Archive for July, 2010

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means to Me

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

Have you ever watched Hell’s Kitchen?

If you have, you know the juicy, dramatic scene that occurs in every episode: As the chefs cook furiously, Chef Gordon Ramsey realizes the chicken is still raw on the inside and begins screaming in his British accent. The cooks cower in fear.

Various bleeped-out curses ensue and, a few moments later, the under-cooked chicken-maker is crying in a closet about how he or she “can’t take this kind of pressure anymore.”

All of this makes for wonderfully addicting television. But, does it make for good reality?

In my opinion, mutual respect within a work place tends to be much more effective than intimidation and degradation.

Earlier this week, S&A hosted a Summer gathering with some friends of the firm on our terrace. Pera, a Mediterranean restaurant located near Grand Central Station was brought in to cater the event. A number of folks here are big fans of the restaurant, which is located just across the street.

As an avid Hell’s Kitchen fan, I was intrigued watching executive chef Jason Avery manage his brigade. Apparently, referring to your team as lazy donkeys the way Chef Ramsey does is not entirely standard operating procedure.

Rather than treating his employees as inferiors, Jason treats them as equals. While delegating jobs, he helps set up tables and put out food. When we entered “crunch time” and his orders became firmer, his employees responded quickly and efficiently – not from fear, but from what appeared to be respect for Jason and a desire to produce top quality service. In the business world, I think this is what they mean by having “engaged employees.”

Throughout the evening, Jason and his employees were cheerful and relaxed, which promoted a positive mood with the guests and helped make the night successful.

S&A office similarly puts mutual respect and professionalism above all else. Beyond treating people kindly and with dignity, we allow everyone to politely voice their opinions without fear of embarrassment or reprisal – regardless of whether or not we agree with them. Whether you are new to the business, like me, or an experienced associate, everyone feels comfortable offering ideas during brainstorming sessions. Even Eric’s writing undergoes careful scrutiny before being finalized!

We may vary greatly in levels of experience, but we each have important ideas to contribute. While the PR veterans provide wisdom and an understanding of how the business works, the newbies can offer fresh insight and new perspectives.

Even though I am an intern, I am treated as a full member of the S&A team – no exaggeration.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to Eric about my addiction to coffee and joked, “I think you guys should rent a Keurig for the summer. I would be happy to test one out for you!”
Instead of laughing or telling me to “keep dreaming,” Eric simply asked, “Do you really want a Keurig? Do you think it would be good for the office?”

(For those non-coffee addicts who are wondering what I am talking about, a Keurig is a coffee maker that brews a single cup of coffee in about 60 seconds. It is a coffee-lover’s dream-come-true.)

After I explained how efficient and useful a Keurig would be for the office, we had one by the end of the day!

Now, every cup (or several cups) of delicious coffee I drink at work each day reminds me that I work in an environment of mutual respect. Sorry to break it to you guys, but it looks like there won’t be any tears or “I can’t take it anymore”’s coming from this blog any time soon. I guess you’ll just have to keep tuning into Hell’s Kitchen for that drama.

Welcome to the new generation of PR

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Let’s go back in time for a moment.

It’s 1973 and my uncle just started his first job. His office is in New York and he takes the train early every morning. Before boarding the train, he picks up his copy of the Wall Street Journal from the newsstand outside the train station. He makes polite conversation with the people around him on the platform, but once on the train, he quickly falls asleep until the train makes its final stop at Grand Central Station. Until he arrives at work, he remains rather cut off from people he knows.

Now let’s move forward a few decades to the year 2010.

