May 26

When it comes to hard-hitting, investigative reporting, the ad trades have no peer

May 26
love reading Advertising Age and Adweek. They not only tell me the latest,
greatest thinking in the 'other' marketing disciplines, but they aren't afraid
take off the gloves and slam inappropriate behavior by client and agency alike.

current Ad Age provides a great example. In a front page article, Ad Age goes
behind the scenes to report on Chevy's reprehensible treatment of their
erstwhile agency of record Publicis. Readers learn about incoming CMO Joel
Ewanick's refusal to meet or even speak with the account managers from
Publicis. He didn't even return their repeated e-mails and voice mails.
Instead, he shifted the entire Chevy brand's $600 million account to his good
friend, Jeff Goodby of Goodby, Silverstein. That's the sort of atrocious
client-side behavior that deserves to be outed.

Chevy saga is one of many examples of the ad trades not being afraid to tackle
misbehaving clients. Earlier this year, Ad Age warned its agency readers of
'serial' clients such as 1-800-FLOWERS, Quiznos and BMW who chew up and spit
out agencies every few months.

PR trades are just the opposite. They'll whack agencies for underperforming or
not delivering on anticipated results but seldom, if ever, go after poor client
behavior. As an example, PR Week once gave us a 'thumbs down' because the
editor at the time said I hadn't been as vocal an advocate for independent
agencies as the publication's editorial staff had expected. So, they publicly
slammed my agency for an apparent personal shortcoming.

Holmes Report, Bulldog and others are quick to jump on agency account wins and
losses (and love to send an e-mail to the effect, 'Hey, we just heard ABC
Widgets is putting your account up for review. Any comment?'). But, their
heart-warming profiles of CMOs, VPs of corporate communications and PR
directors read like 'The Lives of the Saints.'

high time PR industry trades began publishing in-depth, investigative pieces
like the Ad Age/Chevy piece. I'm not sure why there's such a reluctance to do
so, but it results in readers only getting half of what's really happening. So,
note to Steve, Paul and others: provide a real service to your agency readers
and let us know about the Joel Ewanek's and the 1-800-FLOWERS of PR. Trust me,
there are enough horror stories to fill multiple editions. 

Dec 09

And the walls come crumbling down

Birds do it. Bees do it. Trade publications most certainly do it. In this case, 'it' is blurring the lines between editorial and advertising.

December 9 - the_dallas_morning_news_logo_2 Recently, the Dallas Morning News announced that some editors have started reporting directly to executives outside the newsroom who control advertising sales. Ouch. So much for the separation of church and state.

The initial reassignments are limited to sports and entertainment. But, the handwriting is clearly on the wall. And, the implications are grave to the Fourth Estate.

Bob Mong, the editor of the Morning News, said reporters had been urged to '….fight back if they were told to do anything unethical.' Good luck with that one. The paper's management has clearly opened a veritable Pandora's Box that will never again close.

In today's brutal economy, it's all about the almighty dollar. With traditional journalism imploding on all fronts, it was only a matter of time before a major news organization put advertising/sales in charge of editorial. And, once that happens, any semblance of true, unbiased objectivity disappears.

Trade magazines have routinely blurred the lines between advertising and editorial. I can remember countless calls from a certain monthly publication's editor who told me Peppercom would be featured in an upcoming issue and a full-page ad would only further enhance its impact. I laughed, and said, 'Thanks, but no thanks.'

These are sad and worrying times for society in general, and journalism in particular. I'm frankly surprised the Dallas Morning News went virtually unreported in the PR trades. It's a seminal event that, if it becomes a trend, will have a cataclysmic impact on how we, as communicators, function.

Nov 18

Newspapers vs. ‘Newspapers’

Guest Post by Carl Foster, Peppercom UK

Uk mags "Good morning, Trinity Mirror news desk"

"Hi, I'm calling from Trinity Mirror PR to follow up on the press release I sent you about our new widget"

"Oh, right. When did you send it?"

"Just a little while ago"

"And you're calling from where?"

"Trinity Mirror PR. We sit on the other side of the office from you. Look, I'm standing up and waving – yoo hoo!"

"Oh yes, hi. Can you send it to me again? Or better yet, just tell me where it's saved on the server and I'll copy and paste it from there."

