About Me

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Edward Bernays would dig me. Seasoned public relations strategist (10+ years in the game) who has practiced PR in multiple cities: Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago & DC. I'm an observationist and a soon to be card carrying member of the Twitterati. I love comfortable silences, revel in the Seinfeldian absurdities of life and have been described as a habitual line stepper. These are my thoughts...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Allow Me To Reintroduce Myself…


Former Twitter Account Known as @BMorePRGuy adopts New Moniker, Moves to Differentiate Web Presence

(DMV – DC, Maryland, Virginia) – With so many voices fighting to be heard through the avalanche of messages that is Twitter, PR operative, L.A. Jones takes a step forward to distinguish his online brand by unveiling a new account name – @OffThe_Record.

The new identity, which replaces the now retired @BMorePRGuy, will retain the same humor, information sharing, observations, sports talk and snark that nearly 1,500 followers have come to expect and currently enjoy. The name change comes at a pivotal time when an ever increasing number of up and coming PR pros have launched new Twitter accounts with some variation of the acronym “PR” incorporated into their name.

“Who really gives a $#@% that I did this besides me? But I’m definitely excited about the switch and potential branding possibilities it may bring,” said L.A. Jones, PR Operative, Organizational Storyteller and Relationship Builder. “I’ve told people for years, that what I say is totally off-the-record; it’s time that I reflected that sentiment literally.”

In selecting @OffThe_Record, L.A. Jones is able to cleverly play off the name with the nature of his “Tweets” but also maintain a connection to his chosen profession.

Often when public relations professionals or other sources conduct interviews with reporters or journalists, some aspects of their remarks may be requested to remain “off-the-record” meaning not for quotation, publication or attribution. It is also a tactic some PR pros utilize when trying to introduce a new idea or angle to a reporter during an interview.

Despite a rising popularity and the ever increasing following this Twitter account has generated, L.A. Jones believes that the name change will not diminish momentum. LA. Jones stands firmly behind by projections that the new name will open up new Twitter markets and find him endeared by new followers.

“Besides, my Umi said shine your light on the world,” added Jones.


About @OffThe_Record

@OffThe_Record is the official Twitter account and online presence for public relations operative, Larry Jones. Also known as an organizational storyteller, Larry Jones has more than a decade of comprehensive public relations/communications experience. He has practiced public relations in four major markets (DC, Chicago, Detroit and Baltimore) and has worked within an agency and internal communications team environment. To learn more, visit online: http://www.linkedin.com/in/theprman.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

When Bridges Burn Themselves

Much has been said and written about the negative PR hit LeBron James took with his one-hour ESPN special aptly entitled, “The Decision.” I’m not in the camp of public relations pundits that believe “The Decision” was a PR fiasco or the public demise of his career. To the contrary, I believed it then and to some degree even now to have been a PR coup.

What if someone told you that you could get your client or organization on a major network for a one-hour special to announce a huge decision involving your brand, and your company or client would be paid millions for participating? Add to that scenario that said major network would throw its entire marketing muscle behind promoting the special, the buzz would dominate weeks of news coverage (more than 3-4 years worth of advertising), and the money your company or client received would be donated to the worthiest of charities making the organization appear to be the best of corporate citizens.

Let’s also say that somehow this dream opportunity generated some populous negative publicity due to the perception about how it was conducted, but in actuality it didn’t cost you any sales. In fact, because of this decision, it gained you a slew of new sales in a new untapped market (i.e. Miami). And also because of this business decision your client or company is now positioned to become one of the foremost brands in your industry as a result of “projected” successes.

Ten times out of ten, you’d sign up for that deal and would probably earn yourself a nice promotion and/or a fat bonus. Well this unbelievable scenario actually did happen when King James wielded the power he achieved through basketball stardom to do everything I previously mentioned. Unfortunately, the dominate perception of the events that unfolded was that this blew up in LeBron James’ face and was a public relations nightmare on scale with that of the BP Oil Spill.

Of course much of the “this is the worst thing since O.J. Simpson talk” was driven by the sports illuminati, media outlets, the PR punditry and lastly the City of Cleveland led by the carpetbagger owner of the Cavaliers Dan Gilbert. But it’s the City of Cleveland and Cav’s owner Dan Gilbert that really got my attention.

I can understand the disappointment and the emotions both must have felt when LeBron famously announced that he would be “taking his basketball talents to South Beach,” but what happened following the decision is the stuff of legend and probably unprecedented in sports history. Mr. Gilbert, who obviously subscribed to the “Scorched Earth” doctrine, decided he would eviscerate a former employee in a very public and lowbrow way.

I won’t go into the contents of Gilbert’s letter because honestly, I find them to be despicable and beneath an owner of a major sports franchise. But let’s strip away the sports aspect of the situation and what do we have – a top producing employee that was in good standing with management, who decided to pursue a career opportunity with another company and waited until the other company hired him before he told his current employer. This kind of thing happens every day and most employers are sad to see the employee leave, but they understand that this is the nature of business.

It would’ve been very beneficial to the City of Cleveland if Dan Gilbert was aware of this fact. By taking the route that he did, compounded by the asinine behavior of Clevelanders (including the jersey burnings and the tacky response video) Cleveland has did its best to ensure that no top tier talent would ever want to come to that team willingly and risk being burned in effigy if they ever parted ways.

In watching the Cleveland Cavaliers incident play out it reminded me of once upon a time when I worked for an organization that obviously went to the same business school that Dan Gilbert attended. Every time an employee left to advance their career elsewhere or improve upon their quality of life, this employer would diminish that employee’s contribution to the company, belittle their abilities, mark them as persona non grata and threaten current employees from fraternizing with the ex-employee.

While I was working at this company, I never subscribed to their philosophy regarding ex-employees. Beyond being a disturbingly juvenile practice, I found it to be shortsighted from a business standpoint and bad organizational PR. Ex-employees are fertile ground for new business and if they left in good will, they can become some of the best cheerleaders when it comes to recruitment. Take the opposite approach, which this particular company and the Cavalier leadership did, and risk having top talent shun working for your organization.

Being a man and a grown up as well as huge sports fan, I tried to put myself in shoes of Cavalier fans. What if Ray Lewis left the Baltimore Ravens to go play for the Dallas Cowboys (he once contemplated such a thing) – in the words of James, what should I do? The answer was easy. I’d be mad as hell that he left my beloved Ravens for alleged greener pastures, but I’d be thankful for the time our team had him and he made us a contender. I would continue to root for him the individual and respect his game.

But then again that’s just me.

Friday, October 1, 2010

What’s In A Name?

Never has there been a more misunderstood, misused or mishandled word in the history of the public relations professions as the word “brand.” And while many of us in PR primarily recognize this term in its unaltered form, many others are accustomed to hearing/using it in the verb form with the suffix “ing” added, as in “branding.”

