Thursday, December 27, 2012

What's In Store for 2013

If I could see the future, last year I’d have bet on the New York Giants over the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.  But I didn’t.   Still, the fact I can’t predict the future hasn’t stopped me from attempting to forecast what may be in store for us in 2013.

I’ll start with the low-hanging fruit.  The economy’s going to struggle in the first quarter, at least.  Justin Bieber will continue to reign as the nation’s leading teeny bopper, and there’s a very good chance the Pittsburgh Pirates will suffer another losing season.

Now here’s what may be in store for us when it comes to PR issues in 2013:

·         Social media will continue to dominate and puzzle the PR industry, as it continues to try to contain this multifaceted monster.  So far, social media has followed a life of its own, and the PR industry, advertising and the Web professions have all tried to find the best ways to manage it for their clients and organizations.  It’s proven difficult to manage.  Social media crises and viral YouTube videos are as likely to originate from a teenager’s bedroom as a news room.
·         Facebook will continue to struggle to make money off of its own creations, and to do so it will continue to breach the boundaries of privacy.  The battle will be between the individual and “Big Data.”  Eventually Big Data will win, but it cannot be assumed Facebook will be around to reap the rewards.  While the company will probably do pretty well in 2013, I think for the first time it will start to see stagnant membership.
·         Twitter will continue to grow since it has not gotten bogged down in the pressures of public company life, and because it has not unilaterally taken its members’ privacy for granted.
·         The “social media guru” will lose his/her luster.  Organizations will still need people to manage their social media presence, but the novelty is wearing off.  At the same time, managers are becoming more personally familiar with social media as avid users, and so are not as intimidated by it.  They will need social media specialists, but organizations are less likely to repeat the mistake of letting social media technicians set online and larger communications policies.
·         The press release will survive.  Many like to predict that the press release is dead.  They point to Twitter posts and social media activity as replacing the press release as a means to disseminate breaking news.  But we have seen errant social media posts get many into trouble.  At the end of the day, a vetted, official document in the form of a press release is still the best way to disclose important, “official” developments.
·         More daily newspapers will be shuttered.  Some will close for good, while others will transition to an online-only format.  More newsroom staffs will be cut.  Many veteran reporters will try to make the transition into PR. 
·         There will be an increase in pay-for-premium content on the Web, much like the model the Wall Street Journal follows.  If you want full and complete access, it will come with a price. Otherwise elite news organizations will not be able to pay their people.
·         The media environment will grow more polarized.  Some traditional media that always presented itself as neutral or objective will be forced, for business reasons, to openly take sides on the stories they cover.  News consumers now choose what they see or read based on their pre-existing worldview.  News organizations know this and some will have to go for broke.
·         PR people will be more valuable to their clients, companies and the media.  The reasons are simple: newsroom staffs are shrinking, they need outside help; the media landscape is as broad and diverse as ever, and companies need professionals to help them navigate it; and because of the economy, it’s more important than ever for companies to have their messages delivered and noticed.

Those are some of my predictions.  If you have any thoughts, feel free to send them to me.  Meanwhile, have a Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Poignant Passage that Inspired Silent Night

It is not really clear when the modern practice of public relations had its start, but in the end, the discipline is rooted in the artful use of the written and spoken word to advance a purpose.  If this was the singular definition of public relations then those of us who call ourselves its practitioners would be in very good company, for there have been some notables who came before us who changed the world through the nothing more than the power of words.

I would never presume to put the authors of the Old Testament or the four Gospels of the New Testament into any vocational category, but in the spirit of the season, I will use one of the authors as a role model for those of us who write as part of our jobs. 

To be sure, the Old and New Testaments are tremendous sources of literature in their own rite.  In the New Testament, Luke was responsible for the two-volume “Gospel According to Luke.”  Like Matthew, Mark and John, Luke’s primary purpose as a writer was to share the story of Jesus Christ. 

According to biblical scholars, Luke’s Gospel was written to show how God’s promises to Israel were fulfilled in Jesus, and how those promises also included the Gentiles.  Of the four Gospels, Luke’s has been praised by scholars for its historical perspective, its emphasis on events and their order, and their context against the backdrop of a longer history.  In modern-day public relations, we’d probably credit Luke for his talent for “staying on message.”

It is largely believed that “Luke” was written anywhere from 37 to 100 A.D.  All of the Gospels were designed to capture the life and times of Jesus and the early Catholic Church.  These Gospels have been the basis for Christianity’s teachings, which for many generations have spread around the world to many cultures, in many languages.

It’s impossible to know just how powerful Luke’s work has been over the many centuries.  People turn to the bible to learn, to understand, to be inspired, to strengthen their faith, to find hope, to find answers.  If the book did not provide some value, by 2012 we probably never would have heard of it.

