Social Media: The Cocaine of Communications?

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I`ve come across a very interesting view on social media, stated by Mirko Lange, head of Talkabout Communications. He says social media is the "cocaine" of communication, referring to a conversation between Bill Cosby and a friend of his:

Cosby: "Tell me, what is it about cocaine that makes it so wonderful?"
Friend: "It intensifies your personality."
Cosby: "But what if you`re an asshole?"

Now according to Lange, this applies to social media just as much: Using it, whether professionally or private, will enhance and intensify your personality (i.e. your brand`s or your company`s personality). If you are an asshole - don`t use it. It`s as simple as that.

Well, unfortunately only few people see themselves that clearly. So they`ll do it anyways. And I do think that even a negative reputation can be turned into a positive one through social media, through public engagement and transparency.

But for some reason it`s usually the corporations who have a negative image already - the shady big players - that manage to screw up something as easy as social media.
Why? Because they handle it exactly the way they used to handle traditional media: dumping information on a passive audience and performing one-way communication instead of dialogue. This is bound to fail, since passive audiences don`t exist anymore. They`ve turned into publics, and publics want to be engaged.

We`ve seen the examples of Nestle, Walmart and BP (all issued in this blog) and they all had one mistake in common: they entered social media (a medium based on and consisting of two-way communication) and forced it into a one-way communicational approach. By spinning and holding back information, ignoring customers and other stakeholder groups, or - most obvious - by trying to withdraw information through legal actions (like Nestle who tried to get rid of the Greenpeace youtube video by issuing copyright claims). At least we now know how they`ve been handling their PR for decades.

These actions backfire in social media. Once information is online, it will stay there forever and there is no sense in manipulating your public anymore. The main principles of social media are dialogue, transparency and engagement.
So join the social media party, but even if you think you`re the coolest kid on the block: be social and take part in the conversation! If your not interested in other people`s opinion - don`t ask for it in the first place.

In many ways, social media is like cocaine. It`s highly addictive and it turns out the best and the worst in people. So make sure you are on your best behaviour.

"When you`re responsible, you don`t spend money on PR"?

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$ 50,000,000 is not much money. At least not in comparison to the amount of money that BP has spent in total for the complete elimination of the oil spill - according to the latest estimates, up to six billion dollars. Nevertheless, these 50 million might just turn even more people against the oil company BP. It`s exactly how much BP is spending for spinning its image through newspaper adverts and, most of all, the internet.

BP`s image couldn`t be worse at the moment, due to the poor handling of the oil spill in the Mexican gulf and its disastrous public relations. They reportedly continue to hamper journalists and publish questionable adverts.

But BP is also paying search engines for so-called AdWords, investing in SEM, Search Engine Marketing. "AdWords" might be terms often searched for, like "oil spill".

So if you search for "oil spill" on Google, the first result you`ve received over the last couple of weeks was BP`s corporate website. Although these links are highlighted in gray and shown as an advertisement, they are clicked on with a high probability. Of course, BP`s website only tells you what they think is the truth.
BP is paying Google for those AdWords - per click. At a cost of up to 2€ per click - which varies by market and quantities - such a campaign can get very expensive quickly. But right now, nothing is too expensive for BP in order to polish their image: during the last couple of weeks they`ve been buying terms like "oil spill", "gulf oil spill", "gulf disaster" or "leak".

Being asked about that by the media, a BP spokeswoman reasoned: "We want it to be easier for users to find important information". The website apparently gives information about asserting claims against BP or volunteering to fight the oil slick.

The (fake) Twitter profile "BPglobalPR" that has been making fun about BP`s terrible crisis management for weeks now, commented: "Investing a lot of time & money into cleaning up our image, but the beaches are next on the to-do list for sure. #BPcares"

Lauren McGowan, who is organizing US protests against the BP PR campaign, said: "Last night I saw an ad with Tony Hayward talking about how BP is "taking responsibility"- but when you`re really responsible, you don`t spend money on PR."

Well, I can`t say I fully agree with that. Of course you can spend money on PR and you should. But not in the way BP does. PR shouldn`t cover up the mistakes that have been done, but should manage the crisis accordingly. In this case, BP should have been honest and open about what has happened and should have granted journalists full access instead of hampering them. BP tried it with PR in the old fashioned way: lying, denying, distracting, spinning...and they`ve failed terribly.

In the end, BP is just another case of crisis management gone wrong. I know I`ve mentioned it many times before in this blog, but good PR has to be based on honesty, transparency and dialogue. Otherwise, it is bound to fail, like this recent example shows.

How journalists use social media

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PR and journalism go hand in hand and when you speak of the importance of social media for PR and how it`s become such a game changer, you always have to consider its influence on journalism as well.So here are some interesting facts from a piece of research by Middleberg Communications and the Society for New Communications Research, titled "Media in the Wired World"

  • Nearly 70 percent of journalists are using social networking sites, a 28% increase since the 2008 study
  • 48 percent are using Twitter or other microblogging sites and tools, a 25% increase since 2008
  • 66 percent are using blogs
  • 48 percent are using online video
  • 25 percent are using podcasts
  • More than 90 percent of journalists agree that new media and communications tools and technologies are enhancing journalism to some extent.

So is Twitter the new press release? Probably not. Still, it has developed into a notable source of information for journalists and therefore provides countless opportunities for PRs. Some people still think that social media suffers from the "shiny object syndrom", being hyped because it`s new, but I think social media came to last, enhancing the dialogue between audience and writer.
Even journalists` perception of the credibility of social media is increasing.

So it`s crucial for public relations professionals to use and embrace all different kinds of social media - not (only) because it gives them the chance to overcome gatekeepers and communicate directly with their audience, but also to maintain and enhance media relations.

Max Clifford: Don`t hate the player, hate the game.

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"Most journalists would sell their own mothers for a great story, but sometimes you're able to make them an offer that they think they shouldn't refuse. I'll find them a job or I'll come up with something that means they won't lose their job."
Max Clifford, Media Guardian 2009

Max Clifford is synonymous with British public relations. The founder of Max Clifford Associates, who is said to make an annual turnover of GBP 2,5 Million, makes sure he remains at the centre of most people`s perceptions of PR - for better or for worse.
There are many things you can say about Max Clifford: he`s a spin doctor, unethical, manipulating, ignorant and incredibly full of himself, but still: people come to him with their stories, because he`s probably the best thing that money can buy.

