Archive for the ‘media relations’ Category
It’s hard not to love crowdfunding. I’ve participated in a pile of them. Musicians trying to record a CD? Where do I click? Woman turning a cancer diagnosis into a movement to advocate for more research and to provide items of comfort to folks with cancer? I’m in.
In a nutshell:
- In 2009, a woman in New York named Britta Riley came up with an idea for a “window farm” where people could grow food in their windows – perfect for apartments and small spaces.
- In 2011, she went to Kickstarter to raise $50,000 to make a more commercial version of her Windowfarm. She hit the jackpot and raised more than $250K!
- By today, there’s a Windowfarms company that claims more than 40,000 people worldwide are growing food in their windows. Yay, right?
- There’s also a Windowfarms community online that is used to further develop the product.
In the meantime, Britta Riley became celebrated for her idea and her work. Here she is speaking at a TEDx conference:
But there’s a fly in the ointment. If you look at the most recent comment on the TEDx video, it’s about people who donated to the company’s Kickstarter and still haven’t gotten the benefits promised. And that’s what the CBC story focused on.
According to CBC, more than 150 people in Canada donated and expected rewards. The Kickstarter page for the campaign is pretty clear on what people would get, when they could expect it, and the like. And it’s been more than a year.
The bigger problem here is that the company seems to have stopped talking to these disappointed people, which has made them angry. If you need to see how angry, check out some of the messages on the Windowfarms Facebook page.
So there are some problems here. First off, Windowfarms is breaking the agreement that they made when they did their Kickstarter campaign. They’re legally in the wrong. And they’re morally in the wrong too. Founder Britta Riley apparently issued a statement to CBC, but there’s no real attempt to address the issues that people are bringing up, and they seem to be ignoring those complaints. In the meantime, they’ve also gotten themselves an “F” rating from their Better Business Bureau.
I want this to get better. I’d like to see Windowfarms FedEx 153 kits to their Canadian stakeholders. And then apologize to them. We all fail from time to time. Even when we’re trying to do good. The key to this is not that you failed. It’s that you picked up the pieces and moved on.
One of my favorite quotations is from Samuel Beckett. And it’s not about success. It’s about failure.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Hope you’re listening, Windowfarms. Because it’s time to fail better.
Even a little PR / social media blog like this one gets pitched. A lot. The vast majority of the pitches I get are absolutely awful. So I’m going to profile one that made me WANT to write about it and explain why.
This is the email I got:
So why am I writing about this, and not the roughly 20 other pitches I got this week?
First, it’s an unusual concept. A legal insurance firm like DAS Canada doing a contest is unexpected (at least to me.)
Second, it points out a serious, real problem — being able to afford legal representation.
Third, it’s in the range of things that I might write about anyway — social media related, has a business application. You’d be surprised how many pitches I get for stuff that I would never in a million years write about on this blog (would you believe beach umbrella anchors?!). And you’d also be surprised by the people who pitch to me even after I’ve explicitly written to them and asked to be removed from their lists. (I’m looking at you, Imal Wagner, who pitches books to me that I would never cover, and has been told so).
Fourth, the release is reasonably well written. I could get the concept. And they quote the president of the Canadian Bar Association, which gives it some relevant credibility.
What didn’t I like about the pitch? The subject line’s kinda clunky. And I would love to have seen some personalization. A multimedia component would also have been nice — links to imagery or audio or video.
For all I know, the people at Pointman PR did absolutely no research, and me getting this was just a lucky chance for them. Or perhaps they thought about it a little. Either way, it worked. So what can you learn if you’re doing pitching to blogs or to mainstream media?
- Just look at the blog a little. I’m a PR blog. It’s not that I don’t care about children getting impaled by rogue beach umbrellas. It’s just that it doesn’t fit my slant. So don’t WASTE MY TIME PLEASE!
- Think rich content. If there had been a picture, I probably would have used it.
- Personalize. Yes, it’s a pain. But do it anyway.
- And if you’re told to stop pitching to someone, FLIPPING WELL STOP PITCHING!
