Earlier in my career I worked with an editor for a media magazine who moved into PR after the magazine went defunct. We’ve kept in touch, him pitching stories to me for media-company clients, and me always trusting his judgment and willing to take a call.
Why was I so willing? Because he’s a thoughtful PR guy who helps connect me to interesting people and to stories my audience wants to read.
I was thinking about that guy the other day and my thought process then extended to stereotypes—of PR people and reporters.
I’ve learned a lot of things in 12 months covering the PR business, and my experiences have proven many of those common stereotypes wrong. I thought I’d outline a few of the stereotypes and take a look at how perception differs from reality for both reporters and PR people.
How reporters see themselves
• Journalists see themselves iconoclasts—but not Quixotic ones.
• Reporters think they’re fundamentally moral—in the words of the old expression, “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”
• They view themselves as wise and hard-boiled.
• They identify with skepticism—they would never accept gullibility.
• They see themselves as real and down-to-earth, unpretentious, even in fashion. Journalists invented business casual as a dress code.
How reporters see PR people
• Sometimes reporters call PR people flacks, and it’s not meant as a compliment.
• The columnist Mike Lupica (among many other journalists) calls PR people “mouthpieces.”
• Reporters see PR people as mostly blocking access, not providing it.
• Reporters think PR people cause their sources to speak in “talking points,” not provide real information.
• Reporters very often see PR people as bossy, officious and shallow in their most benign incarnation, and sometimes obnoxious or worse.
Some stereotype-busting things I’ve learned
• PR is one of the most intensive practice-oriented professions I’ve been associated with. Like law and other professions, PR pros split their skills into various practices—crisis management, media relations, corporate social responsibility and more, and they’re incredibly conscientious about education and advancing their skills.
• PR people (at our PR News events, at any rate) are engaging, courteous, smart and intensely focused on improving their skills.
• Reporters, in fact, can be amazingly gullible. Recently, word got back to me that some industry executive said all you had to do to get good press from us was to take one of our people out to dinner. I don’t believe that’s true at all, but I know from first-hand observation that in lots of other cases, it is.
• Journalistic skepticism sometimes morphs into raw cynicism.
• Reporters are rarely fashionable. In fact, it’s usually the opposite, truth be told.
One of the more insidious aspects of living in a digital age is not having enough time to read full-length articles as much as I like.
Sure, I make a valiant effort to read that wholly absorbing, 20,000-word piece in The New Yorker or a wonderful essay in Harper’s.
But then the distractions kick in, most of them self-inflicted: I check my iPhone and/or email inbox, indulge in some guilty pleasure on YouTube or simply give my eyeballs a rest from the constant exposure to one screen or another.
My guess is that these days most if not all PR pros also find it challenging to make the time to read long-form articles, watch epic documentaries or curl up with a good, thick book.
But if there’s one long-form article you read this month it should be “The Great Forgetting,” by Nicholas Carr, which runs in the November issue of The Atlantic.
The piece should be required reading for PR pros, particularly in light of the growing influence of data on marketing communications.
Carr splashes cold water on the notion that automation saves us time to pursue other tasks, what scholars of automation have dubbed the “substitution myth.”
“A labor-saving device doesn’t just provide a substitute for some isolated component of a job or other activity,” Carr writes. “It alters the character of the entire task, including the roles, attitudes, and skill of the people taking part.”
He adds. “Rather than opening new frontiers of thought and action, software ends up narrowing our focus. We trade subtle, specialized talents for more routine, less distinctive ones.”
“Less distinctive” will do the PR industry no favors. As more and more of the business becomes commoditized, the last thing PR departments and agencies need is to rely on automation tools that may render their work generic.
Indeed, the article should give PR professionals pause about putting an inordinate amount of their eggs into the data basket.
Yes, we’ve all heard the phrase “If you can’t measure it, it’s not worth doing,” and verbal variations therein. But what if measurement tools and data sets provide us with the analytics but at the same time compromise or, even worse, suppress our creativity?
