Thursday, June 21, 2018

The digital sky is falling -- or not

This week, I received a message alerting me that the digital sky is falling.

It read, in part:

The entire digital ecosystem is in crisis — a crisis of trust. 

Ecosystem Backyard, by Cedrick May
from Wikimedia Commons
From issues of brand safety, to growing cries of "fake news," to a slew of personal data breaches across the web, it's clear that trust in the digital industry has eroded considerably, affecting every marketer at brands, agencies, social platforms and beyond. 

Do you feel prepared to combat the challenges of trust facing the digital industry? If you're unsure, let's talk about ... 

You get the idea. The research sales rep who sent this dire warning is promoting his "insights, forecasts and data they can trust on digital marketing, media and commerce." And perhaps there's value in such an offering.

Truth is, I'm disenchanted at the assumption that there's a digital ecosystem. It's one of those biological phrases hijacked by the data-repackaging and -sharing industry. But let's ask:

  • Do you do some or all of your banking or bill-paying transactions online? If so, you probably trust those institutions are reasonably secure.
  • Do you swear off all forms of online news media, including Breitbart, Fox News, Buzzfeed, your local TV station's website, and The New York Times? Then you must trust at least a few of them.
  • Do you research products online, read website reviews, watch unboxing videos, etc.? 

Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, by Glenn Fawcett
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
My point? We turn each day to online sources for information. It's up to us to consider and evaluate it. Accept or reject it. And if it betrays us, resist going back to that source in the future.

Newspapers, web news sites, and TV sources who've jettisoned editors and thus allowed inaccuracies into their reporting jeopardize our trust. I don't trust Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Equifax, the disgraced Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes, or executives whose complexions resemble Valencia oranges.

We need to remain vigilant. Skeptical. And dubious. Trust is earned by promises kept. And deliveries on our expectations. The digital sky only falls if we accept it.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

When a news feed no longer feeds news

It's hard to know what last week's Facebook announcements will mean to consumers of news. But, that's largely because Facebook isn't entirely clear where news content will emerge on users' news feeds. (Which now must be called something else.)

For a few years, I've asked undergraduates where they get their news. The top response: from social media. (For a while, many said they got their news from Jon Stewart until he departed from The Daily Show faux news desk.)

Now that's changing. Last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg told consumers that the social medium's algorithm would now serve up "friends and family"-generated content ahead of news stories from publishers. The goal, he suggested, is more meaningful interactions -- and, by omission, fewer firestorms erupting from fake news generated by purveyors of pretend news.

Why change? Zuckerberg wants no more to do with a cascade of political propagandists. The angry disputes they generate yield little useful data about Facebook users' psychographics and behaviors, which is what Facebook sells to advertisers.

Facebook's Campbell Brown, by Fortune
Live Media, via Wikimedia Commons
Commentators have suggested this move enables Facebook to sidestep the criticisms that it allows unsubstantiated news content on its website. But the company had agreements with authentic news organizations, including The New York Times and the Guardian, that drove readership and promoted subsequent visits to their online content. And, in 2017, Zuckerberg hired TV news veteran Campbell Brown (previously at CNN and NBC) to shepherd Facebook's partnerships with news publishers.

Last week, Brown told those news partners that "people are likely to see less content that comes directly from publishers, brands and celebrities in their News Feed." But, she added, "news stories shared between friends will not be impacted."  She also said that the "Facebook Journalism Project will evolve to reflect this — collaborative product development work will continue."

What does it mean for how we get our news? One guess: Facebook could create a separate news app, akin to Flipboard or Apple News, that's engineered to aggregate content while collecting more data about our news reading preferences.

The change also means they'll probably re-brand the conventional Facebook "newsfeed" to something more warm and fuzzy.

Is anyone still using "gossip?"

Thursday, November 30, 2017

A respite from misdeeds of media giants

I don't want to talk about Matt, Harvey, Kevin, Charlie, or Bill.

Recent headlines have created a Sargasso Sea of sexual misdeeds and dismissed journalists. It's not a great climate in which to send news releases about vague "solutions" and nude cooking. But if you need a break from the misadventures of fallen media giants, the PR world can offer a brief respite.

