Public Relations and the Free Press: Elements in a Critical Equation

By Judy Phair, APR, Fellow PRSA; PRSA National President and CEO, 2005

PRSA’s Code of Ethics has always been a point of pride for me, as a member and a public relations professional, just as I’m sure it is for all of us who have pledged to uphold it. The words set the stage, but it is understanding and translating them into action that counts. Ethical public relations doesn’t just happen because we say so. It’s part of a critical equation that begins with a free society. That free society, in turn, requires a free press and an informed public.

As public relations professionals, we have an obligation to speak up if any element of this equation is threatened. It’s the only way we can do our jobs successfully, on behalf of our employers/clients and in the service of our own ethical and professional standards.

Recently, PRSA – on behalf of all of us – exercised its right and obligation to advocate forcefully and openly for the necessity of a free press and an informed public. In a public statement, it affirmed the free press as a “vital engine of democracy” and urged the White House to reestablish, with its new appointment, the traditional role of the White House Press Secretary. In particular, the statement called for recognition of the Press Secretary’s role to “advocate for a free press and keep American citizens well-informed about actions being taken that will affect their lives.” Practically speaking, that translates into “frequent and informative briefings and working productively with the press,” the statement notes. In contrast, during the last six months, two formal press briefings were held at the White House, and the last on-camera briefing by a spokesperson at the Pentagon was May 31, 2018.

While PRSA’s statement reflects a current situation, it is about good practice, not politics. Threats to a free press are a worldwide and growing concern. Last August, PRSA joined with 14 leading international public relations communications organizations to issue a collaborative statement in support of a free press around the world in response to these concerns.

Public relations professionals understand all too well that threats to a free press anywhere, in any form, directly impact another critical element in our ethical public relations equation: an informed public. When public interest is ignored, an uninformed public can rapidly lose trust in a society’s basic institutions. Loss of these essential elements in our equation threatens our ability to provide valuable service to all our audiences.

Some wise words from the late Patrick Jackson (founder of Jackson Jackson & Wagner and 1980 PRSA President) come to mind. Pat, one of the most widely known and respected practitioners in our profession, talked about trust as an essential part of ethical, successful public relations. He called relationships with our publics “the currency of public relations” and said trust was necessary to build those relationships. He argued that people want to be “served, not sold; involved, not told.” Those words still resonate today. They remind us of the great things that can be achieved through a free press working in tandem with thoughtful, ethical and strategic public relations professionals.


New PR/PA writing, shorter than ever, FYA not FYI, zippier: Are you prepared?

By Don Bates, APR, Fellow PRSA

Keep writing long, indirect, colorless documents and soon no one will read what you’ve written as intently as you would like – or at all.

Today’s for-profit, nonprofit and government organizations, along with their audiences, expect PR/PA writers – both staff and consultant – to get to the point quicker and with more oomph.

This is due, in part, because readers don’t have time for what social media expert Guy Kawasaki calls ‘War and Peace’ memos or 60-slide PowerPoint presentations for one-hour meetings. Email and texting have robbed us of untold time and attention once devoted to more traditional writing styles and forms.

This is due, as well, to the truncated text that is intrinsic to the internet, the single most important driver of new business writing and design influence. Online images, for example, have replaced a megaton of the verbiage that was normal in the print-dominated world of a relative few years ago.

Because of these and related changes and influences, headlines, subject lines and lead paragraphs must also be shorter and snappier. Writers must use tighter, more concrete language that will get more people to do things quickly on their employer’s or client’s behalf – e.g., buy, invest, donate, volunteer, participate, support, work for and vote.

Copywriting is the key to creating the desired energetic text, especially for blogs and social media sites, which people scan like ads. Copywriting is generally zippier, friendlier, younger in tone, more playful and more emotional than traditional business prose.

Unfortunately, most organizational writers have little serious copywriting experience – that’s found mostly in ad and marketing agencies – so they must go back to school to upgrade their skills.

They must attend workshops and seminars of local and national PR, advertising and marketing associations. They must read books on the topic. And they must subscribe for free to online sites such as HubSpot, Copyblogger and Co-Schedule, each of which will send them invaluable how-to guidelines as context for buying their innovative products.

