Archive for the ‘current events’ Category

Before Sears Disappears, Catalog Your PR

Sunday, March 26th, 2017

Sears_1969_logoNews this past week that Sears may have trouble staying in business beyond the immediate future shouldn’t make you think of just retail. It should also get you thinking about your business.

If when you heard the news about Sears you thought “Sears? Are they still around?,” you weren’t alone. And if you have anything to say about the communications and marketing where you work, you should consider that question the worst case scenario for your business, whether it’s a professional services firm, a nonprofit organization, a manufacturer, a health care entity or even a media company. Examples on a weekly basis prove that the key to business success is relevance.

PR strategy conversations with clients have changed significantly over the last decade. It used to be “How can we get you media attention?” Now, it’s “How can we help you stay in front of your audiences?” Sometimes, that includes news coverage, if situations warrant. But, always, it’s about communicating to audiences proactively about who you are, what you do and how you’re different, in a variety of ways, across multiple platforms. Think about what you’re doing. If it’s like Sears, just being there at the end of the mall hoping customers would come in while resting on the historical value of your brand, that’s just not going to work.

Business challenges don’t develop overnight. Don’t believe those who tell you that Amazon alone is forcing Sears out of business. Sears has been in this spiral for decades. Personally, I haven’t set foot in one of their stores in more than 20 years, after an all-time customer service debacle about which nobody from the company seemed to care. When we walk into organizations suffering reputation challenges, it’s rarely just “one thing” that causes a situation. Often, brands are the victims of collective negligence. When merely surviving becomes a top priority, things like service and PR just don’t get done and cause the company increasing levels of harm.

“I didn’t know you were still in business” is something you never want your audiences to say. Communicate to them, engage with them and that’s something you’ll never have to hear.

Fake News: It’s Not A Real Epidemic

Sunday, March 12th, 2017

unnamedWe got an email this week from a respected college professor putting together a PR conference. The question was simple, “Do you know of anybody willing to talk about being bitten by fake news?”

The answer, from our end, was also simple. We don’t. That is because there is no “epidemic of fake news” in the day-to-day world of PR.

To explain, let us please agree on the definition of “fake news.” What we are talking about in this post is the disguising of fictional content, using familiar people’s names, on websites that look like news sights but are created just to spread this fiction. It what, before the ease of sharing websites via social media, were called “hoaxes” or “urban legends.” We used to see this kind of stuff in the grocery store checkout lines in tabloids (the Weekly World News often featured front page “stories” about politicians and aliens) or, from our friends (who could talk to us even before Facebook), like when those of us of a certain age heard that Mikey from the Life cereal commercials died after mixing Pop Rocks candy with some sort of carbonated beverage.

What we are not talking about here is news coverage from a bona fide, commercially viable, familiarly-named outlet that does not paint the sitting President of the United States in a favorable light, in his opinion. We are also not talking about news coverage that includes errors in reporting.

Now that we have that straight, you can begin to understand the answer we gave the professor. The “fake news epidemic” has been limited to national politics. That has been the focal point of news consumption since last year and that is what is driving clicks online. That is where there is money to be made and attention to be had by the fraudsters online. This is not a phenomenon that is seriously impacting day-to-day business in the rest of the country. That is not to suggest that some sort of fabricated item that looks like news couldn’t show up online about the place where you work or a company with which you do business. The potential is there but the reality is not.

This is similar to the “supermarket tabloid” heyday. There was much more of a chance of a “fake” story about Carol Burnett getting drunk and getting into a verbal altercation with Henry Kissinger in The National Enquirer (that happened, resulting in a lawsuit) than anything about anyone not a celebrity. The reason is simple – celebrities (and diet tips) have always moved paper in grocery store lines, the way stories about the President and politics drive clicks now.

In every community in the country at certainly at the national level, both the news and PR businesses are facing some serious issues and challenges. But, for the vast majority of us, today, this just is not one of them.

How “The Trump Factor” Affects Your PR

Sunday, February 26th, 2017

pie-chart1It was going to be tough enough to try to get media attention in 2017. The news workforce is smaller, yet again, than it was last year. A new administration in The White House always takes its share of news coverage in every level, as change is explored widely. But this year, if you work in or with PR, consider how “The Trump Factor” means a smaller piece of a shrinking pie for everyone else.

