Archive for September, 2009

The Ethical Optimist Gets It Right..

Ann writes The Ethical Optimist at

Ann writes The Ethical Optimist at

I’ve been reading lots of bloggers’ comments on the appearance at the United Nations by some of the more, shall we say, colorful and enigmantic world leaders.  I thought about adding to the cacaphony when I saw what Ann Subervi wrote in her blog,  The Ethical Optimist ( She not only caught the right tone of those leaders’ comments, but made it personal in a way that made me chuckle and think.

Here’s her post:


Posted 23 Sep 2009

I wonder if the PR guys for el-Qaddafi, Ahmadinejad and Chavez cringe when they come off the podium and ask the inevitable question, “So, how did I do?” Do you think Qaddafi’s guy turned to him today and said, “Gee sir, I thought you rambled a bit and you were over your 2o minute allotment by about…oh, an hour and change.”

Talk about an ethical dilemma. Tell the truth or go home and get thrown in prison…or possibly executed. Hmmmm….

Puts a whole new light on doing business in the good ole USA, that’s for sure. I couldn’t help but wonder after watching the evening news what it must be like to work for a complete lunatic. Do these guys buy in I wonder? Or do they ocassionally question their glorious leader.

That then led me to think, do the PR teams for Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck swig down the Kool-Aid before coming to work or do they ocassionally sit at their desks shaking their heads and thinking…”I work for a kook!” It begs the question, as PR professionals, do we need to question our leaders and say, “Why I oughta….”


September 29, 2009 at 11:53 pm 5 comments

Kevork Hovnanian – A Public Relations Hero

Kevork Hovnanian, the founder of the company for which I work, passed away last night. ( ) He was 86. “Mister,” as we called him, was an old-style businessman. He came to this country in the 1950s and founded what became Hovnanian Enterprises in 1959. He did things the old-fashioned way: tough, but fair and honest. The first time I met him was while I was waiting to see someone else in the executive suite. He asked me how our relationship with the media was. I assured him it was fine. He warned me to never forget the importance of the local newspapers and to make sure we maintained those relationships. And he thought he was a builder, not a PR guy…

He was a philanthropist, giving back to the community in a variety of ways and encouraging the company bearing his name and its associates to do the same. He and his company associates were active in the community, his industry and the politics of both.

A few years ago, I was among a group of associates he addresssed, something he hasn’t done very often in the last few years. He urged us to to treat  each other and our customers with respect and fairness. He reminded us whose name was on the door, and told us he was proud of that. He asked us to always act in a way that would allow him to continue to be proud to have his name there.

We talk these days so much about ethical behavior, customer satisfaction and customer retention. Seems to me that Mister pegged it: respect, fairness and keeping the name on the door something those of us representing that name can be proud of.

Since Mister started the company 50 years ago, it’s grown to be a Fortune 1000 publicly traded company. Like any person working for any big company, there are days that leave me frustrated and angry. But you know what? For a PR Guy, it’s good to work at a place where associates remember that the founder urged respect, fairness and pride in the company name. Seems like a good formula for success.

I, for one, will continue to represent the company to its constituents with those traits in mind.

September 25, 2009 at 4:47 pm

OK…Maybe I Was a Little Harsh

The first time I heard Wendell Potter’s story about resigning from Cigna to fight against what he saw as unethical, dishonest communications to block healthcare reform, I wrote to PRSA and said we gotta help this guy. The second time, his campaign sounded more political…a quick Google search seemed to confirm that. That’s when I posted my reply to the question about whether his resignation was good PR.

PRSA’s ( publication Tactics has an interview with Mr Potter (  in which the reporter asked many of the questions I posed in my post, which you can see below.

I’m thinking I was a little harsh on Mr. Potter.

One challenge in-house PR folks face is believing our own publicity. I suppose we have to, at least to some extent, or we couldn’t do our jobs. It helps when what we’re saying is true.

I believe in everything I wrote about the challenges we face in standing up for ethical and honest communications and being the consciousness of a company. In these economic times, that’s harder than ever. Maybe it did take Mr. Potter awhile to come around, and we can debate all day about how he’s attacking the problem. But he is doing it.

Mr. Potter’s tale also will make me think twice in the coming weeks as I talk with people about how to respond to a reporter’s question or how to position the company on an issue. Is it truth, like real truth? Or is it truth as filtered and believed by the company. Hopefully, they’re the same. If not, I may need a reality check. It’s important to be able to get that reality check from your professional network,  a reporter’s questions or even a customer’s response. Without being able to step back, you may not be able to offer good counsel about communcating effectively and ethically. And you may wind up like Mr. Potter…or many other PR people who face a choice of acting unethically or walking away. I know I had to do it, and ironically, it was in healthcare.

So, I’m changing my position and offering my hand to Mr Potter and my good wishes. And I’m reminding myself not to judge so quickly next time.

