How can Gaddafi win? PR

One of the greatest but key challenges for a dominant military force like the international coalition now involved militarily in Libya is managing and winning the information war.

Amr Nabil/AP Photo

Lesser military powers know that if they can decrease the morale and resolve of the citizens of countries like the U.S., France and Great Britain, support will wane and pressure on the countries’ leaders will increase over time.

Last week, before the first missile or air strikes occurred, I made predictions about what Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi would do as soon as allied forces began military operations.  These include: 1. claiming civilians (women and children in particular) have been killed by coalition strikes and 2. destroying “civilian” buildings and claiming the allies caused it.  These predictions appear to have come true.

Gaddafi, like Saddam Hussein and countless other dictators, knows he cannot defeat an allied force militarily, but he does know he can erode public support and political will for the coalition through effective public relations and potentially accomplish his objective, which is to remain in power.  Unlike U.S. public affairs, dictators and terrorists alike aren’t constrained by law, codes of ethics and bureaucracies that slow information flow but correctly help ensure accuracy and proper coordination.

Therefore, dictatorial regimes like Gaddafi’s have an outright advantage in the information war.  They can and always will exploit and lie, knowing it will be reported by the media and shared rapidly through the social web.  This then forces the greater power to refute the claim, which takes time – some times days.

Well, don’t the media see through the lies and manipulation?  Yes they do, and it shows in their reporting, but claims will still be reported in a 24-hour news cycle because claims are part of the story line and early on reporters usually cannot prove the claim is false.  For Gaddafi, it doesn’t necessarily matter that the coverage reports “the claim cannot be confirmed” or “Gaddafi loyalists refused to take reporters to the scene.”

Gaddafi’s objective is to plant questions and seeds of doubt in people’s minds that will grow when, for instance, the first allied strike actually does lead to civilian casualties, assuming it hasn’t happened already.  And then the burden of proof shifts from the lesser power to the greater one.  This is the critical juncture when the reporting narrative shifts and the greater power is pushed into crisis management mode.  Again, Gaddafi knows this.

As soon as the first civilians are killed, the narrative shifts from claims of events to actual occurrences followed by reports questioning if the coalition can survive repeated occurrences of civilian deaths, especially when protecting civilians is the reason for the coalition in the first place. And if the greater power doesn’t get the communication right, it could be disastrous, not only for the military operation, but politically at home.

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Pros reflect on college days, offer advice to today’s PR students

As I shared in a recent blog post, I was very prepared to compete for PR jobs coming out of college. I did “all the right things,” but I still needed a little luck on my side.

Anytime I have the pleasure to speak with a PR student, I try to find out what they’re doing now to best prepare themselves. Are they interning? Do they at least plan to? Are they networking? What courses are they taking? Do they feel prepared?  Do they actually enjoy what they’re learning?

All of these questions have something in common. They’re all about “you,” the student. They’re not about what the school is doing for you because that doesn’t matter.  School decisions and offerings are outside your span of control; however, something greater is in your hands – your future.

Evidenced in my daily Twitter stream alone, there are many talented, ambitious students out there who clearly have a plan to control their future.  The fact you’re reading this blog post right now means you’re most likely one of them.

But sadly even some of the brightest students will struggle to land a job in their chosen profession.  Imagine what it will be like for students who don’t have a plan?  Sure, as I experienced, luck abounds, and could possibly even get you in the door somewhere.  But I assure you that skill and the ability to humbly learn will carry the day everyday, keeping you, not just employed, but on an upward slope to greatness within this profession.

I recently asked three PR pros with nearly a decade of experience a piece about all of this. Specifically, I wanted to know how prepared they felt at graduation, what they’d change given the opportunity and their advice for today’s PR students.  Here’s who they are and what they had to say, which, of course, was solid and a great read for up-and-coming PR greats who presently roam the halls of colleges around the world.

Justin Goldsborough (@JGoldsborough)
Social media consultant at Fleishman Hillard
School: Northwestern University
Graduated: 2003

Ruth Streder (@RuthStreder)
International Account Director at LEWIS PR – Global Communications
School: University of Manchester – Manchester Business School (Note: Ruth did not major in PR.  Rather, she has Management Science and International Business degrees.)
Graduated: 2003

Tara Tocco (LinkedIn)
Public Relations Consultant and Freelance Writer at Touchpoint PR
School: Middle Tennessee State University
Graduated: 2002

1. How well prepared to compete for PR jobs did you feel coming out of college?

Justin Goldsborough

Justin: I wished I was better prepared, but my situation was unique. I decided I didn’t want to pursue a career in sports journalism when I was a senior in college. I had already been accepted to a journalism graduate program at Northwestern. I tried to switch to IMC, but wasn’t allowed to. So I took IMC electives. What did help me feel somewhat prepared was the three PR internships I had done while in undergrad. Because of those experiences, I was confident my journalism skills would translate to PR.

