Monday, December 29, 2008

Politics and nuances

Is the product of a 24-hour news cycle that we are still subjected to pointless stories about how Caroline Kennedy speaks and our president-elect's body? Really. CNN had "expert strategists" from the Dems and GOP focus their comments, their wisdom on whether Caroline should be the next U.S. Senator from New York based almost entirely on her "you know" frequency. Come on.

There is, at least, some redeeming byproducts of Obama's swimsuit edition photos - the TV news reporters noticed his body getting healthier. And, as the fitness instructor observed in obligatory fashion during a TV interview today, if our incoming prez has time to work out, so do we.

Or, do we?

If I had picked my cabinet before Internet Monday, sent worker bees out to answer questions about the Ill. gov., etc., I guess I would have an hour a day to train - for free in a gym that is more than happy to have its name plastered on national news because I was inside.

Reality check. No. Instead, we are working our butts off to beat back the recession, making sure our kids are stable in an increasingly complex world, wondering how we are going to make the mortgage payment, and looking at the rising expense of caring for our extremely old parents.... Gym time? When?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Craigslist and the news

If you haven't been following this, Craig Newmark seems to be everywhere these days. He was a hit at the PRSA convention in Detroit. Now, he is visiting newsrooms, including the remaining editorial staff at the LATimes. For a self-described nerd who hated the spotlight.....

WSJ LA Bureau Chief named, NPR cuts

From the LAObserved blog, we hear the WSJ has named a new bureau chief for the Los Angeles office.

At the same time, we hear more depressing news in the world of quality journalism as NPR is forced to make staff cuts.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Newspaper death watch

I hate to even suggest a countdown clock. However, the trends are not looking bright. Reporter layoffs continue. Major papers are on the selling block. Readership is down - both in terms of subscriptions and even Web site views.

So, do we start placing our bets? Comments?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Future of journalism

The future of journalism - the kind we grew up with thriving newspapers giving us hard-hitting stories from City Halls and courtrooms - is not only a major source of debate and angst at print news media outlets, but also is one of extreme interest to us in the public relations profession.

As a former journalist, it tears my heart to see the staff cuts, the bad choices for what appears as "news" in print, and the general loss of respect for good journalism among the general public.

Posing great questions in this area is Jim O'Shea, the dismissed LA Times editor, in his recent column in the Nieman Watchdog.

Much of what Jim writes is trying to answer the question of "what happened?" and dissecting the logic of his former boss.

As a journalist-turned-PR professional, I'm more consumed by the question of "where is this going?"

For the future of a democratic and informed society, we need strong, independent journalism. An informed public receiving news and information from independent sources and not from government propaganda was the foundation upon which this country's founding fathers built the first set of laws. These are the same values that people in other countries continue to fight for today.

Yet, as staff cuts continue and as we see veteran reporters being replaced by rookies, the results are predictable. The strength of good journalism is weakening. I am not here to bash the young journalist. I was one myself. But experience makes a difference. If you are watching this closely, the breadth of a story is more narrow, the perspective is lacking and the information is skimpy. Without the background and years in the trenches, a younger reporter simply doesn't know all the questions to ask or fails to pursue the hard questions.

As O'Shea also points out, the editors are contributing to the demise by their choice of Page One stories.

So, let's go back to "where is this going?"

As O'Shea aptly observes, the public trust in journalism has reached all-time lows. Unfortunately, sensational electronic "entertainment" news (including talk radio) has been lumped into the same bag holding legitimate (aka "fair and balanced") news gathering and reporting - the kind assembled in many newspapers. (Or, used to be conceived).

The dilemma before newspapers is a bundled mess of cost, value and branding.

O'Shea is to be applauded to fight Zell's business-first/journalism-last perception that newspapers should simply give readers what they want. What newspapers need today are strong leaders and owners who recognize the long-term value of good journalism as the reason newspapers (regardless if they are print or digital) are always going to important to the public.

If you think the public hates journalists now because of a perception that they are biased or politically motivated in their coverage of news, just think where these ratings will go when the public realizes they are being pandered to?

This leaves me with one observation.

It's about re-establishing the brand.

