How do you picture public relations?

To engage online audiences you need great visuals. We all know this. So why is so much online content so visually mediocre – and sometimes just plain bad? And why are so many online marketers still using stock photos that convey clichéd images?

It was this story by BuzzFeed’s Nathan Pyle that led to my question. Yeah, universities Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 10.17.10 AMtend to use a lot of stock photos — photos that present a fantasy world where the student body is diverse and beautiful. (It’s all pretty much bullshit, but it sails through the approval channels.)

As some of you know, I work at a large university, and our folks do a good job with images. Credit a phenomenal (though totally overworked) staff photographers for keeping us away from Shutter Stock.

Yet the program I work for faces a different challenge. You see, we don’t have a campus with tree-lined walkways, and our students — while also diverse and beautiful — never set foot in a classroom and never come to cheer the football team on Saturday afternoon. Our program, a master’s degree in public relations, is 100% online. Our learning communities meet on computer screens and never at the same time.

You got the picture? Yeah, me neither. How does one make an online experience visually compelling — particularly when it involves something as amorphous as public relations studies?

We are visually boring people

Nearly 30 years ago, a visitor to our home asked my then-5-year-old son what his dad did for a living. (I owned my own PR firm in Buffalo, NY.) Response: “He talks on the phone and plays on his computer.”

That, my friends, remains the “picture” of public relations that appears in most marketing materials that try to sell students on this field. Sure, PR has changed in those 30 years, but walk into any PR shop and the predominant image is folks talking on phones and working on computers. If you get lucky, you might spot a presentation or a brainstorming session underway in one of the conference rooms. But visually, we’re not an exciting bunch.

Other fields don’t face these hurdles. Physicians train in operating rooms with lots of high-tech equipment. And cool masks. And blood. The pilots’ classroom is the cockpit of an aircraft. Architects create 3-D models of their ideas and oversee the construction of massive building projects. These are visual fields that can be suggested in one, well-composed photo.

safe_image-1OK. I suppose we could depict a PR person directing a video project, but the visual will say “TV production” or maybe “journalism.” We could capture a PR pro orchestrating a special event, but to me that visual says “hospitality management.”

In PR, we just don’t have any “signature” visuals. Hell, we might as well be accountants (with apologies to my bride).

The two photos you see here — both featuring beautiful people — came from my program’s own sponsored Facebook posts. I can find similar images on our competitor’s advertising, but I’m trying to be fair here. These visuals aren’t terrible, but nor are they safe_imagecompelling. If you clicked on the links, it’s because of the headlines, not the photos.

I suppose there’s a simple solution here, and it involves hiring a creative team to work alongside our digital marketing agency. Someone has to make the message just as important as the analytics that drive our digital machinery. Content has to be a priority, not a commodity.

For the record, we think we know what we’re doing. We’ve performed the market analysis, we know our audience, and we know what they’re seeking. We have a 5-year track record and we’re positioned as a Top 5 player in the niche. But that niche today has 5 times the number of competitors it had in 2011, several of them with really deep pockets. We need to separate ourselves from the pack, and soon.

We have a great story to tell, and some alumni willing to help us tell it. But like every one of our competitors, we don’t have the compelling visuals to drive the message home. If you’d care so suggest some, I’m all ears. Or eyes, as it were.

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So you know I wrote a post similar to this one 5 years ago. We didn’t find an answer then, either. Ignore the dead links. Very common in old blog posts.

A Facebook manifesto for my 2nd decade in the space

Are you easily offended? If so, you probably don’t belong on Facebook.

Almost nothing offends me, but even MY patience with the social network is wearing thin. Nevertheless, I’ve remained a committed Facebook user since August 2005, taking the Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 1.34.46 PMgood with the bad. Why? Because 4-5 times each week, I stumble into intelligent conversations, connecting with people I like and respect. I also love that Facebook is a time machine that connects me people I knew 10, 20, and even 40 years ago – people I still care about, including some 350 former students. Continue reading

A semi-rant about my ‘cushy’ gig

At least once a month a friend or colleague reminds me that I’ve got it made. I have the cushiest teaching gig around, they say. I work from home 95% of the time. I do that work at my convenience and from a table overlooking a lake. I don’t punch a clock or observe a dress code.

If you think that’s cushy, you don’t have a clue what I do every day. So give me five minutes and we’ll fix that. Continue reading

Little things that change lives

It was January 1968, and I’d just taken my usual seat in the school auditorium. In 15 or 20 minutes the hall monitor would call Bus #75 and I’d be on my way home.

A familiar face – my civics and homeroom teacher – popped through a side door and pointed two fingers of his right hand, one at me and one at my buddy Mike.

“You two, come with me.” Mr. Harris said. He wasn’t the kind of guy you questioned, and certainly not one you ever defied. We followed. Continue reading

Another lesson on secrecy from Kent State

When you earn front-page coverage 4 times for one story — and all within a 2-week period — it’s usually bad news. Such is the case with Kent State, and I can’t let it pass without comment.

The story that keeps on giving.

The story that keeps on giving.

It began with this story on March 10. Internally, KSU announced plans to hire East Coast marketing firm 160over90 to help redirect the university’s brand. The cost, just north of $100K, is small change in the scheme of things. Continue reading

Kent State president faces first big leadership/PR challenge

Beverly Warren

Beverly Warren

Update, March 13, 2015. KSU Board of Trustees voted, in executive session this past Wednesday, to extend benefits to dependents of domestic partners, retroactive to January. Hat tip to Bev Warren for doing the right thing. Raspberries to the administrators who fought for discrimination and the status quo for the last 6 months. 

Kent State’s Beverly Warren faces the first major leadership challenge of her 8-month presidency this Wednesday. But you probably haven’t heard about it. Continue reading

PR debacle: Not-so-secret report topples local police chief

A scandalous story unfolded in my neighborhood in recent weeks. It has all the elements of a made-for-TV movie, which may explain why the rise and fall of Chief David Oliver remained a Page 1 story — and a PR nightmare — for a fortnight.

Chief David Oliver's celebrity included a popular Facebook page and this book, "No Mopes Allowed."

Chief David Oliver’s celebrity included a popular Facebook page and this book.

It’s the story of a man once dubbed “the most popular cop on the Internet.” Oliver, from tiny Brimfield Township, Ohio, used social media and an affable personality to become bigger than life. At one point he had 80,000 followers on Facebook and a hot-selling book. He’d also been the focus of dozens of national media stories, most praising his sense of humor and no-nonsense approach to crime. Continue reading