Just Like Bad PR, There’s Bad Journalism Out There

Ron Burgundy Anchorman bad journalism

Journalists enjoy taking a shots at the PR profession, often with justification.

From classics like BusinessInsider’s “Dear PR Lady, Here’s Why I Didn’t Open Any of Your 3 Email Pitches” to my own “Why Journalists Get Cranky About PR,” this genre delivers a never-ending stream of commentary.

Flipping the equation, PR is reticent to return the fire for fear of biting the keyboard that feeds it. Naturally, I feel such fear is misplaced.

Which brings me to a recent episode of bad journalism, a USA Today feature with the headline, “7 Companies Outspend Apple on Innovation,” by Matt Krantz.

Given that every publication in the free world — and some in the paid world — covers Apple’s product announcements, coming up with a fresh story angle to lead into the actual press event is like trying to differentiate celery. To USA Today’s credit, the premise of the headline offers the promise of contrarian storytelling. After all, it stands to reason that the most innovative company in the world must spend on R&D accordingly. It turns out seven companies in the S&P 500 spent more on R&D than Apple in 2013 and Q2 of this year.

I suppose this tidbit — seems a stretch to call it an insight — could be quasi interesting.

It’s when journalists suddenly morph into McKinsey consultants that their narrative can lose its way, as is the case in this piece which makes the point:

Apple’s R&D looked at this way [as a percent of sales] is even tinier. Apple spent just 4.3% of its revenue on R&D in the second calendar quarter of 2014. That means it ranks as just 95th of the biggest spenders on R&D among the S&P 500 looking at it this way.

Really? Taking R&D numbers from last year and Q2 prompts the journalist to connect the dots with this closing punch line:

But with the iPad getting stale, and competition in the smartphone arena kicking up, investors might wonder if Apple might need to pick up its R&D game.

Correlating Apple’s investment in R&D with “the need to pick up its R&D game” can nicely be described as flawed.

Perhaps USA Today’s recent cutbacks eliminated its research function, preventing the journalist from digging into a longer-term view of Apple’s R&D.

I understand.

In the spirit of helping out, our crack research team pulled together Apple’s revenue and R&D spend over the past 10 years. Here’s how it plays out.

Apple R&D -USA Today bad journalism

Numbers aren’t my strength. I last touched math during my sophomore year in high school. It didn’t end well, a story for another time.

But looking at Apple’s R&D spend and revenue over the past 10 years, even I can see the company’s ROI — one of the few financial acronyms I do understand — on its R&D seems pretty darn impressive.

Now, it might turn out that Apple does hit a dry spell in producing hit products. History suggests that this has nothing to do with the dollar allocation, the premise put forth by USA Today. It’s how that money is put to use that matters.

As a goodwill gesture to USA Today, we’re happy to help out with research if the publication find itself short-handed in the future.

It’s the least we can do.

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Six Narratives That Make up My Leave-behind Pack for Storytelling Workshops

Not Exactly Hammock Reading business storytelling

One of the best parts of my job involves conducting storytelling workshops.

It’s both fun and satisfying to help participants connect the dots to a simple premise: Given a choice between “interesting” and “dull,” human beings pick “interesting” virtually every time.

I’m constantly refining the package shared with participants in our workshops for business storytelling.

Lately, these are my go-to narratives:

  • The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn (Scientific American; link takes you to syndicated content):  There’s a fair amount of science that makes a case for storytelling in business communications. This one is the best for my money, and yes, I did fork out the $7.95 for the PDF reprint.
  • Storytelling That Moves People (Harvard Business Review, requires sign in): HBR treks to the home of Hollywood screenwriter and director Robert McKee to find out why executives should care about storytelling, how storytelling works and the meaning of life. He hammers home the point that motivating others isn’t just an intellectual process. It requires engaging people’s emotion. Enter storytelling stage left.
  • Revealing Your Moment of Truth (McKinsey Quarterly, requires sign in): This article always resonates with executives. If the bluest of the blue-chip management consultants have jumped on the storytelling bandwagon, they figure what’s the point in trudging down the corporate speak path.
  • Block That Adjective!” (The Wall Street Journal): Alexander McCall Smith, best known as the novelist behind the “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series, harpoons those pesky (oops) adjectives. In the spirit of full disclosure, McCall Smith won me over when he stopped by the blog a few years back.

Block That Adjective - Alexander McCall Smith  business storytelling

  • Your Brain on Fiction” (The New York Times): With a title riffing on the 1987 anti-narcotic campaign, “This Is Your Brain on Drugs,” the essay does lean in the direction of storytelling geeks. Still, anyone with a stack of books on the nightstand will like the close.

I had one workshop participant tell me with a certain amount of glee that actually, this was hammock reading. And that’s exactly how he read the articles.

In a hammock.

I think he’s getting the hang of this storytelling stuff.

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Removing the Tension from the Budweiser Puppy Love Video (Literally)

I love talking about failure in the context of business storytelling.

It’s a tough one for executives because it’s counterintuitive. You never hear about a company hiring a PR agency “to get the bad word out.”

