Do what you love

Do what you love, and be true to who you are. And other stuff about PR.

Last night I spoke to a class of marketing seniors at Davenport University, some of whom are considering a career in Public Relations.  I shared some advice as they start their careers (below), and I shared some of my experiences over the past 20+ years, including decisions I made that led me to a career in PR.  Because, frankly, when I was their age I didn’t even know what PR was.

I decided to study journalism at a community college near my hometown after high school because my top university choice didn’t accept my application on the first try. Thanks Queen’s.  I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life anyway, and my mom had MS and was confined to a wheelchair, and I didn’t want to leave my dad with the sole responsibility of her care.  So, instead of going to my second or third choice universities, both of which had accepted me, I went to Loyalist College which, like other community colleges in Canada, was very focused on providing career training.  The only program that sounded appealing to me was Print Journalism, which prepared students for a career as a two-way (editorial and photography) community journalist.

I loved it. I liked telling stories through words and pictures. I loved the art and science behind good page design. I loved working in the dark room and at the big Olivetti typewriter — the kind you needed muscular fingers and a lot of enthusiasm to manipulate well.  I loved being a reporter for the school paper and for my internships but, upon graduation, I did not immediately go to work. My girlfriend decided to go to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I followed.

She and I didn’t last. But I did meet the beautiful girl who would become my wife and I did obtain my B.A. in English.  And I did get a job as a reporter several months after I graduated. The Grand Rapids Business Journal wasn’t a big publication, but that probably was a good thing for me.  I got to cover stories and conduct interviews I never would have been assigned had I worked at a larger publication.  The pay wasn’t good, but I really liked what I was doing.

As newlyweds sometimes do, we had a child, and “I really liked what I was doing” no longer was enough. When the PR sirens came singing, I boldly took the plunge. Even though I hadn’t studied PR (few had, at that point), I knew it involved writing and that it still was part of the reporting process.  Journalists called it “selling out” and, well, that’s how I felt about it too.  But there were bills to pay.

What I came to discover, however, was that PR was indeed an honorable, respectable profession that includes a responsibility to the public good. PR certainly has some image problems of its own, brought on by some practioners within its own ranks. It’s one of the reasons I am such a big fan of PRSA — the Public Relations Society of America.  The PRSA educates on best practices and advocates for ethical behaviors and awards Accreditation in Public Relations to its top practitioners.   What I learned about being a PR practitioner came from working with excellent professionals at Amway and through PRSA involvement. Next week when the West Michigan PRSA chapter board meets I assume my new role as 2010 President. I also served as WMPRSA President back in 2003.

My advice to the students? First of all, I told them if they weren’t passionate about PR, they shouldn’t do it.  Lack of passion is a dead-end street in the PR profession. Besides, who wants to do a job for the rest of their lives that they are not passionate about? I want to love what I do, and do what I love.

Next, I told them to write. Write for paying clients. Write for non-paying clients. Write for fictional clients. But if you’re not writing in this profession, you won’t get far.  The PR professional won’t ever reach campaign planning status if they cannot write persuasively.

And I told them to be true. I told them that Honest, Open, Transparent communications are critical to the reputation of a firm. Dishonesty is eventually discovered and reputation is destroyed.  Avoiding the tough conversations about your business destroys trust. Selectively sharing only the facts that you believe place you in the best light is an invitation for your critics to share the facts you’re avoiding. Outing yourself on difficult information is always better than being outed by someone else.

To the students at Davenport, and at Calvin, and Grand Valley State University and Loyalist College and Queen’s University, at Harvard College and Grand Rapids Community College — do what you love, and be true.

GEQEZNANXN9P

Share stories, earn support

People share their personal stories and become respected and supported. Those who just sell meet resistance.

Like many others, I’m a social being. I like people and I like their stories. For instance, last week I sat down with a 99-year-old gentleman for a story I wrote for Grand Rapids Magazine.  If I had just been doing my job, the interview could have lasted a couple hours at most. Instead, I spent four hours with Bill wandering through the past century from his perspective. He told me about growing up in southeastern Ohio, about launching a career in the middle of the Great Depression (of great interest to me, given that I’m starting a business in the middle of a great recession), about achieving business success by dealing with basic human nature.

