Why attend a PR research conference?

Michele Ewing, Kent State University; Stacey Smith, Jackson, Jackson & Wagner; Sean Williams; Julie O’Neil, TCU at the 2018 IPRRC.

In just under two months (!!!) this lil’ ‘ol professor will become CEO of the International PR Research Conference. It’s been more than 15 years since I became involved in IPRRC, almost as long ago as I joined the Institute for Public Relations Measurement Commission.

As I’ve been doing some fundraising for the conference, an old series of questions filtered up through the not inconsiderable fog of memory and distraction of current academic events. And one was a big question.

Why should anyone who’s not in PR higher ed even go to a conference that’s mainly for professors and graduate students to present the research they’re doing? Fortunately, the answer to that thorny query popped up in short order:

Because research matters to the practice.

Those of us who grew up in the profession may or may not have had coursework in research. As a University of Washington Political Science BA holder, I took my first real research course == Political Research Methods == in about 1990. I kept my fingers in the pie however, when I worked at KeyBank, DIY’g our employee surveys, and at “a large American Company” when I not only did research but published about it with Dr. Julie O’Neil.

I’m a bit of an anomaly, I realize, but I’d offer that anyone who does strategic communication should be tapping into the huge body of knowledge that research conferences present. It’s not just that we benefit from sharpening our intellectual saws, but that we, as people DOING the work, can be of nearly inestimable help to the academics who are studying it.

We like to say that IPRRC features research about the practice, by the practice and for the practice. Partnerships abound between academics and professionals, just ask Dr. Julie, or Stacey Smith, or Michele Ewing. As a pro, you could be next, expanding your mind, your network, maybe even your very concept of the world of StratComm.

You should come. This year, 2023. If you’re north of the Mason-Dixon Line, the location is a plus: Downtown Orlando, Fla., March 2-4. It’s a value-heavy conference = you get breakfast and lunch every day, you get two receptions, and you get an intellectual feast that will challenge you in the best ways. I’ve read the abstracts for what’s being presented, and it ranges from corporate social advocacy and responsibility, to crisis communication, to health communication, to social media, integrated communication… Like I said, a feast.

Why should you go? Because you owe it to yourself and to your employer/clients to keep that saw sharp as it can be.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

PRSA ICON 22: Highlights from my angle

Mark Weiner, Public Relay and John Elsasser, PRSA at ICON 22

Among several good sessions at PRSA’s International Conference this year was this conversation between John Elsasser of PRSA and Mark Weiner of Public Relay about PR Measurement. The main message was that measuring the media needs to be measuring the media that matters most to your organization/brand.

That matches my practical experience.

In a past job, we were all about the volume. More items, more impressions, more likes. Quite rightly though, we got the question, “what’s that matter?” Once we focused in on a few media outlets (and social accounts) we discovered that accuracy and audience were far more important to that particular brand. Seems obvious, no? But the continued believe that more is better gets in the way. This is one reason ad value is such a dubious metric!

What are the most important measures?

Weiner said, and I paraphrase: It’s a subjective question, but OUTCOMES – did we sell product, raise money, staff the company… The other metrics are less impactful, but can contribute to outcomes. That too is aligned with my research and experience. When we use the output, outtake, outcome, business impact continuum, we can identify specific levers to pull that will lead to impact.

I cannot do justice to the entire interview, but encourage you to read Mark’s book, PR Data, Technology and Insights. I assign it in classes and it’s hugely helpful.

Another important session featured Dr. Katerina Tsetsura, Univ. of Oklahoma, and Dr. Dean Krueckeberg, UNC-Charlotte and their analysis of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s speeches at the outset of the Russian attack on that country.

Katerina and Dean assigned a typology to the content of these speeches, showing how appeals to the head and the heart galvanized both domestic and international opinion. I’ll be excited to read their journal article!

Next installment? FullIntel’s Angela Dwyer (who recently joined the IPRRC board) and her presentation on predictive artificial intelligence!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

PRSA ICON: Two cents at a time

Mark Weiner, Katie Paine, Angela Dwyer and Me at PRSA Icon in Dallas. Measurement Commissioners all!

For the first time since 2019, the PRSA Conference was held in person, and I was there.

The venue, the Gaylord Texan resort in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex was super-deluxe, and in the worst ways possible. First it was hella expensive to stay and eat, and second it was overwhelmed with families kicking off the Christmas at the Gaylord season (Sign: So. Much. Christmas.)


I’m no grouchy Grinch, mind, I just want a reasonable wait time for the elevator, and some ability to go to a reasonably priced place for breakfast that doesn’t require a 3-days-ahead-reservation.


