The media’s coverage of low voter turnout is a self-fulfilling prophecy

dickerson columnThe Detroit Free Press’ Brian Dickerson has it mostly wrong in his recent column about why such a small percentage of voters voted in last week’s election.

People who do not vote should not be held up as “the new normal” or the people who are making the best decision because they don’t like the choices they are given. Democracy isn’t meant to be easy and freedom isn’t free. If you fail to show up and vote, you have no right to complain about who got elected. If you fail to fight and try to make a difference in the things you want to see changed, you have no right to complain that things aren’t the way you want them.

Voters today are part of a society driven by Hollywood’s and TV’s interpretation of the world, biased cable TV news networks, bloggers with no professional standards held up as real journalists, and real journalists hog-tied by shrinking budgets and corporate management intent on web clicks and social media likes instead of credibility.

Admittedly, I haven’t done any exhaustive research on this. But when you review the political coverage of the recent elections, I suspect you will find a vastly larger number of articles based on polling results that are questionable at best, a focus on who is funding candidates, reviews of what the latest blistering negative TV ads are spewing, and the supposedly campaign-ending scandals that aren’t nearly as evil as the media and election ads portray them. And, let’s not forget the large number of articles focused on how difficult it supposedly is to vote in the Unites States.

What’s missing is in-depth reporting on candidates, their credentials, the issues they care about, what they would actually do if elected and why people need to vote to have their voices heard. And the rest of the year, when electioneering isn’t driving the news coverage, it would be nice if the media reported on the day-to-day activities of elected officials. The Capitol Press Corps in Michigan has shrunk dramatically over the years, and many reporters have shied away from “process stories,” because editors (in those newsrooms where they still exist) don’t think the public will click on them. But the process is where all the interesting news happens. The final votes taken on the floor of the House and Senate are a very small part of all the work that has gone into a law being crafted. Floor speeches, while great for soundbites for a media driven by sensationalism, rarely have any real impact on how a person’s colleagues will vote. That’s because all the true debate, the hashing out of ideas, and the bipartisan compromise happened weeks and months prior in a committee process deemed “too boring” for the public to be told about.

Is it any wonder then that the public is feeling disenfranchised and wondering why they should bother to vote? Instead of being given a manual on democracy to study they are being fed the equivalent of Cliff’s Notes. In an ever-growing and concerning trend, we may not even receive that version anymore but instead the equivalent of a movie trailer.

My 18-year-old daughter voted in her first general election this year. She texted me one day while reviewing her absentee ballot (provided to her because she is away at college).

“This is difficult. How do you choose? There are so many people and none of their websites make sense. The troubles of a teenage voter.”

I was so proud of her for actually doing research on the candidates and not just listening to her dad’s opinion! I responded with the best advice I could think of that wouldn’t drive her to just do what I suggested.

“Democracy isn’t supposed to be easy and I applaud you for trying to research the candidates!”

If only more voters cared as much as my daughter, post-Election Day news coverage wouldn’t be all about the hand wringing over low voter turn out. And if only more media outlets understood their post-Election Day news coverage is a self-fulfilling prophecy, then we might actually get some true news coverage of government instead of sensationalistic, half-baked reports designed to increase computer clicks instead of voter intellect.

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Survey says: Pointless Surveys Are Dead

Breaking news! All forms of media are dead! They are useless to the world of public relations because what the media covers and what is being chatted about on social media just doesn’t matter anymore. It’s all about direct influence of consumers through…well, wait, if we don’t use the media and social media, how will we reach consumers? I’m sensing a flaw in the latest survey by the Reputation Institute that is making some communications pros question their media relations and social media outreach plans.

The basic premise behind the Reputation Institute’s findings is actually quite reasonable. It suggests that direct experiences with a company have more of an impact on how a consumer feels about a brand. They compared that with what a company says and does or what is being said about the brand in the mainstream media or on social networking outlets. Really though, I’m certain the proverbial 1,000 monkeys at 1,000 typewriters could have produced that report.

What I find flawed is the interpretations of the survey results. I’ve already heard one industry leader reference the survey and buy in to the Institute’s headline: “Media’s Net Impact on Reputation is Zero.” I imagine others will jump on this bandwagon as well. The survey suggests that the reputation gap between those people who have had direct experience with a brand and those who have not is nearly zero when measuring the influence of media and social media. That finding, of course, may have people wondering why so much attention (and budget) is being paid to social media experts and the media relations teams at various companies.

