Friday, November 15, 2013

RIP Mark Lacter

Tributes and recollections continue to pour in about Mark Lacter, a very fine journalist and an exceptional business editor.  After hearing from colleagues and reading other tributes, it is clear that Mark possessed some unique skills as a business journalist and editor. 

His business acumen.  Covering business is not easy. Companies tend to hide things, protect their reputation and dole out details in small chunks.   For many readers of business stories,the focus generally is on whether a company's stock is rising or falling, a new product, a profile of a quirky business, an acquisition or profiles of leadership.  Mark always knew there is more to covering business and challenge himself and others to dig deeper. As an editor, he challenged other writers.

There are plenty of great writers and editors who can take complex subjects and present them in easy-to-understand terms.  Mark went beyond this - primarily by either spotting trends or nuances that really mattered in our daily lives, and by challenging the assumptions and prepared statements of business leaders, elected officials and others.

There were trends that only Mark spotted.  I was constantly amazed by his attention to detail - he would hear someone raise an issue or make a statement and Mark would pull up a fact-based observation that challenged that convention. These details would be amassed from his ability to search, poke and prod.  There are plenty of business leaders, elected officials and source who would squirm under Mark's intense stare and line of questioning.  Why? Because he was smart, came prepared and ask questions no one else was considering.  There were the routine business stories that needed to be told, but Mark's quest was to report on those that deserved to be told.

Mark possessed a genuine curiosity - a trait not all journalist possess.  This served him well because he would not accept blanket statements or lines of thinking.  He would dig, scratch. He did not want to follow the patterns of other business writers.

What is amazing to me is that mainstream business news organizations did not grab Mark in these latter years and promote and nurture his brand of journalism. Sure, his freelance work was easily picked up by large news organizations and he was nominated for awards. But as a few others noted in their remembrances of Mark, he lacked an ego and was not pretentious. Did his lack of showboating keep him out of consideration for greater things? Who knows? 

What I hope will happen is that journalism schools will take note, and other business editors will study Mark's style - to show others one of the better examples of business writing and business editing.The nuts and bolts of Mark Lacter business journalism needs to be catalogued and chronicled.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Frustrating pitches

One of the most frustrating aspects of practicing public relations is knowing you have a great story to pitch the news media...and not a single reporter or editor bites.

This creates some self doubt.

The second most frustrating moment comes a few weeks later when you see these same news organizations run a truly silly story.  You are befuddled, asking yourself: "They choose to run this story and not mine!?!"

This creates anger.

The third most frustrating moment comes when you then turn to one of your trusted PR industry trade publications and there is some guy offering his or her tips on the perfect pitch. "For a few hundred dollars, I will share my secrets..."

Now we're contemplating some heavy drinking, and we can't repeat out loud what we're thinking about the featured "media expert."

The cycle is vicious because it seems to crop up a few times a year. 

Yeah, it recently happened to me.

I had a great story for a client who builds affordable housing.  Their latest project was for senior citizens, with about half of the rooms set aside for homeless seniors.  We found a resident who had been homeless for more than 20 years, and was a former heroin addict.  He created a Facebook page that was discovered by his long lost family, which promptly flew him to another state for what I'm sure would be an amazing reunion and the first look at his grandchildren. He also is now volunteering at a local homeless shelter. Everyone calls him "pops."  He was  very glib.  A great story. A great interview.

As many in the PR profession realize today, I had to package this story with as much detail and background as possible to "hand" this ready-made story for consideration. (Don't get me started on lazy journalism.)  The pitch was full of helpful statistics, how this situation represented a major trend, etc. 

No, in Los Angeles, we'd rather tell you about the latest lipstick craze, weight loss tips, or whether some teen singer (his name begins with Justin) is in another bar fight.   Mix in a car chase, something that passes for "breaking news" and a corrupt politician and, viola, this is our evening news.

That was one month ago. 

Today, I open my local paper to a story about a homeless man who.....wait for it... created a Facebook be a comedian.  Apparently, this guy writes very funny things on cardboard. 

Arrgh!!  This homeless person was more exciting than my homeless person?!!

As a former journalist, I can say with authority that judging what is news will vary on a daily basis.  Reporters and editors will posture that each story is reviewed on its merits and must meet their standards.  But we all know there are may variables at work in newsrooms, such as:
  • A "heavy" news day that pushes your feature out is easily understood, and is readily accepted by your bosses and clients.
However, a veteran journalist once told me in college that journalists are human, too. A pitch made when an editor has a bad day stands less of a chance of being properly considered than if this same editor had a great breakfast, laughed in his car while listening to the radio on his way to work and was looking forward to taking his wife to a concert this weekend.  (I've "brought back" stories for consideration after I realized I was dealing with an editor in a foul mood.)

