Monday, December 28, 2009

Time to outlaw the NFL?

I need to start this blog by saying that I grew up loving professional football, but in the last few years that I have begun to sour on the hypocrisy of college football and the brutality of the NFL, both of which receive a semi-free pass from a mostly compliant press corp.

The average NFL career lasts 3.5 years. Of the 100,000 high school kids who strap on pads every year, only 0.2 percent will have the pleasure of experiencing such a short career. These statistics are courtesy of the NFL Players Association. It’s hard to imagine another profession that so callously discards men after they have outlived their usefulness.

For the players, part of the allure is the money, the million dollar contracts. Only, most athletes struggle to hold onto those riches. A March 2009 Sports Illustrated article reported that:

- By the time they have been retired for two years, 78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce.

To do the math, the average player logs three and half year in the NFL and two years later, he’s a financial wreck. At least the guy has his college education, right? No, absolutely not.

The graduation rate for kids in big time football and hoops programs is lower than the national average, which tells you those boys are hitting something other than the books. Everyone in the system knows these kids don’t attend four year degree school with the notion of coming out of it holding onto a diploma. You only need to listen to one press conference to realize most of these kids would have trouble with English Lit 101. I could go on, but the Root’s Deron Snyder has a really good take on the hypocrisy behind pretending these young men are student athletes.

The NCAA would have you believe that graduation rates are going up. Instead of spouting these numbers as gospel, can we point out that the NCAA only looks at kids have scholarships for four years? If the coaches think a freshman will not be good enough to make the team in his sophomore year, he isn't offered a scholarship for the sophomore year. I think you have to count those numbers in the dropout rate. They don’t help.

Well, so we’ve seen that the NFL doesn’t prepare its players for life out of the game financially and the colleges don’t give them the educational background they need to survive without football. But that’s not the biggest crime.

Depending on position, the average NFL retiree has a life expectancy 20 years less than the average man in America. In case you missed it the first time, yes that number is 20 years less.

And the quality of life is dramatically less. Those who live long lives will face knee and hip replacement surgery, an inconvenient truth the media has ignored.

Then there are the concussions. In light of aggressive reporting by the New York Times, the league has acknowledged concussions leave lasting damage. You can file that under things that are obvious unless you are trying to ignore them, like snow is cold and rain is wet.

When we attend movies, another entertainment venue, we employ a trick called suspension of disbelief to help us imagine that a car chase could happen on Fifth Avenue during rush hour in New York City or that aliens would want to phone home. During one particularly bad Christian Slater movie, my father once remarked, “There isn’t that much disbelief in the world to accept this plot.”

I feel that way about the NFL. I can’t look at it without thinking we are willingly sacrificing young men’s lives for our entertainment, and not just the guys who are who make it to the big time, but also the guys who work hard but aren’t good enough to play in the league.

Here’s is what I wonder: a thousand years from now, will archeologists look at football the same way will look at Roman gladiators and be appalled by how we let this happen?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What's next for Tiger?

One thing is clear: the firestorm created by Woods inability to drive straight -- ironically, his problem on the golf course for most of this year -- will not go away any time soon. Any woman who wants to make a name for herself can say she slept with Tiger Woods. Although, as we and Elin have learned, it's not such an exclusive club and the rewards of claiming membership have diminished.

What's left for Tiger? I think he goes the Marv Albert route: admit blame and focus on the job, in his case golf. The endorsements are gone, for now. But, let's face it, golf needs Woods. Before he came along, the game was fading from the media spotlight. Like today's pro tennis tour, fans would tune in for the major championships but ignore the standard weekly events.

Tiger changed that. When he played, ratings went up. When he was in contention on Sunday, ratings soared. That won't change. My guess is that the ratings for golf will remain steady because people will want to see how he goes about his business on the golf course.

From a public relations standpoint, all of this will be behind him in two years tops. Well it will be if the Marv Albert precedent holds. From a marketing perspective, you have to think that he gets back most deals that are targeted directly to men, think G or golf clubs, albeit at smaller dollars.

On question: how much differently would this have played out 20 years ago? How about 40 years ago when race would have been a bigger factor?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Image control - Michael Jackson style

If it's propaganda, that doesn't mean it's not true.

I said these words to a couple of family members after seeing This Is It, a fantastic documentary about Michael Jackson's last tour that will make people appreciate the King of Pop again.

Let's face it, the images most people had of Jackson, both the visual one he crafted for himself and the events of his life the media reported, were freakish. He has been accused of being a child molester, twice. He hung his baby off a balcony. The pale vampire face and off-putting cosmetic surgery, reinforced the freakishness of the man.

By giving us a behind the scenes look at Jackson preparing for his concert, the filmmakers showed us an entertainer in complete control of his craft. Jackson told musicians how to play HIS music and told stage managers when to cue the lights. Image Beyonce or Britney trying to play similar roles. I can't. I also can’t image how much it costs to produce a show like his tour, but I know the pressure to make it successful must have been enormous. I can understand way he had trouble sleeping.

As a piece of propaganda, the movie is a successful attempt to regain his legacy as the King of Pop. Simply by showing us Michael Jackson as a performer and performance manager, the movie reclaimed the King of Pop's role as one of the most important songwriters and entertainers of our time.

There is a reason Thriller is the best selling album of all time. Hint: it's the music stupid. Even a couple of decades later the riffs are infectious. Because MTV has stopped playing videos, most folks don't remember that releasing a killer video on MTV was a national event. The video for Thriller's title song remains one of the most parodied videos of all-time because it is so ubiquitous, and that's not even getting into Beat It or Billie Jean. Oh yeah, and he reintroduced the moonwalk.

Jackson helped shape music videos and he in turn was shaped by it. I tend think he got the dirtier end of the bargain. Few entertainers who find wealth and fame at an early age are enriched by the experience, or maybe we only hear about their abhorrent behavior precisely because it is newsworthy.

