Tuesday, November 15, 2022

PR BackTalk is Moving

We've launched a new website and are moving the blog. To get our thoughts in the future, please click here: https://bit.ly/PRBackTalk. 

Thanks for your readership and interest. We will continue to post articles about PR, social media and journalism.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Hyperlocal News Was Supposed to Thrive -- But Now It's Not. So What Happened?

Several years ago, as regional newspapers began shutting down in droves, the smart money was that hyperlocal media would not survive, it would thrive. As we wrote in  "The Prospect for Hyperlocal Continues to Look Good -- But Can It Capture the Ad Market?" back in 2009!, the reason was "because while there will always be sources for national news, people still want local news."

Many top national media wrote about the gleaming prospects for hyperlocal media. For example, Fast Company wondered: "Can Anyone Tap the $100 Billion Potential of Hyperlocal News? Community-driven news services have been the next big thing online for years. Can The New York Times or AOL find the $100 billion local-advertising pot of gold?"

So we weren't alone in thinking that hyperlocal would survive a meltdown among local media. After all, there are many competing sources for local and regional news but generally only one voice for hyperlocal media.

(By the way, it's worth pointing out that the subhead in the Fast Company article references AOL -- as an example of how much may have changed since 2009.)

We have a nonprofit client for whom hyperlocal is critically important to their work so we've been paying close attention. Over the past year, there's been a lot of cutbacks in hyperlocal media. The problem isn't interest in or support of hyperlocal media from readers. In many cases, the subscribers still want hyperlocal news but the economics outside the community remain terrible.

That's in part because newspaper chains like Gannett borrowed billions to acquire hyperlocal media to generate growth only to find out they had taken on too much debt and needed to make cutbacks.

Lots of cutbacks. According to a Boston Business Journal article, "Northeastern professor Dan Kennedy... referred to the latest round of layoffs as a ‘bloodbath.’ The company has closed at least 19 Greater Boston weeklies this year and has replaced much of the local coverage with regional stories."

The BBJ further noted "80 terminations across more than 50 newsrooms — but the full picture of what local readers across the country lost has yet to emerge."

19 community weeklies closed = news deserts?

That doesn't include layoffs at other hyperlocal papers, which has led to fewer reporters having to cover larger territories. That has led to fewer hyperlocal news and feature articles, which have been replaced by regional trend articles. A recent example: a look at the wobbly post-COVID locally owned restaurant market (as opposed to fast food chains) actually didn't quote any hometown restaurateur; instead, the article provided quotes from owners from several different communities -- some of them that may be an hour away. While the article was still interesting, it was not hyperlocal. The benefit for the editors is that that single regional article was published in different hyperlocal papers. That's how understaffed newsrooms can continue to publish news. It's just not hyperlocal news.

And that means that communities are not getting the kind of hyperlocal information they want or expect.

They've been what's been called "news deserts," defined by the UNC School of Media and Journalism's Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, as "a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level." News deserts are a problem because it means communities aren’t getting critical information related to civic life, government services, etc.

Once limited to rural communities, news deserts now include suburban communities and even larger cities where alternate weeklies have closed, affecting large parts of those communities.

The reason this is significant is that hyperlocal newspapers support their communities, the businesses and the nonprofits, the students and the seniors -- it helps bind communities. 

Here's an example of how this plays out using Marblehead, the North Shore community in which we've maintained our global world headquarters because we've experienced some of the problem of a news desert.

We've been served by the Marblehead Reporter, a print weekly that has become thinner, with less hyperlocal coverage. Please keep in mind: we're not blaming editors or reporters; they're working under difficult conditions; but we do blame Gannett and hedge funds like the Alden Group that purchase newspapers and extract value while decimating the newsroom and the quality of the product.

We're also served by the Marblehead Patch, which seems to produce one actual news story about the community per day but does a better job of sending alerts than the Marblehead Reporter. The the email newsletter from the Patch makes it seem like there's a lot of new content but most of the newsletter features regional coverage. The Patch is good about fires, school closings, etc. -- which is useful information but we don't recall seeing a lot of articles that requires in-depth reporting about issues affecting the town. That would be information residents can't get elsewhere. (We can get school closing information from Boston TV stations, which post that information on their websites.)