I have to admit to some shock at the announcement that the just-announced successor to Ted Koppel at ABC News’s Nightline program is Dan Abrams. Why?
Because while Dan Abrams has some significant experience in journalism, he’s most recently been a CEO in the PR and marketing industry. Koppel, by contrast, was a lifelong journalist (and, of course, remains a journalist and commentator).
Many journalists leave that trade to begin working as public relations practitioners. That’s nothing new; there are decades of history pointing to that, including my personal history. It’s much less frequent to see people move from the PR industry back to journalism.
For what it’s worth, I think there are good reasons that PR people should be PR people and journalists should be journalists. When you embark on a media relations initiative, the theory is that media coverage tells the reader / listener / viewer that while there may be a “PR angle” to the story, the “media” have judged it worthy of coverage. Hence the phrase “newsworthy.”
There are many ways in which the wall between editorial decision-making and the advertising / marketing / PR / communications world gets chipped away. When I edited some magazines nearly 25 years ago, I would regularly have the sales manager come to me, saying “You know, it’d be great if you covered something about McBlatherston’s, they just took a full page…” I didn’t do that. And the ongoing tension and conflict was a big reason I left that job.
Publications often create “special advertising sections” that use cheaply produced or free copy that surrounds ads. There are “infomercials” that try to mimic the look and feel of news reports or programs. There was the VNR, or Video News Release, which caused quite a scandal in the 2000s. And there are publications which simply sell their editorial space. Sometimes it’s completely obvious, as in a full-page article on a business with a facing page ad for the business; other times, it’s much more subtle.
When Abrams left journalism to start PR businesses, his first idea was to have working journalists consult with corporate clients on communications strategy. That didn’t fly, so he moved on to a suite of websites (probably led by Mediaite, a media news blog) and Abrams Research, “a full service digital and social media agency, specializing in the development of web-based digital marketing campaigns, in addition to advising on social media strategy for non-profit, international, financial, political, sports, entertainment and Fortune 500 clients. In a nutshell, we help brands direct their social media efforts to efficiently reach and engage their target audience(s).” Now, he’s back in journalism as the anchor of a TV show with a fearsome reputation for indepth journalism.
ABC has said that Abrams no longer has any responsibility within the companies that bear his name. But he remains an owner of those companies. I don’t like that. This is a game of perceptions. If and when I watch Nightline with Abrams, I don’t want to be asking myself if the guest is or was a client, or whether there were arrangements made with one of his companies regarding the questions to be asked.
I’ve noticed a trend in retail: auto parts stores selling grocery items; pharmacies selling electronics; office supply stores selling food; grocery stores selling DVDs. I want to buy my drugs and antiperspirant at the pharmacy; I want to buy my food at the grocery store. AND I WANT MY JOURNALISTS TO BE JOURNALISTS, NOT PR PEOPLE.
I think that this sort of thing not only harms journalism, but also reduces the ability of a public relations campaign to actually influence its audience. If there’s no editorial coverage that isn’t bought, if there’s no more trust, why bother doing media relations at all? Just do social media.
Lots of talk recently in my neck of hte woods about the Amnesia Rock Festival. It happened June 14-15, with 90 acts from Anthrax to Alice Cooper to Fucked Up to the Dropkick Murphys filling a field in the small West Quebec town of Montebello.
By all accounts, the music was great. But some are calling the festival an “organizational shitshow“, some bands weren’t happy that they had to pay to play, and a village councillor and others are pointing at an “ocean of pee”, giant unwieldy lineups to get in and out, shuttle buses that stopped running with thousands of people waiting to get back to campsites… And a few days afterward, the site is still quite a mess.
Organizer Alex Martel spent several days incognito, then began to speak with reporters yesterday, explaining that people were congratulating him onsite on pulling the festival off.
I know the territory that Martel is on a little bit. Music festivals are giant endeavors. There’s the money side — you contract to spend money that you hop you’ll earn back; there’s the logistics side — thousands of people showing up at an outdoor site expecting to be fed, watered, and go to the bathroom in relative comfort while the sound and lights are tip-top. In this case, there’s the complication of remote campign sites and shuttle buses. So much can go wrong, so quickly.