Thankfully and hopefully, the movie will push our memories of Jackson the Freak to the backburner. What will remain is the image of him gliding across a stage singing a song that has a killer hook. Propaganda is using media to shape emotions and that’s not always bad. For me, This Is It recreated an emotion bond to the performer I knew from childhood.

I’m okay with that.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Lessons learned from the Woods affair

So, now the story is out: Woods cheated on his wife. Raise you hand if you thought that he had remained faithful. Now, raise your hand if you thought his admitting it before the tape surfaced would have quelled the media firestorm. If you are honest, you wouldn’t have raised your hand either time.

If you are a PR person and thought Woods should have gotten out ahead of the story, here’s a question: which affair would you have had Tiger admit to? The nightclub hostess in Australia? The woman after the Masters? And you know there had to be more than one or two, so how many?

If you do an interview, how do you deal with the domestic violence question? What if you say it didn’t happen, but someone gets a hold of his medical records from the hospital? What if that wasn’t the first time? How do you answer the question, “Excuse me but when did your wife stop beating you?

It’s hard to know what was in the minds of the Woods camp. Did they think that no one would step forward with proof of his infidelities? Did he consider his personal life to be a personal matter? I can’t answer the first, but given how quickly the Woods camp issued a statement after the tape surfaced -- three hours – you have to assume they were ready for damage control if it did happen.

People will argue that it’s PR 101 to get ahead of the story, but that’s only part of the course. The other part of the course is to understand your objectives.

Proponents of the get ahead of the story argument insist Woods should have talked to the media and the police. I think most people understand now that he should not have spoken to the police because if they had suspected domestic violence, they would have been forced to arrest his wife. It's the law. Look it up.

I think PR pros who treat people like brands forget that their clients are first and foremost people. If you are not worried about the money, and Tiger has already ready made around a billion dollars for himself, you can afford to worry about your family. If I am Tiger Woods, I don’t publicly admit to an affair unless evidence forces me to do so. My wife knows that I cheated on her, but she doesn’t need the world to know it too. I think that was Tiger’s main objective. It would have been mine.

But, once the woman produced the tape, she let the cat out of the bag. You release a statement that you have had ready for this moment and you move on. That’s PR 101.

Again, I can’t believe the wall-to-wall coverage would have died down had he admitted to having an affair or two. And it certainly would have resumed once the tape and sex tests were made public.

Now, for an off-topic thought. You know who benefits most from all of this: Mike Huckabee. At any other time, the Seattle shooting would have been headlines across the nation, but a pure violence story was topped by a transnational story about sex, fame, money, a crash and violence. I wonder why.

And my last question, how much differently does this story play if it had been Elin who crashed the car and Tiger came to her “rescue” with a long iron? Would race have been an issue? Just asking.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Tiger's image problem

Not for the first time in my life, I am going to go out on a limb here. I disagree with the conventional wisdom about how Tiger should react to the storm surrounding his car accident.

Received public relations wisdom is you get on top of the story. But in this case, I think it only makes a private matter public. The current speculation is that he had an affair. What is he going to say in a statement that is going to change that opinion? What if he had an affair, denies it and later we find out the truth?

There is nothing to be gained by coming out with a statement other than he ran into a fire hydrant, which amounts to minor traffic accident.

It's the silence everyone resents. The media abhors a vacuum and in the absence of real news, everyone writes about the absence of real news.

Golf tours look forward to next season

I wrote this a while back but never posted it because it was off topic. Given Tiger's recent off-course driving experiences, I think it's relevant as I'll explain in a later post.

Let me start from an odd place, the LPGA. Michelle Wie finally won. Grabbed by an on course reporter moments after she tapped in for victory, Wie proceed to give a rambling, incoherent interview about how grateful she was to breakthrough, but the content of conversation didn't matter. The star the LPGA had been waiting and praying for emerged from the darkness, leaving everyone associated with the business end of the tour hoping that she can kick it into super nova and rescue the brand the way her 30 yard bunk shot by the 18 green rolled into gimme range to seal the tournament. The women's tour needs a bonifide star, and it doesn't matter if she, like Wie, is yellow. They need a woman who can win, wear tight clothes and represent the game. The Koreans clearly don't think media accessibility is on the checklist of things required to play on the tour. They maybe right that being out front media wise will not bring them the endorsements Wie and the other American-born stars have snagged without reaching the winner's circle, but that short-sighted view doesn't take into account the tour's long-term health.

At this point, the Koreans look like visiting strip miners, here to plunder American gold without helping to refill the coffers. It should be noted that when Wie won, not a single Asian woman stepped out of the late afternoon shadows that blanketed the 18th green to congratulate the 20-year-old star. Americans Paula Crammer and Morgan Pressel stepped out to spritz her with soda pop, while the Asians stood aside. You wonder what were they thinking.

Tiger Woods's assent to the most liked face in golf proves the golf world is willing to move past the color barrier if the star is telegenic and charismatic. The American women, including the gay ones, have always understand that wearing short skirts and tight tops drives television ratings on the golf channel just like it does for prime time shows on the major networks. Heck, the women's tour employs a make-up consultant to prep the women before they head to the practice tee. The Koreans act as if these attempts to gussy up their image demeans the sports, an admittedly possibly true assertion. Then again, no one complained in the 80's when NBA players wore tight and short shorts, certainly not the women watching the sport.

Anyway, I have digressed about the fairer sex longer than I had meant to. On the men's side of the house, the last three tournament have ended in playoffs. Exciting television even if the names on the leaderboard can only be recognized by hardcore golf devotees. Across the globe, Phil proved that he is not only back but ready to challenge Tiger's dominance. Tiger broke through with his first win on the Australian continent, but all is not perfect in Tigerland. Phil presents a serious challenge to the boy who could not be stopped. Already the Tiger mystique of winning every major when he has held the 54-hole lead was shattered after some Brian May clone didn't back down at the PGA. Now everybody will think the Colossus of the fairways can be knocked aside, banished like an ancient relic. Or maybe just when you have grabbed a tamed tiger by the tail is when you should worry most.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Is PR a commodity?

The other day I saw an electronic marketplace that matched common folks beset by legal problems with lawyers willing to auction off their services. A person who wanted a divorce could use the marketplace to find the cheapest lawyer. Thanks to the marketplace lawyer's services became a commodity, assuming, of course, that all of the lawyers were more or less equally competent.

I confess, if I were on trial for murder, I'd seek out the best lawyer I could afford, not the cheapest, but for wills and uncontested divorces why not go with the cheapest competent provider?

Could there be an electronic PR maketplace? Do we all provide the same basic skills? Is it all about measurement? How can you tell one firm from the next using only a generic RFP and an hour interview? Picking PR firms this way seems like an awful combination of and speed dating, a system that has some successes but mostly ends in failure.

Am I wrong in this? Is PR like murder trials or more like basic wills?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Will commercializing social media drive users away?

Looking at how little MySpace is used now, I worry that Twitter and Facebook will suffer from the same fate. As marketers and public relations people try to take advantage of the crowds that have flocked to Twitter and Facebook (300 million user on the latter, at least according to some estimates), are we in danger of turning people away. Is there a reason it's called social media and not commercial media?

How do we keep these sites entertaining and appealing, which will drive traffic, yet communicate key messages? And please, don't tell me it's about creating interesting content. We all understand that's the baseline and table stakes for this discussion.

How do we keep these sites vibrant, yet commercial? What are the lessons we can learn from television's business model? Does the print industry have anything to teach us?

I don't have the answers and only know a few of the questions. Does anyone have some of the answers? What should I read and where should I go (conferences that is)?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Baby boomers and social media, or not

Last week's Wall Street Journal served us an article on why email is dying. For my money, although email has ceded ground to other communications channels, it still has plenty of legs.

Outside of the tech elite, email is still the second best way to reach someone (the phone ranks as the clear first choice). If you are dealing with people outside of your social network, sending an email is the second best way to communicate non-urgent information.

Also, the shiny new social media toys we use today may not be in vogue ten years from now (hello and goodbye MySpace), but it's hard to believe email will ever go away. For example, snail mail, email's close cousin, has held its ground despite being faced with cheaper and faster competition. Fewer people letter, but bills still fill my mailbox.

Other means
That being said, even email can't reach all audiences. Some people aren't online, especially the old and poor.

My mother bought her first computer last week. My father owns an iPhone but has no interest in using the Web or email (don't ask me what he was thinking when he bought the iPhone). My grandmother uses email, but never checks her Facebook page. But, they all send cards and letters. They are not alone. There is large demographic who don't live on the Web and don't miss it. And yes, I know the demographic of people who don't use the Web shrinks every year. I read the survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project:

  • Senior citizens: Broadband usage among adults ages 65 or older grew from 19% in May 2008 to 30% in April 2009.
  • Low-income Americans: Two groups of low-income Americans saw strong broadband growth from 2008 to 2009: First, respondents living in households whose annual household income is $20,000 or less saw broadband adoption grow from 25% in 2008 to 35% in 2009. Second, respondents living in households whose annual incomes are between $20,000 and $30,000 annually experienced a growth in broadband penetration from 42% to 53%.Overall, respondents reporting that they live in homes with annual household incomes below $30,000 experienced a 34% growth in home broadband adoption from 2008 to 2009.
  • High-school graduates: Among adults whose highest level of educational attainment is a high school degree, broadband adoption grew from 40% in 2008 to 52% in 2009.
  • Older baby boomers: Among adults ages 50-64, broadband usage increased from 50% in 2008 to 61% in 2009.
  • Rural Americans: Adults living in rural America had home high-speed usage grow from 38% in 2008 to 46% in 2009.
While those numbers point to an overall rise in Internet usage, they also point to the limitations of social media. If you want to reach baby boomers, you will need to find a channel that speaks to the 40 percent of boomers who do not have broadband access. And if you are looking for the folks who did not attend college, nearly half of them can only be reached through traditional marketing channels.

The takeaway
Those of us in the tech bubble need to remember not everyone lives on the Web and some of the non-Webbies have money to spend. To reach those people, traditional media and marketing technique are required. In other words, just because you have a shiny new stick, you should not throw away the old bat that can still hit the occasional homerun.

How Obama plays the media game

When Obama appeared on Letterman as the show's only guest, he took a page from the George Bush playbook and bypassed the media to deliver his messages unfiltered and without pesky criticism, sort of like when Dick Chenney appears on Fox.

You could argue that he is diluting his premium brand by appearing on so many talks shows after he also blanketed the Sunday morning talking head panels, but he rightly thinks passing healthcare will define the next three years of his presidency. (Well, healthcare and the economy stupid.)

He also decided to take on Fox News. Figuring he has little to gain by playing nice, Obama declared war on the network, arguing the network's opinion makers rarely side with him on the issues of the day. In the Obama calculation, it was safer to call Fox News the opposition party megaphone rather a vendor of fair and balanced news. Shooting the messenger never gets old in Washington and the administration decided Fox's audience wasn't going to vote democratic in the next election anyway.

The next election cycle will tell us if Obama should have used a bigger carrot instead of the stick when dealing with Fox News.

Why newspapers matter and a pop quiz

If you have a chance, please read this excerpt on why we need newspapers. At a time when more people than ever turn to newspapers for information, the industry's economic model is crumbling, and its overall health is declining. In a speech before the Joint Economic Committee, the Director for the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, Tom Rosenstiel, noted:

Last year, the traffic to the top 50 news websites grew by 27%. But the price of an online ad fell by 48%.

The consequence is that the amount of our civic life that occurs in the sunlight of observation by journalists is shrinking. The number of city councils and zoning commissions, utility boards and state houses, governor's mansions and world capitals being covered on a regular basis, even by a lone journalist, is diminishing. One out of every five people working in newspaper newsrooms in 2000 was gone at the beginning of 2009, and the number is doubtless higher now. My old newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, has half the reporters it did a decade ago.

In a nutshell, while more people are reading the news, fewer people are reporting it. In a democracy, someone needs to ferret out the truth, if only for the populace to have an informed opinion.

If you think we have an informed populace, take this quiz and compare your answers with the nation at large and let me know how you feel about the depth of our collective knowledge.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The new PR: it's more than media relations

At the Web Innovators Group event in Cambridge last Tuesday, I listened to a blue ribbon media panel talk about how entrepreneurs could do PR on the cheap. Because consummate PR pro Bobbie Carton wrote a wonderful review of the panel, I won't bore you with the details except to say the big take away was that entrepreneurs don't need to pay for public relations.

Here, I am reminded of the phrase: you get what you pay for. The panel was free and the reporters did provide an hour's worth of excellent advice for the general public. But good PR counsel means crafting a specific strategy and story for a specific client and being able to take that story to the appropriate channels. And that strategy session takes more than an hour.

Besides, starting with media relations is putting the cart before the horse. At one point during the evening, an entrepreneur asked when was a good to time to engage in PR. I can't remember what the panel's response was, but I know it should have been, "What are you trying to do?"

When I am helping out an organization, I always start with the basics. You know that whole research, action, communication and evaluation thing. But if public relations is about relationships, how about starting with this?

1) How can I make things easier or less difficult for the organization?

2) How can I serve this organization to help them move forward?

3) What is “our” action plan?

4) How do we get the process going?

Sometimes these questions involve media relations, but most of the time it does not.

Cherisse's comments came in response to Chuck Tanowitz's thoughts about the Web Innovator's event. The main takeaway for Chuck was:
First, the panel didn't have a good idea of how PR actually helps media relations; but second is the misunderstanding that PR means only media relations. Today's PR is much more than that.
Having a PR person on the panel would have helped the audience understand there is more to PR than reaching out to traditional media outlets. For example, there are bloggers, who were unforgivably not represented on the panel.

Not having a PR person on the panel is like having a panel on offensive football hosted by defensive players. They can tell you how they react to an offensive game play, but they can't tell you how to build a game plan that takes advantage of an offensive team's strengths and hides the team's weaknesses.

I know this analogy makes it sound like PR and the press have an adversarial role. I don't think this was always the case, but after listening to the panel and reading other sources, the veneer that the media used to employ when dealing with PR people has been scratched thin, and ugliness has shown through the exposed surfaces.

I sincerely hope that we have not entered a new era in PR and media relations, but change is upon our industry. As I've mentioned before, change makes people uncomfortable. And if you start messing with someone's livelihood, well, discomfort turns to anger.

Traditional media players understand the Web is putting them out of a job, and they also know that PR people are trying to disintermediate them by using the Web and social media tools. If I were them, I'd be pissed off too.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

WSJ: social media has "consultants"

Yesterday's WSJ brought a fresh look at PR, although in linguistic feat akin to writing about surgery but not using the word "doctor, " the paper avoids using the words "public relations." In short, while the story details how SMBs are turning to "consultants" for help developing and executing social media strategies, these consultants are not called PR people.

Yet, if you polled most consultants who offer these services, they would undoubtedly say they work for PR companies or, at least, marketing agencies. Indeed, Everywhere, one of the firms cited in the article, is a self described "Social Media Marketing and Content Development" company. I would think the agencies named in the article would not mind being labeled marketing or PR shops, but perhaps that's just me.

To be fair, the article includes the following:
Other agencies simply tack on social-media support as part of a package of advertising and public-relations services. Red Square Agency Inc., in Mobile, Ala., charges clients around $200 an hour, and ThinkInk LLC charges $10,000 to $20,000 a month for the integrated services.

But, one quibble here, most agencies would look at social media as part of an overall PR program, not an add on or after thought. Social media is part of an overall PR campaign, not a separate entity. For my money, the WSJ missed the point.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Journalists need to examine their own fears

Am I alone in thinking journalists have taken more shots at PR people lately? This NY Times article on PR in the age of social media set off an explosion in the PR, journalist and blogger echo chamber. Looking back at that firestorm and the comments left on various blog posts, you get the distinct feeling that most people hate PR professionals, certainly the media and bloggers do.

One reporter arrogantly applied for a PR job while confessing that he was overqualified for the job, proving he lacked one of the chief traits a PR person must have: a sense of tact.

Then there is the Huffington Post blogger Schuyler Brown's post that this is the golden age of public relations. Most PR people I know think this an exciting time to be in PR but golden age implies riches, and anyone who has looked at PR budgets lately knows we are far from the heady days of the era.

What the era and today's social media era have in common is that they both ushered in a way for businesses to bypass the media and communicate directly with potential customers. Ten years ago, businesses did this by creating Web sites, which reduced the need to advertise in traditional media outlets. We know now that the reduced ad revenues gutted the print industry, shutting some papers and shrinking the readership at the rest, leaving them standing but bloody, waiting for the referee to count them out on a TKO, sort of like how mixed martial arts sucker punched the boxing industry.

Today's social media has taken a deeper bite out of the print media as peer reviews have replaced professional reviews. Many people still rely on CNET for advice on electronics and Consumer Reports for reviews on cars and household goods, but if you want to buy a book, Amazon's peer reviews are a better judge of whether or not you will like a book than a NY Times review. Peer sourcing is the way to go.

Journalists are scared. They should be. They are on the Titanic, a once proud and unsinkable ship that's hit an unseen iceberg. All hands may not be lost at sea, but the causalities are high.

Unfortunately for journalists, blogs have given PR people an organ to fight back. And PR people have done so, which is why what once was a lecture has become a dialogue. Just at the wrong time, journalists have found that PR blogs have given the PR industry claws to fight back, leaving both sides bloody, a car wreck both fascinating and horrible to watch.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The politics of ignorance or why newspapers matter

Last week, I worked an event for the pro golf Tour’s Boston stop where most of my co-workers were gentlemen who were at least 50 years-old, what used to be a huge demographic of newspaper readers. Four guys told me they cancelled their subscriptions in the past year. And, almost unanimously, each of the guys said they don't read the paper online because they say it’s not the same.

Television has taken the place of reading, and we all know that’s not a positive input for intelligent discourse. Where I am going with this? Two places.

1) On the political scene, we are becoming more like Russia. The Russia political machine owns the television stations and only kill the print reporters when they create too much of a negative following. Here in the U.S., we haven't physically killed the print reporters but they are becoming irrelevant.

2) We are moving to a political scene that cares only for short, digestible slogans that don't have to be true. They only have to be repeated often enough to be believed. Hence the large number of Americans who believe that Al-Qaeda was in Iraq BEFORE we invaded, a charge that has been proven false many times, but a belief maintained by those who still want to justify invading Iraq.

This isn’t a surprise. In Daniel Gilbert’s excellent book Stumbling on Happiness, Gilbert notes that humans are exceptionally and subtly clever at disregarding information that doesn’t jibe with their belief system. Sort of like how Fox News ignored Obama’s health care speech this morning.

Just saying.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Journalists think they are overqualified for PR

It is a known conceit that journalists think they can do our jobs better than we can. But it's rare that a journalist will say that while applying for a PR job, which Kansas City Star columnist Mike Hendricks did in an email exchange that ended up in on the Bad Pitch Blog.

I have met more than a few journalists who have crossed over to the dark side and been successful, but I have also met a few journalists who have flamed out because they underestimated how difficult it is to serve multiple masters or how much work goes into getting positive coverage.

Just saying.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

10 ways PR has changed in the last five years

1) PR used to be a face-to-face business. You took clients on tour, set up meetings at trade shows and competed in softball against various publications. Today, none of those face-to-face relationship building exercises are as big as they used to be. Budgets have restricted travel plans and most magazines don't have enough staff to field a softball team.

2) With a few exceptions, no individual media player has as much power as they did five years ago. As a result, today PR people have to cast a wider net to reach more media people to achieve the same market penetration they hit five years ago.

3) Bloggers don't take press releases. They want the inside scoop on the story. Most stories don't have enough angles to satisfy more than the most important bloggers.

4) Print is dead. Young people proudly boast that they don't read hard copy magazines. Worse, most PR people don't read hard copy magazines or newspapers, thereby burning down the house they live in.

5) Digital = viral. And that's not always good. Ask Domino's.

6) Blogs and Twitter mean every company has a lot more spokespeople and unhappy customers have a bigger microphone.

7) In the words of the Bill Clinton campaign, "It's the economy stupid." Social media is cheaper.

8) Embargoes are dead, which makes it harder to judge how much coverage will hit, and for that we can thank the bloggers.

9) Because social media is measurable, metrics really matter and we are only just beginning to learn how to count. Then again, not every PR practitioner is happy that her clients know exactly who is reading what.

10) We are only on the front edge of change. Just as email killed the fax business, social media is gutting traditional media and the collateral damage is killing traditional PR.

If you have more thoughts, I would be happy to hear them.

Bylines, another reason people don't trust PR folks

Reading this NY Times article about doctors who put their names on bylines penned by drug companies reminded me of how few people outside of PR are aware that bylines are a tool of the trade. Outside of the public relations and marketing circles, most people assume the name on the byline is the article's author, which is exactly what everyone on the dark side wants them to think. And, we are comfortable perpetuating that deception

Is it any wonder that PR people aren't honored as pillars of integrity?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Killing embargoes cuts both ways

Bloggers killed embargoes; there is no doubt about that.

Last week, Bobbie Carlton posted a great blog explaining what embargoes were and why PR people used them.

When done well, an embargo made sure that every outlet had the chance to print the story at the same time. More importantly perhaps, embargoes gave reporters a chance to report on a story, not merely rewrite a press release or announcement.

Back in the day, a good PR pitch had a customer and an independent analyst who could competently talk about pain points and product benefits. If you didn't have those pieces of independent corroboration, it was hard to sell a story to the media because a smart reporter does not trust a vendor's word. An enterprising reporter might even want to reach out to her own sources. It takes time for a reporter to interview all those people and talk to the vendor, let alone synthesize all of that information into a coherent story.

Embargoes gave the reporter time to research the story without the fear of getting scooped. It also meant every reporter got a chance to write the story because the vendor did not have to play favorites and everyone who wanted to cover a particular product launch could.

As much as reporters like to complain about embargoes, like so many other things in PR, the reporters' interests were served by the arrangement.

Many people give TechCrunch the credit for killing embargoes, but they only delivered the final blow. Long before TechCrunch formerly said no thanks to embargoes, PR types rarely briefed bloggers ahead of an announcement. Everyone knew bloggers weren't in the embargoed circle of trust, and as everyone knew the lay of the land, everyone played nicely in the sandbox.

Once TechCrunch got large enough to influence buying decisions, it had enough power to dictate the terms of the PR relationship. Money talks. In TechCrunch's case money loudly shouts that it will do whatever it damn well pleases. TechCrunch said they would no longer honor embargoes and almost every other blogger fell into line.

Bloggers play a different game than traditional media and their rules of engagement are different. That's fine as long as their rules don't change without warning.

Rules of engagement in PR are like an umpire's strike zone in baseball. Every umpire has a different one, but regardless of whether the umpire's strike zone favors the hitter or the pitcher, the player just wants the umpire to be consistent in his approach. Players go batty, so to speak, when the strike zone changes throughout the game.

In this case PR pros are baseball players, without the million dollar salaries. With consistent rules of engagement, we can decide when we want to give a reporter or blogger the news and they can decide whether or not to run the story.

Back in the days of embargoes, a good PR pro knew if an outlet was going to run a story. If a reporter conducted an interview, she usually wrote a story. If you gave a reporter embargoed information and she did not think it was worth covering, a good reporter would let you know that up front.

Once bloggers decided not to honor embargoes and thus tip their hand about whether or not they would cover a story, a PR pro's ability to predict coverage became more difficult. If there is one thing PR people want, it's the ability to set expectations and to tell a client how much coverage he will garner from a big launch.

Without the crystal ball, it's a crap shoot that, like so many things with social media, leaves PR people a little uneasy.

Monday, August 10, 2009

What I saw at the Podcamp Boston or the #pcb4 revolution

First, let me confess that I was only able to attend the Saturday session so my thoughts are constrained to that day, but it was a full and fruitful day.

Everybody was talking measurement. The sessions that promised to explain how to measure the results from Social Media programs were filled beyond capacity. As with most marketing programs, the proof is in the numbers. To repeat a worn cliche, in these times building brand awareness isn't enough to move skeptics to open wallets. But most of the attendees left those measurement sessions underwhelmed. While the presenters had some good information, the general feeling was that the attendees showed up at a restaurant expecting a three course meal only to find bland appetizers on the menu. That said, Radiant 6 was a conference sponsor and they should have been happy to hear the news that to marketers measurement is still a four letter word.

I can do it, but how much do I charge? As the new economy has forced many mid-level managers to become freelancers, these reluctant entrepreneurs have had to learn how to bill for their services. If the measurement meetings filled the seats, attendance at the billing conversation flowed out of the door. By all accounts, Partner Dynamics's Melinda Moses, who presented "How do I Package and Price My solutions for SMBs," didn't disappoint the standing-room-only crowd.

Open Spaces create great conversations. At least as often as not, I learned more by chatting with random people in hallways as I did in the conference sessions. Pure serendipity, bumping into friends and learning about sessions they attended or sessions they planned to attend later. This is by design. Podcamp Boston organizers made sure there was plenty of open space and emphasized the Law of Two Feet, which meant that people got up and walked out if the presentation wasn't to their liking.

Conversations about social media lean toward the descriptive not the proscriptive. The more I talked to successful social media practitioners, the more I realize that most of them are making it up as they go along. That's not a bad thing. Actually, it's empowering. It's like being on the front edge of a land grab in fertile territory. Not everything you plant will bear fruit, but a lot will. If you can catch the first wave, you will be selling into an unsaturated market. Even the "What's Next" conference theme played into the spirit of exploration and experimentation.

There is a disconnect between what draws marketers to social media and what draws normal human beings to participate. No where is this more evident than around privacy settings. Most users want their friends to know which restaurants they frequent or which vacation spots they plan to visit in the next five years. Not surprisingly, the information is extremely valuable to marketers. In the middle of one presentation on job searches, a few attendees said they only share the barest information on the public profiles, but that defeats the point of participating on these sites. In the rush to monetize social media, they have forgotten the social in social media.

This post isn't the place to explore privacy settings in social media. For more on my thoughts on that, you can go here or trust that I'll return to the topic soon enough.

There are 250 million people on Facebook. If marketers cannot figure out how to make money from that captive, but walled-in audience, without scaring them with privacy concerns, we most definitely will find out what's next.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Advertisers get personal or Big Brother knows how you spend your money

It's all about the metrics. One of the chief difficulties marketers have in selling their wares to the C-level office types is being able to prove that it works. Being able to link a marketing program directly to revenue, well for a marketer, that's like a Popsicle on a hot and humid day.

Now, thanks to Geomentum, advertisers are inching closer to capturing their Holy Grail, knowing exactly what ads move customers to spend money. On a large scale this is nothing new. For a while now, marketers have used technology to track consumers browsing habits, watching those clicks turn into cash, but Geomentum's technology makes it possible to understand how individual households will respond to a particular advertising vehicle, television, billboards or newspaper insert.

Cablevision in New Jersey, yes that Cablevision of Jeff Jarvis fame, has a program that targets individual households by demographics for television commercials. While that system does not let the advertisers learn names of the individuals customers, you have to believe that's not too far off because as a society we have traded privacy for convenience and savings.

Anyone who has bought a house or tried to rent an apartment lately knows that if you want a roof over your head, you have to let someone look deeply into your financial life. The paper trail says more about you than any resume or biography.

Less conspicuously, but perhaps more ominously, we've also made a bargain with supermarkets and other purveyors, accepting loyalty cards that bring savings but take away anonymity.

While the loyalty cards do provide savings, they also track the purchases of the supermarket's best customers. According to various sources, supermarkets receive the bulk of their profits from just under 25 percent of their customers. Loyalty cards let the supermarkets know just what those customers buy and make sure the shelves are stock with that particular shampoo or pitted olive.

Worried that we have too easily given up too much information about ourselves, conspiracy theorists and privacy purists have sounded alarms that have mostly fallen on deaf ears. Although privacy advocates have won a few battles, some of their battles with Facebook come to mind, the long-term edge in this war decidedly favors the information gathers.

After 9/11, conservatives who once worried about the government having too much information about us, pushed through the PATRIOT Act, trading privacy for security. Perhaps they realized that the cost of living in the modern world is privacy.

But the very people who used to worry about the government having too much control over our lives invited Big Brother to listen to our calls and search our emails.

For most of us, the convenience of giving up personal information is worth the perceived benefits, but for those who don't want to give up their personal information--for what ever reason--they are swimming against an overwhelming tide. When the government and corporate America's interests align, they create an undertow that sucks us all down.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The flexible English langauge

Going back to basics, I picked up Grammar for Dummies the other day. It's one of a bunch of books that I have on the subject, though I confess that in this I am an inexpert student, as my friends never tire of reminding me.

Not through my hand alone, American English is under attack because of the informality of the digital age. To the our grandparents tell it, the introduce of email and texting, have assaulted the language of Shakespeare and Chaucer. According to those traditionalists, we are fueling the flames of hell with style manuals of all kinds.

I am, however, a person who believes in the flexibility of grammar and words, which drives the strict grammarians batty. But when our forefathers and mothers reached these shores, the English they spoke and wrote combined with the native tongues of other settlers from other nations, resulting in the polyglot we have today.

As a country, Americans hold the belief that world history (and the English language) starts with their birth, and change should only occur on thier terms. Unfortunately, that believe smacks up against the other core American values of exploration and self-determination. The country was founded by a group of explorers who made up a new form of government and a Constitution flexible enough to be a living document 220 years later.

Is it any wonder that we also look at language as malleable, at least as it's interpreted within a given set of rules?

That said, have fun finding all the typos in this post.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Beth's Blog is the place to learn about social media

Too often social media experts portray themselves as wizards of the highest order, either talking down to lay people or pretending to have found the Holy Grail. Rarely do these experts lay out social media practices in a way that lay people can understand and execute.

Beth's Blog is the exception to that rule.

Take today's guest post by Gaurav Mishra, for example: the blog clearly lays out the 4Cs in the social media framework. For those keeping score at home, they are Content, Collaboration, Community and Collective Intelligence.

I won't rehash the blog here, because you should read it for yourself, but I will post the summary to prod you to wander over there:
So, the 4Cs form a hierarchy of what is possible with social media. As we move from Content to Collaboration to Community to Collective Intelligence, it becomes increasingly difficult to both observe these layers and activate them. Also each layer is often, but not always, a pre-requisite for the next layer. Compelling content is a pre-requisite for meaningful collaboration, which is a pre-requisite for a vibrant community, which, in turn, is a pre-requisite for collective intelligence.

Although I designed the 4Cs framework to explain how I see social
media, I have also found it to be a useful tools to evaluate specific social media initiatives. The best social media initiatives leverage all these four layers, but I have seen that most initiatives get stuck between the Collaboration and Community layers. Examples of social media initiatives that leverage the Community or Collective Intelligence layers are few and far between. It’s important to note, however, that each layer is valuable in itself, and it’s OK to design an initiative to only exploit the Content or Collaboration layers.
While you are there, I urge you to sign up to have the blog delivered to your mailbox. Today's post is typical of the solid advice she gives practioners in this field.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Cronkite, the fairness doctrine, truth unspun

Walter Cronkite died. I didn't know him well, and I suspect most of my generation and those born after us didn't get to see him at work and know him only by association.

We think of him as the man who always told the truth, but anyone who has pulled together witness statements after a crime or accident knows that the truth depends on perspective. Cronkite lived in a time when people didn't question the perspective of anchorman. (They were all men back then, and mostly still are. I'll give you a dime if you can name a national anchorman today and another dime if you can also name the cable news jockeys.)

As Jack Shafer writes on Slate, Cronkite had the luxury of reporting in a time when Americans began to turn to the tube for their news, the first great abandonment of the print media industry. Shafer argues, persuasively, that people trusted what they watched because it was they watched it, and no one wants to knowingly watch liars.

Cronkite lived when media bias was either accepted, ignored or, and I think this is more likely, when people thought a reporter's personal viewpoint would not bias a story. Sort of the journalist equivalent of physics before the uncertainty principle: you could report on a story as a passive prism.

That cozy relationship didn't work for politicians because sometimes they had to twist facts to start a war or avoid charges of adultery. In these cases, it was and still is easier to stab the messenger than dispute the facts.

Cronkite also operated under the laughably quaint federal Fairness Doctrine, which as Shafer describes it:
The doctrine required broadcast station licensees to address controversial issues of public importance but also to allow contrasting points of view to be included in the discussion. One way around the Fairness Doctrine was to tamp down controversy, which all three networks often did.
Honest news programs, and the Sunday morning spinning talking heads shows, still operate under this principle, which has one great flaw: sometimes one side is flat out wrong. I'll leave it to you to supply your own examples.

Today, we watch news looking for a media bias. But for the most part, we only watch shows that already agree with our world view, confirming what we think we know about the world but not illuminating it.

The lens we use to view the world reveals more about us than it does about the world. In this age of social media, where everyone with a computer is not only a consumer of news but a potential creator, let us hope that we are not looking at the world through the narrow end of a telescope, but are using social media as a powerful version of the Hubble Telescope to look at an expanding universe, not a smaller one.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

How the media grapples with telling the truth

On Monday, July 13, the New York Times once again showed some interesting insights into the shift in reporting in a Web 2.0 world. In four separate articles, the paper deftly examined:
Read in succession, these articles show how much social media has changed reporting and how end users receive information. To state the obvious, social media has taken over a means of disseminating and receiving information. But we already knew that. The proof? I read all of these articles on line and provided you with links to do the same.

What we haven't come to gripes with is who should we trust. When bloggers don't write negative reviews, they are not reviewers but pitchman.

When TMZ breaks an entertainment story, should we trust them as much as the NY Times or the Wall Street Journal? New media and bloggers have created a surfeit of information, but not all of it has equal weight or veracity.

The Times also covered this trust issue in June, which resulted in fireworks. I discussed that here. (A quick aside: this time around, the opposition remained quiet. Do you want to know why? None of the articles quoted anybody with a big microphone.)

Even when a magazine or newspaper has an axe to grind, it tries to get the facts straight, if only align them with a predetermined premise. Get the facts wrong and the axe grinder point becomes dull.

As fewer people read newspapers and magazines, instead of relying on Twitter and blogs to feed their information additions, who is going to resolve the trust issue? And more importantly, who benefits if we don't resolve it?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Fear and loathing in public relations

For days after this NY Times article came out on PR in the world of Web 2.0 , many in the PR world were still buzzing about it. It was an frontal assault on the way that business is done. I won't rehash everything that's been said about the article. There's no point in that, and too many others have trampled that ground. I want to look at what PR people aren't saying about the article. (If you want to read other commentaries about the NY Times piece, skip to end of this blog for a suggested reading list.)

Why did that article touch a raw nerve in the PR community?

PR practitioners have always felt that people outside of the marketing communications tent don't understand what we do. And they don't. It's almost impossible to explain to a civilian how PR works to shape and place stories.

For the most part, most everyone carries the common misconception that PR is about spin control, but those in the club know that unless you represent a market mover, it's not about spin, it's about getting attention. As my friend Tony Mackey put it in his blog, not every company is a winner, but that doesn't mean they don't think they deserve press coverage. They are certainly paying for it.

And therein lies the tension, or the dirty little secret PR folks want to hide. You can't lie, that ruins relationships and relationships are hard currency this trade. The Times got that one right. But sometimes you have to push a reporter to write about the slowest horse in the race and make the reporter believe that horse has a chance of winning the race. In the real world, people might call this lying. In PR it's called shading, spinning or positioning.

Reporters get this, and that's why they distrust PR folks. It's a healthy cynicism they have and, to be fair, one they should have and one we deserve.

Like any industry, there are people who don't do PR well, and that gives PR its well-earned black mark. And, well, in addition to the incompetents, there are the liars. Whether we want to admit or not that they exist in this industry, to not acknowledge that is to invite further distrust.

Now, enter the rise of influential blogs and other social media tools, which have slowly but steadily risen to prominence in the past two years, neatly coinciding with the print media's steady march to bankruptcy.

A scant two years ago when print was king, reporters and PR people were reading the same rulebook. They weren't exactly adversaries, because as much as reporters like to decry the work of PR people, we provide a source of information they cannot get elsewhere. True, that information comes with a price, the price of coverage, but show me a free lunch and I'll show you an overly long line at the buffet.

PR people are scared. The rules of the game are changing. Change may be good, but it's not always welcome. A lack of understanding the rules leads to anxiety, and that turns into sleepless nights.

When the Times points out that PR is at a crossroads, it makes our clients question how we do our jobs. There is a conceit among bloggers, reporters and corporate executives that anyone can do PR. It's true, anyone can do it, but not everyone does it well.

In her book about her experience as a speechwriter for the Great Communicator Ronald Reagan, Peggy Noonan noted that while everyone can write, not everyone can write well. PR is a lot like that, and the rise of social media has made it easier for unskilled PR people to do a bad job.

True, the rise of social media has changed the tools and the rules. In some cases, it has made reporters irrelevant and in other instances, it has made PR people into Web copy editors. It's also made everyone confused. When the rulebook gets rewritten in the middle of the game, it puts everyone on edge. It also leads to land grabs, and the articles below are the influencers staking out their territory.

As promised, if you want to read some solid commentary on the flap, see below.
Brian Solis's makes a spirited defense of PR in the new world order, which is very much a continuation of his thoughts from this post on the new state of PR, marketing and communications.

Michael Arrington's posted a vicious smack down of PR. (If you still believe in the power of traditional PR, this isn't reading not for the faint of heart.)

Robert Scoble contributes a good commentary on the basics of how to do PR in the new age. It's a must read for anyone in the Tech industry, whether you are on the communications side of the house or not.

I have only included some of the pieces that received the most commentary, but I welcome other contributions and suggestions for articles to read.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Say goodbye to online privacy

Rupert Murdoch once said, "Human beings can be led anywhere, as long you take them there step by step."

Little by little, a vast Alliance of marketing and Internet interests have eaten away our online privacy and anonymity. But recently, these companies have started to hunger for bigger slices of the pie.

A recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article (subscription required) noted that Quantcast, a small company that tracks Web browsing behavior on 10 million Web sites, plans to sell that data, which contains detailed user profiles, to marketers who want to create highly targeted ads.

New York Times (NYT) reporter Saul Hansell noted that BT (British Telecom) abandoned a similar plan when privacy advocates objected. In the U.S., Congress stepped in to rebuff AT&T's bid to sell information about its user's Web habits.
Last year, several midsized Internet providers in the United States began testing a similar system with NebuAd, a rival of Phorm. They backed down when a series of congressional hearings highlighted public objections to the concept. AT&T has indicated that it too would like to earn some of the money from targeted advertising now mainly flowing to Google, but it promised to find a way to ask its customers for permission before it does.
But if you really want to visit the frontlines in battle to use personal data for advertising purposes, you have to look at Facebook, as Wired does in this article. Within its Walled Garden of 200 million users, or 20% of the people who surf the Web, lies a treasure trove of personal photos, thoughts, friends and reviews.

Everyone asks how Facebook plans to make money. The answer is the company wants to sell all of the data they have on all its users.
In November 2007, Facebook launched Beacon, a ham-fisted attempt to inject advertising into News Feeds. Users felt violated; after a month of protest, Zuckerberg publicly apologized and effectively shut Beacon down. Then, in February 2009, Facebook quietly changed its terms of service, appearing to give itself perpetual ownership of anything posted on the site, even after members closed their accounts.
The question of who owns the data about us isn't trivial and, like presidential power, it's a spigot that only opens in one direction. Despite all of their beautiful words, presidents don't give back power. Truman didn't, George W. Bush didn't and Obama won't. And once the rights to our personal information no longer belong to us, we are not getting it back, regardless of the recent victories against AT&T, BT and Facebook.

Privacy activists have to win every battle to kept our information from being available to whatever marketer wants to pay the going price. The Alliance of marketers only needs to get the toothpaste out of the tube.

As an interesting aside, both the NY Times and Wired discussed the privacy implications on selling data about our browsing habits. The WSJ, on the other hand, looked at the difficulty inherent in a business plan that gave away the data and would only collect when ads were sold.

Why should we care? For a few dollars, you can get a credit report on almost anyone as long as you have their Social Security Number. And, these days you don't need skills to get almost anyone's Social Security Number.

I am not a conspiracy theorist, but if my credit history is plain for anyone to see, why should I believe that the marketers will do a better job guarding my browsing history? Does a prospective employer or client need to know my political affiliation, religion or fantasy baseball skills?

There was a time when only your family, friends or enemies knew everything about you. That was 20 years ago. What's going to happen in the next 20 years?
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