Wednesday, June 13

Hitting Networks: From Jericho To The Sopranos

Passive viewers are now active consumers. For networks, it is the only conclusion that can come out of the recent Jericho cancellation reversal. But what I wonder sometimes is how far fans will take their debate. For HBO, Sopranos fans took it to the extreme, protesting not over the end of their favorite show, but the way it ended.

As if they were participating in a hit, fans flocked to HBO’s Web site in such volume, the entire site crashed immediately following the end of the finale. The cause for the traffic—an estimated 368,000 page views per second according to eWeek—was largely attributed to the blank screen that appeared preceding the credits. Creator David Chase intended this ending in order to leave the Sopranos family future wide open, but the fans are not biting.

"Every critic says this is one of the greatest works of art ever made for the small screen," said Robert Thompson, of Syracuse University's Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, told Jocelyn Noveck, Associated Press. "You can't second-guess the artist."

But fans think otherwise, enough so HBO is considering an alternative ending for the DVD. Whether that comes to fruition or not, it won’t stop fans from screaming “finish the story already!” or, taking a page from the Jericho playbook, “has someone mentioned we need a petition to ask Chase and HBO to continue the series or make a movie?” on fansites like The Sopranos.com.

That depends, I imagine. The primary difference between Jericho and The Sopranos was that The Sopranos came to an end from the inside out. Most people involved in the project were ready to move on after a long run. On the other hand, fans do seem to be leveraging the network to reconsider as they cancel HBO subscriptions.

One question in this case begins with: where does creative license end and fan input begin? No one knows, because, to date, only Heroes on NBC has made an official commitment to involve fans in the creative process. Fans will be able to vote in one of six new characters after their standalone mid-season stories are told.

Given the consumer climate today, especially in regard to entertainment, it’s a smart move, especially after Jericho fans proved they can influence change. Even the Veronica Mars fans reinforce this idea. The CW might not have picked up the series for a fourth season despite fans sending in about 7,000 candy bars and 438 pounds of marshmallows, but fans might win in another way.

"I think the best odds for seeing the continuation of the Veronica Mars story is in comic-book form,” Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas recently told E! Online. “I had a meeting with DC Comics last week. They want to do the series. I want to do the series. It's just a matter of making a deal and figuring out when I have the time to write it. And perhaps a feature screenplay will follow."

So even with a late-breaking campaign to save the show (and they’re still working at it), fans still managed to demonstrate there is more mileage left in this character. That’s great news for consumers, not so great news for Nielsen Media Research, which continues to come under fire from, well, everybody who watches television.

Some people even blame the rating system for advertising spending on television being down .6 percent because Nielsen, they say, continues to report ratings that do not reflect fan passion or even an accurate accounting of viewers. Instead, advertising money is being increasingly funneled to the Internet, which is up almost 32 percent in the first three months of 2007, according to, well, Nielsen.

As CBS is working on new ways to measure fans beyond Nielsen, which is a direct result of Jericho fans lobbying to be counted, the venerable research company is working to improve its television measure and diversifying its research capabilities. On June 6, the company said it is moving ahead with its Nielsen Wireless service, which will measure usage on all television and video platforms, including personal video devices such as mobile phones.

"The value of an entertainment medium is directly proportional to how well it is measured," said Jeff Herrmann, vice president of Nielsen. "Reliable and accurate measurement of mobile consumers will enable advertisers to properly evaluate the mobile marketing opportunity.”

They are right, of course. Network measurement needs to expand rapidly to become more inclusive in order to keep pace with the comprehensive analytics of the Internet, regardless of the device.

Jericho fans proved this without question and are starting to demonstrate that these new rules apply well beyond entertainment. It’s only a matter of time before consumers chime in on everything, en masse, enough so to take down a Web site.