Almost no matter what type of PR you work in, it’s more of a challenge than ever to get coverage without a “Trump angle,” or at least a government/politics angle. It’s the pervasive conversation in our country and in our current events discourse now and for the foreseeable future. Also, news consumers are eating it up. Don’t listen to those who say they’re sick of it and staying away. From everything we hear from those who monitor analytics inside news organizations, the bump in news content consumption that started during the election season has not waned. The most successful pitch efforts many days will include at least a nugget to get the politically hungry something to chew on.

Depending on your point of view, the current President is either an insatiable seeker of attention in the world’s most high-profile job or an intriguing personality making waves by affecting change. Even if you’re somewhere in between, you can’t deny that he has attracted more attention (or diverted it) in ways never seen before. The fact is there will be less attention for whatever your organization thinks it deserves.

If you work in PR, you should be having an honest conversation with your clients or your bosses about the news realities, which have changed even more in the last few weeks. What you thought may have been news in your 2017 planning may not be news anymore, or at least maybe not in the same way. It may be time to think about other ways of reaching your audiences with your messages. Or it may be time to determine your organization’s government/politics angle, based on how proposed or enacted policies affect you (it doesn’t have to mean taking sides, but it could).

What you can’t do is pretend this isn’t happening. Sure, there are morning TV slow slots for in-studio features. There’s still the sports section. There are exceptions. But, by and large, unless you have journalists assigned to covering your business or your industry who are separate from those who cover government and policy, for now, at least, this is likely your reality.

The Leaky Workplace Reflects Culture

Sunday, February 12th, 2017

leaky-bucket-thumb-400x427-536For those who try to read news stories closely, trying to figure how and why they come together, the past few weeks have been a case study in leaks. So much news coverage of The White House, not political analysis or opinion, but the actual reporting by those on the beat, has been driven by anonymous sources from the inside. Leaks have long been the stock-in-trade of political reporting, and business reporting for that matter. But the quantity of leaks, the consistency of them and the fact that there seem to be so many, so early, has led questions to come our way wondering what it all means.

We can’t pretend to psychoanalyze people we don’t know in an environment we have never worked. But, from first-hand experience, we have learned that deliberate leaks to journalists can be a reflection of workplace culture. In times of anxiety, we see leaks. But we especially see them when employees feel like they no longer have a voice and that leads to resentment toward top management.

A case in point is a client I worked with in the late ’90s. One of the underlying issues that ultimately resulted in monumental PR challenges for that company was serious tension between top corporate leadership and the company’s workforce. When the company had a phone conference – a single phone conference – to discuss whether to begin what would have been a lengthy process of due diligence that may have led to merger talks with a competitor, a leak made it news. Just days later, AOL and Time Warner announced a merger that had been kept a complete secret before its official announcement. The difference was as simple as cultures.

We have seen many other examples over the years, as texts and social media have enabled and empowered leakers. I once received a text from a reporter asking about something that had been tipped to him via text from a participant in a meeting, among people who weren’t getting along, that was still going on. Another client CEO who fostered dysfunction, whose emails were routinely published in news stories, asked “Don’t they know those are internal communications?” There’s no such thing when your direct-reports who feel alienated have access to the “forward” button.

A few years ago, an organization hired us to design a communications schematic to prevent leaks from occurring, as a piece of news needed to be communicated with precision. That foresight allowed the news to be broken on the organization’s preferred terms. That’s something every organization should consider in times of sensitivity.

If you’re concerned about leaks where you work, don’t blame reporters who are trying to do their job. Think about how to build trust on the inside. That will prevent those who have access to information from trying to turn to the outside.

New Business To-Do List Item May Have To Be Taking A Stand

Sunday, February 5th, 2017

Once upon a time, say, a few weeks ago, a business could take its time decidingA road sign with the word Choose and arrows pointing left and right whether or not it made sense to take a public stand, internally and/or externally, on a political or social issue. But events of recent weeks prove that you need to be ready now, in case a sensitive issue develops quickly.