With fewer hyperlocal news articles, residents tend to feel less connected. It also means that the paper is less important because some readers figure they don't need to read it closely because there's less info about the town -- replaced by more content about other communities (that they don't have time to visit). 

As a result, Marblehead has three new initiatives to build hyperlocal media outlets. We hope they take hold but there are issues with all three.

  • Marblehead Weekly News, which is published by Essex Media Group, which publishes the Daily Item of Lynn, Lynnfield Weekly News, Peabody Weekly News, and other local media. It is staffed by reporters who also work on other Essex Media properties. We've seen one print edition, mostly focused on the upcoming primary so it's too early to judge. One problem is that there's not a website yet for the publication, just a weekly print edition. So there's currently nothing available at MarbleheadWeeklyNews.com. There's also not even a listing for the Marblehead Weekly News on the Essex website's listing of its various properties. We're sure that will happen. The weekly also includes some sports and features on the "Historic Building of the Week"; in a town with a starling number of pre-Revolutionary homes, the first choice was a local movie theater. On the other hand, the Marblehead Weekly News has brought out the Police Blotter, something the Marblehead Reporter used to publish and seemed to be quite popular (because the items reported included a report of spilled Cheerios in front of the Post Office). But, so far, and it's early yet -- no real news coverage.
  • Meanwhile Marblehead News has an actual website. But it may not have a name because it posted an item in June 20, 2022 that it's crowdsourcing for a permanent name. Which is a good thing. We found it only because we were searching for Marblehead Weekly News and found them instead. Most of the news currently available on the site is campaign statements. Plus one article about the local movie theater -- we don't know who's handling its PR, but kudos! One thing that makes Marblehead News interesting is that two of the founding staff formerly worked for the Marblehead Reporter so we think that's a good sign because they know the town and they know journalism. But it's also a nonprofit that will try supporting itself by raising donations. Also, it seems like a part-time gig for them, and we don't blame them because they're taking on a risk  by working on this at all.  
  • The third new outlet is called the Marblehead Beacon, which also launched in June 2022, and is run as a "citizen-based news site." As of press time (this article was written a couple of weeks before the updated blog and website were finalized), because the Massachusetts primary are a week away, the Beacon has a lot of content about local candidates. While we're hopeful about the Beacon, it is run by two businesswomen with limited journalism experience and other business interests along with a high school student who is handling technology (as one might expect). 

When we started thinking about this blog, we did not realize there were three news startups trying to provide a variety of print and online news for a community of some 20,000 residents. That's kind of a problem since we're media junkies who live in the community -- so we know they're not having significant impact yet. But we hope that will change.

Right now, political candidates are getting the most attention but it will be interesting to see how this plays out. Will the Marblehead Reporter respond, and if so, how? (We assume the Patch won't be able to.) And we don't know how closely part-time journalists will be able to cover the community news and issues beyond fires, roadwork/construction issues, etc.   

We're using Marblehead as an example but there may be similar efforts in other local communities. And we're not necessarily endorsing one of these outlets over another but we want them all to succeed in finding an audience and delivering news. Our point here is to continue a discussion about hyperlocal news sites and news deserts.

Let us know what you think about news deserts and news startups in your communities. 

Monday, July 25, 2022

Five New Lessons about Crisis Management

Given the state of politics, it's probably never been easier getting into a crisis and never more difficult to get out of one without alienating someone. Unfortunately, this became true for a client that had been in business for a decade or so, and, for most of that time, had the good luck of avoiding any crises. 