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Tuesday, June 12

Saving Jobster: Joel Cheesman


In December 2006, Jason Goldberg, CEO of Jobster (one of the first employee recruitment search engines and “somewhat, sometimes” transparent CEO blogs), embarked on a perilous crisis communication adventure when he asked his employees to ignore rumors of a mass layoffs. "Put down your pencils .... calm it down, relax a bit, and have a nice holiday,” he said. “We’ve got big news to give ya before the new year."

Although Goldberg dismissed outsider speculation, despite leaving hints on his own blog over the holidays, 60 of the company’s 148 employees were laid off, which was much worse than any one had guessed.

For my part, the entire story presented itself as a living case study in crisis communication (what not to do) with one question that remained unanswered for the better part of six months: could Jobster erase the reputation damage it endured externally and the employee morale flogging it weathered internally?

While I appreciate there are still plenty of people who say Jobster’s business model (or lack thereof, some claim) will one day be its undoing, I submit that the company has moved beyond the employee post-holiday massacre. Yet, perhaps even more ironic, some of the credit to ending the great Jobster layoff debate doesn’t even belong to Goldberg. It belongs to Cheezhead’s Joel Cheesman in April.

How did Cheesman help save Jobster from existing in a Groundhog Day-like movie, reliving the layoffs over and over again? Simple. After promising a public smack down between himself and Goldberg at a recruiting conference, Cheesman, in his own words, left people with “less rumble, more mumble and fumble.”

True. The worst of the four non-smack down questions was when Cheesman asked Goldberg “what does Jobster want to be when it grows up?” And then, after Goldberg appropriately addressed his understanding of the modern career market (you cannot intern with a master-class spokesperson like President Bill Clinton and not learn a few presentation skills), the Cheezhead summed up an even better answer for his so-called adversary, saying Jobster wants to be “a career center for the digital age.” Yep. That will work.

The better questions, perhaps the only questions that really needed to be asked, have never been answered: why did Goldberg hint, then deny, then confirm layoffs at Jobster? And, how can Goldberg think he was being transparent when all of his actions represented the exact opposite of transparency? But alas, asking those questions and two or three follow-ups is what makes for a great aggressive media session. (I’ve had clients reach over the table as if to hit me during mock media sessions before they are reminded that it’s only practice and my questions are nothing but “acting” the part.)

I don’t think Cheesman has had such training so it’s no surprise that he killed the great Jobster layoff debate by jumping the shark in a face-to-face venue that is remarkably well suited for Goldberg (as if we didn’t know that; he founded a company with about $40 million in venture capital). Of course, I am not saying that Cheesman “saved” Jobster single-handedly. Goldberg has done a fine job at improving Jobster’s communication, including the Jobster blog.

While you won’t often find the kind of entertaining hot talk and foodie reviews that used to drive traffic there, the blog does read better and includes a few more voices than it once used to. So while the traffic numbers are much lower than before, the blog seems to be better targeted in attracting the attention of people who might be interested in Jobster as a customer or investor.

Although Goldberg still likes to hint on occasion, and sometimes without a payoff on those promises, he still tosses out ideas that seem interesting to me. Can anyone really become a sourcer with some simple online technology? Will the pay-for-applicant model really revolutionize recruiting? Can Jobster really keep its communication tight, focusing more on its message than everyone else’s? Will the now Goldberg-employed John Sumser save Jobster-owned Recruiting.com or let it fade away into the abyss of forgotten blogs?

I don’t know. It is certainly something worth watching even though the living case study on Jobster’s layoff debacle has come to a close (I meant to wrap it weeks ago until Jericho fans pushed back the post for days and then weeks). That said, you’ll have to wait for a book that recaps the Jobster case study with some additional insights. Yep. For better or worse, Jobster earned its chapter.

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Monday, June 11

Slaying Media Statements: Paris Hilton

One of the least understood and possibly most abused tools in the public relations arsenal is the media statement.

Once upon a time, it was simply meant to grab the attention of reporters and give them a lead on a story. Today, however, it seems like more and more celebrities, elected officials, and corporate executives are attempting to use them as masked position pieces with little interest in reporter follow up.

