Tag Archives: Commentary
Every now and then my email will suddenly become inundated with emails from friends and colleagues in the PR industry all emailing me one story. Before evening opening any one of these notes I know exactly what the content of the story will be — a story featuring some PR person doing something stupid.
Sometimes it’s just poor a quote or subtle reference to tension between PR and reporter but most likely it’s a full story focused squarely on something a PR person did to irk a reporter. For an industry dedicated to speaking with reporters on a daily basis, it’s a little ironic how paranoid we can be about ending up in a media story. I wonder if the people who juggle flaming sticks are equally amazed when someone in their field inadvertently sets themselves on fire.
The best story I’ve seen lately where a PR “pro” metaphorically set themselves ablaze was when Beyonce’s PR rep emailed the infamously snarky BuzzFeed to request they take down less-than-flattering photos of the superstar. (Note: I have no way of knowing exactly how the Beyonce issue was handled. All commentary below is not specific to any particular situation).
It’s a situation in which almost every PR pro has found themselves dealing with at one time or another. An important client calls up incredulous at what a media outlet has decided to publish and demands a change. Instead of taking a few minutes to think through how best to handle the request, the PR person does exactly what they were told and fires off an email to the outlet.
No one likes corrections. PR people don’t like asking for them, and reporters almost never like changing their story (unless it’s a simple mistake like misspelling a name). Because both sides aren’t going to enjoy the conversation, it’s human nature to avoid conflict and opt for email. This is a fundamental mistake on the PR person, especially when dealing with a publication that publishes stories incessantly and on almost any topic.
While uncomfortable, a simple phone call is critical. It will give the PR person a sense of how the reporter reacts to the request and, most of all it will not give the reporter a chance to turn the request into a standalone story.
Not every reporter is looking to turn a PR person’s email into a story. We’re just not that interesting. However, there is a certain line where a reporter is almost required to put pen to paper and let the world know what we are up to behind the scenes. In my opinion this almost always happens when a PR person mixes pushiness with a genuinely bad idea.
As PR people we need to defend our clients and push back against reporters from time to time. But we also need to consider the reporter, understand the media outlet and most of all, evaluate the clients demand.
Now that BuzzFeed is launching a business vertical, I would caution my colleagues in the field to think twice before asking them to take down embarrassing photos of their hedge fund clients.
by Chris Roush
Gilbert Bailon of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch writes Sunday about the paper’s business columnist, David Nicklaus.
Bailon writes, “A native of small-town Iowa, Nicklaus has worked for the Post-Dispatch Business staff for 31 years as a reporter, editor and columnist. As a columnist, Nicklaus specializes in bringing down-to-earth analysis of broad themes such as budget sequestration, the housing crisis or banks ‘too big to fail.’
“For a broad readership, Nicklaus uses his mastery of complicated subjects and terminology to provide analysis for a regional economic hub and home to a huge financial services sector. He strives to be authoritative yet accessible to a wide audience.
“Nicklaus broke into business coverage before most general-interest newspapers had begun to invest more into business news coverage.
“After starting as a cub reporter out of Drake University in Iowa, he attended the London School of Economics, where he obtained a master’s degree in economics.
“Nicklaus said he considers himself ‘pro-capitalism but not always pro-business.’ His goal is to provide missing perspective and context while sometimes challenging the conventional wisdom.
“Nicklaus has worked in the Business section dating back to when some garment makers still operated downtown and now during the continuing resurgence of downtown as a job center and lively neighborhood.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Columbia University’s Todd Gitlin writes about the lack of a Golden Age in journalism for Salon magazine, and uses financial journalism as an example.
Gitlin writes, “Start to finish, financial journalism was breathless about the market thrills that led to the 2007-2008 crash: the financialization of the global economy, the metastasis of derivatives, and especially the deregulation underway since the late 1970s that culminated in the 1999 congressional repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act (with President Bill Clinton blithely signing off on it). That repeal paved the way for commercial and investment banks, as well as insurance companies, to merge into ‘too-big-to-fail’ corporations, unleashed with low capital requirements and soon enough piled high with the potential for collapse.
