Tuesday, May 27, 2008

May Media Month--Diggin' Digital

A professional from a local PR firm recently talked to me about the range of special news programs on local TV. She's talking about doing a content analysis to be really on top of what programs focus on what types of news when. Smart thinking. I'd ad radio to the mix.

Local TV and radio stations are local businesses. They are affiliates of national networks, and most of their air time is taken up by running the feed of national programming. Where they make their most money is when they can offer unique local programming and sell local ads. There's no doubt local broadcasting does this well, including:

  • "West Michigan Week" on WGVU (which features, magnanimously, journalists from other broadcast and print outlets);
  • "Take Five" on WZZM TV 13 (which I appeared on once with a pajama-clad Catherine Behrendt--long and unrelated story there);
  • the FOX 17 "Know Zone," (a form of TV advertorial);
  • TV 8's local version of Sunday politic talk programs, "To the Point," (which has made me late for church more than once);
  • and all manner of local radio programs, from DJ chatter to more formalized interview and talk programs.

    Sending a news release to the newsroom is still important, but in the modern media environment its best to think rifle not shotgun when seeking media opportunities. These special segments have more specific content and reach more tailored audiences. That makes PR pitching perhaps both more challenging and more rewarding if you do your homework.

    BUT, as the headline on this post suggests, the real opportunities will come with the switch to entirely digital broadcasting next February. What this means for local TV station is the ability to broadcast content on more than one channel, because digital transmission rids us of the spectrum scarcity via the analog airwaves. Each station can have up to four channels in the new environment. WGVU already offers unique programming on its extra channels. TV 8 and 13 are using their extra channels (see 8.2, 8.3, 13.2 13.3) to simulcast programming in wide and standard screen and to offer 24/7 weather. But, the opportunity is there to offer more unique programming. That'll be an opportunity, a revenue stream, for local stations if they can handle the production costs and get ad support. It'll also be an opportunity for PR pros to provide content, in the form of ideas and even finished video. Of course, with recent years' scandals about video news releases, we'll have to be sure to label our VNRs accordingly--and stations will have to attribute them--but there is room for many creative ways for PR pros and broadcast outlets to benefit mutually--by benefiting the public--with a broader range of local information and programming.

    To contradict the old TV announcer cliche--definitely DO touch that dial. There's more to come.
  • Thursday, May 22, 2008

    May Media Month--LIVE TV!!!!

    At those popular "meet the media" panels many of us have attended, the TV journalists talk about the uniqueness of their medium and how that affects what they consider news. Usually that means tight deadline, and they have to have a visual (in the same way that birds are attracted to shiny tin foil).

    For that reason, news in TV isn't always dictated by the substance of a story. This can lead to trite treatment of stories and messages we want to get to our publics. Some PR people I talk to consciously determine that some news releases are better not sent to TV--90 seconds of "good TV" isn't always good PR when publics aren't getting the full story.

    The treatment over substance problem of TV news is most evident when they go LIVE!!! I put this in all caps and with three exclamation points because I don't want to appear nearly as excited about live TV as the TV stations themselves. I had to tone it down a bit.

    Ya know, LIVE!!! just isn't that exciting anymore. Sometimes it's relevant to point out that the news is live. It's best to just do so with a simple graphic in the corner of the screen. But it's annoying when anchors have to boldly boast about the fact that they are LIVE!!!

    Most of the time, local TV going LIVE!!! is actually not a big deal. A reporter doing his or her stand-up in the dark outside a building for the 11 p.m. news long after the actual event happened is ridiculous. Get the poor sap out of the cold, or just run the pre-recorded interviews and VO. What's worse is the "LIVE!!! in the newsroom" reports. Um, you're reporters, it's time for the news, and you're actually live in the newsroom, which is, you know, like an office for reporters and where you do your job and stuff. So, were we to have expected otherwise?

    TV had the ability to broadcast live decades ago--get over it local TV. Consumers have. That's right, LIVE!!! is not only not exciting, it's irrelevant. With "time-shifting" all the rage in the form of Tivo, VOD (video on demand), DVRs, Internet streaming, RSS feeds, etc., consumers don't care when TV stations are live; they care about when THEY are ready to consume news. The fact that you DON'T need to be in the living room at 6, 10 or 11 p.m. to watch local TV news is what excites viewers today.

    As PR people, we could adopt a strategy to accommodate local TV's fascination with LIVE!!! by timing our press conferences and stressing visuals and other LIVE!!! opportunities. But, our profession has enough image problems for promoting fluff. We should focus on helping them with, you know, actual news.

