Friday, September 14

Managing Change: Public Relations Can Be Proactive

By most accounts, the biggest hurdle in the Chicago teachers' strike has been performance evaluations. It's not new. Los Angeles and Boston recently adopted performance evaluations too, some of them signing on with reservations. They are afraid the evaluation process will be unjustly used to let teachers go.

The good news is that the Chicago strike may be nearing an end. Among the concessions: Evaluations of tenured teachers during the first year could not result in dismissal and later evaluations could be appealed. There are some new benefits added in an effort for both sides to make concessions.

The question that always looms is how long will these concessions remain viable? There is, after all, a big difference between negotiation and compromise. The first involves two groups working together toward a solution. The second involves two groups offering concessions, which sometimes looks like a solution but often breaks down because it isn't a solution. It just moves things forward.

Where public relations professionals can affect positive change. 

Strikes are often publicity generators for hardened deal makers. But if public relations professionals were allowed to interject on the more strategic aspects of a crisis, something else might happen.

If we adopt and expand the definition of public relations beyond communication as it had been in prior definitions (and assume practitioners embrace it) rather than confine it, public relations may have prevented the Chicago strike because it could have helped mitigate an evaluation process designed by teachers and the administration as opposed to just the administration well before it made it into a contract negotiation.

They had the time. Falling test scores is hardly new. It has been noted for a long time. But the debate about it usually becomes heated during contract negotiations and elections. That's when most evaluations are made on an "accept it/reject it" basis. The fact that it becomes a sticking point so late in the game undermines the intent of the evaluations in the first place.

In theory, evaluations usually have several functions. They can help evaluate student knowledge. They can show teachers where to improve or what works. They can provide benchmarks to map trajectories.  So on and so forth.

Most of that is tactical so it needs to be pulled back a bit. The real issue here is that students are not prepared to advance because they lack fundamentals but they somehow are advanced anyway. And perhaps more importantly, some of them do not develop the critical love for education that they need (the one area where charter and private schools seem to excel more than any other factor, it seems to me).

Everybody ought to be asking the same question. How do we instill a love for education and help children succeed? Ideas from all quarters ought to be proposed, worked out, and tested by a mutually agreed upon evaluation system (phased in as suggested before) before it becomes the law of the land.

This requires open communication, which is a potential function of public relations. Why do the teachers think students are failing and is this belief valid? Why do the parents think their children are failing and is this valid? Why do the administrators think education is failing and is this valid?

This would have been a better approach by the administration. Preventative public relations.

Another lesson for public relations in negotiation. 

Although the Chicago teachers' union seems to have found some language that makes these evaluations more tolerable, there is a better lesson for public relations practitioners. Every "accept it/reject it" demand can be better met with a counter solution.

A counter solution is any measurable program that offers a better outcome than the proposal. Had the Chicago teachers' union (or teachers on their own) proposed a potentially better or provably better evaluation system, then the media would have been less likely to zero in on performance, salaries, etc. as a contrast to the evaluations proposed by the administration.

Instead, the media would have likely compared the two evaluation systems. And teachers, like I believe most do in their hearts, would have looked like they were interested in the students more than what they get. That is what teaching is all about it, isn't it? In fact, it's why I lend some of my time as an instructor.

For the public relations practitioner, the point is pretty simple. Always consider that you may not have to make a choice based on a "black/white" scenario laid out in front of you. You can set the communication and solution parameters by being proactive in planning or be better prepared to change the conversation for the benefit of equally important publics.

Wednesday, September 12

Dueling Crisis: The Chicago Teachers' Strike

At first glance, most people would size up a teachers' strike as a crisis communication problem for city government. Not this time around. The decision to strike in Chicago created a quadruple crisis — for government, unions, teachers, and parents. Everybody is going to lose this time, especially the only people who are not part of the clash: the students.

The assessment of a quadruple crisis on the quick. 

Government. It's not exclusive to Chicago, and exists in many major cities. After years of giving into collective bargaining concessions (some smart and some not so smart), government has run out of fiscal room to continually reward lackluster results and downward trajectories. There is no money in the coffers for salary concessions. There is increasing pressure to save failing education systems.

In an effort to meet somewhere in the middle, Chicago seemed willing to approve a generous salary increase, but wanted to end undergraduate teacher tenure and add evaluation methods that would usher in a new era of educational accountability. You can see where they often place the blame — teachers (and sometimes unions).

Unions. The unions have done a tremendous job building an infrastructure to elect politicians who rubber stamp concessions and force out those who will not. The amount of money used for lobbying and political campaigning is mind boggling but not surprising.

