Saturday, January 13, 2018

Communications Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Photo from
As the years pass, we will inevitably come to new appreciations of the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to social justice and American values. Readers at will find insights about that from people better qualified than me.

I can, however, offer a few PR insights drawn from one of the most masterful documents of policy communications in the last century.

King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written after his imprisonment on April 12, 1963 in the Birmingham city jail following his participation in non-violent demonstrations against racism and segregation. While incarcerated, King read a newspaper which printed “A Call for Unity” written by eight Alabama clergymen criticizing the demonstrations.

King wrote his response – at first on the margins of the newspaper, and then in rough drafts exchanged with his lawyers. It was published four days later. You can read the full text online from many sources; I recommend reading it here, a digital copy of an April16 1963 typescript available online at the Stanford University Martin LutherKing, Jr. Research and Education Institute.

What PR people can learn from the Letter:

·       King took the occasion to address not just the crisis but to put it in a historical and moral framework. Had he only addressed the news cycle, we would not be reading the Letter today. The long- and the short-term must be linked.

·       He demonstrates expert use of rhetorical techniques. The opening sentence is both reserved and a stomach-punch: “While confined here in the Birmingham City Jail, I came across your recent statement . . .” (Understatement.) Effective advocacy requires nuanced, acquired skills in expression.

·       King was acutely aware of the dramatic context of writing “from jail.” Nowhere does he focus on his own experiences (otherwise reported to have been abusive), although toward the end of the letter he does cite the cruelties of police officers to women and children who had been involved in the protests. King leveraged the situation without self-aggrandizing. Seizing the rhetorical power of a situation need not be selfish.

·       Because of the depth of King’s intellect, he was able (without a Google search or even a library) to bring to bear references from the Bible, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Martin Buber, Socrates, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Reinhold Niebuhr, T. S. Eliot and others. There is no better demonstration of the value of a liberal arts education.

·       While presenting King’s opposition to the clergymen, the Letter is respectful of his opponents’ human dignity if not their opinions. In the first paragraph he writes he hopes to respond in “patient and reasonable terms.” In the penultimate paragraph he expresses humility with no self-doubt: “If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes me patient with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.” We can harshly criticize opponents’ positions without demonizing or inhumanity.

·       King calls for “the interrelatedness of all communities and states . . . Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere . . . We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Us-vs. -Them divisiveness is not required to be forceful or win an argument.

·       King understood the power of “re-framing” long before political consultants had that term in their vocabulary. Near the end of the Letter, he reminds readers that African-Americans have a founding claim to North America that transcends traditional views. He re-frames the whole conception of African-Americans while at the same time asserting transformative optimism: “Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched across the pages of history the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. For more than two centuries our fore-parents labored here without wages; they made cotton king and they built the homes of their masters in the midst of brutal injustice and shameful humiliation – and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail.” 

King consistently showed all of us how to look at the world – and communicate -- with new perspective.

Monday, January 30, 2017

A Modest Proposal: You Do Not Have to Tell the Truth (?)

For the past few months, I have been watching the perspectives published in the public relations trade media about the communications environment in this post-2016 presidential election era. Much sincere reflection has been shared. After sorting through it all, I would like to offer an additional perspective, yet not articulated (I think), obvious (to me), and our industry’s biggest dilemma.

Most recently, Professor Denise Bortree’s IPR post, “Combating ‘Post-Truth’ with Honesty and Integrity” (IPR Blog, January 27, 2017) presents a compelling challenge to PR practitioners about how to understand and direct their practice in the current communications environment within the conceptual framing of the Page Principles.

Immediately after the presidential election, Richard Edelman blogged, “Explaining America” (Edelman blog, November 9, 2016) and made a concise case for a kind of corporate PR best-practice response. Shortly thereafter, Paul Holmes posted a very helpful wrap-up of opinion and perspective from a variety of observers of the PR industry, “Truth Matters More then Ever” (The Holmes Report, November 13, 2016).  In December, Mark Weiner posted about how a sensible return to fundamental scientific method (research) could ground PR in this tumultuous era: “Is 2017 the Year for Clean-Slate Public Relations?” (, December 8, 2016).