Relationships are critical - we all know that.  The best in our business will get a reporter to pick up a phone or return a call or email...based on the relationship.  

There also are countless times I (and I suspect you, too) have pitched the same story to the same reporter or editor with a slight change. Or, simply go down the list and find a reporter willing to listen. What may not sound like a news story to one, may find receptive ears with another.

It's like a game of chance.
Of course, our work, expertise and experience are critical.  In spite of the many nuances we must deal with in gaining the news media's attention, the process of selling stories is laborious and requires special training and a certain touch.  What clients rarely see is the incredible amount of research and "compiling" we do to add enough information and layers to a story to make it "newsworthy."  Or adding the video, or creating a social media buzz ahead of the pitch or.....

So, we trudge along, read the latest industry story about the perfect pitch and then pray to the newspaper gods that we'll soon be feeding a reporter more details from our "accepted" pitch.

Only to see our story held for..... (well, let's just say it's another entertainer falling on hard times). 


Friday, August 23, 2013

Gain one and

Last night, I ran across a salesman for a new newspaper in town.  He had a great promotion - $20 a month for home delivery (at least for the first month) and four tickets to the local major league baseball game.

The battle is on in Long Beach with the addition this week of the Long Beach (CA) Register.  (Website to come next month).

For those of us who live in Long Beach, a large new newspaper (it's not a daily, yet) may be a good thing.  More news about our city.  A bit of competition will likely result in more in-depth and harder news coverage from all news orgs.

For PR folks, we see opportunity to get some of our clients featured since these news organizations will be battling to out-do each other.

The addition of a newspaper to a medium-sized U.S. city that already has a daily newspaper drew national attention. 

What's overlooked is that Long Beach already is busting at the seams with local news organizations. There is the weekly Grunion Gazzette (yes, it's named after the fish that runs onto the shores occasionally) that is packed with local advertising, features, local sports, interesting editorials by its owner and what some would call "hyper-local" news coverage. Oh, it's also owned by MediaNewsGroup, the same company that owns the Long Beach Press Telegram.  We also get, for some reason, the free OCWeekly, and there is the Long Beach Business Journal, the Seal Beach Sun weekly that is dropped at my front door and quickly thrown away, the paper covering Signal Hill, and...whew, let me catch my breath, the other local weekly, the Beachcomber.

There also is the Long Beach Post (started by a Long Beach city councilman), the online LBReport, and a micro-site of

And don't rule out the LA Times, which has a dedicated Long Beach staffer.

The Patch is/was a great resource and had breaking news since its former editor was an LA Times hard news reporter.  Of course with changes afoot at The Patch, and the addition of a new newspaper to Long Beach, we may not see The Patch around for too much longer.

Leading up to this week's launch, the existing news organizations in Long Beach - particularly the Press Telegram and the LBPost - put on campaigns to (a) remind us which paper really covers the city and (b) to offer advertising specials. Oh, and the MediaNewsGroup's local ownership clan - known as the LosAngelesNewspaperGroup, just redesigned the standardized website for their holdings, including the Press Telegram. And there was this "open house" by the owners of the Press Telegram to reconnect with the community.

This whole drama gets personal for me. But it also raises a question about whether such a move can be repeated (see below) in an era when newspapers are losing readers and cutting costs.

As a former assistant editor for the Los Angeles Daily News, I was hired to help launch the same thing the Register is doing - creating a hyper-local paper that "wraps" over the existing edition. The Daily News, under the Jack Kent Cooke ownership era more than 20 years ago, saw opportunity to gain footholds in regions to the north and east of the main Daily News circulation areas by producing these "wraps" for the Santa Clarita, Simi and Antelope valleys. 

These areas already had "local" newspapers but given the amount of commuters leaving these valleys to work in the main Daily News circulation areas and that many of these commuters once lived in the main Daily News circulation area before buying cheaper homes in the burbs, the business strategy concluded that loyalty would prevail and readers would want a "bigger" newspaper giving them both local and regional/national news.

For many years, this strategy worked. The local bureaus covered a lot of local hard news, features and sports. There were circulation gains.

These wraps no longer exit, falling victim when newspaper circulation took major dives across the country as free online news became popular and advertisers shifted their purchases. 

So, what is different for the Register this time? It seems to smell blood in the water and is willing to spend a lot of money to win readers.

What remains to be seen is whether the Register can secure a significant number of home delivery subscriptions at $20 a month from a city that splits its loyalties between LA County and Orange County, and from a population who gets news from multiple sources already.