Unions make their money based on how much money their members, voluntary or mandatory, contribute. They also need to win every year in order to justify their existence. So, it is in their best interest to protect teachers with more years in the system (tenure), protect the employment of every teacher (regardless of results), and always seek out more money, which in turn generates more cash for lobbying, political campaigns, and their payroll. You can see where they often place the blame — government.

Teachers. While each city is different, Chicago teachers have done better than most. The average salary is around $71,000 per year in a city where most household incomes is around $46,000 per year. But despite this salary discrepancy, it is no picnic to teach in a city with severe economic problems and a higher than normal percentage of at-risk children who attend school every day just to get a meal.

While not all teachers on are board with the union or the strike, those that are want to preserve job security, earn salary increases (because they have hit their caps), and avoid accountability for student performance. The latter isn't because of what most people think. By the time many meet new students, these students are already broken or behind. Most of them place the blame somewhere else — parents.

Parents. Other than teachers, there isn't a more diverse group in the mix. Most parents want their children to receive a better education than they received, but they see that school systems across the country are failing to engage students and instill a love for learning that is necessary for success — even  if their children are better suited to enter the trades (which I'll address another time).

Sure, there are a few who are dismissive, either believing that a failing education system cannot help their children at the onset, devaluing it because of their own occupations, or treating the system like free day care. But I don't think this describes most parents. More likely is that many parents are already stretched too thin to invest an hour on homework every night or, in some cases, they themselves don't understand the material their children bring home. And then there are those who struggle with everyday discipline, let alone education. As the most fractured group, they place blame wherever it is ideologically convenient for them — mostly government, somewhat teachers, occasionally unions.

There are no 'group' heroes in this mix. 

The educational system that was created in most struggling cities is broken because it was designed with the best intent until the best intent was sidelined for winning on issues (some fair and some not so fair). So as groups, there are no heroes because each of them contributed to the mess that exists today.

If you are looking for heroes, you can only look for individuals. Somewhere in the mix, there are politicians who are willing to do whatever it takes to build an educated work force. There are teachers who work longer unpaid hours, doing everything possible to fix the problems they inherited. And there are parents who even though they feel helpless, still instill the importance of education in their children.

But as groups, you will mostly find governments giving into union pressures and political clout with parents too readily taken in by campaign material. At the same time, union wins convinced enough teachers to go along for the ride (or be silenced out of fear). It wasn't always this way, but it is today.

The reality of teacher evaluations, overall. 

While the one takeaway today fits better into education than public relations (which I will be covering as a living case study), there is only one solution that fairly addresses the principal cause of the strike. Despite best intentions, I cannot see how a teacher evaluation system can be implemented across the board on an already broken system despite my own belief that every school system needs one.

So maybe it's time for the good people of Chicago to have a reality check — a hard and fast K-12 evaluation system on teachers, especially one that relies on test scores, isn't fair for one simple reason. But rather than focus in on the problem, I'd rather offer up the solution that addresses it.

Evaluation standards would have to be imposed in phases, starting with K-3. Then, whatever evaluation is put in place would follow the kids into future grades, middle school, and high school. Any other method causes problems because too many children have been passed up with a deficient education.

Ergo, it's not fair to expect a 10th grade teacher to produce 11th grade students when they are given an abundance of 10th grade students with a 6th grade education (or less). However, if the evaluation system was phased in, then there would be no excuses. A 10th grade teacher with 10th grade-ready students will be able to prepare them for 11th grade or even further.

Teachers in the lowest grades would be the first to be held accountable for the class but not every student. Students who are deficient can receive special help or be held back. The point here is simple enough. Fourth grade teachers would not inherit students who are not ready.

The pressure to perform would also be mostly erased, being more likely to look for students who are struggling as opposed to teachers who are struggling. However, school officials could take a closer look at any teacher whose entire class slips. Make sense? You can hold teachers accountable based on class performance, but not necessarily every individual student.

I have more insights on the teacher evaluation topic and some education pitfalls, but I'm looking at a public relations topic for Friday. You see, it seems to me that Chicago is mistaking politics and propaganda for public relations. But on the contrary, public relations is rarely so divisive.

Monday, September 10

Making It Personal: From Education To Marketing

While most people see the 1960s as the "Golden Age of Advertising," its birth can be traced bak to the 1950s. Along with the booming post-war prosperity and adoption of television as a means of mass communication, it was the ideal time for agencies to capture the imagination of a semi-captive audience. 

Some people find the old commercials produced from the 1950s through the 1970s a bit campy with relatively poor production techniques. But if you take a closer look, you'll understand why people responded to the messages — those commercials connected to their era on a personal and sometimes intimate level. 