The PR industry has strived long and hard to better distinguish itself from other marketing disciplines. Don’t let an overreliance on data rob those gains. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1
As I write this I’m watching a report on MSNBC criticizing the apology issued by 60 Minutes for a report last month about the attack on the embassy in Benghazi.
The apology, by correspondent Lara Logan, was not enough—that was the consensus.
“It was not nearly satisfying,” said guest David Brock. “I thought it was 60 Minutes, not 60 Seconds.” The show is all about holding sources accountable, Brock said, and 60 Minutes should do the same for itself.
This has been a big week for apologies. President Obama apologized for the bumpy rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Home Depot apologized for a racist tweet.
And 60 Minutes still hasn’t been able to contain the damage.
Public apologies by organizations almost always fall to the communications team, the PR pros. And there’s plenty of scholarship on how to do apologies best, and put unfortunate mistakes behind your company or organization. Among those things are to act immediately and to commit to an investigation.
But I sometimes think the only way to really handle apologies is to not make mistakes in the first place. Seriously. Think about it. In politics and business, if you make a mistake, apologies are demanded. The volume gets higher and higher, and the demands more hysterical. It’s rare indeed that you can tough things out, although that sometimes does happen.
In politics, there’s an “apology game,” where one side demands an apology for some perceived transgression, whether there’s an actual offense or not.
And then there’s the apology trap—whatever the offense, no apology ever clears the record. Even when apologies are accepted, mistakes are never forgotten. Years—decades—later, whatever the initial incident was, it morphs into a “scandal.” It will remain on your record forever, dredged up in the media whenever it suites the story.
So if you’re a PR pro, what to do? Here’s my advice: Don’t apologize as a way to placate others. Don’t expect absolution, because it won’t come. Apologize because you know you (or your organization) messed up and that it’s the right thing to do. Period.
I’ve been thinking lately about how media is moving increasingly toward a greater technology dependence. I’ve read about how investment dollars, especially in Silicon Valley, where so much media-related innovation is occurring, steer towards technology solutions for media consumers. New utilities—new ways to interact with content—seems to be more important than the content itself.
Think about the major social media and many of the new online-only media businesses like TripAdvisor and Yelp. User interfaces, tools, analytics and more are the difference-makers. They create no content on their own, really, but they have massive audiences. Google commands more ad dollars than the whole magazine and newspaper industries combined.
Which for me (and for PR communicators) raises an interesting question: Should media companies—and the PR departments and firms that create brand content and provide content to the media—be technology companies first and content companies second? Has some paradigm shifted in the media world?
Now, before you dismiss what I’m saying as just simplistic nonsense, consider that not only is Google an advertising giant, but so is Facebook. So is YouTube. Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and others will rise in ad spend, and they all depend on users for their content. They pay no content creators, but they create extraordinary technology-based environments for people to post their own content.
And if you’re looking for consistency in the argument, consider that most media companies acknowledge freely that the one-way form of communication is dead. The old-school model of, ‘we-create-content-and-you-consume-it” is simply incomprehensible to modern media users. They take cellphone photos and videos, and share them easily. Even media companies say that they want to create a platform for community interaction.
In that context, then, should we be focused on content—or technologies that enable the sharing of content? It’s a fascinating question.
There are those who say that without content, there’s nothing. No Google and no Facebook. Which is true. But that doesn’t really address the question of who’s doing the creating.
“Anything bothering you?”
That was the question posed by my physician during a recent annual check-up. As he peered at my chart which was looking pretty boring in a good way, I wondered whether I should share something small, like “I get headaches every now and then.” Or should I tell him I’m feeling great, so I can take off the paper robe, get dressed and carry on with my day?
“I’m feeling great,” I declared. And that was my annual exam.
If only our personal career check-ups went so easily. I’m not referring to an annual review but to the regular self-assessment of how we’re feeling about what we’re doing every day.