In the old days, journalists simply let their stories do the talking. To be branded a great newspaper, you simply published great stories. Readers got it. The Pulitzers confirmed it. When the Internet came along, newspapers simply placed this threat in the same category as Ted Turner's unrealized prediction that the cable television industry would soon spell the doom of print journalism. Sure, every house had a television set, but what happened is that TV news was no more convenient than print news. At the beginning, at least. So, the public kept their print subscriptions because they could retrieve their news on their terms - when it was convenient to them.

A couple of things changed the picture. First, USA Today figured out that public was more mobile and didn't want lengthy articles. Pandering to what readers want? Perhaps. But USA Today was a dynamic that couldn't be ignored. Many newspapers adapted, but did so only superficially without regard to the long-term impact. Then, computer ownership rose dramatically. Now, we have a tool that allows us to get our news and information on even better terms for our busy lives.

With a new, very powerful tool at our fingertips our "brand loyalty" shifted or simply disappeared. News and information remained important to our lives, but we didn't care where we got it. Nothing I'm sharing here is earth-shattering news to any of you.

So, here is one possible solution for newspapers (and the future of healthy journalism). Re-establish your brand. Sure, it may sound like an simplistic initiative driven by the public relations or marketing department. Yet, reader loyalty is the crux of the current dilemma. Mr. Zell, you won't get readers under a philosophy of "giving them what they want." As a capitalist, you should remember the importance of the value of the product. Apple is making huge gains in the marketplace not because of cute TV ads, but because they supply incredible and durable technology. Consumers are not purchasing imitations. They are purchasing a product with a brand built on quality.

Strong newspaper journalism will regain readers if readers believe in the value of the product. Mr. O'Shea and other former editors have tried to argue this. The problem was they did so from an editor's point of view.

Is it time to look to brand strategists and public relations pros for the answers? Yes. But, we can't do this alone.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Blessings

On any given day (the full 24 hours) there can be, in a span of minutes or hours, a host of events in your backyard, in your country, or halfway around the world that can turn a smile into a frown, can turn happiness into despair, can make you throw your hands up and give up.

Then, just when the last few straws are falling onto the camel's back, we see the tiny flicker of goodness and hope. A story that warms the heart. Like Brendan Foster's story.

video

Perhaps the amount of bad news is overwhelming us. Perhaps we don't know how to balance the bad with the good, or find enough positives to overwhelm the disappointing. Before the information age, before the telegraph started a wave of faster and instant communication, we probably balanced the bad news of what we read in the weekly newspaper with the letters from family and loved ones, or the simple face-to-face gatherings at the fencepost or the corner market.

The world won't slow down to savor the good moments. So, what I propose is greater use of YouTube videos to remind us to count our blessings. To remind us tremendous power and impact that random acts of kindness can have on all of use, and on the world.

Remember the video clip of a lone Chinese man standing in the way of a tank during a short-lived revolt in China? It gave us hope and inspiration that all it takes is one of us to stand up to repression.

So, while many of us will curse the age of blogs, You Tube and MySpace, I say we should adapt and learn to use these tools to the greater good. To help us count our blessings and send out the reminders that basically, we all want to do the right thing.

As public relations professionals, we must first make sure we are effectively and ethically communicating with our audiences on behalf of our employers or clients. Let's be realistic - we need a paycheck. These tasks will take up most of our waking hours.

But, we also hold powerful skills, experience and tools at our fingertips to communicate on behalf of ourselves, our fellow human beings.

How will I count my blessings or offer a blessing? I count my blessings that I have healthy, wonderful children and a new love in my life. How will I offer a blessing? By using the Internet and the art of writing whenever and wherever I can to make positive change.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Snoop Dogg, Martha Stewart, Jon Stewart and David Frost

Wow. In one day. I thought I would never see Snoop Dogg on the Martha Stewart show. Have the ice caps completely melted?

Even better, Snoop was giving "hood" slang advice to the audience - five phrases that I'm sure Martha will never use. Talk about extending your brand. Snoop is one heckuva marketeer.

