Thursday, September 30, 2010

Should Publicists Be Reported On in News Stories

A recent exchange in the New York Times touched on the role of publicists in the journalism process, following a New York Times Magazine profile of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. that mentioned his publicist (though not by name) nearly a dozen times in the article.

I can't remember a publicist getting so much mention in any celebrity profile before. The unnamed publicist was part of a key and controlling theme in the profile.

And that sparked the issue: "A strong ethical argument can be made that the reader should be made aware of the circumstances under which an interview was conducted. Isn’t the reader entitled to be aware of these conditions?" asked Larry Bloomstein, a reader from Dix Hills, NY.

The response from the Times was also interesting. According to Philip B. Corbett, standards editor:
"There are no clear-cut rules for when such interactions (by a publicist) should be noted in a story. My rule of thumb would be simple: If the information would significantly inform the reader’s understanding of the story, we should probably include it. The same goes for other details of how an interview takes place.
The Times' Public Editor or ombudsman, Arthuer S. Brisbane went on to suggest that:
"Publicists and other handlers should be more visible to readers, and perhaps not only to enhance readers’ understanding of a story. Some readers want to know when a third party is actively working to obtain or shape coverage for a news subject. Unfortunately, this activity takes place largely out of the view of readers. I believe that news organizations, including The Times, need to be more transparent and let readers see behind the scenes. The penalty for failing to do so is to invite suspicion that coverage can be manipulated."
We live and do business in an age of transparency, but would reporting on how publicists arrange interviews be useful information for readers or would that information serve as a distraction to the larger story?

Check out the entire exchange here.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What's the Most Important Type of News for Morning TV News?

Based on the promos that run on local stations for their local news programs, you might think that the most important type of news is breaking news. All across the country, local TV news stations talk about how they cover breaking news -- first.

But breaking new is not the reason people tune in for morning news -- despite the "If it bleeds, it leads" catch phrase that has been the overall mantra of local news. And the morning news directors know that -- even though they don't usually run promos for the things that people do tune in for: weather reports.

Watching the morning news today, I noticed that after a brief, 2-minute intro or welcome to the stories they plan to cover over the next half hour, the first thing each national morning show cut to the national and local weather.

After we get the weather report, we then get the so-called important stories of the day.

That shouldn't be surprising, but people pitching morning news programs often forget the priorities that news producers have.

Don't believe me? Here's Alex Beam in the Boston Globe writing about the formula for the new 4:30am broadcast news programs:
Here is the formula that every station manager has adopted for this time slot: WEATHER/newsfiller/newsfiller/newsfiller/whiffofsportsorbusinessreporting/advertising/WEATHER/newsfiller/newsfiller/whiffofsportsorbusinessreporting/advertising/WEATHER.

Weather is so important, that the New York Times and other papers list the weather each day on the front page, above the fold, even above other headlines.

On radio, the only thing as important as weather are traffic updates.

Sure, they get to the other stuff, including local sports, but people truly tune to morning news for the weather. Yet, the only time stations promote their weather expertise and latest in Doppler technology, is before, during and after an expected storm or Nor'easter.

The important aspect for PR functions here is to understand the structure of morning news programs so that you can set reasonable expectations for coverage. Of course, that could change if you have a strong weather-related story!

Meanwhile, check out Alex Beam's article about the very early morning news here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Boston Globe to Get Paywall

Add the Boston Globe to the list of print newspapers building a paywall, according to the Boston Business Journal article.

Not a surprising move given that the Globe's parent company, The New York Times, just announced another quarterly loss -- and that it will establish a paywall for in 2011.

The real question is what model of a paywall will the Globe have. And the second question is what affect will having articles behind a paywall have on the readers accessing Globe content. And if the numbers of readers declines, what happens to ad revenue?

This is a question not only for the Globe but for other similar newspapers in other markets.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

How Not to Give an Interview or An Example of Why You Need to Be Careful with the Daily Show

Last year, Time Magazine famously asked, "Now that Walter Cronkite has passed on, who is America's most trusted newscaster?" The answer: Jon Stewart, host of the "fake news" program, "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central. A majority of people responding to the survey in 36 states voted for Stewart ahead of Brian Williams, Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric; and in the 14 states that ranked Williams (11 states), Gibson (2) or Couric (1) first, Stewart was consistently ranked as the second most trusted newscaster.