In the wake of a White House Executive Order and the subsequent reaction, I had the privilege of representing my Tanner Friedman colleagues talking about these complex and emerging business communications trends with interviews in both the Associated Press and CBS News in recent days, both of which resulted in stories that appeared from coast-to-coast and across the Internet.

Your business now needs to be prepared by having a deeper understanding of your customers than ever before and how they think, feel and react when it comes to your brand and the issues that are in the news. One of our clients recently researched 1300 consumers to get to know their customer better. But even if you can’t spare that type of expense, you should still feel an imperative to know their attitudes about your company, the role it plays in their lives and why they choose your brand. If it comes time to communicate a stance on a politically-charged issue, you and they will know if you’re acting for them in mind.

When it comes to the issue of immigration, Uber, by removing its CEO from a Presidential advisory committee, took into consideration that its customer is younger and more urban than most of America. That affects how the company is viewed in light of that issue. A company targeting rural, older consumers may have made a different decision, based on what is known about public opinion on that and other issues.

The other group to consider is your workforce. Several tech companies, which operate across borders and employ immigrants on work visas, spoke out early against the Order. Other companies less affected first-hand chose the same course after making a decision based on values. Many companies, of course, have chosen to stay quiet, not wanting to get into this mix and upset anyone.

Regardless of the decision a company chooses, events of recent weeks have proven that these decisions may have to be made quickly, without the luxury of long deliberation between executives, PR counsel, government affairs and lawyers. Regardless of the size of your business, it’s something every company should be thinking about now. How do looming government decisions affect our company and our workforce?

If you’re worried about taking a risk, one way or the other, think of the companies that risked ridicule from the President of the United States. Think of your customers and employees. Do they expect you to take a side? As I told the AP in another story this week, “No company has gone out of business putting their customers and employees first.”

White House Diatribe Worse For PR Than It Is For Media

Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

Sean_Spicer_White_House_(unofficial_press_meeting_2017)It’s impossible to do PR analysis of brand new Presidential spokesman Sean Spicer’s Saturday evening press briefing. That’s because it wasn’t PR. It was a diatribe that reeked of fascist-style propaganda, in tone and in content. Watch it here, unfiltered, to see for yourself.

As a media and PR fan, I have avidly watched and listened to press briefings for more than 25 years, when early versions of cable news showed them during the Gulf War. I have been particularly curious about how White House and other high-profile government spokespeople conduct themselves in front of the public, via the media. It is an extremely difficult job that requires preparation on an incredibly wide range of issues and daily updates. It is different from corporate communications work, but nonetheless interesting. Lest you accuse me of some sort of political bias (it happened just last week), on the Republican side, I learned a few things from watching and listening to Ari Fleischer and even paid to see Karen Hughes speak. On the Democratic side, I sat with Mike McCurry at dinner one night during a communications conference, impressed with his skill and smarts, and have listened to Josh Earnest’s briefings on satellite radio, appreciating his calm demeanor. That’s just to name a few on “both sides.”

All that means I think I write with some authority when I write that Sean Spicer and, during the campaign, Kellyanne Conway do not represent the PR business in this country. They represent Donald Trump, as Spicer would have said last night, “Period.” But their behavior and pattern of untruths – far beyond the typical (and often historically reprehensible) political “spin” and purported contempt for journalists hurts PR professionals who are expected to follow a code of ethics, widely, and that’s troubling.

What they do is as close to day-to-day PR as “Miami Vice” is to your local suburban police department. But, this is the only form PR that most Americans, even educated business people, see publicly. We are a business that, unfortunately, has worked very hard to deserve a reputation of sleaze. The marketplace doesn’t trust us to be fair our fees, after generations of gouging, and, too often, doesn’t think it needs our services because potential clients think they can communicate better themselves than the “spin doctors” of the world. What happened Saturday night makes this worse.

President Trump, via Spicer, apparently wanted to fire a salvo in his self-described “war” against the media. A consequence of that action is to hurt those of us who are just trying to sell communications services and counsel to businesses and organizations who have the potential to be more successful working with us, in order to make an honest living in this country.

