At Penn State, Is PR a Four-Letter Word?

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PR

I hate Penn State. There I said it. I used to have a button that said that and wore it to every Pitt-Penn State game when I was an undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh. We called what transpired in so-called Happy Valley a cult. Little did we know.

My hatred back then – in the late 1970s until graduation in 1981 – was rooted in the football rivalry and the holier than thou attitude of the Penn State football program and its “saintly” coach Joe Paterno – who said he didn’t want to leave the world of college football to (then Pitt coach) the Jackie Sherrills of the world.

But he was okay to leave it to the Jerry Sanduskys and yes, Joe Paternos of the world. While we will never know how much Joe knew, when he knew it and what he did or didn’t do about it – or to cover it up – one thing is sure. Penn State is a continuing case study in what to do wrong when it comes to public relations.

PR professors for decades to come will have more material than they know what to do with when discussing crisis communications and Penn State. The ongoing failures in this realm are so breathtakingly bad that I think the PR world has just accepted that they are going to screw it up and not even care. Maybe that’s because the school continues to recruit students at a record pace, despite these failures. But at what point do you care enough about your reputation to do things the right way?

If the current Penn State president is any guide in this regard, the answer to that question is never.

Now I hate Penn State on the football field, but even I can’t sit on the sideline and watch them make every mistake in the book. As I read the letter that Eric Barron wrote to the Penn State community – before it was even dissected in the media – I was screaming at my screen – do you NOT have any good PR advisors? I know that Penn State has a robust internal PR staff and have read that the university has paid millions of dollars to outside counsel, so I can only assume that the president chose to ignore all their advice. Otherwise, that letter never would have been written.

It appeals to the fringe crazies, like those who genuflected on Paterno’s lawn after his death and are consumed with the “football is life” mentality. I know that there are Penn State graduates who are regular people who see this situation for what it is and don’t need to be told that it’s all the media. So in the interest of future communications, I offer the following free advice to Mr. Barron.

  1. Consider your audience – When you publish a letter on the Internet, it is not going to be read by just the fringe crazies you are trying to placate. It is read by the world and you will be (rightly) lambasted for your brazen, ignorant, insensitive approach. You want to say this stuff to folks one-on-one at a cocktail party, go for it. But don’t ever put it in writing again.
  2. When you have a reputation for looking the other way at campus sex crimes, you might want to consider your approach to a horrible, volatile, disgusting episode in your current university’s past. This president had some incidents at his former place of employment – Florida State – that call into question how seriously he takes sex crimes.
  3. It’s almost not fair to critique the actual letter because it is so awful from start to finish. But this passage demands extra attention as perhaps the most heinous thing ever written by a college president: “I can think of few crimes as heinous as the sexual assault of a child. We are, as individuals and as an institution, appalled by Sandusky’s actions, and unified in our commitment to prevention, treatment and education….Unfortunately, we can’t control the 24/7 news cycle, and the tendency of some individuals in social media and the blogosphere to rush to judgment. But I have had enough of the continued trial of the institution in various media.”  Which reads like: “Sexual assault is bad, but the media is worse.”
  1. Which brings me to number four. Don’t blame the media. Ever. The news media can be annoying, it can be biased and it can be a lot of things. But the media didn’t do the crime, whatever it is. In this case, it’s the most horrible crime imaginable and it was a trusted member of the university’s staff who committed the crime. And evidence continues to point to others on staff who covered for this monster. Those are the facts.
  2. If you think the media has been tough on Penn State to date, just look out. You basically screamed, “I’m ready for more” by indicting the news media as the real culprit here. I suggest you ready yourself for more media “attacks” and find a more conciliatory tone or else this conversation will continue forever.
  3. If you are paying for a PR staff and outside counsel and you are not listening to them, you have two choices. Circle the wagons, have a come to Jesus meeting and start listening. Or stop wasting your money on outside counsel if you aren’t going to listen anyway. If you are paying for these folks and they are advising you that this letter was a good idea, fire them all now.

Yes I hate Penn State on the football field. But this university is a part of the fabric of the place where I live and choose to do business. I have many friends who are Penn State grads and I know that they aren’t cult members – well most of them – but it’s high time Penn State took responsibility, cleaned up its act and stopped defending monsters who have sullied their reputation to a point where they have become a national joke. Shame on you President Barron for feeding into that joke.

Cruising for Great Client Service

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canstockphoto8002151We just returned from a Spring Break cruise – a shorter five-night sailing that hit two ports and had two full sea days. Anyone who knows me knows that I love travel in general and have a special place for cruising on one particular line that generally does everything right.

