Of Immoderate Moderators and Paranoid Pols

Is the press really the enemy? That was Nixon’s line – and I was in a Nixon frame of mind, having just finished the excellent book Crooked by Austin Grossman. It is a faux memoir, written in the former president’s voice, that presents an alternative history and captures his paranoia.

We share this quote and others in our media training sessions. The point is not to scare new spokespeople, but instill a healthy amount of caution when dealing with the media.

However, the Republican presidential candidates say that the press are the enemy, especially NBC/CNBC/Telemundo in the wake of last week’s debate, when a number of them bristled at the questions.

Now, it is kind of funny to watch them fall over each other, trying to get a better debating deal, and turn the episode into an advantage.

It was even funnier to hear Obama’s rejoinder at an event the other night:

“Have you noticed every one of these candidates say…when I talk to Putin, he’s gonna straighten out! Just lookin at him it’s gonna be…and then, it turns out, they can’t handle a bunch of CNBC moderators!”

So what gives, is this all just posturing? Should the Republicans expect fair moderators and substantive questions? Shouldn’t they be able to handle all types of interviews? Was Obama just taking a cheap shot? Were they going for the easy applause line (and dodging answers) when they ranted about the media?

To even ask these questions, one needs to ignore certain realities, and believe:

  • The debates are more about substance than entertainment
  • CNBC just wants to do their civic duty and doesn’t care about getting a big audience
  • It’s possible to find moderators without any bias
  • Politicians say things because they really believe them, and not for effect

Once, just once it would be nice if they surprised us and didn’t fall into their usual predictable roles.

So will the Republicans take their football and go home – i.e. Fox News – for the next debate?

Now that wouldn’t be as entertaining, would it?

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The Martians Have Landed, Your Pitch Stinks, We’re All Going to Die!!!

I was glued to third Republican presidential debate last night, watching for signs of intelligent life bal-runaway-blimp-under-investigation-20151029, when the show cut to an important announcement. It said:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, central time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars.”

Soon afterwards, there were news reports that a mysterious blimp-like vehicle had crash landed in rural Pennsylvania. They said it was a U.S. military surveillance vehicle, from NORAD (Yea, right, we’ve heard that story like 1000 times!).

Astute readers will recognize the above quote from the infamous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, the monumental “JK” that stoked fear in the hearts of listeners back in 1938 (see the transcript). Narrated by Orson Welles, the show was based on the science fiction novel of the same name. But it led to outrage and panic, as many listeners thought the events described were actually happening.

Now, as we approach Halloween, it is natural to ask: what things do PR people fear?
Some fears are valid, and should be respected. Others should be confronted and vanquished. Here is my list:

Fear of rejection: PR people seem increasingly reluctant to actually call reporters, as I pointed out in my post Don’t Slam the Phone on Proven Media Relations Tactics. They say that the media don’t like to get calls; some admit to being afraid of getting a cranky response, or having their pitches rejected.

Tips: While you need to respect the wishes of the media, it is also true that squeaky wheel gets the grease. The best remedy is to be sure that the information you are presenting is truly of value to the journalist. Of course, it helps to have the kind of media relationships where there is mutual trust – and they welcome your calls.

Fear of measurement: PR has traditionally been hard to measure. Also, we may have a natural fear of having our work evaluated and quantified. What if we don’t hit the mark – or if the ROI is just not there?

Tips: Yes, it is true that not everything can be boiled down to a number (see my post One thing You Can’t Measure in PR). But I think this fear needs to be met head on and conquered. The excuses for not measuring are getting harder to defend. Let’s face it, in an online world, there is readier access to data of all kinds. The tools are growing in number and power, and data driven marketing is the new mantra. PR should not get left behind – when we measure, we can prove ROI.

Fear of being uninteresting/irrelevant: This is one fear that should be taken very seriously. If more in our profession held this concern, pitch spam would not persist to the extent that it does.

