Street Talk

Sometimes PR people are in the news. This time it was just a former employer having a little fun.

A few weeks ago I was contacted by the Steve Heacock for Congress campaign to lead communications efforts.  After meeting the candidate and the team, I accepted the role.  The same day I joined the campaign team, Rick Treur was brought in as Campaign Manager, a role he filled for Vern Ehlers previously.

In addition to developing a communications plan for the campaign, one of the first tasks was a news release announcing Rick as the new campaign manager. A couple outlets picked it up, including the Grand Rapids Business Journal, which mentioned the release in its “Street Talk” column.  It wasn’t quite the “pick up” I was expecting however.  Typically the PR person remains behind the news, not in it.

The problem is that I used to work at the GRBJ.  Back in 1990-91, I was a reporter covering manufacturing, banking and the economy.  Shortly before I left I was approached by Seyferth & Associates which, at that time, was Grand Rapids’ leading PR firm. After a couple of meetings, I accepted their offer of a job. At the time, I was a young guy with a young wife and a little baby girl trying to pay off college debt and live on the meager earnings of a reporter. I worked nights at a video store to earn extra cash.

Along comes a PR firm offering me a significant upgrade. Of course I took the job, even though in my heart I still was a journalist at that time. My Editor, Carole, took me to Teazers, a bar down the street, and bought me a couple beers while she tried to talk me out of taking the job.  That’s what led to the following portion of the column:

“…the news came in a release distributed by Robin Luymes. The Business Journal clan knows Luymes well from his start as a fresh-faced reporter with the BJ.  No amount of adult beverage at the time could keep the pride of Canada from traveling down the path that now has him stumping for political types and other interests as an independent PR pro. We tried.”

I was flattered (although embarrassed) to be the focus of Carole’s comments, because the real news was Heacock and the Treur announcement. But I’m thankful for my start with the GRBJ because it was my work there that earned the notice of Seyferth which led to my PR career. Ironically, I never did go to work at Seyferth.  Before I could finish my “two weeks notice” I was approached by Amway.  I interviewed and they offered me a job too (one representing a significant upgrade from Seyferth’s offer). 

The rest is, as they say, history.

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

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?!