Media

Holy War of Words

The gridiron success of Portland’s two largest Catholic high schools prompted an Oregonian story calling them “artificial all-star” teams that should play in their own league and triggered a smart response by Jesuit High School’s principal about how the current senior class went from a winless freshman season to state champions.

The gridiron success of Portland’s two largest Catholic high schools prompted an Oregonian story calling them “artificial all-star” teams that should play in their own league and triggered a smart response by Jesuit High School’s principal about how the current senior class went from a winless freshman season to state champions.

Jesuit High School Principal Paul Hogan picked a smart spot to respond to an Oregonian article that claimed Portland’s two largest Catholic high school football squads have become “artificial all-star teams.” Hogan's response illustrates when and how to respond to negative press.

Andrew Nemec, who describes himself as a “recruiting reporter” wrote: “Scan the rosters of both programs, and it’s startling jut how much talent has been sloshed off programs desperately in need of better athletes just to stay competitive.” He added “there’s nothing holy” about the so-called Holy War when Jesuit plays Central Catholic because “the rivalry is more artificially enhanced than baseball’s steroids era.”

Charges that Jesuit and Central Catholic poach players from other schools is hardly new. But Nemec took the charge to a new level by mentioning specific players and the high schools they would be playing for “if not for their departures to private schools.” While acknowledging private schools across the country have advantages, he singled out Jesuit as the top athletic program in the nation after winning state titles in football, girls volleyball, girls swimming, girls soccer, boys swimming, baseball, softball, boys tennis and girls track.

Interestingly, with all that talent, Jesuit is ranked second in Oregon’s big-school Class 6A football rankings. West Linn, a public high school, is number one. Nemec wrote that after losing to Jesuit in the 6A state final last year, West Linn added two all-state players from Wilsonville and a tight end from Tigard. “The arms race has begun to infect top public schools, too,” he concluded.

Hogan was among the commenters on Nemec’s article. He also shared his thoughts in a post titled "Fact Check" on the school's website. Noting his educational background as an English teacher and an editor, Hogan proceeded to shred Nemec’s thesis. The Oregonian reporter directed tweets to a handful of Jesuit football players, asking in what public high school boundary area they lived.

“In two cases, Mr. Nemec apparently did not know that the students he contacted had attended Catholic schools since preschool and had every intention of remaining in the parochial system for high school,” Hogan wrote. Another student mentioned in the article enrolled in Jesuit after his family moved to Oregon.

“Jesuit High School offers no scholarships or financial aid based on merit or talent,” Hogan said. The $2.85 million in annual financial aid is parceled out based on family financial status as determined by an out-of-state independent evaluator.

His biggest zinger was disputing Nemec’s claim that after Jesuit’s senior class suffered a winless freshman season, the school went on the recruiting trail to land the “state’s top talent.” Hogan said the current senior class is the largest in Jesuit’s history. Only three transfer students gained enrollment at Jesuit the year following the winless football season – and none were in-state football players.

Hogan cited Tim Massey, who was an assistant coach for the freshman team when the current Jesuit seniors lost all nine games of their season. “That 0-9 season, and its aftermath, is one of the most cherished memories in 33 years of coaching," Massey said. "Those guys could have given up or gotten down on themselves or simply found other things to do. Instead, they gutted out that season, hit the weight room and kept after it. And they got stronger and better.” As it turned out, a lot better. Several players have committed to play NCAA Division I football.

Hogan’s response was well played and provided a factual rebuttal to aspects of Nemec’s article. His comments won’t sway some people who dislike schools like Jesuit, but he pushed back against points that Nemec couldn’t substantiate so the online record is balanced.

He jabbed Nemec for failing to call him to check facts or get Jesuit’s side of the story, another key point to have on the record.

Responding to unfavorable stories requires strategy and savvy. The smartest place to push back is on factual errors or the lack of balance in a story. That’s what Hogan did. He was restrained and respectful, but firm. He also took the high road.

“If someone at The Oregonian wants a real story,” he said, “I suggest they write about the amazing, powerful ‘purple-out for CCA’ fundraiser that Central and Jesuit’s student body conducted at the big game last Friday night.” Then he invited to Nemec to join him at a student mass and “discover the true source of Jesuit High’s success.”

Why Attorneys and PR Counselors Should Play Nice

Clients in crisis have enough stress without enduring a squabbling attorney and PR counselor who fail to provide advice to minimize liability while preserving a reputation.

Clients in crisis have enough stress without enduring a squabbling attorney and PR counselor who fail to provide advice to minimize liability while preserving a reputation.

One of the biggest challenges in responding to a crisis is balancing lawyerly advice about courtroom liability with PR counsel about the court of public opinion.

Avoiding or minimizing legal liability can come at the expense of tarnishing or losing a reputation. For some clients, losing a reputation is more costly – and more permanent – than an adverse verdict.

Advising clients to say nothing can be a safe legal position, but a precarious reputational position. It is incumbent for attorneys and PR counselors to respect what each other does and offer clients constructive counsel that protects their full set of interests.

Wise attorneys recognize the power of words, so they carefully shape their messages. Experienced PR counselors understand the judicial process. That should form the basis for mutual respect and a healthy working relationship.

Attorneys and PR counselors are both advocates, each with a different target audience and parallel lenses to view the crisis. Judges and juries – not to mention opposing legal counsel – are a key audience. But so are the people affected by or interested in the crisis and its cause, which can include coworkers, neighbors, customers, regulators and, of course, the news media.

In law school, attorneys are taught how to parse words in cases and frame arguments. They don’t always learn the power of what is not said – or of not saying anything.

Journalists and PR professionals typically get a superficial picture in their training of how the legal system works. Most never spend time in an actual courtroom, watching a trial or diving into briefs supporting lawsuits. Few have covered a criminal or civil matter from beginning to end for a news outlet. Some have never heard of attorney-client privilege or appreciate its significance to protect clients and communications.

Clients deserve fulsome advice, even to the extent of differing views. An attorney and PR counselor may have sharply varying viewpoints on how much the client should say and when to say it. Dispensing their counsel in a respectful, professional manner gives clients a fuller view of their options and the risks and opportunities attaching to those options.

Self-confident attorneys and PR counselors serve their clients well when they collaborate and do their best to arrive proactively at a consensus that doesn’t equate to stonewalling or self-indicting confessions.

One of the most vital conversations is what can be said or done that provides reassurance to the people most impacted by a crisis. Earning trust in the heat of a crisis depends on meaningful actions and clear statements. This is as valid to consider as the ultimate liability for the crisis.

Despite coming from different universes, attorneys and PR counselors can be good teammates. And for the good of their clients, they should be.

In a crisis, clients already have enough stress. The last thing they need is a pair of squabbling advocates. However, attorneys and PR counselors don’t always play nicely together in the sand box. They have been called the “oil and water team.” Attorneys discount PR counselor understanding of the law. PR counselors think lawyers are rigid impediments to clients telling their story. Clients facing crisis shouldn’t settle for either stereotype. There are attorneys and PR counselors who know how to work together in the best interests of their collective clients.

An important part of crisis planning and preparation is to ensure your attorney and PR counselor have track records of collaboration and mutual appreciation that winning in court, but losing in the court of public opinion still equals a loss.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.

Make Time Your Most Valuable Ally

In managing a complex, challenging issue, time can be your ally or your enemy. Make time your ally with disciplined anticipation, avoiding surprising and strong first impressions.

