The other side of the coin

I feel privileged to be of the Toronto folks selected to spread the word about Virgin America’s new TO/LA or SF flights. Actually, when I first got the email offerng a ticket, I thought it was a scam.  It wasn’t!

So here I am, in-flight, and posting from 30,000 feet (or so). OK, I know this is no moon walk, but it’s feels pretty amazing being connected up on high.

What do I think of Virgin America?

Well, they’re friendly and helpful – from check-in to the gate to the plane – and they have a more casual and humourous attitude than some of the other airlines I fly. You see it in the FAA-required info video, produced as a quirky animation (‘if you’re one of the .00001% of the population that doesn’t know how to buckle a seatbelt, here’s how you do it…’).  From a design perspective, the interior reminded me of an old house renovated and modernized with stylish colours and accents. I liked having the option of chatting with people in other seats via the AV system – not that I did.  And of course, there’s the wi-fi… Would I fly it again? I guess I should really wait till we land before answering, but I so far absolutely. Would I recommend it to people? Yes.

As I was sitting in the airport waiting to board and thinking about my post, it occurred to me that it would be the result of being pitched and, like a media person PR firms invite to an event, there was a reciprocal, if implicit, expectation in place.  I would receive the free trip and, in exchange, hopefully be motivated to share my experience.

I first heard about this concept of reciprocity from author and psychologist Robert Cialdini. The essence is simple: if I give you something, you will feel an obligation to give me something in return.

And really that’s the core of media/blogger relations.  We provide a story/information/news and hope that we get editorial coverage.  I also wondered whether the reciprocity might make me (or anyone) a little kinder in my review (they gave me something after all).  Probably.

Because so many PR people are blogging, we often find ourselves on the other side of the request.  (We talked about this on Inside PR 2.13.)  And this gives us an opportunity to experience what a pitch feels like.  I always suggest that young practitioners try their hand at being published (and yes blogs count!) so they can gain an understanding of a journalist’s perspective more clearly. And hopefully, by empathizing and learning we will improve our approach.

But back to the matter at hand.   I’m ready for more pitches and I sure do like cars :).

What’s next: J-schools offering a master’s degree in blogging?

That might be a good idea. According to a new study conducted by PR Newswire/Canada Newswire and PRWeek, 52 per cent of bloggers now view themselves as journalists. This is up from about 33 per cent in 2009.

Another shift in the PR/media landscape.  And it opens the door to many questions.

Consider the definition of journalism from The Free Dictionary:

‘1. The collecting, writing, editing, and presenting of news or news articles in newspapers and magazines and in radio and television broadcasts.

2. Material written for publication in a newspaper or magazine or for broadcast.

3. The style of writing characteristic of material in newspapers and magazines, consisting of direct presentation of facts or occurrences with little attempt at analysis or interpretation.

4. Newspapers and magazines.

5. An academic course training students in journalism.’

There’s no allusion to blogs or bloggers anywhere. Beyond that, a profession (i.e. journalism) has traditionally referred to a job that required training and provided remuneration. Or to put it another way, it’s something many parents want their kids to do. And you don’t hear too many moms and dads extolling the virtues of blogging as a career choice (at least not yet).

Then there’s the matter of education. If bloggers are to become the next generation of journalists – and I think there’s great potential in that – we need to develop programs that help provide some academic training; perhaps offering a combination of courses in writing, editing, publishing, research and ethics. Some institutions are starting to do this. But most bloggers learn their craft on the job.

From a PR perspective, we seem to be relying on media relations tactics to set the framework for interactions with bloggers. But is this the best way to go about it? Or do we need to re-think the way we identify and engage them?

I think we do. For one thing, the days of the canned pitch are thankfully almost behind us. But is ‘pitching’ even the best way to reach bloggers? How can we help ensure their stories are balanced/credible and not just cut and paste versions of our news releases?  Will PR need to focus more on the public good and, if so, how will that affect our compensation model?

There’s much to consider. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

New Canadian communications journal coming soon

A hallmark of any profession is its body of knowledge, something we have been lacking in PR.  That may change with the launch of a new publication, the Journal of Professional Communication (announced at the Canadian PR Leadership Summit).

Edited by professors Alex Sevigny and Terry Flynn and based at McMaster University’s Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia, the Journal will be a digital publication that ‘explores the intersections between public relations practice, communication and new media theory, communication management, as well as digital arts and design. (Disclosure: I sometimes teach at McMaster.)

It will feature case studies, interviews, peer-reviewed articles and commentary on current communications trends and our evolving profession.  Of course, the content is contingent on the quality of the contributors, but I’m looking forward to a thought-provoking discussion and debate.

For anyone familiar with the inner workings of academe, starting a new publication is no easy task and I want to congratulate Terry and Alex on this worthwhile endeavour. While there’s no website or start date yet, I’ll continue to share details as they become available.

How are you reading?

Normally, the question we’d ask is: what are you reading? As in content you’ll hopefully share. And, of course, that’s key.

But with the recent announcement that Canada’s largest newspaper chain put itself in bankruptcy protection and with all the drastic  changes to MSM in the past year or so, I wonder if media, and publishers in general, should also be asking the question: how.

It’s common knowledge we’re in a state of print transition. And, while it’s certainly a different order of magnitude, it reminds me of the switch from professional typesetters to DIY typesetting on computers. There’s a large empty building on Dupont Street in Toronto that stands as a somewhat bleak monument to that change.

But while it took down an industry, it didn’t alter the fact that we need (and enjoy) text.

It’s human nature to like and stay loyal to the familiar ways of doing things: poring over the morning paper, appreciating the visual textures of magazines, the pleasure of reading a book that seems to be speaking directly to you.

I love to do all of these. But more important is the fact that I just plain love to read.

These days I almost never read the print edition of a newspaper for news anymore – I get that from different sources, mostly online. But I do read the paper for more in-depth stories, opinion and because I don’t yet have a reader that I can take to the kitchen table (it’s on my list…).

I think media and publishers have to take some big chances, accept that the printed page has faded and act accordingly. Only then will they be able to start thinking creatively about the ‘how’; as in how are they going to provide us with a fresh and innovative way to read, share and engage with their content. And yes, make some money, too.

They need to get out of their comfort zone; we need to get out of ours.

Does PR need a new name?

When I started in PR, I worked in arts and entertainment and called myself a publicist. And I was proud of the title.

Then I switched to the corporate agency side and became a PR consultant who practised media relations. It didn’t take me long to realize those two were pretty close to the same thing. In fact, while we offer many types of communications counsel, media relations/publicity has, for a long time, been the cornerstone of what we do.

But these days with MSM in transition, it doesn’t take an Amazing Kreskin to predict that our comfortably familiar landscape is fading. And great chunks of it are just plain disappearing; morphing into something new.

So with PR in rapid-evolutionary-mode (REM), perhaps it’s time to dream big and rethink what what we do and where we’re heading.

And for me (and many other people) that means a shift to social media. I have to say direct-to-influencer connecting has re-energized the profession, encouraged us to learn (and enabled me to teach) and caused us to look at what we do through a less-filtered lens. It’s also given the profession a voice and helped us step out of the shadows.

But in order to truly change, we need to rid ourselves of our shackles – notably our reliance on pure media relations. Sure, that will always be a part of our repertoire. But if we want to survive and thrive, we need to do so much more:

  • Really start listening (that means opening our minds)
  • Get better at telling visual stories
  • Become less text-reliant, while still being the guardians of grammar and voice – we can’t ever forget how to write with clarity and style
  • Master new techniques – video/audio production, designing and coding a website
  • Join communities