The problem is that the finding is utter nonsense. The category that had more of a reputation gap was the one that included marketing, branding and public relations. The largest gap was found in the area that included customer service, products and employment. The idea here is that the larger the reputation gap, the more impact that particular area has on people’s opinions of a company or brand.

But like too many traps in the public relations world, you cannot boil public relations, marketing, media relations and social media activities into one solitary silver bullet that is the cause of trouble or the salvation for your business.

What you make as a product matters to your reputation and so does customer service. Marketing your product, public relations efforts to consumers and branding activities involving social responsibility are important, as well. If you have a great product and excellent customer service, and if you spend money on marketing, public relations, and social responsibility, then you are probably involved with the mainstream media and social media as well. These areas are not silos that can be singled out as the best or worst thing your company should focus on. Instead, you need a more comprehensive and cohesive approach to success.

A great product will sell. Excellent customer service will bring in more customers. And both will be advanced through great public relations and marketing efforts. Those efforts, more than likely, will involve mainstream media stories, articles in industry publications and perhaps even some social media outreach.

So before people go running off declaring media doesn’t matter, perhaps we should look back to earlier reports. Remember the stories about the press release being dead? It’s not dead; it’s simply evolved rather than becoming extinct. Evolution is the name of the game now. Before you write off all forms of media relations because of survey results, consider whether they make sense or not. Perhaps what we need to do is declare pointless surveys with screaming headlines dead. Anyone willing to conduct a survey for me on that?

Why McDonald’s flap over franchisee’s politics actually helps PR pros

This is a piece I was commissioned to write for Ragan.com:

Published: 11/1/2010 

Why McDonald’s flap over franchisee’s politics actually helps PR pros
By Ari B. Adler

When a single location’s owner taints a global company, who ya gonna call?  

McDonald’s Corp. is working to get some Egg McMuffin off its face after astory hit the Internet about a franchise in Canton, Ohio, distributing a paycheck stuffer suggesting which political candidates the employees should support.

The McDonald’s legal team will be working overtime trying to pull the company out of the deep fryer on this one, but that’s not the most interesting thing to me. As a media relations professional, I’m interested in seeing how one of the world’s most-recognized global brands deals with a local mistake that spreads across the world.

The story broke Friday and, thanks to the Internet, there were news stories, blog posts and tweets going out at a rapid pace. If history is a good predictor, the fun has only just begun for the McDonald’s corporate communications team.

Legal issues aside, readers’ comments on at least one blog entry added up fast and quickly turned vitriolic. The majority of readers at the Thinkprogress.org post were quick to blend the fast-food chain’s reputation with the apparent Republican agenda to take over the world one minimum-wage vote at a time.

Missteps can happen with a corporation as large as McDonald’s, and the risk is even greater when your company is built on franchise operations. That means it’s your logo, your brand and your reputation, but it’s at the mercy of every local yahoo who has paid enough to open a store with your sign out front.

Remember the disgusting Domino’s food video last year? That was at a franchise store where corporate had no say in who was working there. If they had, they might have been able to sniff out a problem faster than the franchise owner did.I’ve been in media relations for many years, and it is amazing to me how much things have changed in just the past few. We used to worry about a story getting in the local paper and, perhaps, going even more widespread if it hit the TV news that night. Should it have gotten out of control, we might have received coverage by a national news outlet. Now we have to deal with every potential outlet, including blogs and social media. And many of the new outlets don’t play by the old rules. Actually, some of them don’t play by any rules. Even if a given outlet tries to be fair in reporting on something, reader comments often are the most damaging part of the attack on your brand and reputation.

I recently heard Tim McIntyre, Domino’s vice president of communications, talk about how the online mentions of the gross employee video peaked and then plummeted after the company posted its response video on YouTube. Unfortunately, the company posting the video ended up drawing the attention of the mainstream media, and the second news cycle on the issue immediately got under way.

The odds seem insurmountable sometimes, because it just doesn’t seem possible to keep up with it all. But that does not mean we should be throwing in the towel. Media relations professionals have myriad tools available to them to monitor, track and respond to mentions in mainstream and online press as well as Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets.

Instead of getting frustrated with all the work we see laid out before us, perhaps we should see it as job security instead. I’m certain some corporate executives are wondering why, at a time when the mainstream press is crumbling, their media-relations department really needs the budget it has requested. When corporations realize how fragile their brand is, however, and how easy it is for anyone and everyone to launch an attack these days, that should help those of us on the front line land a little more support.

