Bentoff Communications Update

Posted January 29th, 2012 in Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

Bentoff Communications is returning from a temporary hiatus while owner Jeff Bentoff worked as deputy chief of staff for Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele. With Abele’s re-election almost certain (no candidates chose to run against him), Jeff recently announced that he is leaving that position and returning to consult for businesses and non-profits through Bentoff Communications.

“Jeff provided invaluable leadership and skills that enabled me and my new administration to successfully communicate our goals to the public and begin to implement major reforms in Milwaukee County government,” Abele said.

Here in our blog, Jeff will be sharing some of his recent communications experiences and insights, so stay tuned.

What Osama bin Laden’s death means in the PR world today

Posted May 2nd, 2011 in Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

Here’s an instructive column I came across today explaining how the news of Osama bin Laden’s killing will affect PR projects in the short term. Hint: If you have a story you’re pitching today — or this week — good luck.

It’s a good explanation of how planned PR initiatives take a back seat when big news, even news less monumental than this, breaks out. Kinda obvious to those of us in the business, but worth reading.

The killing of the world’s top terrorist of course trumps any other issue today, as it should, and makes considerations of PR strategies seem trivial. Our admiration and thanks goes out to the brave military who accomplished the mission in Pakistan yesterday and our leaders who directed the operation. We hope this action make the world a safer place.

 

 

Wisconsin senators in Illinois and Gov. Walker fight for TV time

In urging the 14 Wisconsin Democratic state senators to return from Illinois to the Badger State capitol, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has said repeatedly they have to be “in the arena.” Whether the Wisconsin Dems in Illinois are in the Wisconsin political arena is a point of debate.

But are they staying in the Wisconsin media arena from outside the state border?

The Dems clearly have a structural disadvantage in staying in the local media eye, particularly in the all-important TV eye: They’re not in Madison as usual, where Wisconsin TV can easily cover them.

How’s the war for TV going?

For anyone not aware, the 14 Senate Democrats left Wisconsin one week ago to prevent a vote on Walker’s budget repair bill, which cuts state worker pay and benefits and eliminates most collective bargaining rights for most employees. The Senate Republican majority needs at least one Democrat to attend a floor session reach the quorum needed to allow a vote. By staying out of state, the Dems are stopping the Senate Republicans, who are in the majority, from passing the bill.

Republican Walker has taken full advantage of the Dems’ absence and his stature as governor, becoming a common face on TV and print in Wisconsin and nationally. He’s held numerous news conferences. He’s conducted many local and national one-on-one interviews, including a live session on ABC’s “Good Morning” with host George Stephanopoulus.

To keep his messages in the media, he held a live “Fireside Chat” (though without a lit fireplace) this week that pre-empted local evening news, receiving uninterrupted, unedited coverage without reporter questions on seemingly all Wisconsin news channels. Throughout his continuing media blitz, he’s appeared very comfortable on camera and stayed on message.

Highlighting the Dems’ distance from the capitol, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald this week held a conference call meeting with two of the absent senators. Media attended. The two senators’ name tags were visible at Fitzgerald’s table, but their seats were visibly empty. Their voices were heard on a speaker phone, but the visual of their voices through a speaker didn’t help them.

So how are the Dems doing, away from the Wisconsin media machine?

The Senate Dems put together an immediate live response to Walker’s fireside chat that was aired on TV (with some media Q&A) from their undisclosed location. In terms purely of the visuals, the Dems’ broadcast looked less polished, which is understandable given their location was the basement of a hotel. But they were on TV when they needed to be.

Sen. Mark Miller televised respone to Gov. Walker "fireside chat"

The media seems a bit fascinated by the Dems absence, which benefits the senators. Sure, the media uses words like “fled,” “skipped town,” “are on the lam” and similar jocular terms in describing the Dems’ relocation.

But the absent Dems have been interviewed by phone, with comments appearing on air and in print. They’ve allowed some TV and photographers into their “undisclosed location” – apparently an Illinois hotel – with footage and interviews showing up on air in places such as on Milwaukee’s ABC news affiliate (WISN) and on the CBC Evening News.

The coverage often makes them look under siege and thus creates sympathy. Today’s New York Times ran a front-page story entitled “Life on the run for Democrats in union fights” about them and Indiana state reps in a similar situation.