“A Proquest database search of all American newspapers during the calendar year 1999 reveals a grand total of two pieces warning that the repeal of Glass-Steagall was a mistake. The first appeared in the Bangor Daily News of Maine, the second in the St. Petersburg Times of Florida. Count ‘em: two.
“On February 24, 2002, as the scandal of the derivative-soaked Enron Corporation unfolded, the New York Times’s Daniel Altman did distinguish himself with a page-one business section report headlined ‘Contracts So Complex They Imperil The System.’ He wrote: ‘The veil of complexity, whose weave is tightening as sophisticated derivatives evolve and proliferate, poses subtle risks to the financial system — risks that are impossible to quantify, sometimes even to identify.’ He stood almost alone in those years in such coverage. Most financial journalists preferred then to cite the grand Yoda of American quotables, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. And he was just the first and foremost among a range of giddy authorities on whom those reporters repeatedly relied for reassurance that derivatives were the great stabilizers of the economy.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Dan McSwain is the new business columnist at the Union-Tribune in San Diego.
McSwain writes, “In college I pursued a writing career, eventually becoming the editor-in-chief of the college newspaper. I left college, along with a good job as a business reporter at a daily newspaper, to go back to work for my father.
“My first task was to lead the company’s automation effort. Later, as plant manager, a customer forced us into a crash program to adopt modern management practices such as just-in-time production scheduling and statistical analysis that vastly improved quality.
“In 1988, my dad sold his company, and I left to start a competing firm with my brother. It was successful. Five years later, I sold my half to focus on consuming bourbon and other drugs. Soon becoming a full-blown alcoholic, I moved quickly from wealthy to broke and homeless. It took me about four years to get sober; it’s been nearly 16 years since my last drink, drug, car wreck or jail term.
“Starting in 1998, I helped a friend start a digital media company. My role as CFO and VP of corporate development was to create the business plan, raise venture capital, help negotiate licenses and contracts, and do some user interface development. My friend sold that company to a Fortune 500 firm.
“I returned to journalism full time in 2000, as a business reporter. Over the last 13 years, I’ve also worked as a news editor, editorial page editor, editorial writer and managing editor. I’ve worked at U-T San Diego as an editorial writer and business columnist.”
Read more here.
Given the events of last week, it seems appropriate to spend some time discussing communications principles in the time of a crisis for a business.
There are a number of ways to define a crisis, and in fact, there are many divergent views on how best to handle a corporate crisis from a PR perspective.
The simplest way to think about a crisis is an event that an organization does not expect and has the potential to cause significant long-term damage if not properly managed. Properly managed means that after some time an organization and those directly impacted by the crisis are able to get back to some state of normalcy.
As with pretty much every aspect of public relations, speed is a critical component to good crisis communications protocol. Once a crisis happens, the people directly impacted by it want to know who is responding to their needs. This is one of the trickiest moments for a communications leader because in the chaos of a crisis there are a lot of people saying what should and shouldn’t be done. At this time, it is best to focus on figuring out who is most affected and what do they need to hear that will assure them the business is responding.
Details are going to be sparse, but simple phrases that indicate the business is aware of a problem can go a long way in those early moments.
The key focus at this time is toward those most impacted by the crisis. This means that reporters should not be a primary focus in the immediate aftermath of any crisis. The challenge in staying focused on this approach is that the influx of media inquiries after a crisis can be crippling for nearly any communications team.
Just like always, all media calls should be returned, but the PR person should not get caught in long conversations with reporters. It is important to acknowledge the company is addressing the situation and that more detail will follow.
The goal is to project to the media a sense of calm, that the company is focused on the problem and not overwhelmed. Impacted parties will want to hear directly from the company. The more personal it can be delivered, the better.
In addition to a staggering amount of incoming inquires, there will inevitably be a similarly sized influx of stories. This coverage should be closely watched to ensure that in the fog of the immediate fallout damaging misinformation is not gaining traction as fact.
