Archive for October, 2013

Just Because You Have A Good Story, Doesn’t Mean You Have News. But That’s OK

Monday, October 28th, 2013

storytime1Fundamentally, we say our business is about helping our clients tell their stories and deliver their messages to the audiences that are important to them, to support their business objectives. We are fortunate to work with clients who have some really good stories and they entrust us to help use those stories to build their brands and drive toward their business goals.

We often counsel clients on how to formulate and tell a good story. But it’s important to remember, as we have to remind clients now more than ever, that not every good story is a news story. That was even true in the days of 12-page sections in two daily newspapers per day and is especially true now, after the Great Recession has left behind much smaller news organizations at every level.

Also, if you have a dominant, long-term story like we do in the Detroit area with the City of Detroit’s municipal government bankruptcy, it means fewer stories than ever will make it into news coverage. Last week, Columbia Journalism Review studied the Detroit newspapers’ coverage of the bankruptcy and reported that at the Detroit Free Press, “To coordinate it all, the Free Press holds meetings on the bankruptcy story every Tuesday afternoon, with 20 or 30 people in attendance. ‘Everyone from the food critic on down is expected to contribute if they have a story.’” Yes, the bankruptcy even limits the amount of time and space that can be spent on stories about restaurants. It has impacted the coverage of everything expect perhaps sports.

In order to get news coverage, you have to identify and communicate bona fide news. PR professionals should not be expected to “talk to your friends in the media” or “spin a story” anymore. Instead of trying to live up to those inaccurate stereotypes, we can work with our clients to determine what about them is actually new (that is the basis of the word “news”), what is prominent, what is part of a trend or what expertise is within the client could be helpful to coverage of news that is already on the traditional media agenda.

Anything that doesn’t fit into the category of news can and should absolutely be communicated. Every organization has more storytelling tools than ever at the ready, if it chooses to use them. These are tools that can also shape opinion and drive results. This includes social media (as long as it is one tool of several), your website, video, e-newsletters, events and so many others.

Sure, it used to seem easy to think you could just send out a press release and someone at a news outlet would “pick it up” (in reality, it really wasn’t that easy). Now, and probably forever, to make it into news coverage, you have to have news. But to communicate, you just need a compelling story.

A Homecoming

Monday, October 28th, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-10-28 at 11.33.49 AMAuthor Thomas Wolfe quite famously wrote: “You can’t go home again.”  As I write this week’s blog I am at Chicago’s O’Hare airport awaiting a flight to my current residence of more than 30 years; my adopted home of Detroit.  This past weekend, I had the good fortune to renew acquaintances with my native town, Champaign, Illinois and, even more notably, a friend I have not seen in more than 20 years. Wolfe is dead wrong.

Homecoming weekend, aptly enough, pitted my alma mater the Fighting Illini of the University of Illinois, against my youngest daughter’s current school, Michigan State. And while the game was quite painful for me to watch in windy 50-degree conditions (Illinois lost 42-3), it allowed me the opportunity to reconnect with a friend from high school and college that I literally had not seen since he stood up at my wedding 22-plus years ago (and I at his a month or two prior to that). The experience was like opening up a time capsule of experiences – and finished sentences.

They say when you are married long enough you start to finish each other’s thoughts. But that dynamic is not just limited to the betrothed. “What gate do we enter for our seats?” my friend asked. “226 I answered.” “220-221, whatever it takes,” he intoned back, a reference to a line regarding voltage from Michael Keaton in the movie “Mr. Mom” that I totally got (and someone else I had used the line on in recent days had not).  Our time together broke the seal on a vault of positive shared memories that touched on everything from school to recreation to pop culture; still as fresh as the day they occurred.

When you’ve lived away from your roots for so long, with day-to-day and year-to-year responsibilities getting in the way of staying in touch, it is easy to lose sight of how important a role some individuals have played in your life.  The afternoon refreshed my brain cells and reminded me how often many of my fondest memories, from a teenager to my early 20s, involved this particular individual and other friends I am no longer in touch with, save perhaps the occasional Facebook post or IM.  You can go home again, all right – and should more often.

The Gas Station’s Out Of Gas: A Communications Case

Monday, October 21st, 2013

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASometimes an everyday encounter can teach you something about communications.

Case in point – a trip to the gas station the other night. I pulled my car up to the pump, got out, swiped the card, typed in my zip code, selected my choice of fuel, put the spigot in the car and pulled the lever. No gas came out.