All of these commentaries, and others, have two themes. 1) PR people need to be better masters of their technologies and tactics (do sound research, craft compelling stories/messages, be better at social media implementation, etc.). 2) Tell the truth.

Reflecting on these thoughtful and sincere comments, however, I am convinced that the PR industry (at least, if it is represented by these thought leaders) is not confronting a foundational fact about today’s communication environment (one of those Elephants in the Room).

While I agree that PR practitioners should strive to be more effective in their technologies and tactics, I also believe it is time to challenge a deep, pervasive narrative (myth?) in our practice. We have to re-examine how we think about PR and the communications environment with a skeptical, scientific perspective based on the evidence before us – which suggests to me: you do not have to tell the truth.

I am not an advocate for this hypothesis. Objective observation, however, of well-documented events in recent history strongly argue for accepting this hypothesis as reasonable.

From the time I entered professional PR 30+ years ago, I was always told by industry leadership that truth is the best policy, and that I should never do anything that I would not want to see in print on the cover of The New York Times. I cannot report that all clients or even my immediate supervisors always lived up to those standards, but there was unanimity about the principles.

The PR industry, like most of American society, has always strongly held fast to a culturally Christian notion about truth (“I am the way and the truth and the life,” John 14.6; “the truth will set you free,” (John 8.32), etc.). Equally, we espouse that 18th century Enlightenment philosophical confidence in scientific method: reciprocal scrutiny of observations, experiments, and hypotheses, in public settings, an open market of ideas, will naturally foster self-correction and self-improvement. Telling the truth is the best policy. The truth will out (succeed).

However, it is clear that today (based on objectively observed evidence, repeatedly, from multiple sources) – perhaps not for all the future – but at least for some period of the immediate future, that PR practitioners have to deal with the fact that in public discourse “telling the truth” is not always sufficient or effective.  Lies (either from a moral or scientific perspective) can sometimes be more useful than the truth.

Last September, Salena Zita at The Atlantic, provided the insight, that is now famous, that regarding Donald Trump, “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”  Since that seminal insight a whole new discourse has burgeoned around alt-media, post-truth or post-fact discourse, alternative facts, etc. Behind this (with straight face or tongue-in-cheek) is the conceptual frame – and much evidence -- that telling the truth is neither always useful nor necessary.

The “post-fact” environment, much discussed as a rhetorical bludgeon in politics on both sides, is not just a superficial social media meme. If our society finds itself, as I believe it does, in a post-fact environment, the implications for PR practitioners are profound.

(PR people work for an organization or a person; they have bosses and clients. The bosses and clients have interests; they want to succeed, sometimes to dominate or defeat, within their realm of activity and competition. If PR people are to be useful, and if telling the truth is not effective, it seems negligent to tell the truth.)

This is, of course, not a new dilemma. Yet, I would argue, we cannot today fall back on old nostrums (which obviously aren’t working reliably anyway) which assert that the individual PR employee has a “higher” responsibility to the boss/client – to interpret the “best interests” of the boss/client in a broader perspective, in a longer timeframe. This position may comfort members of the PR industry elites, but it conveniently transfers the culpability to individual PR practitioners to somehow personally, intellectually and morally, “rise” (?) above the boss/client. This position absolves the PR elites from grappling with the dilemma on the ground, in the workplace; this position passes the buck down to the least-powerful PR practitioners where the organizational pressure is felt most strongly, where conformity and obedience has the highest currency.

My blog post here will not provide the silver-bullet answer this situation, but I provide some recommendations that I believe could help move forward a more fully honest and transparent discussion of the environment of public discourse in 2017 and the immediate future.