My faith in the world was quickly restored when I caught the replay of last night's Daily Show, when Jon Stewart had Sir David Frost as a guest. One former talk show host who gave us the most amazing interview with a disgraced president, and the current TV talk show king who is close to doing the same.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Gay Marriage

From a public relations standpoint, the conclusion seems clear that Prop. 8 passed only because of two things. The yes crowd used a lot of money to spread fear and lies. The no team simply did not conduct a good campaign. It ran what many observers say was an old, conservative campaign. No emotional rage was sparked through viral messages and calls to action. Now, there is.

While I was extremely proud to the point of tears that my country was able to elect an African American as president, I was in equal amounts shamed by what my state did to ban gay marriage. We came so far on one issue, retreated so far on another.

I have followed Keith Olbermann since he was a two-bit TV sports reporter in Los Angeles. But, like many sports writers I know, he has a gift. And, he delivered in this commentary on Prop 8

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QtokFnwAUng

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Thank a vet

Make sure you thank at least one veteran today. No matter your feelings about the two wars we are in, or past wars, the men and women who currently serve and who have served deserve our gratitude for their sacrifice.

Chances are that you know someone. A widow who lost a husband or wife. A wheel-chair bound Vietnam vet. A grandfather who lost a lot of friends in WWII or the Korean War.

And, my fellow public relations pros, please avoid using this holiday to promote something. Today, I received the worst email from a real estate agent who asked us to remember vets, and then reminded folks he can help you with mortgage and real estate needs. Yuck. This person certainly won't get my business.

By the way, if you really want to get an idea of sacrifice, watch the HBO special "Section 13."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

PRSA's invasion of Motown

I'll soon be off to the annual PRSA international conference. This year, it's in Detroit.

This location raised a few eyebrows, but I'm told the registration level will be at or beyond previous conference attendance marks. This comes in a down market in a city that is really down in the dumps.

The expected high turnout may be a self-fulfilling statement. As we say in this business, the best time for public relations can be in a down market. It's our opportunity to shine by providing the kind of advice and critical strategies that help a marginal company from going under, and a normally strong company prepare for when the good times return. The companies that eliminate or reduce public relations activities in a down economy routinely find they must spend twice as much in these services to gain back reputation and market share.

I have a client who understands this. They could easily tell me that budget cuts will force them to cancel my contract. And, they may do that. Certainly, the warning sighs are there. But for now, they understand the importance of brand loyalty. They need to remain a positive, steady force in the communities they serve and not give current and future customers any reason to doubt their commitment, loyalty or strength. We like to buy products and services, and invest in companies that we trust, and we know will always be around.

So, I can't wait to hear the seminars, and talk with my fellow professionals in a city that expects snow while we're there. I'll file some observations as the conference runs its course.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Cost effective PR for Palin

The Washington Post today reveals that a relatively inexpensive public relations campaign may be credited as a leading reason why Gov. Sarah Palin rose to the national spotlight and may have caught McCain's attention. Just look what a good media relations campaign can do.

This makes it so much easier to tell my kids what I do for a living.

I'm particularly intrigued that it was an East Coast PR firm that conducted the effort.

Footnote: The Post reporter, Kim Kindy, is a former colleague at the LA Daily News when I was once with the 4th estate.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Bloggers wined and dined

Kevin Roderick, a former LA Times staffer who now has a highly read blog on local journalism and events, comments on LAObserved about a recent invite for bloggers only.

This certainly underscores the importance of bloggers to our communications profession.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

LA Times rejects opinion article

The Los Angeles Times has rejected an opinion article penned by PRSA National Chair and CEO Jeff Julin about former Metrolink employee Denise Tyrrell and how her actions align with PRSA's code of professional conduct. If it's rejected by other local papers, I hope it can be published on PRSA's Web site, and this blog.