    I'm Tim Penning, blogging LIVE!!! in the extra bedroom I use as a home office.

    Tuesday, May 20, 2008

    May Media Month--Business Weeklies

    PR Week recently had an article in praise of city business journals as a media relations outlet. Indeed, I tell students in my media relations classes to be sure to familiarize themselves with these publications in whatever community they end up landing a job.

    Here in West Michigan we are fortunate to have three publications dedicated to covering our neck of the woods. The Grand Rapids Business Journal, MiBiz, and Business Review are based on Grand Rapids, Muskegon, and Kalamazoo, respectively. But they have offices and reporters throughout the region and have a multi-county coverage area that is broader than the dailies within the region. (Business Review is a Booth Newspaper property, part of the same family as the Grand Rapids Press, Muskegon Chronicle, and Kalamazoo Gazette in the region).

    Yes, I know, there is also Business Update. But theirs is mostly a press release distribution service, so I'll focus on the other three.

    While PR Week, which has an international audience, seemed to see the local focus of business journals as a downside, it actually is a plus if you are seeking a local audience.

    For one, these publications and their reporters know the region. They have as much of a vested interest in this geographic region as do the organizations we represent. And their reporters tend to really know the region, which translates into more thoughtful and comprehensive stories with a level of detail you wouldn't usually get in a national outlet.

    Not only do the business weeklies cover separate stories well, their overall coverage runs deep. They make up for the long lead time with special sections and overviews of entire industries. They also consider business in the broadest terms, covering government and nonprofit sectors as well.

    While the weeklies have circulations and reach that is less than the dailies or TV audiences, they offer a select and sought after readership of key leaders and influentials. So we can reach a smaller but more significant audience via these business weeklies. This narrower audience is the reason why the business weeklies can cover such a wide array of topics with specificity whereas local dailies--with a broader more general audience--only cover business stories of more general interest.

    Finally, the business weeklies are not limited to specific cities, as PR Week implies. Most organizations do not limit their activities to city limits or typical daily newspaper readership areas. The business weeklies cover news from that regional perspective. It's important for folks in Grand Rapids to know what's happening in the business community on the lakeshore, and vice versa.

    When I was in college and worked on the student paper, which came out three times a week, we used to joke that we started out as a tri-weekly, then slowed down to a try-weekly, and by our senior years we were reduced to a try-weakly. But I'd have to say the West Michigan business weeklies are a source of strength in the regional media landscape.

    Monday, May 19, 2008

    Jeff Lambert Interviewed on CNN Re: China Olympics

    GR public relations pro Jeff Lambert leveraged his recent trip to China (see previous post) into an interview on CNN about branding Beijing and the Olympics. See the interview here.

    Saturday, May 17, 2008

    PRSA/BEPS Statement on Meijer

    The Public Relations Society of America and its Board of Ethical and Professional Standards (BEPS) issued this statement on the Meijer/SST case yesterday, May 16:


    PRSA/BEPS Statement on Meijer Case
    Involving Michigan Campaign Finance Act

    NEW YORK (May 16, 2008) – The Public Relations Society of America’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards is continuing to review the facts surrounding the Meijer/Acme Township Conciliation Agreement with the Michigan Secretary of State and the role public relations professionals may have played in the events and actions leading up to this agreement.

    While the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) has no authority to issue sanctions or penalties against a member of the Society, it is important to draw members’ attention to real-world situations that can be used as ethical learning experiences. The facts, stated in the Meijer Conciliation Agreement and the local media, indicate that some professional actions were clearly contrary to the spirit of the PRSA Code of Ethics’ professed values of transparency, openness and honesty. It would appear that the intent was not to educate the public to help make an informed decision but rather influence the voters in an undisclosed and unethical fashion.

    As “ethical practice is the most important obligation of a PRSA member,” we should affirm that the best course of action for an ethical practitioner is to counsel against activities such as undisclosed front groups and remind clients that honesty and transparency are fundamental to ethical business practices. BEPS has affirmed this counsel to members in its Practice Standards Advisories PSA #3 and PSA #7.

    Currently, there have been no findings of criminal or civil wrongdoing by anyone involved in the Meijer case. PRSA members understand however that “those who have been or are sanctioned by a government agency or convicted in a court of law of an action that is in opposition to the PRSA Code of Ethics may be barred from membership or expelled from the Society.” (PRSA Code of Ethics Member Pledge)

    Wednesday, May 14, 2008

    Chicken Feet and Spreading Wings

    A few weeks ago I called Jeff Lambert and heard he was in China. This week's Grand Rapids Business Journal explains why in an article that's part of their Global Business "Focus" section (subscription required).