In fact, most statements made today try to end stories, not begin them. It almost never works. Sure, there are plenty of examples out there, but Paris Hilton's recent weekend statement, published by the TMZ, really drives the point home. (Hat tip to Spin Thicket for the link.)

"Today I told my attorneys not to appeal the judge's decision. While I greatly appreciate the Sheriff's concern for my health and welfare, after meeting with doctors I intend to serve my time as ordered by the judge."

Stop. The first graph of her statement works. It might have worked better with a little polish and perhaps a better reveal of what her doctors concluded, but this would have been short, sharp, and to the point. Unfortunately however, it doesn't stop ...

"This is by far the hardest thing I have ever done. During the past several days, I have had a lot of time to reflect and have already learned a bitter, but important lesson from this experience."

Um, stop. The second graph begins to tread murky water as an attempt to employ the traditional practice of showing empathy, sympathy, or embarrassment. You know: I'm sorry, I learned my lesson, it won't happen again. Except, in this case, it's blatant overkill. Paris Hilton had a probation violation. And unfortunately, it doesn't stop ...

"As I have said before, I hope others will learn from my mistake. I have also had time to read the mail from my fans. I very much appreciate all of their good wishes and hope they will keep their letters coming."

Um, please, really, stop. While I believe Hilton might mean some of it, it's beginning to read as a publicity ploy. It lets people know that although the media has been covering some overzealous public outcry, she still has fans. This is a mistake that is easily seen in the next graph, because, unfortunately, it just doesn't stop ...

"I must also say that I was shocked to see all of the attention devoted to the amount of time I would spend in jail for what I had done by the media, public and city officials. I would hope going forward that the public and the media will focus on more important things, like the men and women serving our country in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places around the world."

Um, really, please, please stop. You're killing me. While she might be right about media coverage in general, some sentiments just doesn't ring true. Like many who act as fair weather friends to the media (please cover me when I win, but never when I lose), Paris is attempting to shift the story at best and shame the media and others at worst. It's doesn't work, especially on the heels of calling for good wishes and more letters.

All in all, this statement becomes a classic example of having just enough rope to hang oneself, which is typical of most statements issued today. You see, the best statements are simple. They avoid infusing too many facts that are unrelated to the story. In this one from Paris, it carries no less than fifteen (maybe more) points, ranging from sincere to uninspired to just plain silly.

When you issue a statement like that, the best you can hope for is that a reporter will focus on one point. The worst thing that can happen is they publish it in entirety, which is exactly what happened here. Yeah, publicity. It's seldom around when you need it to be and always around when you don't.

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Sunday, June 10

Creating Fandom: The Jericho Universe

This piece would have been better served as seven posts, but since my blog is more about business communication than fandom, I felt it would best serve me to fast-track some solutions for Jericho fans and CBS with seven points and hopefully turn the largest show cancellation protest into the beginnings of a long-running series with more mileage than anyone imagined, fans included.

To do it, the primary ingredients are what we do at my firm for dozens of companies and organizations every week: words (message), concepts (imagination), and strategies (business sense). Hold on and enjoy…

Solution One: Organize. The time to operate like a mass protest is over. The time to establish an association for fans is at hand (non-for-profit?). Doing so will create a legitimate governoring body, establish elected leadership, produce by-laws, designate points of contact, and raise funds (a modest membership fee with donation options and major sponsor support) for a variety of projects. Whether the organization operates as a single body or more like a representative organization with various splinter groups is up to the fans. But at the end of the day, someone has to be seen as the lead. The most obvious choice seems to be the Jericho Lives/Jericho Rally Point co-op. It should not be hard. I happen to know that Jericho fans have members with the right skill sets to do it (just don’t overcomplicate the process).