In managing a complex, challenging issue, time can be your ally or your enemy. Make time your ally with disciplined anticipation, avoiding surprising and strong first impressions.

A client recently asked what is the most important factor in effectively managing a challenging issue. Without a doubt, the answer is time.

Time can be a friend or an enemy. Time can be on your side or an advantage for your opposition.

Because timing is so crucial, these actions take on greater significance:

Anticipation

How to prepare for and respond to a crisis and handle reputation management in difficult times. Cautionary tales and words of advice from our quarter-century in the business. 

How to prepare for and respond to a crisis and handle reputation management in difficult times. Cautionary tales and words of advice from our quarter-century in the business. 

Anticipating an issue can yield valuable time to develop a response, test messages, prepare materials and make initial contacts.

Anticipation cannot be a random act. Sensing an early wind of an emerging issue requires a disciplined approach of active listening. You need to read traditional media and tune in to alternative media where your detractors may congregate. Keep an eye on the New York Times bestseller list, which is a telling guide to what people are reading and consequently talking about. The same goes for issue-oriented movies that can create a pulse of interest in an issue sparked by a Hollywood star.

Surprise

Making a surprise announcement can be a disarming tactic. It also can be a destabilizing one.

Generally speaking, catching people by surprise is not a good thing. Your supporters don’t like being surprised. Surprising skeptics can reinforce their skepticism. Opponents can turn surprise announcements into launchpads for counteroffensives.

Using time wisely means not resorting to surprise for effect. You can be more intentional, even methodical in your decision-making, message development and advance outreach. The people you want to impress will the first to know, not the last.

First Impression

First impressions are the ones that usually stick and can influence how people view an issue as it evolves. Making a great first impression – and being the first to make an impression – is the greatest reward that time can give.

Major brands work hard on new product rollouts to make a great first impression, which can affect buy decisions. The same holds true on issues management. Making the first impression is a huge advantage in ultimately persuading people to your point of view.

When you tell your story first, and do so credibly, which can mean including third-party validation, you have your best shot at winning the day. When opponents tell their story first and you must respond defensively, your chances of prevailing diminish. It’s not a lost cause, but it often is an uphill battle.

Being first and being thoughtful and convincing is only possible if you have time and steward your time well.

Time is and always has been the greatest home field advantage. Never cede it to the visiting team.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

The Power of Perception Over Reality

Clueless behavior can result in negative perceptions that are hard to shake and can overwhelm reality. Just ask Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton about the power of perception.

Clueless behavior can result in negative perceptions that are hard to shake and can overwhelm reality. Just ask Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton about the power of perception.

Perception and reality are not automatically the same. And often perception packs more punch than reality, as the presumptive presidential candidates learned in recent days.

Former President Bill Clinton trots across an airport tarmac to chat with Attorney General Loretta Lynch who is on the threshold of deciding whether to indict Hillary Clinton.

Donald Trump, already suspected of sympathies with white supremacists, sends a tweet bearing an image viewed by many as anti-Semitic.

Bill Clinton said he just exchanged pleasantries with Lynch. Trump denied being anti-Semitic, noting his son-in-law is Jewish. Both claims may be true, but neither is very believable. Perceptions overrule reality.

There is a shortage of trust in American politics today, so perceptions of wrongdoing or tone deaf behavior have fertile soil to sprout regardless of reality.

Perceptions don’t just pertain to incidental behavior. Hillary Clinton suffers from long-term suspicion that she has played fast and loose with the rules, including use of a private email account and server while secretary of state. FBI Director James Comey’s statement excusing Clinton from a criminal charge, but accusing her for carelessly handling classified material only added to long-held perceptions about her.

The power of perception to cloud a reputation or tarnish a good act cannot be denied. Yet, leaders plod along without thinking of how their actions might be perceived as opposed to how they are intended. Pleading ignorance or lamely saying you were misunderstood doesn’t cut you much slack. In fact, it may  deepen perceptions you are a lunkhead.

Wishing people who hold negative perceptions could know the “truth” is much like pinning your hopes on miracles or the tooth fairy.

The advent of social media has raised the stakes of thoughtless or clueless behavior. What might have eluded the traditional media rarely escapes the ever-peering eye of social media, as PBS discovered when it failed to note it was inserting footage from previous Fourth of July fireworks displays into its broadcast of this year’s Capitol celebration that occurred under ominous clouds. No big deal, but it still produced a news cycle full of stories about the “deception."

You don’t need a degree in psychology to know perceptions can crowd out reality in people’s minds. Perceptions have a habit of becoming their own reality. Chronic perceptions ossify into major barriers for making a fresh impression. Think of how hard it will be to convince people that Congress can be productive.

Building trust is hard enough. Don’t make it harder by leaving behind perceptions that undermine trustworthiness. You may never have a chance to climb out of the hole you dig for yourself.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.

The Online Newsroom in the Public Square

Building a website is no longer a daunting, bank account-busting undertaking. Creating online newsrooms can be even easier still.

An online newsroom is a website, but without all the bells and whistles that many websites need to have. Online newsrooms economically package online content much like a media operation would for easy viewer access.

Online newsrooms were originally conceived as convenient outlets to share content with the news media. As time went on, they morphed into neatly packaged online tools to share content with anybody.

Building and managing online newsrooms is one CFM's unique services. Online newsrooms allow our clients not only to better connect with the media but to exhibit transparency through often challenging or large public projects. 

Building and managing online newsrooms is one CFM's unique services. Online newsrooms allow our clients not only to better connect with the media but to exhibit transparency through often challenging or large public projects. 

In the public affairs space, online newsrooms typically serve as hubs for useful background materials and news updates on big-time policy issues or large public projects. They become case exhibits for transparency, making relevant information, links, presentations, pictures, videos, blogs, a Twitter feed and news updates readily accessible.

Unlike websites, which can require group decision-making and some coding expertise to change, online newsrooms are posted using off-the-shelf platforms that are easy and inexpensive to update or modify.

What you can put on an online newsroom is only limited by your imagination. But the key is the same as for websites – understanding and delivering what your likely viewers want to see.

Building a quality online newsroom involves the same process of assessing the interests and information needs of your anticipated or desired viewer persona. In the case of public affairs, the viewer isn’t a customer, but a reporter, supporter, opponent or influencer.

The homepage for  ocgcannexation.com , an online newsroom CFM recently built for a client.

The homepage for ocgcannexation.com, an online newsroom CFM recently built for a client.

The questions to answer include: What would be of use to news reporters? What would proponents of an issue or project want? What would address concerns or questions by opponents? What would be useful for an influencer to know and how can that information be validated?

The simplicity and nimbleness of online newsrooms make it easy to adjust to unanticipated support or opposition or capitalize on an event that sheds light on your issue or project.

Like anything described with the word “newsroom,” online newsrooms need to adhere to basic journalistic integrity. They should be written in AP Style, like news articles. They should provide information with a point of view, without being in-your-face opinionated. They should reason not rant. They should contain content that is useful and possibly even a little entertaining rather than dull, boring soapbox speeches.

One of the great benefits of digital media is its shareability. Online newsrooms act like publishing houses and broadcast outlets in allowing you to share information focused on a specific issue or project and curated specifically for the audiences interested in them.

