Friday, October 30, 2009

Rolling the dice with a press conference

With a struggling economy, journalists and editors pink slipped more often than baseball managers, and editorial staffs cut to the bone, it takes some kind of cajones to have a press conference these days.

Press conferences are one of public relations' great gambles. It's like throwing a party, sending out a lot of invites, and then praying somebody shows up after you've invested in decor, food and time.

What does it take to pry a reporter away from their desk, especially when they are probably stretched thinner than ever?

Clearly if you are Microsoft, Apple, Google, Yahoo or the President of the United States, you can pretty much count on everybody showing up, even if it was held on an ice floe in the Arctic.

Not long ago, I had lunch with the head of marketing of a Colorado-based digital start-up who was so smitten by his company's product that he proclaimed that it deserved a press conference. Delicately, I asked him what if nobody turned up because they were, uh, so busy? He stopped for a moment -- he had not thought about that -- and then replied that there's no reason nobody would come to a product that was so cool.

However, if anybody get an award for pulling a rabbit out of their press conference hat, it has to be CNN.com. Last week, on the same day Steve Ballmer was unveiling Windows 7, they held a snazzy soiree at the Time Warner Center to demonstrate... drum roll, please... the redesign of their web site with a new opinion section, and more photography and video.

Did that rock your world like, let's say, the introduction of the new Motorola Droid or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concerts at Madison Square Garden? Didn't think so. Redesigns happen about as often as Metro North trains leave Grand Central Station.

But somebody at CNN.com felt it was worth a live press conference. And not just any press conference, but from what I hear, a lavish one with booze and food. So with that kind of lure, it was no surprise that many members of the third estate showed up. One of them said that CNN.com threw two parties to celebrate the occasion (perhaps to grab the media's attention off the fact that the parent network fell into last place against other news cablers).

Another reporter said they didn't think it was a press conference at all, but "more akin to an internal presentation" that was streamed live to employees, advertisers and the press.

Afterwards, about 25 stories were posted according to Google News. Whether this was the press coverage return on investment CNN.com was looking for after spending some serious party coin, I don't think they'll admit it, versus being a company-wide morale booster.

"Between you and me -- it was strange," one reporter e-mailed me, who didn't post a story about it. "CNN even booked an outside PR firm for help with it."

Free food and booze have almost always the surefire aphrodisiacs to get coverage of any event. Despite the depleting of journalist ranks, they still seem to do the trick -- if you can afford the bill.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The shrinking newsroom changes the game for PR

When the New York Times announced yesterday that they had to eliminate 100 newsroom jobs in a mere 2 1/2 months, it was a chilling arrow shot across both the media and PR professions.

Job loss of any kind is miserable and debilitating. When you sit back and think about 100 reporters and editors losing their jobs, it's an incredibly large number of people who will take buyouts or be shown the door. If you are a regular reader of the Times' excellent reporting, than imagine what a gaping hole in coverage will be made when that many people are gone by the end of the year.

As a public relations professional, I'm encountering the kind of sea change that reminds me of when local and national TV networks began trimming their staffs in the late 80's. Because of manpower shortage, publicists were forced to become amateur TV producers, organizing segments and providing props if they wanted their segments to air, a trend that is still in force today.

For print and the web nowadays, my role has expanded unconventionally as well. For a research client, I have to provide more analysis to accompany the data than ever before because there are not enough reporters to do the job. I'm encountering more editors who are singlehandedly balancing print and web editorial duties. The AP's Houston bureau chief told me she had only three reporters there, so unless there was something earth shattering, she could not afford to take somebody off business, political and sports coverage.

Clearly, there are going to be many stories and beats that are going to fall between the cracks and left behind. From a reader's perspective, we're not getting a complete picture of what's going on in the world. From a public relations perspective, our windows of opportunities are smashed and shrinking.

Social media has forced us to become our own wire services. We are our own distributors. With a lot of moxie and persuasion, we have to use Twitter, blogs, Facebook, StumbleUpon and other vehicles to carry our message and news. It looks increasingly like it's going to be a "change or die" scenario ahead.

Yet, there are still many public relations pro's -- more than you would think -- who don't know their Facebook from their checkbook. Many sign up, make a few friends, and leave it lying. I've run across a lot of professionals who have less than 10 connections in LinkedIn, and I know they are not that unpopular. One unemployed publicist I know is so clueless online, that her friend e-mails her Monster, PRSA and PR Week job ads daily because she has no idea how to have them sent automatically to her. Business Wire's "Lost in MySpace" beginner seminars for learning social media always packed them in.

So when you read about journalists, editors and bloggers being let go, no matter where they are, those big bells should be ringing like the opening of the AC/DC song from Back In Black. It's a wake up call that the game is changing.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Do reporters actually read quotes in press releases?