That worrying scenario could play out at a newspaper near you if the suggestion of Neil Benson, editorial director at Trinity Mirror in the UK, comes true. The idea that struggling newspapers should set up PR agencies as an additional source of revenue has set tongues wagging in PR circles, but the notion should be of concern far beyond our little fiefdom.

Of course, desperate times call for desperate measures. We're certainly at the stage where no idea is a bad idea when it comes to saving the newspaper industry from further closures. However, if newspapers were to set up PR agencies, even if they were to operate at arm's length, their very credibility and trustworthiness would be called into question. If the model did prove financially successful it would not save the newspaper; it would simply mean it was replaced with a 'newspaper'.

The newspaper vs. 'newspaper' concept is not new. An Evening Standard column from earlier this year highlights the rise of councils in London producing their own pseudo-newspapers. According to the Standard, more writers in London are now employed by these official papers than by the local independent press. Who is paying for this? The Standard says one of these pseudo-newspapers, the Greenwich Time, has a total gross cost of £708,000 a year, with at least £532,000 of that borne by the public purse.

Apparently Andy Burnham, the then media secretary Andy Burnham said that council newspapers were "overstepping" the mark. But this is too vague. In the U.K. we need an U.S. FCC style proposal that requires transparency for "endorsements and testimonials" by people with "material connections" to sellers of a product or service.

Would a PR agency linked to a newspaper group have a "material connection"? One for the lawyers I think.

So if the credibility of some newspapers is in decline because of the source of their revenue, and the very existence of other newspapers is threatened by a collapse in revenue, where does that leave the citizens in our democracy that need varied but credible sources of news? Well, the ad-supported, free online (and sometimes offline) model doesn't seem to be working – even if the Evening Standard has put all its eggs in that one basket. At the other end of the spectrum we have Rupert Murdoch, who will be putting all News Corp. content behind subscription walls soon, and also possibly block Google from searching its pages.

Another suggestion, put forward by Greg Dyke, the former director general of the BBC, is a state-funded (not state-owned) media. This seems to be one of the few ways to guarantee that the media has the resources to provide credible and thorough news coverage. Dyke puts forward the suggestion in a debate on Al-Jazeera’s Empire programme, which is well worth watching. However, the question of how this funding would filter down from the giants of the BBC and France24 to local newspapers is a tricky to answer.   

So, in the spirit of no idea being a bad idea, how do you suggest the newspaper industry save itself from collapse?

Nov 10

Jimmy, forget about being the next Woodward or Bernstein. Mommy and daddy are buying you a slide rule for the holidays

November 10 - newspaper-in-trash-can I knew the newspaper business was tanking, but I had no idea how horrific the current landscape was until checking the stats in a recent O'Dwyer's news piece (See "Newspaper Circ Drops Some More," Jack O'Dwyer's Newsletter, November 4, 2009, Vol. 42 No. 43).

Did you know there are 44 million newspapers sold each day? That sounds impressive until one learns it's the lowest level since the 1940s!

Subscriptions at papers like the San Francisco Chronicle, Dallas Morning News and Boston Globe are dropping faster than the post-season hopes of Giants' fans after Sunday's last-minute collapse (the papers reported circulation losses of 25.8, 22.2 and 18.5 percent, respectively).

The Wall Street Journal now has the largest daily circulation at 2 million (it actually increased 0.6 percent). USA Today's circulation plummeted more than 17 percent as it fell to the number two slot. (Note: the same issue of O'Dwyer's carried reports about the Journal's closing its Boston bureau and Forbes laying off 40 more staffers).

I wonder how undergraduate and graduate journalism programs are spinning these dismal results to current and prospective students. I'm proud to say I was a journalism major at Northeastern University and learned many skills that have since stood me in good stead. But, I wouldn't advise any young person to pursue a career in a dying profession.

Pundits disagree about the future of journalism, newspapers and magazines. I'm sure some form of neo-journalism will emerge in another decade or so. But, for the immediate future, I'd counsel any serious writer to run away from Columbia, Missouri, and the other great J-schools. The cost-benefit ratio no longer exists. There are few, if any, new jobs being created, and those that are pay less and provide no security whatsoever.

