Monday, February 23, 2015

A few hours with Kurt Busch

I spent a few hours riding PR shotgun with several NASCAR drivers during my corporate career. Kurt Busch was one of them.

Busch was driving for Roger Penske at the time, and Penske's organization knew how to partner with corporate sponsors, each of whom spends millions to affix their logos on race cars, drivers' fire suits, and so on.
By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication
Specialist Seaman John Suits.Hutcher at
en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Busch was then a previous NASCAR champion, but known for a fiery temper on the track. Yet, during a day's worth of local media interviews, meet-and-greets with corporate employees, and visits with hospitalized kids, Busch was consistently polite and patient. He posed for photos with strangers, did interviews that wouldn't be seen outside a small upstate TV market, and autographed die-cast cars for use in charity auctions.
He was no hothead that day. And a pleasure to work with. He even let me drive.

So, when a judge last week decided Busch had likely physically abused a girlfriend in his trackside motor home, and NASCAR suspended him, I paused. He actually hadn't been convicted. And he hadn't exhibited behavior of that type during his short visit to our town.

But, that was then. This is now, when NASCAR and every other major sports entity has the hindsight of watching the NFL mismanage last year's Ray Rice domestic violence episode. And NASCAR recently saw a few short-fused drivers trading insults and punches after a race or two. So, the racing sanctioning organization took steps that will keep Busch out of a race car indefinitely.

I'm not alone in thinking the Ray Rice case has changed the way pro sports address domestic violence. For the better. At the same time, I know a few hours escorting a NASCAR driver around Rochester, NY is no barometer of his psychological state.

But look at Busch's prior racing-related dust-ups, which led to Penske dismissing him in 2011 after he verbally abused an ESPN reporter. There could be a pattern that suggests NASCAR acted to head off a larger issue.

I don't know if Kurt Busch will drive professionally again. But the PR guy in me is glad NASCAR didn't let the situation simmer, boil, and attract prolonged media scrutiny.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

PR Nomad now available

Paraphrasing Ferris Bueller: this business changes pretty fast.

And staying relevant is a big challenge, whether you're driving communications for a not-for-profit or a corporate organization.

In that spirit, I've launched a daily e-newspaper, PR Nomad, on the platform. This comes out of a class I teach at St. Bonaventure University, so it's something of an experiment. The idea is to let aggregate content relevant to public relations, and see if it resonates.

PR Nomad is free.

I invite you to check it out here, and if you find it worthwhile, please consider subscribing, and sharing your opinions.


Monday, February 16, 2015

Hire an editor, not a content coach

Somehow the title "editor" has become a dirty word.

The daily newspaper here (and other Gannett dailies) recently reorganized its news staff. Titles with words like "news" and "editor" disappeared.

That's a problem for public relations people who practice good media relations. If I want to pitch a particular story to a reporter covering the town of Brighton, I could look at a page of newsroom contacts, and find the right individual. Or an editor who'd be interested.

Newsroom, By Thomas Schmidt (NetAction) (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (
/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Today, it's a murky search. "Editors" have been replaced by Content Strategists. Audience Analysts. Consumer Experience Directors. And Storytelling Content Coaches.

One staff member's new job title is Problem Solver. I'm not kidding. In the real world, that job was formerly "Consumer Advocate." And it came with a TV studio.

Visit that Newsroom Contacts page. Find someone called a News Editor. Assignment Editor. Copy Editor. Sports Editor. Business Editor.

Good luck.

Editors play, or played, an important role in the gathering and disseminating of news. They challenged reporters' assumptions and pressed for specific facts. They changed weak passive prose from "It was announced at the town board meeting..." to active voice: "Town board members voted build a new park using a $400,000 state grant."

The men and women who edited my newspaper copy asked tough questions. They made me dig for specifics. They demanded I rewrite weak copy. Tough editors like Rudy Elder, Charles Hickey, and Mary Eggert made me a better reporter.

Could a "storytelling content coach" do the same? I want an editor, not a coach.

