Saturday, September 17, 2016

Seeing the Sunny Side of PR

Although I’m not usually one to name drop, I have to share that Justin Trudeau helped me in my bachelor of public relations class this semester.

PM Justin Trudeau
“I’m not sure how to explain what PR is to my friends and family,” said a second-year Humber College BPR student on the first day of class, earlier this month.  This came after I asked the strategic communications planning class to define public relations.

While most students successfully identified the core concepts of PR – strategic, two-way communication, of mutual benefit to an organization and its publics – they weren’t really sure how to express these concepts as a field of practice to which their community of family and friends could relate.

We considered the differences between advertising and PR.  While advertising is everywhere, foisted on us in all manner of vehicles, sneaking up on us on Facebook, camouflaged in advertorials, grabbing us on television, PR takes a different tack. PR is nuanced. To capture the essence of the PR sensibility, I guided the students to one of Aesop’s fables, cited in a decade-old business book, The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR .  

The story is of a contest between the sun and wind encouraging a traveller to shed his coat.  The sun’s warmth prevailed over the bustling wind, analogous to the subtlety of the PR approach versus the bullhorn of advertising. While I’ve used this story in the past, often reading the one-page text aloud to the students, I was never really certain that the story resonated.

This semester was different.  To hammer the point home, I turned to Justin Trudeau’s sunny political approach.

During his election campaign, Trudeau frequently invoked the term “sunny ways”, channeling former PM Sir Wilfred Laurier,
Sir Wilfred Laurier
who overtly referenced Aesop’s fable of the sun and the wind.  One media report cited Laurier: “Do you not believe that there is more to be gained by appealing to the heart and soul of men rather than by trying to compel them to do a thing?” I was encouraged to see Trudeau adopting Laurier’s sunny approach, political or otherwise, and I shared this with my BPR class.

The following week, a student reported to me that, over the weekend, a relative inquired about his studies and he shared the sun and wind fable.  The story did the job. My student was pleased and I had the satisfaction of knowing something was learned.

So, thank you Justin Trudeau, and our political forefather Sir Wilfred Laurier, for modeling effective PR. And thank you Aesop, for your fable.  The role of PR is clearer, and shines brighter, as a result.

How do you define PR?

Monday, October 7, 2013

Social Media Lessons from Leadership Experts

“The 21st century is a terrible time to be a control freak," said Alec J. Ross , one of 17 speakers at the World Business Forum in NYC this week.  I was given the opportunity to attend, together with nine faculty from across Humber College, to learn how we can better prepare our students for the challenges of the 21st century.

Ross made the point that the overabundance of available data in the world and the shift from hierarchies to individuals and networks of individuals means that power is more distributed.  The bottom line is that it is harder to gain control, politically, economically, and socially, either as individuals or as corporations. 
Helping us understand the characteristics of great leadership in these chaotic times was the focus for the majority of the speakers.  As a public relations professor teaching social media,  I found that many of these same characteristics apply to successful social media management. 

1.  Building relationships

  • Jack Welch, introduced at the WBF as “the greatest businessman in the history of American business," reflected on the current shut down of the U.S. federal government, suggesting that “both sides, Obama and congress, need to build relationships."  Carlos Brito, CEO of Anheuser-Busch InBev, said that “(leadership) is all about people,” and Ben Zander, music conductor and director, pointed out that "a conductor doesn’t make a sound, but instead depends for power on his ability to make other people powerful."
  • Social media is also all about relationships.  The authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto state that “markets are conversations, and that conversations are conducted among human beings…in a human voice.”

2.  Generosity

  • Welch suggested that “great leaders have the generosity gene”, and Brito stressed the need to be unselfish and “think of the company as something bigger than yourself.”
  • Social media is also about giving.  Tara Hunt, a social media expert we discuss in class, refers to the “whuffie factor” or social capital as something that you exchange when you engage with others through social media.  The point is to always give more than you take.

 3.  Humility and Listening

  • Brito said that it’s important to dream big but stay humble by gaining inspiration from those who do better than you.  And Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida and son and brother of former U.S. presidents, associated being humble with having strong listening skills. Nancy Koehn, historian at the Harvard Business School, concurred that listening carefully was important, and that one must “gather information from a wide range of sources, turning it into knowledge, then understanding and finally wisdom.” 

 4.  Forbearance

  • Koehn advised that leaders employ forbearance, suggesting that they “don’t necessarily want to react immediately.  In times of turbulence, it’s sometimes wiser to wait.”

  • No doubt an appropriate word for a Harvard historian, I can’t say "forbearance" has been bandied about among social media gurus.  But the concept certainly has.  The idea of sometimes waiting before reacting to a negative online situation has been labeled “the Streisand effect.”  Some situations resolve themselves by disappearing into the ether and you cause more fuss by drawing attention to them.

What these illustrious speakers taught me was that global connectedness has led to turbulent times, and that great leadership in such times means putting people first.  I’d like to suggest to my students that this is an equally valid guideline for navigating online connectedness and reinforces our understanding of how to, as Hunt says,  "embrace the chaos." 

What other characteristics might individuals and companies be mindful of when communicating in a space where control is not an option?

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Sorbonne and Social Media

What does the Sorbonne have to do with social media? 

Having had the privilege of spending a few days in Paris this summer, I made a point of heading to the Latin Quarter to walk down the hallowed halls of one of the world’s oldest and arguably most prestigious educational institutions.  Yet, arriving in early August, we found the Sorbonne closed.  And I mean really closed.  Like haul up the drawbridge, lock the gate, nobody’s home, closed.  I couldn’t even get a sweatshirt!  Closed!  And while I admired the beauty of the architecture and its commanding presence on rue Victor Cousin, I reflected on the locked gate.  

