Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Purpose of the Pre-Interview

Different television programs approach their production differently, but almost all who follow an interview format include as part of their planning the pre-interview.  This is where a producer, not the host, calls the future guest on the show to go over a range of topics that could be touched on in the actual televised interview.

If you’re going to be a guest on a television show, you should expect the producer to reach out to you in advance to spend a few minutes by telephone for this purpose.  He or she will likely tell you that the reason for the call is to find out what you want to talk about, get a little background on possible discussion topics, and help frame the line of questioning. 

That way the producer can brief the host on what you’re prepared to talk about, lay out a list of good questions, and in the end structure an interview that attracts and retains as large an audience as possible.

It’s never a good idea to enter a pre-interview under the notion that you will have the opportunity to influence the direction of the actual interview.  While it’s not uncommon to lay out your desired terms, and even identify some topics you want to talk about and those topics you don’t want to touch.  But that provides no guarantee that the subject won’t come up when the red light goes on above the studio camera.

It depends on the nature of the program.  Some hosts thrive on controversy.  Others are known to be very guest-friendly.  Before you agree to do any interview, it’s critical to do your research and see what kind of approach the interviewer has taken in the past. 

Stephen Colbert has conducted some of the most classic ambush interviews, particularly when he was on the Daily Show team.  In many instances, it was obvious the interviewee had no idea that they were being interviewed by a comedian whose primary goal was to make their surprise the point of the joke.

I don’t know what Mr. Colbert has done in the area of pre-interviews, but one thing that seems obvious is that guests were not warned of Mr. Colbert’s approach. 

For some hosts, and these are worst-case scenarios, the pre-interview is used to identify those topics you don’t want to talk about and even learn more about why you want to avoid them.  That helps the producers, writers and hosts better fine-tune an approach to pull you into that topic.

Ambush interviewers thrive as much on your reaction to their questions as the nature of the questions and responses themselves. 

With this in mind, next time you agree to do a television interview, make sure to do your homework on the show and the host, and above all, don’t go into the pre-interview assuming it’s designed to meet your needs and comfort level.

Friday, May 25, 2012

On Memorial Day there is One Brand

One of the strongest brands we have in America is the flag.  Red and white stripes.  Fifty white stars against a blue field.  Like so many in our country, I never get tired of seeing it. 

Of course, it means different things to different people, but in many respects, it represents the same things to most people.  Freedom is probably the one idea that most readily comes to mind.

Can you imagine what that flag looks like to the families awaiting the safe return of military men and women coming home from overseas?  Or what a World War II veteran thinks about when he stands for the National Anthem and faces the stars and stripes at a baseball game? 

I read an article recently about a group of freshly naturalized U.S. citizens and in the accompanying photo, each with a smile on his or her face, proudly held a small red, white and blue flag.  I wondered what that flag meant to them.

A few years ago, I wrote a family history and not surprisingly, I learned that my ancestors were drawn to America for the freedom to live a life less restrictive than in the countries they left.  America was and still is viewed as a land of opportunity, but that would not be possible without the freedoms we enjoy and that are guaranteed by our democratic system.

These thoughts are all abstract unless you or someone you know put something on the line to protect our system of freedoms and democracy. 

Before I was born, my father and his brothers enlisted in the U.S. Army and Navy.  They were deployed in locations around the world to face enemies in the Pacific and Europe. 

One uncle told me the story of how he was left for dead in what was later called the Battle of the Bulge.  For three days he laid in the cold, hoping someone would help him.  He wasn’t much for detail when he told his story, but it gave me the impression he went through quite a bit that winter.  The flag meant something to him.

During Viet Nam, I was too young to serve, but I remember the older boys in the neighborhood would often come back on leave, wearing their sharp Marine, Navy or Army uniforms.  At that point, they were proud of who they were and what they represented.  At first you’d see larger groups of them together at the corner store in their uniforms, laughing and joking and catching up.  But after a while, the groups got smaller.  I remember a more muted tone here and there when we’d find out that one of our neighborhood boys wasn’t coming home.

As an altar boy, I served several funerals of vets and was always transfixed with the precise and ritualistic manner with which the flag was so reverently handled and presented to surviving family members.

More recently, we all have had the opportunity to know and see our family members, friends and neighbors go off to places like Afghanistan and Iraq.  And whether our experience is personal or if we just learn about it through old and new media, the sacrifices they make for our freedoms are all too real and all too current.

