Late last year (2018) I was invited to speak with the students in the Royal Roads University Professional Communications program in Victoria BC, on the current state of the profession and what competencies, skills and knowledge entry level public relations practitioners need to have to be successful in the profession. Professor Tom Workman thought that the best approach was to have a conversation between the two of us about all things public relations. RRU’s School of Communication & Culture recorded the conversation for their students and made it available for CPRS members across the country.
I thought that you might like to listen to my thoughts on the profession, the competencies, skills and knowledge required to become a valuable public relations/communications professional, and my general thoughts on the state of the profession here in Canada and throughout the world.
Hope you find it interesting and of value. Please share your thoughts with me.
Yesterday I had the privilege of listening to my Master of Communications Management capstone student, Sharlyn Carrington, present the results of her groundbreaking study on the lived experiences of 21 black women who work in public relations in Canada (mostly Ontario). It was one of those moments that makes your extremely proud to be a professor, a mentor, a researcher and a colleague.
Shar’s own lived experience working in public relations in Ontario is what drove her interest in this research. It is an excellent example of trying to make sense a phenomenon (have other black female public relations practitioners in Ontario had the same experiences as I have in my career) and diving into the literature on gender, race, intersectionality and public relations.
My McMaster University colleagues (Drs. Philip Savage and Alex Sevigny) believe that this thesis has at least 2-3 manuscripts that could be carved from her study and are very encouraging of Shar to pursue publication (and maybe even further graduate studies!).
Here are three recommendations that Sharlyn landed on at the end of her research:
1. Black women need to be disruptors — “black female practitioners have a huge responsibility to be disruptors, to be brave and speak out when they see and experience unacceptable behaviours. These practitioners can encourage more black women to enter and to stay in public relations, find more opportunities to mentor, help crate networks and find opportunities to be seen to the younger generation of diverse practitoners”.
2. Public relations associations need to be scupltors — It is the responsibility of associations and public relations programs to reshape and rebuild the reputation of public relations. They should look for opportunities to employ more diverse faculty and guest speakers, because seeing black leaders and practitioners can send the signal to diverse audiences and student that they too can succeed in this practice.”
3. Organizations need to be nurturers — Organizations need to shape the environment in which public relations operates. They can increase diversity by creating an open environment where people can talk about inclusion, and experiences without fear and enforce cultural sensitivity and unconscious bias training.
I look forward to reading her published articles in the not so distant future — warning to public relations journals … these articles will be arriving in your editor’s inboxes in 2019 — groundbreaking research results are on their way.
Hopefully Shar will also be available to present her findings to professional associations and public relations programs across Canada.
Congrats Shar — thanks for inviting me along for this wonderful journey.
According to an article written by Jennifer Pagliaro in yesterday’s Toronto Star,
“Nearly 19 years later, environmental advocates say Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government is posing one of the greatest risks both the environment and public health have faced in decades. Last week, the government tabled a new piece of legislation, Bill 66, that, if passed, would allow commercial development to bypass several long-standing laws meant to protect the natural environment and the health of residents, including the Clean Water Act that was put in place following the Walkerton tragedy.”
The Walkerton water crisis is personal for me — on May 23, 2000, as the president of Frontline Corporate Communications, I was retained to assist the town of Walkerton with crisis communications support. I was there when helicopters would leave the local hospital and transport a very sick patient to University Hospital in London, Ontario — where seven eventually died. Studies after the crisis concluded that half the town’s population of 5,000 were sickened by the e-coli contamination of the local water supply.
Two years after the crisis, Ontario Justice Dennis O’Connor issued a damning report that placed much of the blame on the then Mike Harris conservative government and concluded that the e-coli outbreak could have been prevented.
“A few hours after Justice O’Connor released his report, Ontario Premier Mike Harris arrived in Walkerton to express his “deep regrets.” Harris made a point of sipping on a glass of water while he answered media questions.
“I, as premier, must ultimately accept responsibility for any shortcomings of the government of Ontario,” he told a nationally televised news conference.
“I would also like to say to the people of Walkerton on behalf of the provincial government and the people of Ontario that I am truly sorry for the pain and suffering that you have experienced.”