What also remains to be seen is whether the Register's new publisher for the Long Beach edition (a news veteran with strong ties to LB) knows where and how to strike. By this, I mean:
  • Luring advertisers away from existing news orgs (tough, but apparently happening)
  • Tapping into what LB residents really want from a local newspaper (anything from features on where to eat, to more comprehensive, in-depth news and analysis that really tell us what's going on and why it matters).  (should be easy given half of the news staff is former P-T reporters and editors)
  • Presenting news both online and in print in readable chunks - and quickly.  (done).
The second and third points may be the key - because the Register will likely continue its "pay wall" to access its news.  Unlike every other paper serving Long Beach that offers news for free online, the Register is betting that the way it covers news will be worth it to plunk down $20 month to see it.  With so many other choices for hyper-local news and information (anything from a new restaurant opening to the upcoming city council elections to an interesting student at a local school), what will be different behind the Register's pay wall?

With so many former Press Telegram staffers at the LBRegister, potential readers will be curious to see whether news in the Register will be written and presented in similar style and depth as the P-T.  Same writers and editors - different outlet.  Will the staff be given more freedoms to cover the issues in more depth, with more aggressive style than when they were at their former newspaper?

And we live in a world of "breaking news" - which we get by ... looking it up online at free sites.  Will the Register try to give us "breaking news" in Long Beach or will they give up this component to the other LB news orgs and the LA TV/Radio stations?  (I know that I get scooped all the time by the younger crowd because they picked up local breaking news stories on their phones before I had a chance to get to my computer).

Perhaps there is some magic, some shifts that the new owners of the Register are counting on.  There is evidence of consumers swinging back to traditional news. Various papers, including the NYTimes and LATimes, have put limits on the number of free stories that can be viewed online by non-subscribers.  Why?  Because consumers apparently still desire professionally written news that can only be provided by mainstream organizations using experienced, trained reporters, editors and photographers. And, they are now willing to pay for it again.

There is only so many Kardashian stories we can take before we lock onto the meaningful news of the day - an enterprise story that captures your mind. Among the broadcast networks, CBS news seems to have also locked onto this strategy.

The question in Long Beach, therefore, is whether this beach community senses it's not getting the type and AMOUNT of local news it deserves from the main local paper? The LA Newspaper Group has combined its news gathering resources in a cost-saving strategy that allows each edition to put local news on the first page mixed with stories from reporters in other areas of Southern California. In many ways, the "wrap" philosophy is working at LANG. 

The LBRegister is making a big point of showcasing its "local" writers by printing their headshots next to their bylines.  LANG-owned papers will carry bylines that also list a reporter's email address - but those email addresses could be from the Daily Breeze, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune and...

So, is $5 more a month to subscribe the Register worth it for existing P-T subscribers?  

Curiosity may cause some P-T readers to drop and "try out" the new paper.

But my money is on content and consistency.  The look and feel of the LBRegister in its first week (26 pages of nothing but local news and sports with plenty of bright, big photos in Thursday's edition - plus the rest of the Register)  certainly makes this blogger feel he's getting more local news.

The content is there - but you would expect a great start for a new newspaper. Can it keep delivering this level of content? Consistency.

The long-term strategy will be to out-perform the other local news organizations with content.  Readers will sniff this out.  If the LBRegister gets enough readers, then advertisers will stick around. At least, that's how I would sell this to the owners of the Register.  Stay tuned.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Link this Google

The buzz about Google's new policy (actually reads more like a clarification) regarding links in news releases is, well, getting some buzz.

One columnist went as far as to suggest the new policy meant the death of PR agencies.  Nice headline grabbing there.

Fortunately, there are always solutions...and smart PR people.  As long-term PR pros know, changes in Google policy do not prevent us from doing our jobs and employing the range of tactics and strategies we are now using and the new ones we'll develop to work around any obstacle.

For those who live and die by search results, I would suggest daily readings at Several useful tips here.  They were the ones that apparently "broke" the news about the Google changes. 

Our friends at Business Wire were quick to provide solutions. Make sure you read this.

 And, I have four links in this blog post. Any one's guess as to how Google will treat them.

Keep calm and carry on.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Big Merger, Big Data and PR Kings

Sunday's announcement that Publicis and Omnicom are merging is another sign that digital/big data will rule the day for the immediate future in the world of communications, marketing, advertising and public relations.

The merger of these two large holding companies also holds the potential of further blurring the lines of who is leading the strategic discussion, and raises the question as to whether a "combined" company offering integrated services is better than various disciplines focusing on their strengths in independent fashion.

Certainly, the focus of news articles is on advertising largeness of these two holding companies, but the bigger discussion should be about overall communications strategy, opportunities and threats for public relations and so on.

Omnicom Group owns several public relations agencies, including Ketchum, Porter Noveli and FleishmanHillard.  Aside from speculation about the future of other PR agencies within Omnicom and the overall operations of the combined company, the merger news allows anyone in PR to take stock of Big Data and digital communications.

