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Friday, February 27, 2009

The Stark Truth About Media and Communications Today

It's been a bad week for newspapers. The Rocky Mountain News closed its doors today. Earlier in the week The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News announced they are filing for bankruptcy less than three years after the current group of owners bought the papers. They join The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and The Minneapolis Star-Tribune as the latest major market print media casualties.

Other major market newspapers are in trouble: the venerable New York Times and established newspaper chains McClatchy and Media General have halted payment of stock dividends. The huge Gannet Co., publisher of USA Today, cut 4,000 jobs in 2008 and is trying to sell assets to stay afloat.

Smaller markets are not immune. Journal Register Co., suburban-Philadelphia based parent of the New Haven (CT) Register and 19 other small daily newspapers in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, filed for protection from creditors a week ago. Smaller regional newspapers used to be the most profitable because of local ads, lack of competition, and broad community support; Journal-Register shares were trading at less than a penny on Tuesday.

As a former major market print and network broadcast journalist myself, my directory is filled with the records of veteran former journalists who were fired in the past year, or who took "voluntary" buyouts. (Too often if you're a journalist over 50, you take the buyout because if you don't, you may well end up on the street soon after with no package at all.)

This has huge ramifications for PR and corporate communicators. The fact is that a good number of your old media contacts in newspaper, radio and local TV newsrooms are either no longer in the business, are looking at new careers, or are too busy coping with diminished resources to have time to hear your pitches. Just as the news media business landscape is going through wrenching change, we communicators have to strip ourselves once and for all of the illusion that media is as media was.

There will always be some major newspapers and news broadcasters. But they will be fewer. Our interaction with reporters will change as they increase their own direct communication with the public via their traditional news organizations' online and wireless media platforms. And that doesn't include the exploding blogosphere and other non-traditional social media conduits for news, information and conversation. Your own clients or bosses are already reaching the public on their own via webcasts and podcasts, bypassing editorial gatekeepers.

As a professional communicator how are you adapting to what's happening? How do you define media relations today? What media skills and experience of the last 20 years do you find are still of value, and what do you have to throw away and learn anew? Does the blogosphere offer you valid media outreach options?

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Inaugural Address vs. Speech to Congress

As a speech writer and speech coach, I watched/listened to these as profoundly different addresses. In the inaugural address, it was if the speech writers had the reins placed on their keyboards. Or it was like the Go-Kart at the track that could only go so fast in terms of rhetorical flourishes and applause lines. In his first address to the nation, President Obama was restrained and calm. For example, any time he had a chance to deliver a trilogy of reasons for an idea or program the speech stopped at two. There were few if any quotable lines.

Fast forward 35 days and there was a need for more rhetoric, a stern but positive tone, and writing that matched the content. In the President's speech to the joint session of Congress, his speech writers were allowed to display their craft. First, it was the theme: "I represent more of the American public than you do" was the between the lines theme of the talk.

There were ample trilogies - a speech writer's staple: "It cannot wait. It must not wait. It will not wait." is one example. I can't recall any trilogies in the inaugural address.

Another rhetorical device was repetition: The President said if your family earns less than $250,000 a year, you will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime. Any speech writer looks for the chance to put in a little repetition.

The other key difference was - as the concert promoters like to say -- the venue. It's really hard to feel close to a crowd of 2 million people. First the sound is delayed and you have no sense of what messages or lines click with the audience. President Obama was at home in the close, confined quarters of the House of Representatives. He said he was talking to both Congress and the American people, but he fed off the crowd and the energy in the room.

What did you see as the difference in the two talks? Does anyone want to compare this talk to other Addresses to Congress/aka State of the Union addresses?

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Tylenol Back in the news - It was unlike any other crisis

According to recent news reports, FBI investigators have reopened the Tylenol poisonings case from 1982. A couple of fortuitous events coincided: First, the 25th anniversary in 2007 brought new tips to law enforcement. Second, utilizing new forensic techniques the FBI has seized computer files and evidence from the person originally convicted of extortion in the case. (James L. Lewis was not convicted of the poisonings, just trying to make money from Johnson & Johnson.)

