Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Two faces of "breaking" news

Coverage of Northern Trust's recent sponsorship of the PGA golf tournament at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles - and the allegation it used federal bailout money to pay for three high-profile concerts and other lavish treats it bestowed its customers during the tournament - ran the full circuit.

The coverage ranged from the sensational to a non-story. It reached the halls of Congress.

Perhaps more importantly, the Northern Trust "story" gives us public relations professionals two important lessons:

  1. It is a great example of how news is morphing and what may be contributing to the decline of newspapers.
  2. It offers another great lesson in how we need to be counseling our clients during this economy.
First, let's see how this "story" originated.

The "story" broke on gossip Web site, an organization that survives on a team of young men with handheld cameras accosting anyone they can in the streets at any hour and the occasional "scoop" that gives them a thin shred of credibility as a news-related organization. As a venture of AOL/Time Warner that had its beginnings rooted in the popularity of the Drudge Report, TMZ covers a town full of actors and others who occasionally act human. It is a magnet for anyone who has a lurid tale to tell. These "scoops" include disclosing the crazy excerpts of police statements from actor Mel Gibson's arrest for drunk driving or posting the arrest photos of drunk celebrities.

TMZ is a tabloid news organization that has an incredible benefit of being both a well-watched Web site and a TV show with ratings. And, it is good at promoting itself. Founder Harvey Levin has a legitimate news background and is a lawyer. He covered the OJ Simpson murder trial as a legal reporter for the Los Angeles CBS-TV affiliate. (When I was still a reporter, I was at many a news story with Harvey in the media audience. He's actually a very nice and courteous guy and incredibly smart). Harvey's even been interviewed by Larry King. But when he has a good story at TMZ, Harvey knows how to work it with the Los Angeles electronic news media. Since his TV show is picked up by Fox in Los Angeles, he gets a chance to promote it on the local morning news show. Since he has long-standing relationships with all the other TV and radio stations in town, he gets airtime.

When TMZ lit the match, the Northern Trust story erupted like a volcano Tuesday morning on Los Angeles media and spread like a California brush fire around the world.

Now comes the questions of whether TMZ is breaking news or gossip - and how editors at mainstream news media outlets are going to respond?

For years, mainstream news media have struggled with how to cover a story that broke in the National Enquirer and other supermarket print tabloids. Since at least the 1980s, there have been several articles, such as in the Columbia Journalism Review, reviewing the topic of "mainstream chasing mud."

In the old days (pre-TMZ), most news organizations took a wait-and-see approach to see if a tabloid-generated story gained traction. If the story had "wheels," they reluctantly began covering it. Remember former presidential candidate Gary Hart?

Today, it seems, mainstream news can't wait. Blame it on the Internet or blame it on mainstream news editors simply giving up. Take your pick.

TMZ probably would like to think it is a better tabloid. Yet, TMZ is simply an electronic version of a tabloid that has found a way to break through the old barriers. The TMZ dynamic is probably one of the best examples of what is perplexing mainstream news media today. The phenomenon is worth a study in the ongoing and agonizing examination of why newspapers are dying and why such formerly great papers like the Los Angeles Times give so much attention to entertainment news. (I'll save for later the debate of "what readers want vs. what readers deserve.")

So, the Northern Trust "story" broke Tuesday on TMZ, which posted photos and videos from the lavish parties and concerts.

Perhaps the headlines combined with the "exclusive" videos were too much to resist? Or, in this era of bank bailouts and public/politician sentiment that corporations and its executives need to be more modest and reserved in their spending habits, did the stars align just right for this story to "have wheels?" (For some insights into how public relations professionals are counseling their clients on being modest, check out the panel from the January PRSA/Los Angeles program).

How did the mainstream news media react to the tabloid-generated story?

The Wall Street Journal has basically ignored it, opting to only editorialize about about it today's edition. The Los Angeles Times' Michael Hiltzik (a Pulitzer Prize winner) offered perhaps the best take on it, but the Times also covered it in gossip-like fashion in its entertainment section, the Envelope blog "the dishrag."

The rest of the mainstream media were essentially "forced" to cover it because Sen. John Kerry made it his story yesterday. The story is now global and forced Northern Trust to issue several statements.

So, aside from a study in how tabloid journalism is driving mainstream news coverage, what else is being learned from the Northern Trust experience? (Aside from the fact that I wish I was a wealthy client of Northern Trust so I could see Sheryl Crow in concert?)