If you're willing to wade through some challenging prose.

After reading this one from Gold Stream Solutions -- an agency that includes PR among its areas of expertise -- I'm starting to understand what's killing news releases. Lousy writing. News-free copy. Vague information. Quoting a CEO with no last name.

I didn't realize CEOs qualified for the federal witness protection program.

If that's not sufficiently amusing, consider this release, received by my friend Tracy Schuhmacher, who writes about food and drink for the Rochester (NY) Democrat & Chronicle. It's from the American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR), which extols the benefits of slow cookers in the kitchen of nudists:

Photo By Chef Pepín (Chef Pepín management)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Nudists’ Favorite Kitchen Aid: Slow Cooker

KISSIMMEE, Fla. (Nov. 29, 2017) -- Nudists, like most of us, love to cook. But, according to the majority of the American Association for Nude Recreation ( members, they have a major incentive to avoid hot splatters. So, they often pull out their slow cookers for delicious, splatter-free meals. This is especially prevalent now as the weather cools and great comfort-food stews, soups and more are one pot wonders from the slow cooker.

(The full release may be downloaded here.)

One more sample: there's a TV network we've never heard of that decided to hire a new CEO, and is engaged in climbing to the top of a mountain. It's unclear which mountain, with all the mixed metaphors barricading the reader from actual facts. And this runaway sentence, too:

"One Television Network, the well know television entity founded in the late 80's since shut it's doors in 1998 to concentrate on the development of the KOCH Firm since has a new CEO and Chairman Quadir Selby former indie music executive at Glama World/Caroline/Virgin who negotiated their current deal, to restructure and reformat the networks lineup, popularity, reach and audiance capacity."

The original typos, misspellings, and grammatical blunders are italicized for your enjoyment.

Why do these matter? PR wags have long predicted the demise of the news release. Yet, a recent study by BusinessWire indicated that 65 percent of journalists look to news releases for supporting factual information. Admittedly, BusinessWire's business involves disseminating news releases. But their research suggests that news releases still serve an important role in public relations.

Provided someone still knows how to write a decent release.

Monday, April 17, 2017

You don't need me to tell what's wrong

Last week, colleagues and former students encouraged me to write about the colossal PR blunders of April:
These tragic blunders didn't need my commentary. News media pundits and late-night comedians carried the ball far across the goal line. They pointed out the universal tone-deafness of Pepsi, United, and Spicer. They didn't need me to spike the ball.

Businesses and government officials have been saying dumb things for decades. There's nothing new about these errors. Each reflects an acute case of self-absorption, and a total disregard for public perception and good judgment.

What is new? None of these entities realizes that any misstep will be captured and shared, globally, within seconds. Social media, a smart phone, and a WiFi connection are all anyone needs to magnify the doltish comments of a Sean Spicer or United Airlines CEO. 

Pepsi ad, c. 1919
That United keeps screwing up -- leggings, broken guitars, now broken teeth -- underscores a deeper reality. The company's practices are in disarray, and its board of directors should demand wholesale dismissals of top managers.

Here's reality: it's 2017. Anyone in the communications business must think of the internet as a camera that is always on. It never blinks. And, if you've heard TV actors complain that the camera "adds 10 pounds," take it one step further. The camera magnifies. Any camera, including the one on your phone.

The world really is watching. Have a Pepsi Day. 

Monday, March 27, 2017

Are there parachutes on United Airlines flights?

This week, United Airlines proved that it has learned nothing about social media in nine years.

By now, you may have seen the tale of United's removing two teenage girls from a flight for wearing leggings. United explained that its policy for users of employee-provided travel passes came with a dress code. Leggings and spandex are forbidden.

This episode, as silly as it sounds, triggered a Twitter onslaught of criticism for the airline. It amused me, at first, because what passes for travel attire on most U.S. air carriers ranges from business suits to rumpled pajamas to cosplay outfits.

But then, as the United story tumbled across Twitter, involving celebrities including Chrissy Teigen, Patricia Arquette, and even octogenarian William Shatner (at left, in tights from his '60s Star Trek era), I remembered: United's been down this road of embarrassment before.