Since its beginnings, public relations has been about gaining insights into trends, mindsets, motivations and behaviors, then using this information and research to develop communications strategies. In the digital era, there is now a wealth of new research and information that creates opportunities for specialists who can mine and analyze data collected from our computers and phones, from cash registers and more.

While these specialists are highly sought after, the role of the PR pro remains as important and as critical.

From my perspective, the digital era has caused more disruptions in the advertising world than in the public relations dominion. PR pros have appeared far more adept at adopting new tactics with the additional insights of big data, but haven't strayed far from the pillars of sound communication strategies.  Another way to think about this: We are simply being offered different inputs to develop what we are hired to do - influence outcomes, promote products and services, communicate with our customers and target audiences, etc.  The subtle changes in process are well documented, such as: Customer segmentation is growing so we need to be even more targeted in our communications, or we need to drive more "engagement," which is another way of saying we need to get someone to focus on our story or product. ( For one Big Data for PR 101 lesson, go here. There are plenty of others.)

So, will a mega merger change the landscape?  Will it create more opportunities for public relations to lead communications strategies?

If anything, now is an extremely opportunistic time for PR pros to grab attention - with existing clients and potential ones, with their corporate bosses and with prospective or existing partners.

Remind them who is in charge of developing the strategies and the message, the keepers of the brand and the most experienced person in the room to properly analyze any and all data.

Nothing like leveraging a major announcement to one's advantage, eh?

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Why is Paula Deen crying?

Why is the queen of southern food crying?  How is Paula Deen's reputation struggle different from prior ones?  What are her chances at recovery?

Image and reputation recovery is a tricky business.  Because of scandals and because humans are, well, humans, public relations professionals are routinely called upon to handle both the immediate crisis, and develop the strategy for a better future. 

"Make the issue go away" is a refrain I commonly hear from crisis clients.  "What can you do to turn my image around?"  "How are we going to save my reputation?"

As PR pros know, there are no cookie cutter recipes (sorry, had to... when talking about Paula) to rebuilding or rehabilitating a reputation or image.  Each one is a learning experience.  However, success or failure depends on some fundamentals (explained below).

Tiger Woods. Lance Armstrong. Martha Stewart. Two out of these three recent falls-from-grace appear to have recovered, in part because they followed the fundamentals. These are all empires built upon a persona - an image carefully crafted and managed to bring in millions.  Something goes wrong in that person's life, and an empire can quickly crumble. Endorsements, licensing deals and corporate relationships disappear. Big money follows big personalities, as long as they behave.

What are Paula Deen's chances?

Let's look at some of the fundamentals to reputation recovery.

Hit the airwaves
Perhaps her first step was on the NBC Today show. albeit a few days late. (My go-to would have been Oprah - for some very obvious reasons).  But judging by most reactions, Paula didn't execute well. Matt Lauer can be a tough interview. He knows why damaged goods appears on TV.  So, he first asked the appropriate question: If Paula was sitting next to him to keep the financial empire afloat?  Not a real solid answer here. She deflected that one and instead was trying to have a "personal moment" with Matt and America.  It did not appear she had a good game plan going in - other than some hastily assembled messages.

Second - ARS (Apologize, show Remorse and be Sincere)
On Today, we saw a Paula Deen who was trying to show America her true nature, what she is made of and how her daddy raised her.  Potentially good strategies, but these must be delivered with precision. But she failed to do something right out of the gate.  America was waiting to hear an apology.  That is step number one. No options here. Save explanations for later.  "I'm sorry for being insensitive. I apologize for tolerating racial slurs in my presence.  I apologize for ..."  Once the apology is out there, then people will begin to listen and allow you to enter the road to forgiveness.  The public wants to forgive you.  But, you must meet them halfway.  Apologize and show remorse. Make it sincere. (Remorse and sincerity were not evident - in the eyes of a judgmental public - when Lance Armstrong came clean in front of Oprah).   Paula, dear, you can't expect America to "get to know you" in four minutes on the Today show. It will come with time. Use these precious minutes to get the apologize out, AND explain your crazy statement from the deposition about not understanding what offends people.  (So, you are an ignorant racist?)

Third - remain composed
But why was she crying this time around? Why did she look so distraught?  Paula's past responses to attacks on her reputation were executed with much better precision. Really - look at these older videos.  Some people remember the diabetes issue, but America has moved on from that one. On Today, she was in far too an emotional state to be on TV.  I would have cancelled a second time if she wasn't ready.  Yes, we want to see that a situation or an issue has deeply impacted you (and your family and friends), we want you to be sincere, but we also want you to be a strong individual who appears to have the conviction to turn things around and get better. Paula looks defeated - and if you look defeated, there is no hope for recovery.  Game over.

