No one will be shocked by the front page headline of the latest issue of Wired magazine titled: “The News in Crisis.” Equally ‘yawn-able’ infographics in the accompanying article inside show (a) the decline in news jobs for all media (10% in the past 10 years) and a generation gap where only 5% of 18-29 years olds get their news from print newspapers. Tell us something we don’t know, right? Yet, a sister article by writer Gabriel Snyder shines a light on how the venerable The New York Times is humping like never before to remain relevant.
Working in favor of theTimes and other legitimate news outlets are the very times we are living in. As, while ‘fake news’ is a ridiculous term coined by the current administration to describe anything it does not agree with, social platforms all too often cater to scribes and sources who put forth opinions and conjecture that is not fact checked and certainly not news. Most rationale individuals want real journalism from credible news sources.. In the wake of the recent presidential election, in fact, the Times reported that subscriptions had surged to 10 times its usual numbers.
To remain viable, however, the Times knows it has to continue to build upon its digital platforms. In 2000, print advertising accounted for 70% of revenues, with digital just 1%. There was no digital news content at that time. In 2015, both digital and digital news encompassed 12% of revenues (24% total), with print advertising down to 28%. Since that time, the “paper” has continued to build upon its digital platforms to offer a wide range of multi-media programming. The centerpiece, or, starting point, is the print subscription. Readers are offered a small bit of ‘free’ content each month but then incentivized to pay for more news, information and fun. This includes a suite of apps, blogs and verticals on a range of topics with original content, akin to a Netflix or Hulu. There is Cooking and Crossword and, soon, Real Estate. Live streaming and text messaging are also utilized regularly for news and sports, and, the Times is also running virtual reality films. Regarding the latter, one early example has Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ben Solomon ‘embedding’ viewers with Iraqi soldiers battling Isis.
Is it working? Early returns are promising as more than 1.5 million people now pay more than $200 million for yearly subscriptions. Overall digital revenue is nearly $500 million. Perhaps as impressive as the Times on-going informational experimentation to raise readership and revenue, reports Snyder, is management’s willingness to ruffle the feathers of tradition and ‘prim and proper.’ The time-worn mantra: ‘The Times wouldn’t do that’ is headed the way of the Dodo Bird. And it has to. The new rallying cry? Evolve or die. It is a call that should be watched closely and imitated widely.
Generally speaking, those who don’t work in PR or media aren’t particularly interested in what we do, with one notable exception. When something goes wrong, they become very curious.
It’s always interesting to take questions when speaking about crisis communications, whether it’s to a college class, an Optimist Club, a PR conference or a business group. Recently, I had the chance to present to a group of nonprofit leaders convened by the Plante Moran accounting firm on the campus of Lawrence Technological University. Several dozen attended but, reverting to the mentality of their college lecture days, all but very few sat in the back rows of the big auditorium.
When bad news strikes a nonprofit organization, the priorities are often different. Never was this more clear than a situation I helped with a few years ago when a prominent religious organization fired a longtime member of its clergy. The Board Chair’s husband, a corporate executive, had a relationship with a PR firm that worked primarily with manufacturing companies. The Chair and the firm drafted and then sent a letter to members and, despite the fact that this was a deeply emotional situation, it had the level of charm and compassion that only an employment lawyer could embrace. To say the communication fell flat would be an understatement. It helped create misunderstanding and discord that escalated to crisis.
When Board members came to see us for a “second opinion,” we offered a much different approach. Without getting into the complex details (it was a doozy, to say the least), we ended up taking a path, that was ultimately successful, including candor, listening and respect for the organization’s mission. The takeaway here is that for a nonprofit organization to survive “bad news,” the situation must be managed through a different lens than with a corporation or certainly a political scenario. There’s much more to this than can be covered in a blog post and thanks to Plante Moran and Lawrence Tech, you can watch the entire presentation (less than 30 minutes) and the one hour of live Q&A that followed (it was a really good group).
To watch the presentation in its entirety, click here. Spoiler Alert: I don’t rhetorically ask “Right?” after attempting to make a bold point, even once. Thank you for taking a look.
