Tag Archives: New York Times

The Real Price We All Pay for “Brand Journalism”

propaganda babyThe historical roots of journalism, now encompassing all mass media, were nurtured by its role as The Fourth Estate; the independent public watchdog that keeps in check the three major democratic “estates” of power (in Britain the houses of Parliament, in America the three branches of government). So in spite of the great amount of attention it pays to murder trials, royal weddings and the lives of celebrities, the media plays a critical role in a democratic society; and to function properly it must be objective, unbiased, transparent and independent.

One current challenge to journalism’s mandate is that the line between news and entertainment continues to erode. All media sources compete for the same eyeballs, so speed has become more important than accuracy in reporting, and there are no rules regarding how the news is gathered. The journalist’s role has shifted from fact-based reporting to opinion-based commentary. Journalism has morphed into “communitainment.” And Edward R. Murrow is not pleased.

Erosion of journalism’s mandate has accelerated with the growth of “brand journalism,” which is content specifically created to promote commercial interests, very often in a non-transparent manner. Promotional messaging that for decades had been identified and quarantined by the media as ADVERTORIAL content – now safely re-branded as “sponsored” or “native” content – has gained legitimacy as bona fide editorial information worthy of placement in the New York Times or the CBS Evening News.

We live in a world where our knowledge, perceptions and culture are shaped by Google searches, Facebook posts and YouTube videos, and where technology and economic forces have created the perfect Petri dish for commercial agendas to overwhelm the volume and attention given to objective editorial interests. So is there a price to be paid for the loss of a free and independent press?

A few years ago, veteran journalist Bill Moyers explained what’s happened to journalism this way: “Our dominant media are ultimately accountable only to corporate boards whose mission is not life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the whole body of our republic, but the aggrandizement of corporate executives and shareholders…These organizations’ self-styled mandate is not to hold public and private power accountable, but to aggregate their interlocking interests. Their reward is not to help fulfill the social compact embodied in the notion of “We, the people,” but to manufacture news and information as profitable consumer commodities.” [Read Bill Moyers “Is the Fourth Estate a Fifth Column?: Corporate media colludes with democracy’s demise” in its entirety.]

As we continue to feast on mind-numbing, easily digested communitainment, and as we readily accept well-disguised commercialized propaganda as objective news and information…let’s keep in mind what we’re really giving up.

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Should PRSA Sanction Public Relations Practitioners?

In his 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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The Herb Schmertz Era: When Public Relations Had Some Balls

The recent passing of Rawleigh Warner, Jr., former Chairman and CEO of Mobil Oil Corp., brings to mind what many consider to be a golden age for Public Relations: the period from the mid-60s to mid-80s, when the PR profession had the mandate, the skills and the balls to stand up to criticism leveled against the organizations and people they represented.

The tip of Mobil’s public relations spear was guided by Herb Schmertz, who served as Vice President of Public Affairs under Warner (and whose credentials included a law degree from Columbia.) During Warner’s tenure, Mobil operated at ground zero of the 1970’s energy crisis, and was a primary target of the American public’s frustration over the availability and price of oil. For more than a decade, Mobil remained in the media’s crosshairs and often served as the corporate poster child for greed and unbridled capitalism.

Herb Schmertz countered public criticism against Mobil with hardball PR tactics, under the pretense that if companies don’t pro-actively participate in pertinent discussions, they deserve what they get, in terms of reputation. Under his regime of “creative confrontation,” Schmertz applied a number of innovative and controversial tactics including:

  • Introduction of modern-day advocacy advertising, or “advertorials,” which first appeared on the OpEd page of the New York Times in 1970. Mobil’s weekly commentaries, which Schmertz called “the honorable act of pamphleteering,” covered a broad range of energy related topics – the environment, oil reserves, taxation, regulation – and also took on detractors. The Mobil advertorials eventually were published weekly in several leading daily newspapers over the course of three decades, and serve as the template for what the PR profession now calls thought leadership.
  • Corporate underwriting of artistic endeavors unrelated to Mobil’s core issues, including sponsorship of the PBS television series, Masterpiece Theatre. Herb Schmertz called this “affinity-of-purpose marketing,” where audiences associate successful ventures with the companies that sponsor them.
  • Slash and burn public relations, where all communication is shut down with a media source considered to be biased or not acting in good faith. Notably, in 1984 Mobil boycotted the Wall Street Journal – refusing to provide the nation’s premier business publication with any information, to respond to its reporters, or to advertise – following what Schmertz considered to be history of inaccurate and biased reporting on Mobil. Although this over-the-top tactic was and is considered childish by many PR and media executives, it made a strong statement to the public and Wall Street Journal editors as well.

Herb Schmertz was no reckless PR cowboy. His communications philosophy was well-grounded in democratic principles, and his tactics well-reasoned and effective. In this 2-minute YouTube clip, Schmertz (who is now 84 years-old) eloquently describes how Mobil’s confrontational and sometimes abrasive public relations strategy reflected the company’s obligation, as a custodian of significant physical, human and economic resources, to maintain its role as one of the pillars of a free society.

