Tag Archives: journalism

Should PRSA Sanction Public Relations Practitioners?

In his most recent bi-weekly column on customer service, “The Haggler,” New York Times writer David Segal addressed a long-standing and well-founded gripe that many journalists have against public relations practitioners who send out press releases and other solicitations in wholesale fashion; regardless of the content’s relevance or likely interest to the journalists they’re pitching. According to Segal, hundreds of thousands of these unsolicited pitches – or “P.R. Spam,” as he calls it – “belly flop into the email systems of journalists every day.”

The relationship between journalists and PR professionals has always been contentious. Reporters claim PR people block their access to sources, and sometimes to the truth. PR counters that journalists often don’t care about facts, or twist them to suit their editorial agenda. But because the press can deliver exposure and credibility that PR craves, journalists have always been in a more powerful position. As a result, effective public relations involves pushing a company’s or client’s agenda (or products and services) without being a pest, and ideally, by being helpful to reporters who are in a position to reciprocate with media coverage. It’s a dance that both sides understand.

Over the past decade, three developments have upset the already rocky relationship between PR and the press:

  • Email, and “blast email” in particular, has become PR’s most frequently used communication device. Standard PR procedure at most firms and agencies is based on “shotgun” tactics designed to reach as many media sources as possible, relevance or interest notwithstanding.
  • Database companies, notably Cision and Vocus, empower PR people to create enormous lists of journalists in a matter of minutes. What was once a painstaking research process now involves a few keystrokes.
  • The internet and a fundamental shift in how news is reported have greatly reduced the number of journalists. Conversely, more schools are pumping out graduates with PR degrees. So there are now significantly more PR people chasing a much smaller number of journalists. And many newly minted PR people have not been taught the unwritten rules of effective media relations.

Why should serious PR practitioners care about the behavior of the growing number of people within their profession who display no regard for fundamental media relations protocol?

In his column, New York Times’ David Segal reports that he has removed his contact information from the 5 leading media database companies. Calling on other reporters who also seek fewer unsolicited intrusions in their mailboxes, Segal provides detailed instructions on how they can delete their listings from those databases.

But it matters very little whether Segal is the canary in the coal mine for this issue, foreshadowing mass defections of journalists from online databases; thereby making those tools useless. In fact, PR may also be better served without them.

What does matter is that this sloppy, lazy, abusive practice of media harassment by so many PR people increasingly harms the stature of the profession, and makes it even more difficult for serious practitioners to work effectively with the press.

Public relations has fought for decades to be recognized as a bona fide profession, similar to medicine, law or accounting. But until the profession is in a position to self-regulate – to reprimand or sanction, in transparent fashion, individual practitioners or organizations that harm the reputation and effectiveness of the discipline – PR can never be considered a legitimate profession. It will remain a business function, nothing more.

If the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), in its role as the industry’s trade association, has serious interest in protecting the reputation and collective interests of the nation’s public relations franchise, the issue highlighted by David Segal provides an opportunity to demonstrate true leadership by reversing a troubling trend. An online “complaint box” for journalists to identify abuse, combined with a “Wall of Shame” to call out repeat offenders – both featured on the PRSA website – might be an effective first step in changing industry behavior.

Any other ideas?

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Did Reader’s Digest Flunk Its Own Trust Test?

It Pays to Get a Second Opinion

…and I have a highly rated TV show.

In an effort to goose newsstand sales, the June issue of Reader’s Digest features a cover story entitled, “The 100 Most Trusted People in America Today.” Although the article’s “most trusted” claim is far from trustworthy (in fact, 1,000 people voted on 200 American “opinion shapers and headline makers” that Reader’s Digest had pre-selected), there are some quirky results worth noting.

