Uber Flap Shines Harsh Light on Tech Journalism

Uber executive Emil Michaels got in hot water this week amidst news that he had oliveoyl01threatened to hire researchers to dig up dirt on hostile journalists, or more specifically, Sara Lacy – and spread dirt about her personal life.

The episode brought more negative attention to Uber. Some took it as an opportunity to explore the reporting practices of those who cover the tech sector.  The NY Times joined in, with the piece In Silicon Valley, Journalists Balance Booster and Critic. According to the story:

In a podcast, Ms. Lacy, the founder and editor in chief of the Silicon Valley news website PandoDaily, and Paul Carr, her co-host, called Uber…“evil” [and nasty, etc.] They also reserved a portion of their scathing rant for their fellow tech writers, who, they said, had gone too soft on Uber.

The [episode] opened a window into the competitive… group of publications that… cover Silicon Valley… many make a significant portion of their revenue from live events and conferences that feature the big-name tech executives they cover.  Some… also rely on investments from venture capital firms that have stakes in the start-ups.

This aspect of the story, about the competitive nature of tech reporting and their infighting, had a “here we go again” feel. Indeed, I covered similar ground in my posts from a couple of years ago: Tech Media Thrashes About, and Sniping Between Tech Blogs Reveals Intense Competition).

So, what did we learn and how should we react to these things: the Uber episode, how it was covered and the state of tech reporting at large?

I think they can collectively be like a Rorschach test – depending on where you sit, reactions may differ:

  • If you are a tech vendor, you thank God that you are not Uber and recall the PR person’s counsel that there really is no such thing as off-the-record – the Uber executive’s comments were made at a private dinner, but how private can it be when the media are there?
  • If you are Sara Lacy (pictured above) you bask in the exposure; she made some valid points, but seemed all too eager to play victim and milk the opportunity.
  • If you are in PR you scratch your head over the double standard (I mean, journalists compile dossiers on companies and people and sometimes spread dirt, right? Ugh, don’t get me started). You get confused because, despite Lacy’s tantrums, you know that the media can be very tough on tech companies and sometimes even your clients.  Most of all, unless you like to blog about flacks and revenge (guilty) you stay very quiet and let this blow over until next time.
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In the new “Curate or Perish” World, what’s a Flack to Do?

If you are interviewing PR agencies, a good question to ask is: “what business are you in?”off_target-1024x823

You may get a confused look; tell them that they have come to the right place and you really want to know.

If they say: “Getting you media coverage, building visibility,” or some such, you should politely show them the door.

The reason is that any agency worth its salt knows that press coverage will happen.  But in a sea of noise and info choices, it is the ability to break through and connect with audiences that makes the critical difference. In short, the correct answer is the “attention business”.  And getting attention – quality attention – is getting more challenging every day.

There used to be a straight line between PR effort and results. You announce your news, work the media, coverage happens, on to the next. A hit in a nice outlet meant something; was sure to make an impression with your audience.

These days it is not just about getting a good story in a targeted publication (sure, it is great to get these, much better than not) but who, really, is paying attention?
And what was once a straight line is now like pinball. You put your news out, the info gets sliced, diced, puréed, ricochets around the social networks (if you are lucky, and the buzz is good), and curated.

In fact, people may only notice your news when it appears on Twitter, in LinkedIn, or their Facebook news feed. Two recent articles really drove this point home.  The first was in Digiday, it highlighted LinkedIn’s growing clout as a curator of business news (see my post). The second ran in the NY Times: How Facebook is Changing the Way its Users Consume Journalism.

What do these trends mean for PR? After all, it is challenging enough to get coverage. Do we also need to make sure that the news finds its way to mobile news apps, social networks and sites that aggregate news? Isn’t that the concern of the outlet that carries your news?

If you think your job is just to get coverage there’s no need to read any further. However if you think that it is to find ways to get in front of the intended audience – to get their attention, inspire action, change opinions, make a difference – then please watch this site for the next in my series.

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Strong Media Brands: the answer to Native Advertising Concerns

So is native advertising (sometimes called brand journalism or, more generally, content and-now-a-word-from-our-sponsorsmarketing) a curse or cure all?  Is it good for what ails online advertising? Or does it confuse consumers and prevent them from getting unbiased news ?