With winter approaching and conference season in full force, there’s no time like the present to conduct an annual self-exam. Many of us have attended conferences at which we hear lots of great ideas, brush up on skills and meet new people. At the same time, we’re trolling social media and fear we’re missing out on other meetings, parties and opportunities. Instead of feeling empowered, the learning, networking and hyper-interactions can make some people feel bad about themselves. (These are the people not doing the regular self-exams, by the way.) I was at a conference a week ago where I saw an attendee eating a brown bag lunch in the ladies restroom. Aside from the sanitary aspects of such a decision, I wondered if she was pushing herself too hard. She clearly needed to put on the metaphorical paper robe and conduct a self-exam, asking:
- Do I like going to work every day?
- Am I appreciated by my manager and my peers?
- Did I help someone in some way in the past 48 hours?
- Do I understand what I’m doing at my job? If not, where do I get help?
- Are the goals achievable?
- Is this job too easy for me?
- Are my stakeholders benefiting from my contributions?
- If this a job or a career?
- Can I make a real impact?
In the case of the woman-with-the-brown-bag-lunch and for those who are workaholics, another question might be: Do I eat alone (at my desk) more than twice a week?
These are just suggested questions and some can be painful to answer. But necessary. It goes without saying — but I’ll say it anyway — if you answered “No” to most of the questions above then it’s time to make a change in mindset, action or venue.
- Diane Schwartz
Take off your paper robe and join me on Twitter @dianeschwartz
I attended the Public Relations Society of America’s annual meeting this week in Philly, and as so often happens when you get out into the field to listen, think and discuss things with your peers, I came back to the office with some valuable new perspectives.
The event itself left few stones unturned regarding the immense challenges now facing PR and marketing executives.
Many marcomm issues of today were virtually unheard of five years ago, and many were featured in robust sessions during the four-day program.
Work sessions including “How Brands Successfully Culture-Jack the Big Moments,” and “Understanding and Embracing Open-Source and Hacker-Culture is Critical to PR’s Future” definitely moved the needle, brought new insights both to topics we think we know well and those we’re still struggling to understand.
The event also had solid coverage of traditional PR disciplines, such as demonstrating PR ROI and trends in crisis management and media pitching. There was ample discussion of brand building and corporate philanthropy, as well.
But in so many areas, the conversation is just starting. The lines continue to blur between PR and other marketing disciplines.
Now, back at the office, here are a few things I’m still thinking about:
> What’s PR’s role in an integrated marketing campaign, and who should “own” the elements of the campaign? As media and marketing become more complex, the elements—and participants—in these kinds of campaigns start to span different disciplines. Marketing is involved, right along with the advertising, digital and social media worlds, and PR is the traffic cop. Control becomes more difficult, and much more important.
> Visual storytelling. This is a broad new PR discipline, and one that’s relatively uncharted. There are many channels and many approaches, and PR folks should be eager to hear from marketers and Web-design companies alike on how to build a better a website and tell stories more effectively with pictures.
> PR and the C-suite. With PR at the core of strategic marketing and brand communications, it’s more important than ever to have a direct, and persuasive, line to the CEO. And yet, I sometimes think the opposite is happening. I’m looking for a CEO to share with communicators why he or she no longer looks at PR as a cost center, but a profit center.
PRSA is already starting to gear up for next year’s gathering, in Washington, D.C. Here’s looking forward to next year, and seeing what the next 12 months brings on these and other issues.
Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1
Amid all the noise surrounding Barneys New York and its alleged racial profiling, and whether the rap mogul Jay-Z should back out of his partnership with the luxury retailer, came this little noticed fact: Only 25 percent of the proceeds from the partnership, where sales are intended to benefit Jay-Z’s Shawn Carter Foundation, will actually go to the foundation.
And no doubt, only a fraction of that 25 percent will go to the ultimate objective, scholarships for economically challenged students.
