Archive for the ‘Strategic communication/PR’ Category

Good morning, and welcome to job hell.

Or is it? A compelling case study for employee communication is British Petroleum, or BP. Since the accident on BP’s oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, as much oil spews out every few days as the total of the Exxon Valdez spill. BP’s external communication efforts, derisively called its “PR” by the media, have been discussed at length, but what about internal communication? What if you were in charge of employee communication at BP?

BP is one of the world’s largest energy companies. It provides fuel for transportation and energy for heat and light, plus retail services and petrochemical products. Sales were $239 billion in 2009. BP has 80,300 employees and 22,400 service stations. BP has active exploration and production  in 30 countries. In 2009, BP had production throughput of 2.9 million barrels per day with 16 wholly or partially owned refineries.

Oh, and BTW, BP is now one of the most reviled companies in history.

Internal or employee communication professionals are hired to help employers achieve their missions. It is not easy on a good day, but faced with extreme situations like the BP oil spill, the work of the employee communicator is extraordinarily difficult yet crucial.

Right now, BP is in full crisis communication mode. But what about long-term employee communication?

BP employees are probably pretty much like employees anywhere. They want to do meaningful work for an employer who values it. They have financial obligations and need their jobs to meet them. I imagine you could plot BP employees all over Maslow’s Hierarchy. Each has his or her own needs. And, to be fair, many if not most, are probably sickened by the sight of what their company’s accident is doing to the Gulf of Mexico and its coastal residents’ lives.

Understanding employee needs is a requisite for building communication strategy. While we might sit here and speculate on what BP employees are thinking and feeling, if we are to be truly professional and strategic, then we would need to conduct research to know for sure. Interviews, focus groups, and surveys/questionnaires must be used to conduct our own primary research. Then we would know what we are facing. Then, and only then, could we formulate strategy — goals, objectives,and tactics —  to address the situation.

Organizations succeed and fail. Organizations do good things, and they do bad things. But through it all, the need for the skills of the communicator remains constant. Considering this one important aspect of BP’s current situation, its employee communication, provides an instructive, if radical, look into what the role of employee communicator just might bring. Can we ever be prepared enough to face what may come?

Yes, we can. And as the BP incident illustrates, we had better be.


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Media are merely vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition (Clark 1983).

 Take that, you teachers who use instructional technology in the classroom!

 For those of us who study the effective and efficient use of instructional technology, Clark’s words are startling. Is this true?

As an instructor in Mass Communication, PR Track, I see a parallel question with education’s use of media and media used in communication/PR.

 For trained communicators like me, one other name comes to mind — Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan is famous for saying, “the medium is the message.”  The focus is on the medium itself not so much the content of the message.

It’s Clark versus McLuhan in a steel cage grudge match.

If Clark is correct, then what matters in education? Perhaps it’s the teacher, the quality of instruction, the subject matter, what is presented, but not necessarily how it is presented. Clark argues that the media teachers use only conveys instruction without helping student achievement.

If McLuhan is correct, then the message content is less important than the medium conveying it. That seems to fit with today’s fascination with social media. The traditional media that communication/PR professionals have used for decades now seems to be foresaken for social media.

But are communication/PR professionals missing something? My best friend Communication Consultant Extraordinaire Robert J. Holland thinks so. Writing in his blog, Communication at Work, Robert says:

Communicators are still drooling over social media. We want to know everything about it — everything, it seems — and we want to figure it out fast so all our peers will be in awe of us. And before long, we’ll realize that social media are pretty much like all the other communication vehicles out there and we’ll move on to the next thing. For now, however, we’re still in the high hormone stage.

I think Robert nails it. The communication/PR profession’s fascination with social media as the newest and greatest may blind us to the importance of the message and to a proper media mix.

But what about Clark’s bold statement about media and instruction? For educators like me, especially Mass Communication instructors and anyone who wishes to use instructional technology effectively, is the media we use that unimportant?

I don’t think so. I think the media we use is important in helping students learn. But as Robert B. Kozma (2001) says, “whether or not a medium’s capabilities make a difference in learning depends on how they correspond to the particular learning situation — the tasks and learners involved — and the way the medium’s capabilities are used by the instructional design.”

Back to communication/PR, where the (social) media is the message. Holland says:

Too many of us have become obsessed with social media, treating them as if they’re the last cute girl (or guy) that will ever come our way. It’s clouding our judgment and we’re losing our grasp of the fundamentals. I get that social media have changed communication forever. I get that social media have caused a significant shift in how organizations engage and interact with their stakeholders. I get that it’s important for communicators to have a working knowledge of social media including some technical skill. I understand social media’s impact and importance. Last summer I told my public relations students that the change in communication brought about by social media was like that of the Gutenberg press.

