Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The PR of PR

I was delighted to see Tom Biro's link to Keith Jackson's post on movie portrayals of PR, for a couple of reasons.

This has been a topic of interest for me for several years now, and I published an article on it in the Journal of Public Relations Research in 1999. The student project that sparked Keith's post references it (Miller's my maiden name), and I was glad to see that movies since 1995 offer a somewhat better portrayal of the field.

More to the point, though, it's one of the topics I covered in class today. After we watched Wag the Dog, I reviewed past research on public images of PR (mainly press and network news coverage), then divided the class into groups. Each had 30 minutes research one of four areas where PR is discussed: PR monitoring groups' Web sites, blogs, cartoons and jokes, and mainstream media. What they found was that coverage of PR is more mixed than the previous studies have found--which is to say, more positives mixed in with the negatives.

The stereotypes the students reported finding (in what was, granted, not a scientific survey) were that PRs are deceptive, spin-doctors, dishonest, or dim-witted; and that public relations is cover-up, spin or lies. But there was some good, especially in the mainstream news coverage, that left both the students and me with some hope. For example, one story suggested that Louisiana needed more PR to help get information out--yes, "information" rather than spin or lies.

Interestingly, on blogs they found more criticism from people within the industry than from outside. We concluded that PR, just like many organizations, can use a little transparency.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Help! Pitch assignment needed

Since we've decided that they need to know it, does anyone have any ideas on how to teach undergrads about pitching? I have about 1.5 hours on Thursday allotted to media relations, but I'd like to have them do something fun like role play or otherwise being active (not just me lecturing).

Would appreciate any suggestions on the assignment generally or a product/service to use as a practice case.

By the way, not pitching bloggers--that'll be up on Friday. Just "old" media.

Update: I blended what I was thinking with what Kami suggested in the comments to come up with this assignment: First had two sets of students act out a good pitch and a bad pitch (I wrote scripts based on this). Then I set up five clients, divided them up among the students, and gave them 20 minutes to go do research on the client's Web site. Each student had to develop three pitches of 2-3 sentences and name the news outlet they would approach. Then they compared their pitches to those by the others working on the same client. Finally, they each chose their best one to present in front of the class. It worked well, and I think they liked it, maybe because the clients were appealing to them--scooters, hurricanes, country music singers, college drinking prevention, and The One Campaign. Thanks for the suggestions, Kami!

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Dueling news conferences

Got to see my Wal-Mart news conference idea in action yesterday, and was I impressed. Not with my idea but with how well the students executed it.

I set up a meeting with Sheila Devaney, who's the UGA reference librarian assigned to Grady. She put the two teams (5 members each) in front of computers, and I went back to my office to write the midterm exam (actually, my students are taking the test now, which is why I've got enough time to post twice this week). The next day I showed up in the class room, and the teams were ready to go. The first team, representing the union, ran through a litany of Wal-Mart employee abuses (yes, Mr. Fishman, they found the health care memo you mentioned) and ended with a call for unionization. The second team, representing Wal-Mart, explained all the programs the company offers and noted that Wal-Mart is not all that different from other retailers, in some cases better, in terms of wages and benefits. They even had pulled together a PowerPoint presentation.

I couldn't believe both teams had found and synthesized so much information and developed such credible presentations in such short time. They even handled questions from the "journalists" (class members not on the teams) in a fairly reasonable fashion--not as smoothly as professionals, but pretty well given that they had less than 24 hours to learn it all.

I would definitely recommend this type of assignment to other PR instructors. It not only met three of the recommendations presented by UGA's task force to improve undergraduate education--collaborative learning, oral presentation, and using campus resources--but it served as a big eye-opener for me, because it showed me how much I can expect of them and how well they rose to the challenge. Now it's wait and see how next week's project, a debate between the remaining two teams on Wal-Mart and communities, goes....

Update: The CR teams also did a great job, and the debate even got a bit heated because both sides were passionate about the evidence they found for and against Wal-Mart's benefit/harm to communities. The truth, as I see it, is that there are both benefits and harms, so, as Fishman argues in his book, asking whether Wal-Mart is good or bad is the wrong question.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Why blogging is hard (tick...tick...tick...)

I passed a milestone-- my first month of blogging-- but it went unmarked, because as others already know but I'm just finding out, blogging is hard work.

I've been reflecting on this lately, in the midst of the grueling Maymester class mentioned in my last post, because after only one month (now 6 weeks), I've already fallen behind on my goal of posting 2-3 times a week. Here's why blogging is hard for me:

1. There's never enough time. In particular, I hate not having time to edit my writing. It's nightmarish to find, as I did on another blog, the word "aggregious," which was supposed to be "egregious," and not be able to change it without just drawing more attention to it, not to mention looking like an obsessive-compulsive egghead. As an academic, I'm used to writing something, printing it out, reading it, thinking about it for a while, editing it, giving it to other people to read, editing it again, and then submitting it for publication, which means two or three more people look at it, which leads to more revision. And then maybe it's published. Writing one minute and hitting "publish post" the next is hard.

