Posts filed under ‘stuff & rants’

Will charging to read the news change how we pitch story ideas?

More and more newspapers are considering bolstering their financials by charging readers for content, according to an article posted last week in American Journalism Review.  The article discusses the dilemma from a publisher’s point of view, but I can’t help wondering what it means for those of us working with reporters and editors to tell our clients’ stories.

 Reporter Cary Spivak, of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, says some papers are charging for all of their content, others are using a meter system and others charge for special stories. Spivak also says some of their content will continue to be available without charge.

How will this change the way a reporter or editor evaluates information we give them? Will publications skew their news coverage by making available more stories that people will pay for, rather than stories that have important political and social impact? Will they ignore stories that might not be as exciting or that don’t sell as well as others?  Will they look for spokesperson stars (“spokestars”?) instead of quotable, knowledgeable people?

If any of these answers are affirmative, it could mean we will have to change how we develop and pitch story ideas. Perhaps we will have to put reputation and point of view in the backseat behind sellability.  Or maybe we will have to pick our spokespeople based on star-ability rather than credibility. 

This is a scenario that could have grave consequences for our profession and our democracy. Of course, if we’re doing our jobs well now, our spokespeople are knowledge and well-spoken and, if we’re lucky, approaching spokestar quality. The stories we’re pitching should be developed to not only present our point of view and bolster our clients’ reputations, but to be exciting, full of information and something that should help a reporter tell a story others will want to read, even if they have to pay for it.

But the idea of stories being judged on their ability to get people to open their wallets instead of their minds gives me pause. What do you think?


February 27, 2011 at 5:10 pm 4 comments

The Good Seminar: The Needle In the Haystack of Spam

Public relations people must be  (to put it politely) very much in need of further education.  A day doesn’t go by that I’m not being buried in offers for seminars on this, that or the other thing, mostly related to social media.  Well, maybe somebody just thinks I’m dumb and in need of educamation, but…

As an APR, I’m thoroughly committed to constantly improving my “skill set.” But I could spend my whole career doing nothing but attending seminars, webinars and workshops. And I’m not convinced I would know much more than I know now.

I counted: Between Sept. 27 and Oct. 1, I received at least 23 solicitations for educational opportunities. And that doesn’t include the ones buried in newsletters and blogs I read from places like the Public Relations Society of America, the Daily Dog, Ragan and HARO.  They fill my mailbox like weeds in a garden and cost me time just getting rid of them. If a good one comes, it probably gets deleted with the trash.

You can’t get enough education, especially with things changing as quickly as they are. What worries me is that I could teach most of the classes being pitched to me, even about social media. That’s not a comment on my great wisdom, but on the basic (and safe for the instructor) nature of the offerings. I have this strong suspicion that many of these instructors and educational services providers are coming from (a) practitioners who are out of work or (b) agencies that want me be impressed and hire them. Many are being aimed at unemployed PR people who are feeling a little desperate…and can least afford to spend money on mediocre programs.

If the free market in educational services is to work, we need some way of judging all these classes and the people who are teaching them. We need a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for these offerings.

How do you select programs? I, for one, gravitate toward PRSA-sponsored programs or other classes from other places I’ve grown to trust like Ragan and Bulldog. I’m curious what other people to do.

PRSA is meeting next week in Washington, D.C. Lots of interesting things on the Assembly’s agenda, including improving continuing education offerings since they generate a large sum of money and prestige for the organization. Wouldn’t it be interesting, though, if PRSA (I can’t think of a better-qualified organization) established some standards for classes and teachers and offered some sort of objective rating or approval system? Wouldn’t that make it easier to select classes? And it might run some of the poorer programs out of business.

Whaddya say, PRSA?

October 8, 2010 at 10:47 am 1 comment

My Turn: NYC Mosque Debate Has Some Scary Implications for PR

I’ve been watching the debate over the NYC mosque with increasing frustration and disgust, exacerbated by news reports that people think that Pres. Barrack Obama is a Muslim and that his own church-going habits aren’t real.

