Posts Tagged ‘Journalism’

Threats to PR practice, or not?

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

iStock_000009739238SmallContent marketing. Brand journalism. Native advertising. Promoted user endorsements. OK, so is this paragraph just linkbait, or what? No, it’s the subject of research from Kirk Hallahan of Colorado State University exploring whether these trends — some of which have been the provenance of public relations — are eroding the power and influence of PR in organizational communication.

kirkhallahan

Dr. Kirk Hallahan, Colorado State University

Dr. Hallahan presented the early research at the 17th annual International PR Research Conference, March 6-9. He identified five reasons for concern that PR might take the rise of these disciplines with trepidation.

Encroachment and marginalization: Marketers have seized upon all of these activities as traditional advertising has seen issues in connecting with publics. PR’s seeking of third-party endorsement doesn’t guarantee placement for organizational messages, whereas if these elements are part of a paid strategy, do. Ads permeate commercial communications, including TV, radio, and print, and consumers are increasingly turning to media that excludes advertising, including pay-cable TV, satellite radio and internet content that uses less intrusive ad strategies.  It’s an attractive proposition to simply pay for play.

Undermining professionalism in both journalism and PR: Whether it’s former journalists enlisted to produce branded copy (that often still looks like editorial) or marketers writing pithy, short copy reminiscent of advertising but presented differently, paid content could erode the perception of value of journalism and call into question whether organizations are earning coverage or not. Traditional PR could be hurt as expectations rise among organizations that merely buying “eyeballs” is enough.

Devaluation of relationship-building: The “relations” part of PR and the ideal vision of the practice calls for two-way, symmetrical relationships between organizations and publics. There are myriad examples of how strong relationships have helped organizations during times of stress, as well as how the PR/Journalist symbiosis serves the common good in a democracy.  Turning that relationship into a mere financial transaction, and corrupting the concept of user endorsements could be a threat from which the practice might not recover.

Challenges to transparency: All types of branded content are designed to appear as though they are happenstance; this is a deceitful practice that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission hopes to discourage through disclosure rules, but there are powerful inducements to keep such matters opaque from the public. Dr. Hallahan worries that social media users might not realize how “likes” might not represent an honest endorsement from their friends, but the result of a purchase transaction, and that would foster distrust in an age sorely lacking in trust at all.

Confounding of measurement and evaluation: The idea that an objective third party — an editor — might decide to cover an organization’s news and therefore be relied upon to assess that organization’s claims, factually, is fairly essential to the concept of news media. If the lines are sufficiently blurred between paid and unpaid content, how can value be accurately measured outside of the financial result? Perhaps this is the point, that is, to reduce all communication activity to sales, and ignore all other tactics entirely. How do we measure effectiveness beyond the output level?

Dr. Hallahan’s thought-provoking research permits only deep questions — not answers. I’m grateful to have had the chance to hear it and discuss it.  Is this a threat? The marketers will say that if it is, it’s because PRs haven’t done a good enough job leveraging it in service of dollars and cents.

The biggest threat I see is that this all continues a reductivist argument that makes all communication into marketing. That’s what I see as the ultimate threat.

Thoughts?

 

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Crisis demands understanding, says expert Hennes

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

IABC Cleveland is no stranger to Bruce Hennes. He’s the 2011 communicator of the year and his firm, Hennes/Paynter, is the local champion of effective crisis management through communication. At the 21 Feb. lunch, a small but lively crowd ate up his pithy prescriptions for communicating in very bad times.

I’ve seen Bruce speak many times, first at a luncheon for the Legal Marketing Association, then at an IABC lunch in 2011, and now today, and he always impresses me. As a speaker, he’s an unassuming guy, not given to theatrics, but his content is peerless and his delivery always excellent. Many speakers could learn from him how to hold an audience’s attention through sheer strength of story.

Hennes uses catchy terms — the 3 Tells, 3 V’s, F’up, Fess-up, Fix-up  —  and demonstrates through example what he means. The first of these is the command that supercedes all others — you have to tell the truth, tell it first and tell it all. The 3 V’s are the frame that the media places around stories. Everyone involved is one of these: Victim, Villain, or Vindicator. Care to guess where business (especially executives), education administrators and other “powerful” people find themselves?  The goal for most organizations in the midst of a crisis is to move from villain to vindicator, he says. When you, ahem, Mess up, you need to fess up and describe what you’re doing to make sure it never happens again.

The media brings its own filter to the proceedings, and they’re on the lookout for you to reinforce the role they want you to play. That’s why “no comment” or its usual cousins are so bad — what does “no comment” mean to you? Guilty!  Hennes insists that the media’s job isn’t to inform or educate, it’s to tell stories — the triumph of the Little Guy over the Establishment being a fairly common one — Victim, Villain, Vindicator.