We didn’t have that “perfect” cruise this time, however. Don’t get me wrong, it was very good – even great by overall cruising standards. But this particular travel organization has set expectations so high that when things don’t go right, it’s pretty obvious. The ship was a little more beat up and it is sorely in need of a dry dock – which is going to take place in the fall – but for now there are a lot of noticeable issues. Likewise the guest service, which had always been a highlight, had some big hiccups.

As a small business person who strives to always be that premier provider, I thought about ways that the cruise line should have been keeping its eye on the ball a little better – and which would have made a difference in our experience – that every business should apply when working with good clients/customers.

Keep your eye on the horizon

Even if you are a company at the top of the category – the best cruise line, the best retail chain, the best public relations firm – don’t ever back off on providing a preeminent customer experience to every client. You should never back down from making sure that you have exceeded the expectations of every client that you serve, that every customer who sails with you leaves your ship smiling.

Swab the decks

No you don’t need a mop for this, unless you are a cruise company. But you have to pay attention to how your company looks to the rest of the world. If you have a dirty cruise ship or an antiquated website, your customers will make certain assumptions that may elicit certain behavior – like rejecting your proposal no matter how spot on it may be.

The right crew can make all the difference

No one can screw up a cruise more than a bad crew member who doesn’t understand the mission. Likewise, business people need to pull together the right team who not only understand the client’s needs, but aspire to go the extra mile to achieve amazing results. Every. Single. Time.

Leave them wanting more

When I leave a great cruise, all I want to do is book the next one. Your clients should be anticipating the next great project with your firm – where you can achieve success together. Keeping a good customer – or client – is a lot easier than finding new clients who don’t have any experience with your organization.

Cruise on over to Jeff Durosko Communications for creative strategy that delivers results.

Five Business Lessons I Learned from March Madness

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UnknownIt’s the most wonderful time of the year! March Madness. Bracket City. Nonstop hoops.

I love college basketball. It’s the only sport I can sit and watch two teams for whom I have no rooting interest and enjoy the game. Given the fact that I don’t even watch other sports so much anymore, including my hometown pro teams, that’s saying a lot.

College basketball gets me through my most hated season on the calendar – winter – and when March Madness is upon us, it’s like nirvana with the weather improving and more basketball than even I can consume on a daily basis.

But basketball has also taught me some important lessons that I can carry through to my 10-year-old public relations and writing practice.

Be In the Moment

Don’t’ be looking for the next big thing. Enjoy what you have now. When your team is having an up and down year, it’s tough to appreciate the positive moments and fans get down on the team, criticize the coach and make themselves miserable. Imagine that day when you lose a client just as you are starting a couple of new projects with another prospect. It’s easy to obsess about the one client you lost and not appreciate – or pay enough attention – to the exciting new opportunities in front of you. Don’t miss that moment to excel and shine.

Don’t Mail it in

Maybe your favorite team is facing an opponent it thinks it can handle easily because they are seeded 12th and you are seeded fifth. Know how many upsets there have been in NCAA history in that match up? It’s happened 44 times in 120 games. Play your best against any team. And if you have a project that you think is a slam-dunk and you can do in your sleep – don’t do it in your sleep. Have your eyes wide open and your brain firing on all cylinders to provide the best possible outcome for your client. Every. Single. Time.

Be a Cheerleader

Everyone who loves college basketball and March Madness loves the whole scene, the bands, the fans and yes, the cheerleaders. Every team needs a great fan base and someone to serve as cheerleader. In business, who else is going to cheer for you if you don’t do some of that yourself? So make sure that you toot your own horn when you have a great success and let people know so that they can pass the word on or bring you on themselves for that next big project.

Be a Good Team Player.

Many an NCAA game has had a guy go off for 36 points but his team loses because everyone else is standing around watching and not contributing. He may make the all-region team for his performance but if his team is going home on the first weekend, no one is happy. In business, make sure you have the right team assembled to serve every client the right way and that every part is working at full speed. If you have a huge collateral project and the writing is spot on but the design is so-so, your team isn’t going to win any new business from that client. Individuals win awards. Teams win championships.

The Other Guy Wants to Win Too.

Fans of basketball teams can’t understand why the other team made a big comeback to tie the game – or why their team can’t always catch up to an opponent. Silly, the other guy is trying to win as well. And the same is true of business. Whether you are pitching a new client or working with an editor on a great story placement, you better bring your “A” game or you might find yourself on the losing end of the proposition.

To all the entrepreneurs out there, make sure you keep your eye on the ball – and I don’t mean the orange round one that will be everywhere over the next few weeks. Let the madness begin!