Yet, the ability to bring failure or even a problem to the narrative is what separates industrial-grade storytelling from “but enough about me; let’s talk about me” copy. Whether you call it tension or drama, there is none unless something bad happens, which sets the stage for the company to demonstrate its character in overcoming the bad stuff.

As a tool to hammer home this point, I’ve started using the Budweiser Puppy love video that misted eyes during last year’s Super Bowl. Take a look at the recut video below where we’ve eliminated the scene in which the stranger adopts the puppy and starts to drive away.

See what happens when you eliminate the bad stuff?

Maybe it’s quasi-cute storytelling, but it doesn’t trigger an emotional reaction. Instead of the classic story arc, the revised video plays out like this.

Story Arc - Abbreviated Puppy Love video - business storytelling

Now compare this to the original video storytelling in which it appears that the puppy will never see his best friend the horse again.

The original 60 seconds clearly deliver the classic story arc.

Storytelling Arc - Puppy Love 09-14

One of my favorite lines on this topic comes from Fortune journalist Patricia Sellers, who closes an interview with: “If failure isn’t part of the story, I’m not that interested.” (You can find the video of the interview here).

While Sellers makes clear the type of story she’s after, you can still bring tension to a story without the “F” word. After all, I wouldn’t exactly call the stranger scene in the Puppy Love video a failure.

But you do need to bring forth an obstacle, a struggle or something going terribly wrong so the story arc dips.

That allows the really storytelling to begin as the company or individual (or horse) start the climb for a form of redemption.

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut espoused the following for creative writing:

“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

I’m not saying that business communicators must be sadistic to succeed in storytelling.

Sharing some bad stuff will do the trick.


Companies Still Embracing a Command-and-control Model for Social Media

business social media management

Like Mr. Quixote swinging at windmills, companies continue to go down the futile path of trying to control social media.

A couple years ago I wrote a post advocating for the Piggly Wiggly approach to social media.

If you’re not familiar with the Piggly Wiggly, the company’s founder Clarence Saunders invented the concept of the self-serve grocery story. U.S. Patent No. 1,242,872 captures the invention in all its glory (and you thought Amazon’s one-click checkout was innovation).

PigglyWiggly mentality - business managing social media

At the time, everyone thought Saunders was crazy, that allowing customers to pick their own groceries from the shelves instead of ordering from a single counter would be a license to steal.

But a “radical” outcome came when the concept was put to the test with working stores.

People lived up to the trust.

That’s what I mean by applying a Piggy Wiggly mentality to managing social media. Rather than take on the Quixotic quest to control these digital channels, companies should recognize that a decentralized model best serves the cause. Employees will live up to their trust.

On the other end of the spectrum, nothing annoys — I’m being kind with the verb — employees more than Big Brother coming down with a heavy hand.

A colleague recently forwarded a company-wide email that I’ve captured below. I’ve eliminated the name of the company to protect the guilty (and keep my colleague from having to update his resume).

Subject: FW: Social Media Access


As we move to the XXXXXXXX Enterprise Network, there will be some limitations in social media access.

In general, access to You Tube, Twitter, Facebook, etc., is blocked.  Users can access their account at XXXXXXX  to request access if such access is required.  It may be a good idea to get requests in before we complete the change.  Once a user submits a request, tell your managers to watch for an approval email.

Feel free to contact IT if you have any questions.

You can’t make this stuff up.

I particularly liked the line, “Users can access their account to request access if such access is required.” Whoever wrote this copy must have Franz Kafka on his/her nightstand.

Eventually, the company will figure that it can’t control social media. In the meantime, if I ran a 7-Eleven within walking distance of its facility, I’d keep an eye on those IT guys.

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Never-before-seen Footage from “The Graduate”: Mr. McGuire Talking to Dustin Hoffman About Content

The Graduate - business storytelling

Everyone has the content religion.

If you toil under the marketing umbrella, your updated job description likely includes the word “content.”

And publications ranging from BuzzFeed to Fortune to BusinessInsider have created business units to address — that’s right — developing content for companies.

Which explains why the mantra, “Content Is King,” has been chanted into the ground.

We tend to think of this infatuation with content as a recent phenomenon, that the rise of digital media prompted the invention of content (now there’s a patent with value).

But is this so?

I investigated the matter to determine if content existed before the World Wide Web.

It turns out that not only did content exist before the Web, its presence found its way into popular culture as far back as the 1960s. In the video clip below from the 1967 Academy Award-winning movie, “The Graduate,” watch Mr. McGuire offer career advice to Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin.

I’m sorry that the age of the video has somewhat eroded the audio quality. If you have trouble, here’s a written version of the dialogue from the scene once Mr. McGuire and Dustin Hoffman move outside.

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes I am.

Mr. McGuire: Content …

Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in content. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Dustin Hoffman: Yes I will.

Mr. McGuire: Shhhh. Enough said. That’s a deal.

We can safely conclude that yes, content existed before the World Wide Web.

P.S. Watching this scene unfold never gets old. Business communicators can hone their storytelling technique from other movies like the opening of “500 Days of Summer.”




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