Even though he's a comedian.

The fact is that Jon Stewart isn't afraid to ask tough questions of his guests, whether Republican or Democrat. And he calls people on it when they're hypercritical or when they don't answer the question. And he does it while being funny, too.

I'm a big fan, but the reason for this post is a clip from an interview on Monday's show.

Look, if you're trying to take a serious stance on an issue, I don't know why you'd give an interview to the Daily Show -- especially when you represent the other side of an issue that the Daily Show is likely to support. I see it all the time, and I keep wondering if those people have seen the program before? I assume if an organization is involved that it does not have a PR person on staff because the PR person should be advising them not to agree to an interview.

But if people are going to ill advisedly agree to be interviewed by the Daily Show, PR functions should at least learn what not to do -- because these segments offer very funny examples for media training classes.

Case in point: a segment available here about the United Food & Commercial Workers of Nevada, Locall 711, a union that employs non-union labor in its protest against Wal-Mart. The spokesperson is asked if he knew that non-union members were protesting on behalf of the union.

He looks visibly awkward as he pauses before saying, with the cameras rolling, that he's trying to figure out how to answer the questions. This happens a couple of times during the segment.

And then the spokesperson is surprised to find out that the people the union is paying to protest low wages, no benefits and no job security complain that they themselves are getting low wages, no benefits and have no job security as they protest Wal-Mart on behalf of the union.

Just when you think it can't get worse, the union spokesperson blames Wal-Mart for setting a standard that other companies are following....That's when Aasif Mandvi "nails" the spokesperson, by pointing out the union is also following Wal-Mart's lead by offering low wages, no benefits and no job security.

A great segment. And a great lesson in why spokespeople need to be media trained.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Old Media Habits Die Hard as Wired, Fast Company Feature Look at the New Fall TV Season

There are some outliers who think we live in a post-TV world, but I think they're wrong. As a cost-savings tip, there have been plenty of articles over the past two years reporting that you can cut your expensive cable or satellite bill and still watch the programs you want...on your computer, for free.

Many of those articles ignore the fact that you still need to access the Internet to watch, Fancast, and YouTube or to download programs from iTunes -- and that many people use cable modems to get to the Internet.

What's more to the point of a post-TV world is that you no longer need an actual TV anymore to watch TV. You can now watch shows on a range of mobile devices that provide an immersive experience -- to the point that we may need a new term to describe a television program because what your watching is no longer on a TV and a program on a computer means, what -- that you're watching C++ on your laptop?

Yet the truth is there is still no simple alternative to cable or satellite to getting all the programs -- um, shows -- you might want to watch on whatever device you might want to watch them.

According to Chris Anderson in the Sept. cover story in Wired, "The Web is dead," 40 percent of advertising still goes to TV -- that's just one example that we don't live in a post-TV world.

Want another example? The editors of Wired and Fast Company apparently didn't get the memo -- the email, the text, mindmeld or whatever we'll be using in the near future -- that we truly livein a post-TV world. Both Wired and Fast Company featured extensive articles in their September issues to "The New Way to Watch TV" and "The New Fall Season," respectively.

Those born before the 1990s know that September meant new slate of TV shows. For the last couple of weeks, People Magazine has been thick with ads from the different networks touting their new Fall schedules. With cable starting off-season schedules -- new shows of TNT's "The Closer" and USA's "Psych" in the summer to capture viewers bored with reruns -- one might think that "the new fall schedule" isn't something that people anticipate any longer.

True to each magazine's DNA, Wired featured lots of McGyver-esque ways to cobble new ways to watch TV shows while Fast Company offered a look at content producers who are working to "redefine must-see viewing." Both articles are worth a look, depending on whether you're they type to want to "build a system that will make your neighbors cry" or the type interested in the latest content.