Tips: It’s generally safe to assume that your pitch sucks. The remedy? Make it not suck! Know your space, know the reporters, and make sure the pitch is on target. There are no short cuts. Hone that pitch, test market it among colleagues, and polish it some more. I am not saying you should take forever and make a career out of it. Just don’t drink your own Kool Aid.

What do you think? Which fears hold you back?

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Wonky Articles Trump other forms of Content

owl-47526_1280I saw an article in Hinge Marketing’s newsletter that reaffirmed my faith in PR, media and humanity. It cited research that shows substantive articles outperform other content types, when it comes to drawing links and shares (don’t get too excited, listicles are up there too).

It sounded interesting, and I had to learn more, so I clicked on the link to read the full article, which summarized research from the Moz blog and Buzz Sumo. They studied 1M pieces of content (spanning types and sources) to learn which kinds get the most links and shares. Another goal was to better understand user motivations behind these activities.

You might think that the most popular content get linked and shared, but the researchers found little correlation between the two forms of user endorsement. This implies that people do these things for different reasons. E.g. users more often share quizzes than link to them. Another interesting conclusion was that most content gets neither.

So what are the secrets to top performing content?

  • There is a “sweet spot” that draws links and shares, which “includes content from popular domains such as major publishers.”
  • The most linked and shared content also included “authoritative, research backed content, opinion forming journalism and major news sites.”
  • “Long form content consistently receives more shares and links than shorter-form content.”
  • Videos and listicles do well too
  • You can combine these factors to boost results, e.g. combine deep content with lists

They say that linking is more work than sharing, and as such, is done less.  But I have rewarded the authors with a (another) link, as the post is definitely research-backed and “opinion forming”; will share it too.

And guess what, this post is data-driven and has a list – so maybe you will reward me in kind?


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Tech Blogger Lament: “It’s now all about the page-clicks”

It seems hard to believe, but I wrote my PR Death Watch series, which chronicled the blog-560631_1280changing nature of the profession, seven years ago.   One of the tactics that I questioned back then was the media tour:

“With news cycles dwindling to zero, and media becoming more fractured and democratized, old school strategies like making the time to meet with journalists seem ever more quaint and slow.  Journalists have their hands full just keeping up with an increasingly competitive marketplace for information.”

Indeed, tours seem to be falling by the way side.  I was reminded of this when we were booking one recently.  It was for a client with technology so compelling, well you just had to be there to see it.

The team did a great job of scheduling reporters to come to demo rooms in several major cities.  However, we did run into resistance, especially from the major tech blogs. One replied via email:

“Tech journalism has become so difficult that it is now all about the page-clicks.  We can no longer afford the time it takes to meet with companies because that is time that could be devoted to writing more stories.  Sure, our story could be more in-depth, but [our competitor] would post five in the same amount of time.”

So what does this mean for PR and media relations?  Should we go with the flow?  We know that meeting in person is great for building relationships.  We also know that you have a better chance of connecting and getting key points across when sitting across from someone, with their attention undivided.

You would think it would be good for journalists too.  Ultimately, we need to work within their realities and accommodate their wishes – the media do not owe us coverage.   But some things are worth pushing for.

What do you think?



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Ted Underwood on Topic Modeling and PR

I like to follow developments in unstructured data and text mining.  Advances in these text-miningareas can mean big things for PR and social media marketing.  The din is only growing in social media chatter and online content. Those with the best tools will be better equipped to glean insight and turn it into action.

One area in the field that I feel has much potential is topic modeling.  It came to my attention during a series of conversations with Stanford University researcher Jure Leskovec (I had been speaking with him about how info spreads online; see this post, which describes the findings of Jure and his team).

I had wanted to learn about technologies and research that can help understand online content, and answer questions like “what topics are being shared, discussed and trending?”