I got there Friday prior, with Leadership Assembly on my calendar for Saturday morning. It’s four times, I think, that I’ve carried that responsibility — three for the Employee Communications professional interest section and this one for PRSA NW Ohio. In Assembly, most of what we do is listen. It’s like a bad college class; well-intentioned speakers saying things that are rather important to the management of our Society, but the constant suspicion that there surely would be a better way to handle that information.

I just wrapped up my 25-week course on Effective Teaching through ACUE (The Association of College and University Educators), and a key insight is that I have over-lectured and under-participated my classes. I switched my script about halfway through the semester and have been doing a lot more discussion-based work to great effect. Assembly finally got around to some discussion-based work with barely an hour left in our day, and we were supposed to discuss six initiatives in about 35 minutes. Aieee!

We probably should have a lot less presenting in Assembly and a lot more applied discussion and insightful sharing!

One of the Big Questions was about ICON itself – whether to change how we do it (it’s keynoted general sessions and breakouts, just like every other conference) and where we hold it (we have one more year with Marriott and the Gaylord folks). On the latter, do we move to a convention center model, with multiple hotels available? Drop or reduce keynotes? Do something about the price, which is among the most expensive conferences in our industry?

Speaking as a public servant and a teaching professor it is WAY too spendy and exceeds budget. I go because I get some help from several institutions to pay my way! Our Society wants to have more diversity, equity and inclusion, but the economics for ICON are surely exclusionary on many levels. A heap of my colleagues come only for the Educator’s Academy event, and nothing else.

What do you think?

In my next posts I’ll cover more of the sessions I saw and the people I met.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Surging interest in employee communication shouldn’t shock us

When I first started in employee communication, oh, about 10,000 years ago, it was very much the junior partner in the corporate communication mix.

The media relations folks got all the glory, and most of the staff. Employee comms were the “folks who do the newsletter,” which was full of “babies and bowling scores.” My friend Steve Crescenzo made a series of speeches falling-down funny dissecting this tendency.

The old Journal of Employee Communication from Ragan and its Ragan Report tried to turn the discipline into something more strategic, as did Pat Jackson, Shel Holtz, Angela Sinickas, Linda Dulye, Alison Davis and others. Now there is another paroxysm of effort in that space, this time focusing on the result of effective employee communication: Employee engagement, advocacy, company culture. The October edition of PRSA’s Strategy and Tactics focuses on the latter. Quite the trick for the organization long perceived as more about external comm (especially via New York agencies.)

This focus on impact is a welcome development (yes, I know, many of us have driven for more outcome-based measurement in this space.) I’ve read lately that as the news media has continued its transformation, brands are trying new employee comm mechanisms in hopes of creating advocates who will support the organization through thick and thin (remember Raving Fans?)

In our Organizational Communication course, we talk a lot about identity. Not just personal identities, the Crystalline Identity, but also the need to help employees see their organizational employment as part of that constellation of identity. It is this growth in identification that leads to “employees acting like owners,” to discretionary effort and to advocacy and loyalty.

Without a strong sense of identifying with one’s employer, it’s not a career, it’s a job. So it’s not all about employee engagement, or even advocacy. Trying to directly influence those is complicated by multiple inputs. But building a sense of teamwork, of collaboration, of the sense of being part of something important; that’s a communication outcome that inspires and that can be measured in attitudes, beliefs and behavior.

What are your thoughts? Am I off base here? On track?

Posted in employeecomms | Leave a comment

Is public relations evil?

Illustration of a devilMy pal Bob Batchelor, once upon a time a professor and before that, like me a PR guy, used to give a lecture with the same title as this post.

You can find it in pieces on YouTube, and as summer begins to fade and the return to campus is showing on the horizon, I think of that lecture and the discussions Bob and I have had about it.

Like any set of tools, the strategies and tactics or public relations can be used neutrally, for objectively good aims and for objectively bad aims. I once wrote a post averring that political PR comes closest to actual evil, because in that application of our craft, openly lying is often expected and commonplace.

As much of a committed free marketer and even capitalist I am, though, the tendency to use strategic communication tactics for harmful means seems to be on the rise. In crisis communication, we often coach execs to parry direct questions and answer the ones we prefer to answer. That’s the tactic of “Let me just say this about that…” and hijacking the questioner in the direction we want to go.

Lawyers have nothing on PRs when it comes to that strategy!

So where does that leave our practice, our profession, if you will? I run an academic program designed to build senior-level professional communicators, people prepared to lead teams in agencies and in organizations. Do we teach them this type of work?