LA Business Journal gives "half" support to Denise

LA Business Journal Editor Charles Crumpley weighs in this week (Sept 9-14 issue) on Metrolink's Denise Tyrrell's handling of the "who was at fault" question, under the headline: "Responsibility, Not Blame"

"I want to praise Denise Tyrrell. She was the Metrolink spokeswoman who resigned under pressure last Monday after quickly admitting that it was the Metrolink train engineer who ran a red light and caused the tragedy of Sept. 12.
I want to stand squarely in her corner for setting aside the usual evasive and lawyerly gibberish and making an honest statement.
I want to, but I can’t. That’s because, unfortunately, the situation is more nuanced.
Within 24 hours of the tragic train collision, Tyrrell met with reporters and said that barring the results of an official investigation, “We believe that it was our engineer who failed to stop at a signal.” She went on to say, “When two trains are in the same place at the same time, someone’s made an awful mistake.”
The problem with her statement is not that she put the blame on Metrolink instead of the freight train it collided with. Even within hours of the tragedy, it was clear that the Metrolink train ran the red light. Her honesty on that point was refreshing.
The problem was that she seemed to put the blame on the engineer. While he was an obvious suspect, it was simply too early to know whether he was guilty of the “awful mistake.” At that very early point in the investigation – recovery of the dead was still going on when she made the statement – there were too many questions. Was there a problem with the signal? Had there been a mechanical failure? Had the engineer suffered a heart attack? Had the train been hijacked by terrorists?
In any case, she quickly had to resign her position. Critics pointed out that she didn’t really know who or what was at fault, so she shouldn’t have all but blamed the engineer, who died in the crash. Those critics have a valid point.
As L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe and some others have pointed out, it would have been better had she said something like: “It is clear that it was the Metrolink train that ran the red light. Exactly how or why that happened is not clear. Of course, an investigation is under way.”
Tyrrell, in my opinion, had the right impulse. She had the wrong execution.
And even though I can’t stand squarely in her corner, I will stand on her half of the ring. Any business or organization that finds itself a player in a tragedy could take a lesson from the forthrightness that she showed. Too many companies worry first about the punitive damages they face and let truth become a victim. I believe that hurts them. And it should.
I’m just speaking for myself, but if I were a juror and sat on a case in which a company was involved in a tragedy, I’d be inclined to lighten up if the business had quickly and honestly admitted its fault and guilt.
As for the company that had quickly sent out a PR robot who danced and dissembled and then later parsed the words of the investigation in full lawyerly evasiveness, I’d punish them
."

Friday, September 19, 2008

More support for Denise

LA Times columnist Patt Morrison, who also has a lively radio show in Los Angeles, weighed in on Denise Tyrrell.

I spoke with Denise on Thursday and expressed PRSA's support for her. She was thankful and said she is still trying to take it all in. "It's still a bit overwhelming," she said. But, I could tell Denise was unwavering in her original counsel to MTA executives to disclose early the information Metrolink had before them.

She also is not second-guessing her decision to leave Metrolink.

Also saw two letters to the editor in the Times, including one from a PR professional who was critical of Denise for a premature disclosure of information. I have spoken with dozens of PR colleagues and at least more than 80% of them are in support of Denise's actions. Most of the senior PR pros I've spoken with are clear to point out that they wouldn't hesitate to disclose clear facts, as long as there was clear discussion of the ramifications. This includes impacts to "customers," potential legal action, etc., since our jobs must ultimately protect our organizations and companies.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Camera angles?

An interesting observation from a camera pro about how camera angles can play an important factor in TV interviews. Something PR pros should be aware of as they put their clients before the camera.

PRWeek visits LA

Check out Kimberly Maul's "The Cycle" blog about PRWeek's recent roundtable with entertainment PR leaders in Los Angeles.

Business Week weighs in

Liz Wolgemuth, who writes "The Inside Job" blog for Newsweek, picked up on Denise's resignation. See it here.

Denise for President?

LA Times columnist Sandy Banks' piece on Denise Tyrrell's show of emotion during the early press conferences following the tragic Metrolink crash sparked nearly 100 reader comments, including a few who said Denise should run for President for being so honest.

When did we hear in this country such support for a PR professional?

By my count, about 80 percent of the comments to Banks' piece praised Denise for being honest and forthright. Interestingly, at least one reader comment from someone who said they were a practicing PR professional was highly critical, claiming Denise was issuing statements without authority and let her emotions overcome her professional responsibility. Apparently this commenter did not see or hear Denise's boss verify that he authorized the release of the information.

Another reader of Banks' piece said he usually has a bad opinion of PR people, but found Denise's candor refreshing.

To my colleagues, this is probably a perfect time to refresh trust in our profession. PRSA continues to take more and more proactive steps to uphold ethical values and standards of conduct within the public relations industry.