Like my uncle, I make the daily train commute into New York for my first job. That’s pretty much where the similarities end. A large coffee is the only thing I purchase before boarding the train. As soon as I sit, I open up my Kindle, download the Wall Street Journal, turn on my iPod, and check my phone for messages. When I get to work, I check two sets of e-mail and begin to look up our clients in the news.
As much as I hate to say it, the differences in these routines prove how much more reliant I am on technology than my uncle was over thirty years ago.  Even when it is not necessary– let’s face it, who else is going to be awake and texting my phone at 6am? – I feel compelled to stay connected to the world.
But I am not the only technology-addicted individual out there.
Although Eric and Jeff still enjoy getting their fingers ink-smudged by old-fashioned hard copies of the day’s newspapers, newspapers seem to be going extinct on the train. Everyone has iPads, Kindles, Nooks, or whatever e-reader you can think of.
Most of my friends have Blackberrys or iPhones that are continuously connected to the Internet. I rarely sit through a dinner or coffee date without one of my friends checking Facebook, Twitter, or their e-mail.  And, I can’t even fathom how many hours of my life I allowed to dribble away as I watched You Tube videos.
And while its rather obvious to me how technology has impacted the way we communicate as individuals, it wasn’t until I started working here that I gave much thought to how much of a challenge these new innovations present for companies.
By the time the morning paper releases new news, it has already become old news to the rest of us. Through Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, the Internet gives everyone a voice with which to report and broadly offer their own interpretation of events, even as they unfold.

This also hits on issues of control. Once upon a time, companies – and by extension their PR functions – had tighter control on their reputations by virtue of the fact that they possessed the loudest voice with which to steer what was said about them and when – and by who. The Internet has become the great leveler, giving the individual their own public pulpit from which to offer their on insights. For instance, I am pretty sure we all heard about YouTube video of the Domino’s employees tampering with food that went viral rather quickly. Domino’s corporate office was beaten up a bit by the trade press for being slow out of the gate in responding to that spiraling crisis, which damaged their reputation.
So, what’s a company to do?
To be honest, there isn’t a simple solution. For now, PR agencies are doing the only thing they can do: treat the Internet as a friend, not a foe.

One of my jobs at S&A is to help our clients stay on top of the news and issues that are of interest to their business – and that means research to find out what’s being written and said in the media. Honestly, I can’t imagine how PR people used to do it before the Internet came around!

To ensure my morning research remains thorough, I use two different databases to find news articles related to our clients and their competitors. In addition, I receive instant e-mail notifications any time a blog, news article, or website mentions one of our clients or a subject related to them. For instance, I get at least ten e-mails each day updating me about what’s happening in the world of municipal bonds. 
But we don’t just leverage the Internet after the news is out. We rely on it to help us understand what’s happening in our client’s markets and industries so we can counsel them on how to have their own say in what the PR biz calls the online “conversation.” Every press release, blog, or report requires hours of research before a client or the public can see it.
Last week, I drafted writing my first press release. While one of my colleagues worked on the ‘official’ version of the press release that would go to the client, I worked in parallel on the sidelines, drafting my own version to get some first-hand practice at developing a press release.
I turned directly to the Internet. I spent about a week researching our client and the software, looking up investment terms on online dictionaries, and reading previous press releases. I constantly checked and re-checked sources and facts to ensure the accuracy of my work.
After two more days of writing, I finally produced my first press release. (Granted, my collegue turned his draft around in a few hours!)
I won’t lie, it wasn’t perfect – in fact, when Jeff called me in to his office to review my press release, it was covered in red pen marks. Keeping in mind that press releases rarely are perfect within the first draft, I take each critique as something to improve on next time – which will begin with my second, practice press release that I will write tomorrow.
When I get on the morning train with my bundle of electronics, I will start thinking of how I will use the Internet to research my new practice release and begin preparing myself for another day in the new generation of PR.

Is there more to PR than Empty Spin?

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

When I first decided that I wanted to pursue a career in public relations while in high school, by best friend turned to me and said, “Oh, so you want to lie to save someone else’s skin for a living?”

Shocked at his negative reaction, I replied, “No, of course not.”

My friend simply sighed and rolled his eyes. “Well that’s all PR is, you know – just lying to the public day-in and day-out to try to cover-up some company’s corrupt secrets.”