We provided counsel to them, and compiled the following five lessons (some based on other observations):

  1. Develop a crisis plan before a crisis. You may have built up goodwill and strong relationships with your customers and your community over the years, and have avoided a crisis – but that doesn’t mean you don’t need a crisis plan. Crises can happen to good companies but it makes sense to develop a plan. The plan should include a range of crisis scenarios – even though you should expect that the actual crisis probably won’t exactly fit into any one of your scenarios. But at least it starts the process of how to respond. If you don’t have a process when a crisis hits, it’s harder to know how to respond, and that’s when a potential small fire can start to burn out of control. The other aspect of a crisis plan that’s is important is developing an internal communications process so that when a crisis hits, different layers are informed and understand 1) that the company recognizes it’s dealing with a crisis; 2) that it is taking the crisis seriously; and 3) that people inside the company have the information they need to know to manage their jobs during the crisis. We’ve seen situations where board members, for example, didn’t know what the plan was and were second-guessing every time the company issued a statement.
  2. Make sure to allocate appropriate resources. One of the other aspects of a crisis plan is to determine a task force of people who can focus on the crisis. Another aspect is to understand the potential costs. According to a colleague, one client felt the crisis would quickly die down so it asked that its agency to stop work several times over a two-week period, to save the budget, only to be caught short-handed as its crisis continued to spiral. They kept a short-term perspective both in terms of budget and in terms of working towards an outcome. Also make sure to have people monitor social media, and decide what to respond to and what doesn’t need to a response. And also to develop messages that appropriate staff can communicate to key stakeholders that include employees, customers, and others.
  3. Sometimes clients are in a no-win situation. It’s important to understand, that through no fault of their own, clients may several possible paths – and none of them may be ideal because one group or another will be left unhappy. Social media reactions can make the in-crisis organization feel like they’re between a rock and a hard place. In that case, organizations need to consider:
    • What’s the worst-case scenario and how can we minimize the likelihood?
    • What’s the best-case scenario, and how can we make that happen?
    • If we can’t avoid upsetting people on both sides, how can we minimize the impact?
    • What steps do we need to take after the crisis is over to rebuild goodwill?
    • Do we announce a post-mortem showing that we’ve learned our lessons?
    • Do we suspend any of our operations – like advertising or even what’s on our social media platforms?
  4. If you send an email to employees, expect it to circulate. This did not happen with our most recent client crisis but we’ve all seen this before. So keep in mind: Even a well-intended note to employees can be hard to craft, and you should expect that any email will be distributed to outsiders or posted on social media. Also keep in mind that if you communicate to employees in a town hall setting, someone may tape the discussion. The point here is just make sure that whatever you communicate to employees is something that you won’t mind seeing in print or on social.
  5. Make sure to communicate via the channels most relevant to the upset. We have seen clients who responded to traditional reporters but ignored social media. Responding on social media may not be the right vehicle but it’s important to look at options. Please know that whatever you post could be misconstrued as easily, if not more so, than employee communications.

Please keep in mind that your experience, as they say, may vary. No-win situations are more likely given the politicized nature of decisions that used to be ones you didn't discuss with others. But that ship has long set sail. We're just saying that organizations may need to re-evaluate their plans, policies and responses based on this not-so-new reality.   

Monday, April 25, 2022

New York Times Again Validates our 'Energy Crunch' Prediction

Back on March 9, just short of two weeks into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we posted a prediction that there would be a lot of coverage of what we began calling the Energy Crunch, and the need for clean energy. We first started talking about the need to improve battery technology and battery life and said that there would be a lot of coverage of gas and oil not just from a climate or economic issue but from a strategic perspective.

At this point, that may seem like a basic call, given Russia's role as a major supplier of gas and oil to Europe. 

But the New York Times published an article about that topic on March 22nd, almost a month after the invasion began and nine days after our prediction. The print headline: "War Spurs Europe to Clean Energy" while the online headline read: "Will War Make Europe’s Switch to Clean Energy Even Harder?" Of course the Times had to do the actual research, conduct the interviews, cite sources -- when all we had to do was write, edit and hit submit. But we're proud that our prediction and subsequent validation shows we understand how the media works.

At the same time, we do want to note the tragedy that Ukrainians are going through. Individually and as a firm, we have donated to various causes to help relocate and support people whose lives have been permanently disrupted by Russia's invasion. We remain proud of several former clients that were either based in Russia and subsequently left that country or had significant number of employees in either or both countries and helped to get those employees out of the region. One former client, based in London, spent two weeks picking up Ukrainian families and driving them to places in Europe where they can be safe.  