Since I wasn’t at the festival, I can’t say with any certainty just how gigantic a failure or success it was. But it’s a great demonstration of the difficulties all businesses can experience in scaling up.
When you start a project, it can be easy — you do EVERYTHING, and everything comes back to you. When it grows, you have to start growing with it. Maybe that means staff, or volunteers, or renting an office, or hiring subcontractors… and it gets complex. Sometimes you discover that you’ve gone from someone doing what you’re best at and passionate about to someone doing things that you really don’t enjoy.
There was a time when I was doing media relations, and then I became a manager of media relations. It was only after I left the job that I realized just how little I had enjoyed managing people who reported to me.
I’ve seen lots of friends join startup companies that are hiring like crazy, growing like mad. And many times, those companies have crashed and burned. If you’re on the upswing as an organization, hooray! But don’t get so enthralled with the venture-capital money, the kudos, the excitement that you forget that you’re always just a few missteps away from total calamity.
And when you are blowing up the world with your products or services, remember that you’re most vulnerable to customer service prolems, communication breakdowns, and the things that can start out small but end up as fully-fledged crises. The solution?
Stay open. Use all the communication channels you’ve established. Meet your audiences where they are — at the checkout, on Twitter, Facebook or whatever other social media tools they use. Acknowledge problems, work to solve them, explain why they’re happening, and try not to make the same mistakes twice. Shutting down the lines of communication, hiding away, and moaning that people “just don’t understand how hard it is.”
If you talk to them about what you’re doing, they WILL understand. If you get defensive, they’ll stop caring and stop listening.
I was asked by the organizers of next week’s Social Capital Conference to join organizer Lara Wellman on the local CTV morning show to talk about the conference, keying in on a tart little infographic they published recently: 10 Ways to Suck at Social Media (I’ve put the infographic at the end of the post, if you want to check it out).
The interview, done with cohost Jeff Hopper, reminded me that live TV interviews are a unique experience for even experienced interviewees. Cameras (in this case, one robotic and one human-operated), lights, a computer monitor behind us — distraction is easy and time is short. In this case, I think (THINK – always hard to KNOW) the interview went well, in great part because Jeff Hopper was already knowledgeable about social media, and because he had an obvious personal interest in the topic.
So here’s my tip for today. When you’re doing a live interview, either on TV or radio, KEEP TALKING. The host will find his or her way into your chatter to ask questions, get clarification, or take the interview in a new direction. What lies behind the dictum KEEP TALKING means you should be conversant enough with your topic to theoretically deliver a monologue for the length of the interview.
The easy way to KEEP TALKING is to have a set of key messages in your head and ceaselessly repeat them. This is not ideal. People know “key messages” when they hear them, thanks to politicians who seem to think we won’t notice them robotically repeating them. Here’s probably the most egregious example ever, courtesy of ex-Member of Parliament Peter Penashue:
The key here is to balance out your ability to KEEP TALKING with your ability to be a gracious part of a conversation. It’s a skill that takes practice to develop.
I won’t be talking about media training at Social Capital, but I’m happy to talk to you about it, or to meet you at the Social Capital conference, where I’ll be doing a talk on “Why You Are Stupid.” (pssst: The “You” in my title also includes me.) It’s not too late to register and hear from some truly un-dumb people, including Gini Dietrich (Chicago-based owner of Arment Dietrich and co-author of Marketing in the Round), and Danny Brown (cofounder of ARCompany and author of the hot off the press book Influence Marketing) (affiliate links).
And if this is something you need heavy-duty help with, you might want to check out Brad Phillips, a New York-based media trainer, and his Mr. Media Training blog. He has tons of great tips, techniques and case studies that he updates pretty much daily on his site.
UPDATE: Here’s the interview, as uploaded by CTV Ottawa Morning Live.
And here’s the infographic:
There’s a big story today in Ontario, with the banner headline:
Here’s the story in a nutshell, from a timeline of events published by CBC online.
On June 23, 2012, a shopping mall parking deck collapses in the northern Ontario town of Elliott Lake. By early the next morning, a search and rescue team is on site and beginning to stabilize the rubble to search for survivors.