The renewed investigation brings back to mind the general conclusion that this was one of the great case studies in how a company should handle a product crisis. Indeed it was. As one of the consultants who advised J&J on how to handle media and customers, I still believe that J&J made all the right moves. The response was led by CEO James Burke, who was as decent in a closed door meeting as he was answering questions from Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes." The company went beyond what regulatory and law enforcement authorities recommended they had to do.

No two crises are ever the same, and we have had many others that dwarf this one in terms of number of fatalities, lives impacted and dollars at stake. Yet Tylenol is still considered THE case study.

The field of crisis communications has countless more examples of poorly and well-handled responses. One point I always make is that unlike almost all other crises, Tylenol was different in that there was no "contributory negligence" on the part of J&J. In almost all other crises, while not intentional, there is some aspect that the parties are responsible for. No company wants an oil or gas spill, no one wants to have an industrial accident, yet these types of operational mishaps do occur. The companies must shoulder part of the responsibility for the operational or security breakdown.

The key lesson from Tylenol : there is no substitute for appropriate transparency and clarity when responding to a crisis. Almost three decades after the first poisoning, and long after the story had faded from the news, a new investigative wrinkle has moved stories of the crisis back into the headlines. But the stories are about the crime, not a rehashing of the product recall. The initial J&J response ensured that the company actions will continue to be portrayed favorably.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Video Message from CommCore CEO - Andrew Gilman

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

ARod and Communications

We know several facts. Alex Rodriquez (ARod or Aroid or A******), considered one of the best baseball players of all time, has admitted that he used what are now illegal performance enhancing substances when he played for the Texas Rangers in the early part of this decade. He claims he has not used the now banned substances since he has been with the NY Yankees. Fairly recently, in answer to a direct questom from Katie Couric on "60 Minutes," he looked her in the eye and said "No." as to whether he had ever taken performance enhancing drugs.

After the information was first reported by Sports Illustrated last weekend, Rodriquez came clean in a tough, but friendly interview on ESPN. This quick "come clean" interview fits into the standard Crisis Communications playbook. If you can make the bad news a one-day or two-day story, you are better off.

Unfortunately for ARod, this is one of the exception stories. It is not a one-day story. It has spread rapidly throughout the US, with ARod now the poster child of the performance enhancing sports culture. His confession became the subject of a question at President Obama's first press conference. I doubt ARod's handlers thought this was going to happen.

And because of who Rodriquez is - playing for the NY Yankees, with a reputation as a great, but not clutch player who has yet to win a World Series ring - this news erupted on the first page of newspapers, not just the first page of the sports section.

I've had emails over the past few days from Red Sox fans who are gloating about another piece of bad news befalling the Yankees and other parents who know I'm a Yankee fan and asking what I say to my son - also a Yankees fan (duh).

Thomas Boswell, a sports columnist for the Washington Post suggested that now that the biggest "cheese" ARod has confessed, that Major League Baseball can move on. Another columnist in the same paper, Mike Wise, publicly took Boswell to task, and suggested that baseball should now release the names of all players it knows took steroids and other now banned substances. ARod is both the fact and symbol of what's wrong with professional sports. Late on Tuesday, another all star player, Miguel Tejada was accused of lying to a Congressional committee about drugs and sports.

I side with the full come clean story. Athletes trying to supe-up their performances is a decades-old story. It's not as if they all do it, but when you fit it in with all the other stories, too many of them do it and too many kids think it's okay for them to cheat or bend the rules for a slight edge.

Bringing it down to communications, events like these do present teaching moments and an opportunity to have discussions with children and co-workers about what is fair, what's acceptable behavior. In tough economic times, it's not uncommon to see people bend rules with an "ends justify the means" mentality.

Does ARod influence your life - work or personal situation. Does it present a teaching moment?