Hiltzik's column should be widely read by all public relations professionals who have business clients. The era of modesty and being contrite is upon us. If prior stories (Wells Fargo going to Las Vegas, automakers taking corporate jets to DC, etc.) about how banks and corporations should not act in today's near-depression economy, if these prior stories didn't give us clues about how we should be prepared and how we need to counsel our clients, then the Northern Trust one definitely gave us the clear roadmap.

In Northern Trust's defense: Having had financial institutions as clients, I know that "taking care" of wealthy bank customers is standard operating procedure. It's a way of maintaining the relationship with individuals who pay high fees for high-touch service. Competition for these clients is fierce. And since most of these clients are the country club set, a PGA event is a natural stage for these sorts of parties. And if you are Northern Trust, which is not in trouble and really doesn't need TARP funds, you probably should keep doing the things that attract paying clients. Unfortunately, lost in this recent furor was the fact that these parties and events around the golf tournament also raised a lot of money for charities. (Note: charitable contributions are next up for those who have "questionable spending" in their crosshairs).

However, the microscope is there, whether it's TMZ or bloggers or a senator and a congressman from Massachusetts. It doesn't matter whether your company receives TARP or other federal help. All companies need to be prepared for public examinations of what could be perceived as lavish spending.

It's simple: Since the majority of U.S. consumers are cutting back, they reason that CEOs should do the same. Remember, the roots of today's contempt were laid just a few years ago with Enron, Adelphia, Tyco, Global Crossing, Worldcom, etc. It's been bubbling.

Now, public relations professionals have a tremendous challenge to break through the current mental state of this country to convey stories of legitimate spending. Wells Fargo's training conference in Las Vegas was to make better bankers. Seriously, don't you want a bank to be better trained these days? But it was in "Las Vegas." Goldman Sachs recently moved a conference from Las Vegas to San Francisco "because of the new landscape."

So, why does Las Vegas have to suffer? It's hurting already and now you want to pull conventions away simply because of an "image?" Forget the fact that Las Vegas is a cheap convention site these days.

As you can tell, "reason" is not even on the table. Not when TMZ continues to be viewed as a legitimate news organization and the "filter" of well-trained mainstream news media editors is nowhere to be found.

Stay tuned.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Cities without newspapers and other predictions

The predictions are becoming more frequent. See a recent blog post by former newspaper reporter TJ Sullivan who picks up a story from a former high-ranking newspaper editor.

And more bad news keeps hitting the newspaper world in Southern California, and across the nation. My old paper, the Daily News, is barely recognizable. Pulitzer winning reporters and veterans continue to leave the LA Times. More job cuts are coming. The NY Times board eliminates dividends.

Which brings up the continuing question - where is this going? There are many predictions, so I'll try one. The investigative, in-depth journalism will rest with a few surviving papers, like the WSJ and NY Times, and with a few magazines like Newsweek. (Case in point: Newsweek did an outstanding piece of in-depth reporting last year about the shooting death of a gay student in Oxnard - right in the LA Times' backyard.)

However, for the most part, these in-depth pieces will be stories of a national or international concern. The frequency of true, in-depth local and regional reporting at other papers, including the LA Times, will be less.

What is unknown is how the public will really react when local coverage goes away or is substantially reduced. Will they notice the difference, the lack of perspective, the "bringing to your doorstep" news that you truly need to know? Will the public understand that the "breaking news" they received online one night or on the 11 p.m. local TV station report is really not"old news" by morning when the newspaper gives us more details, more depth and more perspective? Too many times have I heard someone say "Oh, I already saw that" when they pick up a discarded LA Times or NY Times at a Starbucks. They "saw" the story the day before online, but all the were looking at now was what appeared to be a "stale" headline in print. How can in-depth newspaper reporting be so easily discarded?

Unfortunately, filling the gap will be local TV stations, talk radio and folks like TMZ and Perez Hilton. Prurient, entertainment news for water cooler gossip rules the day. Do I really need to see amateur news gatherers filming "octomom" walking out of her van as she goes to the hospital to see her babies? Even the occasionally good in-depth reporting by some TV stations during sweeps is fading.

Meanwhile, news gathering sites, like and, will give us the "tidbits" we apparently need to convince us "we're in touch."

The shift continues. Where will it go?

The morning after

Now that we have a federal stimulus package and a California budget, what will be the reaction from business?

The Dow Jones falls before 7500, or nearly half of its value from just 16 months ago.

And predictions are that the Dow will continue to drop. More selling is ahead, according to today's WSJ.

For public relations professionals, we're no longer a "recession-proof" industry. Major cuts have occurred at PR agencies, in government and other sectors in California and across the country.

Sure, a few of us who are doing well. It depends upon the sector you are working in.