According to the survey:

  • Americans trust doctors, especially if they’re on TV. For example, Dr. Oz (#16) and Sanjay Gupta (#17) outscored respected medical authors Andrew Weil (#75) and Deepak Chopra (#92).
  • Americans also trust TV judges, such as Judge Judy (#28) and Judge Joe Brown (#39), more than they do real-life Supreme Court judges, including Sam Alito (#60) and Elena Kagan (#62).
  • Some strange relative rankings include: Johnny Depp (#35) who outscored Oprah Winfrey (#59), Billy Graham #67) and Condoleezza Rice (#68);  and Adam Sandler (#64) who edged out Barack Obama (#65), but both were far behind Michelle Obama (#19).
  • The top four people on the list are all actors: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep. At the bottom of the 200 candidates were celebrities with damaged brands, including Lance Armstrong and Kim Kardashian.
  • In addition to its untrustworthy headline, Reader’s Digest fesses up in the article that its editors had removed the three highest scorers from its Top 100 list, which were “your own doctor” (77%), “your own spiritual advisor” (71%) and “your own child’s current teacher” (66%).
  • Given 15 categories, the most trusted professions were 1. Doctors, 2. Teachers, 3. Movie Stars, 4. Philanthropists, and 5. Spiritual Leaders. Not surprisingly, Business Leaders and Financial Experts were ranked 11th  and 12th, respectively, just ahead of Politicians and Political Pundits.
  • Only 6 active business leaders made the Top 100 list, and all near the tail end, led by Warren Buffett (#71), Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (#78), Alex Gorsky of J&J (#86), Ken Powell of General Mills (#93), Steve Balmer of Microsoft (#94) and Steve Forbes of Forbes Media (#97).

Celebrity publicists will likely use these ranking to justify image overhauls for their low-scoring clients. But Reader’s Digest’s “Top 100 Most Trusted People” ranking really only validates America’s low-brow pop culture, and does not fairly reflect the integrity or character of any one of the 200 people on its arbitrary list.

In addition to “integrity and character,” Reader’s Digest asked its poll takers to rank the trust levels of its 200 candidates in terms of “exceptional talent and drive, internal moral compass, message, honesty and leadership.” But it’s an impossible task to rank someone on any of those criteria, unless you have first-hand experience with that individual over a long period of time.

Here are some the criteria this writer uses to measure trustworthiness of people, regardless of their profession or position of authority:

  1. DO THEY WALK THE TALK? I trust people who make good on their promises. And if they can’t deliver, they’re pro-active about explaining why they failed to meet your expectations.
  2. ARE THEY TRANSPARENT? Trustworthy people have no hidden agendas. Yes means yes, and no means no…which translates into no unpleasant surprises.
  3. DO THEY FOLLOW THE GOLDEN RULE? I trust people who treat a waiter in a restaurant, or the person cutting their lawn, with the same level of courtesy and respect they would display with their boss, or a prospective client.
  4. ARE THEY FAIR? Trustworthy people always explain the rules of the game, don’t play favorites, and base recognition and rewards on a meritocracy.

What are some of the criteria you apply to determine if an individual (or an organization) is worthy of your trust?

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PR / Media Pros Should Stand Firm on Requiring Quote Approvals

Quote Approvals Lower the Risk of Media Burn

The practice of requiring journalists to submit on-the-record quotes for approval by a source in advance of publication has long been a sore point between the media and the PR profession. A new spotlight has been cast on the issue, with writer Michael Lewis’ acknowledgment that he’d agreed to quote approval for his Vanity Fair profile on Barack Obama, and the new policy issued by the New York Times, which forbids their reporters from agreeing to “after-the-fact quote approval by sources and their press aides.”