In a supposed land of equality there are all too many of us who, from the cocoon of our comfortable lives, all too often ask questions such as: What is wrong with our society? Why are our prisons filled to capacity? Why can’t everyone just follow the right path and take advantage of the opportunities that exist for us all? Watch the Oscar-winning “Moonlight” and you may feel differently.
Without giving away too much of the plot, the story centers around three phases in the life of an African American youth (“Little”) living in a rough neighborhood in Miami. Without the role models, without the guidance, without the proper day-to-day guardianship, he is rudderless and largely helpless. He truly never stands a chance. How does one communicate your hopes, your fears without anyone to communicate them to? As for goals and aspirations – what are those?
I have not seen “La La Land” but by all indications, it appears to be a wonderful film. Perhaps fittingly it is the polar opposite of “Moonlight”; a throwback fantasy far flung from reality. And while I know I might appreciate the performances in the former, I associated deeply with the school bullying sequences in the latter – a life experience that made me stronger and helped shape my life for the better but that I will never forget.
“Moonlight’ will shock, sadden and disturb but should move you to introspection. As my mom used to say to me as we walked by someone less fortunate, “If there but for the Grace of God go I.” We will never and should never tolerate drugs nor crime but this movie works to force each and every one of us to contemplate the ‘why’ of it all. “Moonlight’ does not provide answers but does ask us to consider compassion and, eventually, redemption.
We got an email this week from a respected college professor putting together a PR conference. The question was simple, “Do you know of anybody willing to talk about being bitten by fake news?”
The answer, from our end, was also simple. We don’t. That is because there is no “epidemic of fake news” in the day-to-day world of PR.
To explain, let us please agree on the definition of “fake news.” What we are talking about in this post is the disguising of fictional content, using familiar people’s names, on websites that look like news sights but are created just to spread this fiction. It what, before the ease of sharing websites via social media, were called “hoaxes” or “urban legends.” We used to see this kind of stuff in the grocery store checkout lines in tabloids (the Weekly World News often featured front page “stories” about politicians and aliens) or, from our friends (who could talk to us even before Facebook), like when those of us of a certain age heard that Mikey from the Life cereal commercials died after mixing Pop Rocks candy with some sort of carbonated beverage.
What we are not talking about here is news coverage from a bona fide, commercially viable, familiarly-named outlet that does not paint the sitting President of the United States in a favorable light, in his opinion. We are also not talking about news coverage that includes errors in reporting.
Now that we have that straight, you can begin to understand the answer we gave the professor. The “fake news epidemic” has been limited to national politics. That has been the focal point of news consumption since last year and that is what is driving clicks online. That is where there is money to be made and attention to be had by the fraudsters online. This is not a phenomenon that is seriously impacting day-to-day business in the rest of the country. That is not to suggest that some sort of fabricated item that looks like news couldn’t show up online about the place where you work or a company with which you do business. The potential is there but the reality is not.
This is similar to the “supermarket tabloid” heyday. There was much more of a chance of a “fake” story about Carol Burnett getting drunk and getting into a verbal altercation with Henry Kissinger in The National Enquirer (that happened, resulting in a lawsuit) than anything about anyone not a celebrity. The reason is simple – celebrities (and diet tips) have always moved paper in grocery store lines, the way stories about the President and politics drive clicks now.
In every community in the country at certainly at the national level, both the news and PR businesses are facing some serious issues and challenges. But, for the vast majority of us, today, this just is not one of them.
I don’t know what I’m up against. I don’t know what it’s all about. I got so much to think about…This week, former pop idol David Cassidy announced to the world that he has dementia and, after nearly 50 years of performing, he is retiring. His life has been an extreme rollercoaster ride that has touched many and, as much as any, tells a cautionary tale of a brand identity run amok, lost and later found.
A working actor and musician in his teens, Cassidy always sought stardom, appearing on a slew of early 70s high-profile television series, including: “Medical Center,” “Bonanza,” “Ironside,” “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and “Adam-12.” But nothing could have prepared him for his role in the Cowsills-inspired “Partridge Family” that would, virtually overnight, elevate his status to one of the most famous and sought after pop stars ever while leaving him wondering who he really was.
