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.

My shortest blog post ever

Posted October 28th, 2010 in Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

To honor our diminishing attention spans, I’m keeping this blog short. (If you want to know more about our less, read this good factual piece on why TV ads are getting shorter and this very funny one about long emails.)

You may now move on.

The buzz about buzz

Posted October 20th, 2010 in Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

Want to create buzz? Then make an exciting product that people want to talk about – and try to get them to talk about it.

That idea, from a recent Northwestern University study the Wall Street Journal wrote about, goes against a Madison Avenue tenet that advertisers can even sell snow to Eskimos.

As PR professionals, we’re sometimes asked to sell whatever, even the virtually unsellable. Such success is less likely than ever today. In this age of social media, authenticity reigns. Sociologist Brian Uzzi, the author of the study, noted that younger consumers are more connected than ever via social media, and have become expert at turning out traditional ads. That’s one reason PR is becoming more important than ever.

The Wall Street Journal story on Uzzi’s study, which looked at pre-release movie buzz, said:

He found virtually no relationship between levels of pre-release buzz and the ad budget of the movie or the presence of highly paid actors, even if millions of dollars were spent. The data suggest that pre-release buzz is mostly unpredictable, driven by intangible factors like the originality of the premise, the title of the film, or even a throwaway line in the trailer.

The study suggests this lesson on buzz: In this age of transparency, spend the time up front to make sure your product is actually buzz worthy; work like hell to encourage consumers to start spreading the news about it; and hope for a little serendipity.

AP says that term “writer” is too limiting

Posted October 18th, 2010 in Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

In a nod to the rapidly changing media environment, AP management notified staff last week that it was retiring the storied tagline “Associated Press Writer” that has followed bylines for more than 80 years.

An AP staff memo says that the news service was switching to a new, “platform-neutral” tagline: “Associated Press.” The memo notes that: “These days, the byline on an AP story may rightfully belong to a text reporter, a photographer, a videographer or a radio reporter. For instance, photographer Aijaz Rahi bylined our coverage of a recent plane crash in India. Videographer Rich Matthews had his byline on Gulf oil spill stories. Some of our staffers have extensive multimedia skills and work with several platforms every day.”

This is yet another reminder that consumers are increasingly getting their information from sources other than traditional print reporting. Most PR professionals are adjusting accordingly – or they should be.

PR’s growing importance

Posted October 4th, 2010 in Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

A recent article described the purchase of major PR firm as showing the “growing appreciation for P.R. on Madison Avenue.”

In an era of skepticism about one-way advertising, getting messages out via PR makes sense. Only through PR and its new cousin, social media, can businesses and non-profits reach their audiences in a credible, genuine and interactive way.

PR suspected in Facebook founder’s $100 million donation

Posted September 28th, 2010 in Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that he was giving $100 million to the Newark public schools was noteworthy to the media for its timing as much as its generosity.

The Wall Street Journal, in a story titled “For Facebook, Movie Damage Control,” joins cynics who see the gift as simply part of a PR strategy to combat the unflattering portrait of Zuckerberg in the new film “The Social Network.”

But the New York Times gives Zuckerberg more of a pass, saying the gift was in the works apart from the film. They quote the Newark mayor saying “the movie becomes a complication” because of the film.

Timing in PR, as in everything else, is everything. I don’t think we’ll ever know whether the announcement was made last week  because of, or in spite of, the release of the movie.

From a PR perspective, trying to bolster one’s image at the last minute will backfire. Look at the questions Zuckerberg is raising by making his first sizable charitable donation now. And this pre-release publicity over the grant is just making me want to see the movie more, not less. The timing is doing more than improving Zuckerberg’s image.

If his goal was to be seen as a generous businessman, that effort should have begun long ago, and should be ongoing. And, it shouldn’t be done for PR stake. I’d hope that someone this wealthy wants to give money away for the right reasons, not just to enhance his image.

Whatever the reason, I agree with a columnist who wrote today: “Give the guy some credit, he just gave $100 million to a needy school system.”

Hiding the Phone

Posted September 23rd, 2010 in Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

Responses to media inquiries should always be factual, even when dealing with a difficult PR problem.

Well thought out, accurate and clear language results in the best outcome when responding to media.

A Facebook spokesman recently issued a statement that was anything but clear and was designed to deceive, according to the online tech website TechCrunch, in a tough and interesting analysis.

TechCrunch might be right. They make a convincing argument that Facebook’s statement is a case of verbal contortion, aimed at fogging the air.

Was this meant to hide the phone from the media and the public? Was this effective PR? You be the judge.

