Monday, July 30

Making Media Relations Better: A Rock Star Primer

Public relations has plenty of problems. They're always easy to find. They tend to get plenty of publicity.

The reason they do is relatively easy to understand. Nightmares make for better news than best practices. Almost all negative events meet the criteria for news because they have an impact or conflict, doubly so when someone of prominence is involved. But that's not to say best practices don't exist.

The best practices of public relations plod along unseen. 

Having worked as a journalist, editor, and publisher, I've seen best practices on a regular basis. And one of the reasons they are best practices is that they are uneventful. It makes everything super smooth and much more manageable.

As some people know, I also have a side project called Liquid [Hip], which puts me in touch with designers, musicians, authors, publishers, and other talented individuals on a regular basis. Enough so that some days it's hard to keep up with the emails. I might even neglect the inbox for days or a week.

When I do have time to dig into it, I'm exposed to people at every level and every role. Sometimes the contact comes from an artist. Sometimes it comes from the agent, publisher, or label. And sometimes it comes from a public relations firm. And, for the most part, public relations firms do a great job. 

What does the best public relations firm do that few others do? 

It's simple. They know who we are. They know what we want. And when they think they have a match, they send it along as an introduction. We probably receive around 100 inquiries every week.

1. Recognition. The best practice starts with first contact. The email and salutation is always addressed to me or a specific reviewer. For those who have worked with us before, it alludes to some connection we share or builds on a growing relationship.

2. Immediacy. Immediately following the salutation, the pitch is condensed into a couple of paragraphs or embedded in a well-written release. It introduces the artist, genre, and why the firm thought it was a good fit. Sometimes they admit it's a guess. Sometimes they ask what we think.

3. Efficiency. Given it's a review site, they always include an embed a clip or link to the work. We have to see it or hear it to consider it for review, especially because we only review things that have some shade of cool (which is a higher standard than what we like).

4. Content. If the sample passes our standards, we review everything before making a commitment. The best practices always include a link to a dedicated one-page EPK with backgrounder, album tracks, social links, videos, and photos. Everything we might need is right there, except lyric sheets.

5. Preparation. Almost any time we decide to review something outside of self-discovery, we prefer to include an interview, email or otherwise. There is a wait. They know the artist's availability, tell us up front, and manage the questions (which take more time to write than the review).

6. Patience. Once the questions are answered to our specifications (e.g., we don't accept "band" answers), there's no need for the firm to follow up. Most know that we'll either tell them when the story is slated as soon as we know or, in a worst case, send them a link once it is published.

7. Promotion. Most firms know we promote our own reviews across social networks where we've established a presence. But beyond that, reviews provide them an opportunity to promote the artist and gives the artist an opportunity to promote themselves. It keeps their social streams fresh, opens up conversation, and gives them an opportunity to engage us too. 

8. Detailed. The best practices also consider small details. For example, the best photo selections almost always include vertical and horizontal shots (staged, casual, and live). It's not only important for our purposes, but sometimes one interview set might be used to write for another publication with different specifications.

When the process is this smooth, it might not be news but it does make us more likely to consider the next submission. And for those who don't — including us on a blind pitch lists, sending everything but the kitchen sink, or having us send interview questions that are ignored — they slip by unnoticed next time. There is too much good material to cover than waste time. And, if we're on the fence, any past experience could tip the scale one way or the other.

I don't mean that in any spiteful way. It's as straightforward as math. We receive 300-400 inquiries a month. We have space for 20-plus reviews. Of those, 2-6 are picked from a pitch. Do it right.

Friday, July 27

Telling Lies: Ryan Holiday, PR, And Media Today

This isn't a book review, and I don't intend to write one. I have another book I'd rather review next week.

Even so, the topic surrounding Ryan Holiday as he promotes his new book is sending shivers across the public relations industry. Why? Because Holiday embraced what are known as the dark arts of publicity and is now being mislabeled as a public relations celebrity. He's a media manipulator.

In sum, he accomplished his objectives with lies. And now he intends to wear it all like a badge of honor, kind of like someone might take pride in a shiner after a bar fight they started. I beat you, he might smile. Other people might go to jail.

Anyway, some respected public relations professionals are rightly concerned. But they ought not be concerned with how this paints the industry. They ought to be concerned about what it could do to public relations.

The worst thing about Holiday's book is some people will treat it like permission. 