Max insists that these days, most of his work is keeping stories out of the paper. PR ad absurdum? The Guardian once called him a "human equivalent of the ghost containment grid in Ghostbusters". Bursting with newsworthy stories and you never know when it will explode - a fact that makes him even more powerful. His enormous influence in the business goes back to one simple tool: media relations. It`s Max` close ties to journalists that secure him his power over Fleet Street`s headlines, front pages and lead stories.

I guess he has always understood the power of networking and a good story. And with the success came the clients. Max Clifford made a fortune out of people´s willingness to exploit the private lives of not just themselves but other people as well. His actions have more than once overstepped the bounds of good taste (just think of Jade Goody`s public dying) but nevertheless: he did what he was paid for and what his clients wanted him to do.

What turns people against him is that Max himself became a celebrity and I think it`s a big part of his success. He gives interviews, visits talk shows and attends panel discussions, never failing to give his (unfiltered) side of the story. He is also very open and honest about his PR tools and techniques, even if they are ethically questionable. It`s this art of self promotion that people hate (and secretly admire) about him.

But as much as I disagree with Max Clifford`s shady techniques and his smug demeanour, I have to say one thing: Don`t hate the player, hate the game.
Max Clifford´s tactics wouldn`t work if it wasn`t for sensation seeking journalists, sleazy tabloids and glossies and most of all, millions of readers who are willing to spend a lot of money on sneaking into the lives of others. It`s apparently a part of human nature to do so and Max Clifford has only learnt how to make a business out of it.


Removed from reality: Quo vadis, Catholic Church?

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"We`re not intimidated by petty gossip."
Pope Benedikt, Palm Sunday 2010.

The Catholic Church is currently facing one of the most threatening crises of its history, with thousands of priests being accused of molesting children and the Vatican apparently being responsible for a huge cover up.

I don`t really want to talk about the issue itself here, since this can easily become unruly, but I cannot help but wonder why the church seems so unaware of what damage this does to its public reputation.

If you argue from a crisis management point, the church just makes it worse and worse everyday. They are clearly still trying to cover up the ugly truth instead of being honest or transparent and they have no control over their members whatsoever: priests and bishops in different countries talk to the media, apparently unconstrained by directives. Some are still denying the facts, others are justifying themselves, but the whole church just seems to get more and more caught in its own net.

Now the Vatican thought it would be a good idea to go into the defensive and attack the media. A Vatican newspaper editorial said the claims about Joseph Ratzinger playing a big part in the cover up were an "ignoble" attack on the Pope and that there was no "cover-up".

In Germany, still a predominantly catholic country, Bishop Müller accused the national media of campaigning against the church and compared the situation to the Third Reich, where journalists were also trying to "villainize" the church and to attack its credibility. Of course he was just trying to distract from the facts, "shoot the messenger" - what resulted in heavily offending the German journalists` union.

So how can such a global institution be so blind to the damage of it`s worldwide image?
The allegations have reached a level where there`s no longer a point in denying them. In my opinion, the only exit strategy the church has right now is to fully admit its guilt, to be open and honest about what has been happening in the past and what is still happening all over the world. They have to support criminal prosecution against priests instead of rambling on about "half-century old cases" and statutes of limitation.

The church clearly thinks it can save the institution itself by sacrificing a few black sheep and ride out the whole issue. Sure, they`ve been through worse.

Maybe the church thinks in centuries rather than decades. They still believe that things like that will eventually go away if you just remain silent long enough. But it doesn`t work like that anymore: the media, as well as the recipients have changed. And by not admitting their guilt, they are pushing away a whole generation of believers.

The Catholic Church is in desperate need of change: Change of attitudes, change of behaviour, change of reputation. Otherwise it will fully ruin its reputation and sooner or later, as generations change, lose its followers and therefore its right to exist.

For further information, watch this interview with BBC Vatican correspondent David Willey on failed PR.

Is lobbying destroying our faith in politics?

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The scandal on British MPs` expenses is still fresh but the next one is already `round the corner.

Today the Sunday Times featured the Channel 4 TV programme "Dispatches" that reveals the unregulated world of political lobbying. By pretending to be a fictional US public affairs company, journalists arranged meetings with several senior politicians and asked them if they were interested in a position on the advisory board of their (fictional) London office in order to get priviledged access to Downing Street No 10. Most of them agreed to help win government contracts, provide confidential information and lobby the right people, some even bragged about what they have already achieved for private c
orporate interests while still serving as MPs.

Well, these interviews were filmed by a hidden camera - gotcha.

Stephen Byers, former transport minister and known as close to Tony Blair, even referred to himself as a "cab to hire". A nice referrence to Mohamad al-Fayed who famously said 16 years ago: "You can hire an MP the way you hire a London taxi". So it seems like not much has changed. In the video, Byers boasts he had saved "hundreds of millions of pounds for National Express" and had "delayed and amended food labelling proposals for Tesco". He also mentions his close ties to former PM Tony Blair, saying: "If there`s an event, we could have a word with Tony, say come along for a drink."
And now we know exactly what buying an MP costs: Patricia Hewitt, former health secretary mentioned the sum of 3000 GBP a day, Byers said 3000 - 5000 GBP.

The revelations have transferred the pressure over Westminster sleaze that was previously focused on Lord Ashcroft on the Tories onto the Labour goverment. Of course David Cameron immediately took the chance to air himself, acting shocked and demanding a closer investigation. And being 6 weeks away from the elections, this might just tip the scales for Tory. But does it really matter?

This scandal once more reveals the corruptly politics really are - it is just another evidence for what most voters already know. No wonder a whole generation lost its faith in national politics whatsoever. All this isn`t harming Labour, Tories or Liberals in particular but politics in general: it`s only reinforcing the voters` disenchantment with politics. Even worse: the only parties benefiting from this could be radical ones.