Solution Two: Focus. There are countless side debates on the table, ranging from whether Nielsen Media Research is the best measure for media today (not on its own) to how much support does the fan base want to give to CBS. Sure, for many, it’s difficult to distinguish whether CBS should be praised for bringing the show back so quickly (the fastest cancellation reversal in history) or ridiculed for failing to establish a sense of trust and credibility. There are also a number of rumors being floated (mostly by those who feel slighted because Jericho fans did what others said could not be done) that continue to cause a fuss, including one that wonders if the fans are being set up. I cannot say it more simply: while I find this all fascinating from a corporate communication perspective, it does not matter for fans who want to revive the show. Focus on the goal of building a bigger, trackable fan base.

Solution Three: Consolidate. There is no way you can expect everyone to keep pace with hundreds of fan sites and bases of operation. There needs to be some communication consolidation. While I know Brian Kalinka is doing a fine job looking for links at the Jericho Rally Point, the Jericho Times being put out by the Jericho Armory has already demonstrated real potential as a weekly e-mailed roundup. Along with the interactive newsletter, there are dozens of other communication topics being discussed on the CBS message boards. Net, net, I suggest you conduct business off of the CBS site because potential fans are being buried by the weight of business talk. You have to appreciate that some people might just want to watch and discuss the show. It was a brilliant move to make CBS the front lines of the protest, but I’m unconvinced that fandom business discussions, other than updates, really belong there. Sorry, but the topics are too niche for the general audience.

Solution Four: Add Value. Being co-called “partners” with CBS is a misnomer. There is no question that the fan base, at the moment, is supporting a CBS show (or “half” show, considering CBS only bought seven episodes), but Jericho fans really need to distinguish themselves as an independent group. As such, it is your primary goal is to add value to the organization and not necessarily CBS. If fans can add value to the organization beyond the show and actually engage consumers, you have a much more marketable product for prospects, who will inevitability watch and support the show anyway. Add value and members and you’ll also get your own sponsors (there’s a nut company that might even have interest in this). CBS might even jump in too, but stress your autonomy if it does.

Solution Five: Re-Brand. This tip goes out to CBS as much as Jericho fans. Branding this show as a post-apocalyptic drama was a mistake in season one and would be a travesty in season two. I already wrote a five-second solution that would help the show (a record number of people read it and agreed). While that was a fine but fast solution, the bigger picture beyond the town proves that the post-apocalyptic description is grossly inaccurate. For those who don’t know the context, Jericho is a town set in an alternative universe where some members of our government were able to stage a faux nuclear terrorist attack in order to seize power. While somewhat successful, they have thrust the country into a civil war. Specific to the series, as I said before, Jericho is a story of survival in a small Kansas town that has been mostly cut off from the rest of the United States as these events unfold.

Solution Six: Become Un-Lost. There was certainly an appeal to mimic Lost in season one by not allowing fans to know much more than the characters. That plot ploy has now come and gone. For this show to survive a short season two and live on for season three, four, five, six, etc., it’s time to offer up full disclosure online (if not offline). Lost may have captured fan fancy in being a serial mystery, but it is a mistake to market Jericho the same way. Jericho is an alternate reality, pure and simple. For fans to embrace the concept, they need to know more about the world outside Jericho even if the characters do not. There are, by some accounts, as many as six cities claiming to represent the United States (or perhaps not). If the writers accomplish nothing else this summer beyond some online programs, they might produce a Jericho Gazette that places a face on each region, identifies uncontrolled areas like Jericho, pinpoints any warlord-type strongholds, and provides a picture of the geo-political landscape, one that the fans can understand and use for fan-generated fictional content.

Solution Seven: Open Universe. As an alternate universe with an impressive fan base, CBS would be smart to relinquish some creative rights much like George Lucas, Gene Rodenberry, and even J.R.R. Tolkien in allowing the Jericho universe to unfold in new and amazing ways. (Hey Jon, Stephan, and Carol … want to join those guys?) The possibilities of this storyline go far beyond Jericho. So it only makes sense to let others, perhaps fans, flush out the experience. There are endless consequences, considerations, and storylines that would result from the sudden splintering of a world power well beyond China and Germany conducting air drops around the United States. There is little doubt that some countries might be more inclined to seize the opportunity to further their own gains. And, there is endless speculation on how Canada and Mexico might handle American refugees spilling across the border (a twist if there ever was one). Ergo, much like Star Trek and Star Wars, the series Jericho is one great storyline in an epic adventure with potential fan bases growing up around each splinter, all of which will tune into the show that started it all.