1) The PR industry needs to quit being hypocritical about asserting that telling the truth is always the most effective policy. We have to acknowledge that lying, obfuscating, and deceiving often work. Once that fact is acknowledged, we can move on to a more mature, productive discussion. If we just get beyond this, we will have taken the first step toward an enlightened notion of PR.

2) The commitment (through industry association and corporate leadership funding and initiatives) to PR research needs to evolve. The vast majority of attention to PR research has been focused on helping PR people prove their own effectiveness in helping their bosses/clients succeed (sell product, get elected, etc.). PR research needs to re-boot, to focus on examination of the discourse environment and discovery of early emerging trends. Why? Because the credibility of the PR function will always be low-order if it is mostly focused on being tactically useful to the organization (which can easily – and rationally, as we have seen -- embrace deception). If PR wants to rise up the value chain, it has to, first, go deeper.

3) If the PR industry is going to assert that telling the truth is the “best policy,” we have to be more rigorous in our own thinking. The industry needs to empower PR practitioners to navigate the conundrum of “best” policy. What is the foundation upon which we rest this concept? What are we teaching students, and how is the industry supporting young and otherwise less-powerful practitioners? The status-quo conception of ethical public relations (marginally funded, rarely taught, often functionally disregarded) is not doing the job on the ground. PRSA leadership can express self-righteousness and high dudgeon about “alternative facts” (as it did in its statement on January 24, 2017), but if that is all the industry does, it will just be assuaging its own moral ache and not providing the vast majority of practitioners the intellectual strengthening and resources to grapple with the challenge. 

PRSA, Page Society, IPR, and a few other organizations have been authentic and sincere in promoting principles about PR ethics. But we cannot sit back, in the public discourse environment today, and have the PR industry elites say “Not my fault!”  The PR industry elites did not create the dynamics of the communications ecosystem today, but they did not forestall it, and the amelioration will not come from waving an old flag of yesteryear’s best intentions.

With more rigorous self-scrutiny, with better research into the dynamics of communication and social discourse, with more hard-headed, un-hypocritical commitment to educating and supporting the personal character of rising practitioners – then PR may find itself both more effective and in a more strategic, high-level position in the organizational decision-making.

The truth may not set us free, but unsentimental, uncomfortable and open scrutiny of the practice may yet wake us up to the actual dynamics of communication and the pervasive moral ambiguities of our relationships in public.

This post was published at the Institute for Public Relations website
in their Research Conversations blog, January 30, 2017

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Reflections on Diversity in PR and Research Challenges

This was an important year for research about diversity in public relations. posted a round-up of several recent studies on November 9, 2015, “Progressing toward Diversity Goals in the Public Relations Industry” which highlighted the findings. Since then at least two more studies were released: the National Black Public Relations Society’s “2015 State of the PR Industry: Defining & Delivering on the Promise of Diversity” and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ “From Diversity to Inclusion: The Progression of Equality in Public Relations and Challenges for the Future.”

Our study, “Factors Affecting the Success of Under-represented Groups in the Public Relations Profession,” focused on young African-American and Hispanic PR professionals’ experiences in career advancement. We were privileged to receive generous financial support from the Public Relations Society of America Foundation as well as gracious assistance from PRSA, PRSSA, the National Black Public Relations Society, the Hispanic Public Relations Association, City College of New York, Howard University, and the Arthur W. Page Society.


We found that young African-American and Hispanic PR professionals are positive about the profession, but they acknowledge regular race- and ethnic-based obstacles that temper their optimism and their likelihood to recommend their career to the next generation.

Findings show that employers have embraced diversity recruitment with success. But once young African-American and Hispanic PR professionals are hired, diversity sensitivity falls short. Improvements in mentoring and other retention strategies may be the key for enabling the PR profession to benefit from multicultural professionals.

Our findings are compatible with the other studies cited above, despite varying methodologies. This brings us to the challenges of research standards, the primary interest of readers of The Measurement Standard.


Our project needed to:
Conform to methodological expectations as defined by university institutional research board (IRB) standards, as well as to the scrutiny of academic, media, and activist readers.
Balance between research and policy advocacy to support both goals.
Undergo public scrutiny in timely and effective channels, consistent with methodological responsibility, policy guidance, and media appetite.