Farhad Manjoo wrote an article in the NY Times about the state and decline of banner ads. It is a good read about unintended consequences, and how the banner came to not only dominate online ads but also set the stage for other unfortunate web things.

He writes that the new trend favors native advertising, citing the experience of Jonah Peretti  – someone who has pioneered money making news sites:

After leaving The Huffington Post, Mr. Peretti started BuzzFeed, which eschews banners and has become a model for the possibilities of so-called native ads to finance journalism. These ads… look like ordinary posts on apps and social networks.

David Carr, also of the Times, does not seem to think kindly of the practice, or, of poorly executed examples.  In his story Journalism, Independent and Not, he wrote about his disappointment in finding info that at first seemed newsworthy – but was actually underwritten by a vendor, according to some very fine print.  He writes:

Of the many attempts at new approaches to publishing — native advertising, custom content, sponsored content — SugarString sets a new low… The fact that the name of the corporation bringing you the information is at the bottom of every story, not the top, is an attempt to hide the fundamental intent.

I don’t mean to single Carr out.  I generally love his column, and many others share similar concerns.  But I really think that these concerns are overblown.

I mean, c’mon, have the native ad alarmists heard of evil soap boxes that companies have called blogs?  And that strictly profit-driven entities actually have something called “owned media”.  That’s right, companies that aren’t real news outlets  try to own media and publish biased thoughts on websites and via social media channels.

I’ll take a break from my sarcasm to point out the myriad sources of news and info that people have these days.  I will eat my (nonexistent, so there you have it, I am bluffing) hat if someone points out an example in which native ads stood between a person and the news and “truth” that they were seeking.

The upside of this content-rich era is that most of us are sophisticated and discerning news consumers.  We understand that “caveat emptor” should prevail – let the buyer beware, and to not trust any single source – or at least consider the source. Most of us understand that there is likely some agenda or bias shaping the information we find on an unfamiliar website.

That does not mean that there isn’t the potential for abuse in native advertising.  E.g., I agree that sponsored content should be clearly identified.

Well, how, you may ask.  Recall the fine print that Carr mentioned in his piece.  The devil is in the details.  But the answer is not to legislate or trash native ads to death.

The answer is strong media brands.  The ones that represent integrity will hopefully not dilute their equity with thinly veiled sponsored content.  Those that abuse the practice will squander brand value and likely not profit from their efforts.

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Confessions of A Foreign PR Student

CocaCola_PotBy Carmen Ren

We all know that in order to communicate effectively, PR practitioners need to understand the public well. In the multi-cultural context, this can be several times more challenging. (To me, it is also fascinating!) The efforts to understand our stakeholders from a foreign culture go way beyond overcoming language issues.

As a PR student who came to the United States for the first time 14 months ago, I was daunted by the challenge of using English to listen, express, learn, think, and “try to be a New Yorker”. I was overwhelmed by obstacles on various levels –

  • Both verbal and written communications are basic and indispensable parts of PR practices. It was challenging for me to write in English and ensure its quality;
  • Public Relations practices (or simply communication) will not work without context. It was VERY challenging for me to catch up with the social and cultural context so that I could at least join the conversation without looking clueless. (e.g. I didn’t know what the terms Stop-and-Frisk, and Cyber Monday, among others, were.)
  • Public Relations governance (and again, communication as well) will not succeed without understanding and aligning different values of various constituents. As a foreigner, it is absolutely challenging for me to grasp the essence of American thinking and therefore make sense of their judgments and behaviors.

Understanding and aligning different values is the biggest obstacle, for me and, I believe, for most PR professionals who have the ambition to operate in a different culture.

Here is an anecdote: a friend from Philly once asked me when comparing Philly to New York City, “How do your Chinese friends conceive Philadelphia? Say, more left and more right?” I didn’t know how to answer, since I don’t usually use “left or right” to describe a city. In fact, the whole dimension of “left and right” does not exist in the way we view our cities. “The Philadelphia question” reminds me of how political culture is deeply rooted in an American mindset.