There are many companies who would like nothing better than having a propaganda agent on board. Who cares, they say, as long as it spreads. When the game is attention, they think it means gain. But really, it doesn't.

Part of Holiday's credentials include working on the first film with Tucker Max. The movie made $1.4 million and Tucker blamed the failure on the movie's marketing, despite all the pre-buzz controversy. How bad did it fail? It cost $7 million to make.

Another brand Holiday leverages is American Apparel, which also has a pretense for controversy. It is struggling to keep the doors open. The company lost $39.3 million last year; it lost $86.3 million in 2010.

It might not even matter that Holiday claims that being a media manipulator left him morally bankrupt. Some will skip over the lesson and get to work. And there may be reason to doubt that Holiday is done with the so-called skill set. His book could be easily construed as his latest game. The PR/blogging community is primed to stoke the flames and feed the beast.

Holiday's book as continuation after the confession and the joke's on you. 

As people in public relations and media continue to react, Holiday could be sitting back with a smile as he beats the same dead horse he wrote about. He laid out the foundation for controversy and everyone is lining up to ratchet it up and do all the leg work. They write about it. People buy it.

Isn't that ultimately what the book is about? The general idea is that more spin equals more attention and more attention means more money. This hypothesis has been around since the circus, even if the old adage that all publicity is good publicity is merely a hat trick. All publicity is good publicity, but only if you happen to be in a circus and nobody gets physically hurt (most of the time).

That said, Holiday isn't the first to sound the alarm on media manipulation and he won't be the last. He is the latest to be a bit cavalier about it, but that is a sign of the times. The real lesson here is that objective journalism is mostly dead and probably will be until we suffer a disaster for our lack of it.

That was pretty much the conclusion I had after reviewing Bob Conrad's book on the same topic. What a shame more PR pros didn't cover that one. Conrad's case studies hit harder and he didn't need to lie.

Suffice to say that sooner or later, people will have to realize on their own that the art of online influence is idiocy and the news you read isn't worth beans if it is driven by popular opinion.

As for Holiday, it is not my place to judge him. The only apparent tell in his actions is that he has done a fine job employing the apology clause tucked inside most pat crisis communication plans. But ultimately, he still proves himself a bit of a novice because he omits the critical component of restitution.

If he was sincere, he would donate all his book proceeds to fix it. I don't think that is going to happen.

Wednesday, July 25

Embracing Agism: The Next Gen Journal

If the only measurement in social media is buzz, then Cathryn Sloane got it right. Her post, entitled Why Every Social Media Manager Should Be Under 25, has been shared several thousand times over. The word count across the 490 comments outweighs her 550-word opinion two hundred fold.

Unfortunately, almost all of the reaction has been negative. Enough so that The Next Gen Journal, which published it, defended her while claiming she didn't represent its views. Conner Toohill went so far as to ferret out one person who said it was starting to look like adults cyber-bullying a kid.

You can't crush other people's cookies and expect to eat yours unbroken. 

While Toohill claimed many young people share Sloane's opinion, she didn't do the people she was supposedly speaking for any favors. Her article, not her age, was demonstrative of why some young adults aren't ready to lead in thought or action. And to be fair, many of the comments left by "older people" demonstrated they aren't ready either, despite some sporting titles that suggest they do.

I'm embarrassed for some of the commenters, especially those I know. Any reactionary comments that attempted to put her in her place because "in time, she'll know better" are as ridiculous as her article.

All it did was reinforce what those who identify with her expect: People who are supposed to be mentors aren't ready to listen. Someone needs to tell Sloane that age has nothing to do with it.

Maturity isn't defined by age and age doesn't dictate performance. 

Sloane wrote an immature piece, but not because of her age. It's immature because it emboldens the discrimination that she professes to fight, just in the opposite direction. It's immature because it conveys that she has confused her identity with that of her generation, something no social media manager can afford to do. And it's immature because it exemplifies what happens when someone picks up such an argument in such a way that even those who might somewhat agree cannot possibly defend it.

Where I might have defended the concept, for example, is that ageism is one of the last antiquated and discriminatory characterizations that people are still quick to embrace without consequence. But I cannot defend her because she never conveys empathy but expects it. Ageism is wrong in both directions.