We have codes of ethics in advertising, marketing, public relations and other forms of professional comms that are allegedly there to rein in our worst impulses. There is not much of an enforcement mechanism in this codes, however.

What do you think? Are we just engaged in a campaign of deception, heedless of our responsibilities to people, society and our clients? Or is the latter constituency the only one that counts?


Posted in strategy, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On universities outsourcing courses

Image of People in Purple graduation robes and mortar boardsA story in the Wall Street Journal this past Wednesday (July 6, 2022) talked of universities and their relationships with for-profit companies to create, teach and operate coursework, and they don’t like that practice at all.

It’s easy for me to see why.

The piece explains that the private companies work with the universities as their clients. The bulk of the tuition revenue goes to the company commensurate with the amount of work they do. The hiccup, the authors write, is that aoften the company uses university email addresses, letterhead and other means to obscure the relationship and make it seem like the university is actually doing the course.

I have NO problem with working with companies to help the universities operate the courses, but I have a huge problem with the apparent (alleged?) effort to hide that work. In our School of Media and Communication, faculty create, operate and teach the courses. We have both full-time and part-time (adjunct) faculty, the latter of whom we vet thoroughly and supervise accordingly.

Other areas of the university use companies to help market their programs; I’d love to be able to have that help! I draw the line, though at anyone selling our coursework if we aren’t the ones delivering it. The WSJ article notes that some “customers” felt deceived once they found out the universities weren’t actually teaching the classes. I’d be too!

Higher education is a tough business right now; the undergraduate “cliff”, a (mostly) resurgent economies often reduce interest in graduate programs, just as recessions increase it, and there’s an impulse again to deemphasize the value of a university education in general.

The answers to these issues, however, absolutely cannot be to a) outsource to a non-academic provider entirely, b) deceive the student into thinking that provider IS your university, and/or c) mortgage your reputation by doing “a” and “b.”

Am I being näive?

Posted in highered, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Why ‘Strategic Communication’?

Photo of Sean WilliamsAny longtime reader knows that I’m a fan in the most inclusive sense of the phrase, “public relations” to describe the work I’ve done for more than 30 years in professional communicaiton.

As a board member of the International PR Research Conference, and my activities with the Institute for PR Measurement Commission, plus years with PRSA’s Employee Communication section, and now leading the NW Ohio Chapter of PRSA, PR is in my blood. And yet, there periodically are spasms of discussion about what we call ourselves, particularly as Content Marketing creeps into our sandbox, Native Advertising and Sponsored Content tries to pass themselves off as news content, and the “media” changes practically by the moment.

I’ve held for a long time that there is more to PR than media relations — employee communication, reputation management, issues management, crisis, and much more — but that has meant some people hear me say PR and misunderstand. So the effort to find another term for what we all do is understandable to me.

I like “Strategic Communication” quite a lot. I also like “professional communication,” which may be a bit inaccurate because we don’t need professional licensure the way accountants, doctors and lawyers do. We are, however, the only people in most organizations who are business people for whom communication is our superpower. So why not embrace the more general “communication” in some fashion that differentiates it from telecommunications — the technology to carry our messages?

A lot of people like “Integrated Marketing Communications,” but I believe (as others have quoted me) that all marketing is communication, but not all communication is marketing. So that’s not going to work. A ton of smart people like to say that everything is about marketing anyway, so why not just used that term?

J’ Rèfuse! See comment above!

Gini Dietrich uses PESO === Paid, Earned, Shared, Owned == and I bring that to my students all the time to show how different tactics help us communicate to our many stakeholders and constituents. In my AMMO model (audience, message, method, objective) PESO covers the methods. The remaining components are the ultimate in strategy, and thus lift up our discipline to the highest levels.

So StratComm is it, at least for me. It’s the only term that lets me fully blend the various elements of the communication mix. What are your thoughts?

Sean Williams is an Asst. Teaching Professor of Media and Communication at Bowling Green State University, in NW Ohio. He coordinates the School’s online master’s program in StratComm.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

When did it get to be April?

Ummm, April of 2022?

I know I’m kind of a busy guy. I teach seven classes a year, about 200 students, a mix of graduate and undergraduate. I teach across the BGSU School of Media and Communication, which means in any given semester I could be teaching advertising, public relations, media studies or “regular” communication (such as organizational communication.)