For Cassidy, the fame would become both a blessing and a curse as he has described the phenomenon of “him” in interviews over the years. Media of the day worked both for and against him. At a time before cable, the Internet, MP3s and video games, there were only three national TV networks; as such, millions watched while millions more bought Partridge Family records (myself among them). As such, to much of the world David Cassidy was Keith Partridge – whether on television, Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine covers, lunch boxes or in concert (where he sang series songs).
Exacerbating the problem for Cassidy was that in a time before the Internet and cable, there were few media platforms to appear as “yourself” – no personal websites to tell the tale of who you really were as an artist rather than fictional character; no E! Entertainment cable network to run stories on a day in your life. And, further, there were only a handful of network TV talk shows where one might appear “out of costume” as it were; the granddaddy being “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” although this aired late nightly and long after most teenyboppers went to bed. As a result, David Cassidy lost himself with a personal brand and identity virtually hijacked by a TV network (ABC) that owned his likeness and a recording company (Bell) that owned his voice. It was a disastrous recipe for typecasting and, for many years, resulted in something akin to career suicide. Just ask one-time “Batman” star Adam West.
Cassidy eventually would resurrect his career and take his talents to Broadway and then Vegas and, in time, return to touring and playing (and enjoying) the songs that initially made him famous enough to sell out Madison Square Garden and Wembley Stadium, among others, back in the day. However, it would take walking away at the top of his fame and drastic measures (appearing mostly nude on the cover of Rolling Stone). Radio and music buyers would largely eschew his new offerings for years.
They say time can heal all wounds and hindsight is forever 20/20 and, to be sure, in recent interviews he has talked about the positives of extreme celebrity and how it has allowed him the opportunity to positively impact the lives of many. As he enters the twilight of his life and a difficult road ahead, perhaps David Cassidy has also finally come to terms with and accepted the pivotal role Keith Partridge played in his life. One would think that, at the very least, he’s met him halfway. And you know what they say about that.
It was going to be tough enough to try to get media attention in 2017. The news workforce is smaller, yet again, than it was last year. A new administration in The White House always takes its share of news coverage in every level, as change is explored widely. But this year, if you work in or with PR, consider how “The Trump Factor” means a smaller piece of a shrinking pie for everyone else.
Almost no matter what type of PR you work in, it’s more of a challenge than ever to get coverage without a “Trump angle,” or at least a government/politics angle. It’s the pervasive conversation in our country and in our current events discourse now and for the foreseeable future. Also, news consumers are eating it up. Don’t listen to those who say they’re sick of it and staying away. From everything we hear from those who monitor analytics inside news organizations, the bump in news content consumption that started during the election season has not waned. The most successful pitch efforts many days will include at least a nugget to get the politically hungry something to chew on.
Depending on your point of view, the current President is either an insatiable seeker of attention in the world’s most high-profile job or an intriguing personality making waves by affecting change. Even if you’re somewhere in between, you can’t deny that he has attracted more attention (or diverted it) in ways never seen before. The fact is there will be less attention for whatever your organization thinks it deserves.
If you work in PR, you should be having an honest conversation with your clients or your bosses about the news realities, which have changed even more in the last few weeks. What you thought may have been news in your 2017 planning may not be news anymore, or at least maybe not in the same way. It may be time to think about other ways of reaching your audiences with your messages. Or it may be time to determine your organization’s government/politics angle, based on how proposed or enacted policies affect you (it doesn’t have to mean taking sides, but it could).
What you can’t do is pretend this isn’t happening. Sure, there are morning TV slow slots for in-studio features. There’s still the sports section. There are exceptions. But, by and large, unless you have journalists assigned to covering your business or your industry who are separate from those who cover government and policy, for now, at least, this is likely your reality.
On Friday, at the kind invitation of PR pro and educator extraordinaire Dr. Linda Hagan, I guest lectured a class of young artists at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit. In fitting with the curriculum of business and marketing trends and practices, I advised the group on how best to go about creating their own brand. A significant slice of what I covered is evident in the excellent new movie, “The Founder,” starring Michael Keaton. Because when it comes to brands – iconic brands – McDonald’s best-known owner Ray Kroc was a true visionary.
