Customer service and marketing: You Can’t Fix Stupid

ron whiteI am quite certain I’m not alone when shaking my head periodically over stupid marketing mistakes or frustrating customer service travails. Over the past few weeks, I have shaken my head so much though that I’m growing concerned about the impact on my brain from all that jarring movement.

The missteps have involved utility and cable companies, retail stores, a major bank, and a daily newspaper. And there isn’t any social media outreach or clever slogan that can replace simple research or focusing on good customer service instead of focusing on how to address complaints. In other words, stop staring so much at the trees and take a broader look at the forest you’re creating from time to time.

First, let’s talk about marketing miscues.

While watching the Olympics on TV the other night, an ad came on for WalMart, not a bastion of union love and Made in the USA pride for sure. The ad was about how much WalMart is pledging to support U.S-made products and the workers who manufacture them. Unfortunately, the marketing department at WalMart apparently doesn’t have too many classic rock fans on staff. If it did, they would have caught that the theme song they decided to run at full volume during the commercial was Working Man by Rush, which is an iconic Canadian band.

credit offerThen, just this weekend, I received an unsolicited email from one of my credit card companies offering a hassle-free, credit-check free increase in my credit line. I just needed to click the button linked in the email and I would be on my way. Spam! you say? Actually, I think it’s legitimate, but there’s no way to prove it. The most ridiculous part is that the bank has a Secure Messaging Center that allows you to correspond with the bank (and vice-versa) within their system once you’ve securely logged into your account. I have forwarded the email to the address the bank uses for customers to report phishing attempts so that they can either start working on this fraudulent scam or walk down to the marketing department and smack someone upside the head.

I also noticed this weekend that my local daily newspaper, the Lansing State Journal, ran yet another letter to the editor that was factually inaccurate. As a media relations professional, it has always frustrated me how much newspapers claim to pride themselves on truth and accuracy, and then fill their opinion pages with rubbish. I’m not lamenting opinion columns by newspaper staff or the public that might have a different take on an issue than I do. I’m talking about people printing absolute falsehoods because the newspaper fact-checks their news but lets opinion trample the truth. It makes it tough to believe the marketing pitches from a newspaper about how they can be a trusted source when they are printing things that can’t be trusted.

Perhaps all marketing departments should hang a poster in their offices of comedian Ron White and his great line, “You can’t fix stupid.”

Customer service is becoming a bit of an oxymoron in many companies, too, with a focus on outreach through social media to address concerns people have. Here’s a concern I have: your customer service is horrible and whitewashing it with public relations outreach after the fact isn’t going to save you.

A classic example of this is the cable company Comcast. For years now, @ComcastCares on Twitter and other outlets has been touted as a great example of social media customer service that is responsive and well-liked. Unfortunately, Comcast as a company is considered vile by many of its customers. Just say something on Facebook or Google Plus about Comcast and watch the hate mail pour in on your comment stream.

comcast googleI discovered HBO GO is available as a channel on my Roku streaming device. I was excited because it meant I could stop using Comcast’s menu system that is as complicated as the family trees on Game of Thrones. In a strange twist, I actually started watching Game of Thrones after receiving a free subscription to HBO from Comcast because they were trying to make up for a massive billing mistake on their part. Unfortunately, Comcast isn’t one of the cable companies that allows you to log in to HBO GO on Roku. When I lamented about this on Google Plus, I tagged Comcast and ComcastCares. Of course the main account ignored me but ComcastCares responded within minutes. It wasn’t a particularly good or useful response, but at least I knew someone had heard me.

A local municipal utility company in Lansing, Michigan also suffered a massive credibility crisis back in December when ice storms wiped out power lines and the electricity they provide to area residents, in some cases for more than a week. Information was hard to come by and what was being delivered was questionable in terms of accuracy. After a public outcry over the Lansing Board of Water and Light needing to do a better job, the utility’s response was to post an opening for a social media coordinator. Of course! That makes perfect sense. After all, when I’m frustrated with a utility because my pipes are about to burst and food is rotting in my refrigerator, what I really wish I had was some great outreach via Twitter. Or, maybe, I’d rather have my electricity restored. And perhaps the money spent on social media whitewash might be better spent on restoring power and making sure it stays on.