Unless it's being used as a 1980s and 1990s broadcast channel (when advertising sought to out clever itself instead of appealing to anyone), social media (and social business to some degree) makes the same promise. It provides people the opportunity to get to know the people behind the company, the musicians behind a band, the authors behind the books, so on and so forth. Making it personal works. 

Where advertising and education meet is a matter of perspective. 

While that might seem an odd way to start a post touching on education, some might propose the two are related more than most people think. When it comes to delivering an effective, memorable message that sticks, there really isn't much difference. Personal perspective can solidify and shape how we view history or even current events much more effectively than statistics and bullet points. Stories work. 

One groundbreaking independent documentary series, POV (Point of View) on PBS, has been doing exactly that for almost 25 years. As it aimed to widen the nation's discussion of the most important social issues of the day, it has become its own historic archive of personal perspective by putting a human face on current affairs and now history. Here are a few examples. 

I'm Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful by Jonathan Demme conducts character analyses of fearless matriarch Carolyn Parker, who struggled to rebuild her house in New Orleans after it was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Depending on the class, POV suggests watching film clips and then organizing the information into essays (with outside sources too, I imagine) that can be applied to civics, geography, social studies, and history. 

The City Dark by Ian Cheney studies the nesting process of the endangered loggerhead turtle species. The video illustrates how artificial lighting along beaches disorients turtle hatchlings and hinders their ability to reach the ocean successfully. The film provides cross-over content for biology, environmental studies, geography, and current events. 

The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement by Gail Dolgin and Robin Fryday follows civil rights veteran and barber James Armstrong and where the movement fits within the context of U.S. history. Integrated into a lesson plan, it provides a perspective for civics, social studies, world history, and current events. 

There are other films too. And while teachers must always be mindful to provide contrasting viewpoints or lead students toward appreciating the "why" behind the "what happened," all of them make for memorable communication, reinforced by a personal connection between the subject and viewer. 

Interestingly enough, POV has been developing a better connection between the films too. Its Community Engagement and Education Department partners with middle schools, high schools, colleges, and community organizations to provide more resources than the films themselves. 

Educators are invited to the join a growing community network where they can borrow more than 70 films for free download, along with 125 free standards-based lesson plans. There are also more than 217 streaming video clips and access to 130 film-based discussion guides for a variety of subject areas and grade levels.

"We have found that the personal storytelling in our films is a wonderful learning tool; it becomes a springboard for discussion that not only helps students understand the issues, but often helps them learn about themselves," said Eliza Licht, vice president, POV Community Engagement and Education. "The goal of our interactive education campaigns is to use film as a tool to support students in becoming thoughtfully engaged citizens." 

While the films sometimes don't necessarily provide a broad view of all subjects (because that's the point of perspective), all of them demonstrate how communication is most effective when someone can relate to the subject. For consideration, educators might want to visit the POV's Lesson Plan section.

How educational instruction can help professional communicators.

For marketers, advertisers and communication professionals, there might be something else to consider.  When was the last time your company produced anything that connected to the people you want to reach? Or perhaps, if you want to think about it another way, what was the real reason Blendtec became one of the most referenced YouTube success stories?

Some advertising students and professionals immediately think it's the gimmick that gave the series a lift.  Sure, that was part of it. But the foundation doesn't have as much to do with one well-thought out gimmick as everything else in the segments — the personality and empathy of the spokesperson and the viewer's connection to the products they decide to blend — have equal weight.

They make it personal, much in the same way it advertisers did several decades ago. And that's the point. You might ask how you can make your company's message just as personal too, but without the blender.

Friday, September 7

Inspiring Content: Inspire Yourself First

A few months ago, one of my students stopped me mid-sentence when I hit the fourth of five ways to find inspiration for writing. I didn't blame her. Any time a professor tells practicing and future public relations people to experience life, it sounds dangerously close to life coaching over professional instruction.

And yet, it's necessary to mention tips like that because most press releases are pretty boring. Sure, some pretend not to be boring. They force connections to current trends. They smack of snappy marketing copy. Or maybe they rely on exclusively on a big brand name. It doesn't matter.

They're still boring, especially those that were written for the sole purpose of trying to gin up some SEO keywords. It's enough to make you grateful that some folks give up and just send the facts.

You might know what I'm talking about — boilerplate releases that come with an unwritten note that reads "I couldn't find anything remotely interesting about this pitch and gave up. Maybe you'll have better luck. Here are the facts and a few bullet points." Not the best idea, but at least they are honest.