The challenges were common to most behavior researchers. First was the definition of terms. What is “diversity” in PR (as seen by sociologists and/or the media)? Various researchers apply significantly different criteria that can embrace race and ethnicity, sex and gender, social class, and age.

Second was defining exactly what we wanted to learn. Our research question needed to conform to the “FINER criteria:” Feasible; Interesting (to the professional community); Novel; Ethical by university Institutional Review Board standards; and Relevant (to policy, future research, and good research practice).

We defined “diversity” as PR professionals who self-identify as African-American and/or Hispanic, who work in PR (or a closely-related field), and who graduated with a college degree since 2008. Our research question was “What are the factors that affect the success of under-represented groups in the public relations profession?”


No single “list” of our target sample exists. Working with The Gilfeather Group and Gazelle Global Research, we developed a sampling methodology that enlisted cooperation from the several PR associations noted above.

We used a nonprobability (convenience), chain-referral sampling method, recruiting respondents for an online survey via emails, postcards, blog-posts, and in-person appeals at Fall 2014 professional PR conferences. While we recognize some lack of apparent representativeness in the respondent demographic profile, we know of no other method that would yield a better profile (at a reasonable cost).


None of these issues are unique to our study. More acute was the potential for conflict of interest in our roles as advocates for a more diverse PR workforce. Our careers have focused on initiatives intended to change the demographic profile of the PR field through research, teaching, mentoring, professional development programs, and advocacy. Our research funder (PRSA Foundation) is also an advocate for increased diversity in the profession.

We came to our project with predispositions. Throughout the initial stages of our secondary and qualitative research and in writing our questionnaire, we challenged ourselves to sustain objectivity.


Our research was conducted within a timeframe that was both charged with news about racial discrimination against young African-Americans (and the Black Lives Matter movement, etc.), as well as increasingly inflected with the higher media profiles that brought Larry Wilmore to The Nightly Show, Trevor Noah to The Daily Show, and attention to an increasing number of sports, entertainment, and celebrity personalities from traditionally under-represented groups.

Despite the polarized public contexts, our research subjects provided nuanced and balanced input. As readers will note, our research respondents are often disappointed by the shortcomings of the PR industry to support diversity, but they and our methodology seem to have avoided the most polarizing representations of opinion and attitude that were the backdrop in the media and public discussion.


Finally, since our findings straddle research and advocacy, the inevitable question arose as to how our research would be made public. Had we followed the most conventional route of academic publishing, our findings would undoubtedly have been delayed by months, given the time constraints of academic publishing.

Fortunately, we had no compelling need for the project to be initially published by a peer-reviewed journal, even as we recognize its importance. Our priority was to reach industry leaders and HR professionals in the hopes of triggering discussion and possible action. As a result, we benefited by having the PRSA Foundation release and distribute our report to industry leaders and the media, supported by the press office of The City College of New York, and by self-publishing and distribution initiatives through our own website and social media.


Our experience with this project proves that PR research is intellectually stimulating – methodologically and ethically – as well as personally rewarding. More importantly, our positive experience with this research along with others’ shows that the PR profession can do more to help young, earnest, and committed professionals of all backgrounds succeed. Our work helps ensure that public relations remains an authentic and credible practice for creating productive relationships among all Americans. 

This post was published at The Measurement Standard on December 9, 2015.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Painted Bunting

Regional NYC and national news reports, over the past week, have not been focusing on sitings of Santa Claus or Big Foot or alien invaders. Something more interesting -- the Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris).  For the past several days there have been multiple sitings -- by avid bird-watchers, local Brooklynites, NYC and national media -- of the appearance of a Painted Bunting in Prospect Park, mostly around the East Drive and near the LeFrak Center at Lakeside.

What started out as a local curiosity escalated to the status of national news (The New York TimesCBS,  ABC, and USA Today for examples).