Some days, I don’t think some places even care enough to try anymore.

Take a local store in my town called Meijer. It’s a Michigan-based company so many friends and I have tried to look past problems it has because we want to support the home team. The biggest issue people complain about is growing frustration with a reliance on self-checkout lanes that have lackluster scanners and a cumbersome layout. Most people who lament about not shopping there anymore seem to cite that as reason number one for their decision. I have learned to shop there at night since their checkout system is a bit more tolerable with fewer customers trying to use it.

However, a recent trip there and responses to complaints I filed about my experience have forced me to join the flock of those seeking my groceries and home supplies elsewhere. It was shortly after 10 p.m. when I stopped in to buy a few things, the bulk of which were in the toiletries section. Ten o’clock in the evening is late but not very late and considering the store is open 24 hours, it seemed too early for entire sections to be shut down for cleaning. But, alas, I left empty-handed with not a single toiletry item in my bag. When I inquired at the “customer service” counter about that section of the store being entirely closed off to customers, they shrugged and told me sorry, there was nothing they could do. I reported my frustration with the situation and the response to corporate headquarters. They forwarded it to the store manager who emailed me to say he was sorry, but cleaning was necessary and had to be done some time. I agree, but as I mentioned the store is open 24 hours, so how about cleaning at 2 a.m., or only cleaning certain aisles at a time instead of shutting down an entire corner of your store!?

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Frank Eliason, the founder of ComcastCares and now Director of Global Social Media at Citi, recently wrote about social media and customer service on a LinkedIn post. It’s a great read and I recommend taking a look, but here’s the line that really stood out to me:

I have yet to find a more important job than Customer Service. It is sad that people feel it is beneath them, because some day businesses will realize how important it is to their own success (or failure).

Well said. After all, no matter how good your PR and marketing teams are, they will never overcome horrible customer service. Fix the customer service first instead of whitewashing it with cool tech tools. And take the fun stuff away from the marketing teams for a while so they can spend time on the front lines dealing with customers and their personal frustrations. Maybe then you’ll be able to market your product without it resulting in a violent shaking of heads.

UPDATE: I’ve written a follow-up post about replies I received from the various organizations.

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News releases are not news

News releases are not news. They might be newsworthy, and they might share information that can become news. But, in and of themselves, news releases are not news. They are a one-sided, unbalanced pitch originally intended for journalists who would, hopefully, create some news stories with them. In our modern communications era, they are used to spread information with a certain perspective to the public, as well, through websites and social media outlets.

It is abhorrent behavior then, for news outlets to take these news releases and print them verbatim on a news website. And yet, that’s exactly what happened recently with two outlets in Lansing — WILX TV 10 and the Lansing State Journal. They took a news release sent out by Sparrow Hospital and Hayes-Green Beach Memorial Hospital that explained a growing partnership between the two medical centers. The State Journal didn’t even bother to remove the sentence in the middle that announced a joint call for the media that day, including the passcode for the telephone press conference! The hospital actually had to change the passcode since the LSJ decided to announce it publicly through its latest veiled attempt at being a professional newspaper.

I do not fault Sparrow, Hayes-Green Beach or anyone involved in the public relations industry for what happened. It is their job to get the news distributed with as much of their information and perspective as possible. I’ve been in the journalism or PR business combined for more than 20 years. I’ve been on the receiving end and the sending end of news releases. I know how they are used and why they are used and have no complaints with that. I don’t even mind that we in the PR industry can now bypass the media and go straight to the public. I believe the public is smart enough to understand that what an organization is putting on its website is expected to be one sided. But are they savvy enough to figure that out when looking at a supposedly unbiased and objective news website? The problem is that as soon as that news release is posted to a legitimate news organization’s website, it’s no longer just a news release — it’s deceptive reporting.

WILX and the Lansing State Journal clearly shirked their duty to perform reliable, responsible journalism. The journalism industry is already suffering from a credibility gap, and acting as a shill for a public relations machine — either deliberately or through sheer laziness — is only expanding that gap.