You’ll have to read the magazine to get Bill’s story, although I have to say that I could have shared so much more than what space allowed.  Perhaps, after the story is published, I will share more about Bill.  By the way, Bill also had a program he was promoting, something he hopes others support.  But it’s an outgrowth of who he is. Sharing 99 years’ worth of experience earns you the right to share a position.

Social media allows people to share their stories — bit by bit or in larger chunks, depending on the person and their ability — or desire — to share.  By its very nature, social media allows ideas to spread from person-to-person and, in many cases, from one to many, which is why everyone with something to sell is looking to tap into social media. It’s also why social media is so important to public relations — it has so much potential to get your message out to your key audience. 

What often bothers me, however, are the blatant attempts to force a sales message into a conversation where it does not naturally belong.  You know the ones I’m talking about.  The conversation is about XYZ, and suddenly Joe Shmoe who you barely know is trying to sell you something totally unrelated.

Nothing wrong with Joe trying to sell his stuff, by the way.  He just needs to do it in conversations geared to that or start his own conversation and invite others to find out more.  It would also help if Joe earned the right to pitch his wares by first being an active and engaged member of a community.  When Joe is a respected member of that community, he might be surprised when others ask him what it is he has to sell.  Because they like and respect him, they want to support him. He was inviting without having to overtly and frequently state his invitation.

I am a consumer and have invited people who have excellent products to sell me into my home to show me. Typically it’s someone I already know and respect. I want to support them!  But I really don’t like it when someone I don’t know as well sticks his foot in the door and then attempts to shoulder his way through when I’ve clearly stated that I’m not interested. In some cases, I could be interested in what they have to sell, but they have to give me a little time to get to know them.

So, to those who are applying shoulder pressure through people’s social media experiences, please stop!  It wrecks the experience for everyone and it’s just not that effective.  Start with being social and friendly and inviting. Then you sill earn the right to eventually show me what you got to sell!

Crescenzo says Creativity over Crap

Corporate Communications needs to change its name to Creative Communications, according to WMPRSA speaker Steve Crescenzo

I have to admit to a bit of a man crush developed over lunch today.  Our speaker at the monthly lunch meeting of the West Michigan chapter of Public Relations Society of America was Steve Crescenzo, a large, bald, hilarious consultant who shared brilliant insights into the state of corporate communications today. For starters, he thinks “corporate” should be yanked from the title and replaced with “creative.”

After he was done speaking, I professed publicly that he had earned a little piece of my heart.  Literally.  I had to close the meeting with some WMPRSA info and, in thanking him, I let it slip. I’m sure he hears it all the time.

First of all, Steve introduced his company to us — himself, his wife, his son and two cats.  His cats, he said, are his IT department.  Why not, he explained, they don’t come right when you call them, they’re moody, they’re self-absorbed, and they like to lick themselves.  There was more, I’m sure, but that was the gist of it.  Within the first minute of his presentation he had the attention of the University Club crowd.

His main message to corporate communicators, and employee communications specialists in particular, was to stop putting crap out there and expecting audiences to actually read it.  It takes a lot to cut through the clutter these days, and formulaic, cliched newsletters are not going to get readers’ attention. He sympathized, however, acknowledging that corporate cultures today call for review of communications pieces by committee, with CEOs, Legal, Finance, and numerous middle management layers all weighing in with opinions and edits.

When’s the last time a PR person went down to Finance and asked to take a crack at the books this month?  How about we write up the next set of vendor contracts?  And while we’re at it, we’ll whip together the 2010 Strategic Plan for the whole company.  Why should non-communications experts attempt to do the jobs of the true experts they’ve hired to do the job?  Partially, Crescenzo asserts, it’s because we let them.  No longer should it be referred to as “approvals'” he said. Rather, routing of communications should be viewed as “fact checking” where accuracy is ensured but the tone and style is determined by the comms experts.

Crescenzo talked about just how busy everyone is nowadays.  When it comes to the communications pieces coming at them, their order of prioritization is 1) what they’re personally passionate about, 2) what they absolutely need to know to do their job, 3) what is done so well that it pulls them in, and 4) all the other stuff being asked of corporate communicators.  You’re lucky if your intended audience has the time to reach #3, so if you’re communicating changes to the benefits policy or recognition of a long-term employee, it had better be pretty darned creative.