And as always, transparency and honesty are not even considered for resolving the issue. Gordon Brown and the Labour government pretend to be shocked and the MPs caught on tape, as well as the companies they`ve been lobbying for say the allegations were exaggerated.

And in the middle of this, of course, stands PR. Lobbying, public affairs, political PR - the dark side of the industry, undermining the public trust in politics. Some would even call it the single biggest threat to our democratic health. What no one seems to get is that scandals like this hurt the reputation of public relations as a profession just as much as they hurt our trust in politicians. And once the trust is gone, it`s the hardest thing to be regained.


Another epic PR fail: When Nestle met Greenpeace.

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It all started with this video. WARNING: It`s hardcore.

Have a break? from Greenpeace UK.

The story behind this video addresses a couple of issues in PR: the power of NGOs, why they always seem to be one step ahead, why corporations are still so vulnerable when it comes to their reputation, why you can`t live without a descent social media strategy these days and last but not least, why having a facebook fanpage and a twitter profile doesn`t mean you control social media.

When a powerful NGO like Greenpeace starts a worldwide campaign against a corporation like Nestle, it is hard for them to react adequately. Greenpeace wants Nestle to remove palm oil from their products, because its production destroys the rain forrest. They launched the video above, a parody on a kitkat commercial and basically accuses Nestle of killing orangutans by destroying their natural living environment.
Nestle was not amused. But what is the right way to react in a situation like this? Well, we certainly know what the wrong way looks like: Nestle lobbied to have the video removed from Youtube, citing a copyright complaint. That was clearly a bad decision: first, because the video was bound to appear on several other video platforms and second, because it drew even more attention to it. Now that it`s banned, we have to see it, right? Nestle itself gave the video its news worthiness. A text book example for a phenomenon called the Streisand effect.
"Thank you Nestle...I would never have seen this video if you hadn`t had it kicked off YouTube. Now I`m forwarding it all my friends, through Facebook, and guess what they are forwarding it all their mates. Fire your PR team. They are muppets."

We`ve seen this scenario before: While NGOs know exactly what the web2.0 is capable of, partly because they`ve participated in it and needed it from the very beginning, big corporations like Nestle are still wary of it. They use it because they have to, so they employed some people to run a facebook fanpage, a twitter account and maybe a corporate blog. But when it comes to a crisis, they immediatly fall back into old habbits, in this case pulling some strings, make some legal threats, publishing a press release with empty phrases about CSR and hoping that everything will calm down eventually. They just don`t get that the world of PR has fundamentaly changed and that these tools don`t work anymore.

As the video went viral, Nestle made another mistake. Instead of using their existing accounts on social media plattforms to jump into the conversation and calm the waves a bit, they decided to stay away from it. Nestle decided not to address the issue on their twitter feed, except for one single link to their corporate press release, whereas Greenpeace makes it more than easy for supporters to participate in the campaign through social media. Even worse: Nestle is following only 8 people on twitter: what kind of dialogue is that?

Nestle tried to do the same with facebook, but Greenpeace wouldn`t let them. Supporters started posting to the Nestle and the kitkat fanpage en masse, encouraged by Greenpeace. Many changed their profile pictures to Anti-Nestle slogans. Once more, Nestle completely missed the chance to produce any kind of dialogue around the issue, but instead decided it would be a good idea to threaten the facebook users and snap back at fans. When a user posted the following (very true) comment:
"not sure you`re going to win friends in the social media space with this sort of dogmatic approach. I understand that you`re on your back-foot due to various issues not excluding palm oil but social media is about embracing your market, engaging and having a conversation rather than preaching!"
Whoever is responsible for the Nestle facebook account decided to respond this:
"Thanks for the lesson in manners. Consider yourself embraced. But it`s our page, we set the rules, it was ever thus."
Nestle completely lost control over its own facebook page - which shows the ugly side of social media. An open forum for comments and feedback can turn against you, when badly managed. The way Nestle snapped back at users is just ridiculous. The whole social media strategy seems completely uncoordinated and unorganized.

But I don`t see that as a threat to social media marketing in general, as some bloggers already predict. Corporations should be alarmed and learn from what`s happening to Nestle. Don`t take social media for granted and try to dig a little deeper before using it. True engagement in social media first requires you to understand the sociological and cultural implications that social media is funded on. Like every PR tool, it needs to be used strategically and consciously.

International political PR: The EU´s communication deficit.

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Political PR makes the world go round. While national goverments, especially in Europe, rely heavily on spin doctors to influence the public opinion, it is more than surprising how under-developed the European Union`s communication strategy is.
As decisions are more and more made on a European rather than on a national level, EU citizens started to feel left out of the decision making process and turned away from the EU. The consequence are low voter turnouts in the European elections and decreasing acceptance rates. The EU treaty, an important and necessary step towards a European future, eventually failed because of a lack of public support.

The European Commission (which has the biggest influence on the communication policy of the EU and administers the biggest budget) has been through more than one communication disaster during the last decade, and as a result of that, its public reputation is constantly decreasing. Still they don`t seem to learn anything out of it.

During the 1990s, European citizens started to develope a growing EU-scepticism, which the lacking communication and information policy of the EU was held responsible for. It was deeply determined by a lack of transparency and the constant cover-up of corruption.
In 1999 this culminated in the resignation of the Santer Comission because of the corruption scandal that evolved around Edith Cresson.

Therefore, the following commission devoted itself to the development of a more intensive and more strategical communication program, based on the models of transparency and dialogue. Since then, day-to-day communication has definitely improved: daily press conferences and press releases are available online and easily accessible for journalists and citizens. However, there`s still hardly any coordination or collaboration between the communication departments of the Commission, the Parliament and the Council. They work widely autonomous, which is the main reason why a lot of information is published several times or even contradictory.

This is due to the fact that the communication activities of the EU still have no legal basis. There is no official allocation of competence for information policy (meaning active Public Relations). How can an organization as big as the EU, facing the challenge of communicating to almost 500 million people, have no integrative communication strategy, not even an overall communication department?