    Turns out Lambert, Edwards and Associates has landed its first international client. Shiner International, of Haikou, China, is traded on the NASDAQ in the U.S. and has contracted the GR investor relations specialists to handle their IR work.

    In addition to an anecdote about Jeff sampling chicken feet and other Chinese cuisine, the article is an interesting review of the potential for West Michigan PR firms to spread international wings.

    Shout out to LEA, and cheers for West Michigan PR.

    Meijer Fines

    Word was out yesterday that the Michigan Secretary of State's office is imposing record fines on Meijer for the Acme Township episode. The Grand Rapids Press went top of fold with a good sidebar of detail inside. The story also was picked up in the Associated Press and versions ran in the Traverse City Record Eagle, Detroit News and Chicago Tribune.

    Anyone who still thinks all publicity is good is being conspicuously silent today.

    I am most interested in the public relations aspect of this story. We learn in yesterday's Press report that Meijer's internal changes in response to the case involve oversight of hiring PR and legal counsel:

    "The selection of outside legal and public relations firms now must be approved by VerHeulen and Stacie Behler, the retailer's vice president of communications, according to VerHeulen, who also is mayor of Walker. The two also must keep tabs on the work being done on behalf of Meijer."

    I wondered about that last night. DIdn't these people approve hiring of outside firms before, and weren't they working right with them on the Acme situation? Seemed like a dodge.

    But this morning we learn more. In an update story that Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox is taking a pass on the case, we get more depth. For one, Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Alan Schneider still wants Cox to refer the case to him locally so he can pursue individuals. He claims corporations don't write checks and make decisions, people do. (FYI, since an 1898 Supreme Court case there has been precedent for corporations to be considered as persons). Nevertheless, it would be interesting to see which individuals he would target--Meijer officials or their legal and PR counsel.

    To that end, we learn in this morning's article (posted to MLive to beat the broadcasters, by the way) "Meijer no longer is working with the Grand Rapids public relations firm Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson Inc. and the Detroit law firm Dickinson Wright, which ran two campaigns on its behalf, Meijer President Mark Murray said." Murray does the noble thing and accepts responsibility for the work of any consultants who represented them. As for her part, Ginny Seyferth is nonplussed, telling the Press that SST is available to help Meijer in the future.

    So, Meijer pays the fine, accepts the blame, says they will pay closer attention to what their PR consultants do on their behalf. But the fines center on state law regarding disclosure of funding in political campaigns. What is not yet clear, and probably never will be, is whether or not the pro-Meijer group of citizens was organic and legitimate or a front group, used deceptively by SST and/or Meijer, either consciously or not.

    What is more clear, sadly, is the bad impression the general public will have about PR as a result of this episode. It's darn hard getting people to stop saying "just PR" or "merely PR" or "PR stunt." It's harder still when anecdotal evidence supports these pejorative characterizations of a profession that is supposed to be about the transparent building and maintenance of mutual relationships in the public interest.

    Tuesday, May 13, 2008

    May Media Month--Newspaper Competition

    If you've done media relations for a while, you are savvy enough to know that calling a reporter who has just written something nice about a competitor and asking them to give your company the same treatment just won't fly. Why, the reporter would (rightly) ask, should your competitive interests be of any newsworthy concern to me?

    But, then if you've attended a "meet the media" panel at a WMPRSA event, you probably have heard a local editor complain about not getting PR information early enough to be out there at the same time as their competition. In some cases, this implies a day-early heads up so said news organization can print before broadcasters air the story.

    Why, I want to ask, should the competitive interests of the local media be any part of our PR considerations? I mean, if it's about news and your news cycle takes day versus 10 minutes to get word out, so be it. Should arsonists give a heads up so crime reporters get good fire photos?

    Well, for one, you have to maintain those media relationships. Editors have long memories, news can be subjective, and you may not get coverage or good treatment if you damage those relationships.

    But, local dailies have it wrong if they think the timing of stories is a competitive issue. Newspapers can and should deliver depth. Studies have shown that most news consumers are alerted to the basics of a story by broadcast news and go to the papers for depth.