“Leave Us Alone” = Good PR?

Posted September 22nd, 2010 in Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

I normally advise clients to be cooperative with reporters. They have a job to do. You won’t like every story, but you’ll like them even less if you stiff the writer. When they contact you, engage. You decide how to respond, but acknowledge their questions and say what you can.

Sounds good, but one modern genius (no irony intended – he really is a genius) seems to disagree. Apple chief Steve Jobs (and his company) regularly rebuffs reporters until he needs them. Then, when he calls, they gather like a flock of birds going for bread crumbs. And they sing his praises.

How does that work? I guess you have to design amazing products, be a leader in your field, not care what reporters write about you and be Steve Jobs.

An example of this less-than-cooperative attitude toward media is this student journalist’s alleged and fascinating email exchange with Jobs over how Apple’s PR department had been ignoring her inquiries.

This approach really shouldn’t work, but then again, you and I are not Steve Jobs.

“It’s just a blogger, who cares…?”

Posted September 16th, 2010 in Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

So you think you can ignore blogs and that the only tweets that matter are those you hear when you’re watching birds. You think that only the mainstream media matters.

Even if nothing matters but traditional media – and that’s not the case! – new media can and does influence what you read in the paper or see on the TV news.

A couple of recent examples come courtesy of NPR’s great On The Media program.

Example one involves posts by New Orleans citizen journalist Karen Gadbois, on her blog, The Lens. Gadbois did her own investigation that showed the city was paying for rehab work after Hurricane Katrina that wasn’t being done. And then she blogged about it. The posts got attention of NOLA’s daily paper, The Times-Picayune, and those stories led to a federal investigation.

Get used to it. A good traditional reporter these days won’t ignore a blog posting that could serve as a lead. Hopefully mainstream reporters will check the facts on their own. But good reporters look everywhere for leads, and blog posts are becoming a rich source.

Speaking of checking the facts, Washington Post sportswriter Mike Wise got suspended for a month for posting a blatantly false report on Twitter. Why’d he do it? He said to show that other reporters don’t always check what they read on Twitter and that they just distribute (“re-tweet,” as the kids say) whatever they see.

Fabricating a story is a pretty dumb idea for a reporter, especially one who works for the Washington Post. The suspension was deserved. But he made his point about how tweets can be re-tweeted without verification. “Many news outlets, including The Miami Herald, The Baltimore Sun and the NBC sports blog ProFootballTalk, ran the Tweet,” reported On The Media.

Simple lesson here. Even if all you care about is mainstream media, pay constant attention to what’s being said about your organization or company in the blog-o-sphere, twitter-sphere, Facebook-o-sphere and the next (and there will be more) o-spheres to come along. All kinds of tools exist to help you monitor. And don’t be surprised when the posts from a blogger in his pajamas help a reporter win a Pulitzer.

A winner in last night’s primary

Posted September 15th, 2010 in Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

With all the chatter about new media overtaking old, the primary election for Wisconsin’s 7th Senate District demonstrated that print and other forms of old media are still holding office.

In fact, my house received a record number – in the dozens – of flyers and postcards, large and small, fancy and funny, caustic and colorful, mostly from front groups for or against the candidates.  The Photoshopping was typically done in a campy style that made the candidates look variously like a criminal, the author of a self-help book, even a king.  I had to laugh. I also got tons of autodial calls. These weren’t funny because by nature such calls are just so annoying. And TV ads ran in the race.

But there wasn’t much Senate primary chatter in my social media world, almost none. Nothing like I saw from the traditional media and communication methods.

If new media is king, what gives?

The prevalence of mailed lit and robocalls stemmed from the need of campaigns to target voters in a primary. I vote every election, even in obscure primaries. So candidates in this primary knew I’d vote, and they made sure, over and over, to get their message to me. They’re willing to spend money on me since I’m going to the polls either way. And some of my neighbors based on history weren’t voting, so dollars weren’t wasted on them. (In multiple ways, targeting is much harder on TV, where statewide and national electoral fights mainly take place, but the districts in this race were big enough to make some TV ads useful.)

Why less influence of new media? The candidates couldn’t rely just on my Facebook friends, the tweeters I follow or the bloggers I read to get their message to me on a local race that’s not of general interest – a state Senate primary. There was no way they could generate a chorus of genuine friends to influence me. My friends didn’t seem to care, at least I didn’t hear much about the race in my social media circles, and frankly, I wasn’t looking for their input.

So one of the winners last night was the traditional means of communicating. Though I’m betting that just like with a state Senate seat, this incumbent can’t hang on forever.