Friday, November 26, 2010

When a newsman sounds like a PR guy

I caught a great interview marketing 2.0 expert Brian Solis did with Dan Farber, Editor-in-Chief of, about how news organizations have to evolve their approach to their business given the rise of social media.

Here it is, from Solis' (R)evolution series which, in Solis' own words, "connects you to the people, trends, and ideas defining the future of business, marketing, and media."

I shared this link with my colleague, journalism instructor Duncan McMonagle, saying "this newsman sounds a lot to me like a PR guy."

Duncan's reaction: "Uh oh!"

Smart strategy is smart strategy, no matter who's doing it.

"Dark side" jokes aside, Farber makes a lot of statements about what news organizations should be doing in the face of growing competition from Web-based media, which my PR students here at Red River College will tell you are basic tenets of good public relations.

For example, he says CBS News works to ensure its content can be found "where people are congregating." This requires research to determine where your audience is, what its preferences are, and how best to reach it.

PR people have been doing this for decades: understanding the principles of persuasion, we know we need to position our messages such that they offer something our audiences will value, and in ways that make it easy for our audiences to access them.

Sounding even more like a PR guy, Farber also says his business is "all about building relationships now, and trying to engage people."

There was a time when "newsmen" created the news, put it out there, and their audiences simply consumed it. They didn't have much choice: as Farber himself points out, there weren't nearly as many sources for news back then.

But as we all know, the same isn't true today: news comes at us from all angles. It isn't all credible, and it isn't all accurate, but it's there, and it's competing for our attention. The challenge for professional news organizations like is to break through the noise and protect their audiences from their hundreds of online competitors.

Selling the news isn't much different from selling anything else.

Whether you're selling dog food, a political candidate, a non-profit as a good cause, or your news organization, the best way to build support and loyalty is to build relationships.

Our audiences in 2010 live in a world of unending messages -- coming at them from all sides, at all hours, in every format.

How to break through it all?

First of all, put your messages where your audiences are (for example, Farber knows his audiences use Facebook and Twitter, so his organization maintains profiles on both, with more than a million and a half followers). Don't make them hunt around to find you - they won't. They don't have time. And there are millions of other messages out there, ready to distract them if they try.

Secondly, engage with them. "Engage" is quickly becoming one of those throwaway words that lose their meaning in marketing blather - but its fundamental message is key. (It's also the title of Solis' most recent book.) Loyalty is built on give-and-take, two-way relationships. Give your customers the opportunity to get involved in what you're doing rather than simply watching you do it, and they're far more likely to stick with you.

Mainstream media outlets have a big job ahead of them, as our attention spans grow ever shorter and the media landscape fractures further.

In the long run, I'm betting on journalists like's Dan Farber.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Deadlines matter

Here's the headline on a story in today's Winnipeg Free Press:


The story says that, under a new provincial policy effective February 1, 2011, [high school, I assume] teachers in Manitoba "will be allowed to dock students marks for late or missing work."

Congratulations (better late than never!)

In the Creative Communications program here at Red River College, where I teach PR, many instructors have a zero tolerance policy on late assignments. If it's due by 9:00 and you hand it in at 9:01, it's late, and you get an F -- even if the work is brilliant.

Harsh? Maybe. Do we need to do this to instil professional attitudes towards work? For some students, you bet we do. (The others are well-organized, and would hand in their work on time whether there was a strict deadline policy or not.) Either way, we're generally the last stop between these students and the professional workplace; it's a far less painful lesson to learn here than out there, where it counts.

There's a bit of a learning curve on this one with some people, and I don't blame them: I blame the system that has raised them to think deadlines are optional. I can't tell you how many students who've entered our program with undergraduate degrees in hand, have told me they've never been penalized for late assignments.

What's the big deal?

The big deal is that, once you get into the working world (in PR, but I'm sure in many if not most other professions), deadlines matter immensely. And if you haven't had to train yourself to organize your work and manage your time, you're going to have a tough go of it (and potentially lose some great opportunities) because you're unreliable.

The 6:00 news can't start at 6:02.

A proposal due at 2:00 won't be accepted at 2:01.

A job interview may well be cancelled if the interviewer enters the lobby to greet you and finds you're not there on time.

As it happens, I was writing this post as the "Solo PR" chat (a forum for freelance PR folks) was happening on Twitter. Here's one tweet that turned up on my desktop as I was writing:

Even when your deadline doesn't involve a timed broadcast, or an acceptance deadline for a proposal, or an important interview, in PR you have to be on time for everything.

Why? It's not just about showing that you have your act together and are reliable: it's also about showing that you recognize the value of other people's time.

Want to be taken seriously and have credibility as a professional? The first step is to be on time. Always, with everything. Being late for a professional commitment can be humiliating, I've learned (the hard way).

It's never too early

I could never quite believe our educational system had a policy against penalties for late submissions, but now that it's been overturned, all I can say is "phew." I realize that high school is not college or university - but it is where we're supposed to learn all the foundational lessons we'll need to be productive adults (besides the lessons we need to learn at home, that is).

While I'm not a science or math guy particularly, I fully appreciate the value of forcing students to get a well-rounded education before choosing a specialty to build on.

But if you want to know which topics I think are most vital to professional success, time management would be near the top of the list.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Maybe Twitter's "favorite" function needs a new name

Sarah Palin has been taking some heat this week for an offensive tweet which she appeared to have marked as a "favorite" on her Twitter account.

On Twitter, you have the option to mark a tweet in your timeline as a "favorite," making it easier to find again later -- much like a bookmark would for a website.

Here's Twitter's explanation, from its online "Help Center":

"Favoriting" a tweet can be really handy; I regularly mark tweets I want to come back to later on, usually because they contain information or links I think would be interesting for my students.

It does not, however, mean these tweets actually are my favourites. I might just as easily mark a tweet I disagree with as one I agree with, if I think it illustrates something interesting.

So for me, tweets marked as "favorites" are not to be interpreted as the ones I like most, or the ones I most agree with. Rather, they're tweets I happened to see when it was inconvenient to follow links or to note them in my book for later, and to which I want to return later. That's it -- there's nothing more to be read into it.

In Sarah Palin's case, she is reported to have explained, it wasn't even that: she wasn't aware of the "favorite" function at all, and the tweet was marked by accident. In an email to ABC News' Jake Tapper, which is quoted in The Washington Post's Politics and Policy blog, she said:
"Jake [Tapper], I've never purposefully 'favorited' any Tweet. I had to go back to my BlackBerry to even see if such a function was possible. I was traveling to Alaska that was an obvious accidental 'favoriting,' but no one can mistake that Ann Coulter was obviously being tongue in cheek with that Tweet..."
This explanation sounds reasonable to me - especially since the "favorite" button only appears when you roll over the tweet with your cursor. Even Rachel Maddow, who I don't think anyone would consider a blind supporter of Sarah Palin, agrees.

While Maddow is talking to media who are jumping all over Palin for this, I do think there's a disconnect between what Twitter planned for "favorites" to be and what they have actually become. Tweets we want to save for later might or might not be tweets we particularly like or agree with.

My advice?

Keep the function, but re-name it "bookmark." Same convenience, less opportunity for mis-reading intentions!