So powerful is this term in PR that it has spawned new business practice units dedicated towards it. It has also given birth to a slew of new cool hip job titles, such as Brandologist, Brand Provocateur, Brand Strategist and the even rarer Brandthesiologist.

If you want to score big during a new business pitch meeting and sound like a real PR strategist, just start throwing around the word brand, branding or branding campaign and witness the miracles that ensue. That prospective client will get all starry eyed and their ears will perk up a little more because somebody in the Comm Dept. mentioned they needed it, or they read something about it in a magazine. Either way, it’s supposed to be that thing that puts them on the map and make people take notice of their company and/or product.

But just what the hell do PR people mean when they start babbling about developing the brand or engaging in a brand campaign? It depends on who you’re asking.

Now if somebody asked me what it meant, I’d tell them simply that their brand is the public perception of their company; it’s how they’re identified in the market as well as what they represent. I’d tell them that their brand also includes their company name and their logo – all components of those things tied to corporate identity. And branding is just the process under taken to establish that identity/presence in the market place.

However, in the world of advertising the term brand has come to be known as something else. It typically refers to a company’s specific product or product line. For example, Bounty is a brand owned and operated by the company Proctor & Gamble, and Cadillac is one of the many brands within the General Motors portfolio.

The official definition I found indicates that a brand is the identity of a specific product, service, or business. A brand can take many forms, including a name, sign, symbol, color combination or slogan. Branding is the entire process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product (good or service). I like what I said better, but then again I’m biased.

If these things are perceived to be true and your brand also is connected to the name of your company and/or product, would not that create certain challenges? Yes.

Case in point, recently I was reading my former local community newspaper, The Southfield Sun. In its pages, I came across an article about the restaurant and lounge “Pi” located at the end of my old block. The article was about the owners’ decision to change the name of the establishment, as well as it dining style and atmosphere.

Due to the economy and lack of business they wanted to switch from being an upscale dining experience with live bands to a pub-styled bar serving American cuisine and catering to sports enthusiast. The decision has disaster written all over it.

Personally I thought the lounge was doomed from the start and I blamed much of my prediction on the name they selected – Pi. Truthfully, the name is π (as in the Greek letter for ‘P’) but we call it by the name we learned in high school math, Pi. I originally thought it was some sort of Asian symbol and it represented the type of food being served – Asian. The previous owners had called the same spot Café Milano. So for would be patrons there was all kind of confusion.

The owners spent a lot of time, effort and money to promote Pi and get people acclimated to it as an upscale dining experience. Slowly but surely and after a few years of effort, people began to catch on to Pi. But now the owners have made the radical decision to change the name to “The Pub.” The result will be tons of investment into a brand gone to waste and even more confusion for patrons.

Speaking of investment gone to waste and to bring this a little closer to home, many people familiar with my career know that I spent the last year and half leading the branding charge for a new kind of talent retention and attraction initiative called, Intern In Michigan. During my time with the program I systematically helped build up a large amount of equity into the Intern In Michigan brand, making it a top of mind selection whenever someone thought about an internship and the state of Michigan. However, there was still more work to be done and a lot of that earned capital yet to be spent.

Toward the end of my time, I learned that the company responsible for creating the technology behind the program, along with one of the primary funders, wanted dump the name in favor for one that was more generic and allegedly broader in its appeal – Classroom2Careers. I thought it was a horrendous idea and a not well thought out plan of action. Much like the owners of Pi, here was another instance where decision makers had not recognized the inextricable relationship between a company brand and its name. The two are not mutually exclusive.

To see a great example of branding as well as brand dominance, look no further than Kleenex, one of the many brands offered by the company Kimberly-Clark Worldwide Inc. Kleenex is so dominant in the market that its very name has become synonymous with facial tissue. When people sneeze or have a runny nose the majority will ask you for a Kleenex as opposed to a tissue. That’s branding on a gargantuan scale!

“What a heavy burden is a name that has become too famous.” - Voltaire

Then there are cases like Blackwater where a tremendous amount of brand equity is destroyed because of an onslaught of negative press and a lack of a cohesive public relations response. Used to be a time when you heard the name Blackwater the first thing that came to mind was kick-ass, elite soldiers for hire. Now Blackwater stands for overpaid, rogue mercenaries that kill civilians and try to cover it up. Big difference.

So toxic had the company name and brand become that its leadership decided to cut their losses and send both to that company identity afterlife. Following the eighty-sixing of the name/brand that had brought them fame and fortune, the company leadership decided to take a page from his Purple Majesty, Prince (and the owners of Pi) and rebranded themselves as some unpronounceable symbol - Xe Services, LLC. Eventually, history will be the judge as to the success of their branding gamble.

It was the laureate Shakespeare who served as the inspiration for the title of this post, having famously wrote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

I don’t think Mr. Shakespeare took into consideration the money that the maker of that rose sunk into design concepts, focus groups, marketing and packaging. Dumping the name might not sound like such a sweet idea. But then again…I’m no Brandologist.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Invisible Hand

Though I wasn’t selected to be one of the “Four Horsemen of PR” (Steve Farnsworth, Todd Defren, Lou Hoffman and Paul Roberts), I still wanted to participate in their new blog project. Over the next four weeks each will be given a common topic to blog about, and following each topic their individual perspectives will be shared and discussed via social media.

Steve extended an invitation for me to join in covering one or all of the topics and I accepted the challenge. I find this to be a great social media exercise and an excellent educational resource for up and coming PR pros. I only hope that my insights and opinions add to the dialogue and holds up with the offerings from this collective of PR heavyweights. The group’s first topic: Is Ghost Blogging Ethical?

For the non PR pros and writers peeking in on this project, “Ghost Blogging” refers to the act of an anonymous wordsmith penning blog posts under the guise of being someone else (e.g. the CEO of a Fortune 500 company). Just imagine if all of the great and sometimes controversial blog posts from the Dallas Mavericks basketball team owner, Mark Cuban, were not his own words.

It also can refer to a non-organizational entity anonymously writing blog posts on behalf of that organization as though coming from one of its actual employees. Ghost blogging is not an uncommon phenomenon and because it involves communication skills and writing, often times you’ll find a PR pro playing the ventriloquist to other people’s words.

As a person who has owned up to engaging in this practice in a previous blog entry, one would assume that my position on this is pretty cut and dry. However, my actual take is a tad more nuanced. And at the crux of that nuance is this concept of “ethical.”

According to the definition provided, the term ethical simply means that something (in this case a practice) conforms to accepted standards of social or professional behavior. If this is the definition of ethical and I’ve already indicated that ghost blogging is pretty common, that would support it being a widely accepted professional behavior – thus proving it to be ethical. Besides, if the moral majority of our profession thought otherwise, there would be more of an uproar, as well as a stigma attached to the practice, say as in “Pay for play.”