And despite their situation, they’ve managed to appear remotely on national TV — for example, Sen. Jon Erpenbach made satellite appearances on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show” and on the Colbert Report. The Colbert Report segment is an hilarious, must-see.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Wisco Inferno – Jon Erpenbach
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

A main reason this story is a national story is the great visuals of large numbers of protesters. The protesters are colorful, articulate, passionate and carry clever signs. They return in huge numbers day after day after day. And these sorts of protests in the U.S. are, at least in this era, unique. (Early prediction – between the demonstrations in Cairo and Madison, Time Magazine will name “The Protester” as person of the year.)

I am a little surprised that, in this era of YouTube, the Dems haven’t compensated for their physical absence with easily accessible and effective online video tools. Web cams, Flip cameras, YouTube postings, Skype interviews – these are all part of how everyone from teenagers to national anchors communicates with each other these days. They would have allowed the Dems to provide video to  TV and directly to constituents via the web.

In media interviews, the Dems said they left for Illinois hastily, not even packing changes of clothes. So grabbing the webcam was probably far from their minds, assuming they use webcams.

Critics see another kind of lack of planning, this one by national unions, that cannot be explained by a need for a hasty exit from Wisconsin. Forbes contributor Rick Ungar, in a piece, “Public Employee Unions Failing Badly At Public Relations,” argues that unions nationally “had to know this was coming – and yet, they were completely unprepared.”

“In an era where the public is all too ready to blame state employees for what they perceive as feeding at the public trough – while those in the private sector are left to suffer the ravages of a deep recession – the union PR machine has been anything but effective,” Ungar wrote of the national labor movement.

Since the Wisconsin protests began, labor has been running TV and prints ads, keeping toe to toe with the ads supporting Walker. But could labor have avoided the situation in the first place by building a better case for unions over the last few years, as Ungar writes? What do you think?

Too cute by three

Posted February 9th, 2011 in Communications, Marketing, Public Relations, Social Media, Twitter, Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

PR and ad pitches tied to current events can be very effective, as can using humor — when it makes sense and is done with care. But people – please, please, please be sensitive.

Critics have understandably savaged three recent corporate PR and ad efforts for insensitivity, ridiculousness or both. Perhaps the companies simply wanted good press and they goofed big time. Or perhaps, as a few have suggested, they purposely flirted with controversy, hoping for attention, even negative attention. If so, they got it.

Groupon seems to have achieved the unique feat of paying $3M to lose customers who previously loved them.

Three recent PR / Ad Hall of Shame nominations…

First, commentators have almost universally trashed Groupon’s Super Bowl ad, which insensitively morphed from talking about the Tibetan crises to getting a deal at a Tibetan restaurant. Watch:

The interwebs are full of criticisms about this, plus you can read Groupon’s unsuccessful attempt at explaining why they did what they did. One tweet during the Super Bowl said it all: “Groupon seems to have achieved the unique feat of paying $3M to lose customers who previously loved them.”

Second, a similar example of trying to find humor in exploiting tragedy comes from fashion maven Kenneth Cole. Cole himself allegedly sent this tweet, which a company store in San Francisco apparently liked so much it turned it into a window display:

In addition to bringing tons of angry commentary, Cole’s tweet prompted an angry critic to create a mock Twitter account (@kennethcolepr) that is faux tweeting as the company with sarcastic little ditties such as: “Jeffrey Dahmer would have eaten up our spring collection.”

Finally, Allstate Corp. last week issued “a tongue-in-cheek press release correlating zodiac signs to accident rates, but nobody got the joke,” according to a CNNMoney story. Allstate was forced to retract its release, saying that it “led to some confusion around whether astrological signs are part of the underwriting process. Astrological signs have absolutely no role in how we base coverage and set rates.”

What’s amazing about all three efforts is that weren’t necessary because of external pressure. Someone simply dreamed them up and thought they were good ideas. Someone approved them — probably a lot of people, including lawyers. Yet somehow no one saw the train wrecks they were creating.

The lesson here: Before communicating, think about your goal. Think about your audience. Think from every angle about how your communication will be perceived.

And don’t joke about human rights violations or civil unrest.

(Literally) drawing audiences in with stories

Posted January 18th, 2011 in Communications, Government, Media Relations, Public Relations, Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

Putting messages in the form of stories helps break through the clutter and reaches into audience hearts and minds in ways that recitation of facts can’t. Normally, communicators tell stories in writing, speeches, interviews or videos – all effective methods.

But via cartoons?

That’s the method that award winning cartoonist Lynda Barry employed to tell stories of real people to the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin – via official testimony in a case on windmills.

Barry, who lives in southern rural Wisconsin, believes that the noise and light flickering from windmills poses health threats to nearby residents. She’s created a website about the issue and has received publicity for her fight.

To make her case in the PSC case, she took the unprecedented step of testifying via cartoon.