I started this blog with full intent to treat it just as I did my previous one (sadly not available anymore…) That meant a couple of posts per week, commenting on #PRMeasurement and research, plus covering events like the International PR Research Conference, where I serve on the Board of Directors. (I know it’s an old picture.) I’m also the 2022 Chapter President of PRSA NW Ohio, serve on three committees within our School, plus join the Faculty Senate Committee on Professional Affairs next month (name’s not on the site yet), plus am wrapping up service on the search committee for the new Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

I should be more active in AEJMC, the Central States Communication Association, and some kind of local not-for-profit. And I still have a client or two.

Excuses, all! Sleep? Fuggedaboudit.

Seriously, though, I know part of my job is coordinating our online master’s program, and that means marketing, with no budget, no staff and a recently crowded marketplace. Sounds like fun, right?

Well, truly, it is fun. I love it here. We’ve settled in here, and despite the obligations, I really adore the work and the people. Now that Auntie Covid is growing weaker and more wan, maybe we can really get ourselves involved.

In the meantime, Thank You for reading, and I promise to be more pithy and active as the weeks proceed.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Why do we care if we call it PR or Marketing?

Two people with megaphones shouting at a third person, 3d cartoon image.

The battle has been going on for a while. The public relations side says that our work is a management function designed to create, enhance and sustain relationships with relevant parties, securing public permission to do business.

The marketing side says that all that is important, sure, but in the end it’s enabling sales, creating an exchange relationship of value, and that the end result we both are seeking is to generate revenue, and if we PR peeps aren’t doing that, we are simply irrelevant dinosaurs.

Oy Vey.

Does it really matter? Our central skillsets are a little different, with PR ideally seeking to use more of the PESO than marketing. We generate content and seek to either convince the media and influencers to use it organically. Marketing generates content and simply buys the audience, space or time to promote it.

We are senior counselors, with the reputation of the organization at stake, and the tools of employee communication, media relations, community and government relations and issues management at our behest. Marketing controls vast budgets, but mainly thinks “top of funnel” as it generates awareness and describes features and benefits. In fact, a new entry to a marketplace will struggle to generate awareness (the first step to landing in the consideration set) without paid strategies.

I’m a little “internet famous” for the phrase, “All marketing is communication, but not all communication is marketing.” I strongly believe that these are complementary disciplines, not interchangeable ones, and that a chief communication officer with responsibility for all the functions, including marketing, is a superior model to a chief marketing officer because of the CCO’s inclusive remit.

Regardless, though, this ship may have already sailed. Marketing is ascendent still, even if Al and Laura Ries predicted that PR would steer the ship. The Cluetrain Manifesto declared that the age of brands and organizations dictating the terms of marketplace communication was over, thanks to social media. As it turns out, advertising has seized the moment across the media mix, and social does a lot less empowerment of the consumer/user than was predicted 25 years ago.

In the end, therefore, what does it matter and why do we care what we are called?

Posted in strategy | Leave a comment

Musing on news

I’m teaching two courses this summer. In this, the first session, it’s JOUR 4500, Media and Ethics for Journalism. In second session I’m adapting that course for MC 5010 – a special topics course on media and ethics for strategic communication.

That means that I have to throw a few knuckleballs when it comes to things like prior restraint, libel, and the First Amendment. Should be interesting.

The news is getting a bit of a salvo of missiles these days. The government would like the media to be more like PR people and cover positive stuff. Businesses would like the media to be more like PR people and support their initiatives.

The media would like to have the time to report on the salient stories of the day, but is largely too busy serving the 24/7 news cycle of instant gratification – updated web story, video report, expanded piece from the one that aired, extra material from the story that printed…

And yet, mainstream media contributes hugely to social media, a channel through which more and more people are accessing news content. It’s hard for any institution to change.

That’s among the reasons why there’s a management discipline dedicated to change management. News does seem to be changing. I wonder what it’s changing into?

Posted in Media | Leave a comment

Ethics. Does public relations have any?

Word Cloud on Ethics
Credit Boris 15, DepositPhotos.

I admit it. That’s a link-bait headline. But I honestly am wondering, as some of the most public PR that exists right now is a whopping load of BS.

As I’ve written before, I’m talking about political PR, the Spin Doctors, the Professional Liars. Retroactive speechwriters who try to gaslight us into believing what we actually heard and saw was not really there.

As a member of PRSA for many years, I know we are governed by a Code of Ethics that includes a Statement of Professional Values. I also know that most of the people who serve politicians nominally as PRs, press secretaries, and who-knows-what-they-are-calling-themselves-this week, are not members. Nor are they actually PRs.

What’s most disappointing is how many were journalists before they picked up the remit to serve the public.

I know, ha-ha, right?