You can demonstrate your commitment to ethical conduct and practice your professionalism by either taking simple steps, or becoming more vocal. A simple step starts with the recent call by PRSA's "Clean and Fair Campaign 2008" group to encourage the two presidential candidates to conduct a truthful, ethical campaign. The Facebook group has more than 2,000 members - and really should have 100,000 members -- to pledge their support for this effort. Start your Facebook page now and take the pledge. That's pretty simple.

The more bold steps I leave up to you.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

PR pros debate Denise Tyrrell's actions

Denise Tyrrell has understandably gone quiet since she was forced to defend her resignation in the news media. Denise is a consummate pro who knows she is not the story - but rather that journalists should focus on the investigation into the deadly Metrolink train crash that killed at least 25 and injured 135 commuters on Sept. 12. She also knows the story is with the victims, and the tens of thousands of commuters who trust Metrolink to take them safely to their jobs.

(For the record, I was a regular Metrolink commuter and was once on a Metrolink train that hit a car stuck on the tracks and another time on a Metrolink train that hit a man who was committing suicide. When I started my own company a few months ago, I no longer needed to take the train. I know Denise only by professional association and have not spoken with her about any of this.)

But, her actions - both how she handled the press conferences up to her resignation - have created a debate within the public relations community.

Several colleagues who saw my brief appearance on KTLA Channel 5 on Monday night or are reading the many stories about Denise's resignation have questions, as well as early assessments.

For those who have worked with the National Transportation Safety Board, it becomes clear very early that the NTSB wants to control how information is released after a deadly transportation incident. Too often, the NTSB has found, an early assumption or "piece of evidence" has been wrong or doesn't tell the complete story. I know how this control of information works, as a former roommate was an NTSB spokesperson. And, of course, there are legal issues.

So, the first question is:
1. Did Metrolink jump the gun and release the "cause" information too early? Less than 24 hours after the crash, Denise, at a press conference, said the crash was caused because it "appeared the engineer ignored a red light signal." Denise said Metrolink wanted to "be honest in our appraisal."

This was not the first deadly crash for Metrolink. And, since this was a head-on crash between a freight train and a passenger commuter train, the nagging question was: "How could this happen?" Metrolink's computer records and other information about the status of the warning lights and rail switches apparently gave officials an unequivocal set of facts. Metrolink also said others on the scene were discussing the same information. So, what they were faced with was a very critical piece of information soon landing on the ears of the news media. In many cases, PR pros realize the better course of action at this point is to play offense in order to prevent rumor (READ: blogs, Internet, Twitter) and set the record straight. In the old days, maybe Metrolink had another 48 to 72 hours to release this information. Not today. Just look what happened with reports that the engineer was texting two teen-agers just prior to the crash. The source of this information is apparently a YouTube video posted by the teens. At least one news outlet claims it has seen the actual texts from the engineer to the teens, but this report has yet to be verified. As of Tuesday (Sept. 16), the NTSB did not have the phone records. Yet, because of a lack of official confirmation one way or the other, the public is left to draw conclusions.

Metrolink's stunning announcement was met by the news media with shock - they are not used to such early disclosures in a major deadly crash. They also had genuine respect for Metrolink to be so bold and so honest so early. PR pros know that "being transparent" with the news media can earn better coverage, certainly better when compared to how the news media writes or broadcasts stories when they believe an organization is trying to deceive or "spin" them.

Metrolink's board the next day began back-tracking, essentially calling out Denise for releasing information too soon. That set into motion Denise's resignation. She said she felt her credibility was at stake, especially since her boss, CEO David Solow authorized her to give the details and that the Metrolink Board Chair, Ron Roberts, a Temecula city councilman, called her out in Monday's (Sept. 15) The Wall Street Journal.

"What was said by one of our public-relations employees needs to be followed up by the board and myself," Roberts was quoted in the Journal. The Metrolink board was either miffed they were not told in advance of the release of "cause" information, or they felt pressure from the NTSB to have staff clam up.

With this kind of statement in a major national newspaper, any public relations professional (really, no hyphen needed), would be put in the same position as Denise. So, she resigned and informed LA Times blogger Steve Hymon, who covers transportation issues. His Monday morning posting set off a national news story.