Here are some screen shots of the news release, as well as the WILX and LSJ websites where it was posted:

The votes are in and readers want engagement

I recently wrote a blog post and hosted a poll about the Lansing State Journal being on Twitter and how it should handle that account. The issue is that the State Journal uses an auto feeder to populate its Twitter stream with headlines from its web site. Unfortunately, this leads to the potential of outdated news ending up on its Twitter account, a place where breaking news generally becomes old within minutes if not seconds.

The folks running the State Journal’s Twitter account have gotten better over time as they’ve become more comfortable with the service. They are engaging with readers who point out errors or have suggestions. And this past week they even posted a Follow Friday shout-out to my wife and me, who are frequently tagged as the LSJ online watchdogs. The problem is that the staffing for the Twitter account is apparently not considered a priority in the State Journal newsroom. Although, like most newspapers today, I’m not sure if news in general is considered a priority these days.

When I had a discussion on Twitter with the State Journal staff about the problem with their feed, they raised the dilemma of using the Twitter stream to post news only when staff is available, noting that tweets may be few and far between if they go that route. When I asked people to weigh in on the concept, allowing them to vote for full automation, tweeting only when staff is available or a combination, they, not surprisingly, voted for the combo. Certainly it wasn’t a scientific poll and the number of respondents wasn’t huge, but nearly 83 percent of those who voted opted for “Usually automate but engage during breaking news.”

What was more interesting than the poll numbers, however, were  the comments from my readers. Some commented on live vs. automated posts:

I don’t mind the automated tweets for promoting their published articles. For example, the business news feeds are great. The breaking news tweets should be in the moment. ~ Lisa

As a whole, news organizations have a huge responsibility. As a society we expect them to cover everything that interests us, do it accurately and without bias, and then make sure we know they have covered it. At the same time newspaper circulation has continued to plummet making it necessary for them to cut staff. I don’t think it’s realistic under these circumstances to have a live person tweeting at all times. I do agree, however, that every attempt should be made to disseminate accurate information at all times. ~ Anne Craft

Others suggested another approach entirely, using Twitter as a back channel to the newsroom:

Twitter is about two-way communication, sharing and networking. While I appreciate headline/breaking news being tweeted, I’d much prefer more interaction with followers, insights or background stories that don’t make the articles, etc. I know that is hard with limited budgets, but making some effort will show they care. Maybe the folks in charge of the budget will see how beneficial it is to the community and toss a few more bucks in that direction to keep it going!  ~ Kate

While still others admitted that they turn to their social networks for news, not the local newspaper:

I don’t follow the LSJNews feed (nearly 17000 tweets in just over 800 days! way too much information!), and rarely visit the LSJ website (due to the quantity and quality of their advertisements). I instead follow locals…and get Nixle alerts from government agencies for major news in the area. The power of the medium makes this possible; if the message is interesting enough, someone in my social graph will relay it.  ~ cchoffme

I will give credit to the Lansing State Journal for wanting to hear more about this issue. The newspaper’s Twitter feed even retweeted my original blog post and poll. There’s no question the State Journal and other news outlets are experiencing growing pains as they fumble around in the social media space. Perhaps they can finally find a niche that allows them to connect with readers again so people will turn there first for news and information that is timely, important, accurate, complete, unbiased and reported fairly. Come to think of it, maybe social media can wait and newspapers should focus on making that happen on their own websites and printed pages first! If you don’t have credibility and the trust of your readers, it doesn’t really matter what medium you use to publish the information, because no one will be paying attention to you.

The Lansing State Journal on Twitter: engage or feed?

As a former full-time journalist and now a university instructor on the subject who still writes freelance articles, I have little patience for the continuing self-mutilation of the news industry. That’s partly why I’m not only critical of what I see and read in the Lansing State Journal but openly share my opinions with them via reader comments and Twitter.

To the paper’s credit, the person handling the @LSJNews Twitter account is starting to engage with people who point out errors or have suggestions for improvement. This led to an interesting exchange the other day after I complained about the paper’s Twitter feed posting outdated information.