Memorial Day is commonly thought of as the first three-day weekend of summer and its unofficial kick-off. We celebrate with picnics and parades, usually.  Another Memorial Day tradition for many is to visit a cemetery where a loved one is memorialized with fresh flowers, and if the loved one is a vet, a bright new U.S. flag. 

That’s a tradition I picked up just a few years ago when my own Army veteran father died.  Yesterday, I visited his final resting place and that of so many other vets.  A neatly trimmed field of red, white and blue flags.  Not a sorrowful place on a weekend like this.  A place of honor and respect where the flag  reminds us of so many who served and who risked their lives to protect our American way of life.

The flag is an iconic brand not because of what it looks like but because of what it represents to those willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for it.  The act of remembering is why we call it Memorial Day.  Can there be anything more powerful than that?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Newspaper Reporters and “Selling Out” to PR

In reading a blog post this week from a recent PR transplant from the newspaper business, I noticed for the umpteenth time the reference to the transition as “selling out.”  The term’s not new and it’s not uncommon.  Reporters, particularly those from newspapers, tend to use this term to describe what happens when one of their peers jumps over into the practice of PR.

Those of us who’ve been in PR for some time have gotten used to the term and don’t tend to be bothered by it.  We know that at some point the now former newspaper journalist will realize that he or she in fact did not sell out and are indeed working in a noble profession.  We also know if they spend any time in our business and still don’t realize it the fault has more to do with the individual and not the industry.

That said, in the blog I read this week, the former reporter listed all of the reasons newspaper reporters should consider PR.  The content and tone of the piece indicated that he felt it would be a viable option and possibly a great idea in terms of career progression for journalists.

His points were very insightful and upbeat.  He talked about how we in PR have an opportunity to tell “great stories,” “shape the story,” and “regularly learn something new.”  All so true.

The one point he made, however, that made me bristle was when he talked about how we in PR “get to be an advocate.”  While the role of advocate is one of our most important, when the blogger elaborated, he said that we in PR “occasionally have to smile and make the BPs of the world seem like good corporate citizens.” 

My first work in broadcasting and newspapers started 31 years ago.  I transitioned into PR a few years later.  Yet, until this week, I never fully grasped what some current and former journalists meant when they used the term “selling out.”

Why I didn’t make the connection is probably because I never did sell out.  I don’t support clients, messages or causes that I can’t personally embrace.  If I was asked to represent a BP, I’d have to believe that the company is a good corporate citizen before I’d work to help the world believe the same.

While I’ve always recognized that many publics may not believe a given client is a good corporate citizen at the outset, my two-step process has never failed me.  First, I have to believe.  Second, I have to help the public believe.

What this blogger inferred is that now that he’s in PR, he seems willing to work for organizations that aren’t good corporate citizens and make them “seem like good corporate citizens.”

One word – “seem.”  We’re not in the business of “seem.”  

To PR professionals, former journalists or otherwise, my feeling is if you don’t believe you’re representing a good corporate citizen, your first duty is to help them become one.  If you can’t do that, then you do have to consider whether you will indeed sell out.  But you're not selling out to the PR business.  Rather, you're embracing an ethical standard that reflects your own personal choices, and not the values of the PR profession.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Facebook's PR Challenges After the IPO

For a company as omnipresent and influential as Facebook, it may sound a bit funny to describe its life before its initial public offering of stock (IPO) as “under the radar,” but in a sense it has been.  As the saying goes, you’d have to have lived under a rock not to know what Facebook is and what it does, but IPOs change things for companies in ways many cannot appreciate.

Up until now, Facebook could do what it wanted when it wanted, and so long as it wasn’t afoul of any laws or regulations, could control its own destiny.  If it wanted to invest in something that on the outside may not have made much sense, it could do so.  It could pay its people the way senior management wanted, establish business practices and policies as it saw fit. 

For private companies like Facebook, the marketplace is the great arbiter.  That marketplace tells companies what it likes and what it will tolerate and what it will not. 

IPOs change those dynamics, however.  I’ve heard more than a couple CEOs lament the day they took their companies public, and they longed for the idea of returning to private company status once again. 

There’s some irony in all of this.  Facebook has consistently pushed the envelope of what society accepts as the boundaries of personal privacy.  In fact, this very issue is a critical factor in the success of Facebook’s future as a public company.  But now that Facebook will be publicly traded, its founders will find that its new share owners may not always see things the way the company’s founders do.

