Personal Blog Hiatus

For the last several months, I’ve been contributing to the Vox Public Relations Public Affairs blog about public relations, marketing and branding concepts. For the time being, I will postpone posting on my personal blog, so that I can focus my time and effort on Vox’s blog. I will resume blogging on Strategic PReparation in the near future. In the meantime, please visit Vox’s blog for company happenings and public relations news.



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Does Social Networking Put Productivity in Jeopardy?

Blog post originally appeared on The Ulum Group’s blog.

You dart from Facebook to Twitter, posting the details of a client’s upcoming event. Before moving on to your next task, you take a second to peruse your friends’ status updates. Seconds turn into minutes, and suddenly you’re reading Chelsea Handler’s blog and latest celebrity Who’s Who. From to-do list to gossip columns, your productivity may be on the line.

Since the inception of Facebook and Twitter, PR has reached new heights – facilitating ongoing conversation and building relationships with media and customers – all with the click of a mouse and 140 characters. It comes as no surprise that communication is evolving. Equally obvious is the fact that as PR practitioners, we adapt to ever-changing communication platforms.

Some critics, however, argue whether social networks enhance or impair productivity on the job, claiming employees’ focus and overall output are dampened by communication’s evolution. Others, specifically those in the PR industry, may beg to differ since, social networking is one of the greatest tools we have.

A study by Robert Half Technology surveyed chief information officers from companies with 100 or more employees. Its findings indicate that 54 percent of U.S. businesses block access to social networking sites, and only 19 percent permit use “for business purposes.”

In February, Wired magazine published an article examining two studies, one that found Facebook sucks up 1.5 percent of total work productivity, and another that estimated social networking on the job costs British companies a whopping $2.2 billion a year.

Other authorities argue that taking five-minute breaks to do something you are interested in or that is stimulating can improve your overall productivity throughout the day.

“Studies that accuse social networks of reducing productivity assume that time spent microblogging is time strictly wasted,” wrote Brendan Koerner in the Wired article. “Humans weren’t designed to maintain a constant focus on assigned tasks. We need periodic breaks to relieve our conscious minds of the pressure to perform.”

Brian Solis, PR guru and author of popular book, Engage!, points out that there has been and always will be distractions in the workplace. Before social networks, cell phones, the water cooler and e-mail drew employees’ attention away from work and toward communication. In other words, distraction, or lack of productivity, is nothing new. More important, it’s how you deal with distraction.

So, while you skim through today’s tweets, updates and blogs, be sure to set a time limit, ensuring that you will come back to work both refreshed and focused. Everything is good in moderation, especially if it helps improve your overall productivity down the line. After you’re in the know about Mr. Timberlake’s love life, get back to work!

(Photo provided by:,

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Public Participation

What does something as large as America’s high-speed rail initiative have in common with a town’s decision to rename a highway?

Public participation.

According to International Association for Public Participation (IAP2), public participation is “any process that involves the public in problem solving or decision making and uses public input to make decisions.”

As PR practitioners, we work with the public constantly, engaging and facilitating communication. Although we work with the public, we often do so without the slightest realization that what we are doing is public participation, a multi-pronged, highly strategic tool in our PR toolbox.

Effective public participation is based on three “foundations” that dictate the level of public involvement a particular project or campaign requires. The IAP2 Public Participation foundations include values-based, decision-oriented and goal-driven.

Values-based: The public (e.g., stakeholders) forms opinions, and these opinions affect how the public participates, perceives the decision process and perceives the decision’s outcome throughout the project.

Decision-oriented: A project or campaign depends on a pending decision. Public participation can affect the development and outcome of a decision.

Goal-driven: Throughout a project, the public achieves specific outcomes. Example: A PR practitioner disseminates information; a PR practitioner seeks feedback from the public; and the PR practitioner uses the feedback in the development of collaborative alternatives.

Evaluating the foundation of effective public participation helps PR practitioners to ask the following questions (among others): Can we get all our publics’ values in line? How do we get all our publics’ values in line?

Once a PR practitioner establishes the level of public participation required, he or she can go forward in the project or campaign planning.

“Wisdom is what’s left after we’ve run out of personal opinions.” – Cullen Hightower, Humorist and Sales Trainer.

(Information from this post is from IAP2 teaching material presented during its certification course, “Planning for Effective Public Participation,” April 13-14, 2010, Troutdale, Ore. Image from Public Outreach’s website.)

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Crisis Communications 101

Toyota’s recent PR blunder and Honda’s major recall put automakers in the spotlight and at the forefront of consumers’ minds. These corporations aren’t the first (e.g., Enron) and surely won’t be the last to suffer from poor crisis management. As faulty breaks plaster the headlines, people are starting to question crisis management, especially the PR practitioners behind it.

Earlier this month, Rebecca Roberts from NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” and crisis management expert Eric Dezenhall compared notes on Toyota’s lack of crisis communications. The topic up for discussion: “How to Bounce Back from a PR Disaster.” In addition to exploring Toyota’s problems as they stand, Dezenhall accused PR practitioners of solving crises with transparency. “Whether it’s Tiger Woods or anything, you’re always hearing these very silly PR people [diving] in front of the camera [to] dish out this ridiculous cliché that if you just fessed up, the problem would go away,” Dezenhall said.