Ruth: The course at my university taught me about the theory and history of PR and compared it to marketing. It was all about how it differs from marketing and is more trustworthy and a better way to reach your target audience. We focused a lot on reporting and measurement to demonstrate the value of PR – but what I lacked was knowledge about the media landscape and how to pitch a story. This was something I learned as a trainee in my first year, and it was learning on the spot. So I was well versed in theory and history, as well as aware of big PR stories, but applying it to my clients and finding an angle to pitch to the press was challenging in the beginning.

Also, the focus on PR was local/national PR. Not so much on international PR and what challenges one faces when it comes to different languages, cultures and media landscapes. In university we discussed how to adapt global campaigns locally in one market, but we did not learn about how to implement global strategies and ensure consistent messaging in multiple countries – while still ensuring that the global campaign is supplemented with different local activities to ensure it’s appealing to the local audience.

Tara: Maybe it was my naïve confidence at 21 years old, but I felt fairly well-qualified to compete for jobs. I was willing to do whatever I had to do to in hopes of climbing the career ladder.  I knew I was smart, able to learn, and hungry to soak up the industry.  I did start at the bottom – I cleaned coffee pots and emptied the recycling and answered the phones every day – but I did it with enthusiasm.  I was lucky enough to have the right people see that behavior and respond to it.

2. If you could go back and be a student again, what would you do differently?  (network more, study harder, etc.)

Justin: I would network more, especially with alumni and people already in the professional world. I got in a comfort zone with my job at the school newspaper, the company I interned at three times and my classes. I should have stepped out of that zone a lot more and met different people. You can NEVER network enough. Not humanly possible. IABC and PRSA are good places to start and often have student chapters at different campuses.

Ruth Streder

Ruth: I left my university in 2006. Back then social media was starting, but it was nowhere near as big as it is now. I had a solid understanding about traditional media, but not about social media. So I should really have started reading more about new trends, tried out different social media channels and services and just engaged more with bloggers. This was something that I then had to take up in my spare time, after work, and while I enjoyed it, it was difficult to find enough hours in the day to work in PR and build my knowledge in social media.

Be more confident – I attended networking and industry events whenever I was invited to them, but what I was afraid to request informational interviews with agencies or professionals that interested me. I should have just reached out to them, commented on blog posts etc. But back then I thought they would not be interested in talking to a PR newbie – big mistake! If you have an opinion, are interested in discussing industry trends and just keen on learning more about PR, go out and meet people. You have to reach out to them (agencies, companies, professionals) to make them aware of you – they are not going to come and look for you. Take initiative!

Tara: Ideally I would like to think I would have had a couple more internships to expose me to real-life settings even more, but the truth is I’m not sure I would have been able to.  I had to work to pay for things like rent and groceries and my car, and most internships were not paid and required a 40 minute drive to Nashville.

There are a lot of students in this exact situation who want to be more involved but just can’t devote the time or commitment to an unpaid internship.

Some colleges have student-run agencies, and I think this is a great way to help those students who want to participate do so in a manner that is easier to accommodate.  It allows for an intern-like experience in your own mass comm building with your peers, learning the ins and outs of providing public relations services.  As an employer, I would see value in a student having that experience.

3. Do you think you received a quality education?

Justin: Yes, I do. I had great experiences in my classes and was forced to push myself and try new things. I really learned to write in college. I’ve always felt like you can do almost anything if you know how to write, how to communicate and in today’s social media world, how to tell stories. However, the best thing about my experience at Northwestern was the people I met and relationships I formed. Sounds cliché, but those relationships have benefited the most – both through friendships and career advice.

Ruth: Yes, but then I did not pursue a PR degree. I enrolled in business and management courses. So I do have a solid understanding of planning, budgeting, forecasting, market research, etc. A lot of my PR knowledge and experience comes from learning on the job, having a great mentor and taking part in training sessions at my agency.