Monday, April 18, 2022

Print Editions of 20+ Local Boston Community Papers Will Cease in May + 10 Observations about the implications

More than 20 local communities, particularly in suburbs west of Boston, will lose the print edition of their local weekly papers. The papers' print editions are shutting down in May due cost-cutting decisions by parent Gannett, the newspaper behemoth that took on a lot of debt after some recent acquisitions including with GateHouse Media.

The largest community to be affected is Newton, whose Newton Tab had 22,386 weekly print subscribers in 2021, according to a Boston Business Journal article, "Gannett kills several local print editions." We take issue with the word "several" because that seems to indicate a handful while more than 20 is significant. 

The Boston Globe also covered this story in an article with a more-dramatic headline that better captures the situation, in our opinion:

‘It’s devastating.’ As Boston-area weeklies close, towns ponder civic life without local news.

Gannett plans to fold or merge two-dozen print papers in Eastern Massachusetts in shift to more digital, and regional, coverage of local news.

We agree with that conclusion.

Here's a list of local papers whose print editions will close or be merged in May: 

  1. Newton Tab – making Newton, with 89,000 residents, the largest city in the state without a local newspaper
  2. Brookline Tab
  3. Dedham Transcript & Bulletin, which also covered Westwood and Norwood
  4. Sharon Times Advocate, which also covered Walpole
  5. Needham Times
  6. Weston Town Crier
  7. Wayland Town Crier
  8. Waltham News Tribune
  9. Bellingham County Gazette
  10. Saugus Advertiser & Melrose Free Press Observer will be merged into the Free Press & Advertiser
  11. Medford Transcript & Summerville Journal will be merged into the Transcript & Journal
  12. Arlington Advocate & Winchester Star will be merged into the Advocate & Star

Keep in mind: these are not the only communities being affected. Gannett has been cutting costs, and staff for some time. Only three Gannett weeklies -- in Cambridge, Plymouth and Provincetown -- will retain dedicated staff. The others will share resources, as many Gannett weeklies have done for more than 18 months.

Here are some observations and lessons learned:

  1. Some of the community weeklies had strong print subscribers. Approx. 1/4 of Newton's 89,000 residents subscribed to the Tab. So the decision to shutter some print editions has nothing to do with the number of subscribers, even though subscriptions to the Tab fell 20% from five years prior -- that's probably similar to most other print subscriptions.
  2. Western suburbs are primarily being hit but we suspect that the decision will be rolled out to other communities.
  3. Longtime Boston journalist and journalism professor Dan Kennedy told the Globe, "To eliminate local beats at all but three of their weeklies is really unconscionable. The loss is really to civic life. The loss is to accountability journalism that all of us need to know about what’s going on at City Hall or Town Hall, the school committee, even connecting with our neighbors.”
  4. Gannett said its mission is to move print readers to digital platforms. But we know that print subscribers tend to be older but we don't know that they will successfully transition to checking out community news online -- and neither does Gannett. It means that a certain percentage of local residents will be disenfranchised when it comes to local news and events.
  5. Some online sites do a better job pushing news out. The Patch is very good at sending daily updates via email, especially with local news. We've been less impressed with Wicked Locals from that perspective. 
  6. The loss of hyperlocal print editions makes it harder for marketers to reach local readers. On our staff, we tend to check out hard news on our local online community news sites, while ignoring lifestyle news because, for example, we expect to have seen any health and wellness news in the Globe, the New York Times or other national news outlet. 
  7. For those of us who stopped subscribing to the "dead tree" edition, but still care about our communities, it still takes extra effort to remember and click onto our "online news destination." Our guess is that instead of checking out community news each week when the paper edition reached our homes, we check out local news randomly, a couple of times a month at most. In other words, at a time when national and international news flow is overwhelming, most of us are not checking local news regularly but we did more when we had the reminder of the print edition.
  8. Because of the constraints of shared resources -- i.e., reporters who cover a region, not a specific community, many online sites are cluttered with news about other communities. In this respect, the Patch newsletters don't do a good job; they aggregate news so that only when you click the link do you find out that the headline refers to some town that could be an hour away. That's not really helpful when you're interested in local news. By the way, that's not a rare occurrence; to us, it feels like that happens on a daily basis because there's just not enough news being generated from each of our home towns.
  9. We also see that, because there's not a lot of new articles being produced, that many online news sites continue to list news that's several weeks old. So that when you click onto the site, it looks like lots of coverage but many stories are old and just haven't been displaced by new content. Please note: This is not to slam reporters. We know there are fewer of them and they have a lot more to cover. This is a problem that can be resolved by hiring more reporters. But it makes it harder for residents to find current news because there's not as much being written or posted.  
  10.   Marketers need to find new ways to reach communities. That may mean doing more than issuing a press release or submitting a potential hyperlocal news story. That may mean taking out ads in community newsletters or finding ways to partner with local businesses or organizations like chambers of commerce or local churches, synagogues and libraries, that also have newsletters to committed and interested members.  But that will will likely require ad fees and additional coordination. This may not be feasible for nonprofits looking to get the word out about events, programs, etc. so we need to be more creative in approaches.
We're advising some clients about how to reach out to hyperlocal communities that are losing their community print editions. There are opportunities but they will require a willingness to try new things and more budgets and resources to support events.

