Wednesday, April 30, 2008

May Media Month!

Now that my grueling academic schedule is over for another year (other than teaching a six-week night class and doing a research project), I have more time to blog.

I thought I would devote May to commenting on the news media. You know how we have "meet the media panels" for PR folks to come hear various editors share their interests, ways to reach them, perspectives on news etc? Well, I've always wished a few PR folks could be on a panel and speak our minds to area journalists.

So, I'm doing it, in a virtual sense, all month. I'll be both constructive and honest.

If you want to share your thoughts, send me an email by clicking on my name at the top of the page. I'm going to encourage you to be on the record, but if you must be anonymous, let me know.

I've been pitched!

There is an ongoing discussion about whether or not bloggers are "journalists." Well, if being the recipient of news releases and pitches is a criterion for being a journalists, I just returned to my professional roots. I haven't been on this end of a news release since 1986.

By the way, if any readers do have interesting news, events, comments etc about the West Michigan advertising and public relations industry, drop me a line.

So, the pitch?

It's from local form Concord Communications and Design and features their national roll out of a service called a "Core Message Analysis" for clients' Web sites. I'll let you read their news release and learn more from their Core Message Analysis Web site on your own.

My thoughts? Well, first, I wish them well. Any local advertising/public relations firm striking out on a national venture deserves encouragement.

But I also have a few questions. Such as, isn't "core messages" sort of, um, not really all that new? We had "Positioning" in the '80s, which has morphed into branding, yadda yadda yadda.

Also, can there not be more to Web sites than a customer-centric, mere marketing approach?

PR is about building mutual relationships with multiple publics, not just customers. Yes, Web sites can do that and they should have core messages. But Web sites also allow for interactivity, depth, immediacy, and other unique communicative benefits. If there's a tool that incorporates all of that, I'm buyin'.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

More on 'bribing' for coverage

Interesting that we've had a discussion about paying for placement in West Michigan recently, and today an international study on the subject is released.

As one commenter to this blog rightly points out, it is not so much the PR practitioner who deserves blame than the editors who demand payment. It often is a cultural issue that confounds American PR practitioners overseas. It's either pay, or get no coverage and get whipped by the competition in the press. As the study released today points out:

"A large majority of journalists and public relations practitioners around the world say it is not professional for media to accept payments from news sources in return for coverage. Nevertheless, more than one in three practitioners and one in five journalists say it is generally considered okay in their countries for national media to accept such payments. Only 60 percent say that paid-for material is always or often identified as advertising in national daily newspapers.

These findings come from a survey conducted by Dr. Katerina Tsetsura, University of Oklahoma. The research was done in partnership with five leading international professional associations: the International Public Relations Association, the International Federation of Journalists, the International Press Institute, the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communications Management, and the Institute for Public Relations."

You can read the full report here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Bus PR

PR is all around us. The average person does not understand the purpose, methods and effect of public relations even though they encounter it or read about it every day. Pick up any daily newspaper and read the articles with a discerning eye and you'll realize that PR is at work behind the scenes of many stories--not just to get the publicity either.

Case in point--this interesting article in the Muskegon Chronicle about the local transit system educating residents--of ALL types--about the ease and benefit of using the bus service.

Again, it's not just that there's a story in the paper about this. Look at the fundamental PR involved when you read the story carefully. People in Muskegon are probably aware of the bus. The problem is one of attitude, which results in not enough action--riding the bus. To address this, local officials did not merely send out news releases or do other forms of "get the word out, raise awareness" communication tactics. They actually got together with people and offered "how to ride the bus" workshops. Funny. Smart.

This is great PR because it demonstrates that PR is about relationships. It also shows smart strategy in getting people to overcome their attitude and maybe change their behavior not by reading about something, but by experiencing it first hand. That's also a distinction between image and reputation by the way--the latter is dependent on experience, not well-written words. Although the Muskegon official quoted in the piece certainly had his speaking points ready--evidenced in a bullet list in the article.

While the folks in Muskegon who came up with the idea for the experience opportunity probably did so intuitively, it is also evidence of theory in action. Diffusion of Innovation Theory, in particular, predicts that people will adopt new ideas because of trialability, which is another way of saying having an experience. As I tell my students, theory, as an explainer and predictor of human behavior, is so practical in a strategic sense.

I wonder if, as local bus ridership increases, the regional bus system being planned has a better chance of success. By coincidence, I wrote about the bus system in my monthly column for the Grand Haven Tribune, which is posted on my other blog, Pierpoints.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Blurred Indeed

Grand Rapids Press reporter Chris Knape had an interesting post on his Knape's Corner blog earlier this week about the lines between the news media and PR becoming more blurry. His post is based on the revelation that the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority is paying online magazine Rapid Growth Media to include content about DDA projects--effectively buying coverage.

Knape points out that the trouble comes when Rapid Growth does not make clear when the stories are objective journalism or paid content. This is blurry indeed. The various search engines such as Google and Yahoo learned early on that making a distinction between paid search results and natural search results was a key consumer demand. Buying content in a publication also gives me a chill as I think of the practice in some countries, where PR people regularly "bribe" journalists in order to get coverage. In those contexts, it is not seen as unethical; it's more on the order of tipping the doorman, simple business practice. This kind of ethical relativism in global PR is causing problems for the International Public Relations Association as it seeks to create a global code of ethics for the profession.

But back to West Michigan. Is the DDA-Rapid Growth contract a bad thing? Is it all that new?

If you look at Rapid Growth carefully, they have a mix of repurposed news media articles, news releases or other corporate content, and its own reporting. If they want to be considered a traditional journalistic outlet, this may be problematic. Where is the difference between news and opinion? Reporting and PR subsidized content?

But wait! Traditional newspapers have carried both news and opinion for years. And the lines here are blurring as well. What is the difference between an op-ed or column and a 'news analysis' article placed among the news articles? What's the difference between a column and a blog--they are organized separately on MLive. Is a blog reporting or opinion? Is there not some blurring between articles and blogs? And what are we to make of it when a reporter blogs about the same subject upon which he has reported?

That's happened in this case. Knape blogged about this DDA-Rapid Growth tidbit on Tuesday, to be followed by an article on the front of the business section on the same subject yesterday. Does this damage the credibility of the newspaper? Can articles by reporters who blog about the same subjects be seen as objective? It's another line blurred.

Personally, I think Knape is right--the public should know whether content is the result of an objective journalistic endeavor or paid content. We have had 'advertorials' for years, and the convention has always been to label them as such. No matter what changes and trends emerge in new media, both the journalism and the PR professions need to continue to attribute the source and be transparent about our objectives.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Media Dependency....on PR

When I talk to my students about the old but still interesting "media dependency" theory, I turn it around for them. The theory means that the public is often dependent on the media for information about civil life, business etc. This is not so true anymore with technology enabling PR practitioners using multiple tactics to reach publics without media relations, and the fact that media is so often market-driven to the point of neglecting real news. Nevertheless, some people DO still depend on the news media, and the news media have that reach and third-party credibility that still makes them a valuable, albeit shrinking, part of the PR tactical tool kit.

Meanwhile, I tell my students, media dependency goes both ways. Reporters, for all their criticisms of PR people, need US! There is empirical evidence on this that lead to academic concepts such as "information subsidy." But there is also anecdotal support from honest journalists.

Witness the case in point shared by blogger Jon Greer about what Wall Street Journal reporter Steve Yoder said at a recent meeting of the Silicon Valley PRSA Chapter. This goes beyond my usual focus on West Michigan, but many of you local PR pros pitch the WSJ and the advice is universal.