Barry’s cartoon succeeds by telling the story of real people. It’s also as unique a form of storytelling as any that you’ll see in this age of digital everything. As with everything Barry does, this is a creative work of art and worth checking out.

As far as I know, Barry didn’t seek or receive publicity for the toony testimony. Had media known about her cartoon testimony, the inherent novelty (the “new” in the word “news”) of her approach would have made this newsworthy. Barry is fighting the perception of being a NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) opponent. The term NIMBY effectively castigates opponents in the public’s eye. Positive publicity for her cartoon could have helped even the scales and attracted more public attention and support to her side of the issue.

(Hat tip to former-Journal Sentinel reporter Gretchen Schuldt who wrote about PSC cartoon on her blog.)

Uncle Sam as Epithet

Posted December 22nd, 2010 in Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

Seems like if you want to tar and feather someone, forget about calling them nasty names, comparing them to Hitler, insulting their momma. Wanna land a real blow? Just insinuate they have something to do with the government.

Opponents of so-called “Obamacare” worked feverishly in 2010 to attach the dreaded word “government” to the Democratic health care plan. Despite the fact that most people want health care reform, apparently attach the word “government” to the concept, and magically, they oppose it.

The incessant chant of “government takeover of health care” was as ubiquitous this year as the background Christmas music we hear in every store and coffee shop during the holidays.

Yet, PolitiFact.com, a self-styled truth-o-meter of public statements, found this commonplace label to be the “lie of the year.”

Bill Adair, who runs PolitiFact, told NPR’s Steve Inskeep:

Well, it’s just ridiculously false. The plan relies on private insurance companies, and in fact private insurance companies are actually going to end up with more business because of the law, and yet it was a refrain we heard again and again. It was definitely the most pervasive falsehood of the year….The intent is to scare people about it and to make them think that the healthcare system is going to become this big bureaucracy. And that’s not to say it’s not that way now. But it is not going to be a government takeover.

So why apply the words “government takeover” to a plan that really is not a government takeover? Careless use of language? Actually, the opposite. Very smart people developed and then tested the phrase with voters. They knew the term would be effective. True or not.

Media critic Howard Kurtz, on his CNN show “Reliable Sources,” identified the likely mastermind who inexorably melded the terms “government” and “healthcare.” Kurtz said on a recent show that in the beginning, the media, including Fox News, initially labeled the controversial portion of the plan the “public option.” Kurtz reports that this more neutral characterization was banned on the influential Fox News after Republican pollster, and famed wordsmith, Frank Luntz, a one-time adviser to Newt Gingrich, said in a television interview:

If you call it a public option, the American people are split. If you call it the government option, the public is overwhelmingly against it.

Responded Sean Hannity, Fox News:

You know what? It’s a great point.

Kurtz said that soon after, the newsroom “got its marching orders” from Bill Sammon, Fox’s vice president and Washington managing editor. Kurtz said that Sammon:

…issued a memo telling the troops, “Let’s not slip back into calling it the ‘public option.’ Please use the term ‘government-run health insurance,’ or when brevity is a concern, ‘government option,’ whenever possible.”

 And the troops fell into line. … Now, maybe it’s a coincidence that Sammon, a right-leaning commentator and author, was echoing the GOP talking points. But even some folks at Fox don’t think so.

Communicators with successful records in shaping national opinion have determined that labeling something as related to “government” makes it less popular. A decades-long demonization of government – fed by a number of well publicized governmental failures – has been effective. How ironic and sad when government is in essence nothing more than us – “we the people.”

The quote is in the (e)mail

Posted November 22nd, 2010 in Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

I remember the surprise I felt the first time a newspaper reporter told me that I should simply email him a quote for a story he was working on – no need to talk. Up until that time, it was de rigueur for reporters to get their quotes from interviews, which can sometimes result in misquotes, misunderstandings and lost messages.

Today, quotes and interviews by email are more common the ever. The benefits to the interviewee? Harder to be misquoted (not impossible – more on that later) and easier to control your message. The downsides? Less of a chance to engage in conversation and generate understanding, which sometimes can help you get your message across.

Why not just insist on doing all interviews by email? Because most reporters feel they should decide. Feel free to suggest email if that what works best, but try to avoid requiring it, especially on a regular basis.

Giving reporters a blanket email-only ultimatum will backfire, as that puts reporters in the positions of stenographers, something they don’t like. Read here about how such a policy didn’t work recently for the mayor of Trenton – it wasn’t a happy reporter that wrote this column.