By Tuesday morning, the NTSB was starting to agree with Metrolink's assertion - but careful to say "the train" ran the red light signal. Certainly, Metrolink never attempted to answer the question: "Why did the engineer" run the red signal? The NTSB is hoping to find out.

Some public relations professionals I've spoken with characterized Metrolink's early release of information as "throwing the engineer under the train" and it was "easy to blame the dead guy." Others, some who have worked in transportation agencies, said they were shocked by Metrolink's early release of such critical information. They also question the "rush" to release information.

Again, time will tell, but it seems that Metrolink felt entirely confident of what they had in front of them and felt compelled to release it early -- to start, as they said, re-gaining public trust in their agency by being forthright and honest.

So the next question is:
2. Why did Roberts single out Denise and not include the CEO for authorizing the release of the information? We'll have to wait and see the ultimate answer. It's only speculation at this point.

Another question posed to me by both journalists and PR colleagues:
3. Did Denise's emotions play a role in all this? They didn't come out and say it, but this is what they meant to ask: "Did Denise accidentally release sensitive information because she was emotionally distraught?" The question has raised some emotions of its own, especially with female colleagues who are upset about what they see as unfair treatment of Denise because she is a woman.

My response to KTLA was this: "Hey, even veteran firefighters at the scene were overcome with emotion. It's a situation that carries a lot of trauma with it. Anyone is allowed to be human in those circumstances." We've seen male U.S. presidents crack with emotion, so why not the spokesperson of a regional transit agency? Denise gave information she was authorized to give and after that, I must point out, only then did she allude to it being an emotional time for her.

No matter the question or answer, this one will be a classic case study for the PR books.

PRSA Western District Chair comments on Metrolink spokesperson's resignation

Denis Wolcott, current chair of PRSA's Western District and past president of the PRSA's Greater Los Angeles Area chapter, went on camera Monday to discuss the sudden resignation of Metrolink spokesperson Denise Tyrrell following the train authority's quick disclosure that its engineer was at fault in Friday's (Sept. 12) head-on train crash that killed 26 and injured 135 commuters.

Public Relations professionals are expected to adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public. Ms. Tyrrell's boss, Metrolink CEO David Solow, told reporters Monday that he authorized her to disclose that the engineer was at fault and had ignored a red signal to stop. Denise gave the news last Saturday, in a stunningly quick less than 24 hours after the crash. Metrolink felt it had to answer the nagging question: "How could this happen?"

However, the National Transportation Safety Board, which likes to take control of how information is disseminated in deadly transportation crash investigations, quickly responded to Metrolink's disclosure, saying it was premature to assign blame. On Sunday, the Metrolink board of directors, a politically appointed body, met in private and later issued a statement essentially agreeing with the NTSB that it was premature to assign blame.Although not all of my interview with Los Angeles TV station KTLA Channel 5 was aired, I did stress the importance of an organization’s board, executive office and public relations staff working in concert when it comes to public communications and that public relations professionals clearly need to be part of the decision-making process at the highest level. I also cited the importance of an organization making a timely and full disclosure of authenticated information.

Denise Tyrrell also gave an exclusive on-camera interview to KCAL-TV, a local CBS affiliate, here.

Here's the background:FROM THE LA TIMES..." Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell called the agency's chief executive to make an unusual request. "I asked him to allow me to make a statement to rebuild public trust," she recalled, "and I told him we had to be honest and upfront about what happened."

David Solow, she said, "agreed" with her plans to publicly acknowledge Saturday that a preliminary investigation showed the Metrolink engineer ran a red light before the commuter train plowed into a Union Pacific freight train. Her teary comments and surprising candor elicited a flood of encouragement from Metrolink staff members and commuters from as far as London and Vietnam.

By Monday, Tyrrell had resigned her $86,000-a-year post amid intense criticism from Metrolink officials and federal investigators who called her public comments premature and inappropriate.

But Tyrrell, 55, has no regrets.

"When you have loss of life, spinning is unacceptable," she said.

Watch the video which includes a PRSA comment for Denis Wolcott, chair of PRSA's Western District and past president of the PRSA's LA Chapter.
video

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