Lawyers have to represent their clients, vigorously, and do their level best to obtain the most positive outcomes for those clients. That’s part of legal ethics, and part of licensing, without which you cannot practice law. The American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct are interesting reading.

In PR, we don’t have licensing. Our ethical code is voluntary, and there are several organizations that PRs can belong to. .

For the majority of PRs, that’s no issue, because we have no quarrel with staying on the ethical side of the PR street. Obviously, however, there are exceptions to that happy rule.

So, how about this: I’ll give some scenarios below, and you respond to them in the comments. Draw on the PRSA Code of Ethics, and tell us what you would do and why.

Scenario 1

• The safe limits of dioxin in effluent from industrial processes have long been a subject of dispute. Industry leaders have been convinced that scientists supported a lower limit than that requested by environmentalists. Government authorities have not been so sure. They recognize that it would cost tens of millions of dollars for industry to meet the higher standards that were proposed, but they also worry that lower minimum levels might lead to deaths in the surrounding area. Your firm has been approached to bid on an assignment to represent an industry association. What would be your concerns about the assignment? Would you bid or no? Why?

Scenario 2

• Acid rain falling in the northeast of the U.S. is thought by most environmentalists to be caused primarily by coal-burning plants in the Midwest. Modifications in those plants to meet new standards would be extraordinarily costly — and these costs would be passed on to the consumer. A coalition of industries urged Congress not to take action until further study could be made — which might take years. Opponents said that this was merely a stalling tactic on the part of industry. You’re the press secretary for a member of Congress and she has asked you for your views on this issue. It’s especially difficult because before you joined her office, you worked for the largest power generation utility in your state. What would you advise? Why?

Scenario 3

• Agricultural run-off has been pointed to as a major part of pollution in the Maumee River Watershed, which has been implicated in toxic algae blooms in western Lake Erie. Agribusiness is opposed to enacting mandatory limits on fertilizing, which environmentalists say will cut manure-driven phosphorus that supports the bloom. “60 Minutes” among others challenged the the farm lobby’s position. Your firm has had a long term client relationship with a major agricultural concern, which now is asking you to construct a campaign to “get out in front” of this issue and reduce pressure on the industry. What is your response? Why?

Scenario 4

• A major real estate development that would bring an economic boom to a declining community was opposed by environmentalists. The developer brought to public attention extensive research supporting his position; the opposition offered data to contradict the claim. The struggle went on for years. The developer was convinced that an environmentally responsible development could be built that would protect nature and revive the community economically. Opponents were convinced it would be an ecological disaster. The Ohio Public Interest Research Group wants to hire you to represent them publicly to handle press and support their social media efforts to keep the development from coming to be. What is your response? Why?

Adapted from:
Finn, D. (1995) Ethical Dilemmas in Communications. Institute for Public Relations. Retrieved September 15, 2020, from https://instituteforpr.org/wp-content/uploads/Finn_1995_LectureSE1.pdf.

Posted in strategy | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Lies, Dang lies

Aside from the thoroughly disturbing tendency some people have to see conspiracy everywhere, the media, politicians, social media users and even your Aunt Molly seem to seize on statistics to support their misguided perspectives.

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” This aphorism is attributed both to Benjamin Disraeli, 19th century prime minister of Great Britain, and repeated by American author Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens.) (https://ipa.co.uk/knowledge/ipa-blog/lies-damned-lies-and-statistics, or http://www.twainquotes.com/Statistics.html) Why would this belief endure?

First is the desire to be right. If you believe honestly that Democrats are blood-drinking pedophiles, you can find evidence (or lack of evidence) that supports your claim. If you believe that Republicans are secret fascists at best and actual Nazis at worst, same thing.

Second, is a serious lack of numeracy, the mathematic equivalent of literacy. Because few people have any background at all in stats, everything needs to be reduced to its simplest form to appeal to the hoi polloi. The mistrust of anyone in authority for the past, oh, 60 years or so, has fueled the feeling that the media, the politicians, the universities and businesses are all out to hoodwink us.

Finally, a lack of civics education. Most people don’t know the three branches of the federal government, and the functions of each (hint, they are co-equal and not subordinate to each other. They don’t know the difference between law and regulation, nor the relationship of population to House of Representatives, or the function of the Senate.

These three issues lead to misinterpretation of not only complex issues, but of the research that underpins the reports we see in the media. Add in the paucity of specialists in the media, and you have a recipe for problems.

I’m teaching a quantitative research methods course this semester, and we spend a lot of time talking about details such as validity, reliability, sampling, experimental design and the rules for content analysis. This is (I hope) creating a comfort with stats and a skepticism and curiosity about research results, survey reports, and the like.