To summarize, here is the situation:

  • In education, some argue that media merely conveys information without helping students learn.
  • In communication/PR, some argue that the media, especially social media, is all-important.

For a communication/PR instructor like me, I must find common ground. I think that common ground is captured in the following, which I will call “Lester’s Manifesto”:

I will use instructional technology that helps me create a two-way symmetrical dialogue with my students to help them learn. I will use all relevant media that helps me teach my students successfully. Media in all forms are a tool, whether used by an educator or a communication/PR practitioner. Each medium has its own characteristics. Each has a proper use. No one medium is better than all the rest. In fact, I firmly believe that a well-thought-out media mix is always better than heavy use of a single medium, whether the use is in education or communication/PR.

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Students in my Master’s class recently discussed the communication of organizational trust as “a fundamental leadership responsibility and a growing area of responsibility for communication professionals” as stated in the IABC Handbook of Organizational Communication  (Gillis, 2006, p. 44).

I think we’d all agree that trust and building trusting relationships are important to contemporary organizations. But we are in a severe recession. Jobs and budgets are being cut, and fear is rampant. Can an organization build trust in such an environment? If so, how? What is the communication professional’s role?

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In a comment to my previous post about 2008, Michael Clendenin sums up what we PR Types can do in 2009 — change things.

My friend Michael’s points, as usual, are wise and timely. In my current role as educator of future communication/PR/IMC professionals, I must make changes to my courses in order to help prepare students for the harsh realities of the job market. By all accounts for the foreseeable future, that job market is going to be an unwelcoming place.

Accordingly, I have been thinking about Michael’s suggestion. What must I change to reflect current market conditions and make my courses more valuable to students?

The time is right to consider this question. I have been preparing syllabi for my four spring semester classes. Three of the classes are on subjects I teach every semester — public relations writing (one section) and strategic communication planning and management (two sections). Also for this spring, I will be developing and teaching a new course in our Communication Leadership Master’s program, “The Practice of Public Relations and Organizational Communication.”

My professional experience includes training in continuous quality improvement, so I strive to improve my courses all along. I will be changing some things for spring semester, mainly, elevating the criteria for success. This is no time to tolerate student’s underachievement. Their prospective employers are going to be highly selective and terribly unforgiving about underachievement on the job. Only the best and the brightest have a chance at getting and keeping employment in today’s job market.

And it all begins here as an undergrad. Tough love? You bet. I won’t be helping anyone if I let them coast to an easy grade. If I give away good grades, then the students will graduate and the marketplace will kick them in the teeth. They’ll blame me.

That leads me to a question: I wonder if other Mass Communication/Public Relations departments are growing as rapidly as Towson’s? More and more undergrads want to major in Mass Comm/PR. My colleagues and I suspect that far too many of these individuals view the major as an easy one. If that is true, then it was mostly our fault.

But that was then, and this is now. We are steadily upgrading the qualifications for acceptance to the major. Among the steps we are taking is adding screening courses that require analytical thinking and the highest quality writing ability to pass. No passing grade, no acceptance to the major.

We restructured  “principles” class coursework along with all lower level classes to be much more difficult. We raised the GPA requirement for acceptance to the major.  But is it enough? We still get a boat load of folks who want to major in PR and be wedding planners.

There are PR programs worthy of emulation. My friend and excellent blogger/professor Bill Sledzik at Kent State University outlined his program in a hard-hitting post titled, “Let’s raise the bar for PR education, and let’s raise it really, really, really, really, really, really high.” I think what Bill wrote is priceless and should be read by everyone teaching PR.

The year 2009 is shaping up to be a tough one for us all. You know the saying: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Poll after poll shows that the American people hate the government bailouts because we Americans seek to reward achievement, not subsidize failure.

In preparing students for communication/PR/IMC careers, we can do no less than that.

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I’ve been away from MWL for a while now. I celebrated Christmas, began the instructional design of my spring 2009 classes, and actually got some much-needed rest. But as we approach the New Year, I feel like I should say something, anything, to mark the passage. Here goes…

Goodbye, good riddance.

We all know what 2008 was like. First, there was the dominating presidential election. The wars. The housing bubble bursting. The failing economy. The bailouts.