Instead of reading 'All the President's Men,' it might be wiser for Woodward and Berstein wanna-be's to, instead, crack open a biography of Einstein, Galbraith or Keynes.

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but the keyboard is no longer the meal ticket it once was. Look for calculators and slide rulers to replace reporter's notebooks and press badges as parents' stocking stuffers of choice this holiday season.

Oct 16

So, how did you feel when you first learned your son had third degree burns over 75 percent of his body?

My alma mater, Northeastern University, is featuring me in an upcoming section celebrating 025
the 100th anniversary of their cooperative education curriculum (a five-year plan in which students alternate between classroom study and relevant work experience).

I majored in journalism and was incredibly fortunate to land three stellar co-op jobs:

– as a copy boy/news clerk with The New York Times
– as a reporter/sportscaster/talk show host for WGCH Radio in Greenwich
– and, finally, as a news writer for WEEI News radio in Boston.

As I was being interviewed, I was asked why I'd chosen public relations over journalism. “That's easy,” I responded, “I hated asking the 'So, how did you feel' questions to victims of fires, parents of kidnapped children and other people who suddenly found their worlds turned upside down.

I remember my WEEI news editor once yelling at me to track down the survivors of a horrific fire in Dorchester that had occurred the night before. “Get one of them on the phone and, so help me, do not hang up until you ask them how it made them feel!” He felt I wasn't getting enough emotion in my interviews.

I couldn't deal with the intrusiveness of it all. Nor could I deal with the jaded, world weary personalities of the journalists with whom I worked. I didn't want to wake up one day and be as burnt out as so many of these professional journalists appeared to be.

I bring all this up because I see the “…So, how did it make you feel?” question being asked more often than ever nowadays. In fact, it's become a staple of the morning talk shows. Maggie Rodriguez of ‘The CBS Early Show’ just asked the mom of some poor kid who had been badly burned how she felt. As soon as the interview ended, Maggie smiled at the camera and previewed an upcoming segment on women's health.

I couldn't do that. I couldn't keep up a false front or 'compartmentalize' the horror and personal tragedy.

I think it says something about the image and reputation of journalism that, as the media skew more and more towards the tawdry and sensational, we're seeing more and more digging into the human tragedy that goes along with modern-day life. Sleaze equals ratings, pure and simple.

Journalists may pillory public relations, but most of us focus on telling the positive side of a story. And, for that, I'm grateful (and proud.)

Oct 14

So much for the separation of church and state

October 14 Journalists love to rake publicists over the coals when given the opportunity, so it’s nice to be able to return the favor every now and then. Phillip Reed, publisher of the Weatherford, Ok., Daily News deserves a special dressing down for his intentional blurring of the lines between the advertising and editorial in his paper.

Reed is insisting that public relations firms include a product along with any press release they forward to him or his news staff. No product, no coverage. Period.

So, he’s been receiving all sorts of alcohol, coffeemakers, cell phones, etc. And, Reed justifies this ‘pay-for-play’ scam because of the recession. How totally sleazy. Oh, and by the way, he keeps all the free alcohol for himself. It’s good to be the king.

I grew up believing journalism’s role in society was to provide objective news and analysis of people, places and things. How objective can a newspaper be about, say, T-Mobile, when the entire editorial staff has just received new blackberries courtesy of the corporation’s PR firm?

Even worse than the paper’s decision is the comment by Mark Thomas, director of the Oklahoma Press Association, who sees nothing wrong with the publication’s ‘grease my palm’ scheme. It’s nice to see a governing body performing its watchdog role so well.

Demanding that PR firms provide product samples is ethically and morally wrong. And, it extends to newspapers’ image and reputation everywhere. How long before other desperate publishers decide to follow suit and open their greedy hands to such largesse?

I’m sorry, Mr. Reed, but this particular PR guy isn’t going to play by your warped rules. No long-sleeve RepMan-branded t-shirts for you.

Sep 11

Male bashing has become a politically-correct blood sport

Speaking on behalf of boys and men from nine to 99, I have had it up to here with the PC bashing of men by 'our better halves.'

The latest, and most egregious example appeared in Thursday's New York Times and was written by Michelle Slatalla. She contributes to something the Times calls, 'Wife/Mother/Worker/Spy.' They should add the word 'Basher.'

