A personal situation I encountered a few weeks ago prompted me to write this piece on ethics. A person I thought I knew very well and trusted turned out to be not-so trustworthy. To make matters worse, she thought that the personal relationship between me and the others she wasn’t being entirely honest with would negate the unethical and duplicitous things she was pulling in trying to secure new business. She was wrong.

As public relations professionals, we are faced with ethical situations all the time. The very often sensitive nature of the information we are privy to and the challenges we encounter in our organizations and agencies force us to make tough decisions. We often have to give the media and other target audiences information that will make them disappointed, angry or both, or give honest answers to tough questions that put our clients and/or organizations in a negative light. We often do this under duress, in the midst of a crisis and on the turn of a dime. We have little time to think and prepare our answers and the information we need to provide.  It is even harder when the emergency situation impacts people’s health and lives. “No comment” is never a good option and even less so when it involves highly sensitive and emotional situations.

New forms of media also put us in difficult situations. Blogs, message boards, Facebook, My Space, Twitter, give us immediate and powerful ways to communicate with our audiences – but it also allows us to use those tools to influence the perception of brands, companies, clients and organizations in misleading ways. Recently a large public relations firm was exposed for using interns to post positive reviews on its client’s apps on the Apple store.  Now, PRSA and IABC have explicit guidelines for ethics in our profession. And gaming an app rating system isn’t explicitly listed as a no-no within the ethics guidelines provided by these organizations, but…

The management that developed the client plans executing this “tactic” knew it wasn’t right. They knew it was dishonestly influencing people’s decisions to use or pay for and use an application and the “strategy” was flawed. They ignored their gut and pulled this stunt anyway, getting quick results for their clients and eventually being exposed, along with the clients, for being dishonest.

Step outside the pressure of getting a client, getting results, getting the media off your back, and think beyond the ethics guidelines of a PRSA or IABC (although they are a great start!): Does what I am about to do pass the gut test? Do I feel good about this? If what I am about to do was written out fully and posted in the company lunch room, on the organization’s website, my church bulletin or my child’s school newsletter, would I feel embarrassment?

We operate personally and professionally in a social and natural environment. We also expect people to be straight with us. We have to be in return. We are bound by duty as a result of this to be accountable to the environment we live and work in. Everything you do should pass the gut test.

And if that isn’t enough to convince you, read this!

A lot has happened since my last post…I have a full-time job now! I accepted a Public Relations Manager position with a state agency and I start tomorrow. Pleased as punch. I am glad that my 16 months of unemployment has come to an end, and that I can truly put that chapter behind me and start a new one. I think everything happens when it is supposed to, and I think the position came when I finished working through the kinks of my layoff and the emotions surrounding something like that.

But with a new position comes a whole new set of emotions. I am happy and grateful, but scared too. I don’t think it is going to be easy being the New Kid On The Block after such a long period out of work. I wonder if I will be rusty. I hope I can live up to all the potential they saw in me to hire me in the first place and that I don’t disappoint them.  I think back on the last two jobs I had, and I can honestly say that I had rocky beginnings with both of them. I am reviewing those situations to see what role I played in that. To be fair to myself, I think both jobs were bad fits and the things that happened were going to happen anyway because I shouldn’t have been there.  But I think there are things people can do to make the transition easier. And of course, this is going to result in a follow-up piece (smile).

I am still going to blog on all things public relations and social media. I think this new position will give me even better ideas for pieces that will interest people and help them learn things and make them think.

But first, I need to figure out what I am going to wear on my first day…

Today, I read a tweet from a guy I follow named Jack Bruce (check him out here) about the story of David and Goliath and it resonated with me. I retweeted it, and then thought about it more deeply. Maybe it’s because this is Holy Week and Passover started yesterday.

The story of David and Goliath is important to Christians and Jews, but I think it’s also applicable to public relations professionals (no matter what your faith is), particularly during a recession, or whenever things are a bit more difficult than usual.

We all know the story of David and Goliath, but we may not remember an important detail in the story. Right before the showdown, three people told David he couldn’t kill the giant Goliath. His brother, his boss, Saul, and Goliath. And perhaps, after hearing all of that, a fourth person…probably David himself.

It is easy, especially when there are a number of people telling you the same thing, to believe the naysayers and to doubt yourself and your capabilities. Every day we read and watch the news and they tell us that the economy has come to a standstill and that it is nearly impossible to earn a profit, win that big account, get a raise or a promotion or even find a job if you are looking for one. We may have family, friends and coworkers, sometimes with good intentions, and sometimes not, telling us to put our dreams and aspirations on hold, or even set them aside completely, because the conditions around us make it impossible to achieve them. And when you hear the same thing over and over, it’s easy to believe it.