Here’s What Happens When You Get Retweeted By Ron Fournier & Brian Stelter

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

29zfZY6IAs someone who advises clients on the impact of social media, I’m the one getting a lesson now.

It started late Saturday night, just after the football playoff game ended and the Saturday Night Live open began, when some news broke of great interest to me. Esquire reported that Trump transition officials, calling the White House Press Corps “the opposition party,” are considering essentially kicking the press out of the building.

As someone who has made a living because of the privileges afforded by the First Amendment for my entire career, I feel strongly about not infringing on our Constitution’s paramount principles as much as any value I cherish. I try to look for ways to communicate that feeling to those outside of the communications business, so they too don’t take this for granted. I have also taken advantage of many public speaking opportunities to talk about the difference between public entities and private businesses and how they should handle PR. So, in true modern-day form, I took to Twitter.

With this post, I tweeted, with a link to the Esquire story, “We, as citizens, own The White House. The Press Corps keeps an eye on the place for us.”

I write this 16 hours later and more than 40,000 Twitter users have seen this and hundreds have chosen to react to it, let’s just say, a variety of ways. That’s thanks to retweets from the likes of Ron Fournier, a former national journalist and new publisher/editor of Crain’s Detroit Business (full disclosure: I know Ron “in real life”) and Brian Stelter, a CNN journalist who covers the media itself and, subsequently, by Henry Blodget of Business Insider, who has more than 100,000 followers.

Want to know what’s it’s like on Twitter for someone who, even for a day, attracts a large following (on my own, I’m about 2,000)? Here’s a sampling of the responses, verbatim:

“Nobody has a more inflated view of themselves than journalists.”

“how about sexoffenders aren’t aloud to live in gov’t housing! This is a law the #DOJ should be using now!”

“Unfortunately the press corpse “eyes” have been shut tight over the last 8 years and have lost credibility”

“The press largely try to decide who we put in our WH. It’s that agenda that has lowered the esteem of journalism.”

“The lying FAKE NEWS is dead. We get our news directly from TRUMP. Journalism is dead! Gave Obama’s lies a pass.”

“I didn’t appreciate it at all, when Obama’s flooded OUR house with rainbow colors, celebrating gayness. Wrong!”

“We should demand his resignation this is a slap in the face of everything we stand for. It’s been there since T Roosevelt admin!”

“to bad you didn’t feel that way when Obama was in office.”

“Trump is a dictator commie pinko fascist.”

“ejecting the failing propaganda will be good for the american people!”

“It’s ok. Bc wall, or jobs or something. Who knows”

“Put them outside in a cold tent.”

“Press has thoroughly discredited itself. Until they earn people’s trust back, most are self-serving fake poseurs.”

“No, they don’t. They’re partisan hacks. If moving to a different room gives them so much agita, they’re coddled brats”

“Actually, you, the citizens, hired Trump to keep an eye on it.”

Is any of this representative of anything? The only certainty is that this has to be a challenge for anyone who has to wade through this every day. We have to remember that the First Amendment protects all of the above comments.

No matter your perspective on this particular issue, it’s an important reminder that all of us who depend on the First Amendment must be aware and speak up about threats to it, especially from the highest levels of our government.

Celebrity Death Trend Goes Far Beyond 2016

Tuesday, December 27th, 2016

690_oak_3d_2017_half_2016As has been written here before, nothing gets traditional and social media going like celebrity deaths. In an era of media done on the cheap, it’s an easy story to tell. In an era of lowest common denominator connections, it’s an easy story to share. This is all natural.

With respect for those who have felt emotionally stung by the death of a celebrity or multiple celebrities, I apologize if this message may be received as insensitive, but, as always, the goal here is to explain.

The popular narrative that seems to suggest that with the turn of the calendar, some sort of anomaly of celebrity deaths will come to an end appears to be driven by factors ranging from wishful thinking to online snark to flat-out ignorance. Celebrities will continue to die in what seems like large numbers because, quite simply, the evolution of media over the past five decades has simply created an enormous number of celebrities.