From headline to graphics to the lead paragraph, communicators need to push the boundaries of “how we’ve always done it” or “what legal will approve.”  (My heart was really warming up to Crescenzo at this point!)   And with Facebook and the New York Times online and so much rich content competing for attention, it’s still hard to get audiences to read your nicely presented, well-written copy.

That’s when Steve showed some creative ways corp comm’ers are reaching their audiences these days.  Rather than the “lady with a stethoscope” billboard ad approach used so frequently to promote healthcare services, he shared an online campaign for a hospital that utilizes a mix of blogs, podcasts and videos — with healthcare staff sharing their compelling stories in their own words in ways a single billboard or flyer never could. He showed just a video of a nurse sharing a story about her work in a neonatal intensive care unit that, frankly, very nearly brought tears to my eyes.

OK, as my wife and kids will tell you, I have been known to tear up at the movies. They won’t let me forget that one time watching Bridge to Terabithia or that final goodbye scene from Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.  Yes, that one is embarassing. The point is, a billboard will not get that kind of reaction. A video might. My wife works at the NICU at Spectrum’s DeVos Women and Children’s Hospital, so I know the commitment they demonstrate each and every day. That doesn’t translate well to copy or an image. Crescenzo said that social media is a powerful tool that corporate communicators need to use to allow people to share their own stories in compelling ways.

So, as I said earlier, Mr. Crescenzo was earning little pieces of my heart with each passing minute.  He spoke frankly.  He was super funny.  He showed great examples of good and bad communications.  And then he started talking about using Facebook as your employee communications site because IT will roll their collective set of eyes at you when you ask them for a highly interactive employee communications intranet site.  “It’ll take nine months and half a million dollars,” they’ll say (based on experience, that would be a conservative estimate for time and budget).  And then Crescenzo started talking about how easy it is to use Flip Cams, and how communicators need to carry them around at all times “just in case.” Now he had my undying affection.

So much of what he said is exactly what I’ve experienced and come to believe about communications over the years. I’m proud to say that at Amway we did fight the internal battles to trim down approval routes and we did use creative new approaches to better share our stories with various audiences. Not always successfully, but we won some of the fights. That’s how Opportunity Zone came into existence.  That’s why I traveled to Baltimore and Seattle this summer to conduct interviews of Amway Independent Business Owners with an easy-to-use Flip Cam (although I don’t think IT has yet launched the site where those videos were to be used). That’s also why today there are Facebook pages for various Amway brands, sharing video content and photos.

I’m excited to take that experience, empowered with the affirmations of experts like Steve Crescenzo, and apply it to the communication needs of Luymes PR clients!  Who’s next!?

Journalists & Social Media

Much has been made within public relations circles about using social media to bypass traditional media to reach their target audiences.  There’s much to be said for this, as the web provides ways to interact with audiences that just aren’t possible through “earned media placements” within newspapers, magazines, TV news media and radio.

Even for PR professionals focusing on traditional media, however, social media cannot be overlooked. Too many of the journalists they work with are now seeking story ideas, interview sources and supporting facts from blogs, news sites and social media platforms like Twitter and YouTube.

According to a new study conducted by Bulldog Reporter and TEKgroup International, Inc., usage of social media by journalists continues to increase. According to the 2009 Journalist Survey on Media Relations Practices, nearly half of all journalists report visiting a corporate website or newsroom more often than once a week. Some 23% of journalists use RSS feeds to monitor five or more blogs on topics relevant to their news coverage.  Also, more than 82% of journalists use social media sites like Facebook and YouTube, up from 75% last year. About 25% of journalists are now using Twitter, using the site once a week or more.

The survey of 2,354 respondents, of which about 46% were editors and 35% were reporters or writers, isn’t entirely surprising. As an active Twitter and Facebook user with ever-broadening circles of “friends” and “followers,” local and national journalists are surfacing with increasing regularity. And some of them are doing a good job being part of a community and using it as a means to obtain story ideas or find sources. Like the rest of America, the numbers will only go up. It’s like years ago, when the question was “should we send that in the mail or should we send it to you via email?”  OR, better yet, “Do you have email?”  Today, those answers are obvious.