But again, I’m still zeroing in on the nuances. The act itself of Ghost Blogging may be accepted as ethical, but its implementation may not be. Blogs, particularly CEO Blogs, provide audiences with another window into the thought processes of leaders. It provides the reader with a more intimate connection to the author because these are allegedly his/her exact words unfiltered or hampered by legal and PR. Additionally, these first-person blogs also provide content unavailable in press releases or organizational publications.

Going back to the Mark Cuban example… if we learned that a team communications staffer or a personal publicist was behind his blog entries, it would make the whole thing seem disingenuous and somewhat deceptive. People that become fans or devotees to a particular blog, do so to receive, among other things, the truth. There is no truth in deception, especially when you by into a narrative. When one commits to a first-person blog what you’re saying in essence is that you believe the insights, the humor, the venom, the admissions and the honesty, as provided only in this type of forum.

Because I’m in the field of public relations, a bit of a cynic and I decided long ago to the take the blue pill to unhitch myself from the matrix, I look at organizational blogs in a completely different manner. I don’t become attached to these blogs or necessarily believe that the entries are penned by leadership. So to reach into a comparison that hits a little closer to home for me, I offer the world of hip hop.

When you think of ghost writing in general it can give one pause, but when it comes to hip hop music, where the perception of authenticity is king, it can be met with a negative backlash. I remember when I first discovered that not all rappers wrote their own rhymes, that sometimes other lesser known or more prolific artists were the authors (thanks S. Carter for shedding light on that).

Back then it was a very taboo thing for rappers to employee someone else to provide the words they said. It meant not only that you didn’t have the skills to say rhymes but also that the rhymes you said rang hollow because someone else put them in your mouth. In essence…you’re wack. And CEOs that don’t write their own blog entries, maybe they should be considered wack too (but we’ll leave that up to the blog readers to decide).

In conclusion, the question may be asked, given all that has been said, should Ghost Blogging continue as a practice? To this question, my answer is YES! Ghost Blogging provides another useful function for PR professionals and will more than likely provide somebody with a job. But maybe…just maybe, there’s a better way to handle the blogs done for organizational/company leaders. As opposed to indicating “written by…,” maybe we can indicate “as written in collaboration with…”

That’s just my five cents on the topic (you can keep the change).

Friday, August 13, 2010

Excuse Me While I Put On My Public Face

“It takes a thousand voices to tell a single story”Native American Proverb

Recently, I asked my Twitter followers if it was a smart PR strategy to limit an organization to only one voice/face, or to allow for many voices. The way I see it, organizations have a choice and whichever approach that is adapted, there will be pluses and minuses.

To use a hip hop analogy, a company can be like Nas (All I need is one mic) or it can take the Wu-tang Clan, 36 Chambers approach (everybody has a mic and something to say). Typically, this would be where I would walk through the dynamics of both approaches and discuss the good and bad of each. But at this point in my career, I’ve come to embrace one method more than the other, so that will be the one I highlight.

Organizations today go through painstaking efforts to control the perception of their brand. They also go through a whole lot of effort to ensure that their brand takes up residence in that public relations nirvana known as Mindspace.

For those that forgot about this one-time PR buzz word du jour, in the simplest of explanations mindspace refers to how much an idea captures the audience. Some communicators believe that repetition of message or repetition of a specific delivery of message eventually takes hold and becomes entrenched in the receiver’s subconscious (also referred to as mindspace).

And what the hell does this have to do with employing one organizational spokesperson versus many? Well if an organization selected one person to be its public face and this person could deliver key messages strongly and was perceived as believable by external audiences, then this tactic could go a long way toward securing valuable mindspace. The use of a single voice also would allow an organization to have better control of its message and brand image. Typically, the person given this responsibility would be a company’s CEO, the VP of Communications, chairman of the board, or in some rare instances the head of legal.

However, that is not the strategy I endorse (didn’t see that one coming, did you?). Much like the old Indian proverb I shared at the beginning of this post, I believe it takes multiple voices within an organization to tell its story. One person can’t be expected to know everything there is to know about an organization’s operation; especially to any large degree of detail.

Back in my agency life, one of the account teams I led represented a very successful local hospital in S.E. Michigan. While this particular hospital wasn’t as large or had as many beds as some of its competitors in the region, my team was able to keep them positively covered by the media and top of mind as a healthcare provider of choice. And how were we able to accomplish this? One way we achieved success was by remaining ever aggressive in positioning this hospital with the media, but the other good thing that we did was to promote any army of voices.

In order to successfully implement this tactic, you have to identify individuals within an organization that are experts within a certain subject matter. For example with this hospital, when we wanted to discuss the business of healthcare, the introduction of new products/services or healthcare leadership in general, we tapped the CEO. If we wanted to talk about healthcare insights, operating procedures or certain types of prevention we tapped a physician. When it came to other key areas of healthcare, we positioned a variety of other staffers.

The key in making this really work was in first identifying media friendly staffers, who would also be good ambassadors of the brand. Second, we made sure they all experienced some degree of media training. In the end we got to increase the probability of securing news coverage and increasingly became a go to resource for the media covering healthcare.

This particular organization could’ve easily said no, we don’t want our unit managers or physicians speaking to the media, we don’t trust what they might say. But they believed in the process and trusted our counsel. In the end they were rewarded with a sizeable amount of media coverage and industry recognition in a very competitive market.

So that’s why I’m rolling with the Wu-tang Clan approach. But I’d be interested in getting your take…

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Say Hi…to the Bad Guy!

Rarely do I allow my creative process to be directly influenced by others, but I must admit that this particular post was inspired by DC area PR pro, Mike Schaffer. His blog post, “Justice League of Communications” got me to thinking about the other side of the coin.

If there’s one thing I know about heroes, it’s that every good hero needs theme music. Quiet as kept, my theme song is the 1982 b-boy classic, “Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don’t Stop)” by the group Man Parrish. But in addition to a theme song, every good hero needs a foil; a villain who opposes them and uses his/her villainous powers to prohibit the hero from winning the day.

Being a person who loves his profession, I like to think of the PR guy as the good guy, the hero if you would. For the purposes of this post we shall call him – PR Man! PR Man uses his special powers to make an organization’s products and services appear bigger than life. He also positively influences public perceptions, or wards off the negative affects of bad publicity and the uncommon crisis situation. But in order to utilize his powers and “win the day,” the PR Man must neutralize and/or defeat the anti public relations version of the Legion of Doom.

Allow me to introduce you to the would-be villains:

Board Man

This organizational interloper sits on the board and has a tendency to cast his narrowed “in the box” thoughts onto PR Man and his accomplices. Board Man thinks our hero is never doing enough to keep the organization in the media. And when PR Man uses his special powers to come up with a creative idea, Board Man uses his influence to neutralize the idea. This villain is famous for uttering the phrase, “This is how we’ve always done things.” Just the mere verbalization of this phrase sends an organization’s leadership cowering into submission.

