Time For Media to Rethink Customer Service

December 5th, 2016 by Don Tanner

Screen Shot 2016-12-05 at 6.35.56 PM I don’t want to pile on.  Lord knows both print and broadcast media are seeing their share of problems today.  I also don’t want to come across negatively in this blog.  I’m looking for solutions, suggesting a few even.  That said, this week I faced a double conundrum that, unfortunately, seems endemic – customer service (or lack thereof) that has prevented me from doing what every media outlet out there wants me to do: consume their content.

I love media (no surprise there) and have worked on both sides of the print and broadcast journalism equation. I’m also old school. I like holding a newspaper, thumbing through a magazine, going to a bookstore! I also do everything I can to support a range of media by subscribing to their periodicals and publications. Yes, I pay for news and information!  That said, in early November I noticed a dearth of reading material in my mailbox. I subscribe to and was receiving Sports Illustrated but had stopped getting Time even though the label from my most recent issue indicated a March 2017 expiration date. Oh, the dreaded call to customer service.

There, after dealing with call center hell, I reached a real person who, upon investigating the situation, informed me that I had canceled my subscription to Time in mid-October.  Um, no, I replied, I had not.  After some time I was able to reinstate my subscription with the assurance that I would not miss another issue and that I would, within a few days’ time, receive back issues (including those covering the presidential election).  Weeks later, I have received zero back issues and have since learned that I will not be receiving my first “reinstated subscription” issue until December 17th – nearly a month from my call.

But wait, there’s more. A call just completed a few minutes ago on my similarly wayward Rolling Stone subscription also uncovered a cancelled subscription in October. Wrong again. When informed that a reinstated subscription might not provide me with a next issue until January or February I declined. It’s just not worth it to me any more. To be fair, both subscriptions were, if memory serves, 2 for 1 deals offered through a local bookstore chain that I took advantage of.  The Rolling Stone customer service representative said that he could not sleuth out exactly how the subscription was canceled as it was through “another agency.”  Then again, the publisher was obviously involved with (implicit in) this deal being offered.

No matter who or what is exactly to blame the irony is hard to miss here.  A dedicated subscriber who wants to keep reading but, through technological glitches or timeworn policies (why does it take several weeks before a longtime subscriber can be reinstated?) cannot. Hasn’t technology improved since the 1970s (when I first started subscribing to publications)? It’s hard enough to hold current readers and nearly impossible to cultivate new ones.

A possible solution? If I were among the powers that be, I’d be thinking long and hard about developing new methodologies aimed at one-on-one reader retention and attraction.  And it wouldn’t involve call centers and voicemail. If someone wants to subscribe, get them the very next issue possible, not one a month or two from now. I’d also examine delivery, whether via post office or paper boy/girl.  After our building employed a new mail person, we started receiving a Monday business publication on Tuesday, Wednesday, even Thursday, necessitating a call to our city’s Postmaster General.  Another neighborhood daily, delivered by carrier, rarely arrives every day.

Some is controllable, some perhaps not.  But how do you keep, at the very least, your core consumers – your low hanging fruit – loyal, or even interested, if they can’t consume? It’s just one more sore on a festering wound aimed at rendering traditional media irrelevant.  Loyalists will remain loyal but only to a point.  Indeed, we are begging for solutions and resolutions. Time to whip up and apply a strong salve before it is simply too late.

 

 

 

 

When News Organizations Make Cuts, Others Have To Speak For Them

December 4th, 2016 by Matt Friedman

1462736-hand-with-scissors-cutting-out-an-article-from-newspaperOne of the first things I learned in the PR business was “If you don’t speak for yourself, others will gladly speak for you.”

Companies that have nothing to say in times of bad news will have the comment vacuum filled quickly. It was true then and even more obvious now as social media can empower just about anyone to be a de facto company spokesperson.

We’re finding, in this time of multiple crises for media organizations, that their lack of PR acumen is biting them once again. As we have written about in recent weeks, around the country, the end of the year is meaning more cuts in newsrooms that can ill afford them. But plunging revenues, changing audience habits and other factors are leading to job eliminations across the industry. In one case, privately-owned business news outlet Crain’s Detroit Business, the outlet outlined its changes for its customers in this story placed on its website. But in most cases, especially corporate-owned entities, the news organizations are, ironically, leaving the storytelling to others.