My real point here is that whether or not we live in a post-TV world, traditional media still often lives by a traditional media mindset. Fall means back-to-school for some while Sept. means big fall fashion issues for others. And it's not really surprising that Wired and Fast Company would kickoff Fall with looks at TV. Those of us in PR should not be afraid to consider old media conventions -- like back-to-school and the TV schedule -- to develop and pitch story angles.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Forbes' 10 Rules of the Cheap Revolution

Rich Karlgaard, Forbes' publisher, has long written about what he calls the Cheap Revolution since 2006, describing it as "the wholesale shift by corporate customers and techmakers to cheap chips and open-source (often free) software such as Linux. They are embracing simplicity, unlocking prodigious new power and cutting tech costs by up to 90%, threatening the Silicon Valley plutocracy."

In the current issue, Karlgaard cites "10 Rules of the Cheap Revolution," and while I think they all make sense, I want to highlight the ones I think are most important for tech companies.

  • Consumers rule. Consumer technology is now ahead of most industrial technology, which forces businesses to change their operational practices.
  • Interface rules. The friendliest interface will win. It's all moving in the direction of entertainment.
  • Transparency rules. All those 1990s predictions of middleman destruction turn out to be true. Poor bandwidth only temporarily delayed this inevitability.
  • Self-discipline rules. We are on our own. The most important software of all is our internal operating system.

  • For the entire article, please check out it here.

    Tuesday, September 14, 2010

    Ten Observations about Executive Profiles

    The executive profile has long been a staple of business journalism. But given some changes to the media world itself, here are some observations about the current state of the executive profile and some lessons PR functions can consider.
    1. Fortune has always favored profiles of well-known CEOs of large companies -- witness the deluge of cover stories on Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Steve Jobs. If Fortune does not profile a well-known company or CEO, it then turns to a lieutenant (they're always called lieutenants, never colonels, I don't know why). For example: "Warren Buffett's Mr. Fix-It."
    2. Fortune does run articles on CEOs of smaller companies, though generally the company has to be a cool, innovative startup.
    3. Fast Company profiles lesser-known executives with an interesting story to tell. It helps if the if they executive -- doesn't have to be a CEO -- works at well-known. Example: "How Nike's CEO Shook Up the Shoe Industry," which graced the cover of the print version under the headline: "The World's Most Creative CEO: Nike's Mark Parker Uses Elite Athletes, Artists & His Own Show Designs to Drive a $34 Billion Business."
    4. The different headlines for the print and online articles provides a lesson into what might sell as a cover line for print as opposed to what you need for a good, search-optimized headline for the online space. The Online headline is shorter, mentions keywords faster (Nike, CEO and shoe) and avoids words that aren't search-relevant (artists, athletes, creative, elite, and Mark Parker).
    5. Forbes runs profiles of CEOs at large companies to depict a buy or sell opportunity or profiles of small, private companies as an opportunity of what to watch and invest in if the company ever goes public. Fortune and Fast Company often write profiles that offer lessons learned or interesting case studies. Forbes often seems to select executives based on the magazine's contrarian perspective.
    6. The articles are detailed and well researched, but they tend to show one aspect of the executive. Whether Fortune, Fast Company, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek -- all the profiles generally have a single narrative, no matter how lengthy. Fast Company likes creativity or innovation so their articles often portray those qualities. Fortune and Forbes like turnaround stories (but you really have to prove that turnaround has occurred (more on this, below). Forbes in particular likes to tell stories that have a lot of drama to them, a CEO undertaking a heroic struggle to launch or save a company.
    7. Only after a downfall or misstep, will a follow-up story show a more nuanced portrayal of the executive. For example, Mark Hurd got tremendous, positive coverage (including a Forbes cover story) since taking over H-P in 2005. However, after he was pushed out last month, suddenly stories appeared that said a lot of employees did not like Hurd and that, while great at cutting costs, he was not a great manager, and made some short-term gains at the expense of long-term investments -- and that the alienation of employees and his own board were large factors in the decision to fire Hurd. (I'm not taking sides here, I'm merely pointing out that a different take on the impact of Hurd's management style came to light only after he had left the company.) The same is true for Alex Bogusky, the former co-chairman of Crispin Porter + Bogusky was cited in dozens of Fast Company articles over the past few years, with always glowing anecdotes, quotes, etc. It's only after he stepped down that we get a more complete picture. In "Alex Bogusky Tells All: He Left the World's Hottest Agency to Find His Soul," we find out thata Bogusky could be a tyrant at work (basically telling everyone in his then-Miami offices that the company was going to relocate shortly to Boulder, CO, and cutting out key members who stayed in Miami), that he fired a great copywriter one time to make the point that no one's job was sacred, etc. Some of the aspects of being a bad boss are not unique to Bogusky. But it didn't seem too difficult for Fast Company to find people who provided the Bogusky-as-bad-boss storyline after he stepped down.
    8. The point is that if you do manage a high profile visibility campaign for your executive, negative stories could appear after that executive leaves the company. Usually those postmortem stories don't make the companies look that good (even H-P after making the decision to get rid of Hurd) -- so companies should be prepared that negative stories could arise at that time.
    9. Telling a turnaround story to get the attention of the national business media is difficult. For public companies, you need to show a certain number of quarters of positive results -- and you need validation from analysts who go on record saying that the company has turned around. Sometimes organizations want to tell a corporate change story, but again, you need hard, objective facts to make that case to a reporter. (A decade ago, a client wanted to tell Fortune and BusinessWeek they had made a significant shift in their culture, exemplified by an increase in their US marketing budget of $10 million -- which could have been an interesting hook, except that their overall US marketing budget, which did not go to us, was already at $90 million; the story did not fly because the reporters did not feel a 10 percent increase actually represented a culture change -- a point we had made before contacting the reporters.)
    10. You need to have a good story. This seemingly obvious point often gets overlooked. A good story could be a stock increase, entry into a new market, the success of a new technology or device. It often is not the fact that a company has signed a new partnership deal that has no dollar amount attached to it. It combines a good narrative with objective facts. And, PR functions need to figure out the payoff for the the reporter and outlet. By payoff, I mean: what will the readers get after spending time with the article: will it be an investment idea, a management tip, something for them to try or buy? Too often, we forget to think about what need for the reader that the story we're pitching will address and solve. But it's a key aspect that editors consider.
    Points 7 and 8 may not be relevant for most PR functions out there, but I was struck by recent coverage at how much negative information about celebrity CEOs did not make it into profiles that had helped establish these CEOs as celebrities.