On June 25, the Ontario Ministry of Labour orders a stop to rescue work, saying it’s too dangerous and unstable to continue. In an intense series of events, the rescue efforts are restarted and crowds of angry bystanders are critical of
On June 27, 2012, two bodies are removed from the rubble.
The news today is that the government of Ontario had prepared a statement supporting the suspension of rescue efforts.
Sorry to say, I think this story is not a story at all. Why?
- This was a disaster, and a communications crisis. It is beyond naive to think that governments would not have statements prepared in the event of suspending the rescue operations.
- The government was relying on its search and rescue experts to inform the discussion and to prepare for action. Is that wrong?
- This sort of activity is a standard part of contingency planning. For example, when Apollo 11 went to the moon, there was a chance that the astronauts would be lost. The US government prepared a presidential speech in the event that Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins were killed during the mission. Is this terrible? It may seem hardhearted. But for communicators in crisis mode, it’s necessary.
- I particularly enjoy the story’s subhed: “Emails sent by premier’s staff reveal shifting views.” My gosh, as a situation evolved at a rapid pace, the staff were assimilating input from experts, gauging public opinion, and working on a communications strategy that would serve the most people in the best way? Wow. Would ironclad unvarying views have been a better position for the Premier’s staff to choose?
When bad things happen, difficult choices have to be made, and worst-case scenarios must be addressed. I don’t see anything telling me that this news story is anything more than the portrayal of a fast-moving crisis and disaster management scenario playing out. Shame that it’s being played as it is by the CBC.
This story is getting a lot of attention, at least in Ottawa and Canadian political circles today. I encourage you to read the whole thing, including the online version.
But here’s a précis. Tom Spears is the science writer for my local broadsheet, the Ottawa Citizen. In March, he saw a news story that suggested NASA was flying research planes into snowstorms near Lake Simcoe, and that our own National Research Council might be involved.
You’d think this would be a good news story, right? Back in my time in university media relations, this sort of story was our bread and butter. But you’d be wrong. In some quarters, it feels like an annoyance that must be smothered under a pile of wet wool blankets.
As Spears recounts, his inquiry generated a 52-page trail of e-mails (which he obtained using an access-to-information request) among 11 people. At the end, Spears received an e-mail message that actually doesn’t mention snow, but explains where on the NRC plane the radar devices were located. Here’s the story that resulted.
The whole chain is in this Scribd document: A simple question, a blizzard of bureaucracy
Spears has chronicled (and I’ve chronicled his chronicles at least once) the misadventures of Canadian government communicators in the past. He’s talked about how government communicators wouldn’t take media calls for FIVE HOURS after a major earthquake that affected Canada’s capital city, and how they issued a media advisory for a briefing 25 minutes after the briefing began.
So what’s going on here?
- Some bloggers are fulminating about the culture of top-down control that they argue has created a culture of paranoia within the public service. Spears’s fellow Citizen writer Dan Gardner has related this case to his ideas around open and closed government. I think there’s likely something to that.
- I think there’s also a level of fear and loathing in government around getting something “wrong”, about making a “mistake.” In university media relations, the fact that our faculty had academic freedom insulated us. If the expert we found for a journalist said something outrageous, we wouldn’t get in trouble. If someone at the NRC said something untoward, there would be much kerfuffling, as can be seen by the comments in the Scribd doc around the omission of the Canadian Space Agency. So you copy the world on e-mails. You ensure that the higher-ups and the highest-ups sign off on everything.
- There’s also the tradition that ministers speak for departments and that public servants do not. While in the past that hasn’t prevented scientists within the public service from speaking about their work, there have been rumblings that this is no longer the case. One of the most prominent public calls for change came from the Canadian Science Writers Association during the last election campaign.
- But I also wonder if, for the political masters who set policy for departments and agencies, if there’s no upside from showing what government does RIGHT. It may be that there’s a spoken or unspoken belief that showing good stuff the government’s doing might lead people to think government agencies are valuable and/or worth preserving, which would fly in the face of our current government’s budgetary direction. If your ideology tells you that small government is the way to go, why show off success stories?
