Archive for November, 2009

Some business & PR truths from a homebuilder

When it comes to public relations, homebuilding isn’t the most progressive industry out there. Dominated by a lot of small builders and a bunch of really big ones,  the attitude of many builders still seems to be to wrap the flag around themselves, talk about the “American Dream” and ignore reputational issues.

One result of that attitude is that I tend to read building trade publications to learn about building and public relations trade magazines to learn about PR.  So I was surprised recently at a story in Big Builder,  one of the leading homebuilding magazines aimed at (you guessed it!) big builders.

I doubt he considered himself to be writing a public relations article, but Rich Ohmann, chief operating officer of St. Lawrence Homes in North Carolina, hit some basic lessons in his article “Notes from the Brink.”   A lot of what Ohmann talks about directly relates to  homebuilding. Discussing the merits of buying developed versus raw land and how long to hold on to a chunk of dirt isn’t something anyone but a builder will get excited about.

But hidden in that dirt are lessons for all of us about sustaining reputatons, even in bad times, and it’s nice to hear a COO discussing those things.

Ohmann’s Rule #5: “There are only 52 weeks in the year. Make every one of them count. Manage better and constantly. Innovate, create…” A lesson for all of us. It’s certainly advice that a strategically thinking public relations counselor can act on. We know  our clients, especially those of us in struggling industries like homebuilding, can use some new ways to position themselves, build their reputations and sell some product.  Rule 5 certainly seems to suggest that the door is open to good ideas. We’d better have some if we’re going to be an integral part of the team.

Rule #7: There’s no substitute for the unfiltered truth. Wow. That should be music to our ears. How often are we asked to “put a good spin” on something? Here’s a COO of a homebuilder that faced bankruptcy saying,  “We approached the situation with open doors and full candor. We armed everyone who would be affected by our (Chapter 11) filing with facts and clearly stated our intentions to stay open and find a way to continue the company.”  I hope that somewhere behind Mr. Ohmann was a good public relations practitioner with a solid crisis plan.  Whether there was or not, Mr. Ohmann’s experience, as painful as it was, shows the value of common sense, transparency and candor.  I hope Mr. Ohmann’s PR advisors are helping St. Lawrence Homes build on the new relationships and new power that transparency gives a company, even in tough times. It’s a rough climb back from a Chapter 11, but with this attitude,  I have a feeling we’ll be hearing more from this company.

By the way, there’s some good advice here for all of us on how to conduct our business, whether we’re in house or an outside consultant. My favorite is Mr. Ohmann’s Rule #3: “If you’re a builder, build. Do what you do best, nothing else.”  I’m tired of ad agencies telling my internal clients that they can do public relations, of publicity agencies claiming they are doing something more than publicity, and I get concerned when I’m asked to do search-engine marketing. Social media is making the lines between disciplines a little less rigid, but at the end of the day ad people should do advertising, public relations people should do PR and all of us should acknowledge that social media is a tool we all should using, but the heavier-duty aspects of SEM should be handled by those with special expertise. Our clients don’t know better. We have to have the ethical behavior to stay in our lane while working together to pave a wide road toward our client’s success. And if we say we can do something, we’d better be able to do it.

Mr. Ohmann talks about his nine rules as “things we learned we already knew.”  His article may be about building, but there are some good reminders for everyone in every business.


November 23, 2009 at 12:23 am

More discussion on the APR

One of the reasons I love going to the PRSA International Conference is that I — a lone PR guy among a bunch of people who have a variety of wrong ideas about what I do to assure that they are putting their best foot forward — am surrounded by enthusiatic PR practitioners including some of the best minds in the business. And while I’m proud of my APR, not all of those “best minds” have their APR.

One of the things I don’t like about representing my colleagues at the Assembly, the governing body of PRSA, is the continued discussions that link the APR with governance…but that’s another post.

I often try to convince those without the APR that it’s worth pursuing. Many tell me it isn’t worth the time or that it doesn’t garner enough recognition outside of the industry.  It’s frustrating. I did my APR at a time when I decided I needed to commit 100 percent to public relations as a career or move on. Nobody in my office understands why my APR is important, but it’s important to me. I think I’m a better practitioner because of some things I learned and because it enhanced my understanding of and commitment to the profession. I don’t understand how something that stands for a commitment to continued professional development and a high ethical stance can be unworthy of someone’s time.

But I was never a great salesman.

Mary Barber, APR, apparently is a better sales person. Ari Adler, a public relations practitioner who attended the conference in San Diego (I’m sorry we didn’t get to meet, Ari!) talked with Mary about APR and was so impressed, he blogged about it. See his post and Mary’s explanation of the APR at

Ari also talks about APRs having “an attitude.” Man, I hope I’m not one of those. I’ll be trying to do better when I talk about APR in the future!

November 17, 2009 at 2:54 pm

Living in a pot of water warming to a boil

SAN DIEGO, Calif — I’m attending the PRSA International Conference (#prsa2009). We had the Assembly Saturday and today, several business meetings.

The high point, for me, was the presentation to the Sections Council about plans to start a Real Estate and Construction section, a place for folks practicing public relations for clients — internal or external — involved in homebuilding, real estate, commercial building or other related industries to discuss PR issues.  More about that when I get confirmation that we can forge ahead with it.

The opening program was Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post, author and TV personality. and healthcare advocate Wendell Potter, APR. Some time ago, I wrote about Potter (, so it was interesting to hear him speak today. And what he said affirms what I said last September.

As I tweeted during the talk, Potter’s tale is truly a cautionary one, especially for those of us who are in-house PR counsel. We have to buy into our client to do our job. We have to believe in what our company does and what we are doing to support our client’s business strategy. We can’t do our job unless we do.

Potter talked about doing an ethical self-check to be sure that your moral compass is working right. He gave certain warning signs, like being worried about information getting out and asking if you would be willing tell your mother what you’re doing. He suggested that he didn’t see the warning signs.  It should make every practitioner step back and re-examine what they’re doing and how they’re doing to check for warning signs.

Ethical breaches are a proverbial slippery slope that starts imperceptably. Potter alluded to the old story about a frog in a pot of water that’s being heated to a boil. The frog doesn’t notice til it’s too late, unlike what would happen if you dropped the frog into the boiling water. Kinda makes you look for signs that the water’s heating up.

It starts with being asked to put a “spin” on a story. Then maybe it’s changing numbers…you know…just a little. Where does it stop? At what point does it become worth threatening to quit?

These are tough questions. I guess there are times when a little spin, or an adjustment of numbers is harmless…providing you realize you’re on that slope. The problem, of course, is when they ask you to do it again, you’re going to have a harder time saying, “No.”

Potter talked about being the conscience of an organization. It’s a line I’ve used before, and I know many others have as well. But you can’t “spin” or adjust facts one minute, and be the conscience of the organization the next. Potter’s experience urges each of us to be very aware of the ethical implications of every decision we make, especially we’re playing with shades of the truth…or doing something you want to tell you mother.


November 9, 2009 at 5:23 am 1 comment



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