Executor (a.k.a. Bossman)

The brains of the PR Legion of Doom, Executor can grant or take away the life blood of the PR Man and he wields his mighty power openly. This villain may have no concept of public relations, but believes he’s good at it. He shuns media prepping and disintegrates carefully prepared talking points. His ultimate goal is to go on Oprah and dominate the world {insert evil laugh here}. Executor’s weakness is to go off script as well as making gaffes during interviews. He often and unwillingly cedes all of his power to his fellow villain, Media Outlet – the Multiple.

Media Outlet – the Multiple

This particular villain serves as the primary nemesis to PR Man. Media Outlet can be friend or foe and often plays either role without warning or provocation. Everyday our hero spars and jousts with this bad guy, each hoping to make the other submit to his will. As the exalted fourth estate, Media Outlet is extremely powerful in that it can build an organization up into prominence or tear it down, reducing it to rubble. In dealing with Media Outlet the multiple, our hero must use every effective tactic at his disposal to win the day. It also should be noted that PR Man and Media Outlet’s relationship is a symbiotic one. Each can not exist without the other in our ecosystem. But alas, Media Outlet has one glaring weakness – he secretly wants to become PR Man (mostly as a result of the higher pay and the apparent job stability).

Flack Hack

Much like the decrepit creature Gollum from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, this villain was once like PR Man until he succumbed to chasing the power of public relations and it destroyed him from within. Flack Hack is powerful in that he represents everything that is wrong with the PR profession. Whether it be the non-strategic media relations approach of e-blasting a media pitch to multiple outlets regardless of beat or dispensing of lame and jargon filled press releases about such non-newsworthy things as new websites or the participation in upcoming conferences. Flack Hack is a parasite drawing his only power off of other villains such as Executor or Board Man. This Bizzaro version of PR Man also unwittingly empowers fellow bad guy, Media Outlet.

Edit-tron – the Destroyer

This amorphous villain can transform into PR Man’s immediate supervisor or Executor himself. Edit-tron’s power lies within his mighty “red pen” from the planet Journalism (or possibly the much larger planet Egos). Edit-tron’s red pen is like kryptonite for PR Man. When our hero submits a press release, marketing copy, a speech or an employee newsletter article, Edit-tron posses the ability to completely destroy PR Man’s written work leaving it unrecognizable. In many cases this villain displays his power simply to amuse himself or to toy with our hero. Edit-tron’s weakness is hubris. Sometimes he edits something so much that it reverts back to the original copy.

Legal Eagle

This bad guy can be found entrenched within the internal structure of a particular organization and he wants to slap a muzzle on our hero thus prohibiting him from talking to anyone. Legal Eagle “the possessor of the unholy law degree” wields the power to stop PR Man from saying anything of substance that would benefit an organization in a PR situation. His powers also extend to any written communications. He can transform words with meaning into undecipherable legalese. Legal Eagle draws power from his cape of “non-disclosure.”

Clientus – the Unmerciful

If ever there was a super villain to fear, it would definitely have to be Clientus! Not only is he a great supplier of PR Man’s strength (he pays the invoices), but he often provides our hero with purpose. However, Clientus possess a dark side. While he often doesn’t know what public relations is, he knows that it can be a powerful tool in market domination. This bad guy wants the spoils of effective PR, but will unknowingly and in some cases knowingly create barriers for PR Man. Clientus is unmerciful in his critique of PR Man’s short comings and will offer no support. Clientus views PR Man as a vendor, not a partner, and often confuses his abilities with that of Advertising Man. This bad guy cannot be stopped. You can only hope to contain him.

So the question now is how many of these bad guys have you encountered? And what did you do to defeat them?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

When Somebody Throws A Stone…Just Add Cement

Being the bully of the fourth estate and the self proclaimed satirical watch dog whose sole mission seems to be keeping the media honest, it’s almost a given that they’re going to come gunning for you when the opportunity presents itself. At the very minimum, certain media outlets might pile on when a negative story surfaces.

So it was no surprise that when a negative story about alleged sexist behavior at “The Daily Show” broke, media outlets across the spectrum seem to take glee in reporting the story about Jon Stewart and his alleged “all boys club.” Yup, he got the “business” from some of the very media outlets he comically skewered on a daily basis.

Before I get into some of the details of the Daily Show’s negative publicity or how the show responded, I want to touch on this thing called Reputation and/or Brand Management. Outside of being a buzz word for PR pros looking to carve out a niche for themselves or a jargony phrase to impress prospective clients, Reputation Management is actually a very useful proactive and defensive public relations practice. According to most formal definitions, it is described as a specialty that focuses on managing brand, product, or personal perceptions through an active, near real-time program of conscious engagement.

While many PR pros like to confine Reputation Management to the online world, I also like to extend it to the offline one. If someone says something damaging about you or your organization on air or someone repeats a false rumor during a broadcast, sometimes it’s best to address it head-on before fiction becomes fact or perception becomes reality.

A good example of proactive Reputation Management would be Newark, NJ Mayor Cory Booker taking on multiple late night talk show hosts by challenging their assertion that his city was a crime ridden cesspool. Booker did it in such a personable and intelligent way that the jokes subsided and people slowly began to buy into his narrative that Newark might just be a good place to live. Not addressing the chatter would have allowed Newark to be defined by others.

This brings me back to the Daily Show. For reasons unknown a very popular pro-woman blog (some would call it a feminist site) decided to do an exposé on The Daily Show’s hiring practices and treatment when it came to women. According to the blog, “The Daily Show's environment was such that many women felt marginalized.”

The blog post would go on to accuse Stewart himself of being dismissive of women colleagues. However thoughtful it was intended to be, the one thing missing from this dissection of the Daily Show was comment from the Daily Show. So I ask the question, “If a tree falls on the internet, will anybody hear it?” Yes!

Due to the blog’s popularity and its motivated following, the story took off and began to spread. You can read some of the coverage here, here and here. Whether or not the coverage of the story was fair, I’ll leave that up to the readers and viewers [editor's note: I’m a die-hard fan of the Daily Show, who secretly desires to write for the show]. Should the story have been covered in the first place – yes, because it’s newsworthy. But as a PR professional I became more interested in the show’s response to this form of crisis situation and how it faired in managing the reputation of the brand. Here’s the tale of the tape:

6/23/10 – Negative blog post is published

6/24/10 – Stories about negative blog post begin to break

6/29/10 – Stewart references the blog post on his show

7/6/10 – The Daily Show comes out with guns blazing in response

In the hood, there’s a saying that the response is never fast enough to “shots fired!” While I commend the Daily Show for addressing the accusation, I have to give them low marks on response time. While two weeks may not seem like an eternity, it was more than enough time for this story to take root and blossom to the point that it warranted some sort of formal response. And respond is exactly what the Daily Show did!