In contrast to the American politically-rooted mindset, in modern China, we are raised in a culture where civic engagement is not encouraged and political discussion is alien to the mass. The reasons for it are plenty and complex. To me, the most obvious ones are lack of incentives and empowerment — When you know what you say will not matter and will not change anything [1], why bother to devote your efforts? When schools don’t educate students to challenge the authority, and to think critically, how can they be equipped to participate in civic engagements?

In this specific case, what does this “weak muscle” of critical thinking in China mean to communicators or PR pros? To name some, will the public be more vulnerable to rumors and smear campaigns because they are not used to making efforts to find the truth? Will this further influence their information gathering habits and problem solving approaches regarding rumors, or even information at large?

These issues are critical for PR pros because they are a part of the “listening process (public audit)”. This “listening process” is labor-intensive and complex indeed, especially when the context of our stakeholders never stops changing. For a leader who has ambition to set foot in another country, this task cannot be accomplished by simply reading a few books about another country, at least not enough for PR pros. A good multicultural PR pro should be a lifelong “anthropologist”, who diligently listens, observes, and therefore is able to impersonate and communicate [2]. (Silver lining: we have big data to support the continuous listening process.)

I’d like to wrap it up with an analogy– Practicing PR in a foreign land is no less challenging than being in a relationship with a foreigner. First you should be able to communicate in his/her language. And then you make better sense by understanding his/her background and personal history in factual details. But not until you understand “the significant other” on a psychological and even metaphysical level, will you win his/her heart and soul– in PR, this translates to trust, intimacy and a sustainable relationship.

———

[1] Professor James E. Grunig developed a Situational Theory of Publics to explain and predict why some publics are active and others are passive. To explore this subject further, see http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/public-relations/s08-02-the-situational-theory-of-publ.html
[2] For more discussion about “generic principles and specific applications in public relations” (Falconi), see http://www.prconversations.com/index.php/2013/04/generic-principles-and-specific-applications-in-public-relations/

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Tech PR in Asia: Myths and Misconceptions

As a tech PR agency - one with clients that sell chips and components to mobile and CE device vendors – we are often asked china-featabout getting media coverage Asia.

That’s because most of the related manufacturing is done in places like China, Korea and Taiwan.  Companies that are trying to sell their core technology into these markets want the media to highlight their products and news there, just like they do here in the U.S.

I find that there is much confusion on the topic.  So, I thought I would share the most common myths and misconceptions, and set the record straight.

The information is based on our years of experience implementing campaigns for clients in APAC.  The media and economic landscapes are constantly evolving; to help us stay on the cutting edge, we work with people that have native language skills and media knowledge; great resources like team member Carmen Ren, who is from Shenzhen, China.

Below, please see the most common myths, and our response:

It’s all kind of the same there, right?  You pay the reporter and you get coverage

It is not all the same, the rules can vary from country to country, and within each country, based on the type of news or event.  While payment is sometimes expected, it is important to understand the customs, so that you don’t offer money when it is not appropriate – or know when it is fair game.

You need to hire an agency in each country / major region

There is no question that it helps to have PR “feet on the ground” in each country – people who know the language, can help you translate materials, and are close with the media.  But this quickly can get prohibitively expensive, and beyond the means of a smaller company or startup.

Fortunately, it is possible to get coverage from afar, if you know the right approach – and who to approach.

The government controls the media in China, and other countries – you are wasting your time with PR

While there is no denying government influence over the media, censors will simply not care about most tech vendor news.  There is a rich collection of media in China and other countries, and a growing focus and interest on business and technology news.

You can get by with great U.S. PR results, and communicating in English

Yes, the Internet does make the world a smaller place when it comes to communications – and many do look to the U.S. and major media coverage here.  But you will get much better PR results in Asia if you take the time to approach the media there directly, in their language, rather than hoping that they will somehow find your news.

For further clarification, I asked Carmen Ren about this point. She said:

“It depends on English proficiency in that region. E.g., in Singapore you can reach out in English, as that is their official Language; while in Mainland China, Chinese still dominates business communications. Hong Kong lies in-between.

It is also affected by the freedom of media access. Mainland Chinese heavily depend on domestic websites and internet services as news sources, thanks to the media censorship. (Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are banned there).