I began the CCS class by asking students, ‘What constitutes a brand?’ In response I heard, ‘A logo’ and ‘A slogan’ before another chimed in with, ‘What you stand for.’ All correct, I told them, when taken together. Because, I further opined, a brand is the sum of all attributes of a particular company, product or service – it is how you answer your phones, how you treat your customers, referral sources and employees. It is how you differentiate yourself from your competition – not just in words but also by delivering upon a value proposition and brand promise.
Ray Kroc understood this as well as anyone ever. While peddling milkshake mixers to drive-ins across the country in the 1950s, he stumbled upon a little single shingle establishment in San Bernardino, California where an amazing thing was happening: families were waiting in line (and not long) for delicious hamburgers and soft drinks that took minutes from order to delivery. This was in stark contrast to the traditional drive-ins Kroc had experienced that were littered with trash, loud music and smoking teenagers in their hot rods. Food often took 30 minutes or more and orders were routinely wrong. The alternative restaurant? The brainchild of the McDonalds brothers.
McDonald’s was the model of efficiency, consistency and wholesome family dining. They offered a unique brand value proposition and delivered upon it each and every time. Kroc saw the vast opportunity to take this badly needed model across the country via franchising. He likened the golden arches to the church steeples and city hall flags he saw in every town he visited on his sales travels. These arches would add another icon to the skylines of each and every town in America, he predicted. And once these restaurant chain stores opened in their respective markets, Kroc worked tirelessly to maintain brand standards in operations, food offerings and, most importantly, customer service.
A brand, I told the class, works best when it is honest, genuine and true to who you are. As current students and future employees or entrepreneurs in the world of art and film, I offered, they needed to be true to who they were but also mindful that their brand must also keep in mind the audiences they want to reach. After all, a brand cannot be successful, ultimately, if it doesn’t resonate and compel. It must also stay open to evolution. In fact, McDonald’s has gone through decades of changes to meet evolving consumer tastes and priorities, as evidenced by their expanded menu options, dollar value meals and healthier fare. Ray Kroc didn’t found McDonald’s but he certainly honed and developed its brand, building the restaurant into arguably the greatest fast-food chain ever. And to millions starting in the Cold War era, Americana never tasted so good.
For those who try to read news stories closely, trying to figure how and why they come together, the past few weeks have been a case study in leaks. So much news coverage of The White House, not political analysis or opinion, but the actual reporting by those on the beat, has been driven by anonymous sources from the inside. Leaks have long been the stock-in-trade of political reporting, and business reporting for that matter. But the quantity of leaks, the consistency of them and the fact that there seem to be so many, so early, has led questions to come our way wondering what it all means.
We can’t pretend to psychoanalyze people we don’t know in an environment we have never worked. But, from first-hand experience, we have learned that deliberate leaks to journalists can be a reflection of workplace culture. In times of anxiety, we see leaks. But we especially see them when employees feel like they no longer have a voice and that leads to resentment toward top management.
A case in point is a client I worked with in the late ’90s. One of the underlying issues that ultimately resulted in monumental PR challenges for that company was serious tension between top corporate leadership and the company’s workforce. When the company had a phone conference – a single phone conference – to discuss whether to begin what would have been a lengthy process of due diligence that may have led to merger talks with a competitor, a leak made it news. Just days later, AOL and Time Warner announced a merger that had been kept a complete secret before its official announcement. The difference was as simple as cultures.
We have seen many other examples over the years, as texts and social media have enabled and empowered leakers. I once received a text from a reporter asking about something that had been tipped to him via text from a participant in a meeting, among people who weren’t getting along, that was still going on. Another client CEO who fostered dysfunction, whose emails were routinely published in news stories, asked “Don’t they know those are internal communications?” There’s no such thing when your direct-reports who feel alienated have access to the “forward” button.
A few years ago, an organization hired us to design a communications schematic to prevent leaks from occurring, as a piece of news needed to be communicated with precision. That foresight allowed the news to be broken on the organization’s preferred terms. That’s something every organization should consider in times of sensitivity.
If you’re concerned about leaks where you work, don’t blame reporters who are trying to do their job. Think about how to build trust on the inside. That will prevent those who have access to information from trying to turn to the outside.
Once upon a time, say, a few weeks ago, a business could take its time deciding whether or not it made sense to take a public stand, internally and/or externally, on a political or social issue. But events of recent weeks prove that you need to be ready now, in case a sensitive issue develops quickly.