The communication of the EU shows an even bigger deficit when it comes to the planning and realisation of campaigns. Up to now campaigns (such as the campaign for the introduction of the Euro) have been of astoundingly bad quality and showed only little effect on the European citizens. Only political or intellectual elites have been addressed or the subject has been communicated in a wrong way. That makes it particularly easy for EU opponents to launch anti campaigns and reach a bigger audience than the actual campaign. After the referendums on the EU treaty in France, 60% of the French citizens said they voted against it, since the treaty was too complicated to understand and too difficult to read. No one bothered to provide the citizens with decent information material.
This could be due to the fact that only few communication experts work for the commission, but rather political scientists. The EU has to begin to value PR, build a decent communication department and spend more money on its campaigns in order to ensure a higher quality and coverage. If the EU is not able to plan good campaigns on its own, it has to consider employing external PR agencies. Bad, half-heartedly realised campaigns only make the European citizens think even more negative of the EU.

The EU`s biggest problem is that there is still no European public sphere, mainly because of the lack of communication. Issues and problems are mostly handled at a national level but never at a European one. It should be the higher purpose of the EU communication policy to change this. Without a united European public, the EU cannot succeed.

Glamourous PR girls? Why your TV is lying to you.

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The perception of women in PR is highly influenced by fictional movies and tv shows - and it´s not always the best one.

Many people don`t exactly know what PR is all about and what a PR pro really does. So TV actually plays a big part in constructing the public image of PR.

Movies like Wag the Dog or Thank you for Smoking show PR as ruthless, unethical spin. But there may be an even bigger threat to the profession: the countless fictional and reality TV shows featuring the fabulous lifes of "PR girls". When female PR practitioners are portrayed as fluffy party girls, young, pretty and from head to toe dressed in designer clothes, this might have a negative impact on both the state of professionalism in PR and the ongoing fight of women trying to shatter the glass ceiling.

PR is a field widely dominated by women. And in fact, whenever a PR practitioner is shown on TV, it`s a woman. Samantha Jones in Sex & the City, Eddie and Patsie in Absolutely Fabulous, Shauna in Entourage: they all have one thing in common - they work in the celebrity, fashion and lifestyle sector and they are living every girl´s dream. What they display is a rather superficial view of public relations: PR is more fun than actual work, more of a lifestyle choice than a career. And as a pleasant side effect, they all seem to earn tons of money. They are dressed in Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton, drive fancy cars and their main job seems to be drinking champagne at parties.

All those popular shows may be one of the reasons why so many young girls decide to pursue a career in PR. Well, reality will teach them a lesson soon enough. Working in PR isn`t more glamourous than any other job. Especially Fashion PR requires more than a "Passion for Fashion" - it is hard work and most of the time, you`ll be to tired to go to those fabulous parties that you see on TV.

But yes, there may be hope. While the MTV "Power Girls", a reality show about Lizzie Grubman`s New York PR firm, seem like Samantha Jones` little sisters, all giggly and glamourous, the new show featuring life in a PR agency takes a slightly different approach: Bravo`s "Kell on Earth" is the first show to focus on the hard work that stands behind a glamourous appearance. Fashion publicist Kelly Cutrone often looks like she hasn`t slept in 5 years and so do most of her employees: fashion PR is dominated by long working hours, very unglamourous duties and unpleasant budget cuts. Maybe that show will be eye-opening for some girls...

All in all, PR should start to work on its own reputation. TV is reinforcing the image of PR as being fluffy and somewhat unnecessary. As long as popular culture portrays women in PR as fluffy party girls, they won`t be associated with strong management skills and therefore won`t be able to reach the top of the profession. PR in general suffers from this reputation and has troubles with being taken seriously within organizational culture.

Women in PR: Will we ever shatter the glass ceiling?

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"A woman`s place is no longer in the home. It seems to be in the communication department."
Wilma Matthews, 1986

Back in the 1960s, women formed only 10 per cent of the American PR field. Only 20 years later, in the mid-80s, this percentage had increased to 50 per cent. This phenomenon, called the “Gender Switch”, initialized the quantitative feminization of public relations.
At the end of the 1990s, according to the US Department of Labor, two thirds of PR specialists were women.

At the same time, research has repeatedly shown that a strong vertical segmentation has taken place: men are more often working in the higher paid manager role, women work as PR technicians and therefore earn less money . Gender predicts income. Cline et al. (1986) proved that women are earning at least 18,5 per cent less then men in PR – only determined by the variable sex.

It is a fact that women are pushed aside by men while climbing the job ladder. In education, women dominate the field by far: an estimated 80 per cent of public relations majors are female. But as age and years of work experience increase, the percentage of women decreases. The main reason for this diminution is probably the problematic connection of family and job. Similar to many other professions, women have problems with coming back to a job after having a baby and experience not being as “valued” anymore, especially when working set hours. Many organizations still refuse to provide proper child care benefits or family leave policies.

Another argument is that men are taught from a young age to feel a sense of entitlement for moving up in an organization`s hierarchy, whereas women feel a lot more uncomfortable asking for promotions. Men come into entry-level positions already socialized to act like managers, and therefore, will be promoted faster than women. Even more, many organizations are still ruled by sex discriminations and sexism. Respondents of the surveys conducted by Grunig et al. (2001) and Aldoory&Toth (2002) talk about “good ol `boys networks” in organizations, where men in senior management support and promote younger men, but women are strategically excluded and run over. “It shuts them out at the management table as well as on the basketball court or on the golf course” (Grunig et al., 2001).

This has also an impact on networking amongst women. Many of them feel that the opportunities are so limited that they are forced to promote themselves at the expense of other women, a phenomenon often referred to as “catfighting” or the “queen bee syndrom”.

Another factor women are suffering from are gender stereotypes. Women are perceived of lacking managerial skills and not being able to lead. Again, this is just a consequence of gender-specific socialization processes that seem to make women more suitable for certain tasks (like communication) than others (like management), which is why a lot more women can be found working as a PR technician than a PR manager.

To overcome discrimination on an organizational/social level, general awareness of sexism in society must be raised and gender strereotypes have to be broken down. Organizations need to keep on establishing more family-friendly policies. Even more importantly, the masculine ethic in organizations has to be rethought. Family-friendly policies are of limited benefit until the value system that predominates in most organizations changes.

