Monday, May 25, 2015

Sounding off on weighing in

Every day, at least one of the news sources I follow on Facebook posts a link to a non-local story, accompanied by the invitation: WEIGH IN. Or SOUND OFF. Or the ever-popular: WHAT DO YOU THINK?

And I think: Go enterprise a real news story. The internet has enough rude, unmoderated comments.

The best reporting requires a little hustle on the part of reporters and editors. Ambition. Moxie. The best reporters do this, time and again. But in a Facebook world, it's not enough to report news.

TV news affiliates -- and some print-based media online -- now try to augment the good work of reporters and goose their Facebook traffic numbers by inviting followers to "sound off" or "weigh in." This is less vox populi than it is a blanket invitation to banter.

Media consultants tell TV and radio outlets they need to "engage" their audiences via social media. Thoughtful online discussions would be one way. But asking viewers to leave under-informed opinions on Facebook isn't engagement. This is simply filler. It upholds the tenets of news reporting not one iota. It neither informs nor enlightens. 

And the coarseness and veiled bigotry that often surfaces in viewers' comments -- often unmoderated -- cheapens the media outlet's brand. The comments at left came from a Facebook post about President Obama's taking part in a Memorial Day observance. Few of them reflect thoughtful discourse. More than a few are obnoxious. And there are far more repulsive comments to be found elsewhere on Facebook.

Should readers debate news stories in a public forum? Yes. Letters to the editor and public forums were the way it was done, 'til opinion sharing became the domain of Facebook. 

But "weighing in" doesn't deliver thoughtful dialogue. It often devolves into name-calling or worse. So asking viewers to weigh in reflects badly upon both the respondents, and the media outlets who resort to this form of engagement to boost their social media visibility.

We'd all be better served if they focused on reporting the news. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Relationships or data?

I have genuine admiration for anyone who's succeeded in public relations for 30 or 40 years. My colleague Ray is one of the best.

So I read his blog on the new golden age of PR with authentic interest. Yes, the profession has a new look -- very digital, and often data-driven. 

But as I read Ray's comments, I noticed an absence of the most important word in this profession: relationships. He mentions it once, in the context of creating deeper relationships between marketers and PR professionals, and their audiences.

In an age where you can swap online analytics with anyone, I'd argue that we're not in a golden age of PR -- because relationships are dwindling. Emails and voice mails are a poor substitute for live, face-to-face conversations.

At Cedar Point, OH., "Gatekeeper" is a roller coaster.
By Jeremy Thompson from United States of America
 (Cedar Point 105  Uploaded by Themeparkgc)
via Wikimedia Commons
It's important to know the editors or news producers you're trying to reach, beyond knowing their e-mail addresses. They are the gatekeepers between your client's story and the audience. Even if you're creating a blog for your client, you need others to find it, read it, and share it. Social media-savvy journalists do that, too. Among my online friends are several editors and producers who are de facto gatekeepers.

So how do you build a relationship today?

If you get them on the phone -- and it happens, now and then -- the first thing you ask is: "Are you on deadline?" 

This shows you have a sense that they're busy, even if they aren't on deadline. It shows that you're thinking from their side of the desk, rather than just pitching your client. If you're smart, you'll listen carefully to what that editor or producer has to say, so you'll only pitch stories that meet his or her needs.

It's not easy. It takes time. But if you deliver what you promise, when an editor needs it, you're building a relationship that no Google Analytics traffic report can provide. And, if you're ever in a tight editorial spot, there's a chance you could reach out to that media person and ask: "What do you think?"

Yes, Ray's right about integrated marketing communications. Connecting actions with analytics is wise. But we can't skip building relationships -- with clients, colleagues, and any media professional. 

Because you can't buy a friend when you need one.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Difficult disclosures in a crisis communication

Colleges have the difficult problem of when to disclose the name of a student who's run afoul of the law. Or worse.

This weekend, the "worse" happened. A student drowned in the Erie Canal in Brockport, NY. The College at Brockport, a SUNY campus, did the right thing by communicating news of the drowning.

College at Brockport's Facebook feed, May 10, 2015
But the initial announcement didn't disclose the student's name, which sent thousands of anxious parents across New York state into panic.

Is it their son or daughter? 

As it happens, the student's family asked that the victim's name not be released. Which is terribly unfair to thousands of families wondering if their child is that victim.

SUNY Brockport needs to respect the family's wishes, but at the same time, reassure parents of thousands of students that their child is not the victim. A few parents' unhappy reactions are captured in the screen shot of the college's Facebook feed.

SUNY Brockport did the right thing in respecting the family's request. But, would it hurt, I wonder, to describe the victim's gender and hometown, and thus relieve at least some worry for thousands of other SUNY Brockport parents and friends? Something along the lines of:

"Authorities believe the victim is a male from Herkimer, NY. We are respecting the family's request for privacy and not disclosing the victim's name."

Words to this effect could ease the concerns of thousands of moms and dads across the state.

Monday, May 4, 2015

A good story never dies

A professional organization had news to share: one of its members had recently earned a U.S. patent for a breakthrough, and they asked a PR practitioner to help publicize the patent.

The response? "Oh, we did that story five years ago. Maybe we can just write a blog post."

Diego Grez [CC BY-SA 3.0 (
/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
True, the inventor had applied for a patent more than five years ago. It wasn't exactly a new story. Patents often take years between filing and approval.

But the PR person's dismissive reply neglects a few of today's realities. There wasn't a vast social media universe to sell that story, five years ago. There wasn't the intense industry focus on this particular technology that exists today. 

And many of the people who could take advantage of the new technology were still undergraduates. And today's journalists who'd cover the story might find it all-new.

The news editors I'd worked for had a three-year rule. If we'd reported on a local artist, inventor, boat builder, etc., within  the last three years, we couldn't write about the subject again. Longer than three years? It was OK to revisit the person and his or her work.

My point? The breakthrough story was only "old" to the PR person -- who might have wanted to move on to newer material. But it could be very new to readers and reporters who'd never worked in that particular market.

And, as the movie business has learned, audiences seem to love a sequel.

Sometimes, it helps to look at a story with fresh eyes, and consider the potential to reach new readers.