Might this be a metaphor for ‘old school’ education.  Traditional learning.  And could I possibly be feeling the rejection and disappointment that comes with this lack of access?  Without overdramatizing (I mean the French professors have a right to their August holidays, afterall), it was an image that I juxtaposed with the affordances of today’s technology, where the boundaries of both time and space have evaporated. 

Embarking on a new semester with Humber College's Bachelor of PR students, I am pleased to report that our student interaction didn’t stop over the summer.  With a team of students across the country, through email, wikis and Facebook we created an orientation event for new students that incorporated toilet paper, chocolate bar medals (Twix is gold) and Twitter.  Planning the event was possible because we didn’t have to worry about getting together at the same time in the same place.  And once we were together, we engaged our broader community in the fun through tweets and photos.

I realized that, as a social media professor in a PR program, I must continue to challenge myself to find ways to connect with students beyond our classrooms.  Afterall, learning doesn’t stop when the campus doors are shut and the lights are off. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Welcome to Our New PR Community

Community.  Tara Hunt talks about the importance of community for building whuffie, or social capital.  Seth Godin says that tribes matter, Sean Moffitt and Mike Dover dedicate a chapter of their new book Wikibrands to a discussion about community development, describing communities as “vibrant pools of individuals who aggregate around interests, aspirations and hobbies”.

As PR practitioners, it is our job to identify these communities, interact with them, and, hopefully, build whuffie within them.  It may even be our job to build these communities ourselves.  

But what does community really mean?  How deeply does it matter?  I have my school community, work community, church community, tennis community, maybe even a social media community.  But I don’t think I ever appreciated the concept more than when I visited Kenya this summer with my son and a group of youth from our church.

Walking through Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum, our guides pointed to a cluster of apartment buildings which bordered the seemingly endless rows of shacks. They noted that the government-built housing was intended to upgrade the living conditions of Kibera’s poorest residents.  Although many have migrated to the housing development, some actually returned to their shacks.  Why?   They cite their need for community.   One of our guides, a volunteer for the Caroliner group, explained that, for example, when someone doesn’t have enough money to cook their dinner, they’ll go to a neighbour’s shack and use their fire that night.  They have easy access to each other.  They help each other. They grow to rely on each other.

My Kenyan experience showed me that simply believing that “if you build it, (they) will come” doesn’t necessarily work.  Real communities are founded on more resilient stuff.  I recognized that strong communities often emerge organically, and are joined by members with an authentic interest, and investment, in the group.  As a result, communities can be a powerful force.  Online communities are no different.

And that’s why so many leading social media thinkers, such as Hunt, Godin, Moffitt and Dover, are talking about them, and the businesses that are building brand communities that are accessible and helpful, and where members can rely on one another.

And, that’s why I’ll be sharing these thoughts in social media class this fall. 

Speaking of communities, a new community has just formed at Humber College  – the inaugural group of over 80 bachelor of PR students!  We anticipate that this group of aspiring PR practitioners, embarking on their four-year educational journey, will be joined by the extended Humber PR family that includes a couple of decades of grads and industry partners across the GTA and beyond.

We hope this blog will be an organic place where authentic conversations take place about practicing PR but also about growing into PR practitioners.

Welcome to our new community.  Hope you'll join us.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Unmask the Virtual You

Sitting in the pew late on Christmas Eve, I heard the minister say in her sermon “…help us to know ourselves, the walls and barriers we erect, the masks we wear…”, and, at the risk of sacrilege, my mind turned to social media.
I reflected on the barriers and masks, and wondered whether social media perpetuates, or impedes, this behaviour.  Are we our authentic selves online?  Or do we hide behind avatars, fictional names, pictures of our cats? 
I recently read an ethnography of Second Life by Tom Boellstorff, where he researched the social development of the virtual world through his own avatar, Tom Bukowski.  Boellstorff distinguished between a virtual world, like Second Life, and a virtual space, like Facebook or MySpace.  He described the former as a world where participants could create an alternate reality for themselves.  The latter, according to Boellstorff, is a social networking space, meant to foster connections between ‘real’ people in the ‘real’ world through virtual means. 
So, in social media, the bottom line is to be yourself.  You can’t network, make ‘friends’ or impress a future employer behind Fluffy’s fuzzy face. 
A new cohort of over 70 students have started the post-grad certificate PR program at Humber College this month.  Some of them will be social media aficionados, with lots of Facebook friends, prolific tweets and maybe even an established blog.  Others will approach their social media journey differently.  Fearfully. Cautiously. Skeptically.
My job will be to show them how social media is the answer to a public relations practitioner’s prayers — interactive conversations with their target audience.  But to do so they need to be transparent, authentic, real.  A recent Globe and Mail article makes the point nicely. 
Based on my research of prominent social media thinkers and on PR industry feedback, here are some ways our future PR practitioners can keep it real online:
  1. Use your real name.  Be easy to find online.
  2. Use your real photo.  Replace the photo of your pet with your own pic, take off the sunglasses, and try a close up.  You may even want to invest in a professional head shot.
  3. Manage your online identity.  Address issues that matter to you. 
  4. Unlock your Twitter site.  A colleague warned me that if I put security features on Twitter, I won’t have any followers. 
  5. Use the privacy settings on Facebook.  Facebook can be a private space limited to friends and family, as long as there are other places where you engage online.  
Do you show the ‘real’ you online?