In the current organizational writing environment, a picture is worth far more than a thousand words. Writers at all levels need to keep this in mind as they’re urged and eventually required to embrace the “snackable” brevity that is fast becoming the new norm in PR/PA and related business writing.

About the Author

Don Bates, APR, Fellow PRSA, teaches public relations writing and management at New York University. He also teaches writing workshops worldwide. For over 40 years, he has handled PR for corporations, associations, and nonprofit organizations. He owned The Bates Company, Inc., an international PR agency, which he sold after 12 years. He has taught at Columbia University and the New School University and is founding director of the graduate program in strategic public relations at The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM), Washington, DC. He teaches his well-known full-day writing workshop several times annually for the PRSA-NCC chapter in Washington, DC. His next workshop is August 20.

Make Your Next Website Redesign Your Last

By Carrie Hane, Founder & Principal Strategist, Tanzen

Is it that time again? Time to redesign your organization’s website. It’s been about three years since the last time, and it is showing its age. People are having a hard time finding things. The design is so four years ago. Content creators are complaining about how much time it takes to get content published.

You’re about to embark on a journey that will be expensive and disruptive. Everyone is dreading it because they’ve all been through it before.

What if I told you this could be the last time you had to do this? That you could make this your last website overhaul.

It can be if you start by thinking about content in a broader context, outside of a website—or any interface. It can happen if you have a deliberate, forward-looking way of planning and creating content.

When you start with strategy, audience needs, and content instead of website design, content management systems (CMS), and vendors, you can get a website that will still have the same underlying structure and content in seven years as it does today. Ask the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). It is still working for them and looking good through a series of small improvements instead of massive changes.

How to make a future-friendly website

A web design process that starts with discovery and alignment, then planning, and finally creation.

To make your website future-friendly, you have to start with acknowledging that the site is for your audience. It is for them to get the information or complete a task. Therefore, you need to ruthlessly prioritize who is really using the site. Then map what you offer to what they want. A bit of user research and internal stakeholder alignment goes a long way toward an effective website. And you can even use the information collected and consensus built for other work within the organization.

Now that everyone’s on the same page and you’re focused on how to serve your audience, it’s time to plan your content. The best way to do this is to create a content model. A content model is a representation of the types of content, their relationships, and their attributes. Not just for the website, but for the organization. After all, any piece of content rarely has one specific purpose these days. Get it all in there. This will guide your content creation, information architecture, CMS development, and interface design.

Now the real fun begins. You get to figure out what it will look like! It is so much easier now that you have made decisions about what is needed. Designers have material to work with so that they can support the content and strategy. Developers can build a system that support the content delivery and management (a true content management system). Authors can develop the content at the same time. Everyone is working from the same set of specifications and a shared understanding of what things are and what their purpose is.

When this all comes together, you can confidently launch the new website knowing it is useful, usable, flexible, and findable. All along the way you’ve made decisions that can now come together in a governance plan that allows you to govern the content and website efficiently.

Launching a website is only the beginning. Kind of like a garden: with regular care and feeding, it will continue to serve you and bring delight to others.

Simple but not easy

This explanation is simplified, of course. The biggest challenge in creating websites with this process is the mindset shift. Not only does the team managing the website have to buy-in to this approach, so does everyone else. And that’s no easy task.

It is possible. I’ve done it and so have others. In the 10 years I have been using some version of this process, I’ve seen two things happen:

  1. None of my projects have been late because we were waiting for content.
  2. The underlying structure of the websites I created are still holding up.

This framework is tried and true and builds on my own lessons as well as those of many others. It is detailed in the book Designing Connected Content: Plan and Model Digital Products for Today and Tomorrow. And I offer training so that others may learn to adopt it for themselves.

You’re Only As Good As Your Plan

By Joseph Davis

Recently, I was having a spirited conversation (mostly my spirit) with a fellow communications colleague about what constitutes successful communications strategy. My main question was “How are you approaching the strategy of communicating effectively?”

This broad question begged for specifics. So, my next question was, “Does your organization currently have a communications plan in place?” And my colleague replied, “Of course!” And, I followed up, “What does it look like, what’s in it?”