The tweet referred to a severe thunderstorm warning being in effect for my area. When I clicked on the link, however, I discovered that the tweet at 12:41 p.m. was referring to a warning that expired 11 minutes earlier. When I told the LSJ that this was a rather useless piece of news, the account operator apologized, noting that the warning had gotten caught in the RSS feed of the newspaper’s headlines. That led to a question from the LSJ:

And, a warning to be careful what you wish for:

I acknowledged the dilemma and suggested a reader poll. I’m not sure if the LSJ will actually do a reader poll on this or if they thought asking the question with one tweet was the way to go. So, I’m going to conduct a poll here. I understand the struggle of not having enough people to cover all the news that’s happening, but taking a social media tool and using it as an automated broadcast mechanism doesn’t seem to be the answer either.

So, what do you think? Should the LSJ use an RSS feed of its headlines to populate its Twitter account, leading to potentially inaccurate information being distributed? Should they shut it down and only update the feed as they have staff available (which would be rarely)? Or could they operate as a hybrid, with automated tweets from their RSS feed supplemented by someone assigned to directly engage via the account during breaking news occurrences?

Cast your vote, offer a comment or two and let me know what you think. I’ll share the results with the Lansing State Journal. After all, that paper knows all too well that I won’t keep anything from them!

It’s time to end the rage and hate forums

Reader comments. Story comments. Rage and hate forums. Call them what you want, but the comments section at the end of every Lansing State Journal story posted at its web site have gone from crazy and laughable to pointless and stupid.

When will the publishers of the State Journal realize that their reader comments section destroys the paper’s credibility as a beacon of truth and leadership in the community? Allowing unmoderated comments from hurtful people focused only on their own agendas of hate is the last thing this region needs and making it an official record by hosting it at the LSJ web site is a disservice.

I don’t mean to single out the State Journal, because they certainly are not alone in this age of anonymous rage. I just happen to be exposed to that newspaper more than others because it’s my local paper. I posted a question on Twitter today about this subject:

Reader comments at (the Lansing State Journal) are filled with rage & hate. Do all local papers have that problem?

It was disheartening to have so many people reply in the affirmative:

Yes. It’s the anonymity that allows for it. Newspapers rushed to add the comments, but didn’t know how to build a community. ~ Ike Pigott, Birmingham, Ala.

The (Detroit Free Press) and (Detroit News) reader comments are also filled with rage and hate, and most discussions turn to race in no time at all. ~ Maureen Francis, Birmingham, Mich.

I’ve seen the same on Detroit and other news websites. Kinda makes you lose faith in your fellow (hu)man. 😦  ~ Kate Sumbler, Michigan

Yes, they do. I think it’s bad on news sites because there’s an anonymity in ranting about something you don’t agree with on web. ~ Valerie Morgan, Lansing, Mich.

And it’s more than just nonsense — it’s a problem for journalists and their sources. As Louise Knott Ahern pointed out, “Negative comments actually scare off sources from talking to the media.” There’s an interesting piece about this phenomenon involving the Washington Post here.

It was awesome to get a much more positive response from Derek Wallbank, a reporter for MinnPost. As Derek explained, “We moderate comments & require real names to post anything. Keeps it more civil.”

Hallelujah — a newspaper with a conscience! I looked up MinnPost’s terms of service about comments:

MinnPost does not permit the use of foul language, personal attacks or the use of language that may be libelous or interpreted as inciting hate or sexual harassment. User comments are reviewed by moderators to ensure that comments meet these standards and adhere to MinnPost’s terms of use and privacy policy. We intend for this area to be used by our readers as a place for civil, thought-provoking and high-quality public discussion. In order to achieve this, MinnPost requires that all commenters register and post comments with their actual names and place of residence.

Imagine how wonderful it would be to have a hometown newspaper with a solid terms of service that required real names to be used in a forum moderated for civility. The Lansing State Journal’s terms of service make promises, but the paper falls short of enforcing them every day. The LSJ’s terms read:

(Readers agree not to)…Engage in personal attacks, harass or threaten, question the motives behind others’ posts or comments, deliberately inflame or disrupt the conversation, or air personal grievances about other users.