Notwithstanding the New York Times’ effort to protect the integrity of the Fourth Estate, there are at least 3 reasons why it makes good sense for companies and organizations to stand firm on stipulating that reporters obtain quote approval as a pre-condition for granting an interview:

  1. Reporters Are Human. They often don’t bring the depth of knowledge that’s required to cover the assignments they’re handed…so they will make mistakes. They also bring their own points of view…so they will be selective in how they quote sources. And sometimes, they don’t always play by the rules. This blogger was told by a New York Times reporter that if I pressed for a correction to an error he had made regarding one of my clients, that he would never feature any of my clients in his column.
  2. The Spoken Word and Written Word are Very Different. A comment or offhand remark that’s expressed during an interview can cast a false or unfair impression when taken out of context, and when it is read rather than heard. Very few individuals have the ability to envision…as they are speaking…how their spoken words will look in print and to know what message those words will convey. Mark Twain recognized that “talk in print” results in “confusion to the reader, not instruction.”
  3. Journalism Is a Cat and Mouse Game. Reporters are frequently looking for a “gotcha” quote that can juice up their coverage, or support a point they’re seeking to make. Their questions can be contrived, or their approach designed to wear down a source. This blogger learned that lesson the hard way, when a Chicago Tribune reporter twisted a fact-based comment in a very long conversation that enabled him to write a story entitled, “Amex Official Admits CBOE Superiority.”

If you’re willing to participate in media interviews without the safety net of quote approval….here are some guidelines that will lower your risk of being burned:

  • You Can Never Be “Media Trained” – Regardless of whatever training, practice sessions or actual interviews you’ve had, believing that you are “media trained” provides a dangerous and false sense of security. Every reporter is different, every interview is a unique opportunity, and you need to be properly prepared every time.
  • Don’t Lead Lambs to Slaughter – For a host of reasons, and regardless of their org chart position or years of experience, some people are media disasters. If your senior manager or client has a track record of interviews that did not go well, avoid putting them in harm’s way. If a heart-to-heart conversation regarding their poor interviewing skills is not an option, at least ensure that they are equipped for interviews with tightly scripted talking points.
  • Tape Record all Interviews – When there’s a recorded version of an interview, a reporter is likely to be more careful in quoting a source, and you have something more credible than written notes, if there is any controversy. It’s good form to let the reporter know upfront that you will be tape recording an interview. If the reporter objects, and you still agree to conduct the interview, then your organization deserves whatever misquotes or misrepresentation may occur.

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The Harvard Cheating Scandal: Do Administrators Need “Public Relations 101″?

Harvard University announced last week that the school is investigating 125 students for possibly cheating on a take-home final exam for “Government 1310: Introduction to Congress.” After reviewing more than 250 take-home exams turned in last Spring, the Harvard College Administrative Board has opened cases involving nearly half the 279 students enrolled in the class. The school has contacted every student whose work is under review, who now face sanctions that include suspension for up to a year.

In considering whether Harvard may have caused significant long-term damage to its own reputation unnecessarily, let’s ignore some fuzzy facts and conjecture:

  • The course, as measured by the professor’s own words and behavior, did not reflect a level of academic rigor one might associate with a prestigious university.
  • Take home exams, by their very nature, are generally considered a joke by most students.
  • Apparent confusion over at least one of the exam’s questions was exacerbated by the unavailability of the professor during the exam period, causing students to seek clarification from fellow classmates.
  • It’s unlikely that such a large proportion of the class would purposely cheat on what appears to be a gut course.

In examining whether Harvard may have caused significant long-term damage to its own reputation by acting in a hasty and imprudent manner, let’s speculate on a few likely catalysts:

  • After discovering similarities in the exams, and in advance of sending out letters to the 125 students suspected of cheating, Harvard failed to consider the high likelihood that this issue would quickly become a news item. If the school had acknowledged that risk, Harvard would (or should) have announced the scandal in advance of sending out letters to students.
  • Harvard likely became aware of the possibility of negative media coverage either after a call from a reporter, or in reaction to a threat from a student (or their lawyer) to make this a public issue.
  • Regardless of when and how Harvard began to think about negative media exposure, the most significant catalyst that caused administrators to blow the whistle on the affair was a post-Penn State fear that Harvard might be accused of hiding or covering up an incident related to institutional integrity.