First, the next generation of public relations scholars has a special obligation to carry on gender research in the tradition of those who have paved the way, to help make a profession that has promised women opportunity one that delivers on that promise. Future research should particularly focus on structural criteria of the specific labour market, as well as aspects of organizational cultures.
And most importantly: Be aware of discrimination and gender inequities. The sooner you get prepared for it, the more you can change these conditions. We`re in charge of our own future and cannot wait for the world to change - better change it yourself. Be aware of things like networking among men and try to break into it.

Previous studies have shown that there is still a high level of denial when it comes to gender inequities. Both men and women tend to deny that discrimination is as pronounced as the research indicates, even when faced with the hard facts. So women, should be aware of this subject and start to deal with it as early as possible, in order to succeed.


Aldoory, L. & Toth, E. L. (2002). Gender discrepancies in a gendered profession: A developing theory for public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 14(2), 103-126.

Cline, C. G. & Toth, E. L., Turk, J. V., Walters, L. M., Johnson, N. & Smith, H. (1986). The velvet ghetto: The impact of the increasing percentage of women in public relations and business communication. Summary Report. San Francisco: IABC Foundation.

Dozier, D. M. (1988). Breaking public relations´ glass ceiling. Public Relations Review, 14(3), 6-14.

Grunig, L. A., Toth, E. L. & Hon, L. C. (2001). Women in public relations. How gender influences practice. New York: Guilford Press.

PR: Ethics for the sake of professionalism?

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Ethics in Public Relations have emerged to one of the key topics in PR theory and research over the last decades. This is on the other hand due to the growing professionalization and institutionalization of PR, on the other hand stories of PR practitioners violating existing moral conceptions by deliberately lying to the public have been all over the media and confirmed the bad public reputation of PR as a manipulating, untrustworthy industry. Many sources even refer to the term "public relations ethics" as an oxymoron (Parson, 2004; Seib&Fitzpatrick, 1995), meaning that it cannot exist because of the nature of PR as a deliberately manipulating practice. Hence setting up certain ethical rules and codes of conduct should improve this public image and provide guidelines to practitioners. But how effective are they?

Of course public relation practitioners face certain difficulties when it comes to ethics. PR is supposed to establish public trust, but nevertheless it is paid, order-bound communication. Professional organizations responded to this ethical dilemma by developing certain codes of conduct that should apply not only to their members but to every PR professional.

Those codes are supposed to provide guidance in ethical questions to individuals, but their main purpose probably is to strengthen the perception of PR as a profession. Resolving ethical questions and providing clear standards on what is right and what is wrong is crucial to a profession. Since other typical characteristics of a profession like prescribed standards of education will never apply to public relations (because of the freedom of speech), PR justifies itself through a social component of professionalism, which is serving the public interest. “Every profession has a moral purpose. Medicine has health. Law has justice. Public relations has harmony – social harmony” (Seib&Fitzpatrick, 1995). In order to secure the public interest, restrictions on behavior come into consideration. Thus if we accept this obligation to act in the public interest, we voluntarily restrict professional actions by that obligation.

If founding professional organizations such as the PRSA was the first step towards professionalism in PR, setting up ethical codes of conduct was a logical second one. Today nearly every national public relations organization has its own set of ethical codes. The Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions lists more than 850 different codes of ethics on its website (Read more about the Code of Athens, Code of Lisbon, PRSA Member Code of Ethics). Most of them are quite similar to each other and cover the moral principles of honesty, integrity and fairness. Some are very clear about the ethical do`s and don`ts, some are more vague and provide more of a general guideline to ethical behaviour and human rights.

Not to give out expensive gifts to journalists, not to lie to or to mislead the public, to avoid conflicts and to strengthen the public’s trust in ones profession – all of those principles make perfectly sense. But even if you cannot criticise the codes internally anymore, there are still some major problems left: First, they have “no teeth” and second, only a minority of practitioners actually know about them. The enforcement of a code is of course limited by the organization’s authority, because codes are only enforceable to an organization’s members. Only ten percent of active PR professionals in the USA are members of the PRSA.

And even for members of the organization, the punishment for violating the code of conduct is relatively harmless. It ranges from admonishment to expulsion from the organization. That is a far cry from the punitive power wielded by organizations in professions in which practitioners are licensed. Lawyers and physicians can ultimately be banned from their occupation when violating canons of professional ethics, but a public relations practitioner is “protected” by the freedom of speech.

So maybe those codes are nothing more than an attempt to professionalize public relations and improve its public reputation. Do professional codes not only state the obvious? Parsons (2004) says: “The primary argument against the requirement for professional codes of ethics is the belief that there need not be any special code of ethics apart from the moral guidelines within a given society”. It is true, that common sense and a basic understanding of morals and ethics would make a professional code unnecessary in large part, since those codes refer mainly to personal ethics. But so does the law – and still we need it. Unfortunately we do not live in a perfect world where everybody lives up to moral ideals. A code of conduct’s right to exist lies in providing guidance when a practitioner sees his personal ethics challenged. However, those codes are limited by the individual. An unethical practitioner will not be bothered by a professional organizations` code of conduct.

In my opinion, ethics are key. Creating an atmosphere of social responsibility and moral values has become a key requirement to modern organizations and this will eventually have an impact on the profession of public relations itself. By helping to raise the ethical standards of the organizations they represent, public relations professionals will enhance their own reputation.

Watch the trailer of Thank you for Smoking, a very entertaining and eye opening movie about the industry of spin and ethics in PR:


Bentele, G. & Seidenglanz, R. (2008): How ethical do PR practitioners think? Evaluation of ethical values and attitudes of the professional field in Germany. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, TBA, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Seib, P. & Fitzpatrick, K. (1995): Public Relations Ethics. Orlando: Harcourt Brace and Company.

Parsons, P. (2004): Ethics in public relations: a guide to best practice. London: Kogan Page Limited.