Some West Michigan journalists of note who are tweeting are @Kcorner, @GRgonzo and @jbauer5800 (Chris Knape, John Gonzalez and Julia Bauer of GR Press), @emilyrichett (Emily Richett of Fox 17), @PeterRoss13 (Peter Ross of WZZM 13), and numerous others. Some do a good job of blending personal and professional and keeping promos of the stories they’re about to air to a minimum.  I am always amazed at Emily’s online efforts.  That girl is always tweeting, facebooking, youtubing, and twitpic’ing.  I don’t know how she has time to do her job!  OR, is this all part of her job now?  Because, if people just *love* Emily Richett because they’re following her online, maybe that’s part of the new deal for journalists.  Creating a following beyond the confines of their particular media outlet.

A few weeks ago, several independent PR practitioners, myself included, had lunch at the Press Club with Paul Keep, Editor of the Grand Rapids Press. One of the discussions was the future of newspapers with the rise of online news. Finding the perfect blend of the traditional news media approach leveraged by new media’s reach and capabilities appears to be the solution, but creating a business model for that is going to be tricky.  But not impossible.  The Wall Street Journal seems to be doing a good job offering creative ad packages for its off- and online editions.  And, apparently, it’s leading to a potential tussle with USA Today regarding bragging rights for #1 circulation.  WSJ is counting online subscribers in addition to print, while USA Today only declares its print results.  Who will win that battle? Better yet, who will win the longer term battle of profitability.

In any case, social media is a great tool to talk directly to your target audiences. It also is an increasingly important tool to reach your target editors. No matter how you slice it, PR professionals have to master the art of social media.

Web Reputation

Web’s increasing role in an organization’s reputation.

Back in the mid-’90s, I was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time. As a PR Administrator at Amway, I was given an assignment to check out this “World Wide Web” thing and find out more about this guy who was saying bad things about our company.

Other than an account in Legal, nobody among Amway’s 10,000 U.S. employees had company-provided web access at that point. I recall the web being very slow on my big bulky desktop computer. But I also remember being thrilled that I had access to a universe of information, even though I hardly knew where to go or what to look for. Search wasn’t quite developed yet, so you really had to know where you wanted to go.

My main assignment was to check out the website of a guy who had collected every negative thing about Amway that was publicly available. It was like an attic full of forgotten or unwanted items … stored away from the sunlight and from most viewers’ eyes. But once you discovered this secret room, there was a treasure trove of information. Well, one man’s trash is another’s treasure. The site shared just about every lawsuit ever brought against the company (but typically not the pro-Amway rulings in the cases). Every negative review a product had ever received was there (but not the positive ones). Some negative articles had been scanned in.  Some opinion pieces created by the site author.  And lots of emails he’d received from site visitors (before comment sections had evolved) sharing their support for his negative views of the company and its business. Plus a few that countered his position in support of their Amway businesses.

I had to print out the entire web site so others could see what was being shared. It took three volumes and resulted in a stack of bound pages about six inches tall. My analysis of the site — back in Januray of 1995, I think — was that what those pages contained would seriously harm the company’s reputation, if they were seen by enough people. I said that, at that time, few people were online so it did not pose a huge issue immediately. But, based on trending, it soon would.

Within a few years, that prediction proved true. In the following years, Amway created its billboard-style website sharing all the positives the business had to offer.  Soon after that, Quixtar was launched to bring e-commerce to the direct selling giant’s North American business. Despite considerable online efforts, however, the company’s Independent Business Owners cited web-based criticisms as the #1 issue they faced.  It required drastic action.

Some advocated extensive optimization efforts that would simply push criticism off the main search pages. Certainly it was important to ensure the company’s own sites appeared high (if not highest) on search engines like Yahoo, MSN and Google. But SEO was not the sole solution. The issues at the heart of online critiques also needed to be addressed, and the company needed to do a better job communicating what it was doing to resolve those issues to a general public that had grown increasingly wary of its business offerings.