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Friday, February 6, 2009

Don't Forget to Include the Uplifting Message

I recently moderated a panel discussion at a state-wide conference of non-profit organizations that highlighted state government priorities for this year. The intent was to learn how the new governor and legislators are dealing with the economy, particularly as it affects the non-profit community. Not surprisingly, there were more lowlights than highlights. Every speaker detailed the dreadful projections for both the state budget and the near impossible effort it will take for non-profits to make a case for and receive state funding. The presentations were well-prepared, thoughtful, realistic and thoroughly depressing. So what is a presenter to do when bad news needs to be communicated and there is no real good news to report?

I applaud the presenters' reluctance to jam pieces of good news where it doesn't belong, but I longed for a sense of hope. I wanted some specifics on how contributing solutions is uplifting. Speakers did ask for input from the community, but neglected to specifically say that helping is healthy and productive and ultimately rewarding. The connection was not made between the effort in difficult times coming back to benefit someone when better times prevail.

Ultimately I left the experience feeling that individual actions will do little to change the course of economic events over the next couple of years. Yet, that is exactly the opposite of what the speakers intended. I ask all speakers tasked with delivering bad news to be specific about how people should interpret the news as a personal call to action. What can they do to improve their lives and their outlook? How can they help others, knowing that a friend in need is a friend indeed? Be realistic, but don’t forget that human beings can't function without hope and need to hear about the positive outcomes they can help bring about.

I would like to know how you are coping with these constant negative messages. Are you trying to change the way bad news is delivered? Do you think our leaders (business and political) need to adjust the way we talk about the near future?

Posted by: Michael Sigman, Senior CommCore Consultant

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Daschle Bows Out; Obama takes Responsibility

Come on. Did Tom Daschle, even with all of his Senate connections, think that he could be a credible Secretary when he not only failed to pay taxes but took so much money for speaking before health care organizations that he was supposed to regulate? I remember NPR's Coke Roberts trying to protest that taking money from companies for a speaking engagement wouldn't influence her reporting. That type of response doesn't pass the red face smell test. Too bad. Most observers think that Daschle would have been a good HHS Secretary. But no person should be above the standards and there was no choice but to withdraw.

As a communicator, I appreciate President Obama taking responsibility and saying, "I screwed up." It's better than the "mistakes were made" response other Chief Executives have hidden behind. If the President is asking all of us to take responsibility for our actions, he is taking the responsibility since Sen. Daschle was his appointment. In communications, if there is fault or responsibility, we counsel to own up for the fault. Then most of us care about what are you doing to fix the situation.

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Monday, February 2, 2009

OpEd Columnists vs. Bloggers, I'm leaning towards Bloggers for Accountability

A recent email and lack of response with a columnist at the LA Times makes me question which type of writer is more accountable, a newspaper columnist or a blogger? For the time being I'm going with the blogospher vs the newspaper-sphere as a better way to share and consider ideas and comments. In essence it's more two way.

Here's the quick story: Joel Stein, a "humor" columnist recently opined that Food Allergies are a yuppie invention http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oe-stein9-2009jan09,0,3149168.column. He gave one slight nod to those with life threatening allergies. But for the most part he was "shouting fire in a crowded theater." There was no original research and the sources cited were not those recognized by experts who treat the condition. The column basically suggested that people shouldn't take food allergies seriously and may as well serve nuts, peanuts or other foods because most people claiming allergies are either anxious or neurotic.

The LA Times, cut off the comments when they reached a pre-set limit. (God forbid, we should crash the server.) Some of these were rather critical (not nasty) of Mr. Stein. Some reflected his uneducated view. I didn't get my response in on time, so I have no way of knowing if Mr. Stein received the email. I also wrote to the editorial page editor. Again, no response. Last week, I sent Mr. Stein another email after my son unfortunately had an allergic reaction the following weekend that necessitated a trip to the hospital emergency room. No word back. I’m not trying to harass the guy. He's pretty powerful with lots of readers and it would be great if someone like him would at least respond I'm not looking for apologies, but at least acknowledge of message received.

Bloggers, on the other hand, usually do respond, since the vehicle is designed for dialogue and comment. If others are having the discussion through the blog, that's great as well.

Anyone else with a view of blogger vs columnist?

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