As we have written, both the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News are in the process of making cuts. At a client meeting the other day, I heard that situation spoken of as “what the Free Press and News announced.” Actually, they didn’t announce anything. Other outlets got their hands on internal memos. The news organizations themselves have said nothing to customers. Word about who is accepting buyouts is coming out in drips on journalists’ personal social media pages.

Contrast this with when news organizations are on the other side. When companies they cover make changes, journalists demand detailed information on behalf of the communities they cover. I remember one time when a client closed a facility, and didn’t yet know how many exactly jobs would be affected because of a combination of retirements, layoffs and open jobs not being filled, several reports accused the company of “hiding information.”

This is even happening at the national level. Word leaked Friday night via the New York Post that CBS Radio News would push several well-known anchors into retirement. The company did not comment. The next morning though, one of the company’s journalists, Steven Portnoy, did. The company lucked out that a thoughtful, respectful employee was the one to step forward and fill the void. Here is an excerpt:

“You may have read the news that we’ve been wishing some of our very best friends and colleagues at CBS well as they enter retirement with a bit of corporate encouragement. A word on that —

The people we’ve hailed are, frankly, irreplaceable. They represent a big chunk of the institutional memory of our newsroom and their departures leave us feeling quite sad.

It’s important for radio fans to understand why this is happening. It is NOT because fewer people are listening. In fact, just the opposite is true! Nielsen and Edison Research tell us that radio now reaches more people than any other medium, including the social one you’re reading right now. Many of our stations are at the very top of the ratings in their markets. Tens of millions of Americans of all ages learn about our world from network radio news — don’t let anyone convince you otherwise, we’ve got the data that proves it’s just not true.

The trouble is, marketers — the companies that buy advertising, in the hopes that you’ll buy the things they sell — are always looking for the newest, most cost-efficient way to reach people in a crowded media universe. They’re spending less money on advertising generally and are trying to figure out whether that will work for them. The jury is still out, but network radio in particular has taken a pretty tough hit from the shifting dollars. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the idea that fewer people are listening isn’t one of them.

It’s with this backdrop that CBS has, however, been forced to make tough, careful decisions about our staffing. My understanding is that no more cuts are planned.

What’s important for you, a fan of radio news, to know is this — each hour, 24 times a day, 7 days a week, 365 days each year, the that proudly introduces our newscast will continue to signal the very best in broadcast journalism.

The people of CBS News are as committed as ever to living up to a legacy that began with Robert Trout and Ed Murrow, evolved with Douglas Edwards, Dallas Townsend and Christopher Glenn, and continues today with Frank Settipani, Steve Kathan, Dave Barrett, Pam Coulter and countless others who have made it their life’s work to bring the most up-to-date news to you, a member of one of the largest audiences any media entity in America can claim…

…Thanks for keeping our colleagues and what we do in your thoughts, and thanks for listening.”

If you don’t speak for yourself, others will gladly speak for you. Others won’t get as lucky as CBS and will continue to suffer via public opinion.

How News Cuts Affect Anyone Who Thinks They Have News

November 20th, 2016 by Matt Friedman

bundleWPFor anyone who cares about journalism, the news came in like two punches to the gut.

First, Crain’s Detroit Business reported that the Detroit News, just one year after buying out many of its most seasoned reporters and editors, is offering buyouts to its entire editorial staff. Then later in the week, Crain’s reported that the Detroit Free Press, just one year after buying out many of its trusted veterans, seeks to eliminate more than a dozen newsroom positions. Speculation continues that at least one of those news outlets will have to fold. All of this follows a decade of steady downsizing.

Neither of the newspapers (or online news sources, depending on how you want to look at them) reported their own news or said anything publicly to inform the community of facts or provide reassurance. That’s another topic for another blog post. And if you think this phenomenon is just happening in Detroit, then you don’t pay attention to the media scene nationally. Even the Wall Street Journal is offering buyouts this holiday season. And if you think the “mainstream media” doesn’t matter anymore, then please click off this post and read some fake news on Facebook linked to a website you’ve never heard of and won’t see again.

Many of us got into the PR business because we love news and this is an opportunity to work with news in a different way. When news shrinks, it can hurt us. It absolutely challenges us, especially those of us who entered the field when it felt like there was a beat reporter at a daily newspaper for just about everything resembling news.

