Archive for the ‘newspapers’ Category

Time For Media to Rethink Customer Service

Monday, December 5th, 2016

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

Sunday, December 4th, 2016

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

Sunday, November 20th, 2016

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

Monday, November 14th, 2016

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

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.

Why PR Needs Newspapers

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

newspapersFor nearly 30 years, the Detroit market has served as something of a laboratory for the media business. Because of a joint operating agreement (JOA) that survived a challenge that went all of the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the two Detroit-based daily newspapers have survived a labor strike, multiple regional and national recessions and profound global changes in customer information consumption habits, while sharing business operations and maintaining editorial operations. Even with shrinking staffs and plunging revenues, the two “papers” (as they’re still called even though their primary focus has tilted toward their online products), still, for the most part, set the agenda for daily news coverage.

A new report by Crain’s Detroit Business reporter Bill Shea provides a potential reality check into the business of the JOA, suggesting that looming ownership changes at both the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News and an opt-out close that could take effect later this year could create more uncertainty about the papers’ futures.

We, in PR, despite the constant consolidation of the past decade, have benefitted greatly from having two daily, regional newspapers with statewide impact in print and often national impact online. As challenging as it is to get stories told in the mainstream media now, it is even tougher in markets with just one “daily” in a current form. Overall, two newspapers leads to better and deeper relationships for professionals who have the ability to develop them.

Other than paying for subscriptions and regularly providing compelling content, I’m not sure what else we can do. But, for all of us in PR in the Detroit area it’s in our best interest that these two outlets to survive and, if it’s possible, thrive for as long as possible. Elsewhere around the country, PR should have the same interest in viable newspapers, along with strong online-only news outlets, TV stations legitimately committed to news and radio stations that will do more than just read headlines.

But it’s about a lot more than just coverage for our clients. The fear of “bad press” can be a motivator for those in power, whether it be in politics, business, education or anywhere else where a case could be made that public trust matters. Sometimes, that fear is what ultimately compels those who would otherwise ignore a situation, or worse, to do the right thing. Without a fraction of that factor or, shudder to think, all of it, having fewer “news holes” would be the least of our challenges on this side of The Business.

“Je Suis Charlie” Fights Terrorism With Words

Sunday, January 11th, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 9.10.58 AMThis week’s terrorist acts in Paris, centered around the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hedbo, have once again underscored how misguided and outrageous acts perpetuated by proponents of radical Islam just really are. While bringing temporary fear, in the end they once again accomplished the very opposite of what they intended – serving instead to unite the world against them and their heinous acts.

Just consider the fallout for Charlie Hedbo.  Nothing can ever bring back those staffers so callously murdered.  Yet, once struggling with a typical circulation of 60,000 issues per run, the January 14th issue of the paper will see a million copies printed and distributed (and no doubt purchased and read worldwide) – thanks in no small part to donations of between $1-$2 million from the likes of the French government and Google’s press innovation fund. This money will also serve to assist with underwriting ongoing operations for the once fledgling media outlet.

Moreover, T-shirts, banners and signs showcasing the message: “Je Suis Charlie” (French for: “I am Charlie”) have gone viral across the globe, with celebrities, including NBA stars, publicly wearing t-shirts to communicate solidarity and support of freedom of speech, religion and thought.

The Charlie Hedbo incident is tragic but far from isolated. In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten sparked worldwide controversy and protests when it published 12 editorial cartoons depicting Muhammad.  A plot to firebomb the paper was even uncovered and foiled, yet, several hundred people still lost their lives in demonstrations and other acts of violence across the world. And, more famously, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, published back in 1988, instantly saw a bounty placed on the author’s head by the supreme leader of Iran.

Perhaps most importantly, in the wake of such terrorist actions, true Muslims and followers of Islam are speaking out publicly against those who would compromise their religion.  On Time.com this week, NBA Hall of Fame legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar put it well: “I and other Muslims long for…the day when these terrorists praising Mohammad or Allah’s name as they debase their actual teachings are instantly recognized as thugs disguising themselves as Muslims.”  Powerful words and further proof that through it all, the pen and virtue are truly the mightiest of weapons.

Media Maintains Focus on Malaysia Flight Mystery

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-03-16 at 11.53.44 AMAs investigators move through day nine in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, media coverage and speculation contained therein also continues at a feverish pace.  Is it too much? Is it at all inappropriate? Or, is it an important exercise in the quest for the truth and the fate of the 239 passengers on board? I would argue it is all of the above.

CNN and Fox News, in particular have been focusing the majority of their coverage on the mystery virtually around the clock – and it has often been riveting.  With a story that is baffling the aviation and national security agencies, let alone the world, it is difficult for many of us to look away. The theories are numerous and new information is trickling in almost continuously. Like the O.J. trial and 9-11, no one has seen anything like it.  We want to know more; we want to try to understand and solve the for now unsolvable.