Celebrity Crisis Management 101

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"If you made a big mistake, you got to come out and just be contrite, be honest, and just tell the public `I was wrong`."
Tiger Woods (2007)

The fall of Tiger Woods, the world`s most highest paid athlete, is a classic example of bad crisis management. His many affairs have dominated the headlines since the scandal first broke in November 2009, when he crashed his car and refused to talk to the investigating police, clearly admitting he had something to hide from the public. But silence isn`t golden in all cases, particularly when it comes to crisis management. In every crisis, there comes a moment where you have two choices: Either come out of the closet and honestly answer all questions the media asks, or letting your lawyers and spin doctors deal with it, hoping you can control the crisis until the public interest dies down - the latter being almost certainly doomed to failure.
Tiger Woods clearly chose door no. 2. While his countless mistresses - sniffing the chance of 15 minutes of fame - were more than happy to talk to the media, Tiger remained silent and watched his career rapidly falling apart. Sponsors like AT&T, Gilette and Accenture turned away from him and the glossies milked the scandal with relish, as more and more details were revealed. By not commenting, Tiger gave them material for months instead of ending it with a comprehensive statement. John Eckel, CEO of Alliance, a sports and entertainment marketing company, says: "There are two courts - a legal court and the court of public opinion, and they ignored the court of public opinion. He has been in free fall with his endorsements and had he gotten out in front, some of that may have been preventable." Tiger has let his crisis manage him, instead of the other way around.

Earlier in 2009, US late night king David Letterman found himself in a very similar scandal, but chose a whole different way of managing it. TV host who has been with his wife for over 20 years, admitted that he had sexual relationships with female employees, after one of them tried to extort $ 2 million from him over the affairs. He reacted quickly and acknowledged the affairs live on his show, before the media even had a chance to report on it. Therefore he was able to take control of the scandal and totally stole the media`s thunder. Watch his monologue here:

He approached the topic in a comical way and unlike Tiger, he managed to maintain his reputation and he didn`t lose any of his major advertisers, which include Toyota Lexus and Direct TV Group Inc. He later apologizes to his wife and his staff on the show as well. A couple of weeks later, he even found himself in a position to make fun of Tiger Wood`s scandal ("Stop calling me for advise") - that`s how quickly he was forgiven, just by telling the public the truth right away.

So after a couple of months, Tiger Woods finally got some good advise and held a press conference where he admitted his affairs and apologized to his family, his sponsors and the public. But it was too little too late. Tiger`s reputation is deeply damaged and the echo of this scandal will now follow his career for a long time.

So what do we learn from this in terms of crisis management? 3 simple rules:
  • Don`t wait. The media will find its way to get to information, and rumours will start to shape the story. Even worse, you lose control of the coverage.
  • Don`t run from the truth. When Tiger first addressed the issue, he described "many false, unfounded and malicious rumors circulating about my family and me". He tried to play the scandal down and left the impression that the allegations weren`t true - but they were.
  • Don`t hide. Tiger stopped making public appearances since the scandal broke, he hid from cameras and later moved to a rehab clinic. The only human faces on the story where the many women who claimed they had sex with him. It took him a long time until he finally decided to appear in front of a camera for his press conference.
Those three simple rules form the keystones of every crisis management practice. It`s all about transparancy, honesty and speed - no matter if the crisis is about celebrities, CEOs or corporations. They are all brands and the same rules apply to them.

Dezenhall, E. & Weber, J. (2007): Damage Control. Why everything you know about Crisis Management is wrong. New York: Portfolio Trade.

Celebrity Social Responsibility

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"With so many Hollywood actors, British rock stars and American talk show hosts beating a path to Africa - building schools, visiting refugee children, raising awareness on AIDS and the fighting in Darfur - it`s a wonder the entertainment industry can still function."
Scott Baldauf

In recent years celebrities have taken an active interest in world politics, donating significant sums of money, adopting children from developing countries, visiting refugee camps - the number of activities is endless. Some, like U2 singer Bono, have become well-recognized global activists. In 2006, Time Magazine declared him their "person of the year" for having "persuaded the world´s leaders to take on global poverty".
Celebrity involvement in politics is not a new phenomenon, just think of Bob Dylan or John Lennon´s songs in the 1960s. Then, in the 1980s projects like Bob Geldof`s LiveAid or Michael Jackson`s USA for Africa we
re brought into being in order to raise awareness for the suffering in third world countries.
But what really drives celebrity activism for global issues? Is it all good will and conscience or are they - much like corporations - merely window dressing?

We probably have to distinguish between two types of celebrities. The ones who really care and have a genuine interest and the ones who do it solely for reasons of self-promotion.

First of all, celebrity philanthropy can really make a difference. The United Nations have been actively approaching celebrities to become spokespeople of the organization, since Kofi Annan became Secretary General. On their website they say:
"Fame has some clear benefits in certain roles (...). Celebrities attract attention, so they are in a position to focus the world`s eye on the needs of children, both in their own countries by visiting field projects and emergency programmes abroad. They can make direct representations to those with the power to effect change. They ca use their talents and fame to fundraise and advocate for children and support UNICEF`s mision to ensure every child´s right to health, education, equality and protection."
The UN confirms that the use of celebrities has proved particularly effective both in raising awareness and in fundraising for the organization`s agencies.
Many NGOs, such as Oxfam rely heavily on celebrity ambassadors, since they reach people in a way an organization can`t.
So it is definitely the right thing to do. If you are an opinion leader and if you have the power to convince people to change their behaviour or simply to listen, then you should use it. There`s nothing wrong about it. There`s also no question that social causes do a great deal for the brand identity of the stars and the sponsors who embrace them.

But it seems like this has been taken to a new level. Nowadays, every celebrity has to attempt to save the world, even if they have no interest in doing so. They do it in order to remain celebrities. Howard Bragman, author of "Where`s my fifteen minutes?" says:
"You`ve got to have something for People magazine to shoot you at. You can`t just get $20 million a picture, you`ve got to serve turkey to the poor, too."

We live in a world were fame cannot be retained without continuous publicity. Celebrity activism is used to create positive press coverage and distract the public attention from past scandals (again, much like corporations use CSR). Angelina Jolie, once known as a drug abusive bad girl, totally repositioned herself through her work as a UN ambassador.
And then there´s the ones who just jump on the bandwagon. Madonna learned the hard way how fake commitment can backfire. Her adoption of a Malawian baby with procedures of dubious legality was a lesson learned for other celebrities. Lots of celebrities commit themselves to environmental issues without really knowing what they`re doing. This includes the story of Paul McCartney, who was given a hybrid car from Lexus. The car was specially flown in from Japan, therefore creating several hundred times more emission than it could ever save.