I tried the whole process again and again, but nothing. I figured the pump must be broken so I cancelled the transaction, drove around to another pump and tried it all over and again, nothing. I began to wonder at that point if maybe there was something going on with the gas station. I looked around at all of the pumps and didn’t see any signs or even scribbled pieces of paper taped to pumps. The clerk inside hadn’t said anything over the PA system while I went from pump to pump. Finally, after apparently reading the frustration on my face and with my body language, a woman in another car pulled down her window to tell me “they’re out of gas.”

How often do we see something like this – a business not communicating to its customers? Unfortunately, it happens all the time. My educated guess is that there’s no process in place at that business to let customers know when something like this happens. Instead of communicating, the clerk inside just sells sugary drinks, junk food and rolling papers while customers get frustrated outside. The “it’s not my problem” attitude prevails.

So think about your business. What’s your equivalent of your gas station being out of gas? What’s supposed to happen in the event of that scenario? Who is responsible? What are the chances of your plan, if there is one, actually being implemented? If not, you’ll make it really easy for customers to drive down the street.

Jim Leyland Retires – Who, What Is Next?

Monday, October 21st, 2013

MLB: Spring Training-Detroit Tigers at Atlanta BravesAnd so it is official.  After much speculation over the weekend and earlier this morning, Detroit Tigers Jim Leyland has announced his retirement from the field. According to the press conference with Jim and GM Dave Dombrowski (which is continuing as I type), he will remain with the organization in some sort of still to be defined front office capacity.

After 8 years, two American League pennants and two World Series appearances, Leyland indicated that, at 69 years of age, he’s ‘running on empty’ – ready to leave the travel and pressure behind. A clearly emotional Leyland also showed a bit of humor at the media gathering the morning, sharing a ‘funny’ involving his wife, church, flatulence and a faulty hearing aid. It was welcome comedy relief from a man with a typically stoic if not, as he put it ‘grumpy’ demeanor with the press.

Leyland’s rare showing of personality, no doubt borne of relief and coping necessity, stood in sharp contrast to his typical stone faced approach over the years during pre- and post-game interviews (tears aside).  It almost begs the question: What will the Tiger’s new skipper be like and what would we, as fans, like to see in that individual?

Besides managerial competence, which Leyland clearly has possessed during his successful 22 year run, a more day-to-day personable approach would be a welcome change. Baseball is serious business yet isn’t it also supposed to be fun? At the same time, while Leyland often cites his appreciation of the fans, his loyalty to certain players over the years did not always guarantee the best on-the-field product for those fans.

Through it all, Jim Leyland always exhibited class, decorum and almost a sixth-sense with knowing what strategic player moves to make between the white lines and when. One would hope, then, that his replacement, while bringing a new background and personality to the Tigers equation, will also possess at least some of Jim Leyland’s attributes that many of us admired so much.

Kilpatrick To Learn The Hard Way

Sunday, October 6th, 2013

jail-cartoonThis week, the long sorry tale of Kwame Kilpatrick should finally have an ending; and it will be anything but storybook for the disgraced former mayor.  Too easy to take potshots? Everything already been written and said? As an adversity management case study, it is certainly worth another look.

It is almost hard to believe it has been nearly 6 years since Kilpatrick and his wife Carlita took to the airwaves for a televised message of supposed contrition for the texting and perjury scandal. Of course, this was long before Kilpatrick would stand once again before the court for serious federal charges of corruption that could see him behind bars for the next quarter century – or more.  Back then, he largely blamed the media for his woes.

Since that time and through it all, Kilpatrick has remained defiant; doing absolutely nothing to help himself either in the court of public opinion or, more importantly for him, in a court of law. Acting only in a manner consistent with his years in office, his failure to pay restitution coupled with his attempt at hiding a monetary gift served only to extend his time in an orange jump suit.  Legal mis-maneuvering , further, including an attempt to secure time off for a knee injury, have only served to cement his pathetic position in the pantheon of political pariahs.

Early in the federal trial process, Kilpatrick was offered a 15-year plea deal for an admission of guilt.  Since found guilty after refusing that deal, and facing twice that time when he is sentenced on Tuesday, Kilpatrick is now, ironically, asking the court for that same 15-year term. He doesn’t stand a chance. There’s no longer anyone to wheel and deal with. When one so egregiously takes advantage of the public trust, thumbs a nose at the legal system and selfishly refuses to take responsibility for one’s actions, you soon find you are alone and doomed. The past 6 years have taught Kwame Kilpatrick nothing.  Hard time may be just what he needs to truly reflect and, perhaps someday, repent.



The Government Shutdown PR Score Doesn’t Matter – Just End The Game

Sunday, October 6th, 2013

1_photoWho’s “winning” the Government Shutdown? Who cares?