To dispel the rumors of sexism and the environment being an all boys club, the show gathered all of its female staffers, who account for 40 percent of all employees and had them provide a rebuttal to the story. You can read the full official response on the show’s website here. The response, which included a group photo of all the female staffers together smiling, was well thought out, biting, funny and painted a picture in complete contradiction to what the negative blog post alleged.

I thought it was genius! I’ve always believed the best way to dispel an untruth is by tearing it down at its very foundation. And this response did exactly that. It goes into great detail to provide the names, positions and years of service for all of the current female staff. It also lists a multitude of personal and professional areas the show has supported these women through. And best of all, this message was delivered by the very women who were allegedly being marginalized.

In the end, I give the Daily Show very high marks in the overall handling of this situation, despite the noticeable lag time before their official response. If companies want to have a say in how others perceive them, they’re going to have to not only monitor what’s being said about them but also engage those who are doing the talking. Mayor Booker and the Daily Show provide some examples of how to do this. However, I must admit I’m more partial to the Daily Show’s response. What’s not to love about an official company response that ends, Go f@#k yourself!"

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Gone Fishing: The Dark Side of RFPs & Job Interviews

Let me start by saying that competition is healthy. Dare I say it in my Gordon Geckko voice…competition is good. I believe that if you truly want something in life, you should have to work to get it and at some level compete to get it. In your personal and professional life, competition should be expected. But competition should never be bastardized to the point that people are unfairly used or pimped.

If you work at or have worked at a PR agency, the chances are great that you’ve participated in responding to an RFP or at least experienced your firm’s involvement in the RFP process in some capacity. For those unfamiliar, a RFP or “Request For Proposal” is the process an organization goes through when it wants to competitively bid out the contract for a work assignment or project. The RFP includes the specs for the project in addition to other pertinent details. It also includes a step-by-step outline for how those interested in “winning” the contract should go about doing so. Most RFPs included a formal opportunity for those who have made the cut to pitch their services first hand. And within those pitches sometimes would-be contract awardees are required to demonstrate in great detail how they would complete the project they are bidding on.

In regards to responding to an RFP on something say a little more nebulous, like providing PR/Communications services, bidders may be asked to provide their creative ideas up front. From the vantage point of the company putting out the RFP this seems perfectly reasonable as they don’t want to just “hear” that an agency is creative or has great ideas, they want you to demonstrate it.

But if you’re the agency in that bidding process, putting down your creative ideas in print and providing a blue print for the implementation of those creative ideas without the guarantee of being awarded the contract, is dicey and often amounts to freely giving away intellectual property. It’s just something very unsettling about it. But I’m sure some would say hey, this is part of the game and you’ve got to play, to win. Yes that is a true assessment, but it should happen at whose expense?

I think agencies should be able to demonstrate their PR prowess by providing actual case studies of previous work done on other projects similar in scope. I also believe that agencies should be able to rely more on actual testimonials from previous clients. Referrals and work samples speak volumes about one’s capabilities, along with the ability to intelligently talk through how the work was created. What I don’t think PR agencies should have to do is give away the only real products they create – their ideas.

Check out PRNewser's survey to see what other PR Pro's think about the topic.

The reason I’m so anti giving up PR intellectual property without compensation is because I’ve come to learn about the dark side of the RFP process. Not all RFPs are intended to be awarded. Some RFPs are meant as a tactic to produce/collect ideas…for free. Or even worse, the RFP process generates some great ideas that are then collected and given to a low bidding agency to implement. So the organization doing the awarding gets the great concept or campaign and gets to have it potentially done at a fraction of the cost.

Twice during my tenure with a PR agency I’ve seen what I like to refer to as “idea poaching” up close and personal. During the very first new business pitch I participated in, I saw this happen to our agency after we weren’t awarded the contract (side note: I was horrible during this pitch. I’d never done one before and wasn’t prepared to do any of the talking at that point in my career. However, I was very instrumental in putting together the presentation and contributing ideas). For the next couple of years following our failure to land that contract, I had to witness a less expensive agency carrying out many of the ideas we proposed and outlined during the RFP process. It was very disheartening to experience this practice in business.

But companies that put out RFPs don’t own the patent on idea poaching. Since I’ve been in the job market, I’ve come to painfully learn that this also happens during the job interview process. Twice during my current career search I’ve had prospective employers ask me to create a “detailed” communication plan. I really don’t have any sort of issue with demonstrating my knowledge, abilities or understanding of a particular industry, but the creation of a communications plan is not a simple task, say like taking a writing test or editing an article in a timed environment.

Drafting a legitimate communications plan requires the understanding of an organization and its industry; a working knowledge of its fiscal year objectives and bench marks; an audit of the previous communications plan and/or organizational communications capabilities; available budget; and a working knowledge of staff, stakeholders and influencers. Without knowing these things, you are flying blind as a PR pro. And most of these things you’d only know if you were a part of the organization already.

So when someone asks me to draft a comprehensive communications plan, like say it was the equivalent to drafting a press release (which I can do in my sleep by the way), I immediately come to the conclusion that either they don’t understand what it is that PR people do or worse they don’t respect it. If a hospital were looking to hire a surgeon, they wouldn’t ask the physician to execute a surgery in front of them to evaluate. No, they would go off of referrals from previous employers and a comprehensive evaluation of that candidates previous body of work.

But back to these two request for me to create a comprehensive communications plan as part of the hiring process. Both of the organizations were non-profits. One gave me a week and a half to create the plan and the other a mere three days. In both cases I had already made it through two rounds of interviews where I was grilled on my PR knowledge and my basic understanding of their respective industries. I passed all instances with flying colors. But that wasn’t enough on which to base their hiring decisions; they needed to have a communications plan in hand to review.

I wouldn’t have had a problem with showing them a previously created communications plan or doing a small sample one for their organizations or even a communications plan outline. But they wanted more and with a lot more detail, which immediately sent my internal alarms sounding. One of the organizations sent me the annual report for 2009 and asked me devise a plan for the entire FY 2010. The other directed me to their website and asked me to create a plan for the upcoming year. And in neither instance would there be an exchange of money for all of the time I would have to put into this endeavor.

Both wanted everything included in the plan, such as: creative ideas, time-line for implementation, designated spokes people, actual press releases or concepts for press releases, media lists (along with contacts and contact info) and measurables. I thought they were asking a whole lot for free. And what if they really liked the ideas and the plan but felt more comfortable with another candidate? Where would that leave me? And then it hit me…holding the bag and still in the market for a career home.

In the end, I declined to participate in the more complex of the two and for the other I did a scaled down version of the plan minus the contact info for the media list. If they had everything, what did they need me for? Momma didn’t raise a dummy. I likened it to a john trying to convince a prostitute to let him sample the product up front and if it was good or he liked it, he’d then pay for future services rendered.