In contrast to Schmertz-era brand management, most current PR practitioners are hamstrung by corporate legal counsel, who advocate non-confrontational PR strategies, advising CEOs to simply hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.  This enduring one-sided focus on the aversion of legal risk not only has precluded many organizations from opportunities to manage their brand reputation effectively, but has also emasculated the Public Relations profession in the process.

As the PR profession’s role is increasingly relegated to management of Tweets, Likes and unread press releases, as its practitioners continue to lose their seat at the senior management table, and as the long tail of online content extracts a heavy price for avoiding legitimate and timely confrontation, PR professionals will likely wonder why their role as architect and defender of the company’s reputation no longer belongs to them.

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5 Ways to Merchandise the “Masthead Value” of Publicity

Not to be confused with "The Wall Street Transcript"

Not to be confused with “The Wall Street Transcript”

Many companies will invest considerable effort seeking positive publicity in influential media sources, and then fail to benefit from the masthead value of that exposure.

Originally a seafaring term relating to the brass plate attached to a ship’s mainmast that memorialized its owners and builders, a publication’s masthead lists the members of its current editorial and production staff. The industry term “masthead value” can be defined broadly as the level of stature, credibility and influence associated with a specific media source. The Wall Street Journal, for example, has high masthead value; the Wall Street Transcript…not so much.

Masthead value can be relative. A respected trade or professional publication in a particular industry may have greater masthead value – in terms of its influence with a particular audience – than well known publications such as the Wall Street Journal or New York Times. For example, physicians are likely to assign the New England Journal of Medicine greater masthead value than the Journal or Times on topics relating to clinical care of patients.

Masthead value should drive your publicity strategy. A placement from a single highly respected source can be far more valuable, in terms of influence, than a dozen hits with low masthead value. Because gaining inherent 3rd party endorsement is the end goal, in the publicity game quality always trumps quantity.

Here are 5 ways to leverage media placements with strong masthead value:

  • Put high value placements directly in front of your target audiences – Even if your coverage appears on the front page of the Wall Street Journal or makes the cover of Fortune magazine, don’t assume it will be read by clients, prospects, referral sources…or even by your employees. There’s simply too much offline and online noise to ensure that any media exposure on its own will gain the attention you’re seeking. If you’ve developed an internal CRM-driven discipline to communicate directly and regularly with target audiences, then you’re well prepared to apply that distribution capability to increase the chances that decision makers will notice, remember, and respond to your high value exposure. (Lacking that discipline, your time may be best spent building an effective distribution capability, in advance of seeking additional publicity.)
  • Avoid “Hey, look at me!” self-promotion – Pickup in a media source with high masthead value provides some reason for high-fives internally, but it should not serve as a platform for self-promotion. Extreme examples of this error include companies that issue a press release, or generate Twitter and Facebook postings to announce, for example, that their CEO has been profiled in Inc. magazine. This type of over-reaction to high value publicity suggests to target audiences that you were surprised to receive the media endorsement, and therefore may not have really deserved it. The key is to showcase the media exposure in a relevant context (you may need to create this), to make the media placement secondary to the underlying content (such as the reasons why your CEO was profiled in Inc.) and to pull off these tasks with a matter-of-fact level of self-confidence.
  • Rank graphics over content, in terms of impact – Most people are surface readers. Online visitors are more likely to scan images, heads, subheads and captions, than they are to read body copy. (Long blocks of copy on websites that require scrolling are rarely read.) If you’ve earned a placement with high masthead value, you can increase the likelihood of your company being associated with the “endorsing” publication by displaying its logo with the capsule description and link to the placement. To be clear: the critical element is the logo. If your placement is from the New York Times, for example, you should replicate the logo – as it appears on the front page of that publication. Based on how people gather information, simply typing, “from The New York Times,” or a similar attribution, is about 75% less effective than actually depicting the New York Times logo.
  • Prominently showcase high value placements – If you’ve invested and succeeded in generating media placements with high masthead value, why make it difficult for target audiences to find them on your website? Rather than burying influential publicity in an obscure “In the News” section that requires multiple clicks for visitors to locate, you can amortize your investment in publicity (and perhaps improve your website’s bounce rate in the process) if you create a location for these high value items on your home page. This can be accomplished by applying a design format in which the content either remains fixed or is refreshed regularly. For formats that supply current information, extend the shelf-life of each placement by not including its publication date.
  • Cite a relevant endorsement on your home page – One of the most effective  ways to  merchandise high-value media exposure is to select a very brief, relevant phrase from the coverage, for placement in a prominent position on your home page. Here’s a hypothetical example:

“…a recognized authority in Big Data technology.”

                                                       –Wired Magazine

By limiting your publicity efforts to media placements with high masthead value, and by ensuring that those placements are effectively merchandised through direct communication, social media tools and proper website visibility, PR practitioners will spend far less time worry about the ROI of public relations. The fruits of their labors will be self-evident in tangible business metrics, ranging from lead generation to high search engine page rankings.