And therein lies a significant issue inherent in all CSR efforts—trust. When people hear about a non-profit entity serving a worthy cause, the first thing many people think is, ‘how much of the proceeds are actually going to the cause?’
It’s a common question people ask themselves before they take out their checkbooks, and it’s legit. For example, Business Insider reported earlier this month that “a shockingly small amount of money from NFL pink merchandise goes to breast cancer research.”
How small? Business Insider said that for every $100 in pink merchandise sold, $12.50 goes to the NFL. Of that, $11.25 goes to the American Cancer Society and the NFL keeps the rest.
What these reports do is dampen charitable giving because people have images of well-paid executive directors, lavish staff salaries and benefits and rich expense accounts.
And so, from a communications perspective, PR pros who manage CSR and charitable giving need to know at least one thing: The actual percentages of funds going to a charity or cause needs to become part of CSR messaging, because the media is going to report on it anyway and it’s better to be ahead of the story.
And by mastering this one thing, you can avoid the reaction that ‘oh, well, it’s just another non-profit enriching itself before doing accomplishing social good.’
Butterflies in your stomach. Dry mouth. Fantasy of escaping through the back door. It’s inevitable: at some point in your career, you’ll need to speak in front of an audience. Whether at a small meeting, a conference, a general session, on a panel, or on your own. For most of us, it’s about getting out of our comfort zone. If it’s any consolation, the number-one fear of Americans is Public Speaking. Death is the number-2 fear. So you are not alone (until you die). Based on my own experiences and interviews with countless public speakers over the past year, I offer these nines tips to help you get through your next speaking gig with flying colors:
1. Research your audience: why are they there, what are their job responsibilities, how knowledgeable are they of the topic you’ll be speaking about? If possible, ask the event producer to survey the audience in advance w/a few questions that will help you tailor your presentation.
2. Avoid death by PowerPoint. Put another way, don’t talk them to sleep. Slides are important but they should be springboards to your speech and not littered with words and cheesy clip art. Large point size, consistent style and about half the slide blank are the rules. Show some video if you can – but not of cute puppies or kittens, unless you’re speaking to an animal rights group.
3. Master your content:. a corollary to tip #1, speak of what you know. You’ll be more relaxed and confident if you know your material. If you’re asked to speak about a topic that is complicated and not in your wheelhouse, decline the invite.
4. Interact with your audience. Build a quick community with the attendees and encourage questions.
5. Limit talking about yourself. You know the speaker bio provided to the audience in advance? They already know who you are. Make it about them.
6. Wear your storytelling hat. There’s nothing better than a story to illustrate your point. That is what the audience will remember. Bring one great story to your speech – not 3 mediocre ones – and you will connect with your audience.
7. Own your content. I was listening to a speaker recently whose entire presentation was about quoting other authors and experts and not sharing an original thought. Find something unique and original to say to your audience. There’s a reason you were asked to take the stage.
8. Remember social media. Be careful what you say and how you say it. One off-color quote can go viral on social media and affect your reputation and your organization’s.
9. Don’t picture your audience naked. This is an old bit of advice predicated on the notion that the naked attendee is more vulnerable than you and so you have the upper hand. This advice doesn’t hold true — better to picture your audience thinking positive thoughts about you, and cheering you on. The crowd wants you to succeed, they are rooting for you. That‘s the naked truth.
What tips would you add to this list?
– Diane Schwartz
For reasons that escape me now, I said yes to my son Max when he asked if we could go to Comic Con together this past weekend. Sounded like a fun day out in New York City: hanging with 125,000 pop culture fans at the Javits Center, more than half of whom came dressed as their favorite character from film, TV, comics, video games. I learned from Max that this is called “cosplay,” as in costume play.
Preparation was key, so I checked out the Comic Con NY web site for tips. Among them were to Shower and Don’t Make It Too Realistic (ie, don’t bring real weapons into the convention center). I knew I was in for a crude awakening.
