Tuesday, February 24, 2009

You too can become an expert!

Who decided Arianna Huffington could debate the global economic crisis with Steve Forbes in the pages of The Wall Street Journal?

Why are industry sector consultants considered legitimate go-to guys by the press for overviews on the news when they may have conflicts of agenda?

If you've puzzled over these cosmic questions and others like it after reading the newspapers, then welcome to the wonderful fuzzy world of "experts."

Since there is no certification to reach expert status, and you can't get a license doing it from the back of Rolling Stone magazine, then you can become an expert too. Don't look so startled. Yes, if you know something about a topic, in the eyes of many TV and radio producers and journalists, you are an expert. As a matter of fact, in this age of competing with bloggers, you're probably over the approval hurdle already, so don't come down with laryngitis anytime soon.

Sometimes the guy who gives the best quote is "an expert," even if they don't have any great and deep knowledge of the topic. Their spitballing guess is as good as the next person's. But if you're the first person and not the "next" person, just come up with the pithy line and you're in.

Some journalists see other experts that their peers use, consider them "safe," and then call them up for their opinion, which could be the equivalent of virally spreading an error if that expert is, shall we say, unqualified?

But being an expert is also throwing yourself in to a battlefield at the risk of being exposed. The worst part is when the so-called expert knows their knowledge is limited, but doesn't care as long as the phone keeps ringing with interview requests. One industry consultant "expert" confessed this to me once and it's bothered me to no end that he went on with this charade and nobody saw through it.

Industry consultants "are great folks for chatting to, but very bad for quoting in stories," a top-level editor at one of the country's largest newspapers told me today.

This editor had a few choice words to say about being an "expert," in case you decide to jump into the pool or push your client in:

  • How does a journalist measure the legitimacy of a source?
" Resume. Quality of info. Reputation. Experience over time."
  • About questionable experts, which they nicknamed "quote of last resort":
"We internally make some markers too. Banning certain 'rent-a-quotes.'"
  • Do you ever see anybody quoted in your paper or other paper and say to yourself "Ugh."
"McKinsey, because they know stuff, don't tell, and it's all about a) puffing up their clients and b) getting new clients.

"Anyone famous for simply being a blogger. Like Jeff Jarvis, who I happen to like. But he's just a more modern type of talking head.

"Anyone who's a journalist.

"In general, all 'expert' sources are considered bad form unless you're doing a very specific story on what the experts say about plan A or B."

The other catch is, of course, that there's no shortage of experts. What's it going to take for you to bump Peter Greenberg off his spot as the Today show's resident travel guru? Hire an assassin or plant poison in his foie de gras?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

We're in the Era of Apologies

I think I'm reaching my saturation point for apologies.

My kids often like to say "I'm sorry" as a free pass to get out of whatever dilemma they've caused. I believe apologies have to be made when they are sincere and self-actualized, as opposed to a convenient "get out of jail card."

After enough transgressions, I've thought that at some point, if they are not learning from their mistakes, "I'm sorry" is not going to cut it. I say to them: "You've run out of 'I'm sorry's.'"

Lately, this is how I feel about the proliferation of public figures who have bombarded the public with apologies for their misdeeds. Sometimes apologies are like pulling teeth when the public demands somebody's head and ego gets in the way. Bernard Madoff has apologized to nobody but his neighbors for all the reporters surrounding his co-op building.

Now we're experiencing the opposite effect: everybody is admitting their trip-ups and the results feel a bit numbing. We wanted accountability and now we're getting more than we bargained for.

Start with the investment bank industry this past fall, when former Lehman Brothers CEO
Richard Fuld admitted he was wrong to the House Oversight Committee after his company went bankrupt and disrupted the financial lives of millions.

Swimmer Michael Phelps is already paying for his pot smoking ways with lost sponsorships and sanctions from the sport's official board. President Barack Obama admitted he "screwed up" with Tom Daschle's aborted Cabinet appointment, while Daschle had to make amends for not paying taxes for flights he took. Actor Christian Bale was caught on audio tape cursing a crew member of his forthcoming "Terminator" movie. Actress/singer Miley Cyrus apologized for making "slanty eyes" at a photo camera.

I'm waiting for the inevitable apology from R&B singer Chris Brown to arrive, after he was arrested on his way to his Grammys performance, allegedly for beating up his girlfriend, singer Rihanna.

