an orange? Oranges are fresh, slightly acidic, immune-boosting, bright, shareable, and multi-dimensional.  I have yet to meet someone who dislikes oranges. 

FRESH: If a news story pitched by a public relations pro isn't fresh, reporters are not likely to cover it.  Journalists want NEWS, not OLDs.  Writing a pitch about a longstanding program at your organization with no new information or new happenings will not result in media coverage. 

ACIDIC: A good pitch will jump out at you and surprise you.  As Matt Mulcahy (NBC3 News Syracuse) said in his lecture to our class yesterday, "Don't be the 200th email in the inbox of the Post-Standard."  If a reporter is scanning 200+ emails each day, he/she will likely skim past (and delete) a pitch that is not surprising or has a bit of a bite to it. 

GOOD FOR YOU: Just as the vitamin C in oranges helps boost our immune systems, a good story will contain some sort of value to its potential readership.  It can give important information about an important event or do a public service by spreading awareness about a cause or risk.  If a story will not do its readers some kind of service, it may not be picked up by the media.

BRIGHT: Does your story have some element of human interest or unique angle that will catch a reporter's (not to mention a reader's) eye? If not, time to go back to the drawing board.  At a grocery store full of green veggies, those bright oranges look a lot more appealing than that boring broccoli.

DYNAMIC: Just as oranges can be peeled to reveal new layers of juicy goodness, a good story pitch is a multi-dimensional, moving piece of information.  If the entirety of the story, and its implications for the public, is apparent on its face, it is simply not a good story.    

SHAREABLE: For those of us who grew up playing youth soccer on fields across America, we know that oranges are unique in their ability to be shared.  Slice them up and share them with your friends, without compromising the integrity of the delicious fruit.  Just like oranges, a good story is easily shared and passed along.  Particularly in today's social media age, the 'shareability' of a news story is paramount to its success.  Journalists want to write stories that will encourage readers to hit "Tweet This" and expand the reach of the news outlet, so we must write pitches than lend themselves to such shareable stories. 

So, my fellow PR pros: write pitches like oranges.  Make them fresh, acidic, good for you, bright, dynamic and shareable.  Then sit back, and peel yourself an orange, because you deserve a reward for your hard PR work! 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Campaigns, Social Media and a Sweaty Nixon

Remember that time Nixon was sweaty in 1960?

I think we all do.  Just as televised debates allowed us to see Nixon's sweaty upper lip, social media now gives us new ways to learn about our candidates.  Television meant that politicians could no longer hide their appearances, and social media means that today's politicians can't hide from missteps or blundered statements.

A recent article on Fast Company had this to say on the issue:
                " Social media has changed the election game forever by shining a continual light, from every possible direction, on every move a high-profile candidate makes."

Political gaffes, juicy gossip in their very nature, spread like wildfire online.  Romney's 47% comment is proof of two new realities in American politics: there is no such thing as a 'private' event, and anything you say can be repeated months later on a variety of social and traditional media platforms.   A political gaffe is the perfect ingredient for a viral piece of content, and a campaign disaster.  The more drastically the politician blunders, the more likely it is likely to echo around the social media stratosphere. 

So what's next?

While the 2012 election is certainly an interesting case study of social media's role in shaping elections, the 2028 cycle will be even more interesting.  In 2028, my generation (the Millennials), will be approximately 35-40 years old.  In 2028, we can run for President.  Not only will social media have relevance in terms of campaign messaging and gaffe-spreading, but it will have relevance in terms of how we vet our potential candidates.  Take a drunk picture at a frat party in 2011 and post it to Facebook? Look like an idiot in said picture? Odds are, someone will have it, and it will come to light when you run for office.   

What can we do?

It is vitally important that we use the power of social media to our advantage as voters (and future candidates) in elections.  We must fact-check and keep tabs on the candidates, and, perhaps most importantly, we must be sure that our own social media use will not be costly if we should enter the political ring several years from now. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What do we DO, really?

While this comic from All Things D is humorous, it brings up a good point.  What are we DOING really, when we use social media in our professional lives? And if we are truly doing something, how do we prove that to our co-workers and superiors?

When we check our favorite blogs and news sites, we are not just glossing over news for our own entertainment; knowledge of global events, trends and industry-specific news is paramount to the success of a public relations team.  In order to successfully tell our organizations' stories, we must know what is going on outside of our organizational cocoon.  What is the media (both bloggers and traditional media) talking about? And by direct association, what are our publics talking about? In order to partake in the conversation, we need to listen first, and speak second.

Once we have an idea of the conversation taking place online and in the real world, it is time for us (and our organizations) to take part in the conversation. This brings us to the second panel of the cartoon.  Note that it is not simply about 'speaking' in the traditional sense; while posting to Google+ and Pinterest is important to provide relevant content to our publics, we must also engage with them.  "Liking" things on Facebook (and commenting back) is a great start for our organizations.

Lastly, we must prove that what we have just 'done' is truly relevant and vital to our organizations.  As a student of the social media-centric Newhouse school, I see the value of social media management.  However, my future bosses and co-workers may not immediately see that value.  Just as the ROI of public relations can be difficult to prove, so can the ROI of social media management.  We must use social media measurement tools to show that we are influential, relevant and connected among our publics.  Only then can we say, yes, we are actually doing something!

For people currently working in social media management positions, or PR in general, what do you think? How do you prove that you are 'doing' something each day?