There are many reasons to open a bible, but one of them surely is to marvel at the beauty of the Word and to reflect.  My favorite passage from the Gospel of Luke is his poignant account of the birth of Jesus:

Luke 2: 1-14

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus
that the whole world should be enrolled.
This was the first enrollment,
when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.
And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth
to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem,
because he was of the house and family of David,
to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
While they were there,
the time came for her to have her child,
and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger,
because there was no room for them in the inn.

Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields
and keeping the night watch over their flock.
The angel of the Lord appeared to them
and the glory of the Lord shone around them,
and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them,
"Do not be afraid;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David
a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you:
you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes
and lying in a manger."
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel,
praising God and saying:
"Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Wishing you all the peace of the season, and if you celebrate Christmas, please have a joyous one.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

“Worker” Commoditizes the Individual

Not long after I graduated from college someone gave me a refrigerator magnet that said, “For this I went to college?”  I attached it to an old metal filing cabinet near my desk at the radio station where I started my career. 

At that time, I wore a number of hats, though my title was producer.  I was also a news writer, editor, researcher, commercial producer/writer, TV producer, and a promotions coordinator.  There were a few of us at the large broadcast operation who did similar things.

If you wanted to flatter us you could have called us “broadcast professionals” or even “journalists.”  If you wanted to insult us you could have called us “broadcast workers.”

At that time, we felt we were more than just workers.   We were hired for our intellectual capabilities as well as our skills, or so we thought.  “Workers” to us were laborers in manufacturing or construction. 

To us, the difference was that a worker is a commodity, a professional is not. 

That was more than a couple of decades ago and nothing has changed in the media.  Reporters, editors and news writers still like to be referred to as journalists.  Most would cringe at the thought of being labeled “news workers.”

Just this week, I read an article where the caption under a photo referred to an unemployed individual as a “human resources worker.”  In the actual article, however, the same person was described as a “human resources professional.”  He was hardly unskilled.  He was a seasoned human resources executive.  The difference on the page, however, was in the divergent ways the caption writer and the business reporter – two different people – viewed the individual who was the subject of the story.  Commodity or professional?

To be sure, terms like “human resources worker” draw no distinction between a 20-year, accomplished human resources professional, and an entry-level human resources claims processor.

This is important since it seems journalistic style is trending toward labeling those in other, non-media professions as “workers” instead of the formerly more common descriptors: employees, professionals, executives, business owners, consultants, etc.

I tend to lean towards being more specific and avoiding the use of the word “worker” in most situations, even when referring to laborers or those who work in the trades where “worker” may in fact be in the name of their unions.  I believe the word devalues the individual and is not specific enough.

And perhaps there’s also that part of me who grew up during the Cold War, who was an avid reader and who remembers the language of Communist China and the Soviet Union.  The word “worker” still has a stigma to me.  It attaches no personal achievement or individual talent that a person might bring to a role.  Rather it pigeon-holes the individual by functionality.  To at least a small extent, it removes personhood and commoditizes the individual. 

“Worker” to me is a flat word.  Whenever I see it in a news article, I find myself thinking, “This journalist could do better.”

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Healing Power of News

Within hours of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on Friday, social media and the news media was exploding with information.  Much of it was bad or incomplete, but as the hours passed, the picture of what really happened at the school started to come together.

To be sure, it will be quite a while as police investigators continue their work that the world will only know the full extent of what happened and how it all unfolded.

But that is secondary to what also started to happen throughout the day on Friday.  As is almost always the case when big news events happen, networks and stations “go live” throughout the day even when there are gaps in the flow of new information. They fill the time by talking, in this case, to psychologists, school security experts, seasoned police investigators, some of whom may have investigated the shootings at Columbine or Virginia Tech.

They do all of this for two reasons, one is commercial and the other is human nature.  The commercial reason is that television news thrives on major tragedies like this.  People tune in en masse to find out what’s going on. Ratings skyrocket, and television news operations work to rise to both the business and the social challenges.

The social challenge is the human nature component of the coverage.  At Sandy Hook, 26 children and adults were murdered.  Twenty of the victims were children, most of whom were kindergarteners. 

Just knowing this is enough to cause a distraction in anyone’s day whether they have kids or not.  Parents of young children across the country couldn’t stop thinking of their own.  Parents of grown children have crisp memories of their children at an age when on a mid-December day their kids were thinking of Santa Claus and Rudolph, and not what danger may loom in this world.

When the news broke of what had taken place at the school, all other media coverage took a back seat, it became less important.  This story jumped to the front.  No one really wanted to hear more about the debate over the fiscal cliff or the latest electronics gadgets on sale for the holiday.

They wanted to know what happened, perhaps why it happened.  They needed to process it.  When a tragic event happens like this, one Newtown cleric said when he was interviewed, it doesn’t cause him to lose faith in God, but it does make him wonder about human beings who could do this.

