Publications Continue to Characterize Brand Journalism as “The Devil Wears a Keyboard.”

The Devil Wears Keyboard - brand Journalism

With the story “The Invasion of Corporate News, The Financial Times became the latest publication to skewer brand journalism.

I suppose the FT figured a headline along the lines of “You’re Too Stupid to Figure Out Journalism from Propaganda” might alienate readers. Because that seems to be one of the themes in the FT piece.

Stepping back for a moment, I’m still perplexed by the rancor that publications dish at brand journalism. After all, as the FT itself points out, this concept of brand journalism has been going on for years with the Hershey Press from 1909 serving as Exhibit A.

Hershey Press brand journalism

People like choices. If you question this, take a look at the section for mustard the next time you’re in a grocery store.

And people want choices in their sources of information.

Unlike the FT, I believe the vast majority of people have the wherewithal to understand that if a certain piece of information is coming from Hershey or any other company/organization, it carries a certain bias. That doesn’t automatically make the information useless. Instead, it allows people to frame the context and determine on their own the value of the information.

Here are some of the choice passages that express the FT’s point of view followed by my three cents:

-  Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst who has studied the “muddying of the waters” between news and marketing, says of Chevron’s Richmond site: “There are not a lot of things that amaze me but that takes chutzpah to do that.”

Chutzpah? My grandmother who spoke Yiddish wouldn’t use this word to describe a company taking the pedestrian actions of telling their stories like journalists.

- With the president-felling image of Woodward and Bernstein still hanging over the profession, and a geekily hip narrative of data-driven analysis pointing to a new future, few journalists like to acknowledge the role PRs play in their stories. Many are well-informed, professional, clever, helpful and fun. Some are former colleagues. Some become friends. But for most journalists, it is an involvement we put up with warily. PRs are spinners of favourable stories, glossers-over of unfavourable facts and gatekeepers standing between us and the people we want to get to.

That’s a fair characterization, although I might quibble with the word choice, preferring something along the lines of “advancing the company’s narrative” over “spinners” (sounds too much like sinners).

- Employment in US newsrooms has fallen by a third since 2006, according to the American Society of News Editors, but PR is growing. Global PR revenues increased 11 per cent last year to almost $12.5bn, according to an industry study entitled The Holmes Report. For every working journalist in America, there are now 4.6 PR people, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, up from 3.2 a decade ago. And those journalists earn on average 65 per cent of what their PR peers are paid.

Journalists love to highlight this flawed dot-connecting, as if the PR profession swung the wrecking ball that left the business of journalism in rubble. Gentlemen, this thing called the Internet disrupted your business model, not us.

- For 20 years, as a reporter and editor in London and New York, most of my time has been spent doing the things non-journalists assume journalists do all day: developing sources, chasing leads, delving into secret files and polishing paragraphs. But I have also devoted countless hours to dealing with PR people. This has involved furious phone calls to protest at my underplaying a client’s view of the world, surreptitious forwarding of material helpful to the case being pitched, and friendly invitations to bend my ear over lunch or drinks. (Only twice has a PR person attempted to play footsie with me under the lunch table – I made my excuses and left.) Then there are the emailed pitches, trying to persuade me to spend time and reporting resources on stories of questionable value to the FT’s readers.

I thought many of us are “well-informed, professional, clever, helpful and fun.”

- Few have succeeded in making the news as well as Apple. This month, as it unveiled the iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch in Cupertino, California, thousands of journalists live-blogged every detail of the carefully scripted event. But the company also ran its own live blog, a feed of perfectly lit images of the devices, shareable quotes from executives, retweeted endorsements from celebrities including Diddy and Katy Perry and a gushing running commentary (“So far, so amazing”).

I agree. In fact, I wrote a post on this very topic, “Journalists Accept Apple’s Storytelling Candy.”

- Marketers talk about “paid media” (advertising they have to buy), “earned media” (from press coverage to word-of-mouth buzz) and a growing category called “owned media” (their websites, blogs and social media feeds). The attraction of “owned media”, by definition, is that brands neither have to pay a media outlet for it nor earn it by convincing a reporter that the story is worth covering.