I suppose it’s not surprising to me that as I read this, I felt as much sympathy for the government communicators as I did for Tom Spears. They are likely as frustrated by the process as he was. Certainly, I noticed one of my Facebook friends who is a government communicator wincing about the story.And my recent quest to find out information about the government using social media to monitor conversations about the seal hunt led to a similarly unsatisfying response e-mail from a communications officer, several DAYS later.
The saddest part of the email trail comes when the communicators begin to talk about a media visit to the facility next summer. Yes, let’s invite the reporter we just annoyed and treated poorly to come to look at our snowstorm research plane. In the summer. When it’s 40 with the humidex, and the last thing anyone want to think about is snowstorms, and the last story that an editor will accept is a story about snowstorms.
By my count of positions in the government’s electronic directory, there are more than 40 people working in communications at the NRC. I’d bet that if you set those folks free, told them to court people like Tom Spears — not with boozy lunches or junkets, but with really good stories — and make good news happen, they could and would. We did that when I was working in the university sector. It worked. Who woulda thought that if you give journalists good story ideas, they’ll pick ‘em up and run with them?
It’s unfortunate that ideology, bureaucracy, paranoia, or something is handcuffing our government and its employees and keeping them from doing so.
UPDATE: Science writer Margaret Munro files this story for Postmedia about Environment Canada’s insructions to its scientists attending a conference on polar science. There appears to be some difference of opinion about the “instructions.”
Mark Johnson, an Environment Canada spokesperson, says there is nothing unusual about the plan, which he describes as “standard practice” and consistent with the government’s overall communication policy.
Others see it as the latest evidence of the warped culture of obsessive information control inside the Harper government.
“Until now such a crude heavy-handed approach to muzzle Canadian scientists, prior to a significant international Arctic science conference hosted by Canada, would have been unthinkable,” says a senior scientist, who has worked for Environment Canada for decades. He asked not to be identified due to the possibility of repercussions from Ottawa.
“The memo is clearly designed to intimidate government scientists from Environment Canada,” he says. “Why they would do such an unethical thing, I can’t even begin to imagine, but it is enormously embarrassing to us in the international world of science.”
UPDATE: April 24: A blog post by PostMedia’s Mike deSouza quotes Environment Minister Peter Kent on his department’s media management practice:
“There is nothing new in the email that was sent to attendees…It is established practice to coordinate media availability. In fact, many of our younger scientists seek advice from our departmental communications staff. Where we run into problems is when journalists try to lead scientists away from science and into policy matters. When it comes to policy, ministers address those issues.”
Kent was challenged in this open letter on April 4:
I disagree with the Government of Canada on many things. So many I couldn’t begin to list them here.
So it’s with some surprise that I find myself… defending at least one of their actions.
A flurry of attention got given in my FB and other circles to this story recently:
“OTTAWA (NEWS1130) – The Harper government has been monitoring political messages online, and even correcting what it considers misinformation. One local expert says the government is taking things too far.
Under the pilot program the Harper government paid a media company $75,000 to monitor and respond to online postings about the east coast seal hunt.
UBC Computer Science professor and President of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, Richard Rosenberg, says it seems unnecessary for the government to be going this far. “The government has a lot of power, that it feels the need to monitor public bulletin boards, or places where people express views and then to respond to that, seems to me going beyond a reasonable action the government should be taking.”
Rosenberg says knowing that the government is monitoring certain topics online could result in people being more careful with their identities when they’re posting about political issues on the internet.
He says it’s the first time he’s heard of this happening in Canada.”
There are 20 pages of comments on the story. Most are along the lines of this:
|Democracy dying a quicker death in Canada!
I guess the right to free speech, freedom of the press, the right to strike, belong to a union, belong to a professional group, a society, freedom to associate and every other right or freedom we have under our Constitution or the Charter of rights and freedoms will slowly be eroded by this government! Two generations of mine fought in two world wars to defeat tyrants and dictators, their legacy for us does not leave room for the same politics happening here. I work with people from all around the world and many have asked how Canadians can allow this to happen in our country. Some left their homelands to escape dictatorships and tyrrany but see it happening here. Something is dreadfully wrong here. This is no longer the Canada I grew up in, these are not the politicians my parents and grandparents would have supported.