In 2008, Canadian musician Dave Carroll created a mini-sensation when the airline's baggage crew smashed his checked Taylor guitar. His music video response earned more than 16 million YouTube views. United apologized -- having become a laughing stock.

Has United learned nothing in nine years? Instead of hiding behind policy, denial, and protocol, the company's communication pros allowed the leggings story to percolate and gain international attention.

So, as a reminder, here are some basic PR tips for an organization facing a barrage of criticism on social media:

  • Any incident – even a minor one – can go viral and global
  • If you don’t tell your story, the internet will do it for you
  • Control the message to ensure your reputation isn’t at risk
  • Don’t respond with policy blather. Instead, good-natured humor may help de-fuse tension over an issue (depending on the situation)
  • Get it resolved ASAP

Me? I'm booking my next flight on Southwest.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Give it to me straight

If you're a PR professional, you may disagree with me. And I'd love to hear your viewpoint.

Six months ago, a local acquaintance asked me to help promote his book on business leadership. Most news media I contacted were enthusiastic, interviewing him on air, including his book in a newspaper column, or running op-ed essays he'd written about business conduct.

By Holger.Ellgaard (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0
 via Wikimedia Commons
Except one. An experienced news/public affairs broadcaster who initially expressed interest, asked to read a copy of the client's book, and then went silent. Didn't respond to emails or phone calls. Even when I asked co-workers at the broadcaster's station, who first said they'd been busy, and told me he'd get back to me.

Except he didn't. Nor did his producer. 

I hate giving up. But, after six months of unresponsiveness from the broadcaster, I decided to cease pursuing him. His head was elsewhere. I won't speculate where.

But any response -- even one declining to pursue the interview -- would have been professional. I've been at this PR game for more than a few years, and had turn-downs from media gatekeepers before. A simple "Sorry, we aren't interested in the book or the author" response, instead of silence, would have been okay. 

Instead, the broadcaster's lack of candor or communication over a six-month window resulted in a waste of time: his, my client's, and mine. Maybe that's fine for hiring managers who receive hundreds of resumes for a single opening, and simply can't respond to each applicant.

But broadcasters, like PR people, are in the communication business. The market in question isn't a crazy, hectic Top 20 media market; it's a small-to-medium size market where relationships matter. The broadcaster and I have worked together in the past. He should find 30 seconds to write or say, "Sorry, we can't use this in our show." Give it to me straight. 

If you have a different opinion, I welcome reading it in the comments section below. Thanks. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

Legerdemain, anti-news, and neckties

By Dan Altuz (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 4.0 (
licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
An old magician's trick -- "look closely, nothing up my sleeve" -- threatens to alter our perception of what constitutes real news. Unless we wise up, and fast.

In stage parlance, the word was legerdemain. Derived from a French expression for "sleight of hand," it describes a magic trick, or some other deceit. Screenwriters and journalists don't use the word much anymore. 

But, in an era of false news, dusting it off would be a fine idea.

Because we're looking at a year or more of childish sniping and Tweets whose true purpose is to distract editors and too-lean reporting staffs from digging at harder stories. Legerdemain isn't limited to the next occupants of the White House. In some cases, PR people have performed their own version of "here's an oversized check to charity" to obscure the less-than-charitable dealings of their clients.

And it works, much of the time. 

It works because the U.S. electorate (or a subset thereof) chose a reality TV version of a CEO as their leader. It works because the same electorate responded like dogs to a bone whenever someone with a microphone said "Benghazi" or "emails." And it works when the phrase "fake news" is quickly co-opted to infer fabrications from any political pundit.

Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal's editor said it wouldn't label the President-elect's falsehoods or misleading claims as "lies." Mr. Baker is essentially telling his readers: "You decide." Which gave rise to a sad assortment of neckties on Fox News. That recipe worked out well, didn't it?

But it stops here. And now.

We must think of legerdemain in today's terms. It's no longer "fake news." It's no longer a Trumpish bellow across Twitter. We need to view it as anti-news: fable-telling whose sole intent is to mislead viewers and readers from facts and authentic news.