So some celebrities have an official capacity like the UN, some do it out of good will and some just for the publicity - but does it matter, as long as it works?
There is some serious criticism on celebrity activism. Some commentators, especially in Europe not only consider celebrity philanthropy non-genuine but criticize them for doing damage to Africa and other third world countries. In the Guardian, Nathalie Rothschild accuses Bono and the Live8 campaign for "perpetuating the undignified stereotype of Africans as poor, helpless and hapless. It was a campaign, not for global equality and modern development, but for miserably low aspirations." Celebrities are often accused of naivety, they tend to describe things in simplistic terms of good versus evil and black versus white.

In general, there`s nothing wrong about celebrities working for a good cause. Not matter what their true agenda is, they raise awareness, money and might eventually help the world to become a better place. But for the sake of their own reputation they should follow the same basic rules that apply to corporations when participating in CSR: be honest, be genuine and if you don´t care about the cause it might be better not to do it at all.

British comedian Sascha Baron Cohen addressed the issue in his movie Brüno, where the main character desperately tries to become famous and eventually records this charity song with Elton John, Bono, Sting and others:


CSR: Business for a greater good?

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"There is one and only one social responsibility of business - to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits."
Milton Friedman, Nobel-prize winning economist

The concept of Corporate Social Responsibility describes the relationship between business and the larger society. While some argue that business exists to serve the greater community as well as direct beneficiaries of the company`s operations and that it`s a business`obligation to use its resources in ways that benefit society, others say that business shouldn`t do anything but increasing profits - by legal means. When Henry Ford first tried to invest some of his profit in implementing his social plans in 1919, he actually got sued by his shareholders and was forced to pay them a dividend instead.

Today companies can buy, invest, produce and sell anywhere on the planet. But with globalization came the global players that learned to take advantage of it by exploiting the third world and therefore maximizing their profit. But they weren`t willing to take social responsiblity for the places they operate in and the gap between rich and poor grew. The consequences were environmental damage and the disregard of human rights in developing countries. That`s when NGOs came to life, naming and shaming some of the world`s biggest companies` racketeering - Shell, Nestle and Nike, just to name a few.

When companies realized how much their reputation actually suffered from that, they decided to take the bull by the horns and established the concept of CSR. Thus they were able to restore their image and release the pressure built up by NGOs and governments - because there is another reason why companies seam so eager to help the world: through globalization, national companies turned into transnational conglomerats and therefore went beyond the national scope - national economical regulations wouldn`t apply anymore. On a global level, there simply were no employment or environmental laws, no trade practice rules or a standardized fiscal system. And since companies benefit from that lack of regulations, they used CSR to keep governments and supranational organizations from setting some up. They basically regulated themselves before they were regulated and therefore managed to keep a certain leeway.
That`s were terms like "window dressing" and "green washing" come in. Businesses pretend to care about their environment because they are expected to, when really, most of them never go through with it. They set up funds, print green labels on their products or give money to charities, but what are they really doing? The gas company BP invested $200 million in solar energy, but at the same time they spent $8.5 billion on exploring new oilfields in environmentally sensitive areas. A local water project, supported by Shell, failed because the water tower they built was never actually connected to the water supply mains. If you make your profits out of nuclear power, don`t act like you care for the environment.
Banerjee (2007) concludes: "All the theories and concepts of CSR and corporate citizenship suffer from a fundamental limitation: the absence of a clear political and legal framework for coordinating citizenship rights and responsibilities."

In my opinion, real Corporate Social Responsibility is not about pretending to save the world. It`s about honestly engaging in some simple groundrules, like producing safe goods, securing jobs and paying socially acceptable wages. If a company just sticks to that, it would really make a difference. The practice of CSR is usually regarded as a PR function, because it`s where the organization meets the public outside of the usual stakeholders (mainly producers and customers). So PR practitioners can use CSR as just another element in the creation/engineering of public opinion, to make an organization look good and polish its reputation - or they could realise the idea that PR can actually act in the public interest (like Grunig (1989) suggested) by making genuine attempts to discover the requirements of stakeholders and help companies to be more responsive to social needs.

Banerjee, S. (2007): Corporate Social Responsibility - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.
Theaker, A. (2001): The Public Relations Handbook. New York: Routledge.
Snider, J., Hill, R. & Martin, D. (2003): Corporate Social Responsibilty in the 21st Century: A Vire from the World`s Most Successful Firms. Journal of Business Ethics 48/2003.

Think global, act local? Not anymore.

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In "International Public Relations in Practice" Angela Heylin (1991) says: "Cultural, regulatory, financial media and government relations all vary from one country to the next and public relations practice has to adapt to these local needs and conditions." She`s one of the many supporters of the popular guideline "Think global, act local". But that was 20 years ago, and today, fewer organizations have a totally domestic perspective, even when they aren`t operating outside of their own national borders. That`s because the issues that are concerning people often have a relevance around the world. That is particularly applicable when it comes to European countries which share similar beliefs and agendas, and are stronger connected than ever before. In my opinion, thinking global without actually implementing an international strategy isn`t enough anymore, especially when it comes to corporate communications.

When you think of global PR disasters, most case studies focus on big culture clashs, like Pepsodent Toothpaste (who advertised white teeth in Southeast Asia, when actually Natives found black teeth more attractive) or Ford who launched the "Pinto" in Brazil (not knowing that it translated to "small male genitals"). Cross cultural differences can make or break a PR campaign. This is especially important for big international conglomerats who communicate globally. However, international PR disasters don`t always evolve from cultural missunderstanding, but also when PR is badly planned and the international perspective is left out. That was the case when Shell UK planned to dump the redundant oil storage plattform Brent Spar in the North Sea in 1995. Shell had followed all British and international laws, but wasn`t considering the geography that gave neighbouring countries a stake in the decision. Greenpeace on the other hand, was well organized on an international level and was therefore able to seriously harm Shell. Greenpeace managed to trigger antagonism to Shell in Germany, which considered the North Sea a "German Sea". It ended up getting huge media coverage and Shell gas stations were boycotted, later some were even fire-bombed.
First, the media attention in Germany was only limited to the northern (costal) areas, but since Greenpeace activists occupied the Brent Spar for three weeks the media coverage exploded and celebrities, politicians and even the church took part in the discussion. Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Iceland and Norway got involved in the discussion, because they all felt concerned about the North Sea area and somehow responsible for it. In Germany, the issue got very political, politicians of the Green Party pressured Chancellor Helmut Kohl to stop the dumping process - in fact, he begged British PM John Major to withdraw the dumping permit.