Informational sites helped. So did properties like www.thisbiznow.com, which provided third-party and IBO testimonials. But more was required to address the free-for-all commentary that continued on critic websites. When www.OpportunityZone.com launched, it provided a place where an honest, open and transparent dialog about the business could occur. Some basic rules were put in place to ensure decency and respect for opposing opinions were safeguarded.  The O’Zone was quite successful in helping increase the company’s share of voice in the online dialog about its business, reducing the amount of dialog in horribly slanted forums, and putting human faces on the business.

Through Real Quixtar Blog and, later, The SuperDu Blog, I became the first corporate blogger for Amway. It was a great experience to serve as a spokesperson for the business and to serve as an ombudsman of sorts. That is one aspect of the PR role that often is minimized or overlooked. True public relations is about creating a “mutually beneficial” relationship between an organization and its key publics. That’s hard to do when your communications are all one-way and don’t provide enough opportunities to listen to the questions or concerns of your targeted audiences. A wise person told me recently that you need to listen twice as much as you talk.

Whether it be site creation (www.Amway.com, www.amwayglobalnews.com, www.QuixtarResponse.com, www.ThisBizNow.com, www.InspireWellness.com), SEO/SEM program strategies and execution, or social media program strategies and execution (www.OpportunityZone.com and various Facebook, YouTube and Twitter programs for Amway product and business brands), I’ve had the great privilege to lead or contribute to programs to manage Amway’s web reputation. The company still has its challenges, but I am confident it is doing its best to resolve the issues that contribute to negative perceptions.

I’m proud of the body of work that I’ve contributed to over the past 10-15 years, and hope to look back on Luymes PR’s accomplishments in a decade or so with the same degree of pride. For me, the work will always come back to reputation. That continues to include tradtional media and other types of public outreach, but there is no denying that the web is garnering more and more of the PR professional’s attention. Because, in the end, you need to talk to people where they’re at.  These days, that’s online. After all, it’s where YOU are at this moment, right?

Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship and the lessons I’ve learned

For nearly 20 years, I’ve observed and chronicled the art of entrepreneurship. As a business reporter, I interviewed men and women who had a great idea and started their own business as a result. I interviewed Dorothy Zimdar, the founder of Frames Unlimited, to find out what made her business tick.  For her, it was about outstanding customer service, product quality and selection, value, and integrity.

For Hendrik Meijer, who founded the chain of mega stores that have made Meijer Inc. one of the largest private companies in the U.S.,  founded his first store on the idea that “customers don’t need us, we need them.” A brilliant philosophy, ins’t it? One that led to brilliant success for the Meijer family, and innumerable benefits to the West Michigan community that embraced the company and its stores in their earliest years.

I remember strolling through the garage and pole barn of a west sider’s home. He was starting his own tool and die business with machinery bought from larger companies that had upgraded. I don’t know if his business survived the past few decades of manufacturing turmoil in Michigan, but his excitement to begin on his entrepreneurial journey was very real.

For a special section on entrepreneurialism for the Grand Rapids Business Journal, I was assigned to interview Rich DeVos. I called Amway’s public relations department to set up the interview and they said they’d see what they could do.  I hadn’t even properly prepared my questions when I received a call, not from the PR contact, but from Rich himself.  I began asking questions about a topic I’m sure Rich had discussed countless times.  He probably answered many questions I didn’t even ask.

Within months, I was working for that same Amway PR department. It had nothing to do with the Rich interview, or the other stories I’d written about Amway as the reporter assigned to the manufacturing beat. It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time, I guess. In any case, over the next 18 years I learned hundreds of ways to share the Amway story.  Hundreds of products.  Millions of distributors or, as they’ve been referred to in recent years, Independent Business Owners.  The story of the partnership between Rich and Jay Van Andel.  The story of the partnership between Amway and its IBOs.  The power of the business plan Amway created. The all-natural Nutrilite products, the organic cleaners. There were SO many stories to tell, and so great a need to tell them. The business model is often misunderstood and, because there are so many people involved, there are bound to be disagreements and abuses. It was a great place to practice public relations in all its forms — from product publicity and media relations to crisis communications and community relations.