So it's up to us -- you and I -- to draw the line. This far, and no farther. No anti-news. No more legerdemain. Challenge falsehoods. Be vigilant for the inaccurate tweet that distracts us from the author's true intentions.

And pay close attention to the man or woman behind the curtain.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Why post this? Don't ask me why

(c) DKassnoff, 2014.
Cranking out PR for a legendary rock musician should be pretty straightforward. I'm all but certain Billy Joel has no daily involvement in his website or the Facebook page that updates his new tour dates. Nor should he.

Someone's minding those tasks, though. And doing a mediocre job.

On Oct. 14, a headline on Billy's web site announced: Billy Joel Sells Out The New Coliseum’s Opening Show In Less Than Four Minutes. Read the details here.

A sellout sure sounds impressive, doesn't it? Maybe, if your time-travelling Delorean is tooling through 1985. Internet ticket sales today have made swift concert sellouts an everyday occurance. And, few would-be ticket buyers are happy about it. They know that concert tickets are scarfed up by ticket bots and scalpers before fans ever get through the lethargic Ticketmaster website.

The problem's so severe that several states are enacting legislation to outlaw the bots.

But the person running Billy Joel's website disregarded this, and posted the four-minute sellout story as if Billy had run a four-minute mile. (Full disclosure: I saw Billy perform at Madison Square Garden in 2014. He does an amazing show, but isn't a miler by any stretch.)

Billy's Facebook followers took exception to this terrific news, as sampled in the photo at left. (Click the image for a more-readable view.)

That's not good PR. Decision-makers at really need to reconsider the news value of a four-minute concert sellout -- and how fans know they've been shut out.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Here's your radio, kids

Public relations pros may no longer need consider certain commercial radio stations as viable media outlets.

Radio studio, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Visiting a dental hygienist on a September Saturday, I was treated to a broadcast from a station owned by the Stephens Media Group. The programming -- a purportedly kid-friendly block called "Morning Car-tunes" -- was far more painful than anything the hygienist served up.

The music wasn't bad. The in-between banter involved a young DJ and a co-host whom I'll call "Harry the Pirate." It quickly became clear no one had told them this program was actually intended for parents and kids to enjoy.

Harry spent a few minutes regaling listeners about a recent visit to a local college, where he said he told communications students that "there are no jobs in media."*

Harry, was that the most uplifting thing to tell aspiring broadcasters? Or did you think "media" didn't include the huge growth of Internet media careers? 

A few years ago, I'd seen Harry drop some questionable asides between kid songs. He reminded me of W.C. Fields, who said: "Anyone who hates children and animals can't be all bad." (To be fair, Harry runs a holiday toy drive, so there's a Jekyll-and-Hyde nature to his pirate outings.)

Harry's career-critical comments on the family-friendly air shift were followed by ads for divorce lawyers and personal injury attorneys. Very family friendly.

The capper? A recorded ad for an upcoming live show for kids, taking place next Friday, May 6.

Guys, it's September. Buy a calendar.

Most commercial radio managers know they must give listeners a compelling reason to tune in. Pandora, Spotify, and Sirius XM serve up material that -- while seldom local -- is programmed to reach specific listeners.

The Stephens radio station's "Morning Car-tunes" gave listeners no reason to stay tuned. Harry's downer outlook, the poorly timed lawyer ads, and outdated promo spots convinced me that they'd merely sold advertisers a block of programming, with not one bit of thought about their listeners.

And if they don't care, could anyone see a PR value for getting one's clients on their Saturday morning downer-fest?

I asked the hygienist to turn off the station. The sound of her whirring instruments was preferable.

*The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported more than 221,000 people employed in radio and TV broadcasting jobs in May, 2015. That figure doesn't include Internet-related broadcasting jobs, such as Pandora and SiriusXM. Details are here.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

What's Spanish for "shoot yourself in the foot"?

After having written about Chipotle restaurants' PR crises several times in the past year, I pledged I wouldn'tgo back to that trough again. 

Yet, there's more negative news today about the beleaguered eatery.

So, I'll just let the New York Daily News do the talking.

This calls for more than a simple re-branding. How do you say "Leadership Change" in Spanish?