Those are my seven tips for saving Jericho for the long haul, which pre-assumes that the two drivers currently driving the bus will listen to reason. For the fans, it pre-assumes you can get past the “nut war” and move forward without fractioning, be more courteous in discussing which characters are most expendable (after the actors were so good to give you shout outs), and take care NOT to employ a flag that characters of Jericho would be appalled to see as a fan logo. For CBS et al, it pre-assumes you can get past being short-sighted to realize you actually have an asset with tremendous potential, capitalize on unlimited non-television spin-offs (books, film shorts, games, etc.) that touch on relevant issues today, and give the fans an immersive world that they can play with so you can focus on the show.

If anyone is looking for inspiration beyond the obvious television and film epics, I might suggest taking a hard, long look at two: World War Z by Max Brooks, which might have employed zombies but captures how catastrophic events can change the world; and DMZ Vol. 1 by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli, a graphic novel that plays with a near-future America torn by civil war. Neither represents a pure Jericho crossover, but they both go a long way in presenting how to shape up an expanded universe.

Well, those are my notes, but since I’m already at risk of writing a business plan for free, I think I’ll end here. Take the ideas or leave them, but the bottom line is that it is time to go out and try to do the right thing. Well, go do it already!

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Saturday, June 9

Crunching Nuts: Jericho Wrap-Up


Just a few weeks ago, Jericho fan Jeff Knoll had a somewhat nutty idea. If the fans could hook up with a nut company, they might be able to pool enough money to buy "a few hundred pounds."

If ever there was an underestimated measure of success, this was it. Fans not only sent a few hundred pounds, they sent a few thousand pounds — 40,297 pounds to be exact. And that doesn't count the nuts that were bought elsewhere.

Yesterday, two pounds from NutsOnline.com landed on my doorstep. Fortunately for me, they were a thank you instead of protest flack (rumor has it I may never write about Jericho again. Hmmm ... spoiler warning ahead).

Given all the what-for about "blogola" lately, I did what any ethical writer would do. I'm disclosing today that I ate some with a clear conscience. They are just as "yummy" as the bag claims. Thanks.

Not so yummy were portions of Nina Tassler's announcement to the fans last Wednesday. I couldn't bring myself to mention them on June 6 because it would have only distracted from the celebratory success of the fans. In wrapping up the show protest, I'd be remiss not to bring it up now.

"A loyal and passionate community has clearly formed around the show. But that community needs to grow. It needs to grow on the CBS Television Network, as well as on the many digital platforms where we make the show available."

If there was ever an inappropriate time to bring up the point, it was certainly in the same graph that praises the following of fans. It smacks of a parent telling a child what to do and when to do it, and that comes from associates of mine who weren't fans but knew I had been "covering nuts" since the beginning. Is it any wonder why CBS and Les Moonves come under fire so often?

CBS is fortunate the fans love the show so much that they've already forgiven this transgression and moved on to marketing the show. They might not be this forgiving next time around.

It's also not the first time that CBS slipped with statement writing (or marketing for that matter). I submit that CBS created the fan outcry with a single line on May 18 when another post penned by Tassler read: "In the coming weeks, we hope to develop a way to provide closure to the compelling drama that was the Jericho story."

Had the statement held back even a little bit — "In the coming weeks, we hope to develop a way to see what we can do." — Jericho fans would have had a much more difficult time mounting a movement (but I'm glad they were able to pull together the biggest).

Wow. The difference a few words can make when one underestimates a crisis communication situation. No matter, I suppose, unless you are one of the few subscribing to the conspiracy theory that CBS orchestrated the whole thing. I don't think they did, but then again, crazier things have been known to happen.