Yankee baseball player Alex Rodriguez couldn't wait to confess to ESPN that he took steroids for three years as a Texas Rangers player. As admirable as that was for coming clean, he committed the one sin that makes his admission damaged beyond repair: he lied. He told Katie Couric a little over a year ago that he never took steroids. Of course, it didn't help that former Yankees coach Joe Torre said in his new book that everybody called the third baseman "A-Fraud."

Trust me -- this is all the tip of the apology iceberg, should you decide to type "apologize" into Google News and read the more than 22,000 entries from the last 60 days.

No wonder why WCBS-AM Newsradio 88 was playing Billy Joel's song "Honesty" when I woke up this morning: "Honesty is such a lonely word."

The PR playbook says that when apologizing, you talk about moving ahead, making things better in the future, not looking back but not forgetting it either. A-Rod is already following the script to the letter: "I'm ready to put everything behind me and go play baseball. You know, we have a great team this year. I couldn't be more excited about the guys that we've brought in, Mark Teixeira, A.J. Burnett ... It's an important time in my life to turn the page and focus on what's next."

However, I believe that there ought to be a quota on apologies. I'm weaning my kids off the free pass aspect of saying "I'm sorry" because if they don't do the right thing from the start, they'll just assume that phrase will erase any punishment. If it's good enough for them, then it should be good for corporate executives, athletes, celebrities, politicians and any other people who should know better.

I'm thinking of a "three strikes you're out" policy. If you have to apologize three times for stupid, offensive or criminal behavior, then you've run out of apologies. What would be the fitting punishment?

I kind of like the idea of nicking what Bart Simpson does at the opening of every "Simpsons" episode: have the perpetrator write "I will not... [fill in crime here]" on a blackboard 100 times in a public square. I'm all for public humiliation of the people who are supposed to be idols, subjects of Fortune magazine covers, and example-setters.

If you are a liar, like A-Rod, not only should you perform blackboard duties, but you would have to donate a minimum of 10% of your financial assets to public schools and housing.

Of course, if you don't apologize at all, you should be sent right to an Alabama highway chain gang for up to 10 years in addition to all of the above penalties.

President Obama doesn't have to create the Apology Police. The public has taken that mantle already. They just have to be given the power to enforce the rules.

Monday, February 2, 2009

If you send out a pitch letter, will somebody be there to receive it?

The drumbeat of downbeat economic news should put a chill into every public relations professional each time a new round of media and retail layoffs or closings is announced. The bullet we had been dodging has arrived.

When I read about layoffs and closings across newspapers, magazines, television stations and web sites, it's depressing and frankly numbing at this point. It's sad to see colleagues and friends lose their jobs and it sometimes makes the relationships to them even closer.

Putting it objectively, when they lose their jobs, it directly affects our jobs.

For a while, it seemed the white knight of the media world would be the web, that there would be lots of resources online to make up for the "ink on paper" losses. The blog explosion multiplied the number of opportunities to break stories and spread buzz.

Even that world is now imploding. Online advertising rates are plummeting, forcing online networks to scramble. When magazines are closing, the parent companies are not even keeping the web sites alive, such has been announced with Domino and Teen Magazine. The money is not there like it used to be.

Across all media, it's bad news. Macy's is laying off 7,000 employees, on top of Starbucks closing 300 stores, ABC letting go several hundred, kicking off another week of droves sent to the unemployment line. Less revenue is less advertising. Less advertising means layoffs.

It won't be long before it ripples through the public relations profession, which will force us to downsize their own Rolodexes and Outlook's, trickling down like this:
  • Less outlets means more competitive pitching. Survival of the fittest.
  • There may be no outlets at all for some stories.
  • Less stories means unhappy executives and clients.
  • Then there are layoffs or agencies are moved around like shuffling cards.
  • Public relations as a whole is put a little more at risk compared to advertising as a better bang for the buck proposition.

Where will this all lead?

We're all going to have to get much better at pitching and targeting, and that's a good thing.

If you have not boned up on your social media skills, and there's a surprising amount who haven't, it will be time to dive in quickly.

The editors, producers, reporters and bloggers who still have jobs will have their PR noise factor ratcheted up, since they will be stretched to the core, probably juggling multiple duties.

Some publicists may have to rethink their careers and specialties.

If you send out a pitch letter, will somebody be there to receive it?

If there is, it may be sitting there for a long time.