Tuesday, March 24, 2020

More News For Retail That Validates Three Predictions

There’s been a string of bad news in the retail sector: 
  1. Pier 1 Imports — which one late night comedian (accurately) described as “that store where you bought that pillow one time” — has filed for bankruptcy. The bricks-and-mortar retailer plans to close nearly half of its 940 stores, according to the Wall St. Journal.
  2. Wayfair recently announced the layoff of 500 employees, per the Wall St. Journal, while Walmart laid off 200 employees from an online furniture retailer it owns. 
  3. Victoria’s Secret has been sold to a private equity group, with the Wall St. Journal noting that: “Les Wexner’s decision to part ways with Victoria’s Secret is an admission that the 82-year-old billionaire couldn’t revive the fortunes of a troubled lingerie brand he had built around shopping malls and sex appeal.” 
So we’re seeing ongoing weakness from both primarily mall-based as well as online retailers. 

That’s a real problem, and a trend that we’ve been predicting for some time. We’re not happy to be right, especially because we don’t have any recommendations or solutions.

But AdWeek has some suggestions for brands — which is not the same thing but shows that even brands that do well selling online are fearful. Check out “How Brands Are Battling Knockoffs on Amazon: With a proliferation of third-party sellers, fighting copycats can feel like a never-ending game” and “How to Protect Your Amazon Listings From Copycats.”

Meanwhile, validating another trend that retailers will use technology to improve the customer experience, in an article entitled, “Grocers Wrest Back Control of Shelf Space,” the Wall St. Journal reports that, “Retailers are relying on their own proprietary research to decide where to shelve products, dealing another blow to large U.S. food companies that are already dealing with increased competition and shifting consumer tastes.”

Finally, we’ve predicted that there’s a renewed push for profitability and financial discipline among apps, particularly pointing to food delivery services as a sector that would need to raise fees and change their business models to stay in business. That prediction has been validated by yet another Wall St. Journal article: “Food-Delivery Firms Put Mergers, IPOs on the Menu: DoorDash, Grubhub and others are weighing tie-ups or looking for funding.”

American consumers still seem fine spending their money, but spending patterns are evolving. And other than Amazon and Walmart, retailers don’t really knows how to survive. So we expect ongoing turmoil, unfortunately. We're not economists but it seems hard to believe this is not going to impact employment rates and the economy at large.

9 Questions to Consider In Preparing to Be a Thought Leader

Recently we got a PR question from a former marketing colleague -- a designer who used to work at an ad agency with whom we collaborated on a range of projects.

She's now running a small rental property business, and asked: "How do I generate some PR about what I'm doing?"

This is someone who's a terrific designer and is smart about marketing. Her website is great, and the properties she manages look wonderful.

But that's not enough to generate media coverage.

There's no story there.

At least not yet.

To get media coverage, we told her she needs to think about the following things (see, list, below), and we thought these questions may help others, too:
  1. What story can I tell? We know she (and others have a business) but that in itself isn't necessarily media-worthy. So what insights and experiences can you tell? What advice can you provide? How do you help solve a problem that your customers have? What are you passionate about? These days, providing support for a cause that's important to you can help reach your key audiences, and can be the lens through which you become a thought leader. (A German client has embraced diversity as a core value; part of it commitment includes holding an annual job fair that helps more than 4,000 refugees get jobs. Through their dedication and experience, they've become a thought leader about diversity.) 
  2. Who are your customers? Where are they located? If they're local and they're looking for additional rooms for out-of-town wedding guests, the media she needs to go to is different than if most of the renters are from within the state or from another region entirely. What brings them to the area? What are they looking to do? She can find out some of this by asking the renters when she books the rentals or if that's done online, by asking if they'll fill out a survey after their stay. Companies of all sorts need to have a clear understanding of their customers -- and a surprising number don't have a firm grasp.
  3. What do customers want to hear? Her potential customers are looking for short-term rentals, so what may interest them beyond good location, nice furnishing and amenities? Perhaps its tips about things to do that only a local might know: the best restaurant, the best shopping, the best place for a walk or scenic vista. If she conducts a quick survey, she might have a better idea of what customers are looking for.
  4. What influences their purchasing decision? Is it price, location, amenities, availability? What is her competition? Is it Airbnb? Is it local inns or B&Bs or hotels? Again, the better understanding she -- or any company -- has of its customers, the better she can deliver to her customers.
  5. Based on her customers, what media should I target? Again, if most of her customers are coming for out-of-town events like weddings or bar mitzvahs, then local media is the ticket. If from outside the area, perhaps she needs to target travel publications. Understanding the type of media will help answer the next question.
  6. What stories will interest reporters? What type of stories are they looking for? A local business reporter might be interested in local business trends, and her insight into her customers can help tell a story about the local economy. A local broadcast reporter may be receptive to a story that has a compelling visual element. A podcaster may want tips or advice for small business owners, for example.
  7. What do I need to do to present that story? Do I need a blog and social media? (We'd say, "absolutely," to that. You can't just say, "I'm a thought leader" without being able to show appropriate content.) Do I need video? Does my website tell that story and is it a compelling and current story? (We've found that if it tells a story, the websites of many small companies still tell the story that was appropriate when the company was launched -- but that several years later, the story on the website has not evolved.) Reporters will check websites and if they don't see the story or something interesting, they may not respond to any media outreach, either email or phone. So the website needs to tell your story.
  8. What are resources do you have? Take a look at your budget (Do you have enough money to produce a quarterly video -- for example, with the rental property, February and March in New England may be tough times to get short-term renters so perhaps she could produce a video highlighting fun things around town during winter.) Who is heading up this initiative? Do they have the time, resources and expertise to focus on this? 
  9. What are realistic goals? What key performance indicators are you measuring? Is it traffic to your website? Engagement on social media? Inquiries, either online or via phone or email? In terms of media coverage, do you have a sense of what's a home run? What kinds of news or stories you are likely to have that's worth sharing -- just because it's good news for you doesn't mean a reporter will find it worth writing about, unfortunately -- and will interest your target media? 
These may not be the only questions to ask but we think they form a good foundation from which to strategize next steps. We think they're useful whether you're trying to generate media coverage or position yourself or company as a thought leader. If you're interested, please check out are other blog articles about developing PR programs and being thought leaders. Or contact us by emailing us here.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Retailers look for tech to improve in-store expeiences; validates our prediction