Of course the members of Congress and their minions do, tracking the media coverage by the hour to see whose message is “breaking through.” Of course, the polling companies do, as they collect a bundle conducting surveys to please their clients of one party or the other. You can put the political campaign fundraisers in the same category. And the zealots glued to one cable “news” channel or the other probably care, as they view stalemate as a spectator sport.

But for the rest of us, the vast majority of the public, we don’t care about who “wins” and who “loses.” We just want to get the government back operating and want Congress to get to work to get over its dysfunction and solve problems they are constitutionally charged with working with the Executive Branch to fix (For starters, maybe the U.S. government’s debt? – your share alone is about $53,000).

No matter what the political PR types are telling those they are paid to consult, the public has a very low tolerance for disputes in which, essentially, everybody loses. In our careers, we have seen more than a few. A classic example is an airline pilots’ strike we worked on years ago. Before the strike, messages dueled and the public took sides. But when the strike shut down the airline for more than two weeks and customers missed weddings, births, funerals, vacations and business trips, the public couldn’t have cared less who “won.” They just wanted the airline back flying and nothing less that was acceptable.

Years later, we worked with a medical school in a public battle against a hospital system. After battling back-and-forth for months in the media, the community no longer could tolerate the dispute, didn’t care who was right and longed for a resolution. Our advice, for months, was for our client to be the first to suggest mediation, something the public understands as an example of above-board leadership and a step toward a settlement.

The classic example of this phenomenon was the first “millionaires versus billionaires” dispute – the Major League Baseball strike of 1994. Ask any fan now who remembers that and they’ll tell you the same thing – they didn’t care and don’t remember what the two sides were even fighting about. They just wanted to get it resolved and see them play ball.

This morning on NBC’s Meet The Press, fill-in host Savannah Guthrie asked Senator Rand Paul “Do all of you have any idea how totally disgusted American people are with these antics?” He gave a long politician answer that I’ll take as a “no.”

There’s only one way to end this PR crisis for both parties. End the crisis.

30 Years After The First Broadcast, One Thing Hasn’t Changed

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

189145_800549295934_7275092_n30 years ago this month, this is what network TV news looked like. Bonnie Tyler had the Number One song in America with this hit. And I began what would become my career in communications.

In October 1983, my parents dropped me off at a class at the community radio station in the town where I was very lucky to grow up, WBFH-FM, for a Saturday morning class called “Be A DJ.” While my friends slept in or watched TV, I got to learn how to cue up a record, put my voice on a “cart,” run an audio board and DJ a radio show. I was 11 years-old.

Because my parents wanted me off the couch and trying something that had interested me, they signed me up for that first class. That led to a regular show called “Middle School Spotlight” (where I’m sure I played Bonnie Tyler) and seven years of DJ shows (see photo from 1988), newscasting, reporting, talk show hosting and sports play-by-play at WBFH where, my senior year, I was Operations Manager. Along the way, I received advice and access from some of Metro Detroit’s top TV and radio broadcasters, who took an interest in what I was doing at WBFH. That collective experience led to Syracuse University, immediate work at WJPZ Radio, followed by a TV internship, a radio job, three TV jobs and the eventual career in PR and strategic communications.

The teacher of that first class was Pete Bowers, who, lucky for today’s aspiring communicators, is still the station manager of WBFH. He’s the one who showed me the most basic fundamentals of this career. Pete, as the first of many who have taught me over 30 years, represents what is so crucial to young people who want to enter and then grow within communications – mentorship is the most important factor to success.

Our business isn’t like many others. There are few barriers to entry. There is no licensing exam. To get started, you just need someone to believe in your skills and your potential, whether you’re in sixth grade or just out of college or somewhere in between. But the key is to be able to learn while doing – ideally from multiple mentors who can help you apply fundamentals to today’s communications challenges.

For those of us fortunate enough to have built a career in the never boring field of communications, we must teach what we know to those who are closer to the beginning of their careers than we are. In your workplace, make time for moments where you can not only lead by example, but make sure you share what you have learned and how it applies today. If possible, with your alma mater, seize opportunities to talk to classes and make yourself available for students who want to dig deeper. Encourage your company to interns and job shadows in your office.

At Tanner Friedman, we have worked to build a culture where we can learn from each other, sharing perspectives whenever possible with each other and our collaborators. We hope that spirit of “Be A DJ” never stops.

We no longer teach aspiring communicators how to cue up records. But, just like 30 years ago, it takes mentors to cue up careers.