But the real disaster was that German Shell barely got any informaton from Shell UK to begin with. And when the scandal began, they had no idea what was going on, because no one had felt the need to inform them. When the crisis emerged, a fast reaction was crucial. But Shell UK hadn`t thought about translating any of their reports or material into other languages. So Shell Germany had to hand out English leaflets at gas stations in order to inform customers about their point of view. They completely failed to gain the European public`s support because their thinking was limited to a local angle. Greenpeace, on the other hand, was well prepared and provided information for citizens of every involved country. Shell`s sales dropped by 30% in Germany. Intracompany warfare ensued between Shell UK and Shell Germany. Shell UK had made a huge mistake by not taking its European neighbours into account.

Shell eventually gave in and stopped the dumping process. Since then, they have learnt their lesson. They came up with an extensive and global Corporate Identity program intended to highlight their commitment to sustainable development and promote a positive image in the 140 countries in which they operate. Shell started to implement a communication strategy based on the principles of dialogue and transparency and therefore was able to regain most of its old reputation.

This example shows how important international consultation is when it comes to PR. Europe is growing together and the internet makes it even easier to tear down the walls between nations. Since we`re on our way to become one European nation, there is no "local" anymore.

Nally, M. (1991): International Public Relations in Practice. London: Kogan Page Limited.
Morley, M. (2002): How to manage your global reputation. London: Palgrave.

Same, same, but different: Cultural Dimensions.

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"Diversity may be the hardest thing for a society to live with, and perhaps the most dangerous thing for a society to live without."
William Sloane Coffin, Jr.

The Dutch cultural psychologist and sociologist Geert Hofstede connects culture with a "mental software": culture is the "collective programming of mind, that differentiates members of one group or one category of humans of another." Every human has a "mental programming" which he`s been tought since he was born. The source of this programming is our social surrounding, where we grow up and collect our life experiences. Most of it is acquired during early childhood. Hofstede refers to one of the most extensive empirical studies about cultural differences ever conducted. In 1968 and 1972 he interviewed 116.000 IBM employees in 53 countries. The results showed common problems in different countries, however the solutions differed from country to country. These could be summarized in what Hofstede calls "Cultural Dimensions". They are a good instrument to win a group-related "cultural overview". Here are the 5 dimensions:
  • Low vs. high power distance: This dimension measures how much the less powerful members of organizations expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.
  • Collectivism vs. individualism: This dimension measures how much members of a culture define themselces apart from their group memberships.
  • Masculinity vs. femininity: This dimension measures the value placed on traditionally male (i.e. competitiveness, ambition) or female (i.e. relationships, quality of life) values.
  • Low vs. high uncertainty avoidance: This dimension measures how many members of a society attempt to cope with anxiety by minimizing uncertainty. If cultures have a high uncertainty avoidance, people prefer explicit rules rather than flexible guidelines.
  • Long vs. short term orientation: This dimension describes a society`s "time horizon", or the importance attached to the future vs. the past and present. It tries to distinguish the difference in thinking between the East and the West.
Hofstede`s work can be criticized as too trivialized and simplifying. It`s also limited to certain branches and social classes of society and the way his questions were phrased is very "western". This system clearly bears the risk of declaring nations, developing stereotypes and therefore leading to prejudices of certain cultures and people. Thus a crucial factor for the tenability of those dimensions is to apply them in a critical, reflective way. One should always be aware of cultural change and the constraints of Hofstede`s concept.

On his website, Hofstede published the data for every nation he examinde. Here`s what he found out about my homecountry, Germany.

Power distance: Compared to Arab countries, which have a very high power distance, Germany is somewhat in the middle. Like in most other western European countries, the gap between rich and poor is not too big and there`s a broad middle-class. Germans have a strong belief in equality, but also in the opportunity to rise in society.

Individualism: Germany can be considered as a very individualistic country. People stress on personal achievements and individual rights. Group work is important, but everyone has the right to stress his own opinion and is expected to reflect it. That may be related to Eastern Germany being a socialist country for over 40 years. Growing up in a system that strongly oppresses any kind of individualism and stresses collectivism makes people value the right to make their own decissions even more.

Masculinity: Germany is rather masculine than feminin, the index of 66 is exactly as high as the UK`s. Masculine traits include assertiveness, material success, power, strength and individual achievements. I agree with the fact that ambition is a very common German attribute. Also, female values like relationships and family are still decreasing. People turn away from marriage, the average number of children per couple is 1.3.

Uncertainty Avoidance: The German Uncertainty Avoidance Index is rather high. Germans don`t like uncertainty, but they love to make plans and organize in advance in order to avoid it. Germans rely heavily on rules, law and regulations. This relates to the international stereotype of the inflexible, well-organized German who never dares to break a rule.

I`m trying to relate his findings to the other German-speaking countries, Austria and Switzerland. These three cultures, especially Germany and Austria are traditionally perceived as being more or less the same, since they share a common language, history, religion and customs. But the graphics clearly show that there are substantial differences between those countries, althought they appear to be so similar.

For example, the power distance index in Austria is much lower than in Switzerland and Germany, and the masculinity index is a lot higher. According to this, material prosperty is a lot more important than the maintenance of relationships in Austria. People have distinct conceptions of what a man or a woman should be like, interferences are not wanted. The higher power distance index shows that there are lower expectations of equality in Germany and Switzerland than in Austria. Hofstede`s results are making a very important point: We are similar, but not the same.

Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. & Minkov, M. (2010): Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. New York: McGraw-Hill.