    Beyond that, newspapers need to understand competition circa 2008:

  • they can get stories out as quickly as anyone else online (in fact MLive touts its "real time" stories)
  • they can go beyond photos and text to offer audio and video and compete with their broadcast counterparts. The Grand Haven Tribune, Holland Sentinel, Muskegon Chronicle and Grand Rapids Press are all offering video now. It's not a lot yet, and the production values are closer to Aunt Edna's vacation footage than broadcast news in some cases. But the technology is there. Across the country, some papers are equipping reporters with video cameras. Colleges are talking about curricula that prepares the next generation of journalists to be multi-media experts.
  • PR professionals can directly reach their publics via email blasts, RSS subscriptions, web casts, mobile media feeds etc. Some editors complain about that--that we have info online on our own web sites before they can publish it. Boo hoo. We are communicating directly to our publics. How or why are we obligated to give the news media an edge in a conversation we have with our publics? More important to PR folks is communicating honestly, quickly, transparently, and symmetrically. If the print newspaper isn't in that mix--that's business baby.

    Maybe they ought to think about the realities of competition instead of complain. They could adapt to new media, do additional reporting, engage the public in dialogue, adopt a different treatment, or something to add value to their own content. There is room for good journalism and good business to coexist. We in PR should hope the best for them. But increasingly, we have multiple avenues to reach our publics, and they have more ways of reaching us as well. Every once in a while, that might involve a newspaper.
  • Thursday, May 08, 2008

    May Media Month--Newspapers and Opinion

    Coincidentally to my focus on the media this month, a new survey says that newspapers in the future will be free and focus more on opinion and commentary.

    Opinion? Is that their selling point?

    We got opinion all over the place through blogs, PR position papers etc. Newspapers no longer have a stranglehold on barrels of ink and Heidelberg presses. Anyone can publish these days. Free newspapers with an emphasis on opinion? I'll pass.

    Newspapers need to provide objective reporting, upon which OTHERS will opine. It's the reporting that needs to be their niche.

    The philosophical role of newspapers has been as a mediator of what Jurgen Habermas called the "public sphere." In other words, newspapers provide the forum for the 'public sphere' in which citizens debate. They are a mediator, a medium, hence the "media."

    Originally, civic dialogue happened in coffee houses and pubs when citizens talked face to face about local issues. In 1962 when Habermas wrote, newspapers provided information to fuel such discussions. But newspapers were rarely themselves the forum. According to agenda setting theory, they put the issues on the table, and provided some opinion. But newspapers themselves were never a forum for civic debate.

    If newspapers want to seize the Internet age, they need to do more of what some have started to do--be that forum. Newspapers could go beyond offering their own opinion in editorials and columns and reporters' blogs. They can go beyond starting the conversation and BE the forum by allowing more dialogue. Some of this is starting to happen at national newspapers, started by USA Today, that allows readers to rank articles or lists articles in order of most read. It's a sort of social media aspect to reading a newspaper. In West Michigan, papers are making their online sites more of a forum as well, though there has been minimal reader response to this option so far. The Grand Haven Tribune's new site allows readers to share or bookmark articles through Digg and Del.icio.us. The Holland Sentinel , in its recently relaunched site, does the same and also allows emailing and commenting on stories. Both the Grand Rapids Press and Muskegon Chronicle, through their (hard to find) pages via Mlive, offer all of the above plus social bookmarking at Reddit, Google, Yahoo, and Facebook, the latter to reach the younger readers.

    Free papers and a focus on opinion is actually not futuristic--this is really a return to history. Years ago we had the penny papers, and most early newspapers were overtly partisan party organs. Will the future newspaper, with an emphasis on opinion, merely be read by partisans? That does not facilitate civil dialogue, it polarizes us. Plus we can get a cacophony of opinion without newspapers.

    The content draw increasingly will be unvarnished fact, which is lost in our multi-mediated, consumer-generated news environment. That's the content of value in the future that will attract readers, which in turn will attract advertisers, which will help newspapers remain viable both democratically and economically.

    And THAT means good things for those of us who work in public relations and advertising, who will find new ways to use newspapers as a medium to reach audiences seeking useful, clear, credible information, as well as a place to share and hear their fellow citizens' opinions.

    Friday, May 02, 2008

    May Media Month--Newspapers' Future

    I'll kick off May Media Month by talking about the state of the newspaper. By coincidence, there's an interesting series on the subject begun this week by Advertising Age, opening with an article (subscription required) headlined "Newspaper Death Watch." Not entirely a rosy outlook.

    Meanwhile in the West Michigan area, you may have noticed the Grand Rapids Press editorial this past Sunday, "Newspapers tomorrow" (Headline is "Newspapers remain key to informed democracy" in online version). The Press is more cheerful about the future of newspapers, to the point of being a cheerleader. Part of the problem of the rapid decline of newspapers is this wishful thinking on the part of journalists. As BuzzMachine blogger Jeff Jarvis put it recently: the decline of newspapers is not news; "it'll be news if they figure out what to do about it."

    Nevertheless, the Press holds forth in its editorial saying that newspapers are vital to democracy both in print and online. Let me offer a few comments based on the editorial.