At the appropriate time, a company should address the media and discuss in as much detail as possible what caused the crisis, how it was handled and how the company is moving forward. This might be considered pulling the Band-Aid off all at once theory.
Media are important vehicle to convey important messages to impacted parties, but they are also focused on addressing the totality of a crisis all at once.
Communications teams are best to squarely focus on responding to the needs of those most impacted, as aiding those groups is not only the right thing to do but will also allow the company to eventually move past a crisis.
by Chris Roush
Loren Steffy, the business columnist at the Houston Chronicle, says goodbye to his readers after nine years writing the column.
Steffy is joining a strategic communications firm with some of his former Bloomberg News colleagues.
Steffy writes, “More than nine years ago, when former Chronicle editor Jeff Cohen first discussed a column, he asked me how I would make mine different from the others out there.
“I told him I wanted to write a column that gave a voice to the voiceless constituents of the marketplace – investors, employees and consumers. Too often, their concerns are drowned out by the din and machinations of corporatespeak.
“We call this the business section, but that, too, is a holdover from a different era of journalism. What we really write about here is money and the people it affects.
“Following that flow of money led me to an incredible cast of characters over the years. I interviewed fishermen who live on the southern Louisiana island dubbed ‘The Bathtub’ in the Oscar-nominated film ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild,’ and I joked about drinking Irish coffee with a Saudi mining executive in Riyadh.
“I talked to musician Robert Earl Keen about the pension plan he provides for his band. I interviewed spinach farmers in the Rio Grande Valley, cotton farmers in the Panhandle, and wildcatters from the familiar fields of West Texas to the untapped fields of eastern Turkey.
“I also found hubris, most notably in the testimony of fallen Enron executive Jeff Skilling at his 2006 trial, and heartbreak, in the stories of victims and survivors of disasters such as BP’s Texas City refinery explosion and the Deepwater Horizon disaster.”
Read more here.
For public relations professionals, building strong relationships with reporters is the best way to collaborate on story ideas. However, PR pros are occasionally tasked with getting exposure in a completely new area, one in which they cannot rely on their current contact list.
In these situations, it is best to do a thorough background check instead of pitching a reporter with a blind email or call—and ruin the effectiveness of proper pitching techniques for the rest of us.
It’s true that each print journalist or TV producer may have a different preferred method of communicating, but there are general best practices by which all PR professionals should abide. I’ve solicited “pitching” tips from five current journalists representing five separate publications, and they have the following to say.
Reporters generally agree that short, targeted pitches — without immediate follow-up calls — are preferred over lengthy messages. Opinions and pictures also help, noted Jen Welsh, the science editor at Business Insider:
“In reaction to a news-related piece, it’s great to have a new opinion on it….a bite-size digestible package will really help…For something more feature, I need…an angle that would be interesting to an average lay reader…Can’t stress this enough: I love anything with great pictures.”
A journalist covering money and investing suggested the omission of relevant (but not totally essential) details could make a pitch more tantalizing:
“The best pitches are strategic in nature, that is they omit something which leads to a hearty back and forth to get more. Everyone comes away satisfied. For example, a follow-up to an investing conference at an Ivy League school might include a syllabus whether or not the recipient expressed interest.”
There’s a fine line between strategic persistence and persistent annoyance, said Welsh:
“My pet peeves include walls of text, jargon, misspellings, missing contact information. I don’t want to spend five minutes reading your email. Also, It bothers me when I get an email, then the PR person immediately calls me. Either saw your email, and I’ll look at it/consider it, or I’m busy. Calling won’t help.”
Another associate editor at a trade magazine noted that trying to go above a reporter’s head could backfire:
“I’ve gotten pitches for stories that another reporter has already covered…which is annoying. You should always assume that reporters and editors talk to each other regularly (and that they’re going to have each other’s backs, and not take your side). I’ve had a PR person email me randomly to check in on a story that one of our reporters was doing, because she hadn’t heard back from the reporter…I could tell she was trying to go above the reporter’s head.”