We have been heeding this call for nearly 10 years: If you’re a customer of the PR firm business, work in-house at communications for a company or just think you have a story, it’s long past time for you to approach things differently. There simply isn’t as much news being reported with now far fewer journalists to report it. Chances are what was a news story ten years ago, five years ago, a year ago, maybe even six months ago, is no longer a news story. You can’t clutter reporter and editor in-boxes with press releases as if it was still 1996. You can’t expect the same volume of coverage you once received.

We believe we are adding value to clients’ communications strategies by counseling them about what will or won’t be a news item before even writing a release or advisory, let along sending it to anyone. We remind them that the world has changed and it keeps changing. We do not want to represent them or us poorly by throwing crap against the wall to see what sticks, soiling our important and sometimes fleeting relationships with journalists along the way. If a “good story,” isn’t news, it’s up to us to counsel clients on the other viable, compelling and credible ways to get it front of their audiences. The best clients let us do that and trust us when we tell them things have changed dramatically. But it’s time, now, for everyone connected to the business of news to finally get it.

Patty Hearst & the SLA – Signs of Those Times

November 14th, 2016 by Don Tanner

8e433836ad4de5c4f0d2997ea14e37efOn February 4, 1974, Patty Hearst, the granddaughter of media magnate William Randolph Hearst – the man immortalized in Orson Welles’ seminal “Citizen Kane”- was forcefully kidnapped from her apartment in Berkley, California by the unorganized and unknown Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). In his new book, “American Heiress”, author Jeffrey Toobin examines the crime and, as importantly the times as they relate to communications surrounding the harrowing event and those that would soon follow.

The old adage: “We are all products of our environment” quite often holds true. In the aftermath of Watergate and the droning on of the Vietnam War, distrust for governmental and municipal authority was at an all-time high. Coupled with the San Francisco scene, revolution was in the air.  Looking for a high-profile platform from which to espouse their typically nonsensical yet dangerous and violent beliefs, they chose Hearst not for her money but for her association, for many, with the corporate elite. The media, as anticipated, paid attention and the SLA took advantage – issuing a series of written and taped communiqués and then demanding they be published and aired in their entirety.  With Hearst’s life potentially under threat should they refuse, print and broadcast outlets throughout the world complied. Perhaps only Jesse James nearly a century earlier played the media so masterfully.

Unless you lived in that era, it is almost impossible to comprehend how little those times resembled today.  Long before 9/11, bombings perpetuated by radicals against civic buildings and the police during that period were alarmingly common; in essence, homeland terrorism that many of that generation lauded. According to FBI statistics, in 1972 there were nearly 2,000 actual and attempted bombings in the U.S.  That trend would continue through 1974. The very fact that Patty Hearst eluded the FBI for two years spoke volumes.  The “common man” simply had no interest in being the agency’s eyes or ears. The distrust ran that deep.

So, how to stand out from that “clutter” of everyday violence and unrest by a myriad of radical groups? Again, for the SLA, it came down to Patty Hearst.  It was no coincidence, in fact, that the group chose to rob one of the few San Francisco-area banks with then-new security cameras.  Hearst was ordered to station herself,  machine gun in hand, directly in its line of sight. That iconic image became front page news across the globe and provided great fodder for a new television program on ABC, “Good Morning America” and Newsweek magazine, which placed Hearst on its cover seven times.

The Hearst saga also marked a watershed moment in news reporting from another perspective. In May 1974, six members of the SLA (Hearst not among them) were cornered by police in a house in suburban Los Angeles. Faced with how best to cover the story of the times from the scene, TV station KNXT took it upon itself to utilize a then largely experimental technology: a microwave transmitter that allowed a station to utilize a “minicam” to broadcast live from the field (rather than shooting film to be processed back at the station for airing at a later time).  With KNXT sharing the signal with other L.A. stations (and, as such, their nationwide affiliates), it would mark the first time ever that an un-planned, live news event was broadcast across the United States.

A different era. A different society. A different media.  And an outstanding new book that takes you back there.

 

 

 

 

Nobody Needs PR Now Like News Organizations

November 9th, 2016 by Matt Friedman

imagesThe “Divided Nation” seems more united over one perception than any other – news outlets failed them during the 2016 Election Cycle.