    1. I share the hope of the Press editorial board. I'm a former journalist, pretty fond of democracy, and enjoy reading newspapers and still read several a day for enjoyment as well as a work responsibility. I also think, as a PR practitioner, that the survival of newspapers is good for us as one (note I say one, not the only--more on that later) credible source of information to reach our varied publics.

    2. It is a bit humorous to me that the occasion for this editorial is the opening of the refurbished Newseum in Washington D.C. I was at the Newseum when it first opened years ago and found it a fascinating overview of how news is made. But the part that makes me snicker a bit is the fact that the Press tries to rally hopes about the future of newspapers by pointing to a museum of news. Museums, you know, are places where they keep old stuff, dead things, to preserve them for our memory because you can't see them in the real world anymore.
    (By the way, the PR industry has an online museum as well. Not because we're dead, but to remind practitioners and publics alike of our roots. Check out the PRMuseum.com.)

    3. The editorial mentions that "Citizens, too, face a struggle to stay informed from reliable sources in an effort to remain active participants in their democratic government." Coupla thoughts here. I wonder how often you'd hear the word "citizen" if you sat in on the news meetings at the Press, or any other newspaper for that matter.
    In some of my own research, editors are more likely to conceive of readers not as citizens but as a market. They speak of citizens in philosophical ways in editorials and at cocktail parties. At work, it's all business. I think for their survival, newspapers need to do more, well, PR. They need to convince people of the importance of being informed of political and social issues, and not only respond to reader surveys that demand entertainment. It's not sexy, but the real niche newspapers will have in the future is deep reporting on LOCAL school boards, city commissions, education, environmental issues. They can't compete with the plethora of online, real-time sources of international, national, sports, and entertainment news. The editorial mentions depth and tenacious reporting; that's true. That's what they should sell. Sell democracy. Don't just boast of having the info, stress why people should want it and what they should do with it. Make it practical, not philosophical.

    We in PR, by the way, are often no better. The PRSA Code of Ethics frequently uses the phrase "informed decision making in a democratic society." But the same research I alluded to above shows that far too often PR pros don't conceive of their work as providing a free flow of information to enable informed decisions. Rather, we often offer the company line, highlighting and withholding in a way that benefits us. Properly understood PR (i.e. the two-way symmetrical model) can achieve both--helping those we represent and contributing to democracy.

    (If you are interested in my paper "Public Relations Properly Understood: The Role of PR in Deliberative Democracy," let me know and I'll email you a PDF).

    4. The editorial says "the press" is enshrined in the First Amendment. Well, good thing they put quotes around press. The First Amendment does NOT enshrine journalism. We often talk as if it does. But it is quite literally the printing press that was at issue in the late 1700s. Printers often became publishers of newspapers because it was a natural extension of their printing business, but they printed many other works. John Milton's speech "Areopagitica" to the Star Chamber court in England protests the licensing of books, not journalists. John Stuart Mill in his "On Liberty" exhorts the freedom of all expression, not just journalists. The Federalist Papers were a series of pamphlets written by patriot politicians--John Jay, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton--not journalists. They were in essence position papers, encouraging the people of New York to ratify the new American constitution. The "press" produced PUBLIC RELATIONS tactics, not only journalism.

    Today, production and distribution of writing does not require a press and paper. We have the Internet. Thus, newspapers no longer have such a near monopoly on information. In an online world, newspapers compete with other journalists and bloggers as well as all manner of PR information. In an online environment the reader does not distinguish between newspapers, TV, radio, or corporate Web sites. Third-party credibility is nice, and we still should seek it. But there are other forms of credibility. Trust in media is not always high. Some consumers see media reported information as second-hand, with something lost in translation. Original information straight from the source (i.e. PR) is considered more credible, if that source has a reputation for honesty. We can subscribe to receive news releases and 8K statements directly from companies we invest in. We can get news via the AP, in a Google or Yahoo aggregator, via RSS feeds. And we can tailor that info to our interests. Also, as I'm looking at in some other research, credibility isn't the only attribute of information people seek. Sometimes they want depth, sometimes immediacy, sometimes inside information; it depends. Sometimes newspapers are the best source; increasingly there are other options--including directly from us PR pros.

    To conclude, some people give newspapers another 20 years before they die. I'm not that pessimistic. I think newspapers are in a period of morphing to a "bricks and clicks" model that many retailers are still working out. The ratio of print to online, the ad support mechanism, narrowing the market, and adapting the revenue streams all have to be worked out. I'm pretty confident they will be. More on that in future posts.