Media relations is no longer just about the media in the traditional sense. Certainly we have to work with the mainstream press, but we also have to broaden our horizons to take on online news outlets, bloggers, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and many more. If it can be used for communication, we need to be aware of it, monitor it, understand it and work with it.

So keep that in mind as the company budgets are being prepared for 2011. The media team is no longer effective if your company’s definition of “team” is you and a Google news account. There are hardware and software costs that must be budgeted for, as well as having the necessary number of employees on hand to handle the growing list of media relations tasks.

The CEOs of the world often focus on the bottom line. But they still are going to spend some money on property insurance in case a fire happens at one of their facilities. It’s high time companies started paying attention to the reputation-focused firefighters they have on staff, too. Otherwise, the next time a three-alarm blaze erupts and you try to douse it with some pitiful Google news alerts, their bottom line is likely to end up all burned and crunchy—like a McDonald’s fry left floating in a basket of hot oil for too long.

Blogging isn’t social media

Every time I turn around there seems to be another study being conducted about who is responsible for social media at a company or organization. Is it the role of public relations, media relations, marketing, advertising, customer service — or a combination of all the above? What I’ve found most interesting about these studies is that many seem to still be lumping “blogger relations” in with “social media.”

I’ve long held the belief that bloggers are not journalists. There is something to be said for a professional journalist who has been properly trained to research a story and write a compelling article that people actually want to read. At the same time, however, I don’t believe bloggers should be relegated to the social media realm either. When I think of social media outlets, I think of 140-character tweets, two-sentence Facebook status updates and comments, a photo with a cutline on Flickr or maybe even a short video with comments by viewers on YouTube.

Social media is more about the continuing small-talk conversation being carried on between you and the world. Blogging is different. It can be weighty stuff or it can be about fashion trends. It can challenge your thinking or it can be something sarcastic and entertaining. But it is not social media.

Perhaps the problem is society’s insatiable need to classify things — especially new things people don’t fully understand. Now, certainly, blogging isn’t new, but for many people it is uncharted territory, as is social media. And since both are done via the Internet it makes sense to folks to drop them into the same bucket. That’s a mistake. Blogger relations is a new component of a very old discipline: media relations. As I said, I don’t believe bloggers are journalists, but they are a segment of writers that need to be dealt with professionally.

That’s why I’d argue that blogger relations is a function of whomever is handling media relations in your organization. Bloggers need information, either on background or on the record. They need assistance gathering photos, videos, soundbites, facts and figures. In short, they need information to complete the publication they are working on. But it is not enough for the media relations department to simply send them a press release and a link to some photos. For years, media relations professionals have spent time honing their craft by learning about news outlets and what makes individual reporters tick. It’s time we started doing that with bloggers, too. It is going to add a lot to our workload, but passing the buck and letting marketers or customer service departments deal with blogging because it is “social media” is not productive. It may even come back to bite you in a blog post that is anything but social.

What do you think? Do you believe blogging belongs in the social media bucket, the news media bucket or all by itself in a shiny new bucket?

(Photo courtesy of Chris Jones’ Flickr stream.)

Shattered news industry means scattered media relationships

Here’s a commentary I wrote for Ragan.com:

Published: 4/16/2010

Shattered news industry means scattered media relationships
By Ari B. Adler

How are you adjusting to this rocky professional landscape?

I’ve often taught people that the strength of your media relations work is based upon the strength of relationships. Having a solid relationship with a reporter is invaluable. If you know they’ll read the e-mail you’ve sent them or answer the phone when they see your number on caller ID, that is going to help you, your employer or your client tremendously.

Media relations is getting tougher every day, though, as a shattered news industry scatters media relationships near and far. As the news industry changes, the public relations practitioners who deal with it regularly are going to have to adapt. In the long run, however, this could be an opportunity for those of us in the industry to thrive.

Many of us have prided ourselves on the connections we’ve made with various reporters at different news outlets. Often, we were able to rely on those connections for many years—either at that outlet or at an even bigger and better one as the careers of our journalism friends grew.

But a Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism research study released recently indicates those days are over. Newsrooms are being downsized, reporters are being laid off, and the public’s demand for information is catered to by amateurs or organizations with a financial or political cause at their center.

Newspapers have seen a 41 percent decline in ad revenue over the past three years, Pew reports. Local television ad revenue fell 24 percent in 2009—three times as much as it did in 2008. Magazine ad revenue dropped 19 percent in 2009. As much as the former journalist in me likes to believe people will pay for solid reporting and protection by professional journalists doing their jobs, I also am a realist. The ads pay the bills, including the reporters’ paychecks. Without ad revenue, a news outlet cannot survive.