In a few weeks, we'll see "agency report cards"and similar rankings from those who cover this industry. It will be intriguing to analyze the numbers, but the expectation is that almost everyone will be done in income.

The financial, corporate and investor relations areas are stable because business needs to communicate with shareholders, mergers are occurring and CEOs are under scrutiny. Marketing communications are in demand to keep brands strong so sales don't dip further. Technology appears stable for now. Healthcare seems to be slipping a bit as hospital expansion stalls.

Many independent practitioners report steady work, perhaps because in-house staffs have been trimmed to the bone and the work still needs to be done.

It would seem on the government side, the federal and state jobs are mostly stable, but city and county employment is shaky, at best. Military public affairs is very stable.

Keep sending me your insights and reports.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Weekly opinion poll

Knowing what's on the minds of people is critical to the success of a public relations initiative. Expensive surveys and polls can track attitudes. These are scientific, which means the results are valid, and can be designed to delve into specific topics.

Another way to track public sentiment is more passive and a lot less expensive: Reading a newspaper's letters to the editor or the online comments to stories.

The Los Angeles Times now makes it easier to assess reader sentiments through a weekly chart on their opinion blog. The latest chart shows that people inclined to voice their opinions were more concerned about the octuplets' mom than the looming California budget crisis. Nearly three times as many letter-writers were upset with the octuplets' mom than they were over the possibility of major tax increases.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A nerve touched

If you need any evidence how the octuplets story has touched a nerve in this country, just count the number of comments to today's Entertainment Weekly story about the PR team pulling out.

Joann and Mike quit

Faced with a slew of death threats, Joann Killeen and Mike Furtney quit Saturday as the public relations representative for the mother of octuplets.

Probably not a bad move given the circumstances. Even the wife of a friend over Valentine's dinner last night said, after I revealed Joann and Mike as my friends who represented the mother, wanted their phone number to scream at Joann and Mike for representing them.

It's hard to comprehend the deep level of hatred and emotions on this one. But to go after the public relations representatives tells me this story is unlike any other in recent time.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Baby mania and public relations

Well, now we know Joann Killeen and Mike Furtney have provided their professional public relations services to the octuplets mother for free.

And, Joann gave her first interview about how she is handling the situation. Although, I would probably have picked a more favorable publication for this. While I believe the LA Weekly provides incredible service and reasonable investigative journalism, it comes with an edge and editorializing within news copy. As you can plainly see in this story.

At a minimum, the octuplets mother story is one for the ages. Conversely, it puts a huge spotlight on one of the dozens of specialties within the public relations profession.

As we know, it's usually the last story that counts. What is now a rash of negative news could end up more balanced and possibly more favorable toward the mom.

In spite of Joann's and Mike's best efforts, the media storm continues to swirl with rumor, innuendo, speculation and off-handed expert opinions from those who are working with only partial details. There are very few who provide a more balanced or calm perspective. But much of the coverage is simply picking up on the general public outrage in terms of the mother's perceived lack of income and her choices. (Just listen to a female newscaster's reaction to this story).

It seems, then, there is a long road ahead for Joann and Mike, and her client. I know Mike and Joann and they have a genuine interest in the mom's welfare. They are experienced and know how this story will unfold and how best to manage it.

The "shots" at Joann's and Mike's work will be inevitable, but they have a job to do. Much like a defense attorney must represent clients because they deserve good counsel, individuals and corporations need help with telling their public story. Yet, unlike defense attorney's, public relations professionals can decline work. Both attorneys and public relations professionals must uphold ethical standards. Defense attorneys must believe their clients are innocent and are obligated to provide the best defense. It's a great fundamental to our society - to get adequate legal representation. Yet, public relations professionals have the ability to pass up a client or resign an account. In many cases, it's because there are differences in opinion, or a client didn't reveal some critical detail and it would be difficult to continue representing the client. But, you don't see Joann and Mike running away here.

At the end, the octuplets mom is in the news in a very big way and she deserves professional communications assistance.

Is is really bad right now?

For those who follow this, please pass it around.

How bad is the economy hitting the Southern California public relations industry? I hear mixed stories. Many colleagues report they have laid off staff or have a hiring freeze in place, saying clients have either left or pulled back.

Independent practitioners seem to be doing well and some say they see an uptick in business.

So, what is really happening? Has optimism from the stimulus package begun to take hold? Or, do the numbers tell us that it will take a while to really right the ship? Are clients doing what we fear - eliminating what they few as "fringe" expenses (public relations services).