Once, there were just movie stars, radio stars and politicians, with maybe a few “stars of stage and screen” thrown in. Then, there were TV stars layered on top of that. Then, music expanded, creating rock stars, pop stars, soul stars, rap stars, country stars, jazz stars and opera stars (just look at the sheer volume of #1 hitmakers – it’s staggering). Then, TV expanded creating shows on dozens of channels of genres. Sports expanded, creating star legacies in new markets and in new sports, along with champion players and coaches every year. And so on and so on, to the point today where there are reality show stars, YouTube stars and household names that nobody in your household has ever heard of.

When the celebrity era really stared booming, with the proliferation of TV and the segmentation of music, those who became stars in their 20s and 30s are now in their 70s and 80s. The average life expectancy in the U.S. now is 78.74 years. So what is the chance of someone famous dying tomorrow? Pretty good.

Yes, some music icons died much younger. The reality is, sooner or later, living the way many of them chose to live is going to take a toll. It’s just not because of the year on the calendar.

Another factor is that the celebrities of the World War Two generation have mostly already died. So those who are remembered by Boomers and GenXers are now starting to die. That, in part, makes it seem like more celebrities are dying because we all tend to pay more attention to news that feels relevant to us.

The fact is that celebrity deaths won’t stop in just a few days. Losing an “all time great” or “all time favorite” will be commonplace, but still news, in 2017 and for the foreseeable future.

A TV Guy Helps Radio Break Its Losing Streak

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016

UnknownSometimes, being a fan of radio feels like rooting for a perennially losing sports team, decades removed from its glory years. The wins haven’t come often and when they do, you have to savor them. Now is one of those times.

This example of a victory for commercial, terrestrial radio is WJR-AM in Detroit, billed as “The Great Voice of The Great Lakes.” The station’s 50,000 watt signal can be heard in 38 states and much of Canada. In its heyday, it was a powerhouse of local flavor, national-caliber hosts and billings, lots and lots of bills. But under corporate ownership, the past decade has seen the station shrink, like just about every other across the country. While the station boasts strong talk personalities Paul W. Smith, Frank Beckmann and Mitch Albom, much of the airtime is taken up by syndicated national programming or paid shows.

WJR’s current owner, Cumulus, though, seems to be emerging from bankruptcy with the beginnings of a plan to stay out of it. Unlike others that have cut and then cut and then cut some more, giving new listeners hardly a reason to tune in, WJR is showing signs of investment. It bid on and won the rights to Detroit Lions broadcasts for this season. And now, they are dumping a nationally syndicated political show, Michael Savage, and hiring a trusted, proven local voice, really a household name, to host a daily, local news talk show. (Details in this Crain’s Detroit Business story, featuring Tanner Friedman analysis).

Guy Gordon is a professional news broadcaster. Prepared, polished, inquisitive and fair, Gordon has spent more than 30 years on Detroit TV. I competed against him when he was at WXYZ-TV (his 6pm newscast and the one I produced at WDIV-TV were neck and neck in the ratings, but we eeked it out more nights than not) and I have worked on stories with him at both WXYZ-TV and since his move to WDIV-TV over the past 18+ years. He asks great questions and tells great stories, with high respect for the audience. For the past two years, he has filled in as a host on WJR and has made it sound easy.

For now, Guy will be on 3pm to 5pm but I hear that could expand once syndicated programming contracts expire. Cumulus wants WJR to be more local and it’s a safe bet that advertisers and listeners will respond well to this void being filled. When was the last time we could say a station like this had something new to sell that customers actually want, not settle for? There just aren’t many places for news that emerges during the day to be explored on the air for commuters and even time-shifted podcast listeners. Guy’s reputation and Rolodex will mean his show will be a go-to place for newsmakers to talk beyond the headlines by answering his questions.

This is something for other radio stations and their owners to consider. What are you doing, other than cutting salaries, to sustain, or maybe even grow, your business? What investments in product could lead to more audience and more ad dollars?

Newspapers, you’re due for a win too. There’s something to think about here.

Nobody Needs PR Now Like News Organizations

Wednesday, November 9th, 2016

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.