Thursday, October 27, 2011

Media Morbidity in West Michigan?

Maybe it's the Halloween season, but two events I attended last week seemed to have a morbid view of media. First there was the AimWest event with the teasing title "What Has Happened to Journalism?"  The very next day, the West Michigan Chapter of PRSA hosted its monthly luncheon on the subject "Is the Press Release Dead?"

Cue the scary music. Do the zombie walk.

What Happened to Journalism?
AimWest bills itself as an interactive organization, so the panelists discussion of journalism, prompted by moderator Bob Taylor, was in that frame. It was a good discussion, with lots of audience interaction. And far from being gloomy, I would say the discussion was straightforward and even exciting. The event could have been named 'What IS Happening to Journalism.'

A few of the common themes that came out:

  • journalism is moving from 'gatekeeper' model to sharing system;
  • related to the first point, news is not so much a product, but a process as the story never ends with comments, replies, updates etc.;
  • social media provides a 'first draft of history' these days, but MSM (mainstream media) provides the authoritative second draft;
  • there are things to do first and things to get right--the reputation of professional journalism is at stake, and lots of things on social media are not correct;
  • citizen journalism does not replace MSM but it does fill gaps, it's more inside-out from the community than outside-in to the community;
  • MSM has a form of responsibility in the public sphere to correct bad information, not in the sense of policing the blogs, but in sharing factual information when they have it;
  • individual journalists have personalities and unique audience as much or more than the institutions they work for because of social media;
I would add that there are still a few 'scary' things about journalism in the current environment. These don't apply to all media outlets, but there is ample evidence of journalists doing less reporting and more 'curating' and 'aggregating' other content. This is done for economic reasons, but a long-term view would say such weak repackaging is less of a service, and therefore less value, for media consumers. Also, the stories that are reported can often be done for financial reasons, called "market-driven" journalism, in which the news is still seen as product to be sold and not information of democratic or personal value to citizens. 

My own question about the notion in public relations that all companies or organizations should be 'media organizations' (i.e. provide original content directly to the public vs via MSM) was answered in typical fashion from journalists--that the public will trust a third-party journalist more than claims from a company. True to a point--but my own research shows that the nature of information, the interests of the consumer, and the prior reputation of the organization are equal factors. In many cases the MSM does not report certain subjects, and they may not do so thoroughly, so the public satisfies its need to particular information from a company, nonprofit, or government web site, YouTube channel, Facebook page, blog or Twitter account.

Is the Press Release Dead?
Meanwhile, at the WMPRSA event, I was  delighted to learn that the press release is not dead. (Please note sarcasm intended). Of course, when the presented is from Business Wire, one can expect that intimations of death of its primary product are intentionally exaggerated to boost attendance. 

I would say the theme here is that the press release is alive in the sense that most journalists still say it is a primary source of news. But some, maybe even many, news releases are walking zombies. In other words, they need more life in them, using the new interactive tools available, such as multimedia options for actualities as MP3 files, video embeds, hyperlinks throughout the release, and the whole thing written with SEO (search engine optimization) in mind. We teach all this in our media relations class at GVSU, so it was good to hear the affirmation. 

Business Wire, PR Newswire, PitchEngine and other service providers can help PR pros do this. But it is also possible to do yourself in an online newsroom, getting some help from IT or using a simple blog or other CMS option. Although, I met the president of PitchEngine at the PRSA Conference earlier this month, and the basic service is free! 

The point is, you'll see "the press release is dead" as event titles and ranting blog posts again and again. The thing to remember is the press release is still a useful tool, IF you use it well. And it can be more alive if PR pros take advantage of multiple tools that make it more interesting not only to journalists but the public directly as they engage your organization online and in social media. For proof of this, pay attention to the advanced measurement tools that come with using multimedia and interactive press releases. It might add some life to the way your clients and bosses see the value of media relations as part of what PR people do.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ford Follows Up, Gives Better 'Focus'

I blogged in an earlier post about a Ford PR event in Grand Rapids that didn't seem to go too well. I subsequently followed up about how a Ford PR representative reached out to me and offered to visit campus.

That happened yesterday, when Dan Pierce, Environmental Communications Manager for Ford, and engineer Mike Tinskey, who manages Ford's electric vehicle program, came to our Allendale campus with a prototype of the Ford Focus Electric and ample time to spend with some of our Advertising and PR students.