I've been fortunate both in the field and in the classroom to know better. I've been influenced and inspired by people who are both younger and older than me at work. And I have found that the most talented writers to pass through my classes are neither hindered nor elevated by age or experience. They are only hindered by themselves and the labels they choose to embrace. Sloane is so hindered here.

Me? I ignore all labels. The best performances win. It's like the Olympics. Go for gold or go home.

The real crumbling point of the Sloane argument has nothing to do with age. 

If we can get past the age thing for a moment, Sloane alluded to the idea that people who have been immersed in social media at a younger age are somehow superior to those who embraced social media at an older age, despite having relatively the same amount of time on the platforms. It's not true.

It's not true for several reasons. It's not true because participating on a social network is different than working on or managing social networks. It's not true because the qualifications have less to do with the malleable platforms and more to do with understanding the social and psychological behavior of online groups. And it's not true because, as her article demonstrates, the people who populate networks are multigenerational with a propensity to take exception to those who are exclusive instead of inclusive.

Otherwise, there is one overlooked gem of an argument tucked inside her article. She more or less says that it doesn't feel fair when employers dismiss candidates based on education and experience alone. I understand the feeling because I didn't understand it when I graduated into the 1991 recession.

The no-holds-barred truth of it? They don't owe you anything. You have to earn it. 

There are four ways to earn it. You can develop a professional network while you are still attending college, planning ahead for the day you aren't earning grades but paychecks. You can get lucky and stumble into one of the very few employers who have an affinity for students and feel compelled to give them a break without abusing them. You can buck up and accept a position that is the lower rung on the ladder, whether it's an internship or entry level position, and make yourself indispensible. Or you can put up your own money by starting a company to prove your professional prowess.

I mostly belong to the latter group, which is the smallest. I'm not too proud to say that it wasn't by choice as much as necessity. It took me two years, but I leveled the playing field, erasing the perceived advantage any "older" professionals had over me. And 20 years later? You still have to earn it.

Other reactions and rebuttals (without any implied endorsement). 

Dear NextGen: A Rebuttal From The Social Media Old Folks by Mark Story

Over 25? You're Not Qualified For Social Media by Jim Kukral

In Response: Cathryn Sloane's Social Media Article by Chris Dessel

Monday, July 23

Writing Is A Process: Don't Treat It Like A Single Skill

With my half-day session, Editing and Proofreading Your Work, slated for this Saturday, July 28 at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I've been giving considerable thought to the class and writing classes in general. We don't do enough.

I'm not the only one who thinks so. It was the topic of Jay Mathews' article in the The Washington Post.

Reading the comments didn't give me much faith. There were plenty of well-intended solutions, but most of them make an assumption. The assumption is that these students have the skill sets they need by the time they reach a particular instructor. Most students don't.

And I don't believe it's the students fault in every case, even if there are five things writing instructors cannot teach. So even for my part, I can raise most students two letter grades per assignment over ten weeks (especially if they take Editing and Proofreading Your Work first). It's not enough.

We treat writing like a discipline, but it requires multiple disciplines. 

The problem is that we treat writing like a single discipline. It isn't. It's more like six distinct and overlapping disciplines. But rather than build curriculum around those subjects, most writing instruction today is designed to circumvent some disciplines with replacements for rote memorization.

Research. As much as 40 percent of the time on any project needs to be dedicated to research, but few people are willing to put in the work (and many employers aren't willing to pay for it). According to the National Center for Education Statistics, most students spend three minutes on research.

But even if they took more time, I'm not sure they know how to do it. The illusion of information immediacy has made for lazy research. People invest more time in proving themselves right than they do looking for the truth. And this doesn't even consider how little some writers know about their readers.

Creativity. Even instructors who value research tend to overlook creativity as a separate discipline, assuming they define it correctly. It has nothing to do with the chosen words as much as it has to do with being able to foreshadow the final product.

Not only does it encompass organizational structure, but also how the material is best presented. It includes problem solving to bring in new ideas as well as how to present those that are sourced or attributed. Although it varies, about 50 percent of the students I've taught start with no sense of structure.

Writing. This is the real physical work of sitting down in front of the keys. Most instruction today places all of the emphasis on free writing, often following the cookie cutter semblance of an outline or rubric to get the job done. They are wrong.

The art of writing is all about inquiry and improvement. It's an opportunity to develop better ideas than the research collected, improve the impact of the prose, and discover area where stronger support and evidence is needed. It's also the place where the hook, whatever is being used to draw the reader into the piece, becomes developed and the flow of the piece is fleshed out in a draft.