And, of course, it doesn’t help that many newspapers don’t require the use of someone’s real name when posting comments. It’s interesting that they require name, address and phone number when you submit a letter to the editor, but online they let hate and rage run unchecked. As Nate Erickson, a recent Michigan State University graduate now living in New York, noted: “Anonymity or perceived anonymity breeds idiocy.”

Idiocy. Rage. Hate. Call it what you want. It’s time for real names, personal responsibility and common civility to replace it all. This is my public challenge to the Lansing State Journal publishers to lead the way. Claim your place as a leader in building a positive online community by reviewing your policies, improving them and enforcing them. If you build it, we will come.

The Monday morning quarterbacks of Ignite Lansing just don’t get it

It’s unfortunate that the only exposure some people in the mid-Michigan media market will have to Ignite Lansing 3.0 is a poor review on a blog post by Lansing State Journal columnist John Schneider.

I’m not sure exactly what Schneider was expecting and, I’d agree with his point that some of the promotional activities for this round of Ignite may have over-promised on the total package. But to give a scathing review after only staying for one-third of the event isn’t fair.

I bring a unique perspective to this discussion. I was one of the winners of Ignite Lansing 1.0 with my presentation about the characters you meet on Twitter. At Ignite 2.0, my wife, Jessi, and I presented “How to Survive Planning a Wedding.” We didn’t win, but we had a blast. I submitted a presentation for Ignite 3.0 but was asked to step aside so that folks who had never presented had a chance. Still, I remained involved in the planning committee in a small way by assisting with media promotion. I had my doubts about the event being over-produced, that it might be getting away from its core mission by adding in so many extras. But in the end, I attended Ignite 3.0 and saw something very different from Schneider. This is what he saw:

…we entered a Knapps Office Centre filled with some kind of fog and a throbbing crowd of young, hip-looking  young folks holding bottles of beer.The emcee told Lansing’s hipperati that the Lansing they were about  to see in the presentations was not  their parents’ Lansing; he didn’t say it would be, instead, their grandparents’ Lansing.

What I saw was an interesting laser-light show, a powerful sound system and exciting entertainment bringing life to a building long-ago abandoned by the movers and shakers Schneider usually pays homage to. I saw a community of people joining together to celebrate networking, entertainment and the chutzpah it takes to get on stage and make a presentation in front of a crowd of more than 600 people. (Ignite Lansing 1.0 had an attendance of more than 200, so you can see it has grown exponentially in less than a year.)

I saw a high-tech voting system and webcasting of the event to hundreds of people who couldn’t get in because all the free tickets were snatched up within 24 hours. Let me stress a point here: this event is free. A big reason it’s free is because of the tens of thousands of dollars of equipment, supplies and labor donated by area businesses and community members. It’s free because the Michigan Brewing Company stepped up and helped with alcohol costs. It’s free because Cravings Popcorn is committed to being a part of this community and provided a huge popcorn bar without charge. It’s free because of all the other sponsors listed here. And it’s free because the Eyde Company opened the Knapp Center to a group of young community members who have a vision and the backbone  to lead this region some day to where their parents  could not.

Schneider said he was disappointed because the emcee didn’t tell him he would see “his grandparents’ Lansing.” Well, if our grandparents’ Lansing is one filled with hope, creativity, compassion, passion and raw talent, then that’s the kind of Lansing I hope we see every day.

As Jessi and I were leaving the Ignite after-party at MBC, we both commented how alive Lansing still was at close to midnight. I told her “it felt like a city,” and that’s something we haven’t felt downtown for a long time.

What I also saw that night was a news organization that cares about finding good things in its local community and offering a positive story about it. So a tip of my hat goes to TV 6 for coming to the event and producing a positive piece about it, which you can see here.

I haven’t heard if there’s going to be an Ignite Lansing 4.0. But if there is, I hope John Schneider and any other doubters get involved as more than Monday morning quarterbacks. But even if they don’t, it won’t matter. The next generation will not  sit idly by and wonder what Lansing could be when they know they have the ability to make Lansing what they want it to be.

3, 2, 1…ignition.

Can you be too proactive when defending yourself?