We've been following the retail sector for a couple of years because we think it is important contributor to the local economy and to a community's sense of well-being. And that when an area has too many for-rent signs on empty store fronts, it can hurt the community's sense of self, and drive people away.

Some seem to think that the "Retail Apocalypse has been averted," per a recent Wall St. Journal headline, based positive results announced in Q4 2019 by Target and Lowe's.

But we keep reading about additional store closings. And in one team member's town, two mainstays, including a coffee shop and a bookstore, shut their doors suddenly in late December, leaving signs of thanks for the decades of being able to serve the community. They join several other now-for-rent store fronts.

Not all of retail's woes are due to Amazon. After all, you can't -- at least not yet -- have Amazon Prime deliver hot coffee, chai tea and baked goods.

So one of our predictions is that in-store retailers would turn to technology to improve the experience and selection.

And that is what the Wall St. Journal has started to report: "Retailers Hope In-Store Tech Will Keep Shoppers in Stores: Old-guard retailers are looking for technology systems that can make visits to physical stores better or more relevant." The article reports on new back-end systems as well as new customer-facing technology that is designed to improve the in-store experience.
The Journal also ran another article that specifically looked at updating department stores: "Department stores were once the cutting edge of retail. Can they reclaim some of their old magic?

We hope that retail does fix itself just as we hope that the news business does.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

New York Times Validates Our Predictation About The Sharing Economy

One of our predictions of a topic that would generate media coverage in 2020 was the sharing economy, principally:  "Streaming — but not owning — content increasingly means you might be able to access the version you want."

At the time we wrote that, we were a little uncertain. After all, the sharing economy had been around for a couple of years, and we had not seen much written about the downsides of not owning your content. But we felt that this would change this year in part due to the so-called streaming wars. There's been a lot of attention to programs like "Friends" and "The Office" that will be leaving Netflix for NBC Peacock service, and we thought -- correctly, as it seems -- that that would spark more coverage of the issues of renting content but not owning it.

Brian X. Chen, lead consumer tech writer for the New York Times, has written two articles about how to navigate and control content. 

In "We’re Living in a Subscriptions World. Here’s How to Navigate It," Chen writes, "Subscription services like Netflix and Google Drive are convenient, but we can lose control of our content and data."

In the article, Chen says, "Here are some approaches to taking control of our media while enjoying the benefits of subscription services. Those steps range from the obvious, like creating local copies of your data, to more advanced methods, like making a personal cloud using an internet-connected storage device that acts like a miniature server."

The Times also published another article on the topic: "We Should Have Bought the DVDs It’s 2022. I don’t know if I’ll ever own a house, but I can own my favorite television shows in their entirety." The op-ed, clearly written in 2020 (not 2022) is part of a Times initiative called "Op-Eds From the Future," which asks science fiction autors, futuriss, philosophers and scientists to write "the Op-Eds that they imagine we might read two, 10, 50 or even 200 years from now."

So, okay, you might say we're right that this feature of the sharing economy will get written about in 2020 or that we saw even further into the future, 2022. But we think this is really a 2020 conversation; by 2022, the sharing economy will be so prevalent, people won't really remember an age in which we actually owned content.