Please respond with as much as you like to share with me. I promise to keep information confidential. I am not looking for specifics, or even numbers - just general trends. Most importantly, I want to hear about:
  • Any projections for the remainder of the year
  • What your clients are telling you
  • How you are counseling clients to maintain their accounts with you because public relations is a critical business function in a down economy
  • Are you picking up work that once belonged to a larger agency?
As professionals, we must rely upon one another in good times. Now, in these tough times, it will be important to truly support each other and network. There are far too many stories that from tough economic times emerge new companies, new ideas and new energies.

Over the course of 2009, I hope to use this blog to assist others in our profession, provide hope and facilitate networking. Your participation will be critical.

There are two ways to respond. The "public" way in the comments box, or send me a confidential email to:

Friday, February 6, 2009

Baby mania

As another winter storm blew through Southern California Thursday and Friday, the "baby storm" kept up its whirlwinds.

The octuplets mother finally spoke today in an exclusive to the TODAY show. And, NBC will stretch out this interview as far as it can with the "full" story next week and interviews with the mother's other children.

Joann Killeen and Mike Furtney continue to manage this storm, which includes new "fronts" as reporters dig into the mother's medical records.

This story is brewing to be a classic public relations study. First, the incredible story about eight live births to a single mother. Next, the news media begins to dig and microphones are placed before relatives and friends. Crews are camped outside her home. (And the woman's poor children are forced to put blankets over their heads to go to school). The experts start giving their opinions without any context or background. The shock jocks on talk radio do their usual thing.

Do you get the sense this is like a court trial? It is.

Meanwhile, the mother works with Joann and Mike to tell her story at the appropriate time and to maintain a sense of order amid the chaos. Reporters sometimes hate public relations professionals because we stick to "message points" and won't be sucked into heavily baited questions. They hate public relations professionals because we have coached our clients on how to say things and what to say.

Yet, there are plenty of times when people said the wrong thing. Just look back at some stories in recent months and you'll find plenty of educated people, including our nationally elected, back step from a comment. "What I meant to say was...."

Now comes a 30-something mother under the glare and intensity and the training and experience of the nation's top news media organizations. So, yes, she needs a professional, an expert who has handled these type of situations.

While we can't wait to her more from the mother, I can't wait to hear from Mike and Joann in a few months after the dust has settled.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Babies, Breakfast and Brevity

What a couple of days in LA and the country.

First we find our dear friends and public relations masters Joann Killeen and Michael Furtney hired to represent the mother who had eight babies and facing intense scrutiny for having fertility treatments. Joann and Mike are seasoned pros and know how to treat this one with the highest ethical standards. Joann is the former leader of the Public Relations Society of America and Mike has represented many large national and international companies. Both are Accredited in Public Relations and are PRSA Fellows, significant achievements that distinguish their skill, expertise and professional ethics. In addition, they are professors at Los Angeles area universities. If we're lucky, we may get to hear more about Joann's and Mike's handling of this story in November at the international conference of PRSA.

What the news media and others often forget is that there are other sides to the story. The poor mother has not had the chance to speak, but plenty of others have taken their shots at her. So, it is entirely logical for this family to bring on board seasoned communicators who can help bring some balance to the discussions.

This drama unfolded at the same time the Los Angeles Times announced further layoffs and a consolidation of its section. Receiving the most attention was the elimination of the separate California section, which used to be the "local" and "Metro" section. Reaction has been loud across several sectors.

And, today, Feb. 3, 2009, we saw a great public relations effort unfold with the added potential of capturing a telling glimpse into the state of our country. I speak, of course, about the "Grand Slam" free breakfast giveaway at Denny's. Like many of us, I ventured out in the morning hours to take advantage of a free breakfast. With an ample supply of milk and Honey Nut Cheerios at home, I ventured out mostly because I was curious.

What would I find?

As I guessed and as news stations reported this evening, there were long lines across the country. All day long. Long lines.

But there was more to the story.

These were not folks who liked pancakes, sausage and eggs over-easy delivered to them in minutes with a smile, and free coffee refills. No. The majority of people I saw and spoke to were in need of a break. In well-worn clothes and tattered shoes, they resembled some of the folks I come across at homeless shelters and food pantries. They are surviving on the edge. Barely employed or recently laid off. A free meal meant they could extend by a day their measly offerings at home.

So, here we were. A great opportunity for some enterprising city desk editor or assignment editor at a local TV station to capture a great story. An incredible human interest story. But for reasons that escape me, the story came and went with barely a notice.

Was it because news editors didn't want to give a free promotion to Denny's? Well, that's silly when you consider the steady flow of features we read and see of actors promoting their next movie. Or, as I suspect, have we lost so many well-trained, veteran newsmen and newswomen to budget cuts that this story simply wasn't on anyone's radar?