I don’t “blame the media.” The idea that there is a global media conspiracy is laughable on the face for anyone who has either been IN the media (67, KWNK-AM, Simi Valley!) or who has dealt with the media (in my case, KeyBank, Goodyear, National City, a host of schools, etc.) The media aren’t organized enough to participate in, let alone plan and conduct a conspiracy!

What we need here is better education for people that breeds critical thinking and both literacy and numeracy. And maybe, that will give us more than a fighting chance to survive this age.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Baseball: The Hot Stove Heats Up

A pal texted me this morning asking, “How could we have two Cy Young award winners and not with the whole thing?” Ah, yes, the pain, the pain.

Here’s what I believe.

Number one: Underperforming hitting. So many teams with terrific pitching have their offenses suddenly play snooze tag during the playoffs. In the MLB’s list ranking the last 25 World Series Champs, there’s ample evidence that the old adage “good pitching beats good hitting” is true.

But, even anemic attacks can come alive on any given day. Just ask St. Louis’s David Eckstein, who won the WS MVP in 2006, or (ack!) Edgar Renteria for the Marlins in (darn it) 1997. Or Steve Pearce for the Red Sox in 2018, David Freese for the Cards in 2011, or Pablo Sandoval for the G’nts in what, 2012?

Without the element of luck on the offensive side, it doesn’t matter how great your pitching is. The Indians have had the best staff in something like five out of six years, and yet they’ve made the Series once and been booted in the first round twice because there was no offense. Even from star offensive players!

That’s the proof to my thesis. You need pitching good enough to hold down the best of the opposition, but without someone standing up to hit, you will lose a lot of low scoring games. How we typically talk about this conundrum – offense vs pitching and defense — is a throwback to the days of Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax. Dominant starters supported by a variety of hitters who were flexible in their attack.

Let’s put it another way: No one cares if you win 11-10 or 2-1, as long as it’s a W.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Where’d August go?

Is it just me, or has the time sped up to about 30% faster than “normal?”

I noted that I started teaching a summer course on July 6, wrote a post the next week, and now it’s Sept. 1! What happened to August?

We need new metaphors for time moving quickly. Get on that, will ya?

Posted in strategy | Leave a comment

Fun with Organizational Communication

By Bb437 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18927105

I’m teaching Media and Communication 6550 this summer, Organizational Communication. Having spent nearly my whole career in that field, I anticipated that it would be a walk in the park.

This is the third time I’ve taught the course; the first two were last fall, one online and one conventionally. The 15-week semester of then, however, is NOT the six-week sprint we are in now!

In a whole regular semester, we use a textbook. For summer, it’s a selection of journal articles. There’s a team project for the former and a final paper for the latter. There are DEEP details we can get into and discuss in the longer version. For summer, we leave aside a fair amount of theory beyond a few critical items, and try to get to applying those key theories as quickly as possible.

I’m a pretty good online lecturer; I break longish stuff into many parts, am an “animated” speaker who’s very well aware of the need to perform online, and try always to impart a passion and excitement for the material.


This one is tough!

So far, the students are hanging in there. The reading is demanding, the online discussion assignments are challenging, and the lack of synchronous communication means you have to save up your questions and formally ask me via email. Can’t be easy! We have nearly 30 in class, and it’s a mad dash.

Short version: We contrast classical management theories from Fayol, Weber and Taylor with more modern paradigms, focusing on the communication impacts and issues of those managerial ideas. And this week, we look at a few important 21st century developments (like the communicative constitution of organizations (CCO) theory).

I wish I had known this material at Goodyear and KeyCorp!

A quick overview of the graphic above… One of the central concepts of OrgComm is the idea that an organization isn’t a “container” full of communication activity. The communication is actually helping to structure, support and change the organization itself. Anne Nicotera wrote that it was an O1, O2, O3 arrangement – organizING, OrganiZED and OrganiZATION. That is, the communication actions are creating the needed structures for the firm in real time, leading to a state of being organized and thus supporting the entity of an organization.

That self-structuring activity is how teams and sub-teams get built and discarded, how the rules for discourse get made and abandoned. Institutional positioning among various stakeholders is also a reflection of that structuring, as are the processes by which people join, stay and leave the firm. Without the communication activity, these processes don’t happen, or don’t happen as well.

Stay tuned. I’ll share some more on this class as we go along.

Sean is also marketing the BGSU Online Master’s in Strategic Communication program for the balance of summer semester. Find the details here. Want to do some visual learning? Here’s a webinar that outlines the program in more detail.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

When is rhetoric, rhetorical?