Let us know if you think we're wrong or if you have any insights that you, um, want to share.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Understanding Editorial Boards

There's some confusion about what Editorial Boards at newspapers do, and the New York Times recently produced a section to discuss its role at the paper.

This blog will provide an overview about Editorial Boards to capture some of the information presented by James Bennet, editorial page editor of the Times who oversees the editorial board as well as the Letters and the Op-Ed sections. 

Together the editorial board, op-ed and letters section is part of Times Opinion, whose purpose, Bennet says, 
"Is to supply the wide-ranging debate about big ideas that a diverse democracy needs. Amid that debate, the role of the editorial board is to provide Times readers with a long-range view formed not by one person’s expertise and experience but ballasted by certain institutional values that have evolved across more than 150 years. That’s why the editorials, unlike other articles in The Times, appear without a byline."
The Times editorial board operates as the voice of the paper and the publisher, writing editorials independent from the newsroom. That means the editorial board does not speak for the newsroom or that newsroom staff feel the same way about a particular issue. In fact, there have been stories about newsroom staffs at various papers, including the Times and the Wall St. Journal, being upset about positions takes by their respective editorial boards.

For decades, editorial boards have been influential, offering endorsements for political office and highlighting issues important to the communities they serve. The influence of editorial boards has declined over the last several decades but are still important, in part because they take "a long-range view formed not by one person’s expertise and experience but ballasted by certain institutional values." But as CNN recently noted, "The power of newspaper endorsement -- ANY newspaper -- is increasingly limited in terms of its ability to sway voters. That's especially true of national newspapers like the Times." 

How the Times' Editorial Board works
  1. "The New York Times editorial board is made up of opinion journalists who rely on research, debate and individual expertise to reach a shared view of important issues," according to the Times' description. 
  2. The board is comprised of 15 veteran journalists who bring "years of research, subject-matter expertise and personal experience," including foreign correspondents and beat reporters. They include:
    1.  James Bennet, who has recused himself from involvement in the 2020 election because his brother, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, is running for president.
    2.  Kathleen Kingsbury, deputy editorial page editor.
    3. Binyamin Appelbaum: economics & business.
    4. Michelle Cottle: U.S. politics.
    5. Mara Gay: N.Y. state and local affairs.
    6. Jennen Interlandi: health & science.
    7. Laureen Kelley: women & reproductive rights.
    8. Alex Kingsbury: tehcnology & national affairs.
    9. Serge Schmemann: international affairs.
    10. Bremt Staples: education, criminal justice & economics.
    11. Jesse Wegman: Supreme Court & legal affairs.
    12. John Broder: associate editor.
    13. Nick Fox: editor.
    14. Carol Giacomo: foreign affairs.
    15. Charlie Warzel: technology. Warzel is not a permanent member of the editorial board but has been writing a series of opinion articles about privacy for the editorial board. He writes about the intersection of technology, media, and politics as well as online extremism.
    16. James Dao: op-ed editor. He is part of the Times Opinion section and is participating in the Times' process to endorse presidential candidates but is not a permanent member of the board.
  3. The board meets at least twice each week.
  4. The board discusses significant questions in the news, informed by the members who are subject-matter experts in the topic as well as by an understanding of the positions the board has taken over the years. That's not to say the Times' editorial board doesn't break with presidence: "We try to keep in mind the big questions we’ve gotten wrong in the past — such as opposing women’s suffrage — to cultivate some humility and caution," Bennet notes.
  5. "In general," Bennet writes, the board "reaches its conclusions by consensus, though in matters where there is deep disagreement we sometimes have to call a vote."
  6. The board interviews all major presidential candidates to get their perspective before the board makes an endorsement.
Why You Should Care about the Editorial Board

The editorial board does more than endorse a candidate. The board will meet with outside experts who can provide insight on a topic relevant and significant to the Times community. Requesting a meeting can be a way to get your organization's perspective in front of the editorial board, with the hope -- there's no guarantee, of course -- that the next time the board writes about that issue, it may provide perspective it got from that meeting.

Please note: getting a meeting can be a real challenge. Each editorial board has a different process of handling meeting requests. Please note: You're not likely going to be able to meet with the entire board. You should focus on contacting the subject-matter board member covering your issue. 

One of the challenges is that it can be difficult to get to the right person at the paper to schedule a meeting. The above list of subject-matter journalists at the New York Times, is valid as of Jan. 2020 but the actual URL indicates the list is from 2018. It may not be accurate even by the end of 2020. Most papers do not list the editorial board members or may not have updated their membership page in a long time; for example, the Wall St. Journal lists "Who We Are" of the editorial board but that was last updated Jan. 1, 2000 -- 20 years ago, and while a number of people remain, many have moved on. Some editorial board members list their affiliation when they publish columns away from the editorial board, which does happen at the Wall St. Journal. By the way, the Journal does provide a more updated list of its editorial board but it does not necessarily list their subject matter expertise. 