Is this "news"?  Well, some reports claim the siting is "as rare as a unicorn." (Wouldn't that count as news?) Or, as The New York Post headlined its coverage, "People are losing their s--t over this bird."

According to the Prospect Park Alliance, the development of the LeFrak Center (new skating rinks) along with its parking lots, also created the ideal stop-over for Painted Buntings on their annual migrations: "The multi-colored member of the cardinal family is likely bound for Florida or Central America for the winter, but was drawn to this area of the Park due to an abundance of shelter and seeds to forage and eat. As part of the creation of Lakeside, one of the Park’s newest attractions and the most ambitious restoration project in the history of the Park, the Prospect Park Alliance transformed a 300-spot parking lot into an additional three acres of green space and wildlife habitat – a perfect respite for migrating bird species like the painted bunting."

I have not seen the Painted Bunting myself. But I have seen -- over the past several days -- at various times of day anywhere from a dozen to fifty+ Brooklynites (and from further afield according to media coverage) with their binoculars and big camera lenses tip-toeing around the Lakeside area of Prospect Park. Older people, younger people, and a healthy demographic, ethnic mix of curiosity seekers of presumably varied motivations.

The experience / phenomenon of the Painted Bunting in Prospect Park this year would never have been possible without 1) neighborhood enthusiasts, 2) social media / phone cameras, 3) NYC parks promotion, and -- 4) the bird(s). The natural world, local residents' pride of place, digital technologies, and global media have coalesced to provide a distinctive, and encouraging story for the year's end.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Content Analysis as News

The New York Times article on December 5th, "95,000 Words, Many of Them Ominous, From Donald Trump’s Tongue," was an interesting example of textual content analysis applied for media coverage (news) and policy analysis (current and historical context). Close textual content analysis is rare in "mainstream" media coverage. The NYT occasionally demonstrates its abilities in various kinds of data journalism, but this kind of analysis is not routine. One might imagine a media category in which this kind of content analysis was a staple -- alongside of reports about polls. We could have an on-going analysis and insight into what political candidates were saying (which could be reported in conjunction with what the surveyed public is reporting).

Among us PR / media geeks, we'd pay attention. The question is -- would the "public" care to track the measurement and monitoring of messages?

Monday, November 30, 2015

Discovering a Trajectory Toward a More Diverse PR Profession

In 2012, Prof. Lynn Appelbaum and I received one of several grants from the Public Relations Society of America Foundation to identify and explore the opportunities and obstacles to career advancement reported by young African-American and Hispanic PR practitioners. Related research had been periodically published, especially since 2005 when Lynn Appelbaum (City College of New York) and Rochelle Ford (Syracuse University, then at Howard University) published “Hispanic and Black Public Relations Practitioners’ Perceptions and Experiences within the Industry.” However, the increasing interest in this topic by academic research is widely perceived as not being matched by increasing actual diversity in the PR profession.

We directed our research project on a somewhat different and more restricted sample than most previous studies. We limited our focus to individuals working in PR (and closely allied integrated communications fields) who self-identified as African-American and/or Hispanic, and who graduated with a Bachelor’s degree sometime in the range of 2008 – 2014. Our intention was to capture distinctive insights from these young professionals who are members of the Millennial Generation and who had entered the profession at the time of the global economic downturn and recovery.

We also focused on public relations executives in organizations who are actively involved in the recruitment and retention of entry- and early-level PR practitioners.

We developed our survey instrument after extensive review of the published literature, in-person interviews with human resources and PR professionals who have active hiring responsibilities of young PR practitioners, and our own series of focus groups with you professionals who met our demographic profile.

Sampling was an expected challenge, but we enjoyed gracious and enthusiastic cooperation from a number of organizations that assisted in implementing our nonprobability (convenience), chain-referral method. The URL for the online questionnaire was widely distributed by email, by public announcement at industry conferences, and through personal referrals. We are happy to acknowledge and thank the Public Relations Society of America, the PRSA Foundation, the Black Public Relations Society, the Hispanic Public Relations Society, several PRSSA chapters associated with historically Black colleges and universities, and the Arthur W. Page Society.