The Privacy Issue

Investors are flocking to Facebook to be a part of a company that is at once changing the world and growing.  Currently, it derives the bulk of its revenue from advertising, but that’s not what is of most interest to investors.  They want to know what Facebook is going to do with all that data on those millions of ‘free’ members.  Or more to the point, how the company will make that data accessible to new customers for a profit.

To be sure, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say no company in history has had so much control over the private and personal information of so many.  Ethical issues abound, and to date, Facebook has been tone deaf in many ways.  As a privately held company, the consequences for this attitude were relatively minimal and correcting in mid-stream when the din of complaints rose to a certain level appears to have become standard operating procedure.

So here are the challenges: To please investors and drive its stock price higher and keep it there, the company will have to find ways to turn all of that personal information into usable, marketable data.  Advertising channels alone won’t cut it.  Every three months, Facebook will have to report to shareholders what it’s doing to tap the potential of that data and generate quarterly earnings.  The pressure will be on, and since the company is public, every major decision, and quite a few minor ones, will be under public scrutiny, debated in the business press, on cable TV shows, all over the Internet, and of course by institutional investors and the individual investor market.

Facebook management will have to please an army of people who don’t see social media the way they do.

The common ground for management and investors is profit, and to generate that, the company will have to more directly address a number of issues it either has put off or handled more discreetly.

Number one in that area is the whole category of privacy issues for Facebook users.  There are so many gray areas on what Facebook can and cannot, should or should not do, with all that personal information.  Policies have been established, communicated, changed, communicated, modified and downplayed.   Facebook users have been hit with a deluge of information on these changes, and in quite a few cases, they just weren’t informed, or at least properly informed.

Passive consent is something the company has used to its advantage.  A technical change, a new application or capability was introduced, and if the user didn’t understand the concept of how that works, he or she may not have made the adjustments to the individual privacy settings to prevent problems.

Here are a couple of examples.

Socialcam is an application where people who watch videos on Facebook have a “status update” on what they just watched sent out to their Facebook “friends” automatically.  Millions of socialcam users aren't aware of this until they encounter some awkward moments.  This leads to many embarrassing lessons learned.  Facebook would argue that when you sign up for Socialcam, this is communicated, and it is…sort of.  The problem is that with so many applications and uses for Facebook, the company has to know that most won’t take the time to read the fine print, and they trust that the company won’t violate their relationship.  Even when people make certain Facebook mistakes, they chalk it up to experience and move on.

Then there’s the one that surprised me.  When I signed up for Facebook for my smart phone, I had no idea that Facebook had the technology and the policy in place to actively retrieve all of my personal contact information from my phone and host it on the company’s servers.  While the company says it won’t do anything with that data, it has it and I did not give it specific consent to take it or use it. 

So how can Facebook’s data be mined?  Marketing is a big one, but not far behind are legal uses like criminal investigations, litigation discovery, security clearances, background checks, private investigations, etc.

As a publicly traded company, the balancing act for Facebook will be daunting.  To please investors, it will have to establish a model that continues to find ways to leverage that data to make money without ticking off its users.  The risk for the company is that it could at some point overstep its bounds and users will leave Facebook, taking away the power it has to generate the kind of money investors want.

And all the while, Facebook management will have a whole new layer of overseers, from investors to regulators, watching their every move, and then weighing in.

I wouldn’t fashion myself as qualified to predict any outcomes, but I do know that for whatever pressure Facebook’s senior managers felt to get the company where it is today, they can double it the day after Facebook goes public.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The NFL and the Concussion Issue

The NFL has made dramatic strides in recent years in acknowledging and beginning to address the concussion issue among current and former players.  When it comes to statistics, the concussion issue is one of the hardest to measure because for decades, and even today, players, coaches and trainers have not drawn a distinction between when a player gets “his bell rung” and a true brain injury that requires medical attention.

This started to change in recent years when UPMC doctor Michael “Micky” Collins launched the UPMC Sports Concussion Program, where he is executive director.  Based on what I’ve read, his organization has been instrumental in helping pro and amateur athletic governing bodies assess the depth and reach of the issue, and perhaps most importantly, how to handle it.

I have some personal experience with this.  My older son suffered a concussion during a football practice in his sophomore year of high school.  We took him to UPMC and he was entered into a study Dr. Collins was conducting to collect and analyze concussion data.  As part of the study, participants had to use a computerized testing program that seemed designed to assess specific cognitive abilities and use that data for medical diagnosis and treatment.