Quit Treating Your Audience Like Second-Class Chumps. 

I didn't really write that subhead. I paraphrased it from an article by Danny Brown. He was writing about how many bloggers start to phone in their posts when they're satisfied with some level of traffic.

For whatever reason, once they capture some kernel of attention, their posts become less thoughtful, their platforms feel dated, and all of their popup ads and ebooks begin to blend together into some thick and sticky formula with an aftertaste. You get the point. Whatever it might be, the lesson is still the same. Don't settle for allowing everything to become mundane. The people who read deserve better.

In looking back, about the only thing Brown didn't cover is where it all starts. It doesn't start with the post or platform or press release or client. It always starts and ends with the writer. Bored writers produce boring stories regardless of the medium. Their words scream "am I done yet?"

Boredom Starts With The Distraction Of Everything Else. 

As a writer, whether writing a blog post or press release, you ought to know the feeling by now. There might even be a little voice in the back of your head whispering "All I need is a lead or maybe a gun."

It's misery and you want out. The reason could be anything. Maybe you already wrote ten releases about the same subject and your eyes are tired. Or maybe you have a half a million other things to do, but the deadline or schedule dictates that the content comes first. Or maybe you just feel a little blue today and are having a hard time fining that elusive hook. Or maybe someone bruised your ego last time.

Whatever. Those are excuses, justifications designed to make you feel better about what you might eventually do to pass on your boredom to your readership or the media as if they deserve to be punished for your problem. The truth is as soon as you hit "schedule" or "post" or "send," you've compounded the original block. Too much boring communication is hard to overcome.

As Brown says in his story, doing the right thing doesn't always come easy. But there are solutions to help you avoid blocks or break out of the mundane and get back on the epic track. I'll save those for next week. But you already know the feeling associated with better content. It's when you look up from your keys and an hour has ticked off, but you could keep writing for another hour if you had the time.

Wednesday, September 5

Shopping Online: The Sales Tax Issue

As Pennsylvania becomes the newest state to require online retailers to collect a sales tax on residents, Pennsylvania Secretary of the Department of Revenue a.k.a. chief tax man Dan Meuser says it will level the playing field for brick-and-mortar businesses. But will collecting a sales tax really level the playing field?

If brick-and-mortar businesses really believe that, then they have fallen behind further than I ever thought. According to eMarketer, more than 72.6 percent of Internet users bought online on 2011, representing 148 million people (ages 14 or more) who made at least one purchase. Thirty million more are expecting to join them by 2015.

There have been dozens of studies published about the motivation of online buyers. And almost none of them place avoiding sales tax at the top of the list. What are some of the reasons people shop online?

Ten reasons that people shop online instead of offline.

1. There are no store hours online so they can shop online any time.
2. They can comparison shop between stores and find better prices.
3. They are given discounts to shop online by brick-and-mortar stores.
4. They never have to worry about crowds or checkout lines.
5. They can find things easier instead of searching racks and shelves.
6. They don't have to associate with cranky salespeople or pitches.
7. They are never sent to another store because of out-of-stock items.
8. They don't have to spend money on gas, driving to different stores.
9. They can see what other people are saying about products and stores.
10. They can do it alone and from home, wearing whatever they want.

Sales tax doesn't even register. Other then discounts and clearance sales, the biggest incentive that online buyers look for is free shipping. Shipping is something people prefer to avoid. That's about it.

But in looking at the list, brick-and-mortar stores have much more work to do than worry about sales taxes. In order to compete with online retailers, they have to create experiences online transactions can't offer their customers as well as capitalize on the reasons people sometimes prefer to shop offline.

Ten reasons that people shop offline instead of online.

1. They enjoy store-hosted events and special appearances.
2. They are still wary about online privacy and security.
3. They want to try on clothes/shoes and match up outfits.*
4. They find it easier to take in the entire store at a glance.
5. They like to window shop and visit other stores in proximity.
6. They consider shopping a social experience and enjoy it.
7. They don't have to wait for the item to arrive by mail.
8. They like knowledgeable employees on hand to help.
9. They don't worry about being spammed after one purchase.
10. They enjoy making discoveries they would have missed online.

*This includes hearing a sound system or test driving a car, etc.

There are more, but most of it revolves around the experience. The question brick-and-mortar stores have to ask is whether or not they are giving shoppers a reason to come in the store. With the exception of best practice independents (e.g. Book People in Austin, Tattered Cover in Denver, Amoeba Records in Hollywood), most stores don't.