And of course, you always want to include the name of the client you’re pitching:
“The worst pitch I’ve seen had XXXXX in the lead sentence in place of the company’s name.”
Perhaps the most important component of successful media pitching is communicating with the right person. Noted a reporter who covers hedge funds:
“As a financial journalist, I am clearly desperate to receive scatter-gun emails about the launch of some life-enhancing skin cream or a newly-invented energy source… or so some PRs think.”
Another reporter covering commodities for a news wire service underscored the relevance angle:
“On the topic of relevance: if I cover industrial metals markets don’t send me a pitch about upcoming guacamole shortages….Just because we spoke once about a client you represent doesn’t mean I want to hear about the rest.”
To sum up the prevailing attitude of the media mavens we approached: it’s not about volume or pre-existing relationships. Keep your pitches appropriate and concise—and if necessary, include cool pictures.
Bill C. Smith is an account executive at Dukas Public Relations in New York.
by Chris Roush
Two conversations I’ve had this week about board members of publicly traded companies have got me thinking about directors and business journalists.
The first conversation was with a student in my “Business Reporting” class.
Each student in the class has to write a final project paper on a publicly traded company here in North Carolina. I encourage them to talk to as many people as possible, from company executives to analysts to investors to customers to, yes, members of the board of directors.
The student told me that she had found a board member of her final project company was a business school professor. She had approached him for an interview, but he declined. She couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to talk.
The second conversation was with someone who has been on a number of boards, including at least one Fortune 500 company, over dinner and drinks last night.
He wondered why, in the coverage of the departure of the J.C. Penney CEO, there wasn’t any mention in the stories about its board of directors — whether any of them had retail experience and who among them was the leading force in making a change in the executive suite. He noted that he had yet to see a board member quoted.
All of this leads me to wonder why companies, especially publicly traded companies, put such a lid on having their board members talk to the media.
Board members, above anyone else, should be great people to put in front of business journalists. They are the ones who know the company’s strategy and what the CEO is trying to accomplish. Whether the strategy is good or the CEO is being fired, these board members — particularly outside directors — are the most objective sources that a company can have, or that a business reporter can interview.
Yet I know of few companies who allow their board members to talk freely to the media. Virtually all of the time that a business reporter called a board member, the director refers the journalist back to the public relations staff. As a result, they come off as being afraid to talk, or ignorant of what is really going on at the company.
Why would seeing board members quoted in stories be good? Let me give you an example.
In 1997, I covered the Coca-Cola Co. for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. CEO Roberto Goizueta was diagnosed in September with cancer, which was a big story. He had been the CEO for 15 years and had led the company to great success. The question was what was going to happen to the company if he should die — and he did die two months later.
I called a Coke board member, SunTrust’s Jimmy Williams. He had visited with Goizueta in the hospital, and his comments to me, which I included in the story, were reassuring to investors in the company who were likely nervous about its future prospects.
That’s unlikely to happen today. In the 21st century, in the wake of Enron, WorldCom and other corporate scandals, directors don’t want to talk to the media. They’re afraid their comments might be misconstrued or that they will come off ignorant about what’s going on at the company.
I say that’s bunk. If you’re a board member of a company, you should be willing to stand up for it, talk about it with the business press. By doing so, the public will have a better understanding about what is going on at the company.
And the company’s relationship with the business media will be less adversarial.
The return of “Mad Men” last night spurred my thinking about the history of public relations.
As I watched the show, and the continuing growth of the fictional agency Sterling Cooper Draper Price, it occurred to me how the public relations industry back then was so young and that the power of PR was still years and years away from being truly understood. While the number of workers in the advertising industry was large and growing, those practicing public relations constituted a small fraction of what it is today.
Forty-five years later and the number of public relations professionals has grown at a staggering pace, with numerous global agencies, countless boutiques and rapidly expanding internal teams. It seems that PR practitioners are growing on trees at this point.