When you think about it, the information you share with the news media is the information you would like your audiences to know. Online newsrooms are an efficient, cost-effective way to speak to everyone in one place while earning respect from supporters and detractors alike.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Online News Startups Feeling Ad Dollar Pinch

April has been a sobering month for online news startups, as BuzzFeed and other industry leaders were forced to cut budgets, layoff workers or slash revenue expectations for the year. The struggles stem from a perfect storm of plateauing web traffic and faltering ad revenue in the competitive online marketplace. 

April has been a sobering month for online news startups, as BuzzFeed and other industry leaders were forced to cut budgets, layoff workers or slash revenue expectations for the year. The struggles stem from a perfect storm of plateauing web traffic and faltering ad revenue in the competitive online marketplace. 

The story of newspapers struggling to escape an industrywide die-off amid an explosion of digital alternatives is nothing new.   

But you might be surprised to hear that the rising startups of the online news world aren’t exactly raking in the profits either. In fact, as John Herrman of The New York Times wrote last week, some of the biggest brands in online news are already being forced to tighten their belts.

“This month, Mashable, a site that had just raised $15 million, laid off 30 people,” Herrman said. “Salon, a web publishing pioneer, announced a new round of budget cuts and layoffs. And BuzzFeed, which has been held up as a success story, was forced to bat back questions about its revenue – but not before founders at other start-up media companies received calls from anxious investors.”

BuzzFeed appeared to be doing fine until The Financial Times reported earlier this month that the company fell $80 million short of its $250 million revenue goal for 2015. Building upon the dismal picture, BuzzFeed lowered expectations for the near future, slicing revenue projections for 2016 in half from $500 million to $250 million.

The news was a stunning development for an online world that has come to look to BuzzFeed as a content strategy leader. BuzzFeed has become a trend setter over the past several years with the popularity of its punchy listicles and quirky quizzes. Impressed with BuzzFeed’s ability to draw a massive online audience, struggling newspapers looked to the site as a model for how to get clicks. Building on that early success, BuzzFeed later expanded from a news and entertainment aggregator into providing its own news coverage. Fast-forward several years to today, BuzzFeed now fields a formidable investigative political reporting team, which has broken numerous stories about the 2016 presidential candidates.

But altogether, the revenue struggles of BuzzFeed, Mashable and Salon indicate it’s a dangerous time for publishers and a tricky time for advertising, both on the web and in print as neither sector appears to have found a stable business model for the digital age.

“The trouble, the publishers say, is twofold,” Herrman said. “The web advertising business, always unpredictable, became more treacherous. And website traffic plateaued at many large sites, in some cases falling – a new and troubling experience after a decade of exuberant growth.”

Numerous financial challenges have emerged for online publishers in the past several years, Herrman said. That includes anything from ad-blocking tools and automated advertising to the growing trend of readers gathering their news from stories posted on Facebook and other social networks.

“Audiences drove the change, preferring to refresh their social feeds and apps instead of visiting website home pages,” Herrman said. “As social networks grew, visits to websites in some ways became unnecessary detours, leading to the weakened traffic numbers for news sites.”

Of course, advertisers have taken notice of the metrics, leading them to invest heavily in ads on Facebook (and Google) than with online news startups like BuzzFeed, Morgan Stanley analyst Brian Nowak said.  

Posing further challenges on other fronts, Facebook just unveiled a big 10-year expansion plan that looks to give people fewer reasons to navigate away from Facebook. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg recently spoke of Facebook’s ambitions to launch “TV-style live video.” Some like BuzzFeed and Vox are racing for their own video production deals with sights set on TV and film, and others like Mashable are investing more heavily in expanding their presence on Facebook.   

“Other companies are looking to focus more on branded content like videos, sponsored stories and full-fledged campaigns,” Herrman said. “But publishers have quickly learned that those efforts are labor-intensive and put them in direct competition with advertising agencies.”

The bottom line is if you thought the online startups had it all figured out, well, not just yet at least. The future of the news industry is still just as unclear as ever before. 

Justin Runquist is CFM’s communications counsel. He is a former reporter for The Oregonian, The Columbian and The Spokesman-Review. Away from the office, he’s a baseball fanatic with foolhardy hopes that the Mariners will go to the World Series someday. You can reach Justin at justinr@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @_JustinRunquist.

People Like to See Things as They Happen

A news crew live streamed interviews at a GOP presidential debate on Facebook Live, a tool that is making live streaming of breaking events an attractive option with low production costs and high viewer and interactive upside.

A news crew live streamed interviews at a GOP presidential debate on Facebook Live, a tool that is making live streaming of breaking events an attractive option with low production costs and high viewer and interactive upside.

Streaming media may have started with elevator music in the 1930s, but today it has expanded to live streaming of events over the Internet. News organizations are trying to tap larger online audiences by live streaming newsworthy events. Their experiences may embolden public affairs managers to join the parade.

CFM’s most recent Under the Dome blog post reported how CNN, MSNBC and other news outlets provided real-time coverage of the March 28 Capitol shooter incident by live streaming video shot with smartphones by people trapped in the building. Other news organizations are experimenting with live streaming the news in a less ad hoc manner.

Poynter.org’s Benjamin Mullin shared the experiences of four different news outlets that are experimenting with live streaming via Facebook Live, a two-month-old channel that gets a news feed preference in the social media site’s algorithm. The early trials are pretty impressive and suggest live streaming news will become more prevalent.

Here are excerpts from Mullin’s piece about NPR, The Verge, BuzzFeed and KXLY-TV in Spokane:

NPR

The public radio network live streamed its political coverage of the so-called “Mega Tuesday” election results on Facebook Live after producing a video that it posted on Facebook after Super Tuesday voting. Lori Todd, an NPR social media editor, told Mullin that the live streamed coverage drew “thousands more comments and seven times the view duration.” The Mega Tuesday feed lasted 34 minutes.

Todd said live streaming allowed NPR to reach highly engaged fans as questions from the Facebook Live audience were used in the broadcast. “Facebook has built the tool to be accessible to the most people possible – all you need is your phone and the Facebook app,” she added.

The Verge

The Verge – a Vox-owned American tech news and culture network – has applied live streaming with Facebook Live to product release announcements for the Galaxy S7 and iPhone SE and in-office question and answer sessions. It has used the technique to demonstrate the security risks of New York Wi-Fi hotspots and test new Oreo flavors. Vox reports its live streaming experiments have attracted a “large video audience” with only a “small time investment from producers and writers.” It also has boosted Facebook page reach, Vox says.

BuzzFeed

Through its multiple Facebook pages, BuzzFeed has conducted 70 live streaming videos, including its Tasty’s Fondue Party that Mullin said “racked up 5.2 million views and thousands of comments.” Encouraged by early results, BuzzFeed is doing its homework “to learn more about live – what type of content our audience enjoys live, how we can use live in new and different ways, how we can interact more with our audience by creating live content.”

KXLY-TV

An ABC affiliate in the smaller Spokane news market, KXLY-TV has toyed with live streaming to give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at its newscast, conduct a live Q&A with its sports director and cover a press conference “about a man who shot a pastor.” Station officials received positive feedback from viewers who appreciated hearing firsthand what was said by law enforcement spokesmen about the troubling incident.

Melissa Luck, executive producer and director of social strategy for the TV station, told Mullin, “It has given viewers a chance to interact directly with our reporters and anchors and it has benefitted both sides of that video stream interaction. People like watching things as they happen."

The relative simplicity and low technology threshold posed by live streaming creates intriguing opportunities for issue managers and crisis counselors. A video production showing how a complex process works may be less believable than watching a spontaneous live-streamed demonstration. Video from the scene of an environmental spill that is placed on Twitter provides a timely update, but live coverage of spill remediation may be more reassuring and less suspect.