So we watch.  In the process, the news coverage may not lead to a better understanding of the perpetrator or of the fairness of life.  But it does allow us to absorb it all and let us cope.  News has a healing power, and that’s why so many watch even when they may not want to.

People saturate themselves with the information, the details, the opinions of experts, and they come away with at least enough understanding to carry on with their lives.  And because of the news coverage, they never forget events like this.  For better or worse, it becomes part of their individual consciousness as well as the consciousness of the nation.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

'tis the Season for the Generic Corporate Greeting Card

My wife almost always cries when she watches a Hallmark television commercial, and I must admit sometimes one of those commercials taps a sentimental nerve in this Irishman.   Hallmark has a way with its advertising.  Each commercial is about a special relationship, and the short story we see play out during a commercial break is usually one that connects with us on a personal level.

According to Hallmark, Christmas is the “largest card-sending holiday in the United States, with approximately 1.6 billion cards sent.”

Of that 1.6 billion, a significant portion are corporate greeting cards that companies and other organizations send to friends, associates, colleagues, employees and other important people.

Since I first entered the PR business, I have been on holiday card committees, provided advice to clients on the annual greeting card, and have taken different approaches in my own business with regard to holiday greetings.

The one steady trend is that every year organizations seem to get even more sensitive as to how much Christmas to include or avoid when deciding on the corporate greeting card. 

I know organizations that have opted to send Thanksgiving or New Year’s cards in keeping with the business nature of the correspondence and the message.  But most organizations still seem to prefer to send their cards in the weeks of December leading up to the 25th.

When clients have asked me for advice on the card, I’ve usually adhered to current custom and said it’s okay to use the term “holiday” throughout and it’s always acceptable to thank recipients and wish them peace and prosperity in the coming year.  Graphically, the corporate card tends to avoid overt religious images or symbolism, but that’s where things can start to get muddled.

What one person thinks is a generic image of the holiday season, another might perceive as having religious undertones or overtones.  The Christmas tree is one of those examples.  Five years ago, the tree, while associated with the Christmas holiday, was not in itself seen as a religious symbol.  Today, in some corners even that has changed.

To be sure, it’s important to recognize that the tree would have no significance if not for the Christmas holiday.  But the same could be said for the entire holiday season.  To remove Christmas from the calendar would virtually eliminate the very basis for most of the card-sending, shopping, entertaining, vacation-taking and other business and personal traditions associated with December.

Tied to this is the issue of whether or not any of these symbols are offensive.  That is a judgment call most organizations don’t want to have to confront.  The last thing the card sender wants to do, especially in a goodwill greeting, is offend the recipient.

As a result, holiday greeting cards have been watered down to lose nearly all of their sentiment and sincerity.  This has resulted in generic cards that:

·         Avoid the use the traditional holiday colors of red and green;
·         Tend to feature winter nature scenes; and
·         Avoid using snow men, wreaths, Christmas trees, skating ponds, ornaments, gifts, or any other symbols associated with holiday traditions.

As you may be able to tell, I’m skeptical of the trend.  One of the most important components of communication is credibility.  If you intend to conduct any communications initiative, it should be believable.

So, when the subject of the corporate greeting comes up in my work, I tend to adhere to the trend of playing it safe.  But I do look for every opportunity to personalize the greeting.  I continue to think that certain iconic images and colors traditionally associated with the holiday season can provide a nice fit for the right organization.

And while I’ve had no clients publicly embrace the religious aspect of the holiday, there are some nonprofit and other organizations across the country that have not shied away from cultures built on Christian or other religious values.  In such cases, it is entirely appropriate for those organizations to feature the more religious aspect of the holiday in their greeting cards.

As Hallmark demonstrates time and again, the best greetings include a believable connection between the sender and the recipient.  I think that’s a good model for the rest of us.

Meanwhile, if you want to get a taste of the holiday Hallmark-style, check out this classic Hallmark commercial from 1999:

Monday, December 10, 2012

SEC Doesn't "Like" CEO's Facebook Post

Ever since social media came on the scene I’ve wondered how long it would take for the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) to begin to monitor the sites and enforce disclosure regulations.  I have to admit, it’s taken longer than I had anticipated, but it seems Netflix is one company that could help provide some precedent.

The New York Times reported that a Facebook post from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings may have caught the attention of the SEC.  The company announced last week that the SEC sent the company and its CEO Wells notices, which means that the regulatory agency could file suit against the company.

The basis for the suit would be a possible violation of the fair disclosure regulations.

On July 3rd, the CEO posted this on Facebook:

“Congrats to Ted Sarandos, and his amazing content licensing team. Netflix monthly viewing exceeded 1 billion hours for the first time ever in June. When House of Cards and Arrested Development debut, we'll blow these records away. Keep going, Ted, we need even more!”

It may have seemed pretty mild to the average Facebook visitor, but to analysts and company followers that kind of information could be very useful, or so thinks the SEC.  And without fairly disclosing this across the board through standard disclosure channels (press release, wire distribution, an equal access teleconference, broad Internet access, etc.), some investors could gain an unfair advantage.  In other words, the SEC could decide that the post selectively disclosed material information.

The CEO maintains that by posting to Facebook, he did disclose the information as the Times describes as “fairly broadly.”  Since the Facebook post was accessible to the public and his account has 200,000 subscribers, it could satisfy the requirements of fair disclosure.  Further, the post spawned even broader media coverage.

Hastings also claimed that prior to the troubling Facebook post the company had mentioned on its blog that it was providing almost one billion hours of video each month.

It’s hard to say where it goes from here, but usually when the SEC decides to file suit it does so for a couple of reasons:  first, it wants the publicity and to get it, the agency will go after high-profile companies; or second, it wants to set an example and define/refine a precedent for future enforcement and compliance.

By targeting Netflix, the SEC already satisfied one of its objectives.  Now we all will watch and see just where the SEC and possibly the courts determine how social media fits into the larger disclosure process.

If I were the betting type, I’d say the SEC could see this as an opportunity to put careless social media users in their place, particularly if those users are C-suite execs.  Meanwhile, it may be best for CEOs like Hastings to be a lot more careful on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Who Should Be Time’s Person of the Year?

When major media outlets publish rankings, like Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year,” they do so in a not so subtle way to create buzz, which in turn generates increased readership.  In recent years, Time has learned that it can get more mileage out of the issue by publicizing the process for selecting a person of the year. 

The publication first named a “Man of the Year” in 1927.  The distinction based on a simple criteria – “for better or worse” the individual has to have “done the most to influence events of the year.”  It must be noted that while the name of the honor was changed from “man” to “person” the actual recipient is not always a person.

Charles Lindbergh was the first “Man of the Year,” after he made the first trans-Atlantic flight.  I could go through a long list of individuals who’ve been named “man” or “person” of the year, but here are some examples:

·         Adolph Hitler
·         Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini
·         The Computer
·         Planet Earth
·         Every serving president made the cover at least once during his term with one exception (Calvin Coolidge)

Last year’s “Person of the Year” wasn’t actually an individual but a composite called, “The Protester,” in a nod to the occupiers of Wall Street and hot spots in the Middle East.

Other recent honorees included: Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, The Good Samaritans, The American Soldier, and The Whistleblowers.

As is becoming more obvious, the “Person of the Year” is just as likely not to be a single person as an idea, so the notion of naming a “Person of the Year” is now a misnomer.

Here are some of the candidates (there are about 40 in all) for the Person of the Year 2012:

·         Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei
·         Syrian President Bashar Assad
·         Vice Presidential candidates Joe Biden (incumbent) and Paul Ryan
·         New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg
·         Both Bill and Hillary Clinton
·         Comedians Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart
·         U.S. Olympians Gabrielle Douglas and Michael Phelps
·         Activist Sandra Fluke
·         NFL Commissioner Rodger Goodell
·         Author Erika Leonard
·         Rapper Jay-Z
·         North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un
·         The Mars Rover
·         Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer
·         Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi
·         Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
·         U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts
·         Presidential Candidates Barack Obama (incumbent) and Mitt Romney
·         Undocumented Immigrants

And then there is one, one that I think should be the Person of the Year. 

She is Malala Yousafzai, a teenage Pakistani girl who had blogged about her hopes to go to school in a region where the Taliban controlled the populous through Sharia Law.  In Time's account, Malala first blogged with anonymity, but then her father, who himself is a devout Muslim, encouraged Malala to come forward and disclose her true identity.  She then blogged under her own name.  She became a symbol of hope for young women and all around the world. 

And then on October 9th, as Time magazine describes, “a Taliban gunmen boarded her school bus, sought her out and shot her in the head. Eventually airlifted to a hospital in Britain, she survived her severe wounds. In the meantime, Malala, now 15, has become an inspiration not only in her native Pakistan — where the culture wars over women's rights and religious diversity have taken many violent turns — but all around the globe.”

When I read stories of courage and principle like Malala’s it’s difficult to understand that someone like her would be up for the same honor as a rapper, a couple of comedians, or any number of people who found their way into public life through politics.  Her path to the public consciousness is less contrived, less driven by ambition, and more rooted in pure courage.

Again, Time’s criteria for Person of the Year is “for better or worse” the individual has to have “done the most to influence events of the year.”  I think the operative word in Malala’s case is “individual.”  All by herself, she drew the world’s attention to an issue that thanks to her can no longer be ignored.