I’m not naming names, but certain politicians rely on hyperbole, exaggeration and drama that frequently seems to have little relationship to facts. That’s not a political statement, it’s an observation. So is that merely a rhetorical distinction, or is it important.

I once wrote in response to Bob Batchelor that public relations/communication isn’t evil, but that political PR probably is. Lee Atwater, James Carville, Karl Rove, George Stephanopoulos, and now Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer, Sarah Sanders… Technically NONE of these people are public relations. They are creatures of the political, not dedicated representatives of principled, ethical advocacy.

It’s really unfortunate, because those of us who do see ourselves as the latter are often observed to be the former. Certainly the strategic thrust of our job is to represent our client/boss and the interest of our organization in finding and supporting competitive advantage.

The question is, how far should we go?

In advertising law there’s a phrase that applies: Puffery. When a potato chip says, “no one can eat just one,” the reasonable person doesn’t think that is a literal claim. When a roofing company says in an ad that it’s a “world champion,” we know that there’s no objective competition under way that might support that contention. It’s puffery – it’s rhetorical and used to raise awareness and prompt interest, and the law says that’s ok.

In politics, however, there’s a whole industry dedicated to convince you that you didn’t hear what you just heard, that “she meant” something different. That we should “take him seriously but not literally.”

Danger, Will Robinson.

As a near 30-year pro in professional communication of varying stripes, I believe words and images matter. To quote the Christian bible, “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.” (Luke, 16:10, KJV) If we can’t trust you with the small stuff, how can we do so for the big stuff?

The political realm is one of the only places where the “official” text of a speech is different than what the speaker actually said. Congress allows Members to “revise and extend” their remarks. So you cannot believe what you hear, right?

The rules on puffery shouldn’t apply in politics. We should expect our representatives in both the legislative and executive branches to speak the truth. Not a partisan version of it, but the actual truth. If they are engaging in speculation, or interpreting something, they should say so and NOT claim they are telling the truth or exposing lies when they are doing nothing of the sort.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Tom Petty was right, you know

One of my favorite songs by the late and lamented Tom Petty is, “The Waiting.”

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you get one more yard
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part

He’s talking about love, and the first verse begins:

Oh baby, don't it feel like heaven right now?
Don't it feel like something from a dream?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this isn’t an inaccurate description of my first year with BGSU. As you may have heard, the Covid-19 impact led to a budget cut, so after this summer’s course next month, I’m a free agent again. I may be adjuncting in the fall, but haven’t heard yet. I also applied for a 100% online position last month, and I’m into the 5th week of waiting on that. I also threw a hat in the ring for an adjunct post at yet another university…yep, waiting to hear on that too.

It’s hard (Oops, that’s a song by The Who) to be essentially at sixes and sevens wondering what’s to come next.

So I listen to ‘ol Tom, and then REO Speedwagon’s Roll With the Changes, and Chumbawumba’s Tubthumping…and Chicago’s Feeling Stronger Every Day.

And I wait.

Posted in strategy, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Learning from graduate students

Lego Grad StudentPart of my job is coordinating BGSU’s online master’s in strategic communication, and as a result, I get to teach grad students in that program. Likely in the future, I’ll teach some in person as well, as I did at Kent State.

Amid my peregrinations among these students I’ve picked up some interesting tidbits of information, and I thought I would share them with you.

  1. Grad school isn’t easy. In my grad program (I was on the five-year plan) I went part time while teaching a class and serving clients in Communication AMMO. Three of those were retainers of significant commitment, so for a time, Saturdays and Sundays were full of reading, writing, and thinking. That’s fine, and I enjoyed it. But it’s worthwhile to know that I worked for myself, and could fudge my schedule around to make time for all this stuff. These students inevitably work for other people, and at varying degrees of seniority. Making the time is hard when balancing work and family responsibilities, and professors should know that it’s a different gig than when they were in school, mostly going straight through and not attempting to strike that balance.
  2. Academic writing is, well, not the way people normally write or speak. We all know style (AP, APA, Chicago, MLA) is just meant to provide some rules that make it easier to read and to write. But our insistence on following the arcane formality that’s commonplace in academic writing makes it much harder to learn the material. I use a YouTube video from a Brit Ph.D. student to give suggestions on how to read scholarly material. It involves OneNote or something similar and helps demystify how you pick out important stuff from the morass that often results. It would be awesome if the plain language movement from finance could find an auxiliary footing in the academy!
  3. The applied, for people who will not go on to Ph.D. and an academic life, is more important than the mechanics and the theory. I qualify that statement, though, by claiming that theory is every bit as relevant and important as the applied, but we have to bring it to life! Learning how to do structural equation modeling would be a mind-expander, but in reality, most of us in the comms profession will never have the need to do that. We do need to know what it is, how to recognize a good research design, what to do with the data and how to apply it to strategy!

