Thursday, September 16, 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010

Ad Age's premature proclamation of the press release's death

When Wired magazine made the bold cover statement that "The Web Is Dead: Long Live The Internet!" a couple of weeks ago, it was a shameless silly stunt that had many people scratching their heads as opposed to raising a pint. The fact that the story was co-written by notorious self-admitted "non reporter" Michael Wolff didn't help in the credibility department either.

When you make big statements like that, it's a huge throw of the dice: you run the risk of provocative discussion where the truth dawns upon the listeners, or you become a total laughingstock.

Today, Advertising Age's Simon Dumenco took this same gamble by proclaiming: "RIP, the Press Release (1906 - 2010) and Long Live The Tweet." His argument is the press release died when BP kept issuing press releases on its cleanup efforts instead of taking to social media and JetBlue barely responded at all to flight attendant Steven Slater's well-publicized leap down the emergency chute.

Yet, it's Lindsay Lohan and Kanye West, he says, who can command attention through their tweets instead of planting celebrity items with "Liz Smith" (whose last column in the NY Post ran in February 2009, ahem).

The fact is press releases have not died, and are not going away anytime soon. Not that they are the greatest thing since Swiss cheese, and I'm not a big fan of them, but the fact is: whether it's a press release, a tweet or a dissertation on Facebook, it's the communication skills and honesty of the writer that matters most, not the vehicle.

Arguing over whether the tweet has replaced the press release is a non-starter because blather, musings and nonsense can be distributed on just about every way possible, online and off.

Ironically, it's services like Twitter and Facebook that are circumventing journalists and bloggers altogether, and shuttling messages directly to their targeted audiences. That can make a pretty convincing case that journalism is dead (!!) in the age of social media, but that's not true either.

If Kanye West wants to go unfiltered about his feelings to make up to Taylor Swift what he did to her last year at the VMA's, then he can go right ahead. If you find news value in that, that's your decision to believe it and if you're a journalist, write about it. I don't have to subscribe to anybody's Twitter feed and I don't have to read gossip columnists. And if I did, I can choose what I want to believe or what is pegging the BS meter.

If a company wants to issue a press release about a some award they won that nobody knows about or anything else vacuous, they are entitled to issue it, and everybody -- including journalists -- is entitled to read or ignore it.

Dumenco is right on the money when he says, "press releases will probably continue to stumble along, zombie-like, for years to come because too many PR firms are still heavily invested in grinding them out."

Ironically, it is journalists who are also keeping the press release alive and well. Public companies give their financial disclosure over Business Wire, PR Newswire and other syndicators and on the receiving end writing up those statements, SEC filings and quarterly numbers? Reporters.

Journalists still ask publicists, "Do you have a press release you can send me?"

The fact is -- publicists shouldn't be relying on press releases anyway... or Twitter or Facebook. They are nice tools that can become unreliable crutches. They should be relying on their good press relationships that they can pick up the phone and call the right reporter. Or e-mail them with a to-the-point relevant pitch that engages in dialogue.

Frankly, I'd love to see bad press releases die, but like "Resident Evil" movies, they are always going to be around. You believe what you want to believe. Just consider the source.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

THE BIG QUESTION: If your pitch is rejected, can you bring it to another reporter in the same section?

"If you can't move a mountain, go around it."
-- old Drew Kerr saying

When a newspaper reporter turns down your pitch, does that mean you are prohibited from going elsewhere in the paper?

Of course not. However, is the same section of the paper off limits too?

I didn't think so and this theory was put to the test not long ago. Turns out that it's a touchy maneuver.

I had a very good story on my hands, so I pitched the lead industry reporter of a large newspaper. He replied that he didn't think his editors would go for the story, so he passed.

In baseball, when a batter swings halfway around, the catcher will ask the first or third base umpire for a call, hoping it's a strike. When a doctor gives you a prognosis for surgery, there's a good chance you'll go for a second opinion.

Therefore, my feeling was: if the reporter wouldn't even run it by their editor, how do I really know if that's the last word? I needed an editor's viewpoint. Besides, wouldn't it be fair game to go to another column in the same business section of the paper?

That's what I did, except I contacted a freelancer who contributes frequently to the column. They ran it up the flagpole, and after a few questions checked out, received the green light from their editor. We set up the interviews and one week later, the article ran in the column.

Which my client loved, but didn't make the original reporter too happy. He dropped me a note saying that if he turns an idea down, "it's not a fit for the paper." I called him up to apologize that he felt this way, that I did provide the courtesy of giving him the idea first, but could he clarify the way he preferred to work since I had not seen this as a crime? He seemed particularly sore that I went to a freelancer as opposed to a staff writer. The message was clear: if I reject it, you can't go anywhere else in the paper.

One industry colleague said the reporter had a lot of hubris gatekeeping what goes in and out of the entire newspaper.

For the long run, there was one further question which hung there: was my going to another reporter a universal faux pas or a case of reporter upset at rejecting a story the editors did in fact like?

For in-house guidance, I went to a longtime editor friend at the paper and he said that the mistake was the original reporter's surprise. Next time, he advised, ask the writer if it's okay to take the idea elsewhere.

What do you think?

A reporter should understand that you are doing your job.

The reporter gets the right of first refusal, so if they pass, can you go elsewhere?

Should you tell the reporter what you are doing?

Can that "elsewhere" be in the same section or a freelancer?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Why do some publicists lie?

According to Michael Sitrick's public relations book, one of the cardinal rules of spin is "Credibility is the spin doctor's ultimate resource." He adds: "No matter what, don't lie -- lying is the one sing the media will neither tolerate nor forgive."

Yet, there are a handful of publicists who go on the record and lie.

When they lie, not only do they add to whatever distrust people have of this profession but they dig themselves into a hole.

For example, today it was announced that the department store chain Century 21 would replace Barnes & Noble at its Lincoln Center space sometime in 2011. When the New York Observer inquired yesterday, "a representative for Century 21 denied that the company was opening a store in that location." However, real estate broker Cushman & Wakefield issued the press release 24 hours later saying that in face, the chain was moving in. The Observer, strangely enough, let the Century 21 rep off the hook by saying "That denial is now turning out to be incorrect."

I wouldn't have let them off the hook if I was a journalist. When the client says no such thing is happening and the broker confirms the opposite the next day, that's a tale of two companies operating on different wavelengths and that can't happen.

Frankly, why would the Century 21 rep deny what was only going to be announced in 24 hours? Didn't they realize how incompetent it was going to make them look in a short amount of time?

The fact is: like this Century 21 gaffe, there is no reason to lie to a querying reporter.

Publicists often have all kinds of artillery that goes back to when dinosaurs roamed the earth, by-the-numbers yawn-inducing responses such as "We don't comment on rumors and speculation" and the amusingly semi-fictional "We have a policy that we do not discuss any deals we may or may not be involved with." Hey, I'd like to see where that policy is written down!

My theory about lying publicists is that they have a trigger defensive reaction to anything that rocks the boat, sounds like an accusation, or comes close to hitting the truth. Instead of giving one of those aforementioned stock-in-trade phrases which takes any kind of fibbing out of the equation (except maybe that mystical "policy"), it's just easier to say no.

Publicists need to be less defensive and think about what the consequences of their actions are before they do them. Nobody is holding a gun to your head. You're not a contestant on "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" and the clock is ticking down. You're allowed to think. You're allowed to call a reporter back. Why not take a few minutes before calling them and mull over your reply. You never want anything you say to a reporter to backfire on you because you'll never be trusted again, and most likely, they will hang you out to dry on the record.

And I ain't lying.