Did national news organizations based in Manhattan fail to see the country as it is? Did TV networks, by providing him with unprecedented, unfiltered air time carry Donald Trump from celebrity reality star to conspiracy theorist to bona fide candidate in the name of ratings (in the words of CBS head Les Moonves “It (Trump’s candidacy) may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”)? Did news organizations of virtually all types focus too much on the “horse race” and not enough on the issues? Did journalists focus more overall on Trump’s foibles than on Hillary Clinton’s because, if nothing else, they were easier (and cheaper) to cover? Did media’s, particularly cable news’, constant debate and confrontation genre create an atmosphere where it was probably safe for the candidates to not hold regular question and answer sessions with journalists? The answer to those and other questions is “yes.”

But, media consumption was exceptionally high during this cycle. Maligned CNN had its highest-rated election night ever. Clicks and ratings were up across the board. But disdain for the news media is also extremely high, even by those who don’t just want to hear news about their favorite “team.” Add to the equation that the media business is still in turmoil, with more cuts and downsizing by margin-hungry corporate owners looming around every corner. This is, by any definition, a PR crisis.

PR, when done well, connects companies with audiences. It informs, even enlightens. Internally, it reminds companies of who they are, what they do and how they’re different. The media business needs this now at, essentially, a time of crisis, when audiences need direct reassurance and attention to concerns.

For example, the New York Times should be communicating with its audiences about its daily “scoreboard,” which showed the “chances of winning” for each candidate, often in recent weeks showing Clinton with upwards of 90+%, updated frequently based on highly-flawed polling. Should that continue, in any form? How does it create value? Outlets of all sizes should be talking to audiences about the tradition of trying to predict, rather than report on, outcomes by “calling” elections using exit polling. The Detroit Free Press “called” Michigan for Clinton, which turned out to be incorrect, causing embarrassment. The paper apologized but, in a competitive environment, should constantly communicate its value to its customers. There are myriad examples that could be provided for cable TV.

Commercial media should take a cue from public television. Trust is paramount to a mission. For 13 years in a row, public television is rated the most trusted institution in America in public opinion surveys. This year’s election coverage showed why. If you watched the NewsHour or Frontline you understand.

Full disclosure: Detroit Public TV is a longtime client. But that should tell you something. Communicating with audiences is a priority of the organization, which is not the case even with commercial news outlets that have “publicity shops.”

Please take less than 4 minutes and watch this exchange on public television between Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press and respected news anchor Devin Scillian of WDIV-TV, who speaks with great candor about the state of political media this year. Scillian shares a lesson from journalism school that I remember too. We were taught how to make important stories interesting. Too often now, they struggle to make interesting stories important.

Ratings and clicks will always come first to commercial news owners. But trust must be in the same breath or the entire enterprise is at risk. Now is the time for news organizations to reflect as they plan for the future. They need to regain confidence to meet basic audience expectations. Just like other companies in crisis, PR tools can lead the way.

Social Silence Says It All

November 6th, 2016 by Don Tanner

Screen Shot 2016-11-06 at 6.30.56 PMMannequins – growing up these were a staple of department stores, standing forever motionless while sporting the latest fashions. In 1987, Andrew McCarthy fell for mannequin-come-to-life Kim Cattrall in the movie, “Mannequin”. Years later, Will Smith would stave off emotional distress by talking to mannequins in the post apocalyptic film, “I Am Legend”.  Traditionally odd if not downright scary, mannequins, in recent days, have instread become all the rage on social media – at least humans posing as these plastic people wanna-bes.

Purportedly started by high schoolers from Colony High School in Ontario, CA, the craze has come to be known as the “Mannequin Challenge” with its own hashtag: #mannequinchallenge.  What is it, exactly? Put simply, groups of individuals filming themselves in a range of “frozen” poses who then post their mini-videos online. High schoolers, college students and, more and more, collegiate and professional sports teams have all been partaking in the fun. Not to be outdone, numerous sports announcers and sideline reporters have also been following suit. Even the crew of Fox’s “NFL Sunday” got into the act this morning complete with Terry Bradshaw in a faux-choke hold courtesy of a stationary Howie Long.