Tara Tocco

Tara: I believe that to a certain level, you get out of education what you put into it.  I worked very hard at my courses and applied myself to my studies, and because of that, I was able to maximize the amount of information I learned.

I do feel that the nature of a public relations job, whether it’s at an agency or in-house, is one that can easily be created to allow students to learn and grow in a replicated setting.  Allowing students to feel like they are part of a communications department instead of sitting in a classroom would have been an interesting approach at teaching that I think would have allowed me to feel better prepared when I entered the working world.

4. Did you expect college to fully prepare you or did you understand a lot that responsibility was on you?

Justin: During my freshmen year in college, I joined a fraternity. I remember one of my “brothers” was a senior majoring in journalism and had like four or five jobs to choose from. I definitely went through a period where I thought, “I’ve worked hard, I got into a good school, the jobs and career opportunities will come my way.” I had a bit of a rude awakening as a freshman and sophomore when I realized how much work I still had to do to get where I want to be. There is ALWAYS someone who will work just a little bit harder than you. Some of the best advice I ever received from a colleague was in my first full-time corporate job. He told me to raise my hand whenever people asked for help, no matter what type of opportunity it was. That’s how I’d get the chance to prove myself. I only wish I had thought that way while in college.

Ruth: No, it’s all about taking initiative – you are not going to receive everything on a plate.

Also PR consists of more than just what you learned in school/college – it’s about your personality, how you go about meeting and engaging people, how you pitch stories (by finding an interesting angle and making it compelling) and also how open you are to new things. The PR industry is involving very quickly, not everything that’s happening ‘out there’ will immediately make it’s way into the classroom. You’ll need to be open-minded, read about the PR industry and media landscape, find out which topics interest you and then dive deeper by finding different blogs/professionals/companies – but also be curious about new technology, new channels to communicate with your audience and not afraid of testing different tools.

There are also different industries that you can do PR for – and a PR course at college/university is most likely to prepare you for PR in general. Not for specifics that are relevant to one industry (for instance building relationships with airlines is unique to travel PR, whereas test products and demos are more likely to happen in the field of tech PR). So you do have to do your own research, read about topics/companies/professionals that interest you, and which are specific to the industry you are interested in working in.

Tara: I always felt the responsibility – and privilege – to learn was on me.  I believe that is true to this day.

5. Looking back, what’s one thing you would advise PR students to do to prepare themselves for the “real world?”

Justin: People want to help. We were all students at one time and we’ve all been through the struggle to find that first job and enter the working world. Ask for help. It’s a great way to meet new people and you’re not inconveniencing the people you ask. I had people help me when my career was getting started and I still have people help me all the time today. That “I’m going to do it all by myself” attitude is BS. You learn from help. You grow from it. You meet new people and build relationships. If you don’t ask for perspective or POV sometimes, you’re in for a long, bumpy ride.

Ruth: 1) Stay up-to-date on industry news, conversations and the leading influencers
2) Network and take initiative – don’t expect that your university or college will provide you with everything you need to be successful
3) Practice writing and editing content

Tara: Try to see the big picture.  Understand the role of communications in an industry, in a company, in a nonprofit, in the government.  Study things you enjoy, like pop culture or music or fashion, and learn to see through it and understand how public relations is at work every single day.  The people who are the most successful in the industry are the ones who are able to strategize based on the overall picture, not just execute one tactical effort after another.  You can start developing those skills now and hone them in as you move forward in your career.

Hard work, luck and burritos: How I got my start in PR

Since graduating from college in 2002, I’ve often reflected on how well prepared I was to enter the “real world.”

Image by Katherine Pangaro via Flickr

And honestly, I’m not sure I could have done much more than I did.

I studied with vigor, made good grades, was president of my Public Relations Student Society of America chapter, had three internships, networked hard, actively participated in all of my PR courses and got to know my professors on a personal level.

PR was and still is my hobby.

So, one would think I would have walked right into a PR job upon graduation, right? Wrong, wrong, blanketed with a big, fat nope!  Man was I frustrated about that, too.

There I was, a competitive, college graduate with all the ambition and enthusiasm in the world, still hyping how tasty the guacamole and fresh tortillas were at Don Pablo’s in Murfreesboro, Tenn.  While there’s absolutely nothing dishonorable about being a restaurant server, a job I think everyone should try, I was sick of it.  After eight years of working for tips and smelling like what I served, I was done! Fed up! Ready to move on! I was ready for a “real job.”

Then it happened.