Some of the live streaming pioneers report squeamishness about events “being suddenly broadcast for the world to see.” While understandable, “live streaming” is already out of the bottle as people with smartphones become reporting genies on the spot. Mastering these emerging tools is just another way to keep up with the competition of sharing news – and telling your story. 

BuzzFeed Delivers Downers to Political Candidates

Nobody has exploited digital media better than BuzzFeed to explode the hypocrisy and contradictions of political candidates, setting an example for others to follow to humble the mighty or trip up the well-intentioned.

Nobody has exploited digital media better than BuzzFeed to explode the hypocrisy and contradictions of political candidates, setting an example for others to follow to humble the mighty or trip up the well-intentioned.

The digital age has become a heyday for opponents. You can bring down a dictator or a local ballot measure with a laptop computer and cell phone. You can embarrass a political candidate by digging up obscure speeches, photographs and video stored on the Web.

Lately, nobody has been better at humbling the mighty than BuzzFeed.

BuzzFeed launched nine years ago to track and share “contagious news.” By 2011, BuzzFeed graduated from a social media and entertainment Internet company into a full-fledged news operation that retained its “clickbait headlines."

Based in New York City, BuzzFeed produces content daily from its staff reporters, regular contributors, syndicated cartoonists and its community of readers. During the 2016 presidential election cycle, which seems like it has gone on forever, BuzzFeed has become the journalistic equivalent of what political pros call “oppo research.”

Andrew Kaczynski, 26, is in charge of BuzzFeed’s 4-person political research unit, called the K-File. He is referred to as the unit’s “old man."

Kaczynski is a journalist who earned his spurs by posting clips on YouTube that contradicted what politicians said on the stump. BuzzFeed hired him in 2011 and his reputation has continued to grow. One admirer called Kaczynski the “Oppenheimer of archival video research.” He was called the most influential opposition researcher in the 2012 GOP presidential primary, where he posted footage of Mitt Romney running for governor of Massachusetts as a “progressive.” It was Kaczynski who exposed Rand Paul for plagiarizing lines from the movie Stand and Deliver for a Senate floor speech about immigration.

BuzzFeed has vexed most of the candidates in this cycle by finding material from their shadowy pasts that causes them present-day heartburn. A piece this week by NPR credited BuzzFeed for discovering the video in which Ben Carson said the pyramids of Egypt were built as grain silos and the records showing Hillary Clinton’s claim was false that all four of her grandparents were immigrants.

It was BuzzFeed that found the C-SPAN clip from 1996 when Clinton referred to some children as “superpredators” and the dusty 1985 video of Bernie Sanders speaking admiringly about the Sandinistas and Fidel Castro. It also was BuzzFeed that produced audio indicating Donald Trump wasn’t opposed to invading Iraq from the beginning after all.

Having potent material on BuzzFeed’s popular channels would be bad enough for candidates, but its posts are now routinely picked up by more traditional news organizations. It was CNN that pinned down Clinton on her “superpredator” remark and got her apology. 

The BuzzFeed model conforms perfectly to digital media. It relies on deep dives into long forgotten data pools. It thrives on shareable, attention-grabbing content. It produces contagious news that spreads virally through and beyond social channels.

The cautionary tale of BuzzFeed is that all it takes to be good at opposition research is the patience to keep searching for contradictions, misstatements and hypocrisies. The caution in the tale extends beyond running for political office to any kind of public statement, proclamation or claim. Make sure what you say is true and consistent with what you have said. If you’ve changed your view, own it. If you have dirt swept under the rug, be prepared to deal with it. 

Andrew Kaczynski isn't a digital one-off. His clone may be your next-door neighbor.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Trump: Accomplished Ringmaster of the Communication Circus

Donald Trump can provoke and command attention, but his brand of communication may not work for everyone.

Donald Trump can provoke and command attention, but his brand of communication may not work for everyone.

Donald Trump has turned the presidential race, political correctness and polite discourse on their head. So, is he exemplifying the traits of a good or bad communicator? That probably is a matter influenced by your political persuasion, but a fair analysis suggests he has both good and bad communication traits.

In what one voter called the “post-pragmatic” period in American history, Trump offers passion over policy. He insults instead of ingratiates. He emotes rather than explains.

The Donald’s mix of provocative statements, nonstop tweets and 24/7 media availability has managed to smother the campaign fires of his opponents. He calls a Fox News analyst a bimbo and gets more coverage than a candidate who unveils a 10-point plan on a vital issue.

Critics say Trump is playing on fears, inflaming biases and inciting anger. Supporters say he is merely channeling pent-up political reaction to government rigor mortis.

Regardless of whether Trump continues to fly high in the GOP presidential sweepstakes, there are some lessons to learn from how he campaigns. Writing for ragan.com, Clare Lane lists some of Trump's best takeaways:

•  He has a core message that he repeats over and over.

•  He taps into the emotional “truth” of his audience.

•  He speaks in language his audience understands.

•  He knows how to reframe questions and issues.

•  He is intentionally different than his opponents.

Trump tells big crowds at his rallies that he is running for president to “make America great again.” He has turned a tagline into a mantra, a phrase into a brand.

Perhaps ironically as a billionaire, Trump empathizes with people who feel downtrodden. He knows their hot buttons and he isn’t hesitant to push them.

It’s no accident that Trump has made racist and sexist remarks and dismissed political correctness as a liberal conspiracy. They are calculated comments to connect with deep-seated feelings and fears in the voters he seeks to attract.

Trump is a master at turning around questions. He pivots to make his points, without worrying whether he answers a question. Even when pressed, Trump shifts the topic.

From his cartoonish hair to his braggadocio behavior to his testy tweets, Trump is unparalleled. There is no one like him. In a field of dozens, being so distinctive has made him the center of attention, which he maintains by consistently “surprising” everyone. He even got a full news cycle’s worth of coverage for staying overnight once in Iowa instead of flying back to his New York penthouse.

If those are his good traits, what are his bad ones? It is pretty much the same list.

Trump barks his key message because he doesn’t have – or doesn’t want to share – many details of what he would do if elected president. Yes, we know he would tear up some executive orders, but how would he build that huge wall between the United States and Mexico, how would he deal with Chinese leaders, how would he increase the wages of average Americans? And what exactly about America’s past does he view as so great to warrant its revival?

Trump is long on passion, but short on persuasion. Sooner or later, when emotions cool, you want some real answers.

Speaking the language of those you seek to reach is critical, but not all-encompassing. Sometimes leadership requires speaking above the crowd, raising its sights. You can summon the “better angels” of ourselves with familiar phrases used in powerful ways.

People who conduct media training teach how to bridge from awkward questions back to key messages. Sometimes, however, the most provocative thing to do is actually answer that awkward question.

Being different is a good thing, but it isn’t the only thing. Building trust, showing emotional intelligence and displaying grace under pressure count, too.

There should be no argument that Trump is an accomplished ringmaster in the communication circus. What may seem like indulgence may, in fact, be a disciplined, if highly irregular, approach to gaining and retaining notice.

Consider Trump’s decision not to participate in the final GOP presidential debate before next week’s Iowa caucuses. Was it really meant to snub Megyn Kelly because of her questioning in an earlier debate? Or was it a shrewd maneuver to thwart the plans of his Republican rivals to gang up on him during the debate?