Five PR Truths of the Donald Trump Campaign

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canstockphoto19349780I’m no fan of Donald Trump – well, I did watch Celebrity Apprentice – but no matter what you think about Trump or his politics, there has probably never been a political campaign that has benefited more from employing solid public relations principles. While there may be some cracks appearing in what had been a machine for many months, the campaign’s success continues to baffle everyone and the constant assumption that his demise is imminent are fading into the background.

Here are five truths of the Trump PR campaign.

  1. Confidence is King

If you appear unflappable, people will believe anything you say. Never has a candidate been so unwilling to backtrack on an absurd statement and get away with it. Whether he’s attacking immigrants or calling people nasty names, Trump just stands there with that smirk on his face and insists he’s right. And he loses nothing in the polls.

  1. Good Messaging Rules

A good message that resonates with your target audience can go a long way and Trump appears to be taking his “Make America Great Again” message all the way to November. So far, it hasn’t mattered that he can’t tell you how he is going to make America better. It just seems that a lot of America is willing to give him a pass on the substance as long as it looks good on a hat.

  1. Fear Motivates

The Donald has played on the fear of everyday Americans about everything from immigration to terrorism to shore up and expand his support. Companies that sell products and services ranging from insurance to pharmaceuticals can identify with this tactic. Fear can be a successful motivator to garner support.

  1. Star Power

Get a celebrity pitchman to help. In this case, the celebrity is Trump himself. He doesn’t have to hire a Hollywood star to tell his story. Celebrity sometimes beats substance and America has become a celebrity driven country. Witness Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama and every other politician who courts time on Saturday Night Live, Ellen and The Tonight Show. Trump came into this thing as a celebrity of sorts so he already had a leg up on the competition.

  1. PR > Advertising

A solid PR campaign beats advertising every time. Just ask Jeb Bush who spent millions trying to make a dent in the Trump machine and is now licking his wounds back home. Trump just kept saying what he says, always on the offense and put every competitor on the defense.

While I don’t have a crystal ball to see how this all comes out, I don’t think that the Trump PR machine is going to be beaten. Recent history will tell you that the man is vulnerable in several places, but the voters keep putting his name on the ballot. The GOP may have not taken this interloper seriously enough soon enough and now they are playing defense while Trump’s PR machine rolls on.

 

My Back to School Wish

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IMG_1601Another year has come and gone. I don’t find myself marking the passing of time on New Year’s Day, but instead with the start of the new school year.

Every summer flies by but this summer was truly the blink of an eye. And it scares me that this is the new norm. My two precious daughters headed back to school this morning – both to brand new buildings.

My oldest daughter drove herself to senior high school in our district that splits the grades between buildings (9 and 10 in intermediate high school and 11 and 12 in senor high school). Yes, she drove herself and I kind of have no words for that.

My youngest enters middle school this year and the challenge is that she is not just heading to a new building but to a new middle school for our family due to our school district’s ill-conceived redistricting plan. But that’s another subject for another day.

But I have only one wish for my two girls as they start off another school year. Have fun and enjoy every moment. Sure, work hard and do your best – but to me that’s the sub headline. Time goes too fast to not enjoy every moment that you have and there’s no better time to start thinking that way than when you are young and your whole life is ahead of you.

I’ve written before that I’m a sentimental dad and this year is no exception. We had an amazing summer filled with great vacations and lots of family time. I worry that summers like this are dwindling and that embracing the opportunity to travel and enjoy each other is more important every day.

So to my girls and all who have gone back to school today or will do so in the coming days, I wish the same – have fun and lots of it. Let yourself be a kid because you have plenty of time to be a grown up. Enjoy every moment. And be happy.

The Joy of Public Relations

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canstockphoto27613609That’s right, the PR world can be a lot of fun – really – especially when you have clients who are engaged, interested and ready to respond when opportunities pop up. PR can also be incredibly frustrating when you have none of these but that’s another blog for another day.

Here are my top five Joys of PR.

The Write Stuff. For me, nothing makes me happier than a meaty writing assignment that requires research and a great deal of planning and foresight. Nothing beats taking reams of information and nailing down the right message at the right time and delivering it to the right audience. Call me a nerd, but when I put together a feature story, a brochure, an annual report, a newsletter, a book – whatever the assignment – and deliver it knowing that it nails exactly what the client was seeking, I dance a little happy dance in my head.

When it Hits the Fan. CEOs often quiver in their $600 loafers when crisis visits their organization – and what they sometimes forget is it is a matter of when not if. Clients who have great crisis plans in place can’t rest easy but at least they have a roadmap of where to start – which is generally the most frightening part of any crisis situation. But for me, put me in the middle of it. Next to writing, there is nothing more satisfying than helping a client manage a bad situation by doing the right thing all the time, every time.