As interested as I am in politics, I even got sick of the presidential election. The election did bring closure to one thing, and that is the long, slow suicide of journalism.

Journalism is dead. It killed itself by cutting out its credibility. RIP New York Times, Washington Post, et al. Now what do I tell my highly ethical PR students about media relations, about building relationships with journalists? My PR students are steeped in the ethical and legal aspects of communication/public relations, including fairness and balance.  They get it.

The failing economy heightened the need for communicators/public relations practitioners to understand the relevant topics of finance, economics, and business management, with an emphasis on employee communication. I’ve been preaching this for decades, but I believe that this financial crisis finally drove home the message. 

I have seen a renewed effort by communicators/public relations practitioners to learn how to communicate about economic and financial issues in order to be more effective in representing their organizations with key publics. That makes me very happy indeed.

So much for 2008. There is more, of course, but let’s move on.

I love this time of the year. Out with the old, and in with the new. Rather than celebrate the New Year with noise and alcohol-induced reverie, I greet each New Year in quiet contemplation. I take a quick inventory of the year ending, then I think of all the promise the New Year holds.

I do not make a bold set of New Year’s Resolutions. Instead, I refine those goals that I have already set for myself, namely, to transform and evolve into a higher and better being here and now, mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. That includes specifics of becoming a better communicator, teacher, friend, husband, father, grandfather, student, employee, and neighbor.

Onward and upward. I wish you the happiest and most prosperous of New Years. Thank you for reading MWL in 2008. I look forward to our dialogue in 2009.

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I want to be public relations director for a plant.

That plant is kudzu. I believe that kudzu is the next great bio-ethanol. All this imported vine needs is effective PR counsel.

There is precedent. Look what good PR has done for grape vines that produce wine or for industrial hemp (cannabis).

Kudzu, native to China and Japan, is a woody vine that grows ridiculously fast, gaining as much as 60 feet in a single growing season. Its roots can grow to the diameter of a man’s forearm. It was introduced decades ago into the Southeastern U.S. to help control soil erosion.

Trouble is, kudzu is extremely hard to control and virtually impossible to eradicate once it gets going. In the deep South, I have seen it cover acres of land, including trees, and even abandoned vehicles and houses. When kudzu takes over, it covers everything like a green leafy snow. It soon smothers out the native plants.

But what a heck of a way to use this nasty, worthless vine. Make bio-ethanol out of it. Mississippi alone could fuel the world with its kudzu-covered acres.

Racing Corvettes are already using cellulosic ethanol made from sawdust, wood chips, and agricultural waste. I’d love to see a kudzu-powered ZR1 lapping Porches at the Nurburgring.

Yep, good PR is essential to help this much-hated pest give it up for the greater good of preserving the planet’s environment. I’m in.

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I have been judging IABC Gold Quill awards all day today. I am a big fan of IABC’s Gold Quill program, especially the requirement for an excellent work plan as part of an entry. The work plan shows the strategic planning and management that is the underpinning of an entry. This makes the awards program a professional development experience, not a beauty contest.

Here’s what I want all of my students to get right now: to deal with any important communication/PR issue, there are certain steps that must be taken in order for there to be a credible strategic treatment of the issue.

First, you must conduct research to know all you can about the situation your organization is facing. Intuition and guess work won’t cut it. This is usually captured in a situation analysis. For the Gold Quill work plan, it is listed in the need or opportunity section.

Second, once the need/opportunity is understood, the professional communicator/PR practitioner must decide what to do and recommend a course of action. This is best captured by setting goals and objectives. Goals should be broad-brush statements involving things like improving a relationships with a key public. Objectives are more targeted, for they must manifest a goal into reality.

Here’s the problem: all too often communicators/PR practitioners set squishy objectives, like “communicate that we care about employees” or “inform the community about our …” For an objective to have any relevance, it must be SMART, or Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-sensitive.

Setting measurable objectives is the cornerstone of the strategic communication foundation following research and situation analysis. You simply must set measurable objective in order to be able to conduct meaningful summative evaluation in the end. All too often, squishy objectives can only be followed by summative evaluation that amounts to silliness like, “we got a lot a compliments on the [tactic]” or “the CEO really liked it” or “all of the copies were taken by employees”. These prove nothing.

If you are to claim any meaningful result of your communication/PR strategy and subsequent tactical activity, then you must state clearly and in a measurable way what the activity was to have accomplished in the first place. Make it SMART.

Meaningful, measurable objectives + well-thought-out, appropriate strategy and well-executed tactics = meaningful, measurable results.

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