According to the Pew report, 79 percent of online news consumers say they rarely if ever clicked on an online ad, so don’t think some new Web-based business model is the solution for the aging newsrooms of the world. Thirty-five percent of Americans say they have a “favorite” destination online for news, but only 19 percent of them would be willing to pay for access to that site.

Newspaper staffs often are cited as the biggest victims of the economic crash affecting newsrooms, and for good reason. In 2009, approximately 5,900 newspaper jobs were lost, and that’s on top of the same amount lost in 2008. According to Pew, approximately one-third of the newsroom jobs in American newspapers in 2001 are now gone.

The economic decline that has decimated newsrooms lately is not the only problem—some of it is the result of changing habits by news consumers.

As the Pew report points out: “Consumers are not seeking out news organizations for their full news agenda. They are hunting the news by topic and by event and grazing across multiple outlets.”

The economic turmoil and changing consumer habits are not likely to revert to the days of yesteryear anytime soon, so it’s incumbent upon public relations professionals to figure out the best way to manage all of this.

As a PR person who has always had media relations as one of my core competencies to offer a client or employer, I actually see this as an opportune time for folks in my field. Never before has it been so important to have someone dedicated primarily to keeping up with “the media.” I say, “the media,” because we can’t simply see media relations as dealing with reporters and editors at mainstream news outlets anymore.

We have to deal with bloggers and “citizen journalists” and with special-interest groups posing as unbiased information sources. We have to keep up with the initial reports as well as the incomplete or skewed interpretations broadcast via social media. We have to be on our toes 24 hours a day, seven days a week and able to respond at a pace more rapid than we ever imagined just a few years ago.

As the news industry has segmented and news consumers are dividing into more niches, perhaps the media relations niche of public relations will see a surge in importance as well. If PR practitioners haven’t started sounding the alarm bells for clients about this yet, they need to get started. Our world is spinning faster; try not to get dizzy and fall off.

Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the gallon

One of my part-time gigs is teaching public relations courses to students at Michigan State University. When we start talking about media relations, I explain how it’s not that hard to understand, but it can be hard to execute. That’s because media relations is primarily about building relationships.

There is a symbiotic connection between journalists and PR professionals. They both need each other to do their jobs well, which means both sides need to understand the other one’s wants, needs and desires. It’s not a system that is completely in balance, however, since journalists are able to impart quite a wrath on a PR person, their employer or their client should things turn less civil.

One of my favorite old sayings about dealing with newspapers reporters and editors is, “Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the gallon.”

It is vital for people to understand that while you can’t kowtow to the media’s every whim, when you get right down to it “the media” is just a group of people trying do their jobs so they can pay the mortgage and maybe, on a good day, feel like they’ve made a difference in this world.

That’s why I am flabbergasted when I see reports of PR spokespersons or companies making huge mistakes and turning a potentially good or neutral relationship into an adversarial one.

A couple of recent cases to consider come out of Florida.

First, a group of Toyota dealerships pulled their ads from local ABC TV stations “in response to persistent reporting on the company’s sudden unintended acceleration problems.” Because, somehow, they must believe that hurting the stations economically will force them to call ABC News and ask them to call off the dogs? That’s highly unlikely because when I was a newspaper reporter, I knew that stories resulting in calls from officials to my boss generally meant I was getting close to something bigger and they were nervous. Besides, pulling the ads resulted in more news coverage by more news organizations than just ABC News, so the dealers actually created more headaches for themselves.

Then we have one of the most bone-headed PR moves I’ve ever seen a spokesperson pull. Karen Ryan, public relations manager for the LCEC electric company, wasn’t happy with how the local FOX TV station had been continually reporting on customer complaints. When enough was enough for Ms. Ryan, or perhaps for her bosses, she sent an email to the station management asking for a meeting to discuss the situation. She included a veiled threat to go above station management to the corporate owners if necessary.

FOX 4 responded with a 5 minute, 41 second news story about the entire situation. That was followed up with a story that lasted more than 3 minutes and talked all about how Ms. Ryan and LCEC were done doing interviews with FOX 4.

When I shared the first story via Twitter recently, here are what some folks had to say about it:

@digimae: WOW. They spent 5 times as much time on that because of her letter. Amusing!

@ryanknott: I love PR people who choose to have a confrontational relationship with the media. So productive and helpful. She missed a tremendous opportunity to garner GOOD PR. Total fail.