Pierce talked to students about internships at Ford in our student study, then spent some time outside with Tinskey talking to students about the vehicle. From 6-8:30, more than a dozen students took in a presentation about electric vehicle technology and Ford's broad communications strategy with this emerging product category. The students did as much talking as Pierce and Tinskey.

Garret Ellison of the Grand Rapids Press was both outside and in the presentation. You can read his account. As for me, I'll share just a few PR lessons learned in an event that happily lasted longer than I anticipated:

  • Ford recognizes the variance among publics and its "Power of Choice" campaign is designed to let consumers decide between battery only electric vehicle, plug-in hybrid, or gas-electric hybrid. 
  • Timeframe is important in PR campaigns. They acknowledge the need to reach early adopters and allow the popularity of electric vehicles to grow. They showed data and charts that illustrate slow initial growth that is starting to accelerate.
  • PR people have to think holistically. Pierce repeatedly pointed to Tinskey as an example of working with engineers and other internal publics. He also noted that the campaign needs to consider partnerships with companies that make charging equipment, addressing concerns of utility companies and government leaders and many other considerations beyond just sales pitch to consumers.
  • Messaging is important and must be tailored but sometimes a "shotgun" approach of multiple messages is necessary and strategic to reach diverse psychographic differences in a new product category.
  • This blogging thing can lead to great campus visits for students :-)
The best part was hearing the students' smart questions, hearing Pierce and Tinskey tell me how impressed they were with the students, and watching students show off their PR campaign plan books and resumes. Being taken by Tinskey for a short ride in the vehicle afterwards was pretty cool too. My '99 internal combustion looks dated now.

In the end, I'd like to think Ford and the GVSU School of Communications have charged up a positive relationship.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Media Partnerships and PR

At first glance you might think "The Business Times of Northwest Ottawa County" is a bold new journalistic venture. Not exactly.

The new publication is a partnership between the Chamber of Grand Haven, Spring Lake, and Ferrysburg and the Grand Haven Tribune. A Tribune article recently explained the new partnership.

There's no doubt such a partnership has mutual benefits. The Chamber is using the design and production capabilities of a local daily newspaper to upgrade the look of its former newsletter, the "Beacon." Distribution is also a positive from this partnership, with the chamber tucking its piece into the local paper and reaching 28,000 subscribers as opposed to maintaining their own list and mailing process.

Meanwhile, the Tribune gets content and revenue. There's no doubt the Chamber is paying an insertion fee for the privilege of distributing their branded material in the Tribune. The publication also takes advertising. Also, in this era of struggling media, it's a great way for the Tribune to deliver more business related news to its subscribers, provided by Chamber members and others not on the newspaper's payroll.

This is just another example of such media partnerships in this era of shrinking media budgets and staff. The Grand Rapids Press added a health section a year ago to provide more locally focused health coverage from both reporters and staff of area health institutions. The Press also partnered recently with citizen journalism outlet the Rapidian in a series of "hunger challenge" articles.

But in all the win-win for papers and partners, what about the public and public relations practitioners?

Sure, this is a great PR opportunity for hospitals and chambers and other organizations who can use these partnerships to guarantee coverage of their issues and news. But lost in seizing these opportunities may be the realization that this is a transition from "earned" to paid media, or uncontrolled to controlled media. Earned or uncontrolled media means a PR practitioner had to convince a hard-working and appropriately skeptical journalist of the news value of their content. Paid or controlled media means an organization gets to place content verbatim in the space  it has purchased as advertising.

These partnerships may be a middle ground. The Press and Tribune both show some editorial involvement. But one has to wonder what the public thinks. The key advantage of earned media is not just that it is not paid for, but that it has third-party credibility. In other words, the public is less likely to believe and trust something they know has been paid for or controlled by whoever is presenting the information. They are more likely to believe  something if they sense it has been verified by an objective outside person, also known as a journalist.

What this means for those engaging in media partnerships is caution is in order. It will be a mistake to think that achieving reach and "getting the word out" is enough. It will be how such ventures are carried out, with transparency, honesty, and credibility that will not only reach people but inform and influence them.