The Many Facets of Public Relations

As the end of the Public Relations and Marketing Management program draws near, I was recently asked about what aspect of Public Relations interested me the most. A simple enough question, right? So why have I spent the last few days perplexed about the answer?

I am sometimes a creature of habit. I have the same thing for breakfast every morning. Based on that behavior, you’d think I’d have a firm opinion of what I like best. But, that’s not always the case. As I have been pondering the question, poet William Cowper’s famous quote keeps popping in my head: “Variety’s the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour.”

I love the fact that public relations has so much variety to it. We certainly witnessed this while examining countless case studies, awareness campaigns, PSA’s, and PR strategies. As a public relations professional you might be tasked with building awareness, maintaining reputation, changing perception, shifting opinion, inspiring change, or even managing a crisis about a company, brand, or issue. Each case will be different as you research the situation in order to get a better understanding of the issues to illuminate the needs and interests of your audience. Only after gaining that, can you start to develop the rest of the strategy of how you are going to achieve your goals.

During my courses, I have enjoyed the challenge of developing strategies in favor of issues or companies that were in opposition to my own personal opinion and values. I have been inspired by the many campaigns that either touched my heart, made me laugh, or forced me to think differently. We discussed and dissected events, issues, campaigns, and strategies to understand the mechanisms of good and bad PR.

Underlying it all, is the ability to communicate stories uniquely and effectively – in a way that engages either the heart, or the mind. This is the lesson I will carry forward professionally. Variety will keep it interesting and challenging, while the heart is in the storytelling.

Source: gettyimages.com

Source: gettyimages.com

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The Unravelling of the Pink Ribbon

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Source: prdaily.com

Great PR campaigns are inspiring and uplifting. Some of them leave you in awe thinking, “Wow, how creative”. Conversely, other public relations communications leave you shaking your head thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe they did that”. Both types provide a rich source of learning.

One major PR misstep can, unfortunately, unravel and damage the long, hard built reputation of an organization overnight. This was the case for Susan G. Komen for the Cure® when, in late 2011, the organization decided to cut its $650,000 funding to Planned Parenthood, whom they had been supporting since 2005. Planned Parenthood had been using this funding for cancer screenings and education.

Susan G. Komen, founded in 1982, is the best funded and most widely recognized breast cancer organization in the United States. They were the first to use the pink ribbon, which has become an iconic symbol for breast cancer awareness. They have raised and invested almost $2 billion in breast cancer research, community outreach, advocacy and programs. Simply put, they are huge.

The decision to cut the funding to Planned Parenthood was based on a newly implemented policy stating they would not fund organizations under federal investigation. Once the story broke in 2012, many criticized the move as politically motivated and bowing to the pressures of anti-abortion groups. Komen provided funds to 2,000 organizations, yet Planned Parenthood is the only one they broke ties with even though others, like Penn State University and Parkland Memorial Hospital, were also under congressional investigation. The decision appears to have been made shortly after Karen Handel, a former Republican candidate and prominent anti-abortion critic, became the organization’s senior vice president for public policy.

Nancy Brinker, founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen, denied the allegations of political pressure and said that their position has been “mischaracterized”.

In the meantime, Planned Parenthood sent out a request to supporters to help raise money to replace the lost funds. Social media sites, like Facebook ,Twitter and YouTube, go crazy with pro-Planned Parenthood and anti-Susan G. Komen messages, making the story go viral . Within 24 hours the lost funding is replaced and three days later it reaches $3 million. In the 24 hours after the story first hit in January 2012, Komen was ominously silent except to remove negative postings from their Facebook page.

Susan G. Komen later reversed its decision in February, but by then the damage had been done. Not only did they receive a ton of negative press, staff and board members started leaving the organization, they began to lose financial support, and their reputation was greatly diminished.

I find this case so interesting because it shows how quickly things can fall apart. An organization can be doing all the right things for a long time when one major blunder cuts deeply to undue all that hard work. This case demonstrates the importance of transparency, responding quickly and honestly in times of crisis and the need for forethought into how your actions might affect your loyal supporters.

#OCCUPYWALLSTREET – Where Are They Now?

Similar to the one-hit wonders and forgotten celebrities that inspired VH1 to ask ” Where Are They Now?“, many are asking that same question of Occupy Wall Street (OWS).  Beyond any political views of the movement and the ideology behind it, more curious is the management of the Occupy movement from a public relations perspective. An article by Patrick Coffee in PRNewser asks the question: “Was Occupy Wall Street a PR Failure?” They did so many things right. What went wrong?

