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PR from an African American Perspective

Sold on Social Media: Lessons from Gustav

I followed reports on Hurricane Gustav and called my clients, Raney and Carla Antoine. Thankfully, they were preparing to evacuate and gave me a first-hand account of the chaos and madness in New Orleans and surrounding parishes. Carla shared as she picked her children up from school that she and Raney, a minister, took the time to visit members of their congregation who are elderly and sick and helped them prepare physically, emotionally and spiritually for the evacuation. On top of this, she told me that they had a host of relatives in the area to check on before leaving for her brother’s home in Atlanta.

During her drive back to her subdivision, Carla described the panic in the streets; gas stations running out of fuel and even noted when she saw a fuel truck unloading fuel at a gas station; she spoke to a neighbor about their evacuation plans and how they would pick up loose objects off of the ground before leaving so no one would be hurt by them in the storm. Carla told me that FEMA’s contraflow would begin on Sunday at noon, but that was when Gustav was at Category 2. I took note of everything she told me and then I …

Micro-blogged that information on Twitter.com so that people with New Orleans and Gustav-related concerns could receive it and know how to proceed. The responses I received were phenomenal and gratitude-filled.

Soon on Twitter folks stopped “tweeting” or micro-blogging about Sarah Palin and Barack Obama’s speech and began tweeting about Gustav. It was incredible.

Today, people like Craigslist founder, Craig Newmark, asked “tweeters” or micro-bloggers what should craigslist do to aid in any evacuation effort. He gave out his personal email addie.

Another tweeter, @urbanreporter (urban reporter) posted live video footage he’d taken during his assignment as a reporter for HDTV and he used another social media site Ustream.com to run it. By the way, Ustream is the official video streaming site of the Barack Obama campaign.

One of my favorite uses of social media is this: http://gustav08.ning.com/ and it was tweeted several times by me and other tweeters, including CSI actor and social activist Hill Harper as well as social media consultant, James Andrews. This ning site is astounding and was developed to keep people abreast of Gustav activity but also give families a central online location to post their concerns and check for their loved ones whereabouts. Freakin’ genius created by A. Carvin.

There are other social mediums working away to report on this effort and to even give place for activism. What I’ve witnessed so far has been short of astounding and proof that gurus, experts, fanatics and even novices like me can do great things with information technology to make a really bad situation bearable. I’m officially sold on social media as a grassroots communication movement, and sadly I have Gustav to thank for that.

 Best, Robin Caldwell

robin@thejstandard.com

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Filed under: Crisis Management, Media Relations, Public Relations, Social Media, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Please, Thank You and You’re Welcome

Melvin Helitzer was a helluva PR pro and professor at Ohio University. On the first day of class, Mel met students at the door with an extended hand and a warm smile. After greeting us, he told us that he only had a few rules and if we expected any semblance of success in his class we’d never break them.

The first rule: Never come to class late and if you did, stand outside the door. Do not bother to come inside.

The second rule: Come to class prepared, which included class participation. No sleeping, talking or passivity. You will join in the discussion; you will interact with your classmates or “colleagues” as he preferred us to call one another.

The third rule: You will always behave with courtesy towards your colleagues. The classroom was the office or firm and it should be treated in that manner.

The fourth rule: Expect to receive an “A.” If your expectations were lower, then there was an open invitation to drop the class.

And the fifth rule: Follow rules 1 through 4 and you’ll make Mel very happy.

On the second day of class, I broke rule #2 and spent an hour in the hallway sitting on the floor with my ear inclined to the door. When class was over, I politely walked in and apologized and then asked the questions written in my notebook. The last act saved me great embarrassment and impressed Mel.

Professor Helitzer didn’t know but I’d been a practitioner before returning to college to complete my degree work. I’d tell him later and that was only to affirm the rules he’d set in place and their role in making me a true PR professional. So to this day, I’d rather cancel than show up late; research every client and project-related information I can get my hands on before a meeting; and expect to win.