In what I can only describe as a full-throated description (see defense) of their organizational communications plan, the colleague said, “Well, we created a full year’s project calendar, including all the social media tools we planned to use—and even developed evergreen posts for them!” They were obviously proud.

“Wait,” I said. “That’s it?” “Yep, pretty much,” they said. This led me to think: exactly how many other communicators essentially have no tangible communications plan for their company, client(s) or organization? And, furthermore, how many know what should be included? I imagine we would have subsequently discussed what was essential in a plan—had I not awkwardly ended the conversation staring blankly at them.

Before building a communications plan, you have to understand what it is NOT:

  • An activity or event calendar filled with projects
  • A list of tactics disguised as a strategy (social media usage, digital media deployment, marketing promotions, etc.)
  • A list of social media tools that simply include schedules and/or sample copy
  • A list of communications functions devoid of objectives that can be measured

As we know, every organization is different, and needs vary, so there’s rarely a one-size-fits-all approach to communications planning. With that in mind, there are general guidelines for forming a proper plan.

What a communications plan INCLUDES:

A communications plan acts as a guide for all of your communications initiatives. It establishes what is considered success for you (the communicator), your organization or your client. And it outlines a process of planning and implementation.

Your communications plan should highlight three clear aspects:


I define this as the actionable output directly related to your organizational mission.


What is it you’re aiming to achieve, ultimately? This should be measurable.


How will you achieve your goals and, therefore, successfully reach your objective? This is your broad outlook for everything you plan to accomplish—your vision, if you will.

Here is what is generally in a communications plan:

  • Summary/Mission/Vision
    This should be easy. A simple summary of the current state of the organization and why the plan is necessary. I assume most organizations have an established mission and vision. State it here, and lay the groundwork for the plan.
  • Challenges
    There should be a discussion of what obstacles may present a problem, albeit internal, external, tools, logistics or competitors. Know what problems you may face.
  • Audience/stakeholders/competition
    The phrase “know your audience” is vital in communications. Include that audience in your plan, along with any stakeholders (include possibilities) and what the competition looks like (the competition element is only relevant depending on your industry).
  • Messages
    This is where the language you plan to use in your marketing/communication materials goes. This should highlight the value your organization brings or how you’re different.
  • Tools/Tactics
    Now you can incorporate your ideas for social media channels, along with other tools and tactics (video, content marketing, collateral, etc.)
  • Cost
    Often, this component is left out of a plan; however, it’s important to have an idea of how the overall organization will be impacted monetarily. How will cost affect reaching objectives or accomplishing goals? This is also important if you charge for services implemented through the plan.
  • Timeline
    How long will it take to reach your goals once the plan is implemented? A broad timeline is a given, and, in many cases, multiple shorter timelines centered on your stated goals can be directly tied to specific tactics.
  • Market Changes
    Any changes in the industry you need to consider that will affect you? Try to prepare for those changes.
  • Measurement/Evaluation
    Measure, measure, measure. Did those tweets and Facebook posts really engage? Did you drive more web traffic? Did sales increase? Did donations increase? Evaluating if all (or any) of your efforts have been successful in meeting your goals is essential for any level of communications planning. You may even have to set periodic measurement benchmarks. Many communicators may want to check in weekly, monthly or quarterly. Whatever the case, measure what you’re doing!

Strategizing on the most effective way to communicate ideas and value should be at the forefront of everything we do. Most communicators know this. If you need some tips on building your communications strategy, visit the PRSA Learning webpage. Since I enjoy asking questions, I have one more—do you have a communications plan?

About the Author

Joseph Davis works in Communications for the City of Alexandria Department of Community and Human Services.

What’s ethics got to do with it?

By Brigitte W. Johnson, APR, Lecturer, Georgetown School of Continuing Studies

As members of PRSA, we are bound by a set of principles and guidelines that provide our ethical framework. The PRSA Code of Ethics sets the standard for the ethical practice of public relations. Have you ever thought what we would do as public relations practitioners if we did not have this code of ethics?