It’s true that mainland Chinese can still access some foreign sites, but as they are so used to the “home-grown” media environment, foreign contents just fall off the radar. So in mainland China, it is still necessary to communicate in Chinese and localize communication efforts.”

Want to learn more?

We will be blogging more on this topic, and issuing a series of briefs about how to maximize PR results in China, and other parts of Asia.  Please visit this link to learn more.

 

 

 

 

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Fortune Magazine Bites the Hand that Curates

A funny thing happened on the way to the LinkedIn forum. PR Week covered their What-A-Tangled-Web-900x675CommsConnect event last week – what caught my attention was the headline:

Fortune’s Lashinsky: Branded content is ‘propaganda’

I’ll say more about this in a moment.  But first let me tell you about another article which relates, and I think you will enjoy, from Digiday: How Dan Roth became the most powerful editor in business publishing 

It explains how former Fortune journalist Dan Roth is now chief editor of a media juggernaut  – namely, you guessed it, LinkedIn.  Here’s an excerpt:

.… when you examine the multiple aspects of LinkedIn’s media operation — a popular and growing native-ads business; tens of millions of potential “content producers” churning out nearly 40,000 posts per week at zero cost… an audience that’s larger, wealthier and more engaged than that of the average website — you realize it may very well be the most formidable title in business publishing and Roth, the most powerful man in business journalism.

Of course, the LinkedIn audience is of great interest to brands and business publishers alike:

Anyone who has ever published a news story can tell you that it’s nice to have readers. That’s why every day, editors from dozens of the Web’s most reputable, highly trafficked business publications — Bloomberg, Business Insider, Quartz, to name just a few — pitch Dan Roth with their best, most timely stories. Roth and his team scour the pitches, looking to aggregate those most likely to resonate with their own audience of 86 million U.S. visitors….

The numbers have been reflected in LinkedIn’s ads businessrevenue was  up 44 percent.  Much of this growth has been fueled by “native” advertising.

Native advertising, AKA branded content – and, interestingly enough, some customers for LinkedIn’s branded content business are publishers.

Which brings us back to the intro.

It is an interesting world these days. You have a social network that is, by some measures, the most influential business publisher. You have editors pitching the social networks, like PR flacks, and at least one very influential editor calling branded content propaganda.

A tangled Web indeed, the irony is thick.

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Punch up Your News without Using Hype

PowYou know the feeling; you’ve written a pretty good press release, or so you thought – but the client or internal sponsor kicks it back to you because it “lacks excitement.”

It can be hard to understand or respond to such subjective criticism. In theory, the excitement of a release should relate to the news at hand. But we know that the same story can be told in different ways.

Reporters and editors prefer facts and neutral writing. The release owner might want to get all hypey. The PR person is caught in the middle.

Assuming that you do have important news to communicate, how do you tell a great story – one that satisfies the release owner, and conveys excitement but doesn’t veer into chest beating? You might want to consider these tips:

Let the facts tell the story

The problem with neutral language is that it is, well, neutral. It does not scream “We have great news!” But here’s a bold concept, why not stick to the actual facts, i.e., use superlatives or hard data?

E.g., if you are first to market with a 10 Tera-flop whatever, by all means say so. Ditto if your new product is the fastest, or you are reporting some breakthrough in the lab.
But don’t use soft, indefensible claims like “best” or “most innovative”.

Let others tell the story

The problem with any kind of claim is that it might lack credibility.  So bring in independent testing data to support the claims, and/or market research.

The media would rather hear how important your news is from others, ideally those who are at arm’s length. Why not brief industry analysts, and include a quote from them in your press release? If you are lucky enough to name and quote a customer, by all means do so.

The quote is the one place in the release where you are allowed to go over the top. Here, it is OK for your client and their customer to amp the excitement. Still, you want to avoid clichés and anything that smacks of BS.

Tell a great story

Even if you don’t have lots of firsts, hard data, or independent validation, you should be able to write a press release that tells a great story – one that the release owner loves, hits the mark with customers, and also satisfies the media.