On the surface, this might sound simple.  There are many monitoring tools, trending reports and social media dashboards that claim to do just that.  But they might not do such a good job when different words are used to describe the same topic, or in slotting content into very granular “buckets”, or spotting totally new trends / keyword / topics.

Topic modeling is an example of unsupervised machine learning.  This means that its algorithms can identify the topics in content without being told what to look for. One of the most promising methods is Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA).

It can get very complicated, which is why I was thrilled to run across the Stone and the Shell blog, which is run by Ted Underwood of the University of Illinois.  His post Topic Modeling Just Simple Enough offered a great overview of the subject.

It whetted my appetite, and I wanted to learn more – so I reached out to Ted, and he graciously consented to an email interview, summarized below.

I will follow this up as I learn more; meanwhile, I wish to thank Ted Underwood for helping to shed light on topic modeling and its implications for PR.

I hope my blog visitors find the information helpful and interesting, thanks for reading.

Can you use LDA to:

(A) categorize short form content such as tweets to topics?

TU: Yes, LDA does work on short-form content, but tweets are short enough that you may lose some conceptual connections that would be visible in longer forms. (LDA will only see the connection if ‘both parts’ of it are contained in a single document, so very short documents become a limitation). Some researchers have recommended aggregating all the tweets of one author, in order to make those connections more visible.

(B) Discover rising topics on Twitter?

TU: Yes, potentially, although I think in reality you might be better off just looking for words or short phrases on the rise. The “topics” produced by LDA are diffuse enough that they can often be a little tricky to interpret. This makes them interesting, but it’s not necessarily what users would want for a “trending topic.” If you wanted to do this you would probably also want to select a topic-modeling algorithm that’s designed to identify topics with a particular temporal profile: something like “Topics over Time” could be tuned to reveal especially topics that are on the rise.  Otherwise every topic model could reveal a lot of topics that are just, e.g. “youthful slang” or “scientific jargon” (kinds of language linked by demographic patterns rather than trends).

(C) Identify favored topics of influencers by analyzing article content and social media updates?

TU: This is an example of a place where I think predictive analytics (supervised learning algorithms) would likely perform better than an unsupervised method like LDA. Unsupervised models can be startling because they’re able to find patterns without being told what to find. But if you actually already know what you want to find (e.g., if you want to know how a particular tweeter, or a particular influential group of them, differs from others) there are usually simpler and more direct ways to model that boundary.

Do all this in near real time (assuming you have access to article text and the Twitter “fire hose”)?

TU: Here you’d really need to talk to someone with more CS or business background than I have, because this becomes a question about optimizing the performance of really large systems. My historical data mining sometimes gets big (a million volumes), but I’m never required to do that on the fly in real time as text is produced.  In principle, I’m sure it’s doable; I know people have worked on ways to make topic models “updatable” so you don’t have to re-run the whole thing every time you get more data. For instance Hoffman and Blei have this article. But there are going to be challenges, and I wouldn’t know exactly how severe they are in practice.

Also, does topic modeling take a semantic approach, i.e. identify the words and content that belong to a topic, when the words used to describe the topic may vary?

Yes, this is its great strength, and it’s the exception to what I said above about mere word-charting probably being better for “trending topics.” If a topic could be described in lots of different ways, LDA might actually be better at revealing it. (On the other hand, this flexibility also means that LDA may reveal things we don’t think of as “topics” — e.g., patterns that are really just the typical diction of particular demographic groups, etc.).

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Info CAN Leave Black Holes: What this means for PR

You may have heard read about the new theory that explains how information can escape black-hole-92358_1280black holes. None other than Stephen Hawking now says this can be done, as reported in WSJ.  Previously, it was thought that nothing could escape the clutches of a black hole.

There is some very complex quantum physics ideas here, and I won’t even try to get into the details.  The Journal article explains it well.  But I thought that readers of this blog might be wondering, like I am, about the more down-to-earth implications, e.g.