    Let me know if you agree or disagree with these observations.

    Monday, September 13, 2010

    PR Lessons from BP, Toyota & Goldman Sachs, Part II

    The Harvard Business Review or other business school magazine will be covering the 2010 crises for lessons learned, and someone will try to make money writing a book about these crises and how the companies should have avoided making them worse.

    It's always easy with hindsight. That said, gathering lessons learned can help developing and executing your crisis plan. (Check out some lessons learned here: PR Lessons from BP, Toyota & Goldman Sachs.)

    Without a plan -- and sometimes, even when you do have a plan -- a crisis can alter the perception of the organization, cloud their minds when it comes to objectively assessing the facts, the internal and external perceptions, the priorities, even the right move. Having a plan helps identify the priorities and action steps.

    Of course, having a plan does not prevent the distortion, does not prevent the exhaustion that can cause more problems.

    One thing that can get overlooked during a crisis is the need to communicate to your employees, customers, and partners.

    For public companies, it's critical to communicate with your board of directors and major investors. Even if you handle the situation, you may lose the confidence of the board or shareholders if they feel you have not been honest with them. That's part of the reason H-P's board pushed out Mark Hurd, despite the fact he had turned around the company. Poor communications with his board after a poor response during an ice storm is part of the reason that JetBlue fired its founder David Neeleman. Good communications plans identify in advance who the crisis team needs to keep informed.

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010

    BP Report on Cause of Spill Does Not Difuse Crisis

    One of the lessons in PR Lessons from BP, Toyota & Goldman Sachs is to not blame other people or factors.

    "There's not a lot of news when the company takes responsibility and moves on," James Donnelly at Ketchum, told the New York Times.

    But BP apparently doesn't read this blog or the New York Times.

    Today, it issued a report that found several companies at fault in the spill. Among the findings in a BP-sponsored report are some that, as the Times notes, "While it puts some responsibility on BP for errors made — such as misreading pressure data that indicated a blowout was imminent — the report tries to undermine the notion that the company acted with gross negligence."