To do so, it should answer the questions: who should care, and why? Talk about benefits and applications of the technology. Explain how the new product or service advances the field in an easy-to-understand way, using language that resonates with the intended audience.

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NewCo Showcases NY Tech “In the Wild”

I attended the NewCo New York kickoff event on Tuesday evening.  It was a great opportunity to network with like-minded bloggers, journalists, marketers and entrepreneurs and hear from top tech influencers.

As NewCo co-founder John Battelle (the search wonk and tech influencer who launched Industry Standard and co-founded the Web 2.0 Summit with Tim O’Reilly) explained, they were interested in launching a new event concept and came up with NewCo, a “conference-as-festival, where innovative companies throw open their doors to the public.”

It is about meeting with innovative NY Tech startups in their natural habitats, AKA their own offices (NewCo runs events in a number of cities around the world now – Austin is next).

I unfortunately did not get the chance to make the circuit, but really enjoyed kickoff’s centerpiece – a fireside chat between BuzzFeed Founder and CEO Jonah Perretti and Battelle.  It was a lively and provocative conversation, and both gave as good as they got.  John tweaked Jonah a bit about listicles, and Jonah fired back with some witty retorts.

Below, you can see some curated Tweets, via Storify.

 

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And One More thing… David Carr Deconstructs Apple’s Media Playbook

It is an old saying in PR: “there is no accounting for taste.”  Said another way (as we teach in media training), in any market, one company will rise to the top, fueled by “story energy”.   The media will inexplicably latch on and just fawn.apple_wall___one_more_thing______by_thedevartist-d4bfml9

These thoughts crossed my mind as I read NY Times Media Equation columnist David Carr’s excellent analysis of the media fascination with Apple in light of last week’s “Applemageddon” news orgy.  (For those in tech PR not working with Apple, it seems like we were handed a mini-vacation during the 9/9 event – it was futile to be trying to pitch anything else, especially consumer-tech related).  He wrote:

Apple’s ability to seize the moment and preoccupy the press is without peer. Think about it: Absent that showmanship and hype, the company announced two very good-looking, very expensive phones that catch up with consumers’ preference for larger screens, a smartwatch… and a payment system that will need buy-in from retailers.  So, what is it about Apple that makes a sea of professional curmudgeons whoop like children on Christmas?

He went on to list some of the tricks from Apple’s PR playbook.

Given the company’s history of maniacal secrecy… its sway with the news media is even more remarkable…. the stage management of its events rivals what is being announced... Seating charts are meticulously studied, rehearsals are endless and strategic leaks are used to temper expectations… The audience claps because everything — the lighting, the fanfare, the reveal — is meant to elicit applause.

On the one hand, Apple’s success with the media might not be that surprising as they use tried and true tactics, like stealth, and stagecraft to maximal effect.  Yet another vendor would probably would not get the same results with these tricks.   Why is that?

The answer lies in the story energy, taste, and the intoxicating power that an intangible such as brand can have.  If reporters lose perspective and swoon, who can blame them?  They are people too.  They love a good story, and love to fall in love.

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Who needs a Strategy? Just Schmooze us Please

buellerI wrote in my post that Hate Spin?… that we get the news stories, and hence PR, that we want.  But do we sometimes want more spin than we get?

This thought occurred to me regarding a story that was hot in the news over the Labor Day weekend. Many covered Obama’s statement “We don’t have a strategy yet” regarding the threat posed by ISIS.

It was great fodder for Republicans, and reporters in search of a catchy headline on a slow news day.  As the story was repeated and amplified, I wondered whether Obama’s statement was simply an example of unfiltered candor from a politician, which might actually be refreshing.

But Frank Bruni broke it down in his NY Times column Obama’s Messy Words.  He wrote:

There are things that you think and things that you say…  These overlap but aren’t the same. Has President Obama lost sight of that?

Not having a strategy, at least a fixed, definitive one, is understandable. The options aren’t great, the answers aren’t easy and the stakes are enormous.

But announcing as much? It’s hard to see any percentage in that. It gives no comfort to Americans. It puts no fear in our enemies… [It’s not] the right message for the world’s lone superpower (whether we like it or not) to articulate and disseminate…[not] savvy, constructive P.R.

 

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