Editing. Simply put, editing is what you do to the draft. You work through the entire document to make sure the communication is well organized, that the transitions between paragraphs are smooth, and that the evidence clearly backs the position.

It's also an opportunity to double-check the organization of the entire piece and decide whether or not the order, flow and feel of the work are right for the people who will read it, hear it, or see it. As I often tell students, the best writers are often the best rewriters. People who know it can always be better.

Proofreading. This is the final stage of the process and requires plenty of tricks, tips and tactics that each and every writer will eventually customize to suit their skills. It is the process of looking for surface errors, misspellings, bad grammar, and punctuation problems.

This used to be where education invested all of its time because it is the easiest to teach (although it takes time to cover all the rules and exceptions) and easiest to test against. But memorization has its shortcomings (especially if people remember incorrectly) so I tend to teach people how to look for what they don't know rather than recite the rules.

Publishing. The standard typewritten page and all its rules (margins, paragraph breaks, etc.) that once gave writers the freedom to press print and send is dead. How things look on the page or published screen can be just as important as the content.

Until you see it as close to the finished form, you really don't know how the prose will feel as a physical entity. As communication moves toward more visual and interactive environments, writers have to make provisions for the final product.

The tragedy of written communication today in all of its forms.

More than anything, people have to accept that writing is a lot like playing the Theremin, a musical instrument that is easy to play but difficult to master. There is an abundance of players, doubly so since social media is such a content hungry beast. There are few masters because the rewards are weak.

Still, that is hardly an excuse to cheapen the craft. Where writing differs from the Theremin is that it lands everywhere. Even when the presentation eventually lands on a screen or is spoken from a podium, someone has to write it down or rough it up somewhere. And that requires better curriculum.

Friday, July 20

Marketing Choices: Does The Customer Come First?

You can read any number of articles about it. Fast Company has three ways to put your customers first. KONE in the United Kingdom made it part of its mission. Goldman Sachs frequently said it too. Customers come first.

But do customers really come first? If you ask most companies, they are all on board. Nobody ever says they put their customers last. No one readily admits that customers are a necessary evil. Few people ever come straight and say that almost every business decision they make is all about sales and never about customers. Or maybe they do.

Ten Ways Companies Say Customers Come Last.

1. Rewriting return policies for products to include a restock fee.

2. Selling sales data to third-party marketers without oversight.

3. Employing aggressive telemarketing firms to sell.

4. Rewriting the terms of service to fit the needs of the company.

5. Delaying customers just to sell plus service with no benefit.

6. Creating hidden fees in order to advertise at a lower price.

7. Loading up websites with pop-ups and email capture forms.

8. Engaging in black hat SEO tactics to boost search engine relevancy.

9. Making promises on the front end and renegotiating on the back end.

10. Cutting staff or corners that directly improves profits while diminishing customer service.

Companies make decisions that put their customers last every day. So why do they insist on saying they put customers first? It's bad enough most companies don't care. It's worse when they lie about it daily.

If you really want to put your customers first, make sure every decision you make starts with putting the customer first. Otherwise, all you are really doing is lying to your customers on top of putting them last. And while that might work with a wink and a nod for awhile, one day they won't be your customers anymore.

Wednesday, July 18

Finding Creativity: The Path Of One, Some, And Many

Author Geoff Livingston published an interesting conversation starter yesterday. It weighs individual creativity against groupthink merit. He cites collaborative cultures repeal creativity as part of it.

His post struck a chord with me for two reasons. The most obvious reason: because I've invested the last 26 years of my career playing in the "one, some, many" field of communication despite being one of those quiet, introverted people he talks about. The least obvious reason: I'm struggling with the creative-collaborative dilemma on one of many projects I'm involved in right now. And it's a killer.

Before I share the dilemma, let's define the terms. What is "one, some, many" creativity anyway?

The Creativity Of One. 

This is the genesis that Livingston is talking about in his post. It's an individual who, regardless of what other people are doing, quietly and deliberately dreams something up. You know ones/individuals who do it too.

They are every creative person for whom history has preserved a place. Authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac. Photographers like W. Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus. Artists like Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Musicians like John Lennon, Gustav Mahler, Poly Styrene. Business people like Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson.