These numbers are often pointed to with some angst among reporters who argue that there is a direct and negative correlation between the rising tide of PR professionals and the dwindling numbers of media. It has been argued in a number of different ways but possibly most famously by Robert McChesney and John Nichols in their book “The Death and Life of American Journalism.”
While I do acknowledge that there are many good points in this debate, I am not entirely convinced that a simple rise in PR practitioners coupled with a decline in media staff creates a terrible vacuum for society. Before jumping into my reasoning I want to be clear that 1.) I am a major supporter of our national media and feel strongly that more should be invested in its future, and 2.) I can in no way speak to how PR is practiced in the political field. I am strictly talking about the relationship businesses have with the media through PR.
There is no question there are now more PR practitioners than journalists out there. One simply has to attend a corporate press conference or other business event where media are invited to quickly see the number of PR people buzzing around a handful of journalists.
But numbers alone do not create a stronger defense for corporations against bad press. (In fact, some could argue more people involved in working with the press only creates more opportunity for mistakes.) At the end of the day, a strong reporter cannot be stopped from a story by a PR professional. As a PR person all I can do is to try and persuade a reporter to abandon a story, write it differently, focus on a different angle, etc. Nothing I do can directly impact what ends up on paper, no matter how many of me there are.
Does the proliferation of PR people make a reporter’s job more difficult as they now have to work harder at source development and face more opposition to stories as they are developed? Yes, almost certainly.
Others have argued that the growth of PR, particularly with its improved financial backing, has allowed the industry to better manipulate the space between truth and fiction. This is I agree with to a point.
A maturing industry is bound to get smarter, and in PR getting smarter means being able to articulate a position for a company more convincingly. Most often, this comes in the form of surveys that are conducted with an eye toward supporting a point or driving news coverage. This though is not an argument about legions of PR people but rather a broader conversation about the improved intellect of a few.
Again though, all PR is really doing here is creating more “noise” in the market. When it comes to the stories that truly matter, the large investigative pieces, this “noise” matters little.
When it all comes down to it, reporters and editors retain the ultimate decision making power. The growth of PR may create more frustration for reporters, but I really do not believe it inhibits good reporting. What stops good reporting, in my opinion, is the lack of financial backing and editorial direction to go get the critical stories.
For example, anyone who reads business news voraciously is often perplexed to find that what reporters are left out there somehow all seem to converge on the same short-list of stories. This indicates a more important internal struggle in the media industry to serve the public interest through businesses that are financially viable.
The debate over PR’s impact on society as media declines is an important conversation that should continue to be studied. But let’s not forget that, though a contentious relationship, PR is really dependent on a strong, independent press. Without a strong media environment we all just become part of the advertisers like Mr. Draper.
by Chris Roush
Curt Woodward of Xconomy writers a piece for 90.9 WBUR, a National Public Radio station in Boston, that takes issue with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick stating “The media here is awful to the business community” in a speech to the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council.
Woodward writes, “But here’s the real reason Patrick’s dig at the press was so galling: It’s demonstrably false.
“Look at the business media in this state and try to tell me, with a straight face, that the narrative being presented is solely one of doom, gloom and failure. You can’t.
“Let’s just take a tour through the recent business headlines in the local press to illustrate this. This past Sunday, there was a big Globe feature by Kirsner himself on Entrega, a local biotech company that is developing a way for patients to take powerful drugs in a pill, rather than the injections currently used.
“The Globe also featured no fewer than four separate stories through the last week of March on U.S. and European regulators approving a new multiple sclerosis drug from Biogen Idec, a step that the paper saw as ‘cementing the Weston company’s dominance in MS treatments.’
“The Herald covered the rise of 3D printing, putting some Massachusetts startup companies on the map alongside other players nationwide in this burgeoning tech trend.
“Both papers, along with online-only news outlets like my employer, Xconomy, also carried lengthy pieces about a new offering from Nuance Communications that could see the Burlington, Mass.-based company leading the way in voice recognition-equipped advertising — the kind of stuff you might see in a sci-fi movie.”
Read more here.