In terms of the third rule, I cannot imagine leaving any situation without saying Please, thank you, and you’re welcome. I shake hands and greet people warmly. Moreover, I’m grateful that I have a reputation for making people feel incredibly comfortable with themselves and in potentially stressful situations. I owe that in part to my training and part to my personality make-up.

Manners go a long way in PR and publicity. Treating people well and kindly can mean the difference in a journalist ditching your pitches or running your releases and even interviewing your clients. It can also equal increased revenue.

Recently, I left feedback on a blog, a blog I happen to like, and the author of that blog didn’t take too kindly to my words. She expended a great deal of energy to respond to me, essentially getting me told. I was okay with her retort but I wasn’t okay with one thing: her manners.

You see the three professionals I love the most (Mel, Howard Landau and Bernardine Douglas) taught me something very special and that is to be gracious even in the face of criticism. All three taught me to extract the truth from the criticism and throw away the rest, all the while smiling or at the very least showing a poker face. I’d rather be remembered as being gracious and teachable than ungracious and irrational. Unfortunately, everyone didn’t have a Mel, Howard or Bernardine.

And here is the other sticky wicket: She didn’t research who I was or who I know. It just so happens that she is affiliated with a magazine and I just so happen to know the editor-in-chief.

Trust me, I won’t say a word. Nope. That kind of behavior has a way of telling on itself.

Pros, take classes in social and dining etiquette as well as protocol and decorum. Read books such as Basic Black: African American Etiquette, Advice and Social Customs, and anything by Emily Post.

Be Your Best, Robin

robin@thejstandard.com

Filed under: African Americans, Help for the Practitioner, PR Etiquette, Public Relations, Social Customs, , , , , , , , , ,

Image is Everything

I’m an image geek who can trace my addiction to mass-mediated images of African Americans back to my childhood. Television wasn’t just TV, the fun thing, it was a learning tool. I can recall questioning why Buckwheat didn’t comb his hair and why Stymie never went off on Alfafa or Spanky. I had issues like that.

With fondness I remember taking my Sunday evening bath early, just so I could sit on the floor in my PJs, with a snack and drink, to watch The Ed Sullivan Show when a black act was featured. And I can remember stopping play with friends to run into the house on Saturdays to watch The Dick Clark Show whenever one of my favorite R&B groups or singers was featured.

Those images meant a lot to me.

A few years ago, I went to a rural flea market and indulged my love for vintage Ebony magazines. I purchased about $20 worth of those magazines and continued looking on every table for things of interest. One table contained some items that made my blood curdle and my heart stop. On that table were old slave shackles and I was too scared to touch them. My eyes merely rested on them as I thought of the slave or slaves who wore those bracelets. Unfortunately, those weren’t the only things on that table to upset my equilibrium. The vendor had a number of souvenirs from the 1936 Olympics, which were held in Nazi Germany. Those were the Olympic games, where Hitler refused to shake gold medalist Jesse Owens’s hand.

I moved away from that table fast.

We can always put the past into a context somewhere back there. But once we have a tangible reminder of it, something shifts inside, and we realize the significance of those moments and how they shape the world we live in today. To paraphrase philosopher Franz Fanon, we never notice the absence of something until we see that one thing that challenges our senses and intellect. (Bless Fanon, I could never do him any real justice.)

My grandparents never questioned the absence of black faces on television until the first one appeared. And once they noticed, they made it a point to make me cognizant of them, thus my humble beginnings as a purveyor of the mass-mediated image of African Americans.

For years I studied these images from the earliest known stereotypes to the most recent in popular culture. (Yes, they still exist.) For years I taught and lectured about these images. But my greatest challenge would come in taking all of that book knowledge and applying it to my profession as a PR consultant and publicist.