Be quick
(And, as John Wooden would say, "but don't hurry.")   America had been waiting for an official response from Paula.  And, apparently so were her corporate partners and TV network.  Her financial partners were "evaluating their positions" - so that means she needed to be much faster (quick) in huddling with these companies and letting them know her immediate (quick) plans to apologize publicly and to work with them to establish new initiatives associated with the situation.  Paula's brand is well suited to launch educational initiatives aimed at promoting tolerance, fairness and equality in the workplace and beyond. Get people in place to make this happen - quickly, so you can announce it.  But, sadly, she hurried a TV appearance.  Corporate partners were not impressed and could no longer wait.  Ties severed.

Seek counsel?
Paula reached out to Rev. Jackson who essentially vowed to save her and enlighten her. This is a small tactical step that can be viewed with skepticism. Tread lightly here.  It's much better to...

Plan the long game
Reputation recovery does not happen overnight. It occurs in small steps.  Be patient and all will be forgiven - if you do the right thing. 

(Next: a discussion about the fickle, changing public and Anne Rice's plea for the mobs to go away)

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Public Relations Strategists Key To Social Media

Public Relations is often described as the practice of building beneficial relationships. 

Obviously, much goes into the development and execution of a good PR plan to build relationships that reward your company or client.  The results of experience, expertise and more can be huge.

Look at "Scandal" - the "must-tweet" television series. 

The Los Angeles Times writes about how Twitter plays an integral part in the success of a show that opened to a modest reception.

The show's producer and its cast have realized the benefits of using this powerful PR tool - in the right way.

There are many unsuccessful Twitter campaigns.  Why?

  • Lack of a sound strategy
  • No clear understanding of your audience
  • Unable to be authentic
These are all basic principles of building positive relationships - developed and implemented through experienced public relations professionals.  

Even if a PR pro did not have his or her hands on the wheel on this one, we're willing to accept the thanks for building the foundation.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

No one reads a release?

Today's "At Breakfast With" series (one of the more successful programs from the PRSA-Los Angeles Chapter), had some startling (?) news from reporters and editors from national news organizations:

  • Don't pitch a story idea to a reporter's Twitter account.  (Twitter remains sacred ground. It's more personal there than, say, LinkedIn, which is perfectly OK to us to reach a reporter).  They hate a DM pitch.
  • If you are not representing a publicly traded company, why publish a news release?  Seems like many reporters are simply not reading them anymore.  
 And then there were things we already know, but need reminding now and then.

  • Study the reporter before pitching them. Common theme at these media breakfasts. It seems we PR folks are not understanding this and most reporters complain about getting a pitch that doesn't fall into their type of coverage.  It's so easy to Google a reporter and find what they are writing/broadcasting.  The Forbes reporter who covers entertainment doesn't want to know about the latest face cream breakthrough (unless, of course, the celebrity is about to buy that face cream company).  Bloomberg usually doesn't cover company news if they are not a publicly traded company. 
  • Don't call on deadline.
  • Building relationships are key.  Take a reporter out for coffee, breakfast, lunch or have a non-deadline casual conversation that doesn't involve a current pitch.
  • Reporters get hundreds, thousands of emails.  So, make it personal in the subject line to catch their attention.  
  • Phone follow only if necessary.  If you truly think it's a story for them and they probably overlooked it, then call.  Not with "did you get my release," but "It's a story I believe is ripe for you and here's why"
  • Pretend you are a TV reporter trying to "sell" a story to the editor.  That's how the reporter you are pitching wants to hear it from you.  (I.e. "What you think you know about XX is now completely different")
  • Information and statistics are great, but stories are best with "characters" (i.e. interesting people)..and they need to be media trained for TV.  
And there were a TON of other useful tips from today's program.  If you want to link which reporter or editor to the statements above... well, you need to show up.  If you want this level of intelligence  to enhance your career - then you need to attend more PRSA/LA events and become a member.  Membership is cheap and has huge ROI to your career.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Dorner: A new chapter on credibility and social media

The week-long saga that gripped Southern California and perhaps the nation - the hunt for an ex-cop who issued a manifesto and apparently went on a killing spree - is one to study.

Law enforcement, which always seems to have a credibility cloud over it, was facing even more scrutiny in large part from a small, but loud and adept audience raising questions.  Social media channels have enabled voices and opinions to not only be heard, but create noticeable change in discourse. 

If you monitored #dorner tweets, you would see a ride range of comments, accusations, sarcasm, humor and other statements.  The question for public relations professionals is how to gauge these in developing communications strategies.

Do you ignore the "crazies"?

Before social media, opposing views were shared in smaller groups. Only rational-thinking, credentialed authors made it to the op-ed pages.  Obviously, today is much different and a few tweets can lead to a groundswell. 

For law enforcement, they are now dealing with greater demands to be transparent.  In the ex-cop rampage, the LA police chief agreed to re-open the ex-cop's case. An unprecedented move.  But to many, this was not good enough.  There were calls for independent groups or individuals to be part of the review. 

