What the Hell Does the PR Guy Know About Journalism? Five Takes up for Debate

My own career as a reporter was short-lived, not even three months at the “El Independiente” in South Tucson. Still, I enjoy sharing an outsider’s perspective on the plight of journalism.

Curating these posts on our journalistic brothers/sisters, I’ve captured five takes with a PR bent.

The Wall Street Journal Tries BuzzFeed Storytelling

The Wall Street Journal visual storytelling attempt

When I came across this Journal piece, I literally did a double take. How could such a prestigious publication produce such a dreadful attempt at visual storytelling? Even if it was the work of an intern, that still doesn’t explain how the story made its way through the editing gauntlet to the publish button. The Columbia Journalism Review wrote about this post, allowing me to check a box on my bucket list.

PR Take on the State of the Media 2013

The Pew Research Center dissects the media each year in a special report.

As the overlap between journalism and public relations becomes increasingly uncomfortable, it’s clear that the good folks at Pew are experiencing heartburn on how to explain the phenomena.

This particular passage caught my attention:

At the same time, newsmakers and others with information they want to put into the public arena have become more adept at using digital technology and social media to do so on their own, without any filter by the traditional media. They are also seeing more success in getting their message into the traditional media narrative.

Now there’s an alert-the-media moment. Companies communicating directly to their target audiences.

An Open Letter to the PR Community to Help Restore the Credibility of Journalists

This post is one of my all-time favorites. When the czar of journalistic inner workings, Dave Carr at The New York Times, crafted a column lamenting the fact that some organizations extract the power to approve a quote before it hits the open road, empathy consumed me. I immediately wrote a plea to the PR community to help right this injustice.

The New York Times Story on Journalism in China Is Much Ado About Nothing

Yes, the Chinese media landscape differs from that in the United States. Actions take place behind the close doors that aren’t exactly kosher.

But when a publication frames the issue as black and white implying the purity of journalism in the West, I decided to weigh in with a more nuanced take.

Journalists Accept Apple’s “Storytelling Candy”

The Los Angeles Times article - Apple CEO Tim Cook visits Foxconn factory

I’m convinced if the Nieman Lab or Jeff Jarvis published this post, it would have a triggered some healthy discourse.

When Apple CEO Tim Cook headed to China, the PR function kept silent with one exception. It hired a photographer to take photos figuring whether they communicated or not, journalists would write the Cook-in-China story and need visuals. Even in negative stories, Apple PR reasoned a smiling CEO interacting with the common folks would deliver a positive counterbalance. The ensuring coverage proved them right.

Back to the question, what the hell does the public relations guy know about journalism?

Don’t feel obligated to answer the question.

But I would welcome hearing your comments on any of these topics.




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A Little SEO Humor, the PR Wayback Machine and Trying to One-up Ellen’s Selfie

The grab bag makes its 2014 debut today.

Three takes coming at you.

A Little SEO Humor

Marcus Thompson II, the San Jose Mercury News sports journalist, showed his storytelling chops with a terrific column on Barry Bonds lending a helping hand to the Giants during Spring training:

  • “At a news conference to kick off his stint as a guest hitting coach at Giants camp, Bonds had morphed from renowned jerk to giggly middle-aged man. It was like Darth Vader after a spa day.”

The headline read, “Barry Bonds Like We’ve Never Seen Him.”

Naturally, the Merc’s digital team went to work handcrafting the URL.

But rather than play to the SEO gods, they went for levity.

San Jose Mercury News article" Thomson: Barry Bonds like we've never seen him"

Well played!

It turns out a search on [Barry Bonds has great teeth] does pull up the column at the top of page 1

Turning Back the PR Wayback Machine to 1985

I stumbled across a 1985 LA Times feature story on Regis McKenna and the early days of the Silicon Valley PR scene.

If the name doesn’t a ring bell, Regis and his namesake agency pioneered the tech PR genre. Most credit Regis with creating the concept of influencer relations.

It’s a fun read and a quick history lesson on the formation of tech PR.

The story also reminded me that PR practitioners don’t always bring the same finesse to their own communications that they apply to clients. Check out this quote from McKenna group account manager Andy Cunningham regarding client Apple:

  • “This agency knows more about Apple Computer than Barbara Krause.” (Krause headed Apple’s in-house PR function at the time.)

Not exactly a relationship-building moment.

My Attempt at One-upping Ellen’s Academy Awards Selfie Falls 3,394,618 RTs Short (as of 3/15/14 at 2:26 p.m.)

Every communications professional appreciates the near-impossible nature of generating viral content.

Still, I thought I sniffed an opportunity – allergy season has yet to kick in – when Ellen clicked the selfie heard around the world. Like news hijacking, why not “selfie hijacking” as a form of visual storytelling?

Thinking back to the Woody Allen movie classic “Zelig” which chronicles the human chameleon Leonard Zelig (played by Allen) and his penchant for showing up around famous people.


I would “add” Mr. Zelig to the Ellen selfie and watch social media work its magic.

Ellen DeGeneres selfie at Oscars

Not so fast, proving once again that what one man thinks amusing, another finds banal.

And why a search on [esoteric smart ass] puts me at the top of the SERP.


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Business Storytelling Lessons from the Budweiser “Puppy Love” Ad

A good percent of the U.S. population has watched the Budweiser “puppy love” ad that ran during the Super Bowl. At last count, YouTube views were about to crack the 50,000,000 mark.

I believe that qualifies as a viral video.

What exactly in the video caused so many people to watch and share?