How it began

 It all started with a simple blog post on July 13, 2011 in which Adbusters, a Canadian anti-consumerist organization, proposed 20,000 people gather together in lower Manhattan for a peaceful demonstration against greed and corruption in the spirit of the demonstrations in Spain and Egypt. From there, the movement began to take on a life of its own. What began as a grass roots campaign, quickly spread to hundreds of cities in over 80 countries. Social Media, like Facebook and Twitter, helped the movement go viral. It was getting world attention from the media and support from unions, celebrities, and politicians. In America, it inspired people to discuss the issues of income inequality, greed, and corruption. They even had a catchy phrase: “We are the 99%”. All good, right? So how did it fade in prominence and support as quickly as it sprang up?

What went wrong?

Many critics refer to internal strife and the fear of being co-opted as part of the organization’s downfall. The fear of being seen as a sell-out led many OWS activists to criticize and question the support they were receiving from celebrities and politicians (people in the 1%). They didn’t want to be seen as hypocrites. However, if your goal is to garner support and encourage change, you can’t start alienating your supporters, especially if any of those supporters have political power that you can harness to further your cause. Even the manner in which they have conducted their protests is alienating to the general public. You can’t just sit in a park with your fellow activists. You need to engage with the public in a more meaningful way, and that also requires putting a human face to the movement. They have no clear spokespeople and when you visit the website, there is no indication as to who is behind the movement. It’s almost as mysterious and cold as the large corporations they are opposing.

The internal strife highlights the biggest issues for OWS: leadership and direction. On its website, OWS defines itself as “a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions”. Their call to action has not been updated since 2011, and even as such, it isn’t very clear on what they want people to do. Because of this lack of leadership, the movement has no clear goals, objectives, direction, message, or call to action. If people don’t know what they are supporting or how they should be supporting it to make real change, there is no sustainability.

What’s next?

For the Occupy movement to continue and succeed, they need to change how they operate. They need to address the leadership issue and develop a REAL strategic plan, complete with clear measurable goals, direction, and call to action. In order to move beyond their core group of activists and further their agenda, they will need to partner with other progressive groups that have similar values. All the while, they will need to evaluate their progress in achieving their goals, making adjustments to their plan, if needed, as they go.

The Power of Influence & Persuasion

We all have opinions about the things we see, read, and hear in our daily lives. These opinions and perceptions are influenced by a combination of factors: belief systems, morals, values, upbringing, attitudes, intellectual judgement, and emotional sentiment. Like many things in life, opinions aren’t static; they continue to evolve as we accumulate more information and learn.

Long-held opinions about a person, issue, or topic can be turned on a dime by a new piece of information or argument. Sometimes it takes more proof and persuasive reasoning for it to sway, especially if there is sentiment involved. In some instances the opinion changes positively, others not.

When opinion changes

For many years, doping rumours swirled around Lance Armstrong. I didn’t want to believe it. It couldn’t be true. I idolized him as a Cycling God who overcame illness and adversity to achieve a record 7 consecutive Tour de France wins. Eventually, the proof was just too irrefutable, followed by his admission. I was extremely disappointed and my opinion of him changed dramatically. Naturally, I was dismayed to learn that he was guilty of doping, but what bothered me more was the length of time he spent denying and laying blame elsewhere combined with the meager apology once he came clean. He didn’t seem contrite at all. I might have forgiven him his sins if he had come clean years ago and showed true remorse.

From this example I learned, that sometimes, it’s not what someone does that changes your opinion, but rather, how they handle themselves afterwards.

Influence and persuasion come in many forms. We can be influenced by those closest to us, by leaders in society, and by the media. These influences often not only change our opinions, but also our behaviour in the decisions we make.

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Source: IMDb.com

When behaviour changes

Morgan Spurlock‘s 2004 documentary “Super Size Me“, where he examines the fast food industry by subjecting himself to a month long diet of solely McDonald’s food, blew me away. It was surprising, shocking, and at times, just plain disgusting. I had been a fan of McDonalds when I was a kid (who wasn’t?), but after watching the movie and seeing the effect it had on his health, I couldn’t bear the thought of walking into a McDonald’s and ordering a meal. Nine  years later, I still won’t eat their hamburgers and fries. That movie changed my behaviour.

Influence and persuasion may not always change your behavior and actions, it might simply open your eyes to a different way of thinking about an issue.

When thoughts change

I used to think the sport of hunting was barbaric and senseless, until I dated a hunter. He explained to me that hunting was a regulated activity where you were required to complete a hunter education course and firearm safety training. There were also conservation limits on what and where you could hunt. And most importantly, in my eyes, was the fact that many hunters consume what they hunt; it isn’t just a kill sport. My opinion of hunting hasn’t 100% changed, but my eyes have been opened to another way of thinking about it.

As we walk through life, it’s important to take a moment to reflect on where our perceptions and opinions originate, be conscious of the influences that may change them, and be open to new ways of thinking. In doing so, we can make better informed decisions.

As a PR professional, it’s equally important to understand the underlying factors that form and shift public opinion, for those opinions and perceptions will have an impact on your company or brand.