Even as this case now appears over, there are hardened skeptics who cast about on social media channels a range of theories that in earlier days would have been cast aside or never heard.

What do PR professionals glean from this?

It's not that easy to ignore the radical voice. But, it's also a balancing act.  If you exercise considerable attention to answer all charges, allegations and theories, you have given up the ability to direct the conversation back to the center. How often will you tell your client to get a backbone and not crumble in the face of a loud, but actually small, group that is using social media to its advantage?

Timing.  PR is usually the "long game." We often win the long game by waiting it out, implement new policies that address problems, etc.  Yet, serious examination now must be given to "letting the dust settle" versus determining if the heated rhetoric will have lasting impacts to reputation and credibility. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

That's not PR

The legitimate, ethical profession of public relations continues to be under attack. 

And PR pros are to blame.

We don't do a good enough job of describing what "good" PR is. We don't insist on the proper definition of public relations.  We don't give names to things other than legitimate PR.

Take, for example, a column by one of my favorites - Steve Lopez.  In the latest sad chapter of a few bad priests molesting boys and the Cardinal who should have done more to protect the boys, Lopez writes that the Cardinal went into "full PR mode" to "spin" his side of the story.

I get that reporters and columnists sometimes "feel" like they are being "spun" by sources. But what the Cardinal was doing was not "PR" but laying out a defense, more like an attorney would on behalf of a client.

Time and time again, public relations professionals insist that when we offer "the other side" of the story - with facts - we are not attempting to "spin" someone but merely provide reporters with additional detail and another view of the story.  Too often, reporters call a few minutes before deadline wanting a response to a serious allegation or charge or incident.  The story, by then, is essentially written and we're left with no chance to change the direction of the piece through thoughtful dialogue with a reporter. 

It's easy - dare I say, lazy journalism - to infuse a story with "action" words like "PR" and "spin" because by now everyone seems to believe the first is a terrible thing and the second is always associated with the first.

I'm too much of a realist to know that we won't change this over night.  (We'll get accused of trying to spin a reporter with PR just trying to bring this up!)

Yet, we must do more to define the "good" and legitimate PR that goes on everyday and is routinely enjoyed and accepted by the news media from the "other" stuff that may resemble PR, but need a different definition.

It's about separation.

This is an ongoing dilemma - as I recall several blogs (one of my favorites was when the SpinSucks blog began) that have dealt with this topic for years.

However, we PR pros must do a better job of defining what PR really is and give reporters and columnists better, alternative inflammatory language to describe stuff that may sound like PR but is something else.   The vacuum we leave behind for journalists - by not offering alternative descriptions to actions that are not ethical or credible - perpetuates the problem.

In the case of the Cardinal, it may be better to describe "his attempts to defend his reputation." He went into "defense" mode or tried to "engineer" a better image for himself.  I would (maybe I will) offer the columnist a clear understanding that public relations - by its very definition and meaning to companies, associations and individuals - can only survive if its credible and ethical.

It also comes down to how we treat reporters and other journalists.  I can't tell you how many times I have run into a journalist who felt "burned" or "spun" by a public relations person or publicist. As a former journalist, I usually can provide some credibility and trust.  ("Look, I was a journalist not too long ago, so I promise I won't spin you.")  Once you get reporters to realize you are more of an asset to them and that you are not going to "spin" them but provide reports, facts, access, details and other considerations that may be fruitful to their story, you are halfway there.

As professional, ethical PR professionals, we certainly must represent our clients and companies.

We also must defend our profession.

So, when a column incorrectly says that someone is going into "PR mode" to try to deflect criticism or otherwise paint an inaccurate picture of themselves or their organization - tell the reporter THAT is not PR because it's not credible or ethical. Tell them that "PR" does not equate deceit or misdirection.  Tell them to use better language to describe actions that have no resemblance to ethical, credible communications.

Yeah, even when a priest is involved.

NEXT: When someone has "PR problem on their hands."    

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Is PR a waste of money?

"A waste of money."

This was one of a few pointed statements by a Los Angeles city council member critical of three public relations and communications contracts that were awarded by the board overseeing the city's international airport (LAX).

"Outrageous amount of money."

That was in a newspaper editorial this week blasting the airport board for considering hiring three outside communications agencies and questioning aloud why these tasks can't be done by in-house staff.

The council member had invoked a rule that allows the LA city council to assume jurisdiction over an individual item, like a major public relations contract, originally decided on by one of the many city commissions. Most of the time, the council keeps its hands off decisions by its various commissions.

Reporters and other well-versed observers see the council member's actions and statements as simple grandstanding for his election bid as city controller. Calling for fiscal constraint and finding an easy target like a PR contract does wonders for the campaign.