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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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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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Boy Scouts of America and the Naked Rambler

Stephen Gough a/k/a the “Naked Rambler”

As reported today in The Scotsman, after spending six years behind bars for walking around Great Britain with no clothes on, 53 year-old Stephen Gough – known as the “Naked Rambler” – was released from prison in Perth, Scotland. Mr. Gough, who left the facility naked, vowed to continue his “vocation in life,” which involves not wearing clothing to demonstrate his non-conformity with social norms, and to prove that people are prejudice.  To make his point, Gough has spent most of the past decade in prison, and much of it in solitary confinement.

Yesterday, after a two-year evaluation of its current policy, the Boy Scouts of America reaffirmed its position to exclude openly gay individuals from membership; stating that “it remains in the best interest of Scouting.”

In truth, Scouting’s “extensive research and evaluations” that were used to support its position provide a convenient smokescreen for the real reasons why the Boy Scouts will continue to ban gays from the organization.

In his 2004 book, Scout’s Honor: A Father’s Unlikely Foray Into the Woods, New York Times reporter Peter Applebome explains that religious organizations represent the largest number of chartering organizations of Boy Scout troops across the county, and at least two large religious sects have threatened to pull all of their charters (and ultimately put Scouting out of business) if the Boy Scouts of America do not maintain a hard line on gay membership. Additionally, many large corporations with non-discrimination policies have withdrawn funding as a result of Scouting’s ban on gays.

So…who is more deserving of our respect?

  • The loony, naked Scotsman who’s willing to give up his freedom to maintain his ideals.

or

  • The respected youth organization that’s willing to compromise its stated underlying values to ensure its own existence.

It’s time for Scouting to man-up; to refuse to be blackmailed by its chartering organizations and financial supporters, regardless of the consequences. Time for Scouting to determine its own future. Time for Scouting to walk the talk…with or without its uniform on.

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Four Lessons From IBM’s Centennial Advertising

Page One of IBM's 4-Page Insert

“Every advertisement should be thought of as a contribution to the
complex symbol which is the brand image.”

– David Ogilvy

In recognition of its founding 100 years ago, last week IBM produced a 2,592-word, four-page advertising insert that ran for just one day in the U.S. issues of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Washington Post.

Although few companies have the resources or courage to produce “old media” advertising on this scale, IBM’s Centennial insert embodies several important lessons for marketers at companies of all sizes and industries. Here are four take-aways:

  1. The message was well-targeted and on point. IBM was speaking primarily to investors, through the nation’s 3 most widely read daily publications. By pointing out that 100 shares of IBM stock purchased in 1915 would be worth $200 million today, the company was entitled to state that “90 day reporting cycles” are not IBM’s end game…a clear message to Wall Street analysts and institutional investors. Lesson for Marketers: Define your target audiences, reach them through appropriate channels and make your point clearly. Sounds like Marketing 101, but many ads are placed for prestige and ego rather than for impact, and it’s often a mystery what most advertisers are trying to accomplish.
  2. The layout accommodated all types of readers. IBM understands that most people are surface readers, focusing only on heads, subheads, graphics and captions. Although the body copy was 1,888 words in length, the ad’s layout accommodated those quick-scan readers with eye-catching and interesting graphics, and also cleverly footnoted each graphic element as a means to draw readers into the main text. Lesson for Marketers: Regardless of the medium, you have a nano-second to catch someone’s interest, and if you’re lucky enough to accomplish that goal, you have even less time to make your point. Don’t make people work to understand your message…because they won’t.
  3. The ad was part of an integrated campaign. This advertising insert served as one small part of a larger IBM strategy to leverage its 100th anniversary as a marketing asset. Other components of this well-structured campaign include a book; short films; colloquia, lectures and thought leadership forums; a dedicated website (www.ibm100.com), and 2.5 million hours of volunteer community service provided by IBM employees around the world. Lesson for Marketers: One-off tactics — even those conducted over periods longer than one day — seldom produce meaningful results. IBM’s marketing budget is larger than total revenue at most companies, but those companies can be just as smart as IBM, in terms of building marketing programs that are integrated and strategic, rather than a collection of tactics.
  4. Their appeal was honest and human. In addition to its longevity, IBM has much to brag about. But this ad was written with humility and sincerity, and did not appear self-serving or overly promotional. In fact, a prominent graphic in the ad featured 3 of the company’s “share of misses,” including IBM PCjr, its OS/2 operating system and its Prodigy online service. Lesson for Marketers: Copywriting style aside, and regardless of the tactic, it’s more powerful to present the evidence that supports your value proposition and let your audience draw its own conclusions, than it is to tell your audience how wonderful you are.

This advertisement is a reflection of IBM’s marketing craftsmanship, and suggests a bright outlook for their second century. In fact, you might consider purchasing 100 shares — currently trading at around $165 per share — for your grandchildren.

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