Sure, some could argue that they weren't alone. Several of these creatives were inspired, influenced, or received input from other people too. So what? Individual creativity doesn't necessitate isolation from the world. It means you capture a unique perspective and are the master of how you present back.

Individual creativity is where I feel most at home, even if I rarely have time to explore it. It was how I wrote The Everyday Hound, produced Ten Rules Every Writer Needs To Know, and created The Last To Know (scroll down for the mention), an interactive literary piece for an art exhibition in 2000.

It's a very scary place to be until you learn to be fearless. Once you're done, people accept it or reject it. But even if they reject it, you have to remember that you are the only person who can validate it. Art doesn't need popularity to be art. It doesn't even need popularity to be "good" art. Art is art.

The Creativity Of Some. 

This is where I spend most of my time and it's a mixed bag. Mostly, creative people spend time when they cannot do (or don't have time to do) everything that needs to be done alone.

When we interview bands at Liquid [Hip], we often ask how they compose and collaborate. And while their answers are as varied as the music, most of them work just like people do in the commercial field. Somebody on the team comes in with a concept. Everyone else builds onto it, but anything that strays too far from the vision is abandoned.

When the work comes together brilliantly, it is one of the most rewarding experiences in the field. It's sometimes more rewarding than going solo because the enthusiasm for the outcome is shared. Teamwork rocks when you have the right marriage.

But that is the rub. The marriage isn't always one of your choosing. It's arranged. And as an arranged marriage, you don't always know who you will marry or how long it will last. The relationship could last a lifetime or it could be over in a few short and painful hours. It depends on the people and sometimes quantum physics. People carry a lot of baggage around, from apathy to egotism in any creative field.

All the while, someone else — whether it's a publisher or client or label — is busy taking notes and is ready to move in ideas. And that's when things become even more dicey; novices with big concepts.

The Creativity Of Many.

If you ever want to expedite the path toward groupthink, be successful without balls or be talentless with the need for a built-in excuse. While some of the most visible global social campaigns I've worked on were orchestrated on the creativity of many scale, the trumpet of togetherness hits many bad notes.

While Livingston is right, creativity needs circulation or else the artist will be missed, it doesn't mean the master is the masses. Classic works are often unpopular before they become timeless. And popular works are frequently elevated to their own eradication. Crowds are fickle beasts until they know better.

As much as many social networks and program developers have been waving around the "creativity of many" mantra as the new Kool-aid, I can't help but notice that the most successful social platforms listen the least. They have become so standard that people use them even when the networks abuse them.

Meanwhile, the graveyards of dead, buried, and long-forgotten networks that used to populate the net are attracting a steady stream of ghouls on their last breaths. The most common cause of these catastrophic illnesses is adding an abundance of crowd-sourced features someone could not live without.

It's not always the masses who do the deed either. By committee creativity is often an oxymoron when the marriage is made up of more than one partner or no definitive head of household. In a strategic setting, we might illustrate a big arrow pointing one direction with thousands of little arrows pulling in whatever direction suits them.

Trust me here. Great platforms are not crowd-sourced. They are either the work of one or the healthy marriage of a team much like a band. The audience might be invited to make requests, but the real talents know which songs not to cover. That kind of crowd participation only works in karaoke bars.

All Three Are Manageable, But Not Simultaneously.

It might seem like I'm down on the whole crowd-sourced creation thing, but that's not true. The secret is that whatever creativity path you've set out on has to have a purpose, with everyone in agreeance.

Then people have to be honest and to stick to it. You can tell who doesn't. Bands break up all the time, which has no reflection on their individual talents. Many go off to launch better solo careers or develop new relationships that elevate them to the next level. The same holds true in the commercial field.

My project dilemma is exactly that, it changes creative paths like Bartholomew Cubbins changed hats. The first three marriages were golden, but the fourth was rather rocky because the programmer was a solo artist despite saying the opposite. It tipped the entire job in an odd direction of crowd-sourcing.

And that's fine, I suppose, if you like pop karaoke with hard rock drums, and the manager taking country song requests from whatever audience happens to be in the room. It does make me wonder though. Where are the programmers who enjoy playing in a band (besides their own) without the new accountability crutch of crowd-sourcing? We need more Warhol and Basquiat collaborations.

Blog Archive

by Richard R Becker Copyright and Trademark, Copywrite, Ink. © 2021; Theme designed by Bie Blogger Template