Because I’m not a “real” fan of 97% of the brands and products exhibiting at Comic Con, I followed my son from booth to booth, session to session with the personal goal of understanding what all the fuss was about. Why would so many people want to spend an entire day or weekend scrunched into a convention center with strangers who clearly didn’t heed tip #3 to shower before attending, and certainly didn’t think their bosses would see them in that Captain America leotard?
It was clear from the moment I bumped into Thor that I was witnessing Real Community. The passion among the fans at Comic Con was unlike any I’ve seen before at an event. The hunger to meet a favorite graphic artist or a cult favorite TV actor, even if it meant standing in line for 90 minutes to get their autograph, was amazing to me – and admirable. The camaraderie among the attendees was so strong that I wished, for a split second, I had dressed up as Katniss so someone would give me a compliment or take a photo with me.
The passion at Comic Con was palpable and the event a complete fish-out-of-water experience. When I first entered the convention center, I said a little prayer of survival – get me through this so I can win Mother of the Year or “of the Day.” Yet I came away from ComiCon with a greater appreciation of the enthusiast/fan market and with a keener sense of what a passionate brand can lead people to do, say and wear. We often talk of Community in the sense of social media, but at Comic Con, the fans came face to face (or mask to mask) to be part of something big, to be the content and the entertainment. That’s Engagement in action. I thanked Max for taking me to ComiCon and he didn’t quite understand why I was thanking him. It was so out of character.
- Diane Schwartz
On Twitter: @dianeschwartz
Last week, I read a well-done blog from a writer and social-media consultant named Paul Gillin lamenting the death of BtoB Magazine, which Crain Communications said it is folding into Ad Age as of the first of next year.
What especially caught my eye was this observation:
“The advertising market for business publications is in free fall, and since most of the magazine’s advertisers are themselves B2B media companies, BtoB has suffered along with everybody else.”
Being a student of the media industry, and a content specialist on PR News, I wanted to know why. On the PR side in particular, I would argue that a decline in advertising—in media covering media certainly, but in a lot of print media as well—portends serious challenges for the PR profession.
Consider that as newspapers decline, and advertising in traditional print brands shrinks, the space available for news will also decline. That, of course, means the space available for you to tell your stories via journalists shrinks as well. That’s a dilemma worth preparing for. And I’d argue that media relations is the most important function in PR.
Consider too that as traditional print media declines fewer journalists will be called to the industry, and those who are might well be less capable. Again, a challenge for PR pros who need to rely on reporters who know their beats and get things right.
What’s more, as traditional print brands decline, their influence declines with them, meaning that you, as PR pros, need to find the new kinds of influencers. That’s not always obvious, and it means you’re going to have to balance the old with the new for a long time into the future.
So why is all this happening? I have a few theories, and I like to test them out on other smart people. Sometimes they agree, and other times I suspect they think I’m way wrong.
So I wrote a comment to Gillin’s blog that asked him what he thinks is driving that free fall. Specifically, I asked:
• Is it that print advertising has become an inefficient way to deliver brand messages?
• Is it because software products have emerged in the media industry that render third-party suppliers—advertisers—less essential? In other words, is it a case of, ‘we can build, so we don’t need to buy?’
• And also, do we buy less? For example, online, we don’t need a printer in a continuous relationship, we need a Web development firm just once every few years.
• Is advertising in free fall too because new channels and technologies have emerged—such as Facebook, Google and database-management tools—that allow marketers to more effectively identify and communicate with prospects?
• And if that’s the case, does that mean that the audiences that media companies have traditionally aggregated are less valuable and less compelling to marketers?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. I don’t even know if they’re the right questions to ask. But something is driving the decline in advertising, not just in media on media, not just in b-to-b media, but in many print publications. My friend Jim Elliott says that advertising will come roaring back. It always has in the past. We shall see. What’s new is the volume of alternative media now available, and the ways in which people consume media.