Unlike the “Ice Bucket Challenge” which raised awareness of and funds for ALS research, the mannequin movement at large has not (yet?) been affiliated with a  charity nor a particular cause. Rather, this latest activity appears to have more in common with the former fad of planking, albeit without the dangers settings and environments. So, what, then is the point?

The point here may be that there is no point. To date, in fact, it has all been nothing but good old fashioned fun. Stop the press - a social media endeavor without pressure or shaming or competition? Actions that promote cooperation, team-building, creativity and good old fashioned fun? The mannequin craze has resonated with millions because it is non-promotional, authentic, real. It works because it is genuine and the exact reason why marketers cannot merely create such an initiative on a drawing board and expect it to take flight.

They also say timing is everything. Leave it to our next generation to delivery to our society exactly what it could use right now: a sense of community and humor. And maybe even a message to stop for a moment and smell the roses. It all is very ironic, isn’t it? Promoting humanity by imitating display things who purportedly have none. Who are the real dummies here?

An Open Letter To Dr. Meeting Blowoff

November 6th, 2016 by Matt Friedman

UnknownDear Dr. Blowoff,

Since you didn’t have the guts to call me yourself after you failed to show up for our scheduled meeting this past week, I have no choice but to call out your behavior in this forum.

First, though, allow me to recap how we got to the point in which I was sitting in your empty waiting room at 7 a.m. being told by your staff, “I’m sure he’s on his way,” as they have been obviously trained to do when you’re late.

In August, a mutual contact offered to get us together to talk about your business plans beyond your medical practice. Tanner Friedman has extensive niche experience in health care business communications, so that certainly made sense. I was asked to provide available dates for a meeting and I provided several of them. Unfortunately, none of them worked for you and your “busy schedule.”

Two months later, I was told you were finally ready to meet and could do so at the time of my choosing, as long as it was 4 p.m. on Friday, the following day, or sometime on Saturday. I told our mutual contact that’s a giant red flag in our book. Someone who can only be available, after two months, on short notice outside of business hours, was not going to be a good client for us. This was clearly not a crisis management project, where we can throw typical schedules out the window. We need access to clients. So, thanks but no thanks.

A few minutes later, though, a call came from your secretary. “The doctor really wants to meet with you,” she said, “But he can only do it at 7 a.m. on Wednesday in his Ferndale office.” “The only time?,” I asked. “Yes,” she said. “Please just meet with him,” our mutual contact had asked. “OK,” I said. I received an Outlook confirmation from your assistant minutes later.

Wednesday morning, I woke up early, answered client emails at 6am and drove 30 minutes completely out of my way to your office to be there at the time you demanded. But you didn’t show up. The staff on-site didn’t bat an eye. One worker did say “I’m sorry” and I said “It’s not your fault, it’s his fault.” She nodded in agreement, as if she had heard that one before.

Several hours later, your assistant called. She claims it was her fault, that I shouldn’t blame you for her “scheduling mixup.” It sounded like she was lying through her teeth. I told her that I couldn’t imagine doing business with someone who treats people this way. She didn’t argue. I explained that we have standards with whom to do business and this doesn’t meet them. That was that.

Doctor, you have a medical degree, meaning at some point in your academic career, you were good at science. It doesn’t make you omnipotent. It doesn’t exempt you from the rules of business etiquette. And it doesn’t require me to kiss your rear end.

Tanner Friedman was built on values and nearly 10 years later, they, not you, dictate how we operate and with whom we work. Chief among them is mutual respect, something you clearly don’t understand.

To paraphrase the business philosopher Taylor Swift, we are never, ever, ever doing business together.

Have A Nice Day,

Matt Friedman

Into the Wild Blue Yonder

October 27th, 2016 by Don Tanner

Read the rest of this entry »

2016 PRSA International Conference Delivers

October 23rd, 2016 by Don Tanner

Screen Shot 2016-10-23 at 4.49.49 PMAs the PRSA (Public Relations Society of America) 2016 International Conference carries on in Indianapolis through Tuesday, I have just returned home after four days and 32 hours of conference and travel time over its first couple of days.  And despite what you might think of PRSA National, it was time very, very well spent.  Allow me to elaborate.