But here’s a key point left out. Companies still need to publish stories that people care about, that they find useful or informative or even amusing. Otherwise, companies are left to ponder “if a blog post falls in the forest and no one reads it, did it make a noise?”

No matter how savvy companies become in brand journalism, journalists will always enjoy a huge advantage in the form of credibility. And while I think readers deserve credit for being able to discern the objective from the subjective, there can still be value in the subjective information.

But I won’t be holding my breath for the FT to link to this post.

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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Pitching Journalists, But Were Afraid to Ask

Book Cover - pitching journalists

The influence of journalists remains as important today as when I started in the communications business. While the Internet has commoditized news announcements, what appears in publications still impacts a company’s brand and reputation.

That’s why I was intrigued when I heard that Muck Rack (in cooperation MDC Partners) surveyed a cross section of journalists — newspapers, magazines, trade publications, etc. — to learn how they like to be pitched. With more than 300 journalists responding, we can learn from the aggregated data starting with their preferred vehicle for pitches.

Muck Rack survey - Pitch Preference for journalists

No surprise, journalists value the efficiency and control that comes with email dialogue. They find comfort in that “D” key only being a millisecond away.

I did expect Twitter to rate better than less than two percent. I figured since Clifford Krauss’s clumsy attempt on behalf of The New York Times to dig up sources for the Toyota recall back in 2010, journalists would be more comfortable with the medium.

CKrausss Twitter attempt to set up interview with Toyota

With that said, 93 percent of journalists affirmed that they appreciate it when communication professionals follow them on social media. This has less to do with the actual business storytelling and more about how The Man measures journalists.

As highlighted in “Why PR Should Be Paying Attention to the Turmoil at The Oregonian,” a journalist’s KPIs can range from social media engagement to clicks on his/her stories. PR people who by definition know something about “spreading the word” can play a role in helping the journalist meet those pesky performance metrics.

Which also explains why 88 percent of journalists look at how many times their articles have been shared across social media. In short, shared articles = clicks.

The next question affirms my philosophy, given a choice between a fresh story or a great relationship in landing coverage, I’ll take the fresh story every time.

Muck Rack survey results on pitching preferences from Journalists

Regarding ideal pitch length —

Muck Rack survey results on pitching preferences from Journalists

This one deserves more context. Yes, journalists deal with jammed schedules and can’t afford to spend half their day reading email pitches. As Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson from the Financial Times recently lamented:

My inbox is clogged with the “barking news” about New York’s first doggie-treat truck, the invitation to meet the inventor of the multimedia coat hanger, the press release on the “trail-blazing” motorway service station and the survey on “slowcial networking” (otherwise known as sending greetings cards).

Still, if you can hook the journalist with a compelling and relevant narrative in two to three sentences, he/she will keep reading for a deeper understanding.

But how do you hook the journalist in those precious few seconds?

Muck Rack survey results on pitching preferences from Journalists

Good point and one I would take a step further.

More than personalize, you need to customize the pitch to the specific journalist, his/her beat and the publication. Do your homework. Why the mass email blast lives on when it’s got the effectiveness of the line, “What’s your sign?” is beyond me. This is why journalists get cranky about PR.”

Kudos to Muck Rack for asking the questions (and no, Dr. Reuben didn’t write a book on the topic).


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The Connection Between Anecdotes and Storytelling in Business Communications

Anecdotes and business storytelling

I am an unabashed fan of the anecdote. I’m also convinced that it’s one of the most underutilized storytelling techniques in business communications.

Executives often perceive anecdotes as fluff and put the kibosh on such content before it sees the light of the day. That explains why if you audited the content generated by PR (in-house + agency), you would find most efforts capture little or no anecdotal content.

It makes no sense.