But going back to David and Goliath…David won that fight. He killed the giant. He ignored his family, his boss, Goliath, and the little voice inside him that told him this was a suicide mission. He believed in himself and what he had to do, and knew he had his faith to support and guide him.

What are the naysayers telling you today? What is bothering you inside that you are feeling unsure and uneasy about? That despite what you know you are capable of, you feel you can’t achieve your goals?

And what are you going to do to push past all the white noise and do what you know needs to be done – and that you CAN do?

In reading articles and blogs in the last few months, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. Increasingly, I see people differentiating “social media” press releases and “traditional” press releases. Traditional press releases are releases as they have always been written – inverted pyramid, catchy title, AP Style, etc. Social media press releases are those that are search-engine friendly, with the same characteristics as a traditional release, only with keyword-rich content.

Egads! Why, in 2010, should there be two different types of releases written? Why aren’t they one in the same???

Public relations professionals should ditch this way of thinking completely and relearn how to write press releases. All press releases should have keyword-rich content and be optimized for search engines to pick them up quickly. SEO-friendly press releases are more likely to be found by those seeking information on a client/company/product or service, improves rankings online and in News search engines, drives traffic and increases link backs to a Web site, and will result in increased media opportunities. It gives a news release an edge over just sending it out on a newswire and/or shooting it to a dubious Cision-produced media list with a zillion contacts.

If you aren’t writing a press release using these steps, you need to hit “delete” and start over:

  • Research keywords for your target audience: the subject, product, industry and/or service.
  • Make sure these keywords are written into the first 250 words of your press release.
  • Ensure a keyword or two is included in the title.
  • Write keywords into the news release copy.
  • Include keywords in links back to your site

Optimized press releases are ranked by search engines such as Google and Yahoo! These sites are updated regularly with new content less than 30 days old, ensuring that people will come across the news release.

Take an additional step beyond sending the release out on a news wire and to a media list by submitting the release to an online press release service. Pandia.com provides a list here.

And lastly, as an industry, let’s stop comparing how things were done before the Web became such an integral way we live, work and play, and simply adopt methods that work with it and make it work for us. PR professionals need to act in the present and look proactively to the future to best serve our companies and clients.

Are you a public relations professional overwhelmed with work and need to delegate some pretty important tasks, such as pitching story ideas to the media? It’s okay to let interns and junior staff take a stab at media relations. Just make sure you train them to do it right. Check out the piece I wrote for the PR Newsonline.com blog, PR Insider: Developing Junior Staff Into Media Relations Experts.

Columbia Journalism Review recently researched close to 700 consumer magazine Web sites and its content and discovered that:

  • Copy-editing requirements for online content was less stringent than those in print at 48 percent of the magazines.
  • Eleven percent did not copy-edit online content at all.
  • Fifty-seven percent of the magazines fact-check online content the same way they fact-check print articles,
  • 27 percent used a less stringent editing process for online content.
  • Eight percent did not fact-check online content at all.
  • Even worse: The other eight percent did not fact-check print OR online articles.

These weren’t little publications either. Twelve percent of the publications in the survey had print circulations of more than 500,000, which represents most major consumer magazines, such as Time, Wired and Redbook.

Do they think people are crazy or stupid? Or both?

We might be, but regardless of our IQs or mental state, we can read and we see misspellings and notice information that is less than accurate, to say the least. As a public relations professional, I know the information that I provide a publication and its editors on my client and/or company is accurate and has been approved by executives and usually the legal team. If I read an article I worked to place and notice a mistake, I want to believe it was an honest mistake, not that the editor just threw a story together and didn’t care if it was correct or not. This report makes me wonder. All the editors and publications I have worked with in the past have been very smart, professional and helpful. I’ve only had one publication refuse to correct a mistake. And I don’t work with that publication or read it.

My solution?

Let’s tackle this problem initially by politely calling editors and the publications they work for on fact inaccuracies and other mistakes. This includes everyone from Average Joe, to company executives, to communications professionals. If the publication is reputable, they will correct the error and you will see an increase in the content quality. This goes for print and online.

If they give you lip or don’t make a correction, then we need to reconsider working with certain editors and publications and/or reading their content. They should care about the quality of their work, and if they don’t, we shouldn’t be reading it.

We already pay for print content, and we are about to start paying for online content as well. News outlets and publications need to step it up.

See the article on the report at The New York Times, and read the actual report below.

The New York Times: Survey Finds Slack Editing on Magazine Web Sites 

See the article on the report at The New York Times, and read the actual report below.

The New York Times: Survey Finds Slack Editing on Magazine Web Sites

Columbia Journalism Review: Magazines and Their Web sites