@anneread: That was a bit painful to watch.

I will never understand why people think that fighting with the media is a solid tactic. I have been the person who had to take phone calls from reporters working on a less-than-flattering story about the boss, the company and the client I was working for. I have handled them all with courtesy and common sense. I may not agree with where the story is headed, but maintaining an open dialogue with a reporter is a much easier way to make sure your side of the story is told fairly and completely.

I’ve explained to more than one boss who was frustrated with media coverage that attacking a reporter or editor for one story does not garner you better stories — in fact, it tends to have the exact opposite effect. After all, if the pen is mightier than the sword, imagine what a printing press or a TV studio can do to you. Actually, you don’t have to imagine. You just have to ask Karen Ryan at LCEC what it feels like to show up with a knife at a gunfight.

Sometimes, you need to say no

Here’s a column I was commissioned to write by Talent Zoo about one of my experiences on the front lines at a PR firm:

Public relations professionals often are looked at as guides to the media. Clients want to know how they can get news coverage. Do you ever use the opportunity to tell them they won’t?

When tasked with media relations, you often will go to great lengths to get that client’s news placed anywhere, so you can show them how valuable you are. Sometimes, you’re even willing to cash-in a little professional collateral with a reporter you’ve befriended over the years, landing at least a brief mention in a column.

But if you’re only willing to use your professional collateral with the media and not your client, you’re doing everyone a disservice. When I was working at a PR agency a few years ago, I had to help the folks around me learn this – both the younger PR practitioners and the seasoned pros.

Too often, public relations practitioners focus on the tactics, the strategies and their never-ending drive to get something accomplished. But what if the best tactics and strategies you come up with aren’t enough? What if, no matter how well-crafted your pitch is or how well you know the local newspaper editors, there is no way your client’s “news” will get covered?

Media relations isn’t just about getting a story published. It’s about being a media counselor as well. If your client’s story isn’t newsworthy, you need to help them understand why.

While at the agency, one of the account teams I was on was for a large law firm. They had intelligent people on staff who were successful in their field. These people often had smart things to say and their opinions were worth listening to. But what the firm considered newsworthy often wasn’t.

When I joined the account team, there were young professionals pulling their hair out trying to find a way to get this law firm’s self-proclaimed news published. They were constantly apologizing to the client, vowing to work harder.

By the time I got involved, this had been going on for months and no one was satisfied. The demands were growing and the agency executives were worried about losing a prestigious client. Meanwhile, the agency staff was exasperated with the client’s demands, frustrated with the executives’ constant pushing and demoralized by their lack of success.

I suggested that perhaps the best course of action was to tell the client they didn’t have any real news to share. We could tell them we’d try to make the information more newsworthy, but that even then, our success rate might be rather low. I also suggested we find events occurring in the region that were newsworthy and would benefit from the law firm’s principals speaking out about them.

The agency staff was excited to try something new. The agency executives were only cautiously supportive. But I prevailed and was told I could stand up to the client, albeit gently. We had to agree that their news was worthwhile, but perhaps we could incorporate some other ideas to get them additional media coverage. In other words, we took a limp-wristed approached to media counseling. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone to learn that we failed.

All it meant, of course, was that now the account team had to work harder because we were still trying to get things published that weren’t newsworthy while at the same time monitoring activities in the region so we could place the client as a thought-leader. Essentially, we were doing more work for the same amount of pay.

To make matters worse, the client was unwilling to get involved in anything controversial or newsworthy that was happening in town. They insisted, instead, on pushing forward with their own news as the first priority. Eventually, we were fired.

Had I been given the green light to provide true media counseling – an honest assessment of the client’s strengths and weaknesses and a forthright review of ideas on how to get them in the news – things might have gone differently.

Instead, I was hamstrung by having to focus on the client’s ego first. Getting the job done correctly was a secondary consideration. Of course, once we lost that client, I gained an account team able to focus on other clients and record some accomplishments. I also gained a team that was enjoying a newfound morale boost from no longer having to sit through a weekly client berating.

I also learned a great lesson from this experience. I always treat clients and employers with respect when it comes to a disagreement over media relations. But if I don’t speak up and tell them when they’re wrong, it’s my fault, not theirs, when things go awry. I learned never to just say, “Sure, we can try this,” when I know it will never work.

Public relations professionals need to remember that we often are hired to say yes, but the greater value may be in earning our pay by occasionally saying no.