If this speculation is correct: that Harvard overlooked the potential media impact of its cheating inquiry, and then blew the whistle on itself mainly as a knee-jerk defensive strategy….here are two fundamental PR lessons from this brand debacle:

  1. Assume the press will always learn about a problem, and plan an offensive strategy (well ahead of time) to minimize the damage. Because Harvard has long enjoyed a pristine reputation, it’s likely that their PR professional was not involved in this issue from the outset, or they had little input.
  2. If the press is on your damaging story, or is likely to be very soon, sometimes it’s better to keep your powder dry if you haven’t planned ahead. Harvard would have been better served if the school had completed its inquiry of the 125 “cheaters” in advance of its public announcement. Even with the media pounding on its doors, Harvard would have provided those 125 students and the school’s reputation with greater justice by responding publicly that “the issue is under investigation and a public statement will be issued only after all the facts and opinions are considered.”

Ham-fisted, panic motivated PR – even when it’s disguised as a self-righteous effort to maintain academic integrity – is not behavior you’d expect from one of the nation’s smartest institutions.

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PR Lesson from the Lolo Jones / New York Times Controversy

Did Jere Kill Lolo’s Mojo?

On August 4th, New York Times sportswriter Jére Longman – who has been covering the Olympics under an “Inside the Rings” column – wrote an article on American hurdler Lolo Jones that was considered by many readers to be overly harsh and entirely unnecessary. In his piece, Longman characterized Jones as a self-promoter who is more flash than substance, and he appeared to go out of his way to discredit Jones’ athletic credentials; ignoring her long list of athletic achievements, as well as the fact that Jones had qualified for the Olympics in spite of spinal cord surgery a year ago.

Four days following Longman’s hatchet job, after a disappointing fourth-place finish in the 100-meter hurdles, in a tearful interview on the TODAY Show, Jones expressed her frustration, telling Savannah Guthrie: “They should be supporting our U.S. Olympic athletes and instead they just ripped me to shreds. I just thought that that was crazy because I worked six days a week, every day, for four years for a 12-second race and the fact that they just tore me apart, which is heartbreaking.”

The public appears to agree with Lolo regarding Longman’s attack. In a highly unusual column entitled, “Lolo Jones Article is Too Harsh,” the New York Times public editor Art Brisbane acknowledged the volume of reader pushback the Longman piece has created, and noted that, “In this particular case, I think the writer was particularly harsh, even unnecessarily so.”

Putting aside Longman’s opinion or Jones’ reaction, and discounting speculation that Jones’ spokesperson made a serious tactical error in declining to participate in the story, there is a simple but valuable PR lesson in the New York Times coverage of Lolo Jones, which is:

MEDIA RELATIONS 101

It is not a journalist’s job to make you look good. In fact, journalists are always more likely to make you look bad…because it suits their temperaments, pleases their editors and attracts more attention.

We’ll never know Longman’s motivation for trashing Jones. He might have eaten a bad hot dog that day. He might have placed a small wager against Lolo, and was hoping to kill her mojo. Or perhaps his rant was based on moral grounds, exposing the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed virgins who appear nude in sports magazines.

Several years ago I brought a Forbes magazine reporter to meet with the CEO of a major grocery chain. The interview went very well. Or so I thought…until the story was published, which turned out to be a devastating attack on my client. After being summarily fired by the CEO for arranging the public debacle, I called the reporter to ask why she had written such a damaging piece. Her response was simple: “I didn’t like the way he treated his secretary, and he needed to be taught a lesson.”

The CEO and I learned very different lessons that day. He is unlikely to have changed the way he treated his secretary. But I changed the way I treated journalists.

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Did The New York Times Purposely Fuel the Goldman Controversy?

A Compromised Value Proposition?

If the biggest loser in disgruntled employee Greg Smith’s recent OpEd piece was Goldman Sachs, then the apparent winner in this high-profile media sideshow was The New York Times. Rarely has an opinion piece on any topic, published in any major newspaper or periodical, attracted so much attention and controversy.