But, sigh, "PR" and "millions of dollars" linked in the same breath can and does bring attention, and once again we in the public relations profession must defend and explain what we do.

Most PR professionals have heard these same arguments before:
"Why does a newsletter or a press release or a poster cost $X million?"
"Why can't staff handle this?"
"Just what are we communicating here?"

A problem we have in PR is measuring success and defining exactly what we do.  Lawyers win judgments. Engineers deliver drawings. Accountants provide detailed financial reports.  These are easy to understand concepts.

Crisis communications is often the closest we come to defining success. We get companies through these difficult times - sometimes avoiding litigation, sometimes averting a sting to the stock price, many times making sure customers keep buying their products. (Think: Dominoes pizza)

Another problem with PR is that our course is never charted exactly as the last journey. The result is that each program we design is different: Individualized is good for the client because it's specific to their need, but bad when explaining it to the public and skeptics because it's not a widget you can hold in your hand.

We are paid to anticipate. We are paid to understand the public. We are paid to know how to handle a lot of various circumstances. We are paid to listen to an issue, research it, and use our skills and knowledge to lay out a plan that can communicate it to multiple audiences. We are paid to make the complex easy to understand.  We are paid to make sure our client's voices are heard - otherwise the vacuum provides others to fill the void with many times wrong or misleading information. 

It's the "PR guy" (or gal) who knows a great opportunity, like when John Black at the Los Angeles Lakers gets an email from a guy who wants the basketball team to recognize his buddy's combat service. Black, one very skilled public relations pro I've known over the years, immediately recognizes the opportunity to create a joyous occasion. The result is a surprise reunion at a Lakers game, thanks to the Lakers.  It was the right thing to do, it would demonstrate the Lakers' commitment to its fans - and it was orchestrated by "the PR guy."

It's the PR agency hired to manage communications around a major public construction project. With it comes a lengthy and complex environmental impact report, listing things like the potential harm to wildlife, noise to neighborhoods, interruptions to traffic patterns, etc. As the project begins, these impacts usually come to life and begin getting attention. A solid PR plan that was developed far in advance of construction anticipated when and how various audiences will begin to react. The PR plan goes into action to remind the public why the project was needed (a discussion held perhaps years before construction and long forgotten). Before the first shovel of dirt is turned, PR pros will have conducted community meetings, developed information materials and monitored public sentiment to identify "hot-button" issues that require even more care and handling.

PR is not "spin." In an era where information can be easily found online, deception doesn't work nor is it what PR folks preach.  PR pros advocate for honest, open communications.  PR pros will often talk about the lengths they went to convince executives to be forthright and lay it all on the table.  That said, what PR pros are paid to do is make sure all sides of an issue are understood and treated fairly.  Too often, a critic will call out the worst aspect or try to "spin" the story in their favor.  PR pros are paid to respond and remind people about the "other," factual side of the story.

To answer "Why need PR?", let's start by examining the need.  Let's use the newspaper's logic:  Why need outside PR help when the airport already is attracting large number of visitors. Why need outside PR help when the airport already has a large PR and communications department?

The Los Angeles World Airports, which runs LAX, saw a "temporary" need to have extra PR help during the modernization program.  Existing airport staff already have their plates full with their normal day-to-day duties - whether it's marketing the airport to airlines that may expand their operations, or pull back, the community relations team dealing with a variety of daily issues in the neighborhood or other tenants, the media team handling calls about incidents at the airport, etc. 

The modernization work requires additional, temporary help - the same as when public agencies or city departments require additional legal help on specific or unique cases.  It doesn't make fiscal sense to hire permanent staff for what ends up being a short-term project.  And, perhaps better than some other professions, the work product left behind from a communications and public relations contract will have lasting positive value long after the PR agency's work is done.  These include materials, messages, positive and productive lines of communication with various audiences and communities, and more. These will continue to be utilized by the existing airport staff.

And to the editorial's blatant disregard for fairness - the city getting burned by outside PR companies - let's set the record straight.  It was an isolated incident involving just one PR agency.  The same kind of corruption or criminal activity can and has happened in other industries. There are plenty of over-billing incidents involving other city contracts, such as with construction projects. However, there were no industry-wide bans when wrong-doing was exposed in these other contracts. It's not fair to punish the entire profession for one bad apple.  

The vast majority of PR professionals adhere to strict ethical standards. PRSA-Los Angeles came out strongly when the incident first broke that this was not reflective of the public relations profession and reminded everyone about our strict Code of Ethics that we all sign and pledge to follow.  What's more, PR pros advocate for a close accounting of its billing. We know our invoices will be scrutinized.

Keep reading for more.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

City still skittish about PR

UPDATE (1/29): The City Council committee reviewing these contracts has delayed a decision on whether to overrule the Airport Commission's decision.  PRSA-LA Chapter president Steve Roth testified at the committee meeting and provided a letter.  We expect this matter to come back to the committee within the next two weeks.