 Who cares? Is he doing the right thing for the country?

 The whole mosque debate is absurd. If the zoning laws are OK with it, there is no reason that a group of Muslims can’t worship wherever they please, providing the State and City of New York has no legitimate reason for them not to.  This racially motivated attempt to block the mosque belongs in Selma, Ala., circa 1960, not here and now. We’re playing into the hands of Islamic and American Right Wing extremists.

As a PR guy, this has other scary overtones. Decision-making in a democracy is supposed to be about the intelligent exchange of ideas (stop laughing). Over the past few years, discussion, ethics and facts have been replaced with volume and innuendo. He who shouts loudest must be right. So those who aren’t so sure go along, making the volume higher. Reason, facts and morality get drowned out and we make dumb decisions. It’s plain scary.

While the mosque debate may be the loudest argument going on, it’s far from the only one. Many good public servants are finding themselves unemployed by groups using these tactics.

As a public relations person for a homebuilder, I see this tactic used regularly, if at a lower volume. The combination of statements at meetings and letters to the editor (had one the other day that talked about “all the government studies” – yeah? Show them to me!) are basically the same tactic. I’ve seen again and again opponents who don’t know the facts yell or write half truths and innuendos until the volume reaches  the point where it defeats sound judgment and, in some cases, the law. There’s oil leaching into one of New Jersey’s bays from a town that went that route rather than work with us.

I keep thinking of a profound line in Men In Black: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.” This latest trend of opinion influencing leverages that.  The media – traditional and social – exacerbates the problem, sometimes for readership, sometimes because reporters are caught up in it.

While we have to master the latest technology, maybe its time to also apply the original social media: community meetings, personal letters and other individual contact with persons. A person might listen and make a wise judgement. People, apparently, tend not to.  Who, for instance, is the face of New York City mosque? Perhaps if it had one, we’d be less afraid of it.

What do you think?

August 24, 2010 at 11:28 am

My son, the Blogger

Everybody talks about overeating on vacation, but my son and daughter-in-law, Ethan and Emily, set out on a trip up the East Coast and across Southern New England to see friends and make sure they overeat by looking for lots of interesting food. We had a great time with them when they got to New Jersey, and took them into NYC. You’ll enjoy reading Ethan’s blog about the trip:

Meanwhile, Ethan talks about the good time he had eating Chinese food and playing with his cousin Mia. So you gotta see this pic of the two of them.

July 1, 2010 at 12:11 am

Fed rules make free summer internships too expensive

I’m thinking of creating a summer shadow program because, apparently, one is no longer allowed to offer unpaid summer internships. God forbid, the government has said, that you might gain something from the work of a student. 

New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse had a very interesting story this week on the topic with some good links to the six federal criteria for running an internship program.

 I can think of few things stupider to do to our students when they are having a hard time finding jobs. While we don’t want to create slave labor summer camps, I would think there could be some balance that would help students gain some real experience and, dare I say, some of us with cut-to-the-bone departments (or agencies) get a little help while teaching. I guess I dare not say.

 Some of this ridiculousness we – the employers – have probably brought on ourselves. If we hire interns as interns, we have an obligation to teach them something other than how to run the photocopier. We all do some scut work, but they’re here to learn and it should be a privilege to teach them. I always told my interns that they will get some crappy jobs, but that they also would write at least one advertorial, one release for distribution, handle one special event and accompany me to meetings. I also asked them if there was something special they wanted to do. In short, they were treated as junior staff.

Apparently, however, allowing them to write that advertorial and release and handle that special event is bad, according to the feds. Somebody is going to have to tell me how I can teach an intern to write a release without having them do one.

 Mr. Greenhouse’s article was not news to me. K. Hovnanian Public Relations had, if I say so myself, an excellent internship program for quite a while. Our interns went on to some really exciting jobs. At least one learned that he didn’t want to do public relations, which I think is a terrific use of an internship.  

