December 5, 2012

Dennis Erokan Visits Virginia Prior’s American Journalism Class, Gives Helpful Insight into the Public Relations Field

President of public relations agency The Placemaking Group and Saint Mary’s College of California professor Dennis Erokan spent time in the classroom to share his experiences in public relations.

Dennis Erokan, CEO and president of The Placemaking Group, paid a visit to Professor Virginia Prior’s journalism class this past Thursday in order to give students a better background in public relations.


Dennis Erokan

Erokan, a professor himself at Saint Mary’s College of California, was able to share his love of the field as well as his knowledge of its history – at the beginning, when students were presenting historically influential pieces of pubic relations campaigns, the field specialist had no problem speaking up and supplementing students with more factoids.

For example, during a presentation on Henry Ford and the Ford company, Erokan was happy to point out Ford’s effective use of numbers. According to Erokan, Ford “had a real, clear understanding of numbers and that worked very well for him.”

Erokan, a longtime participant in the field of public relations, sang the praises of the job with ease. The experienced president of a PR agency, Erokan told students that only 45-50% of people believed advertising. However, the more subtle workings of public relations allowed audiences to believe more of what was being said.

“In regular PR, you can’t lie,” Erokan said, making students think outside of their normal associations with the public relations field. Erokan explained that public relations work involving business must stay accurate, while with politics, the commitment to truth tends to be a bit blurred. Thus, the distinction between business and city PR as “normal” and politics PR as outside of that norm.

In order to make the public relations talk extremely relevant to the class, Erokan discussed the important relationship between journalists and public relations agencies. “Journalists, if they found out that you as a person lied to them, unless you’re in politics, they won’t work with you,” he said, again stressing the element of truth and breaking the stereotype that all that constitutes public relations is the ability to lie very well.

Another relevant topic that Erokan discussed with the young group of journalists was social media. For public relations, especially those dealing with public figures such as celebrities (such as music artists and actors), social media websites like twitter can prove to be a double-edged sword. Erokan explained that, in the era of mass communication prior to social media, the main way that public relations agencies reached people was either one-to-one (individual interactions) or one-to-many communication, via media such as television and radio.

“The problem is, or the opportunity is, the one to one becomes many to many,” Erokan said. With so many parties in dialogue, it becomes difficult to control the messages that are put out there.

According to Erokan, the important thing for people on social media to remember is that they are telling a continuous story with everything that is posted.

“Tell your story over and over again without diverting it,” Erokan told the class. This way, he explained, the narrative stays consistent. Clients “have to understand what their message is, they have to understand who they’re talking to.”

Additionally, public relations clients must understand what their goals are as well as how people currently perceive them in order for public relations to be effective. This is also true for marketing yourself for jobs, Erokan stated.

In a world where image can be the difference between landing a job or not, this makes all the difference.


Wendy Tokuda


Fr. Mike Russo, Justher Gutierrez, and Wendy Tokuda

Standing proudly at 5 foot 2 inches and draped in a bright fucshia scarf, Wendy Tokuda looked on with bright eyes at the students of Virginia Prior’s American Journalism class. “I was not much older than you when this tape begins,” she said as her news anchor reel began to play on the projector. In many ways, Tokuda represents hope: Hope for the budding journalists seated in the classroom as well as the college hopefuls in the Students Rising Above campaign. During the highlight reel, Tokuda was shown at various stages of her career, slowly aging as the film progressed.

Tokuda, now retired from anchoring, lit up as she recalled her days as a news anchor to the class of young adults. Her passion for the field remained as certain as ever. “We come from different generations, but the aspects of journalism remain the same,” she said, addressing the students. “We find the truth and tell it.”

For Tokuda and her journalism career, the truth involved telling the stories of those who have not been heard from. One of her biggest projects was a series looking back at the Japanese internment camps. These stories touched Tokuda personally, as both of her parents had met while they were interned. This personal touch posed a challenge for the journalist.

“What was hard was being Japanese American and being objective,” she said.

However, Tokuda wasn’t always willing to take on stories with such an emotional component. When she had first started out in the business, she was told not to do “women’s stories” – which was essentially another way to refer to fluff pieces. Recalling the absurdity of that comment, Tokuda assumed the stance of a hyper-masculine reporter, complete with a gruff voice. After a while as an anchor, she realized that women fought very hard to be in those positions, and that it isn’t necessarily bad to cover stories that are outside the hard-hitting and immediately relevant realm of politics and natural disasters.