The good thing is that when we know that, we can take action.  Hennes tells a story about an embezzlement scandal at a governmental organization. Hennes/Paynter brought the executive director straight to a reporter and gave them the story in exquisite detail, without violating privacy dicta, and when the very big story broke, its headline put the organization in very positive light, instead of the reverse. The reporter told Hennes later, that if the organization had not brought the story in, the paper would have socked it to the organization big time.

Entertaining, educational and excellent all the way around.

Note: I’m still having no luck uploading photos for the blog since it changed URLs. Help? 

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Post-election fatigue grips PR guy

Friday, November 9th, 2012

It’s Friday, and the U.S. election (otherwise known as our long, national nightmare) is finally over.  No longer are our communication media filled with some of the nastiest political invective since, well, since the last election.

We now have, however, the blather-sphere lending their inconsiderable analytical skills to telling us all what President Obama’s win actually means. The predictable spin that is so well-loved by politicals is making me sick all over again. Today, I didn’t read anything about the election, bailing out on CNBC’s Squawk Box in favor of Looney Tunes as my treadmill-bound entertainment.  Hm, not sure of the difference!

At some point, I’ll want to reconnect == there were a few things that cropped up this week that I found fascinating – including the county-by-county map of popular vote, shaded by margin. The President’s people will claim a mandate, the Republican leadership will point out the margin of victory and claim there surely isn’t a mandate.  Both sides seem to be heading for a game of Chicken over the “fiscal cliff.” Posturing, positioning, poppycock has already squirted into the news.

With as many really important issues to tackle, it all seems to come down to these two points:

  • “The wealthy need to contribute a little more so we can do the things Americans want their government to do.”
  • “Socialism is a great system, until you run out of other people’s money.”

I’m just too tired to write anything more about it.

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Notebook: Reputation questions to chew on

Monday, September 10th, 2012

With trust in business — particularly big business — holding steady, but near all-time lows, and a political climate bent on slavish promotion of business and business people on one side, and equally slavish denunciation of business and business people on the other, where does that leave the public relations function of reputation management?

What are the components of reputation, and how do you measure them? What role do business executives play in supporting or undermining reputation? How do social media reflect popular opinion — or not? Do transactional relationships help or hinder reputation? Do simple errors constitute a crisis of reputation? Why or why not?

How should businesses (and other organizations) respond to reputation issues? What role does organizational behavior play? What about employee behavior, customer service, problem resolution?

I’m pondering these things, and realizing that they’ll take some research and exploration.  Stay tuned for some expert witnesses in this space in the days and weeks to come.

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Giving marketers – and marketing – a bad name

Monday, August 27th, 2012

The 26 August edition of the New York Times carries a long story about Todd Rutherford, an Oklahoma entrepreneur who in 2010 started a company that solicited authors to buy online reviews of their work.  Rutherford paid freelancers to write the reviews, and for a little while, was making $28,000 per month. The piece quotes him saying, “These were marketing reviews, not editorial reviews.”  Yeah, well, once upon a time there was a difference.

They have a term for when you buy space to trumpet your products and services: Advertising. A review in a publication or a broadcast is editorial content — by definition, it cannot be paid for. That division ensures that the reader/viewer is getting a third party view of the material, not one colored by someone with a vested interest in it.  If you made the rash conclusion that “user” reviews on Amazon are written by real users, I guess pity the fool. I often thought the reviews were too fawning and too “professional” to be done by real people, but I figured, “hey, if someone styles themselves a critic and wants to write 500 words on this book, movie, whatever, go for it.” It never occurred to me that someone was out there paying for reviews. Jeepers, no wonder so many Amazon books get five stars.

The Times spends 70 paragraphs exploring this issue. We hear from eBook authors who paid for reviews, freelance writers who wrote them (nearly always without reading the publication in question) and Rutherford himself now “regrets his venture into what he called, ‘artificially embellished reviews.'”

As much as I am a committed free marketeer, I still have quite a lot of heartburn about this. Rutherford says the market will take care of the issue, with true negative reviews overcoming the false positives. I’m not so sure about that.  I wrote earlier about bloggers taking either direct payments or junkets in exchange for talking about a product or company. This seems clearly to be in the realm of deception –under the law, the relationship between advertiser (the authors) and the editorial source (the  publication) has to be disclosed. Only then is the consumer of the review equipped to judge its veracity and its utility.

Rutherford’s firm was engaged in deliberate deception — the authors got the ratings and reviews that helped with sales (though some of the more successful ones didn’t give credit), Rutherford and the freelancers made money.  This doesn’t work for me. It’s fraud.

 

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Why is telling the truth so hard?