In the wake of a White House Executive Order and the subsequent reaction, I had the privilege of representing my Tanner Friedman colleagues talking about these complex and emerging business communications trends with interviews in both the Associated Press and CBS News in recent days, both of which resulted in stories that appeared from coast-to-coast and across the Internet.
Your business now needs to be prepared by having a deeper understanding of your customers than ever before and how they think, feel and react when it comes to your brand and the issues that are in the news. One of our clients recently researched 1300 consumers to get to know their customer better. But even if you can’t spare that type of expense, you should still feel an imperative to know their attitudes about your company, the role it plays in their lives and why they choose your brand. If it comes time to communicate a stance on a politically-charged issue, you and they will know if you’re acting for them in mind.
When it comes to the issue of immigration, Uber, by removing its CEO from a Presidential advisory committee, took into consideration that its customer is younger and more urban than most of America. That affects how the company is viewed in light of that issue. A company targeting rural, older consumers may have made a different decision, based on what is known about public opinion on that and other issues.
The other group to consider is your workforce. Several tech companies, which operate across borders and employ immigrants on work visas, spoke out early against the Order. Other companies less affected first-hand chose the same course after making a decision based on values. Many companies, of course, have chosen to stay quiet, not wanting to get into this mix and upset anyone.
Regardless of the decision a company chooses, events of recent weeks have proven that these decisions may have to be made quickly, without the luxury of long deliberation between executives, PR counsel, government affairs and lawyers. Regardless of the size of your business, it’s something every company should be thinking about now. How do looming government decisions affect our company and our workforce?
If you’re worried about taking a risk, one way or the other, think of the companies that risked ridicule from the President of the United States. Think of your customers and employees. Do they expect you to take a side? As I told the AP in another story this week, “No company has gone out of business putting their customers and employees first.”
Can Donald Trump ever become presidential? Can he ever overcome his egotistic, misogynistic, separatist, nationalistic demeanor, posturing and dialogue? If his first few days in office are any indication he has a long, long way to go – if in fact it is at all possible. Trump needs a filter. In that way, as a communications counselor, how would I be advising Donald Trump, moving forward? That’s a very, very good question.
First of all, he has proven that he does not take direction well from insiders. During his campaign he went through a host of campaign managers, often finding himself vocally and publicly in disagreement with those that lasted for any length of time. Our team worked directly with some of his staffers when he came to Detroit last year to speak. Inexperienced and indifferent to anyone and anything other than what their boss wanted, these were clearly “yes” men and women; those in no position to put forth ideas nor advice.
And that is what Donald Trump is used to. It’s how he operates. I recall interacting once with a business associate who acted similarly. He put forth too many of his opinions and directions as though they were gospel, often with no regard for potential ramifications, often through aggressive diatribes and usually with disastrous results. I suggested to him once, “You really should think before you speak.” He smugly looked back at me and indicated he did not care what I thought as he had been successful throughout his career using this modus operandi. The similarities with Trump are unmistakable. He deludes himself into thinking that how he thinks, what he says and how he acts are right. And, if you disagree with him? Well, then there’s something wrong with you. There’s no room for discussion nor discourse and absolutely no latitude for a difference of opinion. Believe me.
How he handled the women’s rights gatherings this weekend is just one more example of how he needs to adjust his approach. After initially saying nothing nor acknowledging the worldwide protests he finally took to his favorite pulpit, Twitter, to initially mock perhaps a million people worldwide. He later changed his tune, writing something at least approaching professional when he talked about why gatherings of this sort were what make America special. Too late. Damage already done.
So how would I be advising Trump? Let’s be serious – it would never happen. But if I were in a position to do so, even for just a moment, I would advise him to always consider the big picture while looking at both sides of any issue. Get all of the facts, consider them closely and then act. Don’t agree with others are saying? Acknowledge where appropriate but don’t disparage. Be professional, show class, don’t engage if you’re going to enrage. After all, he is no longer a businessman acting in his own best interests. He is not a reality TV (star?). He is President of the United States, representing we the people, both here at home and across the globe. Act responsibly, Donald. We’re counting on you.