It would be REALLY easy for me to write a post critical of the federal government’s actions. I’m not much of a fan of our current government. Except… isn’t this exactly what we tell organizations to DO?
One quick example: Radian6 has a book out called Nine Rules of Social Media. Chapter two is the rules of listening:
- Refine, refine, refine.
- Process what you hear.
- Don’t ever stop listening.
Later, they talk about “the rules of engagement”:
- You don’t have to talk directly to people to be engaged.
- Social media engagement policies and guidelines are a must.
- Be kind, be social, and be consistent.
I don’t think anyone involved with social media would find much to argue with with those rules, in principle.
Another example is the now ubiquitous US Air Force Blog Assessment Chart, made popular by Jeremiah Owyang.
And if I was being asked for advice from a client on a controversial file, I would think the fairly standard fare would include:
“Listen where people are talking about you. If you see plainly wrong information, consider whether and how to correct it. And engage in the conversation if you feel it will further your case.”
So if we social media folk tell our clients to listen all the time and engage when appropriate, why would we not want our government to do the same?
And if we want a responsive, attentive government, are they not supposed to know what people are saying in public forums and on public websites?
Whether or not we are in support of a government or a political party, surely we must be able to agree that it’s in our — and their — best interest to listen to and understand what discussions are being had in the online public square, and to understand what this means to the government’s policies and programs.
Where the government seems to me to be falling down is in explaining what it did and why. After a week (admittedly a week including a long weekend and a very difficult period of preparing to lay off thousands of employees) I received an e-mailed response from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s media office.
Here’s what I asked:
I’m a communications blogger interested in learning more about the program of monitoring and engagement DFAIT coordinated concerning the seal hunt. (see this story:
national/article/58287–or http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/ harper-government-monitoring- online-chats-about-politics Canada/20091222/seal_) monitoring_091222/
I would appreciate the opportunity to learn what tools were used, what criteria were used to gauge success or failure of the initiative, and whether it was judged successful or not. I would also appreciate seeing some examples of how and when the government engaged in discussions to correct misinformation.
Here’s what they told me:
This pilot provided a tremendous opportunity for the Government of Canada to test new media monitoring and communication tools as a way to be better informed about what Canadians are saying about important public policy issues.
There were two objectives to this pilot: to correct misinformation about Canada’s seal harvest, and to train Government of Canada employees to detect and correct misinformation about this industry. Both objectives were met.
Topics for monitoring and correction covered the two main myths regarding the seal harvest: the myth that the harvest is inhumane, and that it is unsustainable.
Not much detail there. So I guess if there’s a lesson to be had, it’s that doing good work (at least one can assume it was good work) deserves a good story to be told.
It seems like just a year or so ago that Netflix found itself in the New York Times apologizing for hiring actors to pretend to be excited about the company entering the Canadian market. And didn’t the US Federal Emergency Management agency have to apologize for pretending that its own employees were journalists, when it faked a news conference? Oh yeah, they did!
But hey, those guys are amateurs. They are certainly not “Canada’s home for hard news and straight talk”, a network that is “unwavering in their commitment to uncover the real stories impacting the lives of everyday working people and their families“.
So when Sun News wants to cover a citizenship ceremony, what ends up happening? The minister’s office sends down the orders to put together a ceremony at the Sun studios (not where Elvis and Jerry Lee hung out, sadly), and when they have trouble putting together enough warm bodies to make the ceremony look legit… the ceremony gets faked, with public servants posing as new Canadians. Here’s the video, in all its cringeworthy glory. Keep in mind as you watch it, that six of these people are not “new Canadians.” They are federal employees.
I’m guessing the two small people on the end aren’t the public servants. They appear to be children, although in this topsy-turvy world who can tell? Here’s the story as reported in the Globe and Mail, obtained through Access to Information requests by the Canadian Press.