    Because it still blames the leak on the work of other companies, this report is, as the Times understates it, "is unlikely to carry much weight in influencing the Department of Justice, which is considering criminal and civil charges related to the spill."

    So why did BP issue the report?

    The Times called the report "a public relations exercise."

    But I think it won't work. Again, blaming others is another way to avoid responsibility. Doing so dilutes a company's ability to take corrective action to prevent future crises. Not only does blaming others dilute the public's confidence in all the companies involved, it especially dilutes the public's confidence -- hurting the brand value -- of the company doing the blaming.

    Newsweek Evaluates Time Magazine's Paywall: Some Good Points

    In summary, the Newsweek article looks objective enough: "Evaluating Time Magazine's New Online Pay Wall."

    But when you click on the link, the headline changes to: "In Which Time Inc. Rides on the Wall of Death One More Time."

    I've seen more objective headlines on the Drudge Report -- and is an example of how headline writers can ruin an article.

    The article is actually reasonable and focuses on three good points:
    • First, make the sell clear, and the transaction frictionless.
    • Second, define a better value proposition.
    • Third, remember that people will pay for value.
    Check out the article here. Just ignore the headline.

    Tuesday, September 7, 2010

    Interesting Fact about Newsweek's Twitter Feed

    It's worth noting: that the cost of publishing a print version of Newsweek is why the Washington Post sold the mag basically for nothing.

    Yet the number of people who follow Newsweek on Twitter is 1,260,755 -- almost the equivalent number to its circulation of 1.5 million. Clearly not all subscribers (I'm thinking here of medical offices) also follow Newsweek on Twitter.

    So it's clear demand for Newsweek remains stable. Well, the demand for free access to Newsweek remains stable.

    But online-only is not a viable long-term solution.

    Friday, September 3, 2010

    Newsweek Goes in for the Kill

    I remember a Time when Newsweeklies were timely and relevant and some even gave US the World. (Clearly though perhaps not so cleverly, I'm referring to the Time, Newsweek and US News & World Report.)

    There was always some amount of difference among the three, but not usually that much difference. They all had to address whatever big news story hit a few days earlier. Now the difference among them is greater even as the need for each has diminished, based on circulation anyway.

    Back to the headline. Headlines are often written by someone other than the actual reporter. The reporter writes the slug -- the working title of the piece -- while a different editor writes the headline when the piece is ready.

    Whoever edits the tech headlines at Newsweek needs a vacation. Or a better thesaurus. Check out these recent headlines:
    That's quite a killing spree!

    Having the magazine be offered up for sale and then sold for less than the newsstand price of a signle issue (I know -- the new owner has taken on the assumption of debt), is bound to make anyone cranky.

    But it's time that the killing stopped.

    Thursday, September 2, 2010

    Newsweek & New York Times Validate Another of Our Predictions

    In Feb. 2010, we published our annual list of trends and predictions for the year. As part of our Prediction #5: The Top Dozen Business & Technology Stories in 2010 Will Include... we said one of the top stories would be "The freelancing of the US workforce -- or how we'll all be contractors or 'perma-temps' in the future (especially given the jobless nature of the recovery)."

    In an article in June 2010, Newsweek ran an interesting article that validated the above prediction: "The Vanishing 9-to-5 Job: How the recession is accelerating a cultural shift in the corporate world toward more flexible workdays." And on Sept. 1, the New York Times ran an
    article, "New Job Means Lower Wages for Many" that looked at the impact of a lack of steady jobs.

    Keep in mind that the point of the trends is to identify story angles the media will be working on for the oncoming year, and then developing approaches to get clients into those stories.

    Meanwhile, in the same list of top business and tech stories we expected to see, we predicted a lot of attention paid to "Google vs. Apple vs. Microsoft and EMC vs. HP vs. Oracle." We've been right about part of that: Google vs. Apple has been a big story, bigger than Google vs. Microsoft.
    (Check out It's Apple vs. Google in the New Phone Fight, that appeared in Newsweek in June.) But there's a version of that we missed on: Dell vs HP (fighting Over 3Par). Can't get 'em all.

    As always, we'll do a recap at the end of the year to determine how well we did overall with our list, breaking out the trends we got right and the ones that we did not.