Journalists, the masters of industrial-grade storytelling in business, have honed the use of anecdotal content to an art form. Anecdotes can be particularly effective in dealing with complex subject matter, as was the case in our support of the Bell Labs 50th anniversary for the discovery of the “Big Bang.” Among the mainstream media covering the story, NPR looked to bring out the humanity of the two scientists with anecdotes such as this one trying to eliminate the hum from the signal that they thought might be originating from birds:

“There was a pair of pigeons living in the antenna,” Wilson says. Wilson and Penzias got on their lab coats, climbed inside their giant microwave contraption, and wiped out the pigeon poop. The birds kept roosting in there. Penzias and a lab technician eventually took matters into their own hands: “The only humane way of doing it was to buy a box of shotgun shells,” Penzias says. “So that’s what finally happened to the pigeons.”

As Heisenberg says in “Breaking Bad,” “That covers it.”

In another client example, we landed a Fast Company feature story on Nautilus earlier this year that uses three anecdotes to frame the piece:

  • Previous office building nicknamed “Taj Majal” by employees for being grandiose (not a term of endearment)
  • Conducted raffle for some employees to join the execs in New York City to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange
  • CEO joined the internal kickball league

The mashing of these anecdotes actually creates the headline, “What Happened When Nautilus’s CEO Ditched His Fancy Office and Joined the Company Kickball Team.”

Both examples put a face on the company and do so in a way that takes you behind the curtain with fresh wrinkles to the story.

There’s another reason that anecdotes should be part of your communications arsenal. They bring realness to the storytelling.

If I stand in front of you and tell you that I’m a great dad — illustration below for those who think visually — what do you think?

example of connection between anecdotes and business storytelling

What is the first thing that pops into your mind?

You’re thinking just the opposite. Such a statement triggers the perception that if I’m saying this, I’m probably not a great dad.

But what if I were to talk about getting up early on a Sunday morning because my kids wanted to try to their hands at a strawberry crepe? Leaving nothing to chance, I even bought a crepe pan from Williams-Sonoma that guaranteed a perfect outcome. Yet, in spite of our diligence in following the recipe, we ended up with a dish that looked more like strawberry mashed potatoes than a crepe.

You still might not nominate me for dad of the year, but you do take away the impression that I’m engaged with my kids.

I read a great line some time ago from Raymond Mar, a professor at York University in Toronto, who conducts research on storytelling: “Everyone has a natural detector for psychological realism.”

That’s the power of the anecdote, helping the reader/listener feel that the story rings true.

Side note: More on anecdotes in business communications can be found in the post, “Reverse Engineering the Storytelling Techniques in a Fast Company Feature.”

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Cultivating Agency–Client Relationships That Go Deeper Than Procurement

Any type of relationship—personal, business or with the guy at the farmer’s market—always comes down to trust.

It’s ironic that the typical person will open up more with the guy at the farmer’s market—“you don’t want to know how I’m doing, but since you asked …”—than with someone from his or her business world.

Check out these three data points from an old New York Times/CBS poll that still hold relevant today.

Cant Be Too Careful

Try To Take Advantage

Try To Be Fair

The punch line makes sense. Knowing someone increases the trust quotient, which means you don’t have to be “on your guard.”

Along this line, we want our clients (and even new-biz prospects) to know us as well as possible: how we think, how we act and what our philosophies are. We also believe that the same storytelling techniques that work in your personal life work in business communications.

For example, it’s easy for clients undervalue how their decisions and actions impact their PR agency’s performance. I think everyone would agree that the stability of the account team is a good thing, bringing continuity to the execution of a campaign. What often gets missed is client interactions have a direct bearing on the experience of our account folks. The point comes to life in the following internal survey.

Client Agency Relationship - PR

This doesn’t mean we expect our clients to be marshmallows, coddling our account folks like Downton Abbey help. Just self-awareness of the agency–client dynamics makes a difference.

At the 10,000-foot level, it’s been our experience that the primary reason that the agency–client relationship derails comes down to a disconnect between what we deliver and the client’s expectations. It turns out our ability to meet—or better yet, exceed—the client’s expectations has a direct correlation to the client’s beliefs, values and management style.

With this in mind, we created the SlideShare deck, “How Clients Get the Most out of Us.”

Client Agency Relationships from The Hoffman Agency

Everyone talks about finding the “right fit” between a company and a PR agency. We’ve taken the concept a step further, providing a window into our organization to help companies understand how we tick and, yes, get to know us.

It’s the first step toward trust.

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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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