As part of the study, my son had to get tested regularly, even when he was symptom-free over the course of his playing career.  That way, the researchers had benchmarks for comparison when subjects were “normal” and when they were concussed.   As parents, we found the process reassuring and positive all the way through.  Our son had a second concussion at the end of his senior season and we met with Dr. Collins on that.  Fortunately, both situations were mild when compared to the stories we read about involving such superstar athletes as Sidney Crosby.

After that and to this day, our younger son gets tested periodically to maintain his benchmarks for as long as he plays football, even though he is not part of a study. 

I know the NFL is paying close attention to this issue, but I don’t know if the NFL does it this way with every player, or whether such benchmark testing is mandatory.  I don’t know if the teams leave the decision to play up to the individual athlete or if a doctor or trainer is charged with signing off with a medical release before the player is allowed back on the field. 

From a PR standpoint, the NFL and other sports leagues need to have an aggressive process for diagnosing, treating and clearing athletes before they are allowed to play, and the health of the athlete must come before the athlete’s desire to get back on the field, regardless of what’s at stake on the competitive front. 

I can only imagine the pressure that’s put on professional coaches, players, trainers and doctors to clear athletes who may not be ready to perform.   But I do believe that an uncompromising process for handling concussions will in the long run protect the reputation of the game and its prospects for continued success.

Friday, May 4, 2012

A Paper Boy Remembers the Kent State Shootings

When I was a kid delivering newspapers the tool of the trade was a pair of wire cutters.  The newspapers were delivered by truck to a drop point.  That’s where you’d go to pick up your bundle of papers.  The newspapers were always covered with a plain brown wrapping paper and bound tightly with a thick-gauge wire.  A ten-year old sometimes needed to grasp the wire cutters with two hands to snap the wire loose. 

It’s hard for most young people today to appreciate the role we paper boys played in that bygone era.  The one thing that was true then as now is that people want to know what’s going on and be kept up to date as quickly as possible.

For that reason, most big cities had at least a morning newspaper and an afternoon paper to fill the information void until the evening news came on at 6 p.m.  Because television stations used film cameras and did not have satellite technology, most TV news was delivered from an announcer at a desk with wire copy.  In between, radio stations carried five minutes of headlines on the hour. 

To actually see the news, your options were the evening news for film of the previous day’s stories, or black and white photos from newspapers.  The most current imagery in the news were those grainy photos that, depending on the importance of the story, could have been taken just hours before.  As paper boys, we’d see the images shortly after they came off press but before most people would read their newspapers.  This is important to more fully appreciate what is now an iconic photo associated with the Kent State shootings.

It was hot and the papers had baked for a little while in the sun.  You could always smell the newsprint on days like this.  I clasped my wire cutters with two hands and with a crack, the wire broke apart.  I tore the brown paper away from the bundle of freshly printed Pittsburgh Press newspapers and there it was above the fold, telling me something big had happened.  Not just breaking news.  Something bigger.

The image was of a college student lying face down on what appeared to be a public parking lot.  His arms were folded at his side in such a way that it was clear he didn’t break his fall and hadn’t moved since.  It was sunny.   A female appeared to be in a semi-kneeling position with a look of panic and horror combined, if such a thing is possible.  I don’t remember the newspaper’s headline or caption to the photo but I do know it was all Kent State.

The date of the shootings was May 4, 1970.  We would learn later that the dead student’s name was Jeffrey Miller, and that girl in the photo wasn’t a student at Kent State, but rather a 14-year old runaway named Mary Ann Vecchio.  John Filo, the photographer, would win a Pulitzer Prize for capturing this moment in time and in the end, bringing the story home to the rest of the world.

Much has been written, analyzed and debated about the Kent State shootings, where an anti-war rally was policed by the Ohio National Guard.  According to news coverage of the tragedy, the whole climactic event lasted less than a minute, where National Guard soldiers opened fire on a mass of protestors, killing four and wounding nine.  There remains some debate on what prompted the actual shooting, but the event was the culmination of tensions that had been building and erupting with greater intensity over several days that followed President Richard Nixon’s announcement of the escalation of activities in Viet Nam.

As a ten-year old paper boy, I didn’t appreciate all of this at that time.  All I remember is that picture that jumped out at me when I pulled away the brown paper from my bundle – a picture that stuck with me as I started to fold each newspaper for delivery.  A powerful photo that I remember so vividly I can recall it with my eyes closed 42 years later.

As I delivered the papers, I felt that I was bringing important news to people on that day, not just coupons and crossword puzzles.  I’m not sure if it was the first time but it’s the only memory I have of feeling that when delivering the newspaper, my work had relevance.