Could a Boeing 777 be landed in a remote place?  What could a rapid descent or ascent portend? CNN continues to take us into a flight simulator to give us a glimpse and a sense. Former pilots, ambassadors, security analysts and aviation experts and reporters are all being trotted out to give their take, the New York Times largely among them.  It can make your head spin yet, as one talking head opined: In a case like this sometimes you need to throw a lot of possibilities out there as something is bound to eventually stick.

Yet, in theorizing what’s what, I feel greater caution should be exercised when it comes to pointing a finger at the flight crew, despite the fact that communications systems appear to have been deliberately turned off and evasive action taken. For now, none of us knows for sure what happened and, importantly, whether those initiatives were undertaken under duress.  The apparently liberal modus operandi of one of the crew members when it came to guests in the cockpit and the home flight simulator of another should not be fodder for indictment.

Yet, overall and as always in such a story of international importance and human interest, the national news media is at its finest.  In this case, holding a country to task for not being forthcoming, transparent or expedient in its efforts while continuing to report on what might have happened in order to figure out what ultimately did.

Traditional Media Still Draws A Crowd

Monday, February 10th, 2014

DRC Media Panel

Let’s play Jeopardy. I’ll take Media Myths for $200, Alex.

“Traditional media is dead. Old platforms are irrelevant.”

What are “things a self-proclaimed ‘social media guru’ would say?

Correct.

An event convened by the Detroit Regional Chamber today, which I had the privilege to moderate, proved that what we now call “traditional media” is alive and can still draw a crowd. The advice session on how to effectively get businesses into news stories sold out. WJBK-TV Planning Editor Al Johnson, Detroit Free Press Business Editor Christopher Kirkpatrick and Huffington Post Associate Editor Kate Abbey-Lambertz gave the packed room of businesspeople and communicators practical advice on how their news could turn into actual news.

The crowd is proof that despite profound economic and technological changes, we still trust journalism to provide us with information and we, as businesspeople, still see great value in having journalists tell our stories in credible news outlets. To do that, the panel offered candid advice on what is effective in the current environment. Here are some fundamental takeaways:

-The journalists all said that email is their primary means of evaluating story pitches and they must be “hooked” by the subject line and first line or two of the body of the email.

-An editor often isn’t the best person to approach about a story. Get to know the outlet and who covers what before pitching.

-Package the story in the context of the news – How does it make news? How is it part of a trend?

-”Fluff” in press releases might make bosses happy but it makes the job tougher for reporters and editors, who have to wade through it. Avoid unnecessary adjectives. Stick to the who, what, when, where, why and how of the story.

-Understand the medium – TV stories must be visual, business stories must be about business, web stories must invite clicks.

These media decision-makers understand that PR pitches can lead to compelling, newsworthy content. But everyone must do their jobs for that to happen. And, in PR, part of doing our job is understanding that these outlets still have audiences.

Personal Loss Sheds Light On A Media Loss

Monday, September 9th, 2013

obit_avA week ago, one of my favorite people and great characters and mentors in my life passed away. Rob was my second cousin, although, to make things easier I just referred to him as “my cousin in D.C.” and he referred to me as “my nephew.” Not even his larger-than-life persona could outdo leukemia. While I already miss him terribly, I can go online and look at this – an obituary written by his friend, the legendary writer John Feinstein, in The Washington Post. It is a perfect encapsulation of the man and allowed his story to be widely known in death, even though he never sought publicity in life.

But the only reason why my family can savor and share that public tribute is because my cousin’s story features prominence. I have realized in recent days that while death is a part of life and death is most certainly a part of news, very few individuals have their life stories told via the reach and relative permanence of traditional media anymore.

Across the country, papers and their websites still publish the funeral listings (which represent a revenue stream), but resource cuts at newspapers and the disappearance of many community news outlets mean many fewer obituaries that detail a person’s life and impact. While celebrity deaths gets more trending topics than just about anything on social media, the lives and deaths of people known only in our communities get less attention than ever.

What’s the way to fill this void? One example comes from a funeral home near us, The Ira Kaufman Chapel (full disclosure: the Chapel is a client of ours), installed a fixed camera to capture services and now offers families the opportunity to live stream and post videos of services, to help share their stories to those unable to attend funerals. They expect the idea to catch on for funerals of many faiths in the coming years.

Another opportunity to embrace new media in new ways to, as we often advise clients in the face of traditional media cutbacks, is tell your own stories. One way to honor a loved one’s life and share stories and memories with family, friends and the public, much as a newspaper obituary would have, is to post online video with photos and stories.

But you don’t have to wait until death to tell the stories of those important to you. Just ask many of my colleagues and friends over the years, who have heard of the the wisdom and wit of “my cousin in D.C.” while I shared anecdotes. For them as well as for me, the memories will continue.