Seven deaths were attributed to the E. coli outbreak. He said he regrets anything his government may have done that might have contributed to the contamination in the town’s water supply.
It seems like déja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once said — a conservative government removing safeguards to protect our health and the environment. We know how this movie ended in 2000 — let’s not let the Ford government create another Walkerton. And if it does, it will be the end of Doug Ford’s political career, just like it ended Mike Harris’s days as Premier.
Well before blogs were even contemplated, I wrote this short essay in 2003 on the importance of working with the news media during risk and crisis events. I’m pretty sure that I sent it to some of my clients at the time, just to let them know that I was learning something during my doctoral studies at Syracuse University. Just as in the crisis leadership article I posted earlier, it is obvious that this article was written before the influence of social media. Let me know what you think. Are my five steps still valid?
The news media and risk issues: 5 Key Steps That You Need to Know (2003).
The news media are a powerful and important force within society. Some researchers have called the media the world’s main source of information and knowledge (Rogers, 1996), others see the media as agents of social control (Shoemaker, 1984) , while still others view them as the champion of social problems (Yanovitzky & Bennett, 1999). Overall, the media are in a pivotal place to prompt social change either through helping to set the political agenda or by keeping issues and groups out of the public discussion.
Because the media are the channels through which information from environmental organizations will pass to their key audiences, it is essential that your organization become a recognized and dependable force in promoting your views on risk issues. According to Shoemaker (1991), interested groups can do this by becoming a formidable fore in the gatekeeping process; providing information and messages as a regular part of the media routine and as a result becoming a credible source of ongoing information for the media.
The media can greatly influence the nature, development, and ultimate success of an environmental risk issue. According to Ball-Rokeach, Power, Guthrie, and Waring (1990), interested groups need the media more than the media need them. Even with the explosion of the Internet, a more direct method of communicating with environmental stakeholders and policy makers, the mass media remain ” the primary link between the public and the political system” (p. 254).
Given that “most Americans know what they know about the environment from watching television news and reading newspapers” (Salomone, Greenberg, Sandman & Sachsman, 1990, p. 117), and furthermore, that much of what most people discuss about risk issues comes from the media, it is important for us to learn how to work with the media to bring environmental information to the public (Shanahan, Morgan, & Stenbjerre, 1997; Archibald, 1999).
Step 1: This is your issue!
There is no one in the world that knows your issue better than you do. That’s the good news. The bad news is, there is no one in the world that knows your issue better than you do! Our primary challenge during risk controversies is to distill a complex, technical issue into a manageable and meaningful media message. Environmental risk issues that have been managed effectively in the public arena have often been the result of a detailed, strategic media relations approach. The first step for any successful campaign is to do your homework – to understand how your issue fits within the current political and public landscape. The easiest way to achieve this understanding is to perform an external issues analysis by conducting “top-line” research with a systematic sample of your key stakeholder groups and target media outlets. What do they know about your organization? What kind of information are they looking for? How would they like to receive information from you? What other issues are competing for their attention. The purpose of this step is to begin to frame your issue in the eyes and ears of your audience. This is your opportunity to begin to develop your message in a way that will be acceptable and ultimately received by those groups that could eventually
determine the success or failure of your campaign. Remember, this takes time and starting this program well in advance of the public release of your issue is critical – think months and weeks and not days and hours and you will establish a solid issue foundation.
Step 2: Media Relationships
The media have a constitutionally guaranteed role to play in all political and risk issues: we may not like the job they are doing or believe that they are well-equipped to communicate about risk issues, but in reality, they are here to stay. Once we come to grips with their place in the communication of risk issues, we can begin to think more clearly about how and when to work with the media to bring our issues to the public. It’s a basic tenant of human relation but it’s one that we sometimes fail to think about during risk controversies: the public and the media will believe you and see you as a credible source if they know you and have an ongoing relationship with you. Obviously, this is a difficult and somewhat challenging step but in today’s 24/7 media world, you have something that the media needs… information. Think of it as a quid pro quo type of system. You need them to carry your message to the public, and they need your information. But they need that information in a manner, style and at a time that bestsuits their needs. Your objective is to develop, as best as you can, working relationships with those journalists that may cover your issue: local, regional, national, broadcast, print and electronic. It takes time and research to find them and develop relations with them, but in the end, when your issue is hitting the public arena, it ‘ s better to systematically deliver your message to reporters who have a working knowledge of your issue and know where they can reach you for comment.