Last night, I watched some of the most beautiful images of African Americans I’ve ever seen. These were real images, nothing contrived like a sit-com or movie. A wife, mother, sister, daughter and friend spoke to a crowd of millions, and she spoke eloquently and she appeared elegantly. Obviously, from the context of American history, we’ve never seen anything like it. So, from my perspective as a purveyor/consumer and negotiator of image, I was impressed and honestly wished we could see more of that — more of what I love about my people.

As a practitioner, I’m challenged everyday in how to present the images I love to a big world without appearing exploitive or careless. And I am challenged to care when others do not.

Do you care about the image of your African American clients? If so, how? If not, dang, and read these books:

(We will revisit this subject later.)
Best, Robin
robin@thejstandard.com

Filed under: African Americans, Mass-Mediated Images, Public Relations, Stereotypes, , , , , , , , ,

It Will Cost You More

An undertaker taught me an extremely valuable business lesson. He shared that it is a common practice for families to have one funeral home pick up their dead loved one while they scout around for a cheaper, less expensive funeral home to perform the services. During their consultation, he’ll tell them “it will cost you more” and they will ignore him, ask him to pick up the body and employ his services on the spot. All is well until they see the bill, which they must pay in full upfront.

What they would not bank on is (1) his integrity (2) his relationship with the original funeral home owner — his colleague, and (3) that he’d tack the amount they owed the original undertaker on to his bill.

He was right, it costs them more, because he takes the amount due the colleague and pays him. The undertaker thought it was an unconsiable act to pick up a body from a man or woman who had not been paid what they were owed. In fact, it was a slap in the face.

The undertaker taught me the value of valuing the relationship between colleagues. He also taught me that if someone would run out on a bill with one person, they could very possibly run out on you too.

My client The Social Media Socialite and me were discussing the same thing happening in our respective professions. In hers, like in PR, it is common for a client to sign with one practitioner and run out on the contract in search of someone who is less expensive. The client genererally banks on the fact that there is no loyalty between competitors or whom they perceive to be competitors. The Social Media Socialite told me that she appreciated hearing the story about the undertaker, because she had done the same exact thing.

“You have to hold the client accountable,” she said. I agreed though I know all too often practitioners deem it a badge of honor to sign on someone else’s client particularly one with a name or brand recognition that is a potentially hot media property. The thought is that even if the client left a debt, it has no bearing on their relationship. And the newly contracted practitioner is no more concerned about a relationship with a perceived competitor than the man on the moon.

Public relation and publicity professionals are undervalued by the very nature of our jobs. We don’t offer much that is tangible short of a release, press kit and other collateral. So, we’re often treated as though we are expendible. In entertainment and sports, it is not uncommon for artists and athletes to have multiple publicists, some of which are unpaid or poorly paid. (That’s another blog.) In short, one practitioner will pick up the body as the client scouts around for a cheaper, less expensive practitioner to perform the services.

Unknown to him, the undertaker was actually practicing the very core of public relations by demanding that the client be accountable, and by expressing accountabilty to his colleague. He set a standard and in the process developed a relationship built on mutual trust and RESPECT.

It is essential — absolutely necessary — for PR and publicity professionals to start esteeming one another more highly. It is okay for one professional to pick up the body while another prepares the services, as long as both are compensated for their work. And our profession is best served when clients see us demonstrate solidarity from one colleague to another.

The next time a colleague’s client comes to you (1) do your research by calling the colleague to ensure that all is well and there is no debt or bad blood (2) think critically and examine the possible costs of taking on the potential client and (3) take a grown up pill and ask your colleague to be straight with you about their relationship with the person. If there is debt and bad blood, think seriously about signing the client. If you should decide that there are benefits to signing the client, then work with him or her to make the other relationship right. Never let a client position you to slap another colleague in the face.

Do like the undertaker and say “It will cost you more.”

Best, Robin
robin@thejstandard.com

Filed under: Client Relations, Colleague to Colleague, Ethics, Help for the Practitioner, PR Standards & Practices, Public Relations, , , , , , , , ,

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