September 22, 2009 at 9:22 pm

K Hovnanian wins award for Customer Sat

Sometimes it’s fun being the PR guy. You get to write the news releases about the good things your company does (and my company really does do a lot of good stuff).  This week, I get to write about winning the award given by J.D. Powers for best customer satisfaction in North Jersey (my release: We did well in some other places as well,  like Philadelphia and Chicago. So I’ll be writing a couple of releases.  Here’s the JD Power’s release on our win in North Jersey:   Hey, tell me it isn’t nice to announce some good news!

September 21, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Taking an Ethical Stand…or a Political One?

My son Ethan, a very smart, well-informed guy who works in the world of business and economics, sent me a post from Salon ( written by the former head of public relations for Cigna. Wendell Potter has taken a stand against the role that insurance companies have played in healthcare reform. He also has been the subject of a news show segment. In fact, a quick Google search shows that he has been making the rounds.

Mr. Potter says that the insurance companies use “PR” to manipulate facts and block reform. He quit, he says, because, “I did not want to be involved in yet another P.R. and lobbying campaign to kill or gut reform.”  Calling his column “interesting,” Ethan says, “I think a good PR example?”  Well, maybe.

As I read Mr. Potter’s Salon story and reflected on the TV piece I saw about him, I can’t help but wonder whether Mr. Potter is taking an ethical stand or using his former position to help him take a political position. Perhaps a bit of both.

The behavior described by Mr. Potter, if  true, violates the PRSA Code of Ethics and probably other codes of ethics. Any of us that have been in this business any length of time have been asked to use similar tools. Most of us, I hope, refuse.  The moment we cease to be what PRSA President Mike Cherenson likes to call the “corporate consciousness,” we are no longer PR people, we’re co-conspirators.

Public relations, like the law, eminates from the Constitution. We are the responsible voice of organizations and those organizations have the right, in some cases the obligation, to be heard. It’s our job to focus their position and put that informaton into the right hands in a compelling manner. We also should be providing counsel when that position is being formulated, being sure that it is not only legal and profitable, but one that enhances a company’s reputation.

Our Professional Values guide us in how we present that position to those who determine the viability of the organizations we represent. Those values say that we must “adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.” Any veteran PR person knows that lying or “spinning” comes back to bite you.

Potter talks about using “shills and front groups to spread lies and disinformation.” Again, this isn’t PR. The Code of Ethics urges practitioners to “build trust with the public by revealing all information needed for responsible decision building.” Front groups are specifically mentioned as an unethical practice.

Front groups shouldn’t be confused with coalitions. Broad-based coalitions are a valid way to move a political agenda. In New Jersey, I represent my company on such a coaliton dealing with affordable housing. A colleague represents us on a coalition dealing with economic stimulus. While we may not be out in front of a coalition, we are  up front about our membership. And to have any value, the coalition must be able to reveal its make-up and its mission.

I also question the implication that public relations practitioners are somehow overpowering the media and manipulating legislatures and voters. I imagine most reporters would take issue with that too. Any PR person who has tried to convince a reporter of the validity of a controversial position or faced a community meeting with an  unpopular idea, no matter how beneficial, knows that people don’t just lay down and go away. And even if traditional media is struggling, the use of blogs like this and other social media make it impossible today to control the dissemination of information.  Giving false information to reporters, by the way, violates our Code provision that tells us to “preserve the integrity of the process of communications” and to “be honest and acccurate in all communications.”

Any public relations practitioner who has been in this business for any length of time has made ethical decisions. We’ve all compromised on some things.  But many of us — myself included — have also had to take a stand. Usually, it’s simply counseling a client — internal or external — about something they want to do. 

Of course, sometimes that’s not easy. In the agency world, the worst that can happen is you lose an account for taking an ethical stand. Those of us who are in-house, however,  can lose our  job, especially if we find ourselves objecting more than once. I have faced those demons and have had a couple of show-downs. For the most part, especially in my current job, people want to do the right thing and err on the side of ethical behavior. I have,  however,  left a position over ethical behavior.  I did not do any media interviews about it, though, just got a new (and better) job.

I don’t know what Mr. Potter’s story is. A quick Google search shows that he now works for an organization that fancies itself a corporate and government watchdog. I’ve dealt with them and experienced their own brand of twisting the facts. He is making a lot of media appearences. It is a good story, but what is Mr. Potter’s agenda? It doesn’t matter here.

Have insurance company’s banded together to block healthcare reform? I don’t know. I hope not. If they have, there needs to be some accountability for corrupting the process. If Mr. Potter is correct, the industry’s behavior is contemptable,  but I’m a PR guy, not a lawyer. And it’s wrong to label such nefarious activity as public relations.