I’ve always prescribed to the notion that if you screw up, just confess and repent because that’s how you get people to trust you again, or at least not distrust you as much. Let’s face it, our society suffers from attention deficit disorder and a short memory — a combination that makes it pretty easy to go from bad guy to forgotten guy in relatively short order.

But now I’m questioning that philosophy given two recent incidents  of organizations trying to play defense with an aggressive offense and failing. Can you be too proactive when defending yourself?

amp-iphone-app-101309Case # 1 involves Pepsi and its iPhone app, Amp Up Before You Score, sponsored by its Amp energy drink. The concept is that guys could look through a directory of female stereotypes to learn the best pickup lines and then use the app to share their conquests with others.

AdAge did a nice overview of the issue here. The problem related to my question is, did PepsiCo go overboard in backpedaling on this? Not only did they claim it was a mistake and apologize, they had other brands jump into the apology fray, including Pepsi and Mt. Dew. They even created their own hashtag for Twitter, #pepsifail. The thing is that now people who didn’t even know about the app and the controversy are talking about it and, in some cases, joining the anti-Pepsi side of the debate. The target market for Amp and the Amp app are the same, but that’s not the target audience of Pepsi or Mt. Dew or even the folks who follow Pepsi on Twitter.

Another case of hanging your laundry up in the yard before washing it occurred recently at a school district in mid-Michigan. With an amazing dose of stupidity, a group of teachers decided to party together to celebrate the end of the school year. During this party, alcohol and marijuana were consumed, apparently in great enough quantities that one of the teachers passed out. While she was unconscious, the other teachers scrawled on her body with markers to “drunk shame” her, a rite of passage for many college students who learn the hard way that your drinking buddies aren’t necessarily your friends.

Well, two years later, the “victim” has decided the police and the school district haven’t done enough for her and she went public with her complaints via the Michigan Messenger, an online news outlet. Seeing an opportunity to go on the offensive and, I guess, nip the story in the bud, the school superintendent sent a memo to all the parents in the district. The memo gave only vague references to the incident and then spoke of how the district’s hands were tied in terms of discipline but how it was considered a deplorable situation.

At this point, everyone who hadn’t heard of the incident was now frantically searching news outlets on line to figure what the heck he was talking about. And, sure enough, because the district issued a formal statement on the incident, the local mainstream media had to report on it as well. The Lansing State Journal had an overview story and a public-reaction story yesterday. There is another story today about how one of the teachers has now resigned as the girls’ varsity basketball coach.  That’s three stories in the main local paper in two days about an incident that is more than two years old — an incident that many parents probably hadn’t heard of until now.

A major corporation and a local school district went on the offensive trying to counteract negative publicity and their tactics had the exact opposite effect.

So is the philosophy of confess and repent flawed? I’d still like to believe it has its appropriate uses. If you know the story is going mainstream, then you should consider getting out in front of it. But trying to get out in front of a story that isn’t a story until you make it one is a mistake.

What do you think?

(Photo courtesy of AdAge)

Where in the world is your local newspaper?

Lansing locator map“Hi, I’m from Lansing.”

If you’re from Michigan or live here now, that’s probably enough information for you to figure out that I hail from the middle of the Mitten State. But what if you aren’t familiar with city names in my home state? Would “Hi, I’m from Lansing,” be enough information for you? Of course not; you’d have to inquire about where Lansing is to get the full story. It’s a simple follow-up question since I’m right there to ask.

But what if I was only available to you online and told you I was from Lansing? What if you had to search my web site for clues about where Lansing is? I’m betting you’d end up frustrated and maybe even think less of me because I made a difficult task out of something that should be simple. That is, unfortunately, what too many local newspapers are doing online.

The newspaper industry is struggling with how to survive this new age of global interaction where people want their news online, they want it now and they want it for free. I’m not going to profess I have the answers on how to make everything better for my former industry. But I can suggest that one thing they need to remember is that there is no such thing as “local” on the Internet. We need to know where your paper is located. We need to know the city and the state. Even better would be a small map showing us where in the state you’re located. And this information should be at the top of the page, prominently displayed. Without it, we can’t put your news stories in the proper context.