 The City of Los Angeles' 8-year-old saga over using public relations agencies comes up again this week. It's time for all PR pros in the city to cry "foul" and tell everyone to get "get over it" and realize that Public Relations has a very proper role in government.

Two councilmen are questioning a pending contract with the well-regarded Phelps agency for "public outreach and education." (This is the now-popular phrase used with government PR contracts to avoid the words "public relations."  More on that later).

One LA Times story (above) quotes the airport's government affairs director. The better quotes, I believe, are from their managing director for public relations (see, someone not afraid to use those words) Mary Grady, who is a communications veteran and well-regarded PR pro in LA.  Funny how a newspaper has one set of stories in a blog, then their "final" story looks different.

Why PR contracts in LA are controversial goes back to 2004, when the mayor cancelled all PR contracts in the wake of a scandal involving a major PR firm with political ties to the mayor. The local GM of that agency went to jail for over-billing the city.   PRSA and its Los Angeles chapter put up a big fight then, arguing that the over-billing issue was an isolated incident and against our Code of Ethics. One incident should not prompt a ban on all PR work.  We complained about why PR should be treated any differently than other outside vendors, such as engineers?  There are plenty of incidents involving bad contracting with other professions and services, yet the city never instituted a ban on an entire industry.

Ever since, the Los Angeles PRSA chapter has maintained its advocacy efforts in hopes of removing any stigma in the eyes of public officials.  This included a study commissioned by the chapter to monetize the value of the PR industry on the LA economy.

Disclosure:  I once worked for an agency that provided public affairs and community relations services to the Los Angeles Airport. This work was performed more than 10 years ago.  But, for anyone who has lived in Los Angeles for more than 5 years knows that LAX has a lot of issues - primarily with expanding its runways to handle more flights. What I was doing more than 10 years ago hasn't gone away - they are still fighting for an expansion.

So, we have two issues here:

  1. A giant public agency like the Los Angeles World Airports is bound to need outside public relations help.  Aside from their long-running effort to expand, the airport touches millions of lives every day in the city and around the world.  The local battle over expansion has lasted years and is highly complex, especially given the number of organized groups opposing expansion.  There are TONS of meetings to hold, REAMS of information to share and a huge GOAL of communicating to various audiences the importance of the airport to the region and why it needs to expand.  These efforts require dedicated specialists. The in-house team simply is not big enough, or has the authority to advocate or the various specialties required to carry out the multiple tasks required for this effort. The sad fact is that the same LA City Council members complaining about money spent on an outside agency would be the very same ones questioning why the LAWA in-house communications team is so large (should they hire the requisite number of PR pros to meet the tasks before the agency).  The complex needs for outreach and education do not go away.  Without a strong communications (oops. public relations) effort, the expansion opponents would win because they will have no one to counter the many-times false and unsubstantiated claims about the expansion. The opponents will have gained more followers because no one is reaching out to the community to remind them of all the positive things about LAX - like how many people depend on LAX for jobs, or the revenue brought to the region, or...or...
  2. The importance of the public relations profession.  The same City Council members complaining about this pending contract are hypocrites. They have used public relations to their advantage. They have their own communications staff, send out news releases, etc.  So, why is it NOT critical for Los Angeles International Airport to communicate and use proven, effective public relations strategies and tactics when these council members use the very same strategies and tactics on a daily basis for their own needs?  And don't get me started when election season rolls up - and how council members hire multiple agencies to communicate why they should be re-elected.
I understand this becomes an issue when a public relations contract is valued at $1 million or more. The red flags come up. (California's governor recently nixed a multi-million-dollar public relations and video contract for a major infrastructure project). However, these are long-term contracts.  A $1 million contract over four years is $250,000 a year - the annual full price of 2-3 full-time communications employees. What a PR agency brings for that price is the work product equivalent of 4-5 employees, plus a whole lot of experience and expertise that otherwise would cost $100,000 or more a year per person for a public agency to bring this level of PR pro in house.

A "PR effort" is not about lying or deceiving.  Those actions are clearly a violation of the PRSA Code of Ethics.  What PR is:
  • An important effort to get information to the public in a world jammed with information. 
  • It involves research to understand public sentiment, how people and groups want to receive information and how they want to be treated.   
  • PR involves significant expertise to lay out information in a way that gets the point across and substantiate the messages.  
  • PR involves setting up meetings - and knowing how to reach communities that otherwise have many other things on their minds.  
  • PR is about calling attention to important issues.  
Have I modified terminology with my public agency work to reflect "public outreach and education" so cities and public agencies don't risk criticism for hiring a PR agency?  Yes. Guilty as charged.  But, public outreach and education is just one facet of the public relations profession.

It's time we defend our profession.