Every day, the internet generates mega-terabytes of content. I'm a contributor. And people in the news business need to sound relevant, and add video to their web reports. So adding "content" to their job descriptions isn't heresy. TV newsrooms have a jump here, because they've reported stories using mixed media for decades. The web is just another channel for them.

But, with reporters or Problem Solvers filing stories via iPads and tweeting 140-character snippets of facts from courtrooms, there's still a need for news editors. Copy editors. Gatekeepers.

Where do you find people with those newsy job titles? They work at many TV stations' news departments. Where they're very busy, not trying to mimic a newspaper.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Investigating beyond Brian

Amid the ongoing fallout of NBC newsman Brian Williams' tall stories, a former boss of mine chimed in:

"Let's investigate everyone -- key question:  Does the press "speak truth to power" regardless of who is in power?  That is not a test many will pass -- including Brian Williams."

Let's be clear: in the matter of Mr. Williams' stories about his Iraq war experience, we don't know what we don't know. For most viewers, he's seen as a compassionate, thoughtful news reader and occasional reporter. And now, one who may have stretched the truth on a personal story with minimal news value.

You don't know. I sure don't. The real question may be how long NBC News' leadership knew Mr. Williams' story had holes, yet let him continue for the sake of keeping the Peacock network afloat. The New Yorker's Ken Auletta sums this up here:

By David Shankbone (Own work) [GFDL
( or
 CC-BY-SA-3.0 (
licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
We do know that our media-driven culture has acquired a type of kingmaker ability, creating and dismantling public figures of all types. Including Presidential aspirants, Olympic athletes, and entertainers too numerous to mention. It also gives its on-air heroes an occasional free pass. Dan Marino got one at CBS. Jimmy the Greek did not. 

Who gave TV news executives this power? We did, of course. We allowed the nightly network newscasts to make a business of celebrities. We gave airtime and the credibility it bestows to the likes of Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and others whose back stories are somewhat thin.

So perhaps there should be an investigation. But as many dissect the Brian Williams story, let's look in the mirror. We need to place higher expectations at the feet of TV decision-makers. We need to call out the producers of infotainment-filled morning news shows and nightly newscasts, who frequently serve up celebrities and giggle fests over substantive reporting. 

We must demand better. 

Monday, February 2, 2015

Retail doesn't grow on trees

Three recent unrelated retail experiences did little to assure me that we'll be shopping in actual stores for nonperishable goods, five years from now.

Each event was so illustrative that I decided to name each store below. I don't know if there's any PR strategy that would persuade me to alter my opinion about each merchant. Because retail involves hundreds of individual interactions between the store staff and shoppers, rather than a massive message campaign.

Here's today's scorecard:

By M.O. Stevens (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0
via Wikimedia Commons
Dollar Tree - I don't expect concierge service in a discount store with "dollar" in its name. But when a heated, f-bomb-laden shouting match breaks out between two surly males at the slow-as-molasses checkout, I expect the store's staff to do more than stand around and watch the drama unfold. Kids in line were crying.

Ís dialing 911 too complicated?

NOTE: If Dollar Tree's policy is for store employees to act as silent bystanders, Dollar Tree's pending $8.7 million merger/takeover of the struggling Family Dollar retail chain doesn't fill me with optimism.

Wal-mart - ever an easy target, the giant retailer needs to pay attention to its merchandise mix. A knock-off U.S. flag sew-on patch should have 50 stars, not eight. That was the only choice in a local Wal-mart, and not a salesperson in sight. The whole roll-back campaign has gone too far. Give us our 50 stars, Wal-mart!

ABVI Goodwill of Rochester - I love browsing used books at Goodwill stores, and I don't expect personalized sales service. But, I don't love standing at the register while a cashier lazily rearranges her receipts before failing to make eye contact with a shopper. That's unacceptable. Rearrange your sales slips when no one's waiting to check out.

Retailers need to stop and think: I can buy almost any item in any store. Or online. If your goal is to spur me to buy items I didn't plan to buy, you've got to make me want to visit the store. More than once. These behaviors aren't going to persuade me to come back.