Of course, it’s a terrific story that touches the heart. But how did Budweiser structure the storytelling to trigger so many “you’ve got to see this” reactions?

Communication professionals can learn a ton about storytelling from their advertising brothers. When you’re shelling out $4 million and change for a single ad, it has a way of tuning one’s senses, a dynamic that typically doesn’t exist when PR crafts a pitch or writes a news release.

As a result, advertising often structures their creative with the same classic story arc taught in your high school English class.

Even in the 60 seconds devoted to the “puppy love” ad, a classic story arc emerges. You can see the break down of how this plays out in the graphic below:

Budweiser puppy love ad video

In short, bad stuff happens in good storytelling (and yes, I took liberties in having the puppy channel Jimi Hendrix).

When the stranger adopts the puppy and starts driving away, we assume the puppy is headed for a dull life in the burbs away from his best friend. This creates the tension which in turn enables the “payoff” with the horse and his posse coming to the rescue.

The traditional PR mindset is to hide or diffuse or sprackle over the “bad stuff.”

Again, no bad stuff, no story.

Yes, I recognize that paid media allows advertising to control the narrative. They can dish out a crisis knowing with 100-percent certainty that a payoff and happy ending await.

Not so with PR.

Still, PR needs to push for content related to activities that didn’t go according to plan. This way, you frame the storytelling with a before and after narrative. The more distance between the two, the greater the drama. But without the “before,” the journalist or reader has no way to understand the context for the “after.”

Beyond the story arc, here are three more takeaways from the Budweiser video to guide PR-generated content:

* Provide context

If you only see the stranger driving off with the puppy and don’t know that the puppy has tried three times to see his buddy, the horse, you figure what’s the big deal. After all, it IS a puppy adoption business.

* Outward focus

Shouting “me, me, me” is the quickest away to turn off the audience. The company needs to be in a supporting role, not the hero.

* Humanize the story

If your company makes software for troubleshooting computer networks, it’s going to be a stretch to bring a puppy (or a cat) into the picture.  But this dimension can still brought out  through the people involved.

Side Note: Al Topkins offers an excellent breakdown of the “puppy love” videography at Poynter (hat tip to Ben Whitmore at IDG).


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Why I Turned Off LinkedIn’s Skills & Endorsements Functionality

LinkedIn Icon

I conducted a storytelling workshop at UC Berkeley last month that had a fresh wrinkle. A chunk of time was devoted to applying the concepts of storytelling to one’s personal branding, specifically the resume and LinkedIn profile.

Several questions zeroed in on the “Skills & Endorsements” real estate in LinkedIn.

While I’m an advocate for LinkedIn, my enthusiasm for this particular section is right up there with watching curling at the Winter Olympics … on a TV with rabbit-ears for reception … eating kale as the snack of choice.

I tried to mask my distaste, but apparently failed. After the workshop, one of the participants asked that if I think so lowly of “Skills & Endorsements,” why don’t I turn it off? As he pointed out, with a few clicks in edit mode, the following disappears:

LinkedIn Skills & Endorsements

Before answering the question –

I can understand hitting the “like” button for that perfect bowl of naengmyeon or “precious” video of little Johnny recreating a Robert Duvall scene from “Apocalypse Now.”

That doesn’t call for true evaluation.

But when LinkedIn updated the platform with “Skills & Endorsements,” it decided to play to the lowest common denominator – which works fine for funny or weird or sensory.

Not so much when it comes to assessing a particular skill set.

Because it’s too easy and superficial. It also breeds the quid pro quo, you click mine and I’ll click yours. To borrow from Snoop Dogg, it’s gamification gone wild (BTW, genius to add the extra “g”).

The bottom line: it tells you absolutely nothing about the individual.

So back to the question – Why don’t I turn it off?

I did.


Why did it take until now to flip the switch?

I’d need a therapist and a comfy couch before digging into this one.

And some kale wouldn’t hurt.



Applying Storytelling Techniques to a Landing Page. Yes, It’s Possible!

I’ve written several posts on how storytelling seems to be MIA when it comes to the humble job description.

Even in Silicon Valley where deviating from the status quo is the status quo, virtually all companies still borrow from the same HR document called “Dull Job Descriptions.”

It makes no sense.

If people are an organization’s most valuable asset, logic would suggest that companies treat copy earmarked for job candidates with  intensity similar to what goes into preparing for a quarterly earnings call.

It turns out that the same lack of storytelling plagues recruitment landing pages.

If you plug “________ jobs” (pick your industry) into Google and a click on the AdWord ads, they lead you to a drab careers page or an even drabber landing page.

It gets worse when you zero in on the communications industry with a search such as “PR jobs.” Talk about the cobbler’s kids missing their Michael Kors Graham Booties.

Which I suppose is good news for us because when we zig, it delivers even stronger differentiation when everyone else zags.

Our landing page in search of talent went live last week. You can see how we applied storytelling techniques to our own narrative – both visually and with words – in the page captured below.

Storytelling Techniques in a Landing Page

Grading out any creative tends to be a subjective exercise.

But the conversational language, fresh word choice and levity, all classic storytelling techniques, demonstrate that it is possible to pump some life into a recruitment landing page.

By opening up, the narrative helps the world get to know us.

Credit for the “look and feel” goes to our designer Chauncey Hill and Todd Windley at Planet 4 Designworks, Inc. who handled the programming. Moving that red arrow from the comp to the web page required a magic trick worthy of a Vegas stage (a little creative CSS added to the mix allowed for background imagery).

BTW, anyone with roughly four to seven years of experience thinking it’s time to explore greener pastures?

You know where to find me.

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