September 11 In a column entitled, 'One Man and His Ugly Shoes,' Ms. Slatalla badgers, belittles and berates her obviously long-suffering husband for his latest fashion faux pas.

Like me, Slatalla's hubby had read the book 'Born to Run.' Like me, he became intrigued by the book's back-to-basics message for runners: (i.e. Specially-designed Vibram Five Fingers running shoes that provide minimal support build up atrophied foot muscles and can enable runners to go further and faster). And, like me, Slatalla's hubby began wearing the Five Fingers around the house and the 'hood.

This irritated the uber-stylish author who dismissed her husband's 'gorilla shoes' as just the latest in a long line of horrific fashion choices and perhaps signifying a midlife crisis on his part. To support the latter premise, she opines about '…..many middle-aged men who veer tragically toward garish floral shirts, drive a two-seater convertible or have a sudden and inexplicable interest in surfing.' She went on to describe the Vibram Five Fingers as an 'obvious midlife crisis on his feet.' But, the ultimate humiliation for Ms. Slatalla was hearing that the hubby had worn the gorilla shoes to the market and bumped into Stephanie, who lives across the street and is Ms. Slatalla's 'fashion idol.' She was positively horrified.

What goes on between Ms. Slatalla and her hubby is their business. But, her patronizing, brow-beating and heavy-handed prose would simply not be permitted if the gender roles had been reversed.

Could you imagine my writing a column castigating my wife's attempts to stay fit, young and vibrant? I'd be crucified on a FemiNazi cross (possibly designed by Ms. Slatalla and her friend, Stephanie). And, sadly, society would roar its approval.

Male-bashing doesn't really affect me or other middle-aged white guys who love the challenge and adventure of defying the ravages of time. Personally, I couldn’t care less what Ms. Slatalla thinks about a man's battle with middle age. The real damage is caused by the institutionalizing of such thinking and it insidious effect on younger men and boys. An entire generation has now grown up seeing men portrayed as buffoons on TV and in movies, and patronized as dumb, but harmless, nincompoops like Ms. Slatalla's significant other.

I think it's high time for the Times and other media properties to provide equal time and space to a column that might be entitled 'Husband/Father/Worker/Gender-Defender.' I'd be proud to interview for the job.

Aug 31

All the thought leadership in the world can’t overcome shoddy service

August 31 - wallst_full This business-to-business specialist cum blogger has long admired the thought leadership programs of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, Challenger, Gray is one of the world’s top outplacement firms. And, to me at least, it seems as if they’ve positively ‘owned’ the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Hardly a month seems to pass without some Challenger, Gray workplace survey being trumpeted on the Journal’s front page. If there was a B-to-B firm that ‘got’ thought leadership from the get go, it was Challenger, Gray.

So, imagine my surprise when Challenger, Gray and a few of its outplacement firm peers were absolutely skewered in a recent Journal front-page articleThe Journal’s Phred Dvorak and Joann S. Lublin absolutely pummeled the outplacement firms for not keeping pace with, well, outplacement. The Journal charged Challenger and its ilk with providing bogus, off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all ‘solutions’ for the  victims of the current recession. Rather than working closely with a downsized client, Challenger, Gray would, instead, send out mass form letters. They’d also provide such bizarre mock interview advice as telling one job seeker to ‘….not order diet soda because it suggested immaturity.’ Another was scolded for ‘….not following his coach to the restroom to continue a conversation.’ Puh-leese!

Challenger, Gray and other outplacement firms were painted as having placed quantity over quality. In effect, said the Journal, they’d become little more than telemarketing call centers, whose representatives were instructed to field as many calls as possible and to keep advice to a bare minimum. The Journal summed it up by saying, ‘With so many people looking for work, services increasingly have become standardized.’

Surprisingly, Challenger, Gray didn’t handle the Journal article very well. John Challenger, its CEO, responded to the paper with a written statement (I would have advised a sit-down with one or both reporters). In his note, Mr. Challenger admitted that ‘clients will get angry’ at poor service. No, really? Do tell. And, in defending his firm’s use of mass form letters for job-seeking clients, Mr. Challenger wrote ‘While the introductory and closing paragraphs are similar across many cover letters, the meat of the cover letter is individualized by the client.’ For me, that’s a smoking gun. Any marketer worth his or her salt knows the first sentence of any letter, be it to a prospective employer, reporter or would-be paramour is absolutely critical. I can spot a form letter a mile away and, when I do, I hit the delete button.