Monday, April 11, 2022

10 Components of a Success Thought Leadership Campaign

In the past several posts, we've written about thought leadership campaigns, comparing them to product PR and identifying five ways thought leadership can benefit an organization.

In this post, we wanted to identify ten of the success factors for conducting an effective thought leadership campaign:

  1. An executive willing and able to provide industry insight, even if it might be controversial. As we mentioned in the prior article, we helped a semiconductor startup take on Microsoft regarding industry standards. That only works if executives are confident in their position. 
  2. An executive able to commit the time necessary to brief your thought leadership team and to conduct interviews with them and with reporters, podcasters, and other influencers. We had secured a live CNN interview at a major trade show for one executive but he decided he didn't want to get up in time to be in position for the interview at 7AM so we had to decline. 
  3. Identify your objectives. It's important to identify why you're conducting a thought leadership campaign. If it's because the company is looking to raise money, that will help focus on the topic and the audience segment to address. If it's to find business partners, that means a different set of topics and audience, etc. Of course, one of the goals is to build trust and credibility but how you achieve that will be determined in part by the topics you address.
  4. Identify the right topics and expertise. The issues you address can be a point of differentiation but pick topics that you can "own" and that are relevant to you and your customers. It can be okay if other companies are also addressing the same topic -- but you need to figure out a compelling perspective. (More on that in the next bullet.) We've had clients who were serial entrepreneurs so that their expertise and topics might be different from a CEO who helps grows companies but doesn't launch them. (Launching requires different skill sets from growing a company.)
  5. Need a compelling viewpoint on industry issues. The topic may be the same as what others are discussing -- that's how you know it's a good issue. But you need to make sure you have a compelling perspective on that issue. And that viewpoint can't be seen as self-serving because editors won't be interested and it could turn off potential customers. The viewpoint and insight needs to touch on issues that are important and relevant. And the executive needs to be able to discuss the insight in a compelling way -- and that may not always be possible. We once had a terrific client who, on one topic, couldn't give a compelling interview even though he was excellent on every other topic. We asked him about that, and he said, "Oh, I find that topic boring." We then never let him talk to a reporter about that topic; we used a different executive whenever that topic came up. You need to educate (not sell) audiences about your topics and you need to develop insights that help distinguish your company from others in your market. In addition to insights, we've found that using analogies can help audiences grasp clients' perspective.  Avoid jargon when possible. Provide best practices and lessons learned.
  6. Need to use that viewpoint to convey the organization's values and personality. The viewpoint needs to match the company's values and personality. Many customers look for companies that are authentic and whose values mesh with their own -- and they get upset with anything that seems deceptive. By way of example, we recently got approached from an advocacy group but when we checked them out, we found that they weren't nonprofit (though their URL was a dot-org) and they weren't actually nonpartisan (though they said they were). Those were red flags, and we quickly and easily decided not to pursue the opportunity. 
  7. Set reasonable, achievable goals. The term "reasonable" means different things to different organizations. It depends on the industry issue -- for example, the issue may be seasonal so it means in off months, there's limited activity. It depends on the executive's availability -- he or she might be able to devote only a couple of hours per month to briefings and to any actual interviews; in that case, you shouldn't pursue dozens on potential media interviews -- you should focus on just a handful. We also once had a potential startup client in stealth mode that wanted two articles in the Wall St. Journal before they actually announced anything. (We told them, respectfully, that if they were in stealth mode, it was for a reason, and therefore two articles before launch was unrealistic. They went elsewhere, and as far as we can determine, never secured a single article in the Journal.)
  8. Set reasonable demands. This is slightly different because by this we mean: expecting to blog twice a week may be a very aggressive timetable. We know that executives need to review content, and they may not have time to review content on a timely basis to meet the expectation of posting twice a week.
  9. Identify the appropriate channels. One client, for example, didn't have a social media presence. That's okay, we can (and did) set that up for them. But we've had clients, even recently, who didn't have and couldn't secure because they were already taken, social media IDs that made the most sense for the organization. Ideally, a thought leadership campaign will take content and reformat it to be distributed as a blog post, a bylined article in a publication, cross-promoted across social media, pitched to reporters and podcasters for possible interviews, pitched to conference organizers for a possible panel discussion, used as the basis of a webinar produced by the company, etc. However, not all channels may be appropriate so the team needs to look at what are the best channels.  
  10. Test and update your content and perspective. It's important to test what content and which channels are most effective. We've found that LinkedIn is great for some clients but that might be true for your organization; we have one nonprofit client where Facebook is more important than LinkedIn or Twitter. Realize that could change over time, and that it's important to test what you're doing from time to time to make sure it's working, that audiences are engaging or sharing your content. Over time, issues evolve and it's important to make sure your thought leadership perspective evolves as well.
Ok that's enough for right now. We'll pick up thought leadership in future posts.