  • Does this mean that the very last place you could go to keep your launch news under wraps no longer works?
  • Is there a way to get info into the black hole that we don’t want, and keep it there, like:
    • Anything Trump says?
    • Those annoying CNN commercials about medications
    • Other TMI examples
  • Does this prove that info really does want to be free?

Any other thoughts?

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Trump, Tinder, Press Offender – New Rules of Taking on Media

Media battles are nothing new. Back in the ’70s Nixon famously said “the press is the enemy,” and kept apair-707499_1280 list. But up until relatively recently, most have opted not to pick fights with those who buy ink by the barrel.

This seems to be changing. In the past week alone, Donald Trump said nasty things about Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly to anyone who would listen, following her tough questioning in the first Republican debate. And just yesterday, news broke about Tinder’s very public Twitter tirade over less than flattering coverage in Vanity Fair (see this Digiday piece; I love Jordan Valinsky’s line “Tinder made it clear on Twitter that it doesn’t handle rejection very well.”)

Have the rules of media engagement changed? Or were these dumb moves?

Yes and maybe.

First, the rules clearly are changing. Executives and politicians traditionally relied on communications teams to run interference with the media. When there were concerns over coverage, the reporter was politely taken to task or asked for a correction – again, behind the scenes. If all else failed, a letter to the editor or opinion piece could set the record straight.

These things seem quaint today. Now, celebrities, politicians, company leaders, and yes PRs can and do vent on Twitter, Facebook etc. Sure, media still usually have the biggest megaphones, and you need to be really, really careful about picking fights with them. But using public channels to engage and sometimes disagree is an option which should be considered, and sometimes used.

Donald Trump’s lead seems to be growing with every outburst, and many Republicans have little love for the media. Yet, some say that this latest episode was a mistake, given Megyn Kelly’s standing with conservatives. The departure of his trusted advisor Roger Stone is one sign that Trump may have gone too far this time.

Like Trump, Tinder seems to relish an irreverent image. I doubt that their business or brand will be hurt much by this episode. Even so their reaction (which they admit was an overreaction) make them look thin skinned and amateurish.

Two years ago I wrote that Elon Musk of Tesla used his blog to angrily rebut a negative New York Times review. I asked back then: “Did he break some basic rules of PR – or are he and Tesla fans tapping some of the new rules? Was Musk’s rebuttal a shrewd defense of the Tesla brand?”

The rules clearly are changing. But the stakes are higher and margin for error is less. The communications team has the responsibility to heed this and act accordingly. We can make a situation better or worse. I’d like to think we are the ones standing between the drunk and text messaging – and not the ones sending angry, ill advised messages.

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The Best Way to Reach Chinese Media

This post first appeared on Fusion Forum.

We have dispelled myths about how PR works in Asia, and offered tips for getting tech news covered in China. This post focuses on WeChat, a messenger app that is one of the best ways to reach Chinese CarmenJiaminRenmedia.

Former Fusion PR intern Carmen Ren is from Shenzhen, China, and recently completed her Masters Degree in PR at NYU. She consulted with Chinese journalist friends to answer our questions in the following guest post / interview (Thanks, Carmen!). The goal was to provide practical advice for U.S.-based PR pros, who are more accustomed to using reporter databases and email.

We hope you find the post helpful. It is an abridged version of the information that she collected. For additional details, please register to download the full interview.

WeChat: Your Gateway to Chinese Media

Carmen Ren

Email is still the go-to way to get business done in most parts of the world. That’s why some may find it strange that people at networking events in China exchange WeChat IDs instead of business cards. While practically no one in the West uses WhatsApp to send info, WeChat is commonly used to communicate with colleagues and other professionals, including reporters and PR pros, in China.

Please read on to better understand how this works.

Are Chinese tech journalists receptive to pitches via WeChat? Do you need to know them and get their permission to contact them in this way?