Our online survey was accessible for participation from October 10, 2014 through January 22, 2015. We worked closely through the whole project with The Gilfeather Group and with Gazelle Global Research. The findings of the survey are reported at and at the PRSA Foundation website.

Our study finds that young African-American and Hispanic PR professionals are positive about their experiences in the profession (“the good news”), but they readily acknowledge regular race- and ethnic-based obstacles which temper their optimism for the future and their likelihood to recommend their career path to the next generation (“the bad news”).

Findings suggest that employer organizations have embraced diversity recruitment with, reportedly, success. However, once the young African-American and Hispanic PR employees are hired, diversity sensitivity and valuation falls short.

Providing improvements for insufficient mentoring and other ineffective retention strategies may be the key issue, in 2015 and going forward, for bringing the U.S. public relations profession to a position in which it can benefit from the input of multicultural professionals as well as become a leader (instead of a laggard) in cultivating a diverse, rich, and creative workforce.

We offer the following implications from the study for the PR industry:

  • Young Hispanic and African-American public relations professionals are mostly happy with their career choices – but have misgivings that may be sending negative messages out to the next, younger generation. How can the PR profession reduce these “misgivings”/doubts and reinforce the general inclination to support the profession?
  • Young professionals from diverse backgrounds – particularly African-Americans – strongly suspect that their career development has been held back because of racial/ethnic prejudice. While this current study has no way to determine whether this impression is accurate or not, the fact is that the PR profession needs to do better to 1) ensure there are no prejudicial patterns in career advancement, and 2) develop clear professional guidelines and recommendations to help employers be more effective in the recruitment and especially retention of young multicultural professionals.
  • Educating employees about micro-aggression in the workplace would appear to have benefits in creating a more cohesive workplace culture.
  • There appears to be a significant opportunity for HR professionals who work in the PR industry to become more engaged in helping to retain young professionals in the workplace by either playing a more active role in mentorship, or by helping to facilitate mentorship among account teams that engage and include multicultural professionals. At present, HR personnel appear to play a negligible role in retention
  • Mentoring, “modeling,” and HR programs designed to welcome and develop young professionals from diverse backgrounds are rare – and urgently needed. If not offered in-house, there is opportunity for organizations such as BPRS and HPRA to offer a more formal mentoring program and/or professional development programming. As these organizations and subsequent networking channels are viewed as highly valuable to the continued success of minority young professionals, organizational leadership may want to develop new initiatives in this area.
  • The workplace is not “color blind.” It probably never will be. Race and ethnicity should be valued as potential assets in a young professional’s profile – but certainly not exclusive criteria. Young professionals from diverse backgrounds should be encouraged to use their “identity” as an asset in their professional development, without being constrained (“pigeon-holed”) by that identity.
  • Diversity initiatives would appear to be more effective when employers invest less in formal “diversity programs” and more on supporting employees to build a genuine connection with other employees that makes them feel appreciated and welcome. The notion of “diversity programming” without an understanding of why it’s being created and how it supports recruitment and retention does not move the needle to sustain and enhance diversity.
  • Cultural appreciation and awareness must accompany equal opportunity.

The PRSA Foundation, the PR Council, and other industry organizations have increased research, advocacy, and student support programming in the past few years. Several new research projects, including our own, will be available in late 2015 and in 2016.

Consensus among industry advocates seems to be stronger than ever to invest in discovering and replicating optimal organizational policies to facilitate the development of a truly diverse and inclusive PR practice. If we, as public relations professionals (who are supposed to have distinctive expertise in relationships among publics) do not manage these issues in accordance with evidence and with our clients’ – and our audiences’ – expectations, our credibility will erode with the next generation of practitioners.

This post was published at the Institute for Public Relations website, "Research Conversations" blog on November 23, 2015.