Like him or not, Trump is a study in how to communicate. Some good, some not so good. He definitely is not a loser, though, even if you view him as a lousy candidate.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling


Two Visions for Successful News Outlets

Philadelphia newspapers are entering a new era after H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, right, handed over ownership of the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com to the nonprofit Institute for Journalism in New Media. Meanwhile, journalist-turned-entrepreneur Steve Brill, left, says newspapers fail to understand how to operate paywalls and produce the kind of content readers will have to pay to get. 

Philadelphia newspapers are entering a new era after H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, right, handed over ownership of the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com to the nonprofit Institute for Journalism in New Media. Meanwhile, journalist-turned-entrepreneur Steve Brill, left, says newspapers fail to understand how to operate paywalls and produce the kind of content readers will have to pay to get. 

Philadelphia’s newspapers are entering the uncharted territory of nonprofit ownership. Meanwhile, journalist-turned-entrepreneur Steve Brill says newspapers are clueless about paywalls and generating the content readers will pay to read.

For Portlanders, both trends may seem like more promising options than witnessing the slow shrinkage of The Oregonian.

In Philadelphia, H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest handed over ownership of the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com to the Institute for Journalism in New Media, a newly created arm of the Philadelphia Foundation. The keys to the publications came with a $20 million endowment from Lenfest.

But largesse won’t keep the presses rolling in Philadelphia. Earnings from the endowment will be given as grants for reporting projects and journalistic innovation. The publications will retain independent management and remain dependent on advertising and subscription revenues.

While reaction in Philadelphia was generally positive, Brill is cajoling newspapers to take bolder steps that may seem counterintuitive to newspaper owners. Brill says newspapers should beef up their reporting staffs to produce content that people will pay to read through paywalls. The challenge today, Brill says, isn’t the idea. It’s having anything left in the newsroom worth paying for.

"We had a meeting at one big paper – I think it was the Atlanta Journal Constitution,” Brill told James Warren, writing for Poynter. "They were psyched to do this, but one editor walked us out of the building and said, 'It's a good idea but I'm not sure we still have anything left to sell.’"

Brill cited an example of a Montana newspaper with a successful paywall. "They were covering the local school board, local politics, local sports – and people wanted to buy it,” he said.

Categorizing newspaper owners as something less than “swashbucklers,” Brill predicts, "Some smart venture capitalist is going to bottom feed a large company and bring in people who do it right. That means beefing up the website, making it the place for information and news in a community and getting people to log in so often, you will be able to get by with only printing, say, once a week, maybe on Sunday. And online will be a seven-day-a-week product that everybody will be happy with and will be self-sustaining.”

Brill sees his mission as "hand holding with publishers and people in newsrooms to get them to support investing in the newsroom.”

"This is not a group of business people who are real business people,” he says. "They either inherited monopolies or were, by then, part of big chains in the hands of debt holders. The industry wasn't full of high quality, big thinkers, in terms of the people running it, since for many years it didn't have to be.

"For years, if you had a paper, for many advertisers, you were the only game in town. If the Oldsmobile dealer wanted to announce a sale, you got the ad. Now there isn't even an Oldsmobile dealer, and the car dealers who are left have multiple ways to market their cars and infinitely more efficient ways to market used cars. The underpinning of the business was eviscerated and in many places the people who inherited the businesses weren't prepared, since they never had to really compete.”

Brill believes investigative journalism is key to paid content, though he concedes readers are unlikely to be willing to pay its full cost.

“In the history of the world, if you are talking about quality journalism, where you have to pay people to do real reporting and go travel to do interviews, it would be hard to name the quality journalism organization that existed solely on advertising revenue,” Brill admits. "The closest is the broadcast networks in the '60s, '70s and '80s when they had 90 percent of the eyeballs in the country. And even then their news operations mostly didn't make money and were really considered a public service.”

Brill, 65, earned his cred in 1978 with an exposé book about the Teamsters Union. A graduate of Yale Law School, Brill founded Court TV (now truTV), a cable and satellite channel that gives viewers an inside look at courtrooms. In 1998, he launched Brill’s Content as a media watchdog, which ended with a controversial piece alleging independent counsel Ken Starr leaked grand jury proceedings involving the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Brill has written attention-grabbing pieces about educational inequality and profit-making gaming in the health care industry. He most recently produced a 15-part documentary about Johnson & Johnson titled, “America’s Most Admired Lawbreaker.”

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.

The Profound Transition of the News

It isn't just the news business in transition. The switch to mobile devices is driving news content and delivery in new directions.

It isn't just the news business in transition. The switch to mobile devices is driving news content and delivery in new directions.

Everyone acknowledges the news business is undergoing a fundamental transition. That transition, however, may be more profound than we realize.

It is obvious print and electronic news media are moving rapidly to establish or enhance their online presence. Less obvious is the shift to delivering the news on mobile platforms such as smartphones.

Gone are the days when a large percentage of the population sat around the kitchen table in the morning reading the newspaper or coming home at night from work, putting on slippers and watching the nightly news on TV. Nowadays, people experience the news almost constantly on electronic devices. 

Instead of making a point of intersecting with daily news events, readers and viewers today are soaked with a persistent shower of news, which they tend to read in spurts.

News people talk about the reality of a 24/7 news cycle, with fluid deadlines and an imperative to publish first (and clean up later). That 24/7 news cycle is paralleled by a similar change in news consumption habits. People expect to find out what's happening – not just what happened – when they light up their phones and tablets.

The news has a shadow in the form of social media. News outlets use social media to promote their stories. But social media itself has become a barometer of what's trending, an indicator of what's collectively viewed as important, or at least interesting, in the moment.

While websites, especially news outlet websites, routinely feature multimedia content, social media sites increasingly enable one-click access to videos. It is another sign of the news reaching viewers without going through a news channel.

New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet reflected on these changes in an interview published over the weekend in the newspaper's "Sunday Review" section. The Times, he said, has divided its prodigious news resources into a "print hub," responsible for the newspaper, and a video team.

The video team's assignment, Banquet says, will be to identify and pursue stories that appeal to corporate advertisers. However astute that may be as a revenue-generating stream, it may overlook why viewers are fascinated with video.

Because video is no longer the hostage of expensive or unwieldy production equipment, almost anyone can shoot it and edit into a comprehensible story. The appeal of video is its authenticity. It puts the viewer on the scene to see for himself or herself.

More importantly, video works a lot better than a lot of words on the small displays of smartphones. You don't have to read about what's happening right now; you can see it and experience it in something closer to real time.

News outlets have tried to latch onto this real-time fascination by emphasizing "breaking news." Too often, however, that has become a path to covering fires, shootings and ice storms in lieu of more challenging stories about policy debates, community problems and disturbing trends.

The real power of video is to tell a story in a compact, emotive manner that holds strong appeal to a wide range of viewers. Videos are very versatile. As we've seen, they can show a police officer gunning down an unarmed man or they can make a complex story approachable and understandable.

As news producers race to catch up with news viewers, those of us who pitch stories on behalf of clients have to don running shoes, too. Pitching will still be a person-to-person activity, but what we pitch needs to change dramatically.

News releases prepared by public relations professionals have already become more sophisticated, with visual assets, infographics, B-roll video, charts and links. Now, we will need to go further.

With shrunken news staffs and heightened demand for video content, news outlets will be more open to accepting volunteered video content. This is a great opportunity to tell stories that otherwise would have little chance of ever seeing the light of day in traditional or new media. It also is a moment that requires building trust so we aren't pushing brand messages in the guise of news or distributing intentionally distorted, one-sided information.