2. There's never enough time. Here are some things I haven't written about: judging grad student teaching portfolios (some really wonderful work being done around this campus), serving as faculty sponsor for Connie Crumbley's Relay for Life team (in four years they raised nearly $25,000 in memory of a friend; my daughter is pictured above visiting UGA's Relay in a photo by Carolina Acosta-Alzuru), my Campaigns students' presentations (killer), my PR Comm event plan projects (one student planned and executed an event that raised $500 for New Orleans musicians; others were published in multiple local media promoting nonprofit events), and the first week-plus of Maymester (it's going well). There are other things I can't write about--grading controversies, our search for a new dean, serving on the graduate school's admission and retention committee--because they're confidential. But most of the time, I just can't find the time to write about everything I'd like to include.

3. There's never enough time. Not only have I failed to keep up with my own blog, but I haven't posted comments on some others when I had something to say, and I have been really bad at responding to blog-related e-mail, too. Charles Fishman, the author of the book I'm using in class this spring, was kind enough to write, and it took more than a week to get back to him. Luckily, he's a nice person who not only wasn't mad at me, but who answered my response in a couple of hours. Hey, way to make me feel worse! The thing is, when I do fall behind--and the blogger who is so much more diligent than I am has already posted several more items-- it seems pointless to go back and comment on something old. And time spent on this is just more time that I'm not posting on my own blog.

How does everyone else overcome the time problem? Is it just a matter of commitment and diligence, or is there some time management tip I'm missing? Type fast, people... the clock is ticking!

Friday, May 12, 2006

Prepping a class

This year I'm teaching PR Administration, which is our management/case studies course, during Maymester-- an entire semester's material in 3.5 weeks. The class meets every day for three hours, so each day is like a week in a regular semester.

Needless to say, it's a challenge to figure out how to teach this class. Several years ago, I tried just applying my regular syllabus and schedule, but I killed myself by leading lecture/discussions for 3 hours at a time and killed the students by asking them to keep up on a week's worth reading when they're already in class for half a day (more if they registered for two classes). So this year I'm trying something entirely new.

I'm focusing the class around one giant case. I don't think anyone will be surprised that it's Wal-Mart. They're so huge they've got fingers in every pot and problems for every area of PR practice (community relations, crisis management, employee relations, B2B, multiculturalism, etc. etc. etc.-- and, yes, social media... hello, Edel-Mart). We're reading Fishman's The Wal-Mart Effect, which I will supplement with articles, Websites, and videos on both sides, and I've already thought of a couple of creative assignments like dividing the class in half to prepare two news conferences, one by labor, the other by Wal-Mart.

I'm open to suggestions, but class starts Tuesday so make it quick!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Recruiting college graduates

Spent five hours today at UGA's Recruitment Retreat, which brings together employers, faculty, students and career center staff to discuss the recruitment process. Although finding jobs for students isn't strictly part of my job description, in reality faculty do get involved by serving as references, helping students prepare application materials and portfolios, and passing along information about job openings (in my case, it's usually former students looking for new hires).

The retreat was geared toward helping the recruiters do their jobs, but I picked up some valuable information in a session run by a employee, Julie (whose last name escaped me). She provided some stats on the U.S. and Atlanta job markets, indicating that the markets continue to improve and that the Internet is increasingly important in the process.

What interested me most was her summary about Gen-Y employees. She talked about their high expectations, need for almost constant feedback, desire for instant gratification, and wish to balance work and home life. She also mentioned their lives have been "programmed" since toddlerhood, and that parents were and remain very active in their lives.

The break-out discussions that followed confirmed these characteristics. For example, the students said they expect to be kept informed throughout the recruitment process. They recognized that this does not always happen, but it is what they would like to see. Faculty mentioned that students are most disappointed in internships where they don't actually get to do anything--thus failing to meet those high expectations. Career center staff talked about parents who call to make appointments for their children (don't worry, the staff make the kids call back and make their own appointments). Recruiters talked about employees who are on the job for six months, conclude they've "mastered" that job, and ask to try something else.

I think there is some merit to this list of characteristics, although of course they are generalizations and not applicable to everyone all the time. But I also think they mask another characteristic: insecurity. Maybe it's caused by (over)involved parents, or the fact that the students have been involved in programmed activities all their lives-- in fact, some mentioned this in my PR Campaigns blog ("it's the first time we won't have parents and teachers to tell us what to do" kind of thing)--but it seems to me that there's worry and even fear mixed in with the excitement of taking that first job.

Maybe that's not a generational characteristic, but it's something employers should be aware of when they're rolling their eyes at the latest demands made by what seem to be high maintenance young employees.

"More important than the curriculum is the question of the methods of teaching and the spirit in which the teaching is given" --Bertrand Russell

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