Newspaper web sites tend to be a nightmare of information overload to begin with. There are advertisements that blink, pop up and roll over the content I’m after, and the layout often looks like the only design training the person in charge has is from reading “Web Site Design for Dummies.” Please don’t make me wade through all that nonsense just to play 20 Questions on my hunt for what state your city is in.

Let’s use one of my local papers, the Lansing State Journal, as an example. There is a small line of grayed-out, blurry text as part of their masthead that says “Michigan Press Association” above a line that tells us it’s an award-winning web site. (Really? Hmm, another blog post idea here!) Other than that clue, and having to dig through the stories and ads for more clues, you wouldn’t know the Lansing State Journal is from Lansing, Michigan, as opposed to the cities of Lansing found in Illinois, Kansas, New York, Iowa or North Carolina.

The Niles Star is another example from Michigan, although it could be from Illinois, Ohio, or New York. Then you have The Daily News, which is from Dowagiac, Michigan. That little tidbit is available to you if you look at the URL and see it says “dowagiacnews.” Of course, that only gives you a city and not a state. And the web site itself doesn’t tell you what city it’s from — I guess it’s “The Daily News of the World?”

Newspapers need to grab the global online community in a giant bear hug and never let go. Instead, they seem intent on finding new ways to prove to us they are stuck in the age of ink and paper, driving away a world full of potential readers whose first question is generally going to be, “Hi, where are you from?”

City sells its reputation for $50

50-dollar-bill1Reputation for sale: $50. They might as well post that sign outside City Hall in Lansing, Michigan because, according to this report from the Lansing State Journal, that’s how much the city thinks good relations with the community are worth.

It seems every time I turn around these days, there’s a new group forming in the mid-Michigan area to promote how many great things are happening and how the future for Lansing and the surrounding communities is so bright we’ll have to wear shades. As new restaurants and shops have opened, however, we’ve also seen a few businesses close. I don’t know if it’s so much a sign of Michigan’s economic struggles or the natural ebb and flow of retailing that allows some places to thrive and others to disappear.

Regardless, the city has decided that folks suffering the humiliation of publicly announcing they failed at a business venture must now suffer even more by adhering to a draconian law that the city has the option to handle better but refuses to.

As John Schneider reported, anyone announcing a “going out of business sale” must pay $50 to the city clerk for a permit and fill out an application that includes:

…an “Itemized list of goods to be sold, described with make and brand name … (plus) a “separate list of goods purchased 60 days or less immediately prior to the date of this application” (including the) “cost of each item, name and address of the source, date of purchase and delivery date, and the total value of inventory …”

Schneider also reports that the city has the option of waiving the fee but chooses not to.

The mayor’s communications director, Randy Hannan, is quoted in the article saying that economic development efforts by the city have, “created the most exciting resurgence in the downtown area in decades.”

He’s probably right, but he’s missing the point. The city is looking at the reality of things going on around town, but they are ingoring the perception people have of Michigan’s capital city. Despite all the good that’s happening, there are too many stories about the City Council fighting with the mayor and amongst themselves, stories of unyielding parking attendants pouncing on people seconds after their meters expire and, now, a government that comes across as a bully more intent on making 50 bucks than a public servant willing to show some compassion.

The state law needs to be revised and the city needs to start waiving the fee immediately until the Legislature can act. All the groups promoting Lansing and mid-Michigan already have their work cut out for them. The last thing they need is the area’s largest city throwing out more hurdles for them to jump over.

Just the “correct” facts, ma’am

The Lansing State Journal should take a lesson from Sgt. Joe Friday’s investigative notebook. webbJack Webb’s character in the 1950s radio and TV show “Dragnet,” is credited with coining the phrase, “Just the facts, ma’am,” which he would use to get to the heart of the matter with women he was interviewing for crime investigations. (Ironically, Sgt. Friday never uttered that phrase — his “All we want are the facts, ma’am” was altered in a spoof of the character and the spoof line caught on instead of the original statement.)

The Lansing State Journal managed to stumble when handling a news story recently about a special ice cream flavor being made at Michigan State University’s Dairy Store.