The key takeaway is that how the news is distributed and read will have a strong bearing on what news is conveyed. The transition underway in the news media is causing a transition in what is viewed as news. Consumers of news, who now have an exploding number of options to get "news," will have to take more responsibility for the economic survival of the news channels they want and trust.

News influencers, including PR professionals, need to shoulder some of the same responsibility if we want trusted news channels to exist. 

Tags:    News, news coverage, news channels, social media, smartphones, news videos, story pitching, marketing PR, public affairs, Dean Baquet, CFM PR

Good Communications = Good Business

A recent Fortune 500 company survey says chief communications officers are gaining more access to C-suite decision-making. That's a good trend, but it's also an old trend that somehow got sidetracked.

A recent Fortune 500 company survey says chief communications officers are gaining more access to C-suite decision-making. That's a good trend, but it's also an old trend that somehow got sidetracked.

A recent corporate survey reflected a growing reliance in the C-Suite on chief communications officers. While this is encouraging, it is about time. Or, more accurately, about time again.

"These best-in-class corporate affairs officers shoulder a broadening scope of responsibilities and an increasing mandate to act as high-level strategic advisers to CEOs, and they frequently serve as members of the senior leadership team," according to a Korn Ferry Institute survey.

Good news, but the public relations profession in the United States began as senior advisers, usually reporting to the president of a company. Only over time did PR became a department that was shuttled down the hall. PR became a corporate function, not a source of valued advice.

In fact, heads of PR departments struggled to be in the room when key corporate decisions were made. Sometimes they were given directions, but never consulted on matters revolving around communications.

There may be many explanations for why the role of a senior communications officer has been resurrected and accorded more respect. Certainly one reason is the rise of online content marketing and the eclipse of traditional advertising. Customer engagement puts a higher premium on two-way communications, and brands can be negatively impacted by an ill-advised CEO tweet or an inappropriate or ill-timed post on Facebook by a staffer.

In a digital world where everyone with a laptop, tablet and smartphone is an editor, communication strategy and style plays a larger role in cultivating and maintaining a brand.

Internal communications is no longer just about a bland note from the CEO or pictures from the holiday party, but a forum for continuous improvement and an advance warning system of competitive trouble.

A communications crisis can happen any time, requiring companies to respond rapidly using tools like Twitter to provide real-time updates to the media, employees and impacted communities.

While companies certainly need hands on deck to pitch stories, write ads and engage on social media, they also need a voice or voices at the very top level to ensure corporate strategies reflect sound communication strategy. That's where senior PR counselors started and, hopefully, that's where they will return.

Embedding smart communications into an overall corporate strategy is good business. And it has been good business for a long time.

A White House Lesson on Choosing Words Wisely

In his condemnation of Donald Trump last week, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest reminded us all that a slight misuse of a word in a press conference can create lots of confusion in the news. 

In his condemnation of Donald Trump last week, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest reminded us all that a slight misuse of a word in a press conference can create lots of confusion in the news. 

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest proved last week that a careless word in a press conference can ignite a media firestorm. 
 
Taking to the podium to condemn Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, Earnest said: “The first thing a president does, when he or she takes the oath of office, is to swear an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. And the simple fact is, that what Donald Trump said yesterday disqualifies him from serving as president.”
 
As the word “disqualifies” rapidly made its way across the web in headlines, sound bites and new memes about Trump, Earnest’s statement incidentally convinced many Americans that he actually had been booted out of the race. 

That afternoon, tweets paired with the hashtag #TrumpIsDisqualifiedParty soared to the top of Twitter’s list of trending topics. As a testament to how viral a tiny misstatement can become, in the week since, the hashtag has made millions of impressions on Twitter and some news organizations even doubled back with stories making it abundantly clear that Trump was not disqualified. 
 
The reaction to Earnest’s statement is an extreme example of some of the greatest challenges spokesmen face in dealing with the media. As the news industry relies more on controversial sound bites and the public takes less time to seek out the greater context beyond a headline or a tweet, it’s increasingly important to choose words carefully. 
 
It’s safe to assume Earnest meant to say that Trump’s idea makes him “unqualified” for the presidency. But to many, the point was lost in his phrasing and the ensuing coverage. 
 
White House: Donald Trump Muslim plan 'disqualifies' him from presidency,” a CNN headline read, perfectly encapsulating the common response across the media landscape.

Hard to blame the media for jumping on this. The blame rests with Earnest for being careless with what he said.

This should reinforce the need for scripting what you say before talking to the media, paying special attention to what not to say. It takes discipline for spokespeople to say what they need to say and no more.

Crafting a relevant key message and wrapping it into a quotable sound bite takes time, and it demands practice to pull it off.

Media training helps. But common sense helps, too. It doesn't take a degree in rocket science to recognize words, phrases or expressions that will create a headline. As an experienced communications professional, Earnest should have known better when he uttered the word "disqualified." Even "unqualified" would have been a headline-grabber. He, after all, is the White House press secretary, not a TV commentator.

Word choices can make a huge difference in conveying your point and not letting the story line – or a headline – get away from you. In a world of skimmer-readers, the headline is all they may see and ingest.

Put yourself in the shoes of a reporter. Would you overlook a showstopper line, regardless of whether the spokesperson meant to say it or not?
 
No matter how long an interview goes or how much you have to say before it’s done, reporters  look for just a few punchy quotes to inject into a story. Often a single quote defines the story, yet you never know which one a reporter will use. So, always choose your words wisely.
 

The Too-Much Answer

The spokesperson's role isn't to gush information, but to deliver a key message with words that a reporter can quote and an audience can grasp.

The spokesperson's role isn't to gush information, but to deliver a key message with words that a reporter can quote and an audience can grasp.

Eager spokespersons sometimes share too much information when answering questions, obscuring the key message they intended to highlight.

Spokespersons who turn into gushers when asked questions typically fail to know their mission, which is to deliver a message, not act like an encyclopedia.

Saying the right thing with just-enough language requires discipline. That usually comes from media training and experience. The kind of experience when your key message is omitted from a story and replaced by something less important, trivial or wrong.

Don't blame the reporter, who has to make sense of what you say and turn it into a short clip for TV or radio or a couple of quotes for a print or online article. If the reporter can't decipher your central point in your flurry of words, blame yourself for creating the confusion.

There is a fine line between a tight response and a terse response. A terse response can come across in the interview, and later on air, as evasive. A tight response, if delivered confidently and conversationally, can convey a sense of command by the spokesperson, increasing their believability. The only way most spokespersons gain that confidence is through practice. You need to now what you need to say and practice how to say it effectively.

Media trainers encourage chiseling key messages into sound bites. That may sound contrived, but the idea is to zero in on a message and the best way to express it. Not only will that help to ensure it is quoted, it will make the message more comprehensible.

In this regard, the spokesperson role is more like a playwright and an actor. You start with a goal, then think like a playwright how to present it – the words, the scenery, the staging. The actor's responsibility is to make the words come alive with his or her voice and body language.

Another critical aspect of media training is the art of bridging – how you take a question and turn it back to your key message. Instead of learning strong bridging phrases, some spokespersons think out loud and wander toward an answer, which may not be all that well thought out. The ill-considered answer too often is a launch pad for additional questions that pull the interview far away from your key point, maybe even into regions you sought to avoid.