When I apply for a position with an organization and ask them to invest in me by providing me with a salary, benefits and opportunity, the only things I have to offer in exchange are my experience, creativity, work ethic and dependability. I place a value on these things and giving away my creativity on the front end leaves me with less in which to barter.

Maybe I’m just naïve or too optimistic to think that life can be fair or that we can be judged based on our body of work.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

PR By Numbers

Public relations is not rocket science. But, by the same token, it’s also not as easy as delivering intra-office mail. The craft of public relations takes talent, knowledge, great instincts and a nose for communicating. So pardon me if I get extremely irritated every time someone belittles my chosen profession or reduces it to a job that anybody with a high school diploma and a copy of “PR for Dummies” could accomplish.

I don’t know about other PR professionals but I take offense with some people who claim to be practitioners (hello Mr. Party Promoter) as well as with those who jump into the PR game on a whim following a career in the media. Now don’t get me wrong, not all media professionals make for bad PR pros. Some of the professionals who crossed over from the media side have turned out to be pretty good in public relations. I’ve actually had the pleasure to meet and work with some of the converts that have made a name for themselves as skilled and knowledgeable practitioners.

But admittedly, it can be a little disconcerting when a person in the media thinks they can do what I do because they get calls and press releases from PR people all day or they think they can pick up the intricacies of PR from a day of job shadowing at an agency (I’ve actually seen this happen twice). In all fairness, I could never do the reverse and go apply for a job as a beat writer with a major daily or as an on air reporter without the experience, training or education (despite the fact that I talk to and deal with reporters everyday).

With that said, imagine the horror I experienced when I saw a press release from a former journalist that started her own PR agency (surprise), announcing the launch of a new and cutting edge service – Do It Yourself Public Relations. Now it wasn’t bad enough that this “PR pro” hopped over to the profession after 15 years as a reporter and editor because, as she put it, she’s “seen her share of press releases – both the good and the bad,” but now she’s trying to convince every John Q. Public with a business that they can do it too. It’s just that easy!

Now this is not the first time we’ve heard of this concept, despite the aforementioned press release positioning it as a new idea. This radical proposal of do it yourself public relations (patterned after the “For Sale by Owner” concept of the real estate industry) was more notably championed by a company called – The PR Store. Under the premise that businesses could do their own PR on a modest budget, The PR Store opened a bunch of locations/franchises around the country (ala fast food chains) that would offer “small business owners an accessible, affordable and effective marketing resource that kept them in control of their marketing without having to do all of the legwork.” They honestly wrote that in their promotional materials for the company.

In actuality, what The “PR” Store boiled public relations down to, was a packet of marketing/press kit materials that you could place an order to have produced by walking up to a counter. In full disclosure, I once applied for a job at their corporate HQ in Charlotte as a Public Relations Manager. I know there’s some irony in that, but I applied for two reasons: one to see if I could possibly affect change from the inside and somehow legitimize their business model and two, to see if I actually could “sell something” I theoretically didn’t believe in. Could I tell the story of an organization that I thought was hurting the profession I love? I never got to answer that question, because I never received an interview.

But back to this concept of do it yourself public relations – I think it’s a mistake (unless you were previously in PR or you have a son who’s a PR pro…hi mom). There’s a reason PR people get paid for what they do…it’s because they have the experience and the know how to get results. As a business owner, you wouldn’t attempt to handle your own legal affairs, or build your own office space or store front, so why would you get out of your lane and do your own PR. There are reasonable ways to contract that effort out to professionals or cost-effectively hire someone in-house to handle that task.

Back to this press release touting do it yourself PR. In the release, it indicates that small businesses don’t have to hire anybody to do their PR but could get the job done by visiting a Web site and getting all the free counsel they could use. If conducting public relations was as simple as this or if it was able to be condensed into one tactic, in some Bizzaro universe I could buy into this. But knowing what I know about the realities and complexities of how an organization communicates and all the different aspects of a business that is attached at the hip to PR, this could never be a winning business model.

In the end, I wish more time had been spent on crafting that press release than on the effort to convince small businesses they can do “public relations” themselves. Clearly, there’s at least one small business that could’ve used the expertise of a seasoned PR pro before distributing a certain press release.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Intern Wanted! Must Have Social Media Experience

If you are a CEO, VP of Communications or a small business owner and you’ve uttered any variation of the following, “we need to bring in an intern to handle our social media,” then it’s clear that your organization is NOT ready and this new form of communicating is not for you.

After all, you wouldn’t let an intern respond to a crisis situation, handle a delicate client inquiry, craft your PR/advertising campaigns or pitch the media on behalf of your organization, so why turn over the reigns of your social media communications outreach to the least vested and least experienced person at your organization?

Social media outreach is not something that is conducted within a bubble. It is your organization’s public face and sometimes it is the first experience an individual may have with your brand. It has to be handled in a strategic and responsible manner and it has to be taken seriously by leadership.

While interns carry the reputation of being more adaptive to embracing new technologies and trends, or can sometimes be a great resource to mine for creative ideas, the fact remains that their experience is limited. Additionally, they know the very least about your organization and how it operates. So again, why put them on the frontline?

Right now I know what the aforementioned CEO, VP of Communications and small business owner might be thinking, “that internets, Spacebook, Myface and Twittering thing is for college kids with too much time on their hands, so why not get a college kid to handle it? Besides they would only be talking to their peers anyway.” Wrong on all counts!

When it comes to social media, the median age of users are as such:

Myspace – Age 26
Twitter – Age 31
Facebook – Age 33
LinkedIn – Age 39

Given this data, it hardly makes sense to try and make a 20-23 year old relate to these demographics, especially without the steady and keen hand of a seasoned communicator guiding them and the messaging.

I’m a strong proponent of an organization’s PR/Communications department owning the social media function. I believe it’s just a natural fit, since communication and engagement is at the core of effective social media outreach. And besides, any modern day PR pro that doesn’t have social media in his or her toolbox is lacking and incomplete. But I would never in my wildest dreams think to hire an unproven intern to implement my company’s social media communications.

But yet, that’s what’s happening everyday. In my work with the Intern In Michigan program, whose primary goal is to grow the number of internships within the state of Michigan as a means of attracting and retaining young professionals, I see dozens of organizations every month looking to hire an intern to handle their social media communications or worse, to implement it. I have nothing against employing interns, in fact I tout the benefits of hiring interns on a daily basis, but what I don’t condone is hiring interns to handle important communications functions. It’s best to remember that they are in training.

So the next time an organization thinks to hire an unpaid intern to speak for them through social media, they should keep in mind the following quote from Oscar Wilde: “Experience is one thing you can't get for nothing.”

So hire a professional.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Take My Junior Staffer…Please

Recently, I was in DC for an interview with a major association. I was having a one-on-one with the VP of Communications and as I normally do in such situations I inquired if the organization handled its PR totally in-house or if they also contracted an outside agency. Having worked in an agency as an account lead, the question allowed me to segue into talking about my experience in that capacity. The VP told me that the association “used to” contract the services of a very big and well known PR agency (name omitted on purpose).