For me, what started as a crisis communication case study shifted into a study of social media mobilization that might wake up some public relations professionals and communicators who are still sleeping comfortably in corporate tradition. (Case in point: it just happened here in Las Vegas too; Wynn Las Vegas dealers became the first dealers in the history to unionize because the employees could connect on the Internet.) I'm not surprised.

Social media — blogs, vlogs, wikis, podcasts, networks, and scores of other tools — represent a significant shift in communication tactics. It also allows almost any group, with the right objective and rally cry, to come together and change a company, industry, or even the world.

For my part, I enjoyed writing about the show cancellation protest because of what it represents and the spirited nature of the fan base. Some people said I was "nuts" to cover it so much, but only because they didn't bother to look behind the literal lines and notice that today's Jericho might be tomorrow's social media crisis for "company X." Will company X be ready? Probably not.

The fans of Jericho have been an awesome addition to the people I know and admire online. Enough so that our Jericho round up is almost too good to let go. Sure, the Jericho show cancellation protest is clearly over and I have to say case closed.

But I see another case study in the making as fans set out to create a fan base for a serial that, so far, has only enjoyed a single season. Hmmm... I'll post some ideas on how they might proceed tomorrow (and mention some efforts already in place). I'll also keep tabs on the Jericho fans from time to time, once a week or so as warranted.

Will this cause some of my non-Jericho readers to groan and moan and suggest that "Jericho" become my middle name? I don't think so. Until Jericho, I seldom posted on the weekends anyway. Besides, Jericho cannot be my middle name because I'm already Je.rich.o's middle name. Ha!

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Friday, June 8

Bailing Paris: Sheriff Lee Baca


Sometimes when you win, you really lose. At least that seems to be the theme for Paris Hilton, who was released from jail yesterday for a mysterious mental medical condition. She was released after serving three days of a 23-day sentence.

With more public outcry than most mass murderers, media and concerned citizens made her the poster child for "buying freedom." Suddenly, without warning, the publicity beast she has gracefully embraced for more than a decade turned to bite her back.

The decision to free Hilton prompted attorney L.A. city attorney Rocky Delgadillo to file a petition questioning whether Sheriff Lee Baca should be held in contempt of court for releasing Hilton, led to media coverage that largely mocked the Hilton heiress, and convinced Rev. Al Sharpton to organize a march protest. Superior Court Judge Michael T. Sauer then ordered Hilton to report to court today at 9 a.m.

"There are any number of cases of people who handled being incarcerated badly and even have health conditions that are not released," Sharpton told The Associated Press. "But I think that it gives a very bad signal when Ms. Hilton is treated any differently than any other parole violator in their county or in this country."

While I have a hard time believing this a blatant case of racism (maybe), I do lean toward the John Gibson take: "Was it because she's white? Maybe just a bit, but more likely it happened because she's rich and her parents can make lawyers and shrinks work round the clock to move mountains."

For my part, I'm less interested in what is really non-news and more interested in the publicity beast that once appeared to be tamed by Hilton. As hard as it might be for some people to see it, she may have been happy to be released, but she did not do the bailing. Sheriff Baca did that. (As if the Los Angeles County Police Department didn't have enough public relations problems.)

No matter, it seems. Most people want to have the privileged head of Hilton, regardless of her role in the release. She may have had a hand in it or not. If she did, she did herself a great disservice.

Hilton's sometimes odd popularity was always fueled by her ability to woo a majority of the public (not the media, the public), which is why people petitioned for her not to go to jail in the first place.

The result of her release, however, unless publicist Elliot Mintz can master some major spin (he often does), could erode her credibility to the point where her brand of being strangely famous forever turns into unpleasantly infamous. It will be interesting to see who remains a friend after the popularity polls begin to dip over trying to bilk the system (whether she had a direct hand in it or not).

Ah publicity ... sure you can use it to be released from jail early, but this get out of jail card is not like Monoply. It's almost never given for free.

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