 When the real estate market headed south, it took my internship budget with it. I got away with the unpaid thing for a while, but then human resources waved the guidelines under my nose.

I’d love to know how other firms and small departments are dealing with unpaid internships. What are you doing?  Or have you just given up? Use the comment  key below to share your thoughts.

I’m thinking of creating a summer shadow program. It wouldn’t be for the whole summer, but I’m going to see if I can make it worth some credit. I’m sure the intern – I mean, shadow — will get underfoot, so that’ll meet one of the federal criteria. But, for at least a short time, they can see what a corporate public relations operation is. And maybe they can get away with writing a press release or helping with an event. Would that be worthwhile? Or perhaps I should ask if it would provide me with too much benefit.

Anyway, I’ll let you know what happens.

April 6, 2010 at 11:40 pm 2 comments

He did it!

As discussed here and in several other places, including the Ethical Optimist, Jack O’Dwyer, publisher of a newsletter that monitors the PR industry, told agencies they had to pay to be included on his list of top agencies. Many declined, citing ethical reasons. According to PRNewser, he dropped several agencies from his new list. Well, if I ever get the budget to hire an agency again, the agencies that declined to pay to be on the list will be the ones I’d consider calling. And as for the agencies that are on his list, I’d love to see a discussion of the benefits of being on one of these lists, especially one where you have to pay to be there. Perhaps they see it as another ad.

March 9, 2010 at 10:42 am

Agency rankings: O’Dwyer takes agency rankings from meaningless to unethical

One of my favorite blogs is Ann Subervi’s The Ethical Optimist.  She just posted a great entry about publications that offer listings of public relations agencies ( These lists, she says, are useless because there’s nothing standardized about them, they’re not verified and agencies can send whatever information in that they want.

She also chastises Jack O’Dwyer, who publishes an industry newsletter and goes out of his way to antagonize members the Public Relations Society of America (of which I’m a member). Mr. O’Dwyer provides a listing of agencies, but now charges agencies to be on it.  If that doesn’t skew results that are already skewed by a lot of other factors, I can’t imagine what would.

By way of full disclosure, I have my own personal list of PR agencies and Utopia Communications is right at the top. Ann and her folks have supported my work at K. Hovnanian for many years, helping with media relations, events, crises and just keeping me cheered up when the weight of the real estate market got to be too heavy. We are talking about doing some social media work together.

But Utopia isn’t the only agency that I’ve used (sorry, Ann). And I do not use the listings from O’Dwyers, PRWeek or any other publication. It’s an interesting place to look and see where my friends’ agencies land (if they’re on there), but that’s not how I make a decision. Instead, I look at who’s writing articles or teaching seminars conducted by PRSA or International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) or other groups I respect. I talk with others and ask who they use or would recommend. I use my network to find names and check them out.

When you’re looking for an agency to work with, you’re looking for a business partner. Not only do they need the technical skills to do the job, they have to match you in size, ethical position and temperament.  You have to keep in mind that huge agencies usually require huge retainers. Is it worth burning your budget on a name? If your budget is as meager as mine (read: $0), you have to find someone who’s really good and better fits your budget (read: $0…ok, just read: reasonable).

Are they willing to adhere to your strict ethical standards? Any agency that works with me must adhere to the PRSA Code of Ethics and sign an agreement to do so.  Our company also has a code of ethics that it requires trade partners to agree to.

And because I’m a one-person department working at about a million miles per hour, anybody I hire better be able to follow my instructions and hit my high standards with a minimum of supervision. And the reality is that the most successful people with whom I’ve partnered learn to read my mind.  They understand what K. Hovnanian PR needs and don’t need me to sit in long conferences to get jobs done.

The last place to get that information is a list, especially one where one of the qualifying factors is ponying up an inclusion fee.

February 28, 2010 at 2:00 pm 1 comment

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