In light of Dezenhall’s comment, I interviewed crisis communications and media issues guru Gerard Braud, asking him about effective crisis management versus the alternative. How should PR practitioners handle a crisis?

Below, you can find some of the questions Braud and I discussed.

1. Is it imperative for organizations to write a crisis communications plan, and why?

The short and sweet answer:

Every organization should have some form of a crisis communications plan, as every organization runs the risk of having something go wrong at some point.

Braud’s thoughts:

“[A crisis communications plan] should be something that every organization should have without fail; however, it’s something that most organizations fail to have. If you fail to plan, plan to fail. A crisis, more often than not, is something that you could make go away before it ever happens. Usually, a crisis happens because somebody neglected to nip it in the bud. Toyota is a perfect example right now. You know that you run an automobile company, you know you will have recalls, and you know what parts are going to fail you the most.”

Braud’s suggestions:

An organization should write out 100 or more plan templates that cover every possible worst-case scenario.

2. How and in what ways can PR practitioners prepare for the unexpected?

The short and sweet answer:

If you are properly prepared, there won’t be anything that catches you or your organization off guard.

Braud’s thoughts:

“There is no such thing as the unknown, and there is no such thing as the unexpected.”

Braud’s suggestions:

In preparing a plan, don’t forget three key components:

  • Perform a vulnerability assessment of your organization. What could go wrong?
  • Use the information gathered in the vulnerability assessment to write plans that take all scenarios into account. How are the crises managed?
  • Keep plans up to date and make sure the plans’ executions are practiced. Why risk creating another crisis?

3. How can social media be incorporated into crisis communications plans?

The short and sweet answer:

Only use social media in your crisis communications plan when it’s relevant to your audiences. Tweeting emergency information to an audience who receives most of their news from a newspaper might not be best.

Braud’s thoughts:

“People need to understand that social media can be as detrimental in a crisis as it can be beneficial. I actually think it can be more damaging, and here’s why: When a crisis hits, you have to know in advance who your audiences are and what the best ways to reach them are. If my company is Starbucks, which is a gen x, gen y millennial-type audience, then social media is a great way to communicate, but if the audience consists of a bunch of baby boomers who don’t want iPhones, who don’t tweet every 15 seconds, who don’t have a Facebook page, who never put a video on YouTube, then I should avoid using social media, or I can use it, but it may not be the best way to get in touch with people.”

Braud’s suggestions:

Know your audiences in each worst-case scenario, so that when a crisis hits, you already know which audience you need to reach and how.

In every crisis, you should have at least one warm, live human being speaking to your audiences. At the very least, have someone post information on your organization’s primary Web site.

4. You mention on your Web site that the Virginia Tech crisis communications plan is a “recipe for disaster.” For someone with little background in drafting a plan, what are the main problems with the Virginia Tech crisis communications plan?

The short and sweet answer:

The Virginia Tech plan is outdated and provides little information, forcing a crisis communications team to gather information at the time of the crisis and waste valuable time that could have been spent executing a complete, up-to-date plan.

Braud’s thoughts:

“[The plan] tells you to gather information. Duh. It says you may need to assemble a crisis management team. Duh. Just about every plan I’ve ever looked at is more than a list of standard procedures. The [Virginia Tech] plan does me no good to look at it.”

Braud’s suggestions:

When drafting a plan, write it, destroy it and write it again.

Every time you rewrite it, make it plainer and more fail proof.

Write it so that a crisis communications team can read it and know every step of the way ahead of time, without having to do much work.

(Information provided in this blog post is from Gerard Braud. Image provided by Trends Updates. Special thanks to former classmates Sarah Lilly and Katelyn Mashburn.)


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Branding a Product

A key component in promoting a product is building brand awareness. Generally speaking, brand awareness is a consumer’s level of knowledge and responsiveness regarding a particular product.

Certain methods help differentiate products from one another. For example, viral marketing and audience specific advertising are employed to help sell a product. When consumers recognize a product or service as unique (different from other like products or services), the product or service achieves a level of brand awareness.

An example of brand awareness: Imagine standing in a grocery store aisle comparing several like brands of cola. The brands you don’t recognize are less expensive than the leading brands, such as Pepsi, but they all appear to have the same ingredients. You are familiar with Pepsi, as its commercials run during your weekly television shows, and you see Pepsi’s catchy logo on the billboards located outside your office. Because of your existing relationship with Pepsi and lack of relationship with any of the other brands you select Pepsi as your cola of choice. The relationship you associate with Pepsi trumps other brands and signifies your loyalty and awareness to Pepsi. Pepsi, unlike the other brands, has a level of brand awareness.

Brand awareness can be achieved through consistent exposure and brand identity. The following methods can further enhance a product’s brand awareness:

  • The development of a core message or vision (defining the brand’s identity)
  • The utilization of content marketing (discussing a product in niche markets)
  • The utilization of social marketing (encouraging audiences to adopt social concepts or values)
  • The participation in two-way communication (creating a dialogue between brand and consumers)

By applying the above methods, as well as others, you can build brand awareness for a product. However, all marketing approaches should remain consistent in terms of message and tone for the most effective results.