I have. I think about the derogatory words sometimes used to describe our profession – flack, spinmeisters, truth-twisters – and tell myself these terms do not apply to PRSA members. I cringe at the thought of being called a spinmeister. My job is not to spin the truth but to tell the truth. Additionally, we perform our work adhering to a code of ethics. These ethics set us apart from others who may operate under the public relations umbrella.

As an adjunct professor and now as a full-time lecturer, I tell my students that many people say they do public relations, but what separates us from this broader group is our membership in the world’s largest association dedicated to public relations practitioners and our ethics. But is the PRSA Code of Ethics the only element that sets us apart? I don’t think so. In addition to the PRSA Code of Ethics, what about your personal code of ethics?

Each of us should have our personal code of ethics. Our personal ethics are shaped by our belief system, our families and our interaction with others. For most of us in our profession, our personal ethical code closely aligns with PRSA’s Code of Ethics. Without question, I believe in honesty, loyalty, independence and fairness. I constantly seek to improve my skills and expertise. And through my clients and employers, I serve the greater good – the public interest – and provide a voice for viewpoints, facts and ideas.

If you remember the television show, “What Would You Do?” ask yourself what would you do if your personal and professional ethics clashed? As I reflect on my career in public relations, I once found myself in the situation where my personal ethics conflicted with the professional PRSA Code of Ethics. Although, the company operations were ethical and legal, my personal ethics code took issue with the overall industry and its commitment to the greater good. In this case, I found myself with limited choices. I tried in vain to find a place with less conflict but I was unsuccessful. In the end, I realized I just could not give all I had to offer professionally, and I found another position in an industry that was better aligned with my personal ethics.

If you encounter a situation where your personal and professional ethics conflict, you do not have to go it alone. PRSA has resources and counseling to help. Contact the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards or the PRSA-NCC Ethics Committee.

About the Author

Brigitte W. Johnson, APR, is a 21-year member of the PRSA-NCC and served as chapter president in 2011. She has 20+ years of experience in public relations, communications and marketing. Her focus is primarily nonprofits – forestry, education, youth development, affordable housing and public health. In 2016, she joined Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies as a lecturer in the public relations corporate communication track. She is a native Washingtonian who enjoys days at the beach, a hike in the woods, all things college sports, film studies, reading and collecting first edition books.

Seven Tips for New Graduates: How to Launch a Successful PR Career

Seven Tips for New Graduates How to Launch a Successful PR Career

By Jen Bemisderfer

I recently attended commencement ceremonies for my alma matter, North Carolina State University. As I sat, waiting for thousands of graduates to stream to their seats inside the arena, I thought back to my own graduation, nearly 20 years ago. To be honest, I didn’t remember much about the day. Who was the speaker? What advice did they deliver? How did I feel? Was I excited? Scared?

For what is supposed to be one of life’s biggest milestones, my memory was fuzzy. What I do remember – clearly – is the first day of my first job. The first day of the rest of my life. I’d had internships in college, but this was different. I had a salary! Healthcare! A 401k! And lots to learn about building a successful career in PR.

For all the new graduates who will be flooding in to the National Capital Area ready to tackle the first day of the rest of YOUR lives, I wanted to share a few tips I’ve learned along the way, as well as some advice from my colleagues at RH Strategic Communications – many of whom have been in your shoes more recently!

Cultivate your network.

You might not know it, but you already have a network. Stay in touch with your professors, your friends from PRSSA and your internship supervisors. Even if you’re making a leap to a brand-new city, make the effort to stay connected. As you grow in your career, you’ll add co-workers, supervisors, even your roommates and friends who are in relevant or adjacent fields. You never know how a connection to someone may lead to a dream job, mutually beneficial relationship or just an interesting conversation.

Take time to read the news.

Any entry level job in PR is going to include monitoring the media. You’re going to feel like you get more than your share of news, but I’d challenge you to go beyond your company or your clients’ industry news. Read The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal,, and the like. Knowing what’s happening in the world, even if it doesn’t have a direct tie to your day-to-day job, will add context to what you’re working on and will help you understand better what is newsworthy.

Ask for opportunities.