The veracity of Mr. Smith’s opinion and the timeliness of his topic notwithstanding, is it ever appropriate for a publication as widely read and long-respected as The New York Times to provide a platform for one disgruntled employee? In publishing Mr. Smith’s description of Goldman’s shortcomings, and his heartfelt reasons for quitting the firm, did The New York Times supply an inherent level of credibility and endorsement of Mr. Smith’s position?

If The New York Times was genuinely interested in presenting its readers with a balanced viewpoint – traditionally a fundamental responsibility of the Fourth Estate – would it not have given Goldman Sachs an equal editorial platform to present the firm’s response to Mr. Smith – ideally in the same issue and on the same page as Mr. Smith’s OpEd piece? Or was the element of surprise part of the publication’s marketing strategy?

In the Greg Smith / Goldman Sachs matter, The New York Times appears to have borrowed a page from the playbook of now defunct Jobvent.com, a website that pioneered a viral platform for anonymous employees to post their titillating rants on real and imagined injustices by their employers.

As the line separating bona fide news reporting from entertainment continues to erode, and as advertising revenues disappear, in its decision to print Mr. Smith’s largely unsubstantiated viewpoint, The New York Times may be complicit in trading in its legendary journalistic standards for a temporary spike in brand recognition and readership.

By delivering self-serving content of this caliber, the Gray Lady likely revealed more about its own integrity than that of Goldman Sachs.

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Jimmy Webb and the Power of Storytelling for B2B Companies

Music critic Miss Universe on "A Hard Day's Night" movie set

Songwriting legend Jimmy Webb has written some of pop music’s most enduring ballads, including Wichita Lineman, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Galveston, The Worst That Could Happen and the rock cantata MacArthur Park (simultaneously heralded as a musical masterpiece and the worst song ever written.)

The 66 year-old Oklahoma native now lives in Long Island and performs year-round at small venues in the US, Canada and abroad. Baby boomer fans pack the room to hear Webb strain to hit his own songs’ high notes, to listen to his tales of life on the road, and to get the real stories behind how and why he wrote specific songs.

At a show last weekend in New Jersey, Webb told fans about his first trip to London in 1964, where he fell in love with Miss Universe, who he met on the set of the Beatles movie, A Hard Day’s Night. According to the rambling story, in his attempt to impress the beauty queen – who had been cast as an exotic dancer and appears for 6 seconds in the film – Webb invited her back to his hotel room, where he sat her down next to him on the piano bench and performed his then unrecorded version of MacArthur Park. Unfortunately for Webb, the 7 ½-minute song failed to put her under his spell. She told him it was a silly song and left. Or so Webb’s story goes.

For the 450 people who heard Webb’s London adventure, all of whom have listened to MacArthur Park for decades, their musical experience has been forever re-shaped. When they hear that song in the future, it will provide a different context or a different meaning. Now, instead of cakes left out in the rain, they’re more likely to envision Jimmy Webb serenading Miss Universe in London. That’s the power of storytelling.

Social media and technology provide efficient ways for people to tell stories. But according to Dr. Pamela Rutledge, Director of the Media Psychology Research Center, “The human brain has been on a slower evolutionary trajectory than the technology. Our brains still respond to content by looking for the story to make sense out of the experience.”

Writing in Psychology Today magazine, Dr. Rutledge notes that, “When organizations, causes, brands or individuals identify and develop a core story, they create and display authentic meaning and purpose that others can believe, participate with, and share. This is the basis for cultural and social change. This is a skill worth learning.”

Increasingly, in B2B communication, companies focus on the medium and the technology, rather than the underlying message, its meaning or purpose.  In our world of websites, blast emails, podcasts, webinars, analytics, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, marketing automation, smart phones and mobile apps…it’s easy to forget that the quality of a company’s narrative drives people to notice, participate or care about what’s begin sold – whether that be a product, service or a philosophy.

