Thursday, January 31, 2008

Visiting with PR students at BYU

Yesterday and today I have had the wonderful opportunity of visiting some PR classes and participating in a panel discussion on social media at Brigham Young University. It has been interesting to see how much these students are interested in social media, and want to know how it best fits into what we do in public relations.

I was impressed with the caliber of students that I met during these classroom visits. Before I launched into my full presentation I always began by asking the students to rattle off as many GM brands as they could, and they never disappointed me. Without fail, Chevrolet and GMC are the first ones to be mentioned, they even remember that Saab and Saturn are also GM brands. I was expecting to surprise them by letting them know about all the different brands of GM, but they beat me to the punch.

Then I would ask them to candidly tell me what their opinions of GM and the other American automakers are, and without fail they always mentioned that the quality of our cars and trucks pales in comparison to the Japanese automakers. One thing, surprisingly, that doesn't come up when I ask them about what they think of us is the environmental factor. They may view us as only building "gas guzzlers," but for these BYU students at least, we're not seen as the environment killer that others perceive us to be. Perhaps as college students, they're more concerned with how much driving they can eek out in a single tank of gas, than they are about CO2 emissions and global warming. I'm speaking at Louisiana State University and Southeastern Louisiana University later this month, so it will be interesting to hear their students' responses to these questions.

It was also surprising to me to get little or no response at all when I asked students to give me a rough definition of social media. All I usually got were blank stares. But when I asked how many of them are on Facebook, almost all the hands shot up. I was frequently asked what they can do to better understand social media and how to use it, but I have to conclude that these BYU students don't really participate in social media beyond Facebook or MySpace. I think that many times people just assume that social media is something all the high schoolers and college students get, but in reality this may not be the case. Only a few students I talked to actually have a blog, and not many of them indicated they listen to podcasts. Maybe social media is not always the best way to reach students in our PR efforts.

Also, I had the opportunity last night to participate in a panel discussion on social media. Joining me on the panel were Quint Randle, a print journalism professor at BYU and the School of Communications' resident social media guru; Erin Enke, a Digital Strategist at Fleishman-Hillard in New York; and Jessica Mallard and Sara Brueck Nichols of Cobalt Communications Group in Salt Lake City. Here are a couple things (paraphrased) I took away from the discussion:

- Learn the strategy of PR; if you don't talk about it, they're going to talk about it without you (Enke on the use of social media in PR)
- PR hasn't really changed with social media, we're just listening better than we used to (Enke)
- Social media communications is really dimensional communications; a sphere (Nichols)
- Be a jack of all trades, but a master of two (Randle)

It was fascinating also to hear what Fleishman-Hillard does to identify which social media is most influential for work they do with different clients. Some of the tools they use to identify this (all new to me) are Icerocket, Snapshot, Quantcast and Alexa. I've only had the chance to look at Icerocket, but I like what I see so far. I think it's a better tool than Technorati or Google Blog Search. When they do this kind of research they call it "online mapping," and it takes them two to four weeks to do this.

Everyone seemed to agree that the best thing all of us can do in PR is to learn, learn and learn. Nichols recommended students peruse the Harvard Business Review to find books to read.

It was a great two days for me, and I learned a good deal from my discussions with students and fellow PR practitioners.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Mourning the passing of a great PR professional

Last night I got word that Gordon B. Hinckley, 15th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints passed away. I am deeply saddened by this news as President Hinckley is the LDS Church president (also a prophet) I am most familiar with. Beyond my love and respect for him as the leader of my church, the LDS Church, I also wish to express my respect and admiration for him as a great example of a highly effective public relations practitioner.

President Hinckley spent nearly his entire professional career working for the Church. In the mid-1930s he was assigned to organize what is now the Church's Public Affairs Department. An article on the Church's Newsroom also notes that "for 20 years he directed all Church public communications."
His experience in PR prepared him for the various interactions he would have with the mainstream media during his time as President of the Church. Two days after he was named President, he called a press conference in Salt Lake City and fielded questions from journalists. remarked that this was the first time a Church president had done something like that in 20 years.
His interaction with the media did not stop with this press conference. In 1995 he sat down for two interviews with the intimidating, Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes. These two interviews showed just how adept President Hinckley was at dealing with the media. NPR did a story on President Hinckley's passing today, and quoted Mike Wallace:

It was Hinckley's "candor," Wallace told NPR, "his willingness to entertain any question, no matter how difficult or, perhaps embarrassing," that charmed Wallace.
"He was just absolutely open with me," Wallace said. "It became quite clear that there was a great deal in the Mormon religion that I genuinely admired."

President Hinckley was also featured numerous times on Larry King Live, and demonstrated his public relations skills while fielding some tough questions from a hardened reporter.

Farewell, President Hinckely. Thanks for everything you taught me, both in word and by example. You will be missed. I hope to be half the PR professional you were.

Mainstream media reporting on President Hinckley's death: