Bright Careers on the “Dark Side”

October 16th, 2014 by Don Tanner

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 8.05.58 PMI’ll always remember interviewing a locally-based reporter who was working at the Detroit Bureau of a national news outlet. “I can’t believe I’m considering coming over to the dark side,” he commented on the possibility of moving from media into public relations.  Today, many years later, he is a prominent and respected PR lead for a top automotive OEM, having successfully made the transition from the one telling the stories to the one pitching them.

Once not as common, reporters moving from media to public relations/communications has been a fairly consistent occurrence over the past decade.  And it’s happening more and more every day. This past week, Robin Schwartz announced she was leaving Fox-2 after 17 years with the station to join Bedrock as their PR Director.  Similarly, longtime WDET-Radio anchor Craig Fahle exited the studio for the Detroit Land Bank as Communications Director while weatherman/TV legend Chuck Gaidica traded the set for the pulpit in August.

As someone who also made the switch from radio to PR (in 1994), I have observed the shifts in attitudes and job titles firsthand.  The tipping point was the Detroit newspaper strike of 1995.  Before the strike, quite often I experienced long-time reporters with no respect for the public relations professional. “I don’t need some snot-nosed kid to tell me what’s news,” I heard more than once.  And while, unfortunately, many of these same writers would ultimately lose their jobs, those taking their place were largely green and without source contacts. They understood immediately how I could assist with access to top sources that would help them in identifying new stories and trends.  An attitudinal shift followed.  Media and PR, once demonstrating mutual respect, would become collaborators rather than typecast adversaries.

With stigmas pushed aside, many reporters and writers through the years to today have made the logical move to communications. After all, who better to know how to package and pitch news stories and information to media outlets and other audiences?  As important in such moves is the quality of life factor.  Matt and I both tired of working early morning, late nights and weekends in our on-air roles. TV personalities in particular work 3p-11p when at the top of their game.

But the theme you hear most often when talking to former media talent who have opted away from the bright lights and notoriety? A desire at a certain point in life to do something more. More rewarding. More difference-making. More family-friendly. In the case of Schwartz and Fahle, in particular, the opportunity to be a part of Detroit’s resurgence was no doubt too good to pass up. For Gaidica, a higher-calling to preach trumped reporting on low pressure systems.

Bottom line for media and PR practitioners: We are all professionals dedicated to telling stories and communicating effectively, strategically, truthfully.  No dark sides. Only transparency.

 

 

What “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” Can Teach You About PR

October 13th, 2014 by Matt Friedman

5753449_stdNever mind that someone invited me to a daylong conference (cost, $75) to hear local PR and branding people speak. That didn’t even bother me as much as what was on the flyer. One of the speakers promises “The Secret Sauce Of Media Relations” in a presentation.

It instantly reminded me of a scene from the ’80s classic movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” One of the main characters, Brad Hamilton, is training a new employee at fictional fast food joint All-American Burger and is asked “What’s the secret sauce?” The answer: “Thousand Island dressing.” We then find out that the “secret sauce” at rival Bronco Burger is “ketchup and mayonnaise.”

I then took to Twitter to find out what some journalists think about the suggestion that there might be such as thing as a “secret sauce” to working with them. One instantly responded “Ew.” Another responded like this: “Returns calls ASAP, be honest and fair, give us the info, provide scoops, know cycles/needs/competitors. Done.”

In other words, use good judgment, good fundamentals and show professionalism and mutual respect. Remember that relationships work two ways and put yourself in the “shoes” of the pro on the other side of the call, email or text. And when you’re talking to a journalist, it’s not on your time, it’s on, as Mr. Hand from “Fast Times” might put it, it’s on, from the journalist’s point of view, “my time.”

Just like at the movie fast food places, it’s not that complicated. And it’s no secret at all.

Want Local Coverage? Get In Line.

October 7th, 2014 by Matt Friedman

line_up_technicians1Recently, I was asked by a longtime businessman why a client of ours isn’t “sending out more press releases so the newspapers can use those stories as filler.” I had to take a deep breath and explain that the media world has changed, since whenever that concept was planted in his brain. In short, news outlets certainly don’t need “filler” anymore.

In fact, most local news outlets have more than they could possibly cover. It became as obvious as ever today, as yet another “high profile” murder trial began around here, that there is a pecking order and to assure coverage, your story had better fall into it or you are put at the back of a long line.

Many years ago, at the dawn of the PC era, a news director of mine called crime coverage the “default setting” of broadcast news. Many days, that’s still the case. How many resources does local news have left after it’s done covering “cops and courts?” Throw in election year politics and sports and, jobs news in a market like Detroit with a dominant industry, and what’s left to cover you in an era of very few journalists on payrolls? Many days, it’s not much.

A few weeks ago, we had to explain to a prospective client why we couldn’t help them with a project. They wanted some weekend events covered by TV news in a rural corner of the market. I had to explain, in these words, “Each station has one crew to cover all of the news in a market of 4 million people during the day on weekends. How can they be expected to send that crew to your township and then miss what could be the lead story happening anywhere else in a six county area?” That helped drive home the point. Chances are, most weekends, that lead story will be a crime, or fire, or car accident not too far from the TV stations. It’s just a fact we have to work around.

There are many options for storytelling and brand building on the days when there’s just no room for you in typical local news coverage. It takes a whole new way of thinking to cut the line.

U2, Apple Mark a New (Year’s) Day for Music

September 28th, 2014 by Don Tanner

Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 4.31.01 PMIn 2004, U2 became one of the first rock bands ever to launch a new record via TV commercial as their then-new single “Vertigo” also introduced the iPod “U2 Special Edition.”  In recent days, the band and Apple have taken their relationship to another level, joining forces to provide free, automatic downloads of U2′s long-time-coming Songs of Innocence LP to iTunes subscribers.  And, reporter Catherine Mayer/Cupertino writes in the September 29th issue of Time, there is a method to this seeming madness.

Of course, U2 is far from original in giving their music away.  Prince, Radiohead and others have already tread that once hallowed ground.  Yet, no one has ever taken this approach so grandly and boldly with more money paid in advance and more potential future rewards hanging in the balance.  Consider the following: In 2013, music industry revenue continued its 13-year slide to its lowest levels since 1985, a time where newly minted CDs began nudging vinyl records for supremacy.  And, in an era and to a generation where “free” music is the expectation (via pirating, YouTube, etc.) thia alarming sales trend is only expected to continue. Simultaneously, concert revenue is rising; and the numbers are staggering.  In fact, U2 stands at the top of the list of the highest-grossing concert tours of all time: $772 million over 110 shows for 2009-11, with an elbow-to-elbow 66,110 attending each concert.

No one is confirming how much Apple is paying U2 for this and future collaborations but it is rumored that the digital giant pledged more than $100 million to market Songs alone.  Why does it make sense? For U2 (or any band today) music drives concert ticket sales. For U2 and Apple, the promotion of the first single “Miracle” has caused a major spike in the band’s 30-year catalogue, with music from days past leading download sales charts across the world.  An acoustic version of Songs of Innocence is also coming soon while a companion album, Songs of Experience, is also in the works.

But, perhaps most interesting are reported plans for U2 and Apple to create, as Bono describes it in the Time piece, “an audiovisual interactive format for music that can’t be pirated and will bring back album artwork in the most powerful way, where you can play with the lyrics and get behind the songs when you’re sitting on the subway with your iPad or on these big flat screens. You can see photography like you’ve never see it before.” Perhaps it will mark a turning point for positioning music once again as a valuable experience rather than entitled commodity. It appears Bono and U2 are headed that way with Apple - hopefully with rather than without you.

 

The New Reality: How You Handle PR Is Part Of The Story

September 17th, 2014 by Matt Friedman

UnknownSome of the best journalists in America happen to cover sports. Some of the best orators in America happen to talk about sports on the radio. Few, if any of them, have ever “had a seat at the table” inside a crisis. But even they know that the Minnesota Vikings have bungled the Adrian Peterson situation.

I won’t pile onto the gang tackle about how the Vikings have managed PR during this crisis. To most, the flip-flopping and 1 a.m. news release (like nobody was going to report it in this era of communication) – probably demanded by someone with too much grey hair and too much regard for his or her own grey matter – just seemed like parts of a debacle. Even those paid to analyze Xs and Os on the field know that too many wrong plays were called here. But this is an opportunity to highlight, once again, that how the Vikings handled it was nearly as big of a story of what the Vikings eventually decided to do.

It’s the new reality – how you handle PR in a high-profile situation is part of the story. Once upon a time, journalists would restrict their comments on such things to newsroom chatter. Today, that chatter is public, thanks to social media and opinion-driven broadcasts on radio and TV. Today, audiences of all kinds join in on the analysis. Just like with sports, more non-pros than ever act they’re experts in PR when they’re empowered by a Twitter account and a radio call-in number and, when their voices are aggregated, they shape a narrative.

What likely happened inside the Vikings’ office is likely no different what we have seen many times before. There is fragile ego at the top. There is tension over attention between the in-house PR staff not trained for crisis (often, to borrow a phrase “out of their league”) and and outside agency trying to add perspective and convince people they are potentially meeting for the first time to see it their way. But the real power rests with the lawyers, who are, by nature, risk averse, advising like a drumbeat “don’t get sued, don’t get sued, don’t get sued” and so often the barrier between communications success and what ends up as being analyzed as failure.

The biggest takeaway from this situation is one we feel like we’re pointing out more often than ever these days. PR matters. The media and the public are paying attention. Doing the right things, the right ways, has never been more important.

The Wikipedia Community: An Iron Gate with an Open Keypad by Kristin Sokul

September 15th, 2014 by Don Tanner

Wikipedia_CensoredWith humble beginnings of only 218 active participants at the end of its introductory year in 2001, Wikipedia has grown into a juggernaut of information, second only to Google in informational searching. The site now boasts more than 22 million registered users, 71,000 of which are active “Wikipedians” generating more than 31 million articles, to date. Yet despite its longevity and multitude of editors, Wikipedia continues to be shrouded in mystery for companies and professional communicators who try to harness its power to communicate or mitigate reputation damage.

Though anyone is allowed to make edits to any page, meeting relevancy, tone and sourcing requirements are strictly policed by Wikipedia’s 1,400 administrators to maintain the integrity of the site. This can be problematic for companies or individuals trying to earn a coveted spot on this resource. You must be able to prove information seekers outside of your local geography would care enough to search for you. This requirement is partially achieved with a variety of acceptable sources, which must be published, traceable, relevant and authentic (and cannot just be the news release section of your website). Companies and organizations that have most successfully met these tests are those with long-term media relations campaigns, generating numerous published articles written by credible journalists, proving their worth and factual content.

Yet, even with such threshold requirements met, “tone” can make or break the acceptance of a particular page. The tendency to craft content in the form of a marketing bio or “About Us” backgrounder is rampant among those trying to use the site as a more searchable extension of their own websites. But in Wikipedia world, these are deemed too “promotional” and grounds for dismissal. To earn your spot in the Wikipedia community, think about how you wrote reports with source requirements in high school or college. All facts must be sourced, and it’s best to eliminate most of your adjectives. Even if you know informational content to be true, it must be sourced somewhere to make the cut.

Creating your own page is only one side of the equation. Companies need also to be vigilant of pages created by others. Only Wikipedia administrators can delete a page, and if the material is properly sourced, bad news about a company, CEO or president is there to stay, making a crisis communications plan all the more critical. Once someone else has already told one side of your story, the best you can do is seek to add other content to level the playing field. Think about items you can source, factually and neutrally, demonstrating the positives your company is known for and/or achievements and advancements that round out your story.

Whether you are a Wikipedia content creator or editor, know that this process is not something you can simply throw together in an hour. Be prepared to do the exploration, source your facts and triple-check your tone. This potential blessing and possible curse demands proper time, research and effort, just like your senior year capstone project.

A Coach’s Headset Proves Perceptions Win

September 8th, 2014 by Matt Friedman

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Michigan vs Virginia TechThe cliche says “perception is reality.” Unlike the many myths that circulate about human opinion, that one often holds true. Once again, sports provides us with an example that demonstrates how perception dominates thinking. This example has spread through social media and sports talk radio and, now, into mainstream traditional media coverage.

Brady Hoke is the Head Football Coach at the University of Michigan. Since his arrival as the football boss in Ann Arbor, Hoke has an inconsistent won-loss record. While skilled as a recruiter of both assistant coaches and players, interviews and press conferences are not his strong suit. What fans and reporters hear is a mix of coach-speak and simplistic answers. We have no idea what his players and coaches hear in private. But what really shapes Hoke’s reputation is the fact that he doesn’t often wear a headset while coaching on the sidelines during games.

“What’s the big deal?” It somehow creates the perceptions with fans and critics alike that, coupled with his public persona otherwise, that Hoke is, essentially, a “big dumb jock.” Football fans fancy their head coaches as “field generals,” who are in control of men and tacticians who order plays via headset, just like coaches such as Michigan’s legendary Bo Schembechler. Schembechler’s Sports Illustrated photo gallery‘s first two photos show him wearing a headset.

The “headset issue” has led some (many?) to believe a range of perceptions. That Hoke is just a rah-rah leader, that he’s just a figurehead, that Athletic Director Dave Brandon is running the game management or that Hoke is simply not smart enough to make decisions during a football game. Today, this went mainstream with Detroit News columnist Terry Foster’s piece calling for Hoke’s likely firing, with the headset “situation” as a support argument (really).

That’s the perception. The reality, I’m told by a sports professional who carefully has watched the Michigan sidelines during games for Hoke’s entire tenure, is that he’s constantly in communication with his coordinators, especially now that his offensive coordinator coaches from the sidelines. Hoke has a graduate assistant with him to help as a conduit for that communication. He pays his attention, otherwise, to players who are coming off and on the field during the game.

Brady Hoke may or may not be a competent head coach. The truth is the fact that he doesn’t like to wear a headset will not decide that question. Like all of us in our jobs, results will. And that’s just reality.

Don’t Let Emotion Guide Your Crisis Media Analysis

September 7th, 2014 by Matt Friedman

emotionsWorking as an outside voice on a client project that’s filled with emotion can be one of the biggest challenges in PR. You are brought in to operate above the fray and provide counsel that takes the emotion of the situation into account, but not be driven by it.

Recently, one of these crises was covered by a community news outlet. The president of the client organization asked me to review the comprehensive story that chronicled the latest on the emotionally-charged controversy. I read the lengthy piece and advised that while the story contained a little sloppy writing, it was overall very fair, included points of view from both sides and carried a headline closely aligned with the message the client wants to communicate. There were several points of view from the “other side” that the client wouldn’t like to see in print, but the news organization was just doing its job.

The president responded that “It is not fair.The article…simply gives (the other side) a forum.” I explained that giving both sides in a controversy is, journalistically, the definition of a fair piece. After a little back and forth, the discussion ended, but I realized just how common these conversations are in our business.

Clients need to remember that there’s no reason for us to want anything other than fair coverage, at the very least, for them. During coverage of a controversy, the story is factually correct, if opposing viewpoints are all attributed to the opposition, if your point of view is included and your messages are getting out and if a reporter is respectful of your position, then you have all the ingredients fair story. It’s our job to help you see it that way.

Too often, emotion clouds decision-making during difficult situations. Emotion can also cloud analysis. That’s why it’s important to have an experienced professional provide the perspective to understand how the public really sees your news coverage.