I was working a typical afternoon shift at Donny P’s, as we called it. From across the restaurant, I saw new guests at one my tables. Like I had done hundreds of times before, I loaded up a chip basket, filled a ramekin with salsa and headed their way.  Little did I know, this would be the most important chips and salsa delivery of my life.

After greeting them, taking their drink order and returning a little while later, I noticed the gentleman’s Palm Pilot. I asked him a question about it, and quickly learned he used it for work.  I don’t remember if I asked him what he did for a living or if he volunteered it.  Regardless, once I learned he was the Public Affairs manager at a local Air Force base, I pounced.  Before I knew it, I had grabbed a chair, was seated at the end of the booth, and fired off my credentials.  He appeared surprised and then probed.  Little did I know, I had just entered into an interview for a job.

Three months later, I was the newest member of the Public Affairs team at Arnold Air Force Base.

After all that studying, networking and interning, it all came down to luck, fate, divine intervention or whatever you want to call it. So, in hindsight could I have just partied more, blown off some classes, and skipped one or two internships?

Absolutely not. If I hadn’t have had PR experience to tout, developed professionalism and confidence, and learned how to pitch myself, I firmly believe I wouldn’t have been offered the job later on.  I may not even have been offered a “real” interview several weeks later.

After talking with my now former boss, that day in the restaurant pretty much sealed the deal I learned.  But, again, I can’t overstate the importance of working hard to, not only prepare you for employment, but also prepare you for unexpected auditions that can happen at anytime, anywhere.

Will ‘The Underground’ surface? A case study in dealing with online movements

Movements originating with “the people” are nothing new. As the world remains fixated on what’s happening in Libya, Egypt and other countries in the Middle East right now, uprisings and movements are actually happening in communities all over the world. Although small in scale and less intense, they’re fueled by emotion, passion and the same desire for change that motivated the Egyptian people to successfully remove a long-time dictator from power.

The important thing for organizations or individuals to realize is movements are manageable.  And above all else, listening is key.

At least one potential movement is occurring in Alexandria, Va., right now.  Alexandria is located just outside D.C. – a city that’s seen it’s share of movements and protests.  This particular situation has all the hallmarks of classic movements only in the era of the social web, which has taken movements to a 2.0 level.  In some cases today, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other sites aren’t simply serving as communication tools for groups, they are the movement itself.  Twitter has become the modern-day Tiananmen Square.

The social web’s impact on physical movements has been so profound, it is now viewed as a major threat to governments and organizations around the world.  Shutting down the Internet is now on the list with “activate the military.” In short, the use of social media has become the norm for protest groups.  However, you’d never know that given the response to date from the Alexandria-based group in the crosshairs.

Digressing for a moment, it’s almost as if those who start movements all read “How to Start a Movement for Dummies.” As you read on, take note of the *s. They indicate the classic characteristics of movements as I see it. Also take note of the #s, which indicate classic characteristics of those being rebelled against. For those groups, it’s almost like they all read “How to Respond Poorly Publicly to Activists.” For PR practitioners, there’s much to be learned here.

Here’s what’s happening. A blog called ACPS Underground (Alexandria City Public Schools) gained much attention recently when the Alexandria Times covered it. The blog has become a popular space for teachers to criticize the school system administration and its policies and sling some mud of course. Simply put, we’re talking about teachers versus school officials, otherwise known as the people versus the government, otherwise known as the common man versus the establishment* (classic conflict). The blog creator and apparent group leader is another teacher (one of their own)* who goes by the pseudonym “Voltaire”* (identity protected) for fear of retribution* (leader protecting himself and defending against retaliation that not only could remove the leader but kill the movement entirely).

According to the Times, “‘Voltaire said the ACPS environment is not conducive to speaking out,” which is why they’ve gone “underground.”

In response to the blog and anonymity of it all, ACPS Superintendent Morton Sherman had this to say in the article. “I saw it when it first came out and chose to ignore it# (disregard for opposition group’s viewpoint). They should have the strength of conviction not to be anonymous# (imposing view of what’s proper on the group), so for me it’s underground yellow journalism# (discrediting viewpoint/opinions) and that’s not how we work# (again, imposing views of what’s proper and accepted).”

While the entire article is a great read for PR peeps, this is the quote that inspired this post. My PR alarm went off immediately upon reading this doozy.  Having many thoughts about how I would advise Sherman based on what I know, I wanted to get some other PR pros’ takes, as well. Here’s what Matt LaCasse and Lisa Brock had to say.