The story’s money quote:
When a bureaucrat sent Sun News a list of possible citizenship ceremonies to cover in Ontario, a network employee suggested another scenario. “Let’s do it. We can fake the Oath,” reads an email from a sunmedia.ca email address, the name blacked out of the document.
I suppose I should draw the lessons, although I can’t imagine I have to:
- Journalists shouldn’t create pseudo events or cover them as real events.
- Public servants should have more integrity.
- Hard news and straight talk don’t mix well with “Fake the Oath.”
Let’s all be a bit better than this.
The political appointee Candice Malcom appeared on Sun News today to apologize for the event. Sun News host Pat Bolland claimed that they knew nothing of the fakery. For what it’s worth, I never would have suggested the strategy followed in the wake of this muffup. Here’s the video:
UPDATE 2: Sun News Network’s David Akin weighs in with his take on the event.
Get enough public relations professionals together, and you’ll inevitably hear the conversation. The one I’m thinking of starts around war stories, then moves to why the corner office folks (or the C-suite, if you’re more modern than I am) don’t listen to us, don’t take us seriously.
You know why? Because we cheapen ourselves. We do things that we shouldn’t, and we suffer the consequences.
Case. In. Point.
In California, water is a big deal. The water 18 million people in southern California use to drink, wash, and take care of their sewage arrives in their houses via a 240-mile pipeline all the way from the Colorado River. So I’d figure that the topic of water there is discussed a bit more than it is here in my city of Ottawa, where a mighty river brings all the water we need to our figurative doorstep.
The Los Angeles Times ran a story yesterday about one of the authorities which manage the water supply for 2 million folks living south of LA, the Central Basin Municipal Water District. The CBMWD apparently signed a $12,000/month contract with a consulting firm to write and place stories about them on a news site called “News Hawks Review.” The documents around this were obtained by the Times:
The selling point? That this would be indexed by Google News as a news outlet. Well, that door’s slammed shut — as of this morning, Google News has de-indexed News Hawks Review. In discussions with the LA Times, Coghlan claimed to have no editorial role with the News Hawks site. However, he was a frequent contributor to the site and was listed as a “reporter” with an affiliated “newshx.com” e-mail address.
Before I start opining, a caveat. I attempted yesterday to contact News Hawks Review, Coghlan (the company seems to not have a web site, which is curious for someone working in social media), and the CBMWD for comment and to ensure that the LA Times coverage was not inaccurate. None of those people responded to phone calls or emails. So if I’m extrapolating from incorrect information, be aware that I tried to verify the facts as reported.
There are two issues here, to my mind. The first is that what was done is, in my opinion, unethical. This was an attempt to create a simulacrum of news coverage without disclosing the financial interests.
I asked PRSA for a comment about this, and here’s what Prof. Deborah Silverman, the chair of their Ethics Board, told me by email:
“This practice is contrary to the Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics, which espouses honesty and accuracy in communication, the free flow of information, and disclosure of information. The Central Basin Municipal Water District’s use of a communications firm to create “news” disguised as media coverage is a serious breach of ethical standards, and the district is operating in a manner that does little to aid the public’s decision-making process.” I’m sad to say that I also e-mailed my professional association, the International Association of Business Communicators, and nobody responded.
Did CBMWD know their communications person or people were engaged in unethical behaviour? Did they endorse it? I don’t know.
Second, this is a ridiculously ineffective use of thousands of dollars. What is the measure of success here? What opinion was changed by these innocuous stories? A youtube video accompanying the story has a whopping 101 views:
Meanwhile the documents posted by the LA Times show the communications folks for CBMWD referring to this as a “unique and innovative utilization of an internet news service to distribute actual news.”
If we as PR professionals can do no better than to use the tools at our disposal in unethical and deceptive and ineffective ways, then why SHOULD the C-suite listen to us? And if the boss thinks this is what we do, why would he or she think of us as anything other than unethical shills?
UPDATE: Thanks to the PRbuilder blog, I discovered two things. First, Ragan’s PR Daily covered this issue, and second, that the LA PRSA chapter has sent a letter to the Times calling this an “egregious breach.” I don’t think the letter’s been published in the Times yet, but the Ragan story has it.