Monday, June 18th, 2012

Creative Commons, by Brian Hillegas

The Institute for PR has published “Ethical standards and guidelines for public relations research and measurement“, which PRNewser’s Tonya Garcia summarized as “Basically, don’t be a horrible, self-serving liar.” The statement, By Dr. Shannon Bowen, John Gilfeather, & Dr. Brad Rawlins, is a stake in the ground, and on the surface might seem to be a statement of the obvious. But PR as a profession still seems ethically dubious — witness the latest in a long line of Walmart amazin’s stories.

Walmart hired Mercury Public Affairs to lobby LA city hall to approve construction of a store in Chinatown. No problem. But when Mercury employee Stephanie Harnett went to a meeting of Warehouse Workers United, which wants to unionize Walmart’s workers, she lied about who she was, claiming to be journalism student from the University of Southern California.

Both Walmart and Mercury declaimed any responsibility — Mercury saying that she was a junior member of their staff and that no one, neither Mercury nor Walmart, told her to do any such thing.  I’d be tempted to write this off as a sad commentary on PR education and the “anything goes” culture of the modern age, but Socrates did a better job of making that argument.

What seems likely is that both Mercury and Walmart tossed her under the bus. Media reports say that Harnett was shaking like a leaf during her ruse, so she has to know that what she was doing was wrong. Of course, apparently she got over it in short order. Her Twitter account is closed (good idea; it can’t have been much fun to read the tweets), and she’s keeping a low profile.

Walmart’s not known as a Pantheon of ethics — the Astroturf campaign, the Mexico bribery issue. And many PR firms seem willing to do whatever will generate revenue, from selling war through deliberate falsehood to representing dictators.  PR ethics can seem like a contradiction in terms.

But I won’t give up, and neither should you. Thanks to Bowen, Gilfeather and Rawlins, we’ve got another arrow in our quiver.

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Are “incented” tweets and likes “deceptive”?

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

As the  usual outlets for advertising sometimes appear doomed — see New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, or Dish Network’s latest innovation — what’s an exec in need of a megaphone to do?  Advertising is trying hard to adapt to the continuing media fragmentation, but what if their “innovation” is actually illegal?

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is taking a hard look at companies’ practice of offering incentives in exchange for Facebook “likes” and Twitter tweets. Ad guidelines already require a notice, like “#paid” on purchased tweets, which calls out advertisers who’d prefer to not expose their astroturf roots. So if, as a USA Today story said today, Target gives free samples to people who “like” their page, and Amazon gives $3 video credits in exchange for a tweet, that’s an advert and subject to the law.

This is the squishy underbelly of commercial use of social media, and why I insist that all marketing is communication but not all communication is marketing. If that’s not true, everything is marketing, and who cares if people cannot tell the difference between advertising and truth?

Strength or bliss, it’s still ignorance.

 

 

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Blame the banks again

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

Darn those Evil Bankers!

The latest imbroglio in the financial sector is JP Morgan Chase’s disclosure of a multi-billion dollar trading loss. Since the announcement, JPM’s stock is off more than 8 percent, has been downgraded by Fitch (one ratings agency) and is now exhibit A in the Obama administration’s drive for tougher bank regulations. Oh, how I miss working in banking!

When things get crazy, people want someone to blame — Heads on Pikes, as one National City colleague put it. The  narrative is that greedy bankers caused the recession with their complicated hedges, derivatives toxic mortgages, et.al. Aside from that being a gross oversimplification (got to spread the blame much more broadly), it’s not illegal for a business to lose money.  JPM is a financial company that has different types of businesses.

It’s a bank – Chase — in the consumer and commercial banking businesses. It takes deposits and makes loans. It makes money on the difference between what it pays for money (near zero for deposits, but a little more in other sources) and what it takes in (interest and fees).  When people think of banks, this is what they think of. By law, the only path of investments for excess funds is U.S. Treasury bills, bonds and notes, and making loans. There are a lot of different types of loans out there, such as commercial paper, repurchase agreements, interbank lending, etc., but for our purposes, that does it.

The JPMorgan unit offers services for corporations not covered (very much) by Chase. Most notably, it’s various varieties of selling and buying stock and helping companies and other entities manage their cash. This is the part that gets people all twiddle-pated. The work is similar to taking deposits and making loans, but not really the same.

In the course of doing this work for companies, investment banks like JPM can make income by trading on their own – no client required. At its best, it raises cash that can help the company’s balance sheet and income statement. At its worst, it costs them money.  The fear is that too many losses on the “equity” business side will destabilize the traditional bank side.

But back when these businesses were required by law to be separate, in relative terms borrowing was more expensive and rarer, and many businesses lacked the capital to grow. It’s like we are now in a nostalgia mode for the days of the 1970’s. Speaking as one who remembers soaring unemployment, skyrocketing interest rates and surging inflation all at once, that nostalgia is pretty darn silly. Oh, and banks were open 10-3, there were few or no ATMs and no online anything.