Hitting the Right Note. Whether it’s a media relations plan, a special event, an employee communications program or any of the many other tactics that we employ, when you have the right strategy along with a client who is part of the process, there is nothing sweeter. Watching a strategy you created in concert with an engaged client roll out exactly as you had envisioned makes this PR guy’s heart beat a little faster.

Winning the Business. When I launched my company, I was sure that the part I was going to hate the most was the chase of new business. I wanted to “do” not pitch and chase. But I guess what I forgot is that I had been doing this my whole career. Whether it was seeking a new job to move up the corporate ladder or pitching the news media great stories from my clients, I was selling something or someone for decades. Selling myself and my skills is so much easier than that since I believe in me more than anything I’ve ever pitched before. So the chase is fun but when a prospect turns into a client, giving me the chance to treat her or him like the ONLY client I have, I absolutely love it.

The Big Hit. While the media landscape has changed dramatically opening up so many alternatives to the PR professional, I have to confess that I still get goosebumps from the big media hit. And while I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in some of the biggest media opportunities over my career – from the Today Show to CNN; USA Today to the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal; from the Ellen Degeneres Show to Parade Magazine – it’s hitting the right media outlet for any particular client that makes most sense and is truly the most satisfying. Though social media and web-based media have also become important tools of our trade, there is still nothing like hitting some of the more traditional holy grails of news media.

Like any business, PR can be frustrating at times and I know it’s easy to get caught up in the nonsense. Just remember the reasons why you got into the business in the first place and embrace the many joys of PR.

Should Caitlyn Jenner Dance?

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canstockphoto3250584Almost as soon as the Vanity Fair cover appeared, the speculation began about Caitlyn Jenner’s next move and among the speculation was a possible appearance on the next season of Dancing with the Stars. Whether or not it makes sense for Jenner to appear on the popular show can be argued both ways, particularly from a public relations perspective.

The carefully orchestrated campaign by Bruce Jenner and his camp to announce the transition and then Caitlyn Jenner’s subsequent first photos on the cover of Vanity Fair have been nothing short of brilliant when it comes to PR value. And it’s for that reason that I believe there are still skeptics who amazingly (and wrongfully) believe that this is all a publicity stunt. Great publicity can be orchestrated given the right sense of circumstances and a stunt is not a necessity. Jenner and her advisors have done all the right things at the right time to treat a potentially volatile story with the utmost of sensitivity and sensibility.

But whether or not the next step of high profile appearances should include a season on Dancing With The Stars has to be something that if the Jenner camp is considering – that it is considering with a great deal of thought and running a good old list of pros and cons.

Why Caitlyn Jenner Should Appear on DWTS

Like everything else in this well-thought-out series of events, an appearance on DWTS in October could revive a storyline that may have gotten a little stale by then. If Jenner’s true to her word that this is all about happiness and a little education on the side, then DWTS could thrust her story back into the spotlight right about the time that it may be off most people’s radar screen.

In addition, DWTS is a softball way to get herself in the entertainment spotlight without facing tough questions from reporters. Jenner would, in effect, get to script her own story and tell America – and the world – what she wants it to hear, when she wants everyone to hear it. Even as a castoff appearing on Good Morning America, Jenner isn’t going to deal with anything even semi-tough when the morning crew gushes over her dancing skills and talks to her professional dance partner about what a great job she did in tough circumstances. While careers haven’t been revived on the show, some of the stars from DWTS have become more a part of the public conscious than they had been for years. And while Jenner doesn’t need to be thrust back into the scene, an appearance can certainly keep her relevant for a longer period of time.

Why Caitlyn Jenner Should Avoid DTWS

It can be argued that Jenner’s story has already risen to a point that it supersedes an entertainment show like DWTS. Her story has been told in serious tones, in serious venues and DWTS may be a little too soft to keep going the narrative that has evolved.

Caitlyn Jenner doesn’t need DWTS. With millions upon millions of Twitter followers and a carefully crafted messaging campaign, Jenner’s story may have already jumped the likes of DWTS and an appearance may only bring down the narrative to a level of entertainment fluff that will take away the impact that has grown over the past several months.

Whether it’s the right move or not, it won’t surprise me if Jenner dances or if she chooses to sit this one out. My best guess? If Jenner’s PR machine keeps up its magnificent record of success as the reality show launches this summer, I don’t think you’ll see her in high heels dancing the cha cha to a Disney song this fall. To dance or not to dance? That is the question.

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