The Journal article is the first real blemish I’ve seen on an otherwise spotless Challenger, Gray thought leadership campaign. But, it strikes me that John Challenger & Co., better improve their service in a hurry. All the thought leadership equity in the world won’t overcome shoddy service.”

Aug 06

When lawyers call the shots, corporations typically lose in the court of public opinion

Proving the old adage that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, Yamaha Corporation, makers of a white hot, off-road vehicle called the Rhino, were absolutely skewered by CBS evening News investigative reporter Armen Keteyian.

August 6 Doing his best retro impersonation of Mike Wallace in the latter’s halcyon 60 Minutes’ days, Keteyian dug deep into Yamaha’s files to find damaging memos, pulled off a beautiful ambush interview in the corporation’s lobby and enlisted the support of the new head of the Consumer Products Safety Commission to absolutely crucify the organization for knowing all about rollover problems with the Rhino, and doing nothing about it.
Keteyian interviewed a consumer who’d lost his hand as a result of a Rhino rollover, aired a video from a Yamaha dealership in which a salesman rolled his Rhino over in the parking lot and, get this, unearthed a 2002 internal company memo admitting that Yamaha’s president and vice president had both been injured when they’d taken the Rhino for a spin. Ouch!

I cringed as I watched minute after minute of evidence pile up and waited for the Yamaha response. It finally came after the ambush interview (in which an armed security guard ordered Keteyian to leave Yamaha’s lobby. That certainly projected a warm, fuzzy feeling). Yamaha’s response? A few paragraphs from in-house lawyers pointing to the Rhino’s spotless safety record and suggesting that any accidents were the result of reckless driving by over enthusiastic enthusiasts (Hey Yamaha: Ever hear of the Ford-Firestone SUV rollover crisis?).

The Yamaha Rhino story is a textbook example of how not to handle a breaking crisis and yet another example of how badly lawyers can bungle corporate reputation. Lawyers live, eat and breathe caution. And, in a situation such as this, are far more concerned about legal liabilities down the road than popular perception today. And, that’s what will cost Yamaha dearly in the weeks and months to come.

I’m not privy to the facts of the case, but I do know that Yamaha should have been much more forthcoming in admitting guilt (assuming Keteyian’s facts are true). They should also launch an internal investigation of the product, suspend manufacturing until the flaws are found and fixed, and compensate the victims of any Rhino rollovers.

Corporate communications executives like to talk about how our profession is increasingly ‘earning a seat’ at the table and playing a more strategic role in an organization’s business decisions. The Yamaha crisis reminds us, once again, that far too many corporations still see PR as little more than a staff function.

Jul 15

There’s a fine line between aggressive and obnoxious

July 15 - Your Plaque Preview It's got to be brutally tough to work for a media property these days.

Newspapers and magazines are falling faster than the Mets' winning percentage and resumes from unemployed journalists are washing up on my desk like the flotsam and jetsam of some 19th century shipwreck.

Desperate survivors are doing anything and everything to make money for their ailing properties.

I'm typically inundated with any number of spam e-mails offering discounts on this magazine's conference or that trade publication's e-newsletter. And, whenever Peppercom is cited in some sort of awards or rankings issue, I receive unwanted solicitations from the cottage industries that surround the media like pilot fish around a shark. 

July 15 - email
I respect the fact that everyone has to earn a buck and put food on the table. But, I found this  particular entreaty amazingly boorish. I'm neither interested in the 'award' nor in ordering a plaque for a mere $129 (plus $12 for shipping).

But, it's the fait accompli tone of the spam that set me off. It reflects poorly on the individual and the organization she represents.

There's a fine line between aggressive and obnoxious. And this communiqué crossed it.

Before I end, though, I wanted to let you know about a special offer: just post a comment on this particular RepMan blog and I'll send you an engraved plaque containing your comment. All you have to do is send me an e-mail to confirm your $129 purchase (and, guess what? You'll save $130 with our special 'Christmas in July' RepMan discount).