We’re all familiar with how the big brand companies such as Harley Davidson, Jack Daniels, Levi Strauss, IBM and Ben & Jerry’s have leveraged their corporate narratives to build awareness and market interest. But most small and medium-sized companies, and B2B firms in particular, are at a loss to understand how the power of storytelling can showcase their core values, mission and marketplace differentiation. But this goal can be accomplished…not by cooking up elaborate tales about the company’s founders or its early struggles… but rather, by pulling back the curtain on how and why the company makes decisions, and by using real-life examples and incidents to provide interest and context.

A great example of effective storytelling involves Davidson Trust Company, a Devon, Pennsylvania-based investment manager with around $1 billion in assets under management. In a series of columns published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Davidson’s CEO Alvin A. Clay III used stories to establish relevance for his thoughts on issues of importance and likely interest to his firm’s current and prospective investors.

In one of his columns, Davidson’s CEO described how his father – a longtime professor at Villanova – had been the beneficiary of kindness as a young man, and had devoted much of his teaching career returning the favor to others. In another, Mr. Clay recounted a heated debate he had experienced with other business leaders, and how that exchange had shaped his decision-making process regarding publication of his company’s ethics statement on its website. In all of Clay’s columns, he used storytelling to deliver insight and to position the Davidson brand in a genuine, credible and memorable manner.

At his concerts, Jimmy Webb spends more time telling stories than he does on singing his songs. And these events typically end with a 10-minute standing ovation.

Earlier this month, Davidson Trust Company received its own standing ovation. Publicly traded Bryn Mawr Bank Corporation (NASDAQ:BMTC) announced plans to acquire Davidson.

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Thought Leadership For Sale: Surviving in a Pay-to-Play World

Pay-to-Play Is a PR Business Reality

Most PR practitioners quickly learn that the Chinese Wall protecting editorial integrity from the influence of paid advertising can be, like the Pirate’s Code, “more of a guideline than an actual rule.” For better or worse, at a great number of well-known and respected media sources, advertising can purchase anything from regular coverage of meaningless news items, to top billing in an industry roundup, or even an outright puff piece.

Despite denials and indignation from journalists, money does talk at many print, electronic and online media sources; often in direct relation to the financial health and business prospects of its corporate owners. These quid pro quo arrangements are never in writing, and typically communicated over a lunch with a publisher or sales rep who, with a smile or a wink, assures the client or agency that, “I have no influence over editorial…but I’ll see what I can do.”

Trade and professional associations are not burdened with an obligation of intellectual honesty akin to that of the Fourth Estate. But it’s safe to assume association membership expects that guest speakers and “experts” featured on the agenda of their organization’s annual conference will be selected on the basis of experience, insight and presentation skill. A small number of these groups do restrict vendors from agenda participation, but at most industry conferences, any outside 3rd party can purchase a prominent place on the program agenda…and many of those presentations are poorly disguised sales pitches.

This sale of “thought leadership”– market visibility with inherent credibility – is neither a recent development nor a crime that deserves a congressional investigation. Pay-to-play is a fact of business life, and to deal with this reality, PR and marketing professionals can either:

  • Use the market advantage that deep-pocketed companies have over their (limited budget) client or employer as a convenient rationalization for their inability to generate (unpaid) thought leadership; or they can
  • Stop whining, get creative, and lacking economic resources, promote bona fide content and foster personal relationships as currency to generate thought leadership.

With the media, succeeding in a pay-to-play world means two things.  First, it means creating content that’s timely, tailored for the recipient and never delivered in a press release. Secondly, it means building good will with key journalists by consistently providing them with relevant information and ideas, regardless of whether it relates to your company or client, without any expectation of immediate return.

With public platforms, succeeding in a pay-to-play world mostly means advance planning. It can begin by attending the prior year’s event to get a sense of the organization’s membership, priorities and culture, and to meet the group’s leadership. Conference agenda development can start 9 or more months in advance of the event, so it’s important to be on line early with a topic likely to resonate with members. It also helps if your proposal features a dues-paying member of the sponsoring organization.

In both cases, succeeding in a pay-to-play world means managing internal expectations. From the outset, your CEO or client needs to understand that you’re running against the wind, and in exchange for that effort, you must be given permission to fail.

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