Don’t expect email interviews to solve all your problems. Remember that email quote I gave to the reporter I mentioned at the beginning of this blog?  When I saw it in print the next day, I was amazed to see that I was misquoted. Not enough to make a difference, but somehow, my quote in the paper wasn’t exactly what I emailed in.

Technology isn’t going to take out the variability that comes from adding humans to any process. Which is a powerful reminder that your job as a communicator will always be to know your message and work hard to get it across.

It’s the symbolism, stupid

Posted November 18th, 2010 in Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg believes symbols often defeat facts. Nunberg says it’s human nature.

His explanation comes in a recent interiview about why apparent federal boondoggles, even when barely affecting budget deficits, get all the attention. And why the real drivers behind budget deficits get ignored.

Nunberg said that Walter Lippmann observed that “symbols assemble emotions after they’ve been detached from ideas.”

“A phrase like ‘trim the fat’ has a symbolic resonance that some more accurate and precise description might not, just because people don’t really want to know,” Nunberg said.

Hear or read the interview from NPR’s “On The Media” to understand why “just the facts, ma’am,” ain’t necessarily enough.

How “Radio Magic” Helps You Sound Articulate

Posted November 10th, 2010 in Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

Get nervous about talking to a reporter, especially if it’s for radio or TV? Thinking: “Will I sound stupid?” “What if I say a lot of ‘um’s” and ‘uh’s’?” “What if I stumble through my answers?”

Never fear. Thankfully, you likely will be rescued by the magic of editing.

I was reminded of this phenomenon by this great NPR piece about radio editing that re-aired on “On The Media.” The story referred to such editing as “radio magic.”

Reporters – print, TV and radio – will often, and usually unconsciously, help clean up your actual remarks. Why? Not necessarily because they want to help you. Mainly, because crisp, articulate interviews make for more compelling reading, listening or watching – and shorten the length of pieces.

This won’t be the case if you’re the president of the United States (think of the wide coverage in all media of verbal gaffs by presidents, such as George W. Bush) or if you were  just charged with a crime. Assume under such circumstances, every poorly chosen word, every pause, every um, will be parsed and reported.

But for the average interviewee – a small business person or the director of a non-profit – other motivations are in play to make you sound halfway intelligent.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should be careless when talking to reporters. As you hopefully learned growing up, you can’t assume that someone else will clean up your messes for you. But still, it might be of some comfort to know that the system conspires to avoid making you sound like a total idiot.

A print reporter will often either paraphrase a poorly worded answer or pull together the best parts to make a partial quote, a quote with ellipses or sometimes even a new quote.

On TV, assuming you’re not live, a reporter will let you give your answer again (unless it’s a “60 Minutes”-style interview) to avoid a jumbled sound bite that serves no one.

And on radio, it’s even easier to edit, as there’s no corresponding video to worry about. The On The Media piece is worth listening to online, especially if you’re an NPR listener. It might surprise you to hear how it’s done, and how often.

Just how do the reporters and interviewees always sound so good? Radio magic to the rescue.

Dropping the “S Bomb”

Posted November 8th, 2010 in Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

President Obama appeared to be watching his words carefully when spoke at a news conference the day after the Democrats’ major mid-term loss last week. Obama Press Secretary Robert Gibbs didn’t tell me, but I’m guessing his boss’ goal was in part to not say something too memorable about the loss. In his prepared remarks, Obama made statements that seemed calculated to be boring, such as: “I can tell you that some election nights are more fun than others.” Not exactly great quotes.

Despite the administration’s apparent goal to speak in boring tones about the electoral rout, the media wanted something different, something colorful coming out of the president’s own mouth. They wanted Obama to characterize for the world what the whole country saw happen on Election Day – a huge trouncing of Democrats.

While mostly tossing off careful characterizations during remarks and Q&A, Obama eventually slipped up. Deep into a long answer to a question about his leadership style, the president appeared to ad lib a word that the media grabbed onto: “And that’s something that — now, I’m not recommending for every future President that they take a shellacking like they — like I did last night” (emphasis added).

The president dropped the “S Bomb”– the word “shellacking” – and the rest is history. Immediately after the news conference, the first sentence out of television reporter Andrea Mitchell’s mouth was about how the president called the defeat a “shellacking.” Story after story since the news conference reported the president’s description. The word “shellacking” has appeared in 20,000 – 25,000 articles about the election, according to a Google search. NPR even ran a piece trying to track down the word’s etymology as a synonym for a big defeat.

“Shellacking” is a nice, colorful word, but probably not one that Obama and his team planned to use. Within a desert of careful language, “shellacking” stood out. The off-message message made news. Which is how media works.