The second draft of the press release was placed on my desk, featuring a brand new spanking quote from my client's CEO. Like Pavlov's dog, I immediately crossed out the first sentence which began "We are pleased," only to notice that the rest of the quote had actual substance. Real facts and explanation on a deal.

Then that paranoid thought came bubbling out: do reporters really read quotes in press releases anyway? What if I turned this quote into a regular certified paragraph of information? Would it receive more attention?

I fantasized about inserting a quote about concocting a deadly bomb plot in the middle of my next corporate announcement to see if anybody would notice.

Then I snapped out of it. Before I could do anything drastic, I decided to inquire real reporters and ask them if they read the quotes in press releases and if so, did they find them useful?

What resulted was a still sad commentary on the state of press release quality. At the beginning of this year, I warned everybody about the three words that had to be banned in 2009: "excited," "thrilled" and "honored" because of their absolute emptiness. You responded with more words that had to be eradicated: "pleased," "announced," "held" and "very." All very noble, all very instructive.

You studied David Meerman Scott's annual compilation of press release gobbledygook words that have been repeated into meaninglessness, right?

Unfortunately, we're all still a tiny minority of righteous standard bearers.

Nearly all the reporters I spoke with read quotes in press releases. What they think of and do with them is another matter altogether.

"Sure, I read them," said one trade reporter. "I usually do not use them as they offer little information and are often spin/hype/cheerleading rather than information/facts/details that are useful for readers to have."

"I can't remember one quote I've found helpful,"
replied a New York Times editor.

"I assume p.r. people write them though and then get the person being quoted to make adjustments or sign off. So it's not like I think I'm getting a window into anyone's spontaneous thinking or a slice of their actual voice," said another trade reporter.

"Mostly they are awful, but sometimes I do [use them]," an interactive reporter told me. I asked why they were awful, and they replied: "I'm excited about this partnership. It's going to be great." He added: "'Solutions' -- that is the worst word ever."

"Quotes in press releases are almost always useless and it's plain that a) the person to whom they are attributed didn't write them or b) the person did write them, but wrote them in their 'press release' voice," moaned a wire service correspondent.

"99% of them are useless," echoed the business writer.

But what about that 1%?

"No surprise, but negative quotes work," they advised. "Like how bad the economy is. Essentially, anything you might think is controversial works. Or how difficult or challenging something is." He added that companies which are getting hammered on earnings usually put those kinds of quotes in, "and if they're not there, they're lying!"

After hearing all these complaints, you would think perhaps it's a good idea to stop inserting executive quotes in press releases and letting the genuine cold hard facts and information of the announcement do the talking.

As a matter of fact, I double dare all of you to issue a press release for the next 30 days without an executive quote -- perhaps we'll all be able to gain the respect of reporters while quashing a little ego in the process.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Bad Polltaking 101

A good publicist knows the press value of well-done polls. Of even more importance, there's the methodology -- was it scientifically taken? Random sample? Who was polled? Margin of error?

You can have all those things locked in but they won't mean a thing if the questions are bad.

Sir Robert Worcester, founder of the MORI polling and research center, had rules for good poll questions: A question must be logical (allowing a simple answer), precise, even-handed, without a preferred answer. A good poll question must not assume knowledge, must not supply so much information as to be leading and must not be too complex.

From a publicist's perspective, you want to ask questions that have not been asked before, questions that "hit home" with many people, and ideally, nothing that will produce a "duh" response.

Which is precisely what the new teaming of Vanity Fair magazine and CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" have produced in their new monthly surveys of "the American consciousness," as surprisingly reported in The New York Times. Like the first survey results reported in the article, there is just no news here.

For example, "respondents overwhelmingly selected Wal-Mart as the best corporate symbol of America today." Surprising, huh? The TV program's executive producer told the paper: "I wouldn't have guessed Wal-Mart would have run away with that."

I guess if one were living in a New York City or Los Angeles bubble, that would be news. After all, Vanity Fair has a reputation "for being read in elite circles." And for 60 Minutes, known for riveting news journalism, breaking stories and astonishing interviews, these results must seem like they were slumming it.

Here's another one for the vain set: "Which of these men would you most like to trade places with for a week: George Clooney, Barack Obama, Tom Brady, or Bruce Springsteen?" Clooney "narrowly topped Mr. Obama." This seems right out of the Esquire or GQ school of manly polls!

No mention in the article of the survey's methodology or margin of error, but there is the mea culpa of The New York Times being a polling partner of CBS News.

Now that the New York Times article's buzz boost on this first poll is behind us, I look forward to seeing if Vanity Fair and 60 Minutes grasp for better questions and relevance next month... and if they can get press ride without the Grey Lady. There's nothing worse than being a publicist being handed poll results that are as earth shattering as announcing the next Shrek sequel.