Gimmicky events: media boycott of some companies needed

Posted by at 29 September, at 19 : 02 PM Print

By Lincoln Depradine

One of the lessons for me, observing the disturbances in the United States in Ferguson, Louisiana, sparked by the police shooting death of Michael Brown, is how much public and private sector organizations inadvertently hurt their businesses by not having a public relations person or department; or, they suffer by hiring a PR employee who is not on top of his or her game.

PR is one of those things whose importance is talked about a lot by employers. Yet, many of the same employers seem not to fully understand what PR means, or are unwilling to pay for genuine, professional public relations.

In the political sphere, an easy answer from politicians and parties to their waning fortunes is often to blame public relations, saying that their “PR is bad’’; when, on close examination, there was no PR in the first place or the public relations officers knew not what they were supposed to do; or did not have the means, tools, support and experience to do a decent job.

Ferguson, as a relatively small city, seemingly felt it was an unnecessary expense to hire PR professionals. That’s until the crisis of the Brown shooting when the city was deluged with media and Ferguson officials recognized that good PR could help reduce the longtime negative impact on the city of the disturbances.

But, Ferguson’s hiring in the midst of the heightened racial tensions over the shooting of Brown, an 18-year-old black man, by a white police offer, left many scratching their heads. As one online observer put it, “When a book is written on how not to handle a racially-charged controversy, Ferguson’s responses will be at the top of the list’’.

You will think the city will seek assistance from among PR professionals that possess intimate knowledge of the dynamics of race relations and diversity; but, not Ferguson. To help with its PR efforts, Ferguson hired Common Ground; a company lacking in diversity, with an all-white staff.

The City of Ferguson’s compounding problem – from no PR to a dismal PR hire – reminds me of what passes for public relations in Grenada and other Caribbean countries.

I remember a discussion a few years ago with a Grenada public sector manager, who wanted to hire a public relations officer. She said she saw a young lady on TV who “looks nice and speaks well’’, and would like to employ the person as PRO; no mention or consideration of whether the potential employee possessed the requisite PR skills’ set, knowledge and abilities.

However, I suspect the manager’s approach was not, and is not, unique or unusual. Too many managers and employers appear all too happy and very much satisfied to hire on the basis of “looks’’ and “voice’’; on the misconception that to appear in the media and to issue press releases (which often leave the media with the arduous task of unraveling them for meaning) are the sum total of public relations.

And, to be fair, it is not that a press release technically may be incorrect, meaning that any errors could be found in grammar and syntax. But, the mere fact that a piece of prose has no spelling errors and all punctuation marks are in the right place and order does not follow, as a matter of course, that the writer has established meaning or has excited the interest of the reading public.

However, beyond these issues, I would like our local businesses and their PR staff to show more respect for the intelligence of media workers; and for journalists themselves, on the other hand, to demonstrate more self-respect and greater respect, too, for the tradition of news gathering laid down by people like T.A. Marryshow, Alister Hughes and Leslie Pierre.

I feel insulted when a company’s PR people invite me to cover “news’’ when what I’m being asked to do is provide free publicity for what is purely and simply a promotional event of the organization.

I understand the quid pro quo of business. But I remain puzzled at media houses dutifully trotting out to gimmicky events put on by companies that don’t reinvest in media, and perhaps don’t reinvest in anything else in the country. I believe the time is quickly approaching for all Grenada media – print, electronic and internet – to consider a collective boycott of the events of these companies.

I’m further dismayed and flummoxed when I see reporters at these promotional events joining the fun by submitting their names for draws to win on-the-spot prizes.

Maybe it bothers me because I’m from the old school; the school where you are taught to be business-like as a reporter.

You get in, get the news, get out, and report what happened. And, back then, your report was just a report; not a mixture of reporting and opinionated commentary. The two – reporting and commentary – were to be kept separate, I was told.

So, don’t blame me. That’s how I learnt news reporting from Hughes, Pierre and Lew Smith; as well as from Jamaican Patrick Smikle; Tobagonian journalism instructor and newspaper editor Jules Elder; my teachers at the Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication; and from David Merves, journalism professor at Miami-Dade Community College.

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