Monday, April 4, 2022

The Climate Beat at the New York Times is, um, Heating Up & Times' Columnist Validates our 'Energy Crunch' Prediction

One trend that we didn't highlight in our 20th anniversary list of predictions is climate change. The reason: because it's already something the media covers.

That said, the New York Times is bulking up its climate desk.

The latest addition is David Gelles, a longtime Times business reporter, who wrote its popular "Corner Office" column that interviewed CEOs. Gelles will now help cover "the nexus between government and the private sector." 

According to the Times, 

"David will examine the corporate influence on government action on all levels — federal, state and local — to reveal which corporate players are serious about mitigating climate change and which are just posing, or worse. He will report deeply to uncover actions and conflicts on the government side while also closely scrutinizing the role of companies, business interests and the financial sector."

 In the past few months, the Times added:

  • Somini Sengupta has shifted to head up its Climate Fwd newsletter, which the Times said is "one of the most important ways we connect readers with our climate content."

  • Ray Zhong, who formerly covered Chinese technology for the Times and is currently based in Taiwan, now covers climate science.

  • Former culture reporter Cara Buckley now covers "the more quiet, human stories about how people around the globe are living on a warming planet."

What's going on at the Times? A statement says, "Climate change is an urgent concern of NYT readers, who turn to us as a definitive source of coverage about all facets of the crisis — from the news to the science to the policy and politics as well as ambitious investigative pieces and stunning visuals." So it is finding new ways to cover climate change.

We expect other media outlets -- but not all -- to increase their attention and coverage of climate change. That does mean that companies should be looking at ways to tell an environmental story when possible.

The need to cover the climate is an ongoing trend but it becomes more important given our recent prediction about an Energy Crunch. Back on March 9, we predicted there would be more interest in renewable and clean energy, based on several factors including the reliance of European countries on Russia for gas and oil. In a recent opinion article headlined, "How to Defeat Putin and Save the Planet,"
Thomas Friedman: wrote:
Nothing has distorted our foreign policy, our commitments to human rights, our national security and, most of all, our environment than our oil addiction. Let this be the last war in which we and our allies fund both sides. That’s what we do. Western nations fund NATO and aid Ukraine’s military with our tax dollars, and — since Russia’s energy exports finance 40 percent of its state budget — we fund Vladimir Putin’s army with our purchases of Russian oil and gas. 

It may seem obvious but we feel national security and the need to protect our environment are converging and that renewable and clean energy will continue to be an important trend.