But insurance companies certainly have a right to be represented in the debate and there are, no doubt, public relations practitioners helping to shape their positions. Trust me: Those in favor of healthcare reform are using equal force, or should be. It’s called discussion and debate, and it’s an essential part of the legislative process is in a democracy. We can only hope that the public relations people on both sides are fighting to make sure the parties in the debate are conducting themselves honestly, ethically and respectfully. Lately, we seem to forget that those three traits need to be part of the discussion, as does listening and enough flexibility to find compromise.

As for Mr. Potter, I don’t know why he’s doing what he’s doing, but I wish him well. Your cause is noble, sir, but stop blaming me.  When he says what Cigna has done is the result of public relations activities, he’s branding me and every other practitioner. I don’t behave that way. If what he says about Cigna and other insurers is true, and he participated in all those things he’s accusing Cigna of doing, than he needs to accept some of the blame and instead of just wagging his finger. Part of the job of PR practitioner is represent a client’s point of view ethically.

For the rest of us, Mr. Potter’s media tour is a good reminder of what our task is. TV producers would have you think PR people write press releases and arrange parties.  We do. But the most important part of our task is to be part of the strategic planning  process and to make sure that any stategy stands up to the harsh spotlight of examination by being ethical, fair, honest and respectful. We also need to be able to make sure our leaders know the reaction to our strategy.

It’s not easy or fun but, in my opinion, we don’t get to run around pointing fingers unless we have vigorously advocated doing things the right way and refused to execute an unethical plan. If we’re quiet, we condone bad behavior. Mr. Potter says he’s doing what he’s doing now because his conscious was bothering him. About time.

So no, Ethan, condoning unethical corporate behavior, even by just standing by silently, is not good PR. Nor is using your inability to stop such behavior as a reason for a media tour. Good PR is a working tirelessly to keep your organization transparent, ethical and able to handle examination by almost anyone.

September 17, 2009 at 12:41 pm 1 comment

Appealing to customers’ brains

The company for which I do public relations, K. Hovnanian Homes, has launched an interesting marketing campaign, one that counts on customers thinking about things a little more deeply than, perhaps, we’ve counted on them doing before.

“Pounce Before The Bounce,” broke a couple of weeks ago on the Web and is breaking as print ads at different times, depending on the market. The release can be seen at

K. Hovnanian figures people thinking about buying a home are keeping up with news about the housing market, waiting for the right moment to buy.  Those following the market would know that home sales seemed to be stabilizing until Wall Street tripped about a year ago. Traffic and sales dropped back down. But since January, buyers have been venturing back into sales offices and numbers have been rising again.  Whether those numbers are green chutes, false hope or true signs of a recovery, one thing is for sure: sales are back up.

The campaign focuses on three statistics: home sales (up); home prices (stable, maybe even rising…we hope) and interest rates (stable, trending slightly north).  My responsibility covers seven markets…that meant seven releases, localizing seven sets of figures and checking seven media lists. I was pleased to see that the numbers worked for all seven markets, although sales prices were a little dicey in some places.  Still, I’m comfortable talking about it.

One of the significant facets of the campaign is that it de-emphasizes incentives and price cuts. Incentives always have been around. Homebuilders use them encourage buyers to select specific floor plans, lots or houses, but over the past couple of years, the level of incentives and price cuts reached new heights. Home buyers shopped around for incentives as much as they did for features and the floor plans. K. Hovnanian thinks those days are over.

If I was a home buyer, I think I’d be flattered. After all, how many sales campaigns appeal to a buyer’s brain? The trick will be cutting through the cynicism of the media and buyers. If you follow all the different news stories about the economy, it gets downright confusing.

It’ll be interesting to see how our sales consultants help home buyers see the benefit of buying now and  understand that the window for great deals in real estate is closing.  It’ll also be interesting to see if other homebuilders follow K. Hovnanian and start getting away from big incentives.

Stop by the campaign site: Tell ’em I sent ya!

September 15, 2009 at 9:30 pm 1 comment

Welcome to In-House PR

Thanks for taking a look at In-House PR. As usual, I’m a day late and a dollar short doing what others have been doing for awhile. And that’s pretty much why I’m joining the fray.

Each day, I glance at a lot of blogs from PR people and from real estate people. I enjoy commenting on the issus they bring up, but they don’t always talk about things I want to talk about.  And they rarely talk about that intersection where public relations, real estate and homebuilding come together. I’m talking about much more than sales here.

As a PR guy for a builder, I support the marketing department. But I also work with the lawyers, the folks who buy land, the builders and cope with the rediculous government rules and regulations that have added so much money to the cost of a house that the American Dream is just that…a dream.  We do so much good stuff nobody ever hears about. And there are so many issues that people don’t understand!

So with this snip of a figurative ribbon (we used to do lots of ribbon cuttings!), I declare the conversation open!

September 11, 2009 at 3:05 am 2 comments

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