  • Chinese reporters see acquiring corporate information as part of their jobs, and like to do this in the easiest way. So getting press releases via WeChat is not remotely strange. Some even prefer WeChat because it’s convenient, direct, and instant.
  • It is important to note that WeChat is a messenger tool similar to WhatsApp and Facebook messenger. You can only send messages when your friendship request is accepted. Fortunately, this is not as hard as getting someone’s phone number. If you introduce yourself as a PR representative, a reporter will most likely accept.

How do you actually connect with journalists via WeChat? Is there an address or handle that you use?

  • Users can add new contacts in several simple ways, including a WeChat ID and QR code scanning.
  • The most common ways to get a reporter’s WeChat info include:
    • Attending events ranging from press conference to social gatherings (this works better if you are actually in China, of course). WeChat in many ways has replaced email addresses or business cards in professional settings.
    • Getting introduced by colleagues and friends. It makes sense that media databases are unpopular there, when simply asking around is a quicker much more effective way to get their info.
  • Signing up for groups. WeChat has a group feature similar to Facebook’s, which brings together people from the media and corporate sides. A PR pro can also create a group and invite all the relevant journalists. This is very handy when you need to send out a press release.
  • Searching contact information online and reaching out first via email.

How can you build relationships and stories with WeChat?

  • The most common ways are to ‘like’ and respond to posts on the reporter’s timeline (WeChat users have a profile page that is like a simplified version of Facebook timeline, where users post “moments” in text, pictures or short videos), and send greeting messages on holidays and other special occasions.
  • When a PR rep doesn’t know the reporter, he/she may connect via email and/or WeChat. They can discuss a story to see whether the reporter is interested or needs more information.
  • For online publications, it is much easier to get articles posted. The process most typically involves WeChat and phone calls, and sometimes email and QQ (an older IM, which is also part of Tencent).

But, c’mon! You really need to be in China to make this work, right? Or you need to speak the language / use Chinese character sets / have someone who actually is Chinese and has the contacts and language skills to do all this, right?

  • Anyone here can use WeChat, you don’t need to be in China. All of the above can help but are not an absolute requirement.

For the complete interview, including more information about how to build media relationships in China, and an example of a WeChat press room, please visit the following link and register.

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Naughty or Nice? State of Tech Brand and PR Implications

Is the tech industry a land of opportunity, a growth engine of our economy; a place where GoodEvilcoders garner huge salaries and entrepreneurs achieve the American Dream?

Or is it is a hyper-aggressive frat party, where arrogant Masters of the Universe throw mad money around and Kool Aid drinkers build stupid things?

Perhaps it is a little of both. Sadly, the second narrative is the one that seems to have taken hold in media coverage these days, especially regarding Silicon Valley.

Those who actually work in the field know that it isn’t so simple. Sure, you have the offenders – we have all heard the stories about bad behavior. But some say that businesses, including tech companies, are doing their best to step up and make a real difference when politicians can’t or won’t (see Frank Bruni’s excellent NY Times op ed The Sunny Side of Greed).

Reputation and brand can be funny things, and very resilient. E.g. Amazon is often portrayed as the enemy of publishers, but this has not seemed to hurt it too badly. Similarly, institutions ranging from the NFL to the American auto industry have had their reputation issues, but still hold a special place in our hearts.

For all the dings to tech, it continues to have an allure; and it is hard to argue against its importance to our economy and the careers of many. Moreover it is growing, as how we define the industry changes.

The Times wrote that As Tech Booms, Workers Turn to Coding for Career Change. I said on this blog that there is Gold in them Thar Apps, and App Developers. David Kirkpatrick of Forbes famously wrote Now, Every Company is a Software Company.

More and more companies are rushing to adopt the tech label, according to another recent NY Times piece. Apparently, businesses and investors see an upside to the being associated with the field.

One thing is for certain. When it comes to image problems, the PR industry is here to help. And if every company is a software and tech company – well, the future looks pretty good for tech PR, I’d say.

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