Don’t let your title hold you back. If you want to take a stab at owning a project, ask for it!  Bonus points if you can identify a need that your bosses and co-workers aren’t even aware of yet. “I noticed many of our contacts are out of date. Is it ok if I spend some time updating our company’s broadcast media list?” You’ll get noticed.

Don’t just write. Write well.

Quality writing is the most surefire way to stand out as a new PR professional. In particular, knowing how to translate a more complicated topic into something that’s easily digestible for your client or reporter’s audience is key to success.  Study the OpEd pages of your local newspaper. Ask senior staff for tips on how to write clearly and concisely. Also, knowing AP Style and proper grammar and punctuation is critical!

Learn to love feedback.

It can be hard to hear that your pitch didn’t hit the mark, or your project management skills need improvement. However, it’s also one of the most effective ways to learn. When you get feedback from someone, whether it be a colleague, account manager or a mentor (inside or outside of your organization), challenge yourself to DO something with it.

Differentiate yourself.

Whatever your first job, chances are you won’t be there forever. At some point, you’ll move on to a new opportunity. When you do, it helps to have a personal/professional brand that is unique and is going to stand out from the flood of others with the same training. Look for opportunities to dig deeper and develop skills that will set you apart.

Request informational interviews.

If you’re still looking for the right job or post-graduate internship, don’t be afraid to ask for an informational interview, even if the company that you want to work for doesn’t have a position available. It’s a great way to build relationships and learn more about the company or field that could pay dividends in the future.

Good luck, graduates! I hope you all find success, excitement and fulfillment in your PR career. One last tip: Don’t forget to join PRSA!

Consider a Long Term Commitment to Talent Development

Think of your talent development plan long term.

Think of your talent development plan long term, one that helps change behavior, habits, limiting beliefs, and culture over the long hall.

By Freddi Donner, PCC, Team Engagement Specialist

It’s gratifying to see companies initiate changes in their organizations by inviting their leadership to
gather for a day or two to do a deep dive into their way of relating to one another. Usually, these events
help build awareness, open dialogue and urge people to see things from a different perspective.

The participants stop the work to notice how they are working. However, the shelf-life of this often expensive effort is very short and the results that are produced are short term at best.

Think of this in terms of any dramatic change you want in your life: whether you’re thinking of changing careers, gaining or losing weight, building physical strength, fortifying relationships, enhancing your
spirituality, or learning a new language, real change, permanent change, takes time. Real change
requires a long term commitment to a process with repetition, multidimensional training and coaching,
accountability calls, checkups, and demonstrations as support.

Now think of your talent development plan…long term. Instead of thinking about a two day “getaway,”
think about a one to two year investment, one that helps change behavior, habits, limiting beliefs, and
culture over the long hall. One that builds on a series of content that bring a compound affect to the

And budgeting? How much is this going to cost – is often asked. Although there is no wrong
answer, I do encourage people to think of % of improvement. If you could improve how the team
operates by 10%, what would that look like? What would be happening more of/less of with this
investment? And then build the program around that outcome.

Then, think about taking at least 10% of a person’s salary, and setting that amount aside to invest in them over that 1-2 years. Trust me, if you are not making this minimal investment in them, you are losing the money in other ways – including low energy, malaise, gossiping/complaining, struggling with conflict or stress, and a myriad of other “leaks” in your system.

The talent wars are real. You want better people? Build them internally – invest in them right where
they are on your team. Just like you wouldn’t use cheap steel to build a bridge because it will fail down
the road, don’t skimp here – the costs of a low investment can be life threatening to your bottom line.

About the Author

Freddi Donner is a seasoned executive coach specializing in the power of communication and interpersonal skills to achieve professional growth and business development goals. Freddi founded Business Stamina in 2004 after more than two decades as a corporate marketing executive and successful entrepreneur. She is certified by the International Coaching Federation and is an Authorized Facilitator of Team Coaching International. A thought leader on leadership skills, communication styles, stress management, and teamwork, Freddi provides team and individual coaching for public and private companies, government agencies, and associations. Most of her clients are technical experts who want to learn to connect better with a variety of personality types for the sake of being a more profound leader and increasing followership.