There’s more, but this post already has a tl;dr pall gradually creeping over it.

Suffice to say, I get SO much from the time I spend reading and listening to students! Love this job.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Teaching remotely is remote, but hey…

I’ve taught more online than off. From the start of the portion of my career in “academic” pursuits at Kent State University, it was mainly online with some sprinkling of in-person maybe one semester every couple of years.

Being a reasonably hammy individual, I am told I’m an amusing and effective teacher. I’ve done more video lecturing this past few months, though, than ever before. The response from students has been great – the missing link in most online coursework is the sense of relationship.

For example, at Kent, we had a system to record voiceover for slide decks. Not PPT, and not separate, it basically displayed the slide and you talked over each one. pauses, re-dos, no problemo. We don’t have that here at BGSU, so we have other apps that make that stuff happen — Camtasia the most notable.

While I was waiting for my software approval for Camtasia, I bought an inexpensive substitute with the hilarious brand name of Screencast-o-matic. Veg-a-matic I’ve heard of, but Screencast-o-matic? The thing is, it’s great. You have the option of slide only, slide and thumbnail of speaker, or just speaker. Not bad!

The only issue is there’s no virtual background, so everyone is seeing my dining room furniture (and probably getting all judgy…)

Anyway, the worst thing is that one feels like one is talking…into the void. There are no smiling (or bored, distracted, uninterested…no, none of those…) faces. No reactions, or questions, or comments, or cross-discussions. It’s pretty isolating, especially after a half-semester where we HAD all that visual feedback.

Nonetheless, I feel like I’m still giving of myself, still telling anecdotes, still making points from the readings, illustrating theories, putting things together. I assigned reflection posts each week in one class, to drive home the need to start assembling in our students’ minds a general point and purpose to what we have been studying.

And, yet, I really miss class. I miss the students. Even the ones opting to remain silent. Here’s hoping that life comes back, and soon!

Note: Do you miss college? Come back for graduate school. BGSU is waiving the GRE and application fees, and you could start this summer or fall! Check out the online Masters in Media and Communication with specialization in Strategic Communication and Social Media.

Posted in strategy | Leave a comment

Need to plan faster?

Sean at PRSA 2019 Sure you do.

At PRSA’s webinar, Internal Communication during COVID-19, my colleagues and friends Becky Graebe from Dynamic Signal, and Ally Bunin from Reynolds Russell Associates and I talked about a heap of ways to do a good job communicating during these exceptionally interesting times.

During that conversation, I shared the AMMO planning model that I’ve been touting for literally YEARS. I gave a quick “back-of-the-envelope” explanation, and shared my article from a few years ago in PRSA’s The Strategist publication. I wanted to add the slide deck I used in Fall 2019 at PRSA International Conference in San Diego, along with a little more color in putting it to use.

The AMMO — Audience, Message, Method, Objective — is designed as a fast, memorable means of planning comms. You can use it for broad strategy, or for situational communication. You can think through it fast, though, and that’s why I brought it to the webinar.

The details are in the Deck, but briefly, this is how it works.

Audiences: Who will we be communicating with. I know that our constituencies, stakeholders or publics aren’t passive receivers of whatever we share with them, but audiences has a simplicity to it that works well. Initially, be exhaustive. Capture as many as possible. And then…

Objectives: What do we want those people to think, feel and/or do? When we start with who and what, we set up the messaging better and ensure we’re using the methods we need to realize our objectives.

Messages: What do we need to communicate to make the objectives happen? What do we need to tell and hear? Messaging is the idea that underpins copy and imagery. It’s not a tag line, a slogan or a mission statement. Those things INSPIRE messaging, and messaging serves to set guidelines around our creativity.

Methods: Too often we start here! “We need a video.” “We need an email from the CEO.” No, thanks. Start with A/O/M – get those right and the methods will reveal themselves!

That’s the thumbnail – Check out the deck, and feel free to reach out to me if you want to talk about this stuff. I’m a highly compensated academic now, not a filthy capitalist business guy, so no pressure! (You can hear my esteemed wife roaring with laughter now…)

Note: When I was at True Digital Communications I did a webinar about the AMMO method. It’s still available if you want to give a listen.

Posted in strategy | Leave a comment