Matt LaCasse

Matt LaCasse

“The first thing Superintendent Morton needs to do is to stop insulting the teachers behind the blog. Whether or not he agrees with their methods of airing their grievances, calling them cowards in a roundabout way paints him as unwilling to listen to his employees. I’d recommend assuring Voltaire (who appears ready to reveal his identity) he won’t lose his job due to his beliefs, and encourage an open and honest dialogue in a public forum; perhaps even a debate.

“There’s little doubt in my mind, judging from the administration’s response to the blog, that it feels it is under attack. Rather than trying to solve problems, the situation is becoming an us vs. them quagmire which no one is going to win. If teachers feel change is being implemented too quickly, ask what an acceptable time frame would be. Explain that some issues will not have a happy ending for teachers, but it is what needs to be done. If Superintendent Morton can find that middle ground between his policy changes and what teachers feel needs to be done, he’ll go a long way in gaining the trust of his employees and community.”

Matt hits on some great points, in particular the “quagmire.” As PR pros preach routinely, getting stuck in the rut of “me” makes matters worse usually. Instead, why not figuratively and quite literally open the door to Voltaire and other teachers and at least chat? In my experience, whether dealing with a protest group or a customer bashing you on Twitter, engaging them is usually a much more sound tactic to take, but this is a leadership issue as much as it is a PR management issue. Enter Lisa Brock.

Lisa Brock

Lisa Brock

“For leadership to be effective, problems, issues, concerns and questions must be dealt with in a transparent manner in a transparent environment. Anonymous letters and hiding behind web tools is not transparent or credible – but neither is ignoring a problem. This is a crisis of leadership and the unwillingness of the leadership (Superintendent & Principal) to proactively seek solutions will cause a sort of meltdown that doesn’t have to happen.

“There are a number of ‘red flags’ and the first is that the Super chose to ‘ignore’ the situation. The fastest way to diffuse controversy is to expose it. Hold open town hall type meetings, go out of your way to be available and accessible. In time, the ‘Voltaires’ are exposed and when credible complaints, constructive comments and good dialogue happen, changes can start to happen, improving the system, credibility and the culture.

“The second is “They should have the strength of conviction not to be anonymous, so for me it’s underground yellow journalism and that’s not how we work.” But, this is not about him – it’s about a problem that needs wider discussion and the voice of different constituents.

“The third is that behaving like an ostrich does not solve problems, dissipate gossip or untruths. It does not improve your organization – which is the goal of inspired management and leaders. If as the Super says, there may be some validity to some complaints, start there. Yes, it will take time, energy and of course time is money. But the alternatives don’t work. Period.

As to the underground. Imagine if someone took the time to monitor or listen to what is being said. And then responded. Even when all the answers are not unanimously received or lauded, no one can say, ‘Leadership wasn’t listening.’ And again, those on the edge of the moderate, will be seen for just that – those with more extreme views. And if leadership is truly wise, they’ll welcome that too.”

Lisa nails it here. While I’m sure there are some who applaud the superintendent’s position, there are many who clearly don’t. However, would those who support his stance and what he said in the article also support him if he responded in a more receptive manner? Probably.  Again, being limited in knowledge, I can only wonder why he doesn’t take that route.

In my estimation, Sherman represents the stereotypical leader of a group under fire, especially a government group. He holds up himself and his organization and its policies as superior and proper while marginalizing and disregarding the opposition group. Personally, I’ve never seen that be an effective tactic when dealing with a large number of disgruntled people. But perhaps that’s part of his strategy.

Also, rather than recognizing the group as, just that, a group, he describes the blog as “yellow journalism.” That alone could explain why he chose “to ignore it.” I wonder if he recognized the Underground as a movement, or at minimum, an online rallying space for like-minded teachers, would his viewpoint and public commentary differ? I wonder if he’s missing the boat here by mis-perceiving what’s happening, thus causing him to respond in a way that stokes the fires and motivates the Underground to become more vocal and active? I’ve continued to monitor the blog, and I haven’t detected any let up.  But only time will tell.

Finally, while we don’t know as much as we would if we were “in the room,” I do know this.  Movements can be managed if you listen well.  Listening leads to actions that defuse situations, builds relationships and creates common understanding even if both sides don’t fully agree with each other. The opposite approach causes you to miss key information, incites anger and frustration, destroys relationships and leads to misunderstandings.  Which route do you think will best prevent the tipping point from occurring?