He went on to let me know that the selection of this particular agency was a board/executive team decision. They wanted big results and so they went after a big name with the experience to get big results. I next asked the VP what happened to the relationship and whether or not this “Big Name” agency was able to deliver results. The VP informed me that the results were pedestrian at best and not at all what the association was expecting for the $240K they were shelling out annually (for the math impaired that’s a $20K/mon. retainer). He further indicated that they were unresponsive, inattentive and failed to take advantage of key opportunities to position the organization.

There was one particular incident when he needed to speak to a principal about a crisis communications situation that had arose. The VP thought that paying the $20K per month retainer would at least get you access to an agency leader. But he found that out to be a very false assumption. When he called the agency to seek the counsel of a principal (the same principal that was very active during the pitch meeting) he was blocked by that person’s gatekeeper. The gatekeeper informed the VP that the person he sought was unavailable because he was busy with another client (a major credit card company with lots of commercials on TV).

Because that major credit card company paid millions annually for the agency’s services, it not only got more attention, but the attention of the higher ups. Unfortunately, the associations meager $240K per year did not warrant getting that kinda luv. I asked him, Well what kind of attention did it get you? His reply, “They gave our account to some junior staffer practically fresh out of college with limited experience.” As a result of that treatment and the apparent lack of results, the association decided to discontinue the relationship with the agency and bring all of the PR in-house, hence the reason I was being interviewed for the Director of Media Relations position.

Now, I don’t know how it works at everybody else’s agency, but at the smaller agency I worked at, this association would’ve been a premium client and at the larger agency I worked at, they still would’ve been able to get some top exec handholding for $240K annually. I was astonished by what I had heard. At either agency I worked for, I don’t think the practice of putting a junior staffer on a significant account would’ve been implemented. Or would it?

When I say junior staffer I’m talking account assistant or account executive. I believe anybody from senior account executive on up should be able to lead an account and/or an account team. I myself was leading small to mid-sized accounts from the time I came in the door as an account executive. But should I have been doing so? I knew the frustrations of the association as it pertained to the “bait and switch” because I had been involved in a few. The bait and switch refers to an agency principal being heavily involved in the new business courting and the pitch meeting, but once the account is secured it gets turned over to another staffer to lead and conduct the work.

On the surface this might seem disingenuous or even shady. But so long as no promises were made, that a principal would be “leading” the account or actually doing the work, it was all above board. Many times, I walked into those new biz pitch meetings knowing that I’d be leading the account. So I would try to kill any potential future concerns before they were born.

This might sound crazy but I somewhat agree with the practice of people other than the principal, handling the work and managing the client relations. Depending upon the scope of work and the amount of the project fee or retainer, it may not be the best use of agency time or resources to dedicate a partner to doing the work. There actually is such a thing as you get what you pay for, but that something you pay for should still net you some kind of return. So long as the person leading the account is knowledgeable, qualified, results oriented and attentive to the client, it shouldn’t matter to the organization spending the dough.

Quick antidote: I once led the account for a mid-sized Detroit-based law firm (20 employees). This law firm paid a very modest retainer, but still wanted the attention as if they were paying $240K. For that modest retainer I did a lot of hand holding with the law firm’s president and I generated some pretty decent results. But he wanted a lot more results for the money he was paying. I informed him, that it wasn’t a lack of understanding or ability on my part, but rather that the work necessary to get more results required an increase in account hours, hence a bigger retainer. He didn’t agree with my reasoning. To this client it appeared to him that if he had a partner, as opposed to some account supervisor handling his account, the results would be different. So he proceeded to end around me until he finally got an agency partner on the phone. In the end, the partner calmed his nerves, got the retainer increased and then sent him back to me. Go figure.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Bagging A White Rhino

Ask any PR pro what he or she considers a public relations success and they will begin to rattle off politically correct responses such as: measurable ROI, lasting mutually beneficial partnerships, managed expectations and meeting company objectives, perfectly implemented strategic communications….comprehensive inertia…20 points of light…blah, blah, blah. And with the exception of comprehensive inertia and the 20 points of light, they wouldn’t be wrong. These things are very important ingredients when creating a successful PR campaign.

But if you got these same PR pros together amongst peers and you asked them to answer the same question off the record, many may tell you candidly that a public relations success is getting the “Big Hit,” or at least a part of it. It’s what gets some of us energized and motivated when we’re conducting proactive media relations on behalf of our employer or clients. How can I make the biggest splash and have the greatest impact that will positively influence the bottom line?

In the world of public relations the “Big Hit” could be many different things, but the one thing it definitely is not – is common. It could be getting your client on Oprah’s couch for an in-depth one-on-one; landing your organization on the front page of the New York Times in a glowing editorial; having a famous celeb name drop your product as he is being interviewed following a championship win; or throwing the event to end all events and it attracts coverage from the crème de la crème of national TV outlets. The Big Hit.

I see the Big Hit as the equivalent of being in South Africa and netting a White Rhino in a trophy hunt (apologies to PETA). It’s the thrill of the hunt and the satisfaction that ensues when you’ve finally bagged your quarry. It’s a career highlight that earns you long-time professional props. And don’t get me wrong, clients (if you work for an agency) and organizational leadership (if you’re in-house comm) both like the Big Hit too. For clients it gives them the warm fuzzies about paying the retainer and actually getting something out of the deal that they couldn’t do for themselves. It also buys agencies a lot of good will when the Big Hit is gone and the phones stop ringing as much. For the in-house comm team the Big Hit makes execs and the board happy.

This brings me to CBS’s hit reality TV show, “Undercover Boss.” Without a shadow of doubt “Undercover Boss” is the whitest of rhinos and the biggest of the PR hits. For those unfamiliar with this program, the show follows high-level chief executives as they slip anonymously into the rank and file of their companies. Each week a different executive leaves the comfort of their corner office for an undercover mission to examine the inner workings of their own company. While working alongside their employees, they see first-hand the effects their decisions have on others, where the problems lie within their organization and get an up-close look at both the good and the bad while discovering the unsung heroes who make their company run.

This is the best PR - money didn’t buy! Not only is it a 43 minute advertisement for the company (complete with branding, messaging and product highlights) but also it shows an organization in a more humanizing light and it’s done in a compelling narrative. Participating CEOs move from being anonymous, uncaring decision makers, to compassionate family men that love their companies. I only wish that I could’ve bagged this one for a client I represented.

And if you think the Big Hit doesn’t pay dividends, according to Brandweek, 7-Eleven and White Castle (both appeared on the show) saw bumps in brand awareness following their CEOs going undercover on the show and have settled at levels slightly higher than before their episodes aired. Hooters, whose episode was the closest thing to critical that the otherwise corporate-friendly show has aired, had a surge then dropped back to previous levels.