Step 3: What’s Your Message
Researchers today tell us that the average consumer is inundated by more than 3,000 different messages each day. From television commercials, to newspaper ads, to political messages, to our own personal “to do’s” we are bombarded by products, services and family members that want a share of our mind. In this competitive environment, your message needs to be able to break through this clutter in order to frame your position and set the agenda for the media and the public. Refining your message into an easily understandable headline is both difficult and complex. What is your objective: awareness… creating a cognitive linkage between your message and the public as a way of increasing knowledge of your issue; appreciation … while your audience maybe aware of your position, do they understand it and are they ready to form an opinion about your message; and finally, are you attempting to create an action or change a behavior through your message. Your message can only focus on one of these objectives and if you want your audience to do something with your message the n they first need to be aware of your position and second must have an appreciation for your message in relation to all the other messages that are bombarding them. These two steps are critical before they will eventually decide to act on your message.
Step 4: Anticipation, Practice and Performance
Lights, camera and… that’s right, today’s media-centered, consumer world looks at times like the Hollywood images that the entertainment industry continually projects to us. Think about the media vortex surrounding the Columbia disaster, the Beltway Sniper, the nightclub fires, and the kidnapping and disappearances of young women in recent years. The media’s ability to broadcast a disaster or an issue from any part of the world in a relatively short period of time magnifies our need to always be ready. The media’s satellite technology can beam images and comments to millions of television sets in just minutes and as such, you and your organization must be prepared to deal with the potential media hordes. I remember working with a small town on a water contamination issue, regularly briefing more than 150 journalists from throughout North America and Europe. More than 90 percent of these journalists had never visited this small town before and probably haven’t been back in the years since the crisis. You need to establish a media management system so that you are ready for the onslaught of journalist, whether you are in control of the announcement or reacting to a crisis event. Identify the most capable spokespeople and regularly train them on your key messages and their ability to respond to, what at times seems like, an unruly mob. Your spokesperson should be able to effectively communicate your message in a confident, credible and empathetic manner. Unfortunately, their credibility and the credibility of your organization will be judged by their performance under the spotlight.
Step 5: Become A Student of Media Relations
There are literally thousands of books, videotapes, websites and consultants that can keep you up to date on the do’s and don’ts of effective media relations. Better yet, there are hundreds of minutes of daily newscasts that can provide you with the ability to critique, review and assess the most effective media performances on television. Look, listen and think about the spokespeople that you see on the news. What’s their message? How well were they able to articulate the message? How did they respond to difficult questions? Were they prepared for the media interview? If you were in their shoes, what would you do differently?
Furthermore, visit any bookstore – in person or on the web, and search for books on media training skills. Read them and take their advice to heart. Unfortunately, it won’t be as easy as the books make it out to be. Effective media relations take time, practice and skill to implement. If you want a more hands-on approach to skills building, hire a media-training specialist, someone who has worked with risk issues, and have them train you and your team. I have found that using outside experts is a cost-effective approach to building the critical skills that enable organizations to effectively and efficiently manage risk issues in the media.
When all is said and done though, you and your organization must be comfortable participants in the media arena, therefore you need to develop the plan that best meets your goals and objectives while ensuring that you are prepared to successfully manage the outcome.
Archibald, E. (1999). Problems with environmental reporting: Perspectives of daily newspaper reporters. The Journal of Environmental Education, 30, 27-32.
Ball-Rokeach, S.J., Power, G.J., Guthrie, K.K., & Waring, H.R. (1990). Value-framing abortion in the United States: An application of media system dependency theory. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 2, 249-273.
Rogers, E.M. (1996). The field of health communication today: An up-to-date report.Journal of Health Communication, I, 15-23.
Salome, K.L., Greenberg, M.R., Sandman, P.M., & Sachsman, D.B. (1990). A question of quality: How journalists and news sources evaluate coverage of environmental risk. Journal of Communication, 40, 117-129.