Now we take all of that for granted.  It’s not cheap to provide all of that, and then you get told you can’t charge what you want for it.  An opinion piece in the New York Times carped that JPM had lost $2 billion of “our” money.  Not so. It didn’t lose depositor money, or even client money. It didn’t even lose investor money, unless the investor sold in the couple of days following the disclosure. It also didn’t lose government money — it repaid its TARP loan (that it was forced by the government to take) in 2009.

For JPM, they insist they have plenty of cash and profits despite the $2 billion trading loss. CEO Jamie Dimon has been plugging away on the talk show circuit, chanting mea culpas in the “by the book” crisis mode, and has even “accepted the resignations of” three execs with accountability for the loss, but it hasn’t stopped the criticism.

Where the administration, the FDIC and others are correct, however, is in saying that banks that are “too big to fail” are a systemic risk to the economy. Scale is wonderful until it gets so wide that no one knows what everyone else is doing. Even Jamie Dimon would agree that stepping in so huge a cow pie emboldens those who want the biggest banks to be smaller and more tightly regulated. That’s why the broader financial sector got hammered in the market in the few days following the disclosure.

What could Dimon due differently? Nothing. There are times when business is a poop sandwich and everyone has to take a bite. JPM is still with little argument the best financial in the business. Dick Bove, an analyst, said as much this morning when he rated it a buy.

In the meanwhile, the FBI says it’s investigating JPM, the FDIC has sued it for $15 billion, and the media fans the flames of hatred.  In short, the mob gathers again, demanding blood.

What a business.

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Herman Cain as Crisis Lesson

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

Others have already written on this topic, so I’ll offer just a few things to consider when discussing Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain.  Foremost is the distinction between legal advice and public relations advice: they’re not the same thing.

There are four women who’ve claimed that Cain offered unwanted and unwelcome sexual advances during the 1990’s, when Cain led the National Restaurant Association. All four were employees of the NRA, though one was no longer an employee when she claimed the harassment occurred. Two filed complaints and received cash settlements. To others did not file complaints. Legally, payment of settlements is not proof of guilt. PR-wise, most people would say they are.

Legal-beagles are no doubt telling Cain to deny these incidents occurred. No one can prove otherwise, legally.  Sexual harassment seldom occurs with witnesses present. Ask President Clinton about his experience with these matters. His alleged behavior while governor of Arkansas was orders of magnitude more egregious — state troopers acting as spotters? Dropping trou to Paula Jones? And then there’s Monica Lewinsky — hmm, leader of the free world and white house intern?

Under the law, sexual harassment has two potential proof points — hostile work environment or quid pro quo. Pattern of harassment that creates the hostile environment or swapping sex for employment. Under the law, being a boor isn’t a crime.

So for an attorney, there’s no evidence of sexual harassment. For a PR counsel, that simply doesn’t matter. Who here believes that these four women made all this up, especially the two who filed complaints and received cash?  One publicity-seeking money-hound is one thing. Four is another.

Meanwhile, Cain denies, and the story is hot every day. What if Cain’s news conference had featured this statement:

My fellow Americans, as much as it pains me to say it, there was a time in my life when I behaved less than admirably regarding my relationships with women, and the allegations you have seen and read lately stem from that dark period some 15 years ago. By the grace of God and the support of my family, I was able to recognize that though my actions did not fit the legal definition of sexual harassment, they were still inappropriate and wrong. I deeply regret my actions and have sought support and guidance from my family and my faith to become a better man, a better Christian.

We could wordsmith this to death, of course, but where does the media go after hearing this? Cain could have taken questions, and to each that asked for details, reply that there’s no point in rehashing the incidents, and that he is very sorry for the pain he caused to the recipients of his unwanted attentions.

Of course, the whole thing flares up again if there are additional allegations from after the NRA, particularly Godfather’s Pizza, where he was CEO. The other thing to keep in mind is that the case against President Clinton was more substantive on par — more people, the Troopergate material, and a continuing pattern.

Chances are, Cain won’t get the nomination anyway — but I don’t think it’s the end of his campaign.

 

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Bloggers – Got Paid? It’s Commercial Speech

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

Earlier this year, I did some research on the U.S. Federal Trade Commission guidelines on endorsements and testimonials for a class. As I dug into it, I wrote a post promising to share the paper, so here it is. I thought I’d share the results in hopes that anyone in social media would understand that pay means business, and that means disclosure.  The style is academic, which means there are a lot of endnotes and a sizable bibliography, but it shouldn’t kill you.

The short version: If you get stuff from a company to write about (even if they don’t demand it be positive), you are expected to tell your readers. If what you say is deceptive or misleading, you could be blogging from the Hotel GrayBar — or at least be a little lighter in the cash department.

But wait a second, what about free speech?  Journalists don’t need to disclose if they get free stuff!  Well, let’s just say that the Government — and the Courts — have ruled that your free speech is secondary to the rights of consumers.

I don’t think I can argue. But you can — just read the paper first.

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