“As I got more confident, I started to realize that the stories I was best at were the ones that had emotion,” she said.

In 1998, Tokuda began a series of profiles on local youth who had overcome tremendous odds. These profiles eventually snowballed into the organization Students Rising Above, which currently helps to provide scholarships for extraordinary youth. Many of the youth profiled continue their high school education in spite of many challenges, such as raising siblings all on their own.

With 75% of the students profiled being below the poverty line, Students Rising Above continues to give voice to a group that faces tremendous struggles. After showing the class one of the profiles, she explained “Our goal with these stories is to open the window so that everyone can see what’s happening in these little tiny apartments in east Oakland.”

Tokuda was quick to point out, however, that stories of struggle happen all around the Bay Area. “These kids, they live all around us. they live everywhere,” she said, her tone serious. It was evident that these stories affected her greatly, and her energy slowed significantly when she began talking about a student in the program who had died of cancer.

She was able to move on easily, however, regaining an anchor’s collected demeanor.

During the span of her career, Tokuda was assigned to cover many big stories, from the Loma Prieta earthquake to the LA riots. These experiences were not without their share of challenges, whether it was witnessing a parking lot “move like jello” or being witness to the hate and anger that spurred riots.

Tokuda’s willingness to face challenges gives hope to many, and though she is no longer an anchor, she continues to provide hope today.

Thomas Peele

Thomas Peele, image credit: Random House

Thomas Peele has been a journalist for nearly 30 years, with
experience spanning both the east and west coasts of the United States. Currently, he is a lecturer on public reporting at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley and an investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group, which encompasses publications such as The Contra Costa Times, The San Jose Mercury News, and The Oakland Tribune. Peele has won numerous awards for his reporting, including the 2007 Investigative Reporters and Editors’ Renner Award for the Chauncey Bailey Project. With the project approaching its fifth year, Thomas Peele released Killing the Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism’s Backlash, and the Assassination of a Journalist earlier this year.

Though Peele did not know Chauncey Bailey personally, he felt compelled to work on the Chauncey Bailey Project because of a similar incident in which a reporter was killed in Arizona. Aptly titled The Arizona Project, the team of reporters continued the work of the murdered journalist in order to prevent future murders from occurring. Peele remarked that the murder of a journalist has “First Amendment implications” and it was important to tell people that cases will be put up to more journalistic scrutiny when something like this happens.

“Journalists have a great deal of public responsibility,” Peele said. By working on the Chauncey Bailey Project, he and other journalists were acting, in a sense, to protect the job and provide “an insurance policy for all papers in the country.”

When asked if he felt that Chauncey Bailey’s murder had been given adequate coverage, Peele said that it didn’t get enough national attention. According to Peele, more people covered the project than the murder itself. “As someone once said to me, it wasn’t as though someone killed Bob Woodward,” the investigative journalist told the crowd of college students. But though Bailey was at a standstill in his career during the time of his murder (and, as Peele alluded, not exactly at the level of Bob Woodward during Watergate), the project carried on as a concentrated effort among many journalists.

Peele revealed that there were journalists from all over working on the Chauncey Bailey Project, from newsprint to TV to radio. Graduate journalism students also had a role; in fact, the project utilized these students to pull court records. The Chauncey Bailey Project had the luxury of so many people willing to do something, however, the investigative reporter admitted that when the project first began, they had difficulty in doing a multiplatform story – especially with such a large group of reporters across different kinds of media. However, they eventually figured out that the best way to continue the Chauncey Bailey Project was to “know what the story was, then translate it to film and other platforms.” This means that the story would first take on a print/digital format, and then all other pieces (video, audio, etc.) would be based off of that original piece.

Peele also gave helpful insight into how to get started in investigative journalism, though times have changed since he first started as a reporter almost thirty years ago. “Everyone’s model for investigative journalism was Watergate,” he said. Today, with social media, the platforms have changed but Peele feels that investigative journalism is “more important today than perhaps its ever been.” In trying to find a story, Peele felt it was important to ask this key question: “What knowledge or exposure is going to inform the largest swath of people?” Or, in other words, what will the public benefit from knowing? That is the story that needs to be written.