Verlander-Upton Learn a Lewd Lesson in Celebrity

September 2nd, 2014 by Don Tanner

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 5.55.03 PMWhile many take time off during the annual Labor Day weekend, some brazen hackers were recently hard at work stealing very private photos from a host of top celebrities, Tiger Justin Verlander and girlfriend/model/actress Kate Upton among them.  Should they have known better? Could they have avoided the situation? How should they have responded? What does it portend for their careers, moving forward?  WDIV-TV Channel 4 covered the story (see it here) featuring our perspectives. Yet a lot was left on the cutting room floor. Allow me to elaborate.

As for the first two questions, we all have to concede the fact that, with reality TV and social media, we have become a very voyeuristic society. We like to take pictures and movies and show them (sometimes aimed just at our significant others).  What we all also must realize, however, is that the technology that supports those tendencies is far from secure. If Target or the federal government can be hacked, so can our cloud-based phones.  Celebrities, further and as we see over and over again, are targets for exploitation – whether out of jealousy or for monetary gain.  While we all have to be careful what we post in public or shoot in private, the rich and famous have to be even more so.  Because once ‘it’ is out there – social media spreads it like wild fire.

How should Verlander and Upton have publicly responded? I suggested on TV that they took a page from the playbook of actress Jennifer Lawrence, herself a compromising photo victim in recent days.  Her representatives talked about working with the authorities to investigate and, in time, take legal action against the perpetrators.  Had these celebrities gone back to social media or held an unnecessary press conference to address the issue, it would have been akin to an arsonist watching from afar as fire crews worked to extinguish the blaze. Why give these hackers more satisfaction by seeing their victims react?

I was also asked by Channel 4 (again see cutting room) whether either Verlander or Upton would be affected sponsorship/pitchman-wise.  I replied that I doubted we’d see the Tiger ace shilling for Disney World or Cracker Jack anytime soon but wouldn’t be surprised if he popped up in a vodka or sports car commercial down the road.  I presume Upton will also be fine, as the majority of her career success has already been based on sex appeal.

In the end, the entire situation had to be for the young couple very embarrassing, although not career-damaging.  It is just a hard lesson once again underscored: Public celebrities do not have private lives. For better or for worse, if you are in the limelight, learn that lesson and think before you act – even behind closed doors.

Stewart’s Decision To Race Tonight A Mistake

August 31st, 2014 by Don Tanner

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 5.46.43 PMNASCAR superstar Tony Stewart should not be racing tonight in Atlanta.  22 days and three Sprint Cup races missed are simply not enough time and space away from a still-unexplained tragedy.  Not when an ongoing investigation continues.  Not when a life has been lost.

Setting aside the tragic death of Kevin Ward Jr. on August 9th, Stewart and his handlers made their first blunder by indicating in the aftermath that it would be ‘business as usual’ and that Stewart would race the next day.  After a public outcry ensued, Stewart changed direction and opted instead to sit on the sidelines.  And while he has indicated deep regret for what occurred, his statements since possess an unsettling theme: how the event has affected him.

“This has been one of the toughest tragedies I’ve ever had to deal with both personally and professionally,” he read from a statement at a press conference Friday. “(It)…is something that will definitely affect my life forever.” Among his unsurprising supporters (enablers?) has been Brett Frood, executive vice-president of Stewart-Hass Racing, who said: “(Stewart) being in a racing car right now is about him getting through what has been a very emotional two weeks, what his next step is in coping with this.”

What would I recommend if I were counseling Stewart? Stay on the sidelines. Give it time. Out of respect for Ward. To heal yourself.  For how long? Until the investigation has officially been completed. Until he can meet with Ward’s family. Until they indicate they would support his return to the racetrack.  In his defense, Stewart did reference during the press conference, by name, various members of Ward’s family and that we was, “everyday thinking about them and praying for them.” As well he should.

I hope Kevin Ward’s family can rebuild their lives and I do hope Tony Stewart the man and the racer survives this horrible event.  But, beyond the remorse, he has to proceed with selflessness and respect. With helmet off and foot off the gas pedal, he needs to focus on doing the right thing and he needs to do it the right way.