Now I move on and become the entrepreneur, taking what I know best — public relations, communications, social media — and turning it into a product I offer to clients. Like Dorothy, I hope to offer outstanding customer service, value and integrity. Like the young man with his tool and die shop, I am excited to get on with this business (but there are no guarantees!). Like Hendrik, I need customers!  The lessons from Amway I’ve already learned and now I hope to apply that expertise to help clients of Luymes PR.  The first few have already signed on … who will be next?!

Small Beginnings

First clients in the house. Lot of work to find new work!

This week has been all about hustle.  Lots of work goes into getting work.  Getting the site done (and tweaked) and sending lots of emails and making LinkedIn connections … all work.  Going to the Grand Rapids Social Media event and listening to speakers share how the ArtPrize event here in GR utilized social media to garner attention and participation was fun, but still a part of my new job: learn new skills, find new clients.

The good thing is that, last Friday I landed my first official PR client. That work is done now (for now, anyway) but today I landed my second client (I think) and have a lead on my third.  Plus, yesterday I landed my second writing job and got a lead on a third.  The “Indie PR” community in Grand Rapids has been very encouraging. I have not yet had an Indie PR person who hasn’t had time to talk … and to all of them I am a potential competitive threat!  Instead, I’ve received advice, encouragement, and two referrals.

When launching Luymes PR LLC, I wasn’t sure what I should focus on. At this point, I’m willing to allow the market to dictate that a little for me, but the crisis comms work I did this week certainly was right in my “wheelhouse.”  It was a little bit about reputation, a little about media relations, and a little about social media. Of course, writing was involved.  With those ingredients, all that’s needed is a little garnish and you’re all set!

A New Start at Luymes PR

Going it on your own, at Luymes Public Relations

After nearly 18 years, it’s quite daunting to start your own business. Especially if you worked at a large, multinational corporation with many resources at your disposal, as I did when at Amway.  Starting a website?  I used to be able to call Amway IT and be assigned resources to help me build a custom website like The SuperDu Blog, provided it was warranted. Now? I am IT and need to figure it out on my own. 

Well, with a little help from my friends.  Thanks Doug!  Douglas Kelly of Evolve Solutions was a contractor at Amway until recently, but his contract ran out and now he’s looking for new clients as well.  He comes with my highest recommendation.  Today he helped me get the redirect from Luymes.com to where the content is developed in a sub-folder. This enabled me to actively start directing people to the site!

Billing?  That’s all on me too, now.  So is fixing the printer and getting my new business cards. I even have to make my own coffee.  Oh wait. I always did that!  (And anyone who knows me knows that I was very proficient, and prolific, at making my own coffee.)

This blog is going to be about how Luymes Public Relations LLC gets off the ground.  It will be about my experiences counseling clients on crisis communications, web reputation, social media, and general communications (to the extent that I am permitted). I began working with my first client this past week and the experience has energized me to sign up some more!  Who’s next!  I am ready to get to work for additional organizations that need to tap into my nearly 20 years’ of experience in communications!

Welcome to Luymes PR

Welcome to Luymes Public Relations! What will this blog be about and what are some expectations.

This week, I suppose, is “Independence Week” for me.  I formally registered Luymes Public Relations LLC last week and then purchased Luymes.com and then created this site using “easy” tools provided by my web host. I’ve blogged before, as SuperDu at Amway’s OpportunityZone.com, but I’ve never actually had to create the blog itself — just the content! So, bear with me as I learn the best practices of setting up the actual blog site.

In this blog I expect to share about my views and experiences as a PR professional.  That will include my opinions on best practices for the public relations profession, including use of social media by organizations. I likely will talk about my personal life as well, especially how that relates to my profession and my business. Many of my posts will draw upon past experiences, including those with Amway Corp., my employer for nearly 18 years, and as a reporter for the Grand Rapids  Business Journal before that.

To the extent that I can, I also will share experiences with new clients of Luymes Public Relations, understanding there will be times I cannot due to client expectations and desires. Please drop me a line and tell me your experiences and whether or not you agree with what I’m saying here. I am sure that active dialog will better inform my understanding and likely anyone else’s who reads this!