Spokespersons are chosen because of their knowledge of a subject and/or their job title. However, their key message can be swamped by over-sharing or feeling they must get everything on the record. Digressions, windy explanations and technical jargon exasperate most reporters, at best, and confound them, at worst.

Transparency for a spokesperson involves telling the truth in a way that is meaningful and can be heard. Too much information is often the enemy of the truth. It buries what is important under the weight of interesting, but non-essential facts.

The best spokesperson is the one who knows what to say – and what not to say. The best spokesperson thinks about connecting with his or her audience through 12 seconds on air or two paragraphs in print.

The Seven Deadly Sins for PR Pros Working with the Media

Working with the press can be challenging for PR professionals, but following several key guidelines can make the job quite a bit easier.

Working with the press can be challenging for PR professionals, but following several key guidelines can make the job quite a bit easier.

When you sit behind a reporter's desk, you see the good, the bad and everything in between from public relations professionals. Now that I'm on the other side of the desk, here is some advice on how to take your best shot at smoothly working with reporters.

Think of these as the seven deadly sins of PR. Avoid committing them, and you should be just fine.

1 Not taking controversy seriously: Controversy drives the news business. No matter how small the issue, always, always, always take a serious approach in responding to a reporter’s questions about any potential problem.

A few years ago as a reporter for The Spokesman-Review, I exposed an embarrassing oversight in the search for a new chief for the city’s troubled police department. It turns out one of the four finalists for the job had fabricated his academic credentials, listing on his resume two degrees from a diploma mill in Louisiana that the FBI had busted several years earlier. The man dropped his candidacy the morning we broke the news.

But the story only became more embarrassing for the city when I inquired about how the situation arose in the first place. Spokane has a history of rooting out public officials with degrees from diploma mills. So, why hadn’t anyone caught the phony degrees before we’d gotten to that point?

The best explanation the city’s spokeswoman could offer: “These things happen.” The city hadn’t done a background check yet, and the whole thing was no big deal, she said. Well, it actually was a pretty big deal to the public and the media. 

That quote was fair game, so I ran with it in print. And so did one of our most popular columnists, who ridiculed the city’s response at length in the paper. He even went so far as to make and distribute pins sporting the quote.

All that embarrassment could have been avoided if the city had taken the situation more seriously. We’re all human, and it’s better to admit to a mistake than to diminish the legitimacy of a controversy.    

2 Incessant follow-ups: This happens all the time. A reporter doesn’t respond to your press release, so you send another email, and then a third. Finally, you’ve lost your patience and decide to call and ask if the reporter received the press release and what he plans to do with it.

One email will do just fine. If the reporter hasn’t contacted you for more information, he’s probably not interested in the story or he may just not have time to pursue it yet.

We live in a time of shrinking newsrooms. Keep that in mind, and remember that as staffs continue to dwindle, reporters have less time to respond to every email and phone call. That trend means there is an ever-increasing need to write more engaging press releases. 

3 Getting mad: Whatever you do, never lose your temper in an interview. Nothing will make you look worse on camera, and unless you and the reporter have already agreed to keep your conversation off the record, it could end up in a story.

Unfortunately, reporters sometimes ask insensitive or uninformed questions. Sometimes, they run a little too far with rumors or misinformation. And sometimes, they can be invasive or exploitative, especially in times of loss or personal crisis.

But when it comes to dealing with a reporter in a difficult situation, getting angry is the last thing you want to do. Take a breath, if necessary. Pause to collect yourself, and then carry on with the interview.   

4 Knowing nothing about the reporter, the organization or the coverage area: Every day, reporters receive numerous press releases sent out in email blasts to all sorts of news organizations. These become problematic when it’s clear that the sender knows nothing about the reporter or the coverage area.

“Dear _____:” Believe it or not, empty fill-in-the-blank press releases that start just like this make their way to reporters all the time. And there’s no faster way to turn a journalist off to your big announcement.

Before sending out a press release, take some time to get to know the receiver. What is the reporter’s name? What’s the coverage area? Would the news organization be interested in this? If so, how can you tailor it in a way that makes it more likely to get coverage? 

5 Burying the lead: If you’re wondering why you never got a call back about that press release you sent out a couple days ago, maybe this was your mistake.

Reporters have less and less time to spend on any given story in today’s fast-evolving newsroom. That also means they have less time to read press releases.

Stick to the basic rules of newswriting when reaching out to the media. Remember the inverted pyramid, the fundamental structure of a simple news story: the most important information should go at the top of your press release. As you wind down to the bottom of the page, your paragraphs should become less and less essential.

Place the heart of your message – the biggest news you have to announce – in the first paragraph of your press release. That way, you’re guaranteed to grab the reporter’s attention. 

6 Ignoring the media: Unfortunately, reporters won’t just disappear if you close your eyes and pretend they don’t exist. They keep calling or writing. And if you continue ignoring them, they’ll publish the most dreaded words imaginable: so and so declined to comment.

I can’t count how many times I’ve written that phrase, but it never reflected well on the people who decided not to say anything. When in doubt, almost any response is better than silence. Ignoring the media only makes the public suspect you have something to hide.

Instead, prepare a well-thought-out statement or simply agree to an interview. Planning ahead pays off, so try to anticipate what questions the reporter might ask and think about your responses beforehand. Try not to sound rehearsed, of course, but keep your main points in mind throughout the interview. 

7 Using jargon: Reporters tend not be experts in, well, just about anything. They specialize in distilling complex issues into simple explanations communicated to the masses. So, it’s best to avoid using industry-specific jargon in a press release.

Otherwise, you stand the risk of confusing a reporter. In that case, a reporter is likely to make an error in the story, which can be embarrassing for both journalists and PR pros alike. 

While a reporter might not let you proofread a story before it’s published, there is nothing wrong with asking to double check the facts first. It may sound pesky, but there’s nothing reporters hate more than having to write a correction to a story.  

The News Advisory Versus the Press Release

Want to stop reporters from tossing your press release in the trash? Try a news advisory instead. 

Want to stop reporters from tossing your press release in the trash? Try a news advisory instead. 

There is no right way to pitch a story to the news media, but some ways work far better than others. One of the weakest media relations tools is the venerable press release.

For starters, reporters, editors and producers don't like them. They smack, in their view, of attempts to spoon feed the press. As a result, press releases – despite all the energy to wordsmith every last sentence – gets wadded up and tossed in the newsroom.

Press releases have their places, which we will get to later. But a better approach to pitching a story is the news advisory.

News advisories focus on the main story hook. In a sentence or two, an effective news advisory provides the reason a reporter, editor or producer should care abut your story and its critical details. Most important, the news advisory contains links or visual assets that allow the reporter, editor or producer to scout out the story on their own.

One of the links can be to a press release that you've posted on your organization's online newsroom, so the press release is used as back-up material, not the wedge to sell the story.

The self-discovery strategy has another key quality – it leads to quicker interaction between the PR pro and the reporter. If the story hook perks interest, the reporter may want to ask quickly about other resources or contacts. Story development becomes more of a collaborative endeavor – and more likely to produce something you will feel good about.

Maybe the underlying value of news advisories is the need to zero in on the story hook – what makes whatever you are pitching news, at least in the eyes of the reporters, editors and producers you are pitching. They may like your hook or see a promising variation. Either way, you are ahead of the game.

In certain circumstances, a news advisory can prompt an invitation to write a "story" or an op-ed. This offers a chance to find out what the reporter, editor or producer wants before you start writing. You can customize the story to fit what the media wants while still incorporating your "news" message. This is way to give one media outlet something exclusive, instead of the same press release that has been sprayed around to other media.