Back when I was working at an agency, I hunted my own White Rhino. One of the clients whose account I oversaw had launched a unique product in the US. If you Google the product name you’ll see my handy work (circa 2006). The coverage our account team secured during the launch was admirable, but I wanted the Big Hit. After learning that one of the product uses was for crime scene investigations I thought, wouldn’t it be something if we could get this product used/featured on the hit drama CSI?

And the more I thought about it, the more I wanted it to happen. I had an account executive track down a phone number to the production company. From there, we tracked down the show’s technical advisor/producer. I actually reached him and talked up the product. After exchanging several emails worth of product info and pictures, plans were made to ship a sample to the advisor. Our team and the client were ecstatic at the possibility. I informed my account team that when this opportunity was a done deal and finally in the books, I would be quitting the agency. My work would be complete and I was going out on a high note. I meant it too. But unfortunately, while I was working out the details of my soon to be PR coup, the client decided to discontinue the retainer due to budgetary constraints. In the end, I didn’t get to bag my White Rhino…but a guy can dream.

Alright PR pros, what’s your White Rhino?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Gladiator School

One day I was participating in a very informal job interview at a Royal Oak, Michigan coffee shop. The person sitting across from me evaluating my credentials had a copy of my resume in hand. She began to read off the places I had previously worked, but a couple of employer entries caught her attention. “Oh, I see you have agency experience. More specifically, I see that you worked at the ‘Puppy Mill’ for XX year(s). Impressive,” she said.

I thought to myself, Puppy Mill? How so? Later that day I looked up the definition of the term:

A puppy mill, sometimes known as a puppy farm, is a commercial dog breeding facility that is operated with an emphasis upon profits above animal welfare and is often in substandard conditions regarding the well-being of dogs in their care. Hmmmm.

It wasn’t the first time that I had heard the expression puppy mill used in describing working at an agency. It was the third time in five years of working in Michigan that I had heard the reference. In fact, because of the oddity in the usage of the term, I was originally going to name this post “Puppy Mill” but after giving it consideration, I believe the title I chose to be more appropriate. Besides, I didn’t really care for the characterization of being a dog, despite me considering myself an Alpha Male often leading a pack of one.

Also puppy mill is somewhat of a derogatory term when you think of it. Its right up there with “sweatshop” and “shark infested waters,” both of which I’ve heard used when describing working at an agency. But “Gladiator School”…yes, that would be more appropriate. And when I say “Gladiator School” I’m not talking about the type typically associated with the height of the Roman Empire or the story of Spartacus, but rather the one related to America’s penal system. I’m talking kill or be killed…Gladiator School.

Now for those, who have not experienced the correctional industry up close and personal, or seen one episode of HBO’s “OZ” or MSNBC’s “Lock Up” series, a Gladiator School is a less-than maximum security prison (Levels two, three and four in the Federal System) where prisoners are said to get their first real taste of prison life. Within a Gladiator School, guards sometimes use violence to control prisoner behavior, forcing inmates to "snitch" on other inmates under the threat of moving them to the most violent sections of the prison. A gladiator school also may refer to a facility that engages in the practice of setting up prison fights for the benefit of others. In a nut shell it’s an environment that thrives on a survivalist mentality: only the ‘strong’ shall survive.

It’s a grim association I’ve placed upon agency life, but I happen to believe it. And though some may disagree, I also believe that only the best of the best in the public relations industry have faced and survived the Gladiator School. If you take a look at the credentials of the top tier PR pros more than likely you’ll see that they’ve all done a stint at a public relations firm at one time or another.

Additionally, PR agency experience is highly coveted by hiring managers in the world of in-house corporate communications. Why? Because agencies are typically a very fast paced, hardcore grind environment. If you can survive and “make it” at an agency, you can make it anywhere. I’ve been on countless job interviews where the hiring manager made some variation of the following statement, “oh, I see you have agency experience. That’s good because things operate very fast here.”

In translation, what they were really saying is, “Survived Gladiator School huh!? I’m sure you had to shank a few people and spend some time in the hole to make it to Account Supervisor.” And they wouldn’t be that far off from the truth (lol).

Agency experience is also attractive to recruiters from other agencies. Knowing that you didn’t melt from the heat of a busy agency environment can be very seductive. I’ve had multiple agency recruiters engage in competition poaching, trying to lure me into their fold. It happened twice in Michigan and once in Chicago.

When it comes to agency life, there are two things I’m certain of: It’s not an easy environment and it ain’t for everybody. During a total of five years at two different agencies, I’ve seen a lot of things take place. Some people don’t make it past the probation period, while others stayed too long to the point of burn out. I’ve seen people crumble under the weight of the workload and others reduced to tears by overbearing supervisors. You definitely have to be built a certain kind of way to survive and advance. And I’m not specifically talking about kill or be killed or shanking people in the back but definitely incorporating an element of prison survival (life on the yard) to your routine.

It’s funny, I recently read a New York Times Magazine article describing the work offices of the publication, Politico as a fast paced, tough and challenging environment that only the “fearless, fast and ruthlessly competitive” survived. That’s pretty much what agency life is all about.

In saying all that, if I had to do it all over again, I would. I went into the Gladiator School, took on the baddest on the yard, didn’t break and I never had to use my shank. I like to think of myself as the Val Kilmer character in the movie “Felon.” He was tested every now and then, but mostly he kept to himself and nobody bothered him. For up and coming PR professional hopefuls and recent graduates, I think working at an agency is imperative. Not only is a good test of your mettle but also is a good way to test whether or not this profession is right for you. Watching Samantha Jones do PR on “Sex and the City” is a not an accurate litmus of what the profession is like. You have to get your hands dirty and if you can’t join an agency as an Account Assistant, you definitely need to do an internship at one.

There came a time when I left the smaller Michigan PR agency to test my resolve at a much larger agency in Chicago. On my start date, I had just gotten off of a plane and caught a cab downtown with suitcase in tow. I didn’t even have a place to live yet. As I entered the front door of this impressive new agency, the front desk receptionist took my suitcase, which was filled with a week’s worth of clothes, and placed it into a hall closet. She indicated that I needed to be in a morning meeting/call with one of my new clients, the insurance giant, Allstate. To be fair, I was late starting my first day of work, so I had to skip the early morning orientation (due to snow I missed my flight from Detroit and had to catch a later flight). When I walked into that Allstate meeting, it seemed that all eyes were on me and there was an anticipation of what I’d be bringing to the account team as Associate Director of Engagement Marketing.

Normally, in these types of situations, I like to listen and take notes before I comment. But almost immediately a question was thrown to me and I was asked for my take on the approach being taken on a major project. The group around the table and the client on the phone awaited my response. I smiled internally to myself.

Once again, it was time to start sharpening my toothbrush on the floor…welcome to day one of Gladiator School.