Some of them (especially bigger brands) effectively cannibalize their own in-store customers by trying to convert them to online shoppers by offering better follow-up deals than their customers could ever find in the store. In essence, the online component of transitioning brick-and-mortar stores is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, retailers ought to be working to erase the online/offline distinction.

The future of brick-and-mortar and online retailers. 

Although I often wonder how many times government can tax the same dollar (taxes are levied, frequently more than once, every time money moves from one place to another), requiring online retailers to pay online state sales tax has very little to do with fairness and everything to do with state tax revenue. They might as well stick to that statement because they aren't helping brick-and-mortar stores, most of which are trying to develop some semblance of an online presence or online storefront.

Right. The reality is that brick-and-mortar stores as we knew them are nearly obsolete as even independent sellers have to develop an online component where they can increase sales beyond walk-in traffic and/or stimulate walk-in traffic with special appearances or events. What many haven't done yet is map out the potential symbiotic relationship between high tech and high touch, but they will. Eventually, every store will be best described as brick-and-click and not one or the other.

The future of retail is one where you can use mobile apps or online sites for in-store assistance, with off-site solutions when you can't find the size or color or whatever you want on hand. It's one where if you purchase a book from the store, you might receive an email or posting any time that author makes a book tour visit. It's one where you can try something on in the store and save your sizes or preferences for updates, referrals, and future purchases (online and offline). It's one where search engines are somewhat circumvented because the store earns consumer trust and loyalty. And so on and so forth.

Monday, September 3

Dueling Studies: Labor Day Blues Or Silver Lining?

According to the New York-based Conference Board, consumer confidence fell to 60.6 in August, down from a revised 65.4 in July and the 66 level analysts were expecting. As published by USA Today, the index now stands at the lowest it has been since November 2011 at 55.2.

But according to the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan, the final sentiment index climbed to 74.3, a three-month high, from 72.3 in July. As published by Bloomberg, this gauge averaged 89 in the five years leading up to the recession. (Bloomberg reported confidence was down a few days earlier.)

The causes are easier to understand. The economy is struggling under the weight of rising gas prices, economic uncertainty among business owners facing more regulatory burdens, and the high unemployment rate that remains above 8 percent (but is even higher when people who have stopped looking for a job are factored into the equation). There are other factors too.

Sentiment, on the other hand, is not only elusive but also relative to who you are, where you live, and what you read. We live in a world with too much information for its own good, and some of it is suspect.

How media selection can dictate consumer confidence and economic perception.

When you look at headlines from various news outlets, the message is as mixed as the reality. "Consumer sentiment is a bit brighter in August," reads one. "Consumer confidence takes unexpected fall," reads another. "U.S. consumer confidence rises but outlook still grim," claims one. "Consumer confidence crash stifles gains from housing report," states another.

None are wrong or right. The variations in reporting are dictated by which studies are reported, how they are reported, headline semantics, and in-story sources. It's kind of a mess.

But the point here is that dueling studies and sources, along with what people share across social networks, can skew how people see the world. People are more likely than ever to self-select the reality they want and then see all of the other media outlets as biased.

At the same time, the media have increased its own online analytics, carefully tracking what people are looking for and then delivering based on those results. If one story gets more attention than another, someone is sure to say "we need more like that." This isn't really new, but it does seemed pronounced.

How individuals can navigate the influx of communication overload.

Without a doubt, relying on affirmation media will bias an individual's perspective even if the media stories themselves are not intensionally biased. Instead, it's best to develop a slate of media outlets that challenge ideas as much as confirm them. Once you focus in on a story, check up on the sources.

When most people read news stories, there is an assumption that the newspaper has already vetted the source. This isn't always the case. So when it comes to business stories in particular, take a few minutes to look up the sources. Even if the journalist isn't biased, the sources within the story might be. If they are, you can weight their contributions accordingly.

Along with those sources, find a few more on your own as well as any your social connections might turn to from time to time (preferably with ideas that confirm and challenge your own). This composite of information can be augmented and adjusted based on your geographical location, industry, company, and individual anecdotal observations (adjusting for your own bias).

When it comes to the economy today, nobody really agrees. Most of it depends on what indicators people want to focus in on to prove their point. The real tells are a little bit different. Most people don't feel better off than they were four years ago, which is what continues to shake consumer confidence. Even those who might be better off on paper, feel pinched because the same money doesn't go as far.

At the same time, this doesn't necessarily mean that the news stories ought to influence individual and business decisions. Some companies do very well in a recession while other do not. Some local economies are recovering and some are not. In other words, while individuals and small business owners can think of the news as the canvas they paint their story on — the story is still their own.

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