It all started via Twitter posts from people announcing that “Final Four Fudge Dribble,” a limited edition flavor, was being made and sold at the Dairy Store. They said it was awesome and encouraged people to go get some. One tweet included a picture of the delectable dessert. Another tweet included a link to a press release from MSU explaining what all the hoopla was about (pun intended). That tweet was then retweeted — Twitter’s version of forwarding — complete with the press release link. The State msu-ice-creamJournal apparently caught wind of this and decided to run a news story about it.

Unfortunately, that’s where the LSJ’s trouble began. It’s a mystery exactly how they got the story or what their source was. But the article had an error that could have been avoided if someone would have checked the facts as thoroughly as the good Joe Friday.

Here’s the article from Wednesday, April 1, 2009:

Beginning Friday, Spartan fans can get Final Four Fudge Dribble ice cream at the Michigan State University Dairy Store. The vanilla ice cream with fudge swirl sprinkled with little chocolate-covered malted milk “basketballs” is being made on campus today. The Spartans men’s basketball team plays the University of Connecticut Saturday at Ford Field.

“I was just inspired by the basketball teams,” said John Partridge, associate professor of food science and human nutrition and faculty adviser of the dairy food complex. “I thought, ‘We’ve got to do something here, and we can have a lot of fun with ice cream.’”

The dairy store will make 100 half gallons and 45 3-gallon tubs (for scooping) in the manufacturing center in Anthony Hall, next to the store on Farm Lane between Shaw Lane and Wilson Road. The ice creams will be available both in half-gallons and by the scoop.

And here’s the press release:

EAST LANSING, Mich. – In a move to ensure the Spartans will own not only the hearts, but also the stomachs of basketball fans, the Michigan State University Dairy Store today announces a confectionery slam dunk. Fans, meet Final Four Fudge Dribble ice cream. The concoction of vanilla ice cream with fudge swirl sprinkled with little chocolate-covered malted milk “basketballs” is being made on campus today and available at the MSU Dairy Store beginning Friday morning.

“I was just inspired by the basketball teams,” said John Partridge, associate professor of food science and human nutrition and faculty adviser of the dairy food complex. “I thought, ‘we’ve go to do something here, and we can have a lot of fun with ice cream.’”

They’ll be making 100 half gallons and 45 3-gallon tubs (for scooping) in the manufacturing center in Anthony Hall, next to the Dairy Store. That’s part of the secret of MSU’s popular ice cream, what Partridge calls “short chain of custody.” That means MSU ice cream doesn’t get all stressed out with temperature fluctuations that can damage ice cream. Or, in other words, it’s like the MSU basketball teams. Great because it stays cool.

Ice cream facts:

  • MSU Dairy Store is in Anthony Hall on Farm Lane between Shaw Lane and Wilson Road.
  • Store hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday; noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
  • Available both in half-gallons and by the scoop.
  • Last themed ice cream: Sesquicentennial Swirl – white cake batter-flavored ice cream with green frosting swirl and chunks of white and green cake.

So what, you ask? Don’t newspapers cut and paste information from press releases all the time? Isn’t that the dream of most public relations practitioners, to get their words verbatim into a news story? Sure it happens, and of course we enjoy seeing our work copied in a newspaper. That’s not the problem. The problem is the press release was dated March 31, 2005.

Does it matter that people thought the ice cream flavor wouldn’t be available until Friday instead of Wednesday? Does it matter that the quote referenced the basketball teams because in 2005 both the men’s and women’s teams made the Final Four? Maybe not in the grand scheme of life, but a factual misstep by the newspaper like this is a big deal. Mistakes happen and no news outlet is immune. Still, every time it happens, there’s another chink in the armor of credibility and, before long, people start wondering if anything they hear from that news outlet can be trusted.

It’s a sad sign of the times, I suppose, as newspapers cut reporting staff, start relying on other people to do their work, start spreading news from the Internet and spend more time worrying about being first rather than being accurate.

Had the Lansing State Journal actually done some reporting on the story, they would have probably called the contact listed on the press release to get an original quote and gather something unique for their article. Had someone done that, they would have found out the contact doesn’t work for MSU anymore. That would have led to a few more questions, a few more uncovered facts and, ta-da!, an accurate story.