Even if you have scheduled an editorial board meeting with the right person -- as we have done in the past -- you are not guaranteed that they will respond or include your organization's perspective the next time they opine on the topic. 

We have fond that the process of developing a compelling reason to meet with the editorial board can help when writing an op-ed article on the topic. Even if you can't meet with the board or with the appropriate board member, the exercise of framing your perspective can have a longer-term benefit by refining your thoughts and key messages.

Let us know if you have any questions about working with editorial boards.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

NYT Offers Advice to Combat the "Age of Anxiety" by Changing How You Interact with Social Media

We've long felt that social media is one of the contributing reasons that many Americans are feeling anxious. That's part of why we think we're living in the "Age of Anxiety."

As part of our predictions for 2020, we said we expected the media to cover this, and the New York Times recently provided some tips as part of its "Smarter Living" initiative, entitled, "How to Turn Depressing Social Media Into a Positive Influence."

According to the Times, "The current state of the modern world is a billion voices screaming for your attention, and it’s easy to let the most negative ones filter through and bring you down. It can be exhausting, and if your real life is already a struggle, adding digital gloom can be overwhelming."

The article, whose subhead says, "Don’t let Facebook, Instagram or Twitter become negative aspects of your life. Here’s how to fix them," provides tips on for those three social media platform such as:
  1. Be selective who you follow. "Don’t follow accounts or hashtags you don’t like."
  2. Go back and unfollow friends "who only post negative things...or (those) who only writes rude comments."
  3. Don't click on things you don't like. The reason: Instagram knows what you look at so it will continue to serve up photos similar to the others you've tapped. "Click on something else. It won't take long to adjust and show you that."
  4. Skip Insta's Search page. Instead, "only look at the accounts you follow."
  5. Consider muting or blocking on Twitter to avoid "the most terribly toxic tweeters."
  6. "Enable the Quality filter and other advanced filters to cut down on replies from accounts with only a few followers (i.e., likely spam or bots)."
  7. "Don't post anything you don't want." People sometimes feel compelled to post but you don't have to.
Those are good tips, and there are more in the article so it's worth checking out.

We have another tip: When posting photos or info that includes other people, ask them in advance if they're okay doing so. We know a frequent poster who uploaded group photos that included friends' young kids. The parents and the kids were unhappy to be included; they just didn't want to be included. 

We do expect people to take social media vacations -- that is: to take time off from checking social media -- this year, especially as the presidential election approaches. But the need to take a social media vacation isn't due only to wanting to avoid politics (your own or someone from across the aisle). We feel that the need to take time away from social media can be beneficial and help you be present in a way that constant checking can't do.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Wired Validates Predictions about Privacy & AI Built Into Everything

Two of our predictions for 2020, which we've called the "Age of Anxiety," is the feeling that we're constantly under surveillance. We also said that a media topic would be "AI in everything."

With the latest column for Wired, "Worried About Privacy at Home? There's an AI for That How edge AI will provide devices with just enough smarts to get the job done without spilling all your secrets to the mothership,"  by Clive Thompson, a very smart columnist who also writes for the New York Times, touched on both parts: the privacy and the AI in everything.

His feeling: "I don't need light switches that tell dad jokes. When it comes to gadgets that share my house, I'd prefer they be less smart."

What he means is there are companies building "edge AI": AI that runs on "teensy microprocessors" that have enough capability to control a coffee maker but nothing more than that; perhaps an edge AI can understand 200 words. 

Why is that enough? With designed limited capability, the edge AI-enabled coffee machine does not need to interact with the cloud, which would give it more power but also share all kinds of data in the cloud, where it can be used to better train future iterations of the coffee machine (perhaps) and also could be monetized or further shared without your permission.

Designed to handle specific applications, edge AI can be faster and can ensure privacy while helping you get the job done. As Thompson notes:
"You can't banter with it (edge AI) as you would with Alex. But who cares? 'It's a coffee maker. You're not going to have a meaningful conversation with your coffee maker...'"
Thompson describes edge AI as perfect for appliances light lamps, TVs, and other devices that could benefit from voice control without needing full-on conversational capabilities. True, users would need to know the key terms to turn on and off devices or handle other variables (like turn up or down the lights and thermostats or the channels or volume, if that's how you still watch TV or listen to music). But they won't have to worry that someone is listening in on the conversations.

Edge AI won't solve all the "Age of Anxiety" issues but it's a good way to use just-smart-enough AI to help us without being too smart and not knowing how our input and data are being used.