An organization’s defining of and delivering on its value proposition is crucial – to delivering on its promise and mission and in retaining members.  And, it is no secret that the governing body at PRSA National has been called out in recent years on exactly that. What do our dues go toward? How are we, as PR practitioners and as Chapters, Sections and Districts benefiting from the affiliation?

Jay Starr, who is National’s head of Membership, was loudly called out on this dynamic during the conference Leadership Rally on Friday. To his credit, he kept his cool, explained that new tools and resources were coming and then delivered on this promise during Saturday’s General Assembly.  Announced were new online tools and templates for easily and cost-effectively creating new websites, award programs and direct mail and e-mail campaigns; a new, responsive, intuitive and informational website (with accompanying app); and a new e-portal (MyPRSA) which allows members the ability to share and discuss news, information, challenges and best practices. All look outstanding.

In addition to learning what is here and what is become, the conference serves as an ideal connector for PR leadership from across the country, as I spent time with numerous Chapter heads from everywhere from New York and Chicago to Atlanta and Silicon Valley.  I was also provided with a greater awareness of and connection point for the wide range of “Sections” that allow for staying in-touch with others in specific areas of focus throughout the year and from across the country.

In 2016, I am happy to say, my time both out of the office during the week and throughout the weekend in Indianapolis was very well spent; as an organization I and other members often had our doubts about listened, stepped up at the highest levels and actually did what they said they were going to do. And, what needed to be done – for this profession and for those who are carrying it forward.

Election Talk Doesn’t Have To Be Boring

October 23rd, 2016 by Matt Friedman

boring-content1This past week, there was actually a radio show that analyzed the third Presidential Debate without screaming, name-calling or, maybe best yet, no recitation of campaign talking points from predictable voices.

The show was Detroit Today on public WDET-FM and you can listen via this link to hear what it sounded like. It was a privilege to be a part of an independent on-air panel and the audience seemed to appreciate hearing far more than what it has come to expect from guests who represent the major parties, typically armed with the party lines and purely political perspectives.

Therein lies the problem as a consumer of media during this election. So much of it has been so predictable. From this vantage point, that has long been a characteristic of political talk, where predictable can turn, in an instant, to boring.

“Hmmmm… what’s Rush Limbaugh going to say today? Oh that’s right, Republicans are good. Democrats are bad. Got it.” “What’s Rachel Maddow talking about tonight? Oh ya, Liberals are correct, Conservatives are wrong. OK.” While there’s a proven business model behind the always-take-one-side content approach, for those of us looking some cognitive challenge this time of the year, it can be hard to find.

That extends across all platforms. By now, each of us on social media has figured out where our contacts stand. Their posts have become flat boring. But nothing seems more predictable and boring than some of CNN’s punditry. In the name of “balance,” they are paying political types who have essentially become actors to recite campaign talking points on their set. It’s an quick-grab of the remote every time Jeffrey Lord, for example, is called upon to deliver his rehearsed and well-compensated lines.

I’m hearing what you are from those who know that they are “sick” of the election and “can’t wait for it to be over.” But media consumption levels are telling a different story. Ratings for news are up, clicks online are up and the election is The Story. So here are a few suggestions of places where you can get your election fix, give your brain a workout, and avoid boring content and paid acting:

-Sirius-XM POTUS Channel (124) – This is a political talk channel without a political agenda. If we didn’t have it, we’d want someone to invent it. I have been avidly listening since just before the Conventions this summer, after being an occasional button pusher the past few years. Particularly recommended are Tim Farley’s “Morning Briefing” in the early morning and Michael Smerconish’s show in the late morning (his trademark theme song is the ’70s Stealers Wheel one hit wonder “Stuck In The Middle”).

-The Axe Files – The podcast from former Democratic strategist David Axelrod is civil, insightful, multi-partisan interview and conversation. It’s simply worth your time.

-NPR – It’s often lumped into the “liberal media” category, probably more because of its audience than anything else. But take it from someone with a discriminating ear who spends a lot of time in the car, thorough political conversation has been paramount this year. Even the daily campaign news is put into context through on-site reporting. Locally in Michigan, the aforementioned “Detroit Today” and Michigan Radio’s “Stateside” talk shows are fair and, most importantly, interesting. NPR credits the election for a ratings bump.

If you’re interested in echo chambers that just tell you over and over again what you want to hear, I can’t help you. But there are a few options for those seeking something different for the coming weeks.