This advice applies to online influencers. Bloggers, many of whom are former journalists, aren't more prone to wade through a pile of press releases. News advisories appeal to them for all the same reasons. You give them a chance to work with you on a story one-on-one.

Another convenience to news advisories – they can fit into the 140-character channel of Twitter. Pitching stories on Twitter has become commonplace, especially for people who take the time to sharpen their story hook and share it cleverly.

News advisories aren't revolutionary. People and organizations that get their stories out have always used more personalized outreach strategies. The digital age just allows you to be personal with more people at the same time.

The next time the boss says to write a press release with dubious news value, suggest a news advisory that you send after spending time on the story hook, not the quote that never will see the light of day.

Click here to download a copy of one of our recent media advisories.

Clickable News

The new priority centers on stories that are clickable, meaning reporters have an incentive to write stories that generate controversy and people will want to share.

The new priority centers on stories that are clickable, meaning reporters have an incentive to write stories that generate controversy and people will want to share.

Much has been said about the economics of publishing newspapers in the digital age. Less has been said about the effect of the digital age on the economics of covering the news.

The new priority centers on stories that are clickable. Reporters have an incentive to write stories that create online clicks as much or more than front-page bylines. Some stories and their associated video and links may attract substantial viewership online and yet never appear in print.

Some cynics will say that news departments have always looked for ways to sensationalize the news to "sell newspapers." In truth, reporters and editors are more motivated by presenting news that people will read, whether they subscribe or pick up the newspaper on a park bench.

Today's environment is subtly, but significantly different. Reporters and editors are looking for news that people will read – and talk about. The conversation can occur online through "shares" and retweets, as well as around the family kitchen table and whatever has replaced the workplace water cooler. That's really what clickable news is all about. It is news you want to share.

As a consequence, government process stories have been replaced by harder hitting pieces about questionable government activities or policies. The measurement of newsworthiness has shifted from "news of record" to news that can cascade.

Cascading news can be as benign as the viral spread of the Ice Bucket Challenge to the continuing investigative coverage of the influence-peddling scandal engulfing former Governor John Kitzhaber and his fiancé Cylvia Hayes. These are stories that just keep rolling.

Once a story starts to cascade, it will attract more attention – and more reporters. A story at flood stage will have reporters digging to find new story angles to add to the swell.

The clickable news environment makes news-gathering techniques such as the ambush interview and siege stakeouts more mainstream. It also makes it harder to stop a story once it begins to cascade. It raises the stakes on crisis response.

Online connectivity is the floodplain for cascading stories. Online connectivity means you can share a story or your thoughts about a story with an entire community, not just with a few buddies over coffee.

Clickable news is here to stay, at least until the next big thing unfolds. You don't have to like all its implications, but it pays to learn how to cope with and conquer them. Media training provides a great opportunity to prepare and prep for the current reporting environment.

The Ambush Interview

In a media-rich environment, the ambush interview has become more common as a way to surprise a news source into talking about an uncomfortable subject in an uncomfortable setting.

In a media-rich environment, the ambush interview has become more common as a way to surprise a news source into talking about an uncomfortable subject in an uncomfortable setting.

You agree to an interview, but when the reporter shows up, he suddenly switches to a surprise and controversial topic. You have been ambushed.

You also can be ambushed when a reporter and a cameraman jump you en route to a meeting, asking uncomfortable questions in an equally uncomfortable setting.

The ambush interview is a newsgathering technique reporters employ to get a scoop. They may have new, explosive information or a hunch they will encounter reticence in a news source.

Like any ambush, the ambush interview can be painful. Like any communication crisis, the ambush interview can be a moment of truth where you can shine.

The nature of ambushes makes them hard to anticipate. But corporate leaders, spokespeople, political figures and public agency directors would be wise to prepare. Here are a few tips:

  • Avoid appearing defensive. Don't stomp off from the interview. An iPhone picture of your back can look like a guilty verdict. Take command, face your interviewer and say you aren't prepared to talk about the subject. Turn the tables and invite them to come back later when you are ready.
  • Be aware of ambush points. You may not anticipate when an ambush might occur, but you can anticipate the kind of material that might lead to an ambush. Identify those issues and have a prepared answer in your pocket if you are ambushed. Even a short answer is better than no answer or fumbling for an answer. If you can't provide an answer, clearly state why.
  • Remain calm. Your demeanor is probably the strongest message you can deliver. If you stay calm, you tell the reporter, "I can handle your pressure." Keeping calm provides space for you to negotiate – rescheduling an interview, moving the interview to a more appropriate setting or offering some context on the issue.
  • Don't get sucker-punched. If you successfully defend yourself in hand-to-hand combat with the reporter, don't let him sucker punch you with "Well then, let's talk off the record." This is just another, close-range ambush. A simple response: "Let's talk when I'm prepared" or "Let's talk when the facts are in" is a graceful exit from the reporter's trap.

Maintaining good media relations habits is one way to avert ambush interviews. Return calls from reporters so they don't feel the need to ambush you. Establish rapport with the reporters that routinely cover your company, nonprofit or agency, so you have a reservoir of trust. Be straight with reporters. Be willing to talk about the good and the bad, so you build credibility.

The digital age has made virtually anyone a "reporter." While the ambush interview is a challenge, the ambush by someone with a smartphone who records what you thought was a private moment poses a much greater challenge.

If you are someone with any degree of public profile, the best advice is to believe you are in a perpetual ambush zone. Don't let down your guard. Be prudent and thoughtful in what you say and do. Don't be surprised by an ambush.

Newspapers May be Dying, But Newsrooms Aren't Morgues

Willamette Week and The Oregonian drew praise from a top journalism periodical for their aggressive coverage of an influence peddling scandal, which serves as a reminder than newspapers aren't dead and media relations is very much alive.

Willamette Week and The Oregonian drew praise from a top journalism periodical for their aggressive coverage of an influence peddling scandal, which serves as a reminder than newspapers aren't dead and media relations is very much alive.

Columbia Journalism Review usefully reminds us that spunky local news media are still capable of exposing wrongdoing in their own backyards, as Willamette Week and The Oregonian did in the unfolding scandal involving former Governor John Kitzhaber and Cylvia Hayes.

The narrative that print media is dying a slow death may still be valid, but that doesn't necessarily translate into newsrooms as morgues. Reporters may face different challenges and incentives to post stories quickly online, but the basic journalistic motivation of digging up the truth remains.

It is true that many local newspapers are reluctant to take on stories that can involve scandal and public embarrassment. But that was true before the advent of digital media. If anything, the digital era has upped the ante for reporters and their editors to find and follow stories that attract attention.

CJR, one of the most respected voices in American journalism, credited "aggressive accountability reporting by local media" for toppling Oregon's popular governor who had just won an unprecedented fourth term in office. The CJR article noted, Kitzhaber blamed the news media for a rush to judgment on allegations he and his fiancée engaged in improper influence peddling.

The article and the episode should be big hints that media relations remain a critical element in effective strategic communications, especially in a crisis. Hoping that bad news will escape the media's attention or blow over after a one-day negative story doesn't even qualify as wishful thinking. It is more like lighting a match near an open gas tank.

News media can fairly be judged on whether they make a robust effort to cover the news. But don't assume that sleeping dogs never wake up or that a friendly looking pooch may not have a little pit bull in him.