That’s certainly not the reputation the leaders of the PR field might want, but it’s hard to fault my friend for only knowing that unfortunate side of business. After all, the papers are filled on a daily basis with official spokespeople scrambling to offer a half-hearted explanation after their employer got caught doing something wrong or worse, getting caught in a lie when they tried to cover up some wrong-doing.

It’s too bad these “bad apples” didn’t read the recent Forbes article on crisis communications by Eric Starkman, the president of S&A, where he warned that, “When you use spin to minimize a crisis, the crisis almost always spins right out of control.”

I may only be starting my third week at S&A, but my experience thus far has proven that S&A practices what they preach. They encourage creativity and being able to communicate the truth in the most effective way possible. For S&A, PR should be challenging: when your client faces difficulties, it is your duty to maintain a credible voice.

Last week, Eric said to me, “Good PR is a thinking business.” This is the kind of PR I want to pursue and I am grateful that my first PR experience gets to be with a firm who upholds the ideals I respect.

More importantly, I cannot wait to revisit the issue with that friend of mine now that I have first-hand knowledge. Until then, maybe I’ll send him a copy of Eric’s article in Forbes.

First Day at the Internship — Can Someone Help Me Find the Light Switch?

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

[tap tap tap] Is this thing on?

Testing, testing…

Well hello there and welcome to my blog!

I am Erin Carpenter and an English major looking forward to beginning my senior year in the fall. Before that happens, however, I will be doing a summer internship with Starkman & Associates (a business and finance public relations agency in Manhattan) for the next 9 weeks and bringing you along for the journey. In past years, I spent my summers working as an assistant manager of an exotic pet store and camp counselor. This summer, I am abandoning my traditional work routine and pursuing my future career in public relations.

Luckily, I did not have to find housing because our home is within commuting distance from New York City. Unluckily, my house is almost 70 miles from Grand Central. Each morning, I will be taking the 6:13am train into Manhattan in order to arrive at work by 8am. Still, since Holy Cross generously provided me with travel compensation, in addition to the stipend I receive from the Holy Cross Leadership Council of New York, I really can’t complain. Plus, I am telling myself that the 80 minute commute will allow me to catch up on some reading … or a bit more sleep.

My internship started a mere three days ago, but I am already up to my elbows in several projects – and I couldn’t be happier. Due to my late arrival back in the States after my year studying abroad at Oxford, my internship started later than most. To make-up for lost time, I want to dive in headfirst and immerse myself in public relations. I am learning about our clients, proof reading blogs and press releases, and conducting research for one of the company’s founders, Eric Starkman.

If there is one thing I have realized this week, it is that even the simplest things may need qualifying. In business, saying or doing the wrong thing can lead to catastrophic problems, something the folks in the PR profession know too well. Poor word choice in an employee communication can generate morale issues or a loss of confidence in the company’s leadership, a slow response to consumer complaints on twitter can lead to a backlash, and, as a certain CEO of an oil company in the Gulf can attest, poor word choice can make a crisis situation much, much worse.

Rather than risking such a mistake, it is far better to simply ask for guidance when needed.  As that ancient Chinese proverb states: “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask remains a fool forever.” This applies to the big questions as much as the small ones. In fact, a perfect example of this occurred today. As the first one in the office this morning, the majority of the overhead lights were off when I arrived. I searched and searched, but to no avail – the light switch was nowhere to be found. Fortunately, there was a security light on, so I wasn’t totally in the dark. Shortly after I gave up the quest for the light, Jeff and Jim, two of my newfound colleagues here, arrived. And the lights popped on.

To avoid embarrassment, I could have stayed at my desk and pretended that I had not just been sitting in the dark; however, I don’t think that absurd action would have remained unnoticed. Instead, I said “Hello” with a laugh, admitted my defeat in locating the switch, and asked where I could find it. To my defense, the switch was located outside the office. Pheew – so I don’t need to have my contact prescription checked after all!

As I continue with my first few weeks, I am sure this will only be one of many moments when I will realize I have much to learn from S&A. But, I am looking forward to these moments, for everything I learn will help me become part of the S&A team and broaden my knowledge of PR – even if it only involves finding a light switch.