(Information provided in this blog post is from Yahoo’s “7 Ways to Build Brand Awareness” and The Branding Blog’s “Building Brand Awareness.” Image provided by University of Wyoming’s law newsletter.)


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How PR Can Close Curiosity’s Gap

Why do we sit through painfully dull movies?

Subtract the following factors from your answer:

  • You are on a first date with someone who adores lengthy documentaries on banana slugs’ sleep patterns.
  • You are in a film class or doing research for a client, and either your grade or paycheck depends on a film review.
  • You are in bed sick with the flu, and the remote is in the other room.

We are left with a fairly simple answer: Not knowing the conclusion of a terrible movie is often more painful than sitting through it all together. Chip and Dan Heath describe this experience as “having an itch that we need to scratch” in their book “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.” The itch (“gap theory” of curiosity) is examined in chapter two of the book.

Behavioral economist George Loewenstein explains that curiosity occurs when we feel a gap in our own knowledge. The reason we sit through a dull movie is because we want to find out what happens.

To close gaps we need to open them first. Normally, PR practitioners start any communication effort by providing the facts. However, receivers of the information must first realize they need the facts. According to Loewenstein, receivers respond the most when they recognize a gap in their knowledge before learning the facts. Practitioners can simply pose a question, draw attention to someone who knows the answer, present situations with unknown conclusions (e.g., elections) or challenge a prediction.

The process of opening knowledge gaps can be seen everywhere. Televised news segments lure viewers in with, “How do you protect yourself against car theft?” and magazine headlines tease readers with such statements as, “This doctor knows how to beat holiday weight gain.”

Once a knowledge gap has been opened, it can be closed just as quickly with the facts. A teaser here and there can encourage receivers to participate in the communication process.

Open the gap: Why do we sit through a painfully dull movie about banana slugs’ sleeping patterns?

Close the gap: Because not knowing how and why they sleep is more painful than sitting through it.

(Information provided in this blog post is from “Unexpected,” chapter two of “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath. Image provided by David Phillips’ blog “Ahem: Oh, I was just saying…”)


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How Severe is that Message?


“It is estimated that one woman dies from cardiovascular disease every 30 seconds.”

Imagine you are an obese 65-year-old Caucasian woman. Do the image and message make you feel at risk of getting heart disease, let alone die from it? You probably read the statement, see the image and feel the issue’s heaviness. Somehow though, you feel disconnected. It’s unlikely you think, “This could happen to me.” The overall message lacks severity, which is why you can’t relate to it.

The Extended Parallel Processing Model suggests that health risk messages elicit some form of message processing by receivers. The model emphasizes the relationships among threat, efficacy and fear in terms of the four components in a successful health plan: susceptibility, severity, response efficacy and self efficacy. The success of a health message depends on all four components; however, one’s level of susceptibility and severity determines whether he or she will understand, relate, or even listen to a message. Without a high level of perceived threat or vulnerability, one will see no reason to change his or her behaviors.

According to the EPPM, severity is one’s measurement of a threat and how serious it is in relation to him or her. One will assess a risk, typically in the form of a health-related message, and pose the question, “Could I be significantly harmed by this threat?” If yes, one will be motivated to follow the message and consider the suggested solution for prevention. If no, one will ignore the message and risk entirely.

The Heart Truth, a campaign aimed to inform women of their risk of cardiovascular disease, utilized well-known celebrities (primarily youthful, slim Caucasian women) and high-fashion clothing (including pricey Diane von Furstenberg dresses that cost $500 on average) to catch women’s attention (The fashion show was one of many tactics the campaign used to relay its message). Interestingly, those most at risk of heart disease are women 65 or older, black or Hispanic, obese and with a fixed income. Although this tactic was gaining authority by employing well-known public figures, celebrities typically look far different from those at risk of heart disease. This is not to say the campaign didn’t do well: Statistically, women’s overall awareness of cardiovascular disease as the number one killer of women increased to 57 percent from 34 percent in 2000, making an obvious impact on the target audience.

When evaluating a health-related message, it is important to recognize consistency within the message. Equally valuable is recognizing if the target audience can relate to the message enough to feel at risk. Seeing a thin, youthful actress jetting down a runway probably won’t help an overweight, 65-year-old woman change her lifestyle habits that put her at risk for heart disease. However, a 65-year-old woman in a red dress could.


Keep yourself in the assumed role of a 65-year-old Caucasian woman and look at this image and message.

“It is estimated that one woman dies from cardiovascular disease every 30 seconds.”

How do you perceive your level of threat now?

(Information provided in this blog post is from “Putting It All Together,” chapter three of “Effective Health Risk Messages: A Step-by-Step Guide” by Dennis Martell, Gary Meyer and Kim Witte. Top image provided by entertainment blog, “Hot Celebs Home.” Bottom image provided by the University of Michigan School of Public Health’s Findings Magazine.)


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