Shanahan, J. Morgan, M., & Stenbjene, M. (1997). Green or Brown? Television and the cultivation of environmental concern. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 4I, 305-323.
Shoemaker, P.J. (1984). Media treatment of deviant political groups. Journalism Quarterly, 61, 66-75, 82.
I was rummaging through old file boxes this weekend and found a manuscript that I wrote in 2004 that I didn’t submit for publication — for reasons that now escape me. I’ve uploaded the unpublished manuscript to ResearchGate.
Here are my top 10 tips for organizations to develop and nuture a crisis leadership approach within their organizations (taken from this article).
Crisis Leadership Approach (circa 2004)
Your senior management team has the vision and the leadership to anticipate crises within and outside your organization.
Your team has identified the most-likely threats and challenges to your organization’s operations and you have written and tested effective response
Your organization has a multi-disciplinary crisis management team established and ready to
Your primary goal during a crisis is to attend to the immediate needs of the organization and your key stakeholders and resolving the crisis in the interests of your organization and the public.
Your public relations staff/consultants have the necessary resources to manage a .. today.
Your senior management team has delegated the authority to your crisis management team to make the critical organizational decisions during a
You have identified your key stakeholders (employees, neighbors, shareholders, suppliers, customers) and have the means to communicate with them during a
Your organization is committed to open, ethical and timely communication with the public during a
You are part of a learning organization and have already put in place a ” lessons learned” process for your next
You understand that effective crisis communication and management is a long-term commitment.
Interesting that I didn’t mention the words digital or social media as platforms such as FaceBook and Twitter either hadn’t been made public or invented in 2004.
Last Friday I had the pleasure of being the keynote, luncheon speaker for the CPRS-Vancouver Island’s bi-annual professional development conference “Beyond the Hype” held at Royal Roads University in Victoria British Columbia.
I start my presentation with an introduction to the word Mavourneen (it is the English version of Mo mhuirnín — which is Irish for ‘my darling’) and then take the audience through a childhood journey that stops with a loud knock on the door. I then transition into the science of storytelling and the key characteristics of effective storytellers.
The difference in this presentation was that Tara Shanks from Pondering Turtles was graphically recording or representing my presentation into a graphical storyboard.
Tara, in real time, pulled the key themes from my presentation and graphically represented them in this visualization.
In cities across North America today (24 March 2018) teenagers and adults are marching to protest the excessive availability and use of guns, especially high-powered, assault-style rifles. Recent school shootings, attacks on churches, music festivals, nightclubs and shopping malls have created a sense of urgency among citizens to use the power of peaceful protests to call for legislative action by local, state/provincial and federal politicians.
News commentators and political pundits have likened today’s protest to the civil rights and anti-Vietnam protests that took place in the 1960s, that led to significant policy and cultural changes within the United States.
By the 1980s those causes turned to nuclear proliferation, missile defense systems, HIV/AIDS, and of course the greed and excesses of Wall Street.
Protest in the late 20th century was a way for students and communities to rise together to voice their concerns and demonstrate against inequality, injustice and the growing concentration of economic wealth and power in the hands of fewer and fewer people throughout the world.
Since the advent of the commercial internet, large physical protests have been replaced by online activism (also known as slacktivism) and petitions for change. Instead of our voices and hand-made signs we have used our fingers and laptops to protest. While larger numbers of people can sign online petitions and add their voices through “e-protesting” — politicians and lawmakers have generally benefited: online became out-of-sight.
In the first three months of 2018, demonstrators have once again taken to the streets in record numbers to protest: the now annual women’s march, today’s march for our lives and in a couple of week’s the annual march for science. There is growing dissent and concern about the policies of the Trump government that is spurring increased protest from nearly every corner of the United States and throughout the world.
Protest is good…but does it really enable change?
While these protests don’t seem to impact Trump’s golf games or trips to Florida, they should have an impact on the 2018 mid-term elections — if the momentum and passion continue on pace over the next eight months. When protest signs are turned into increased numbers of voters and ballots on election day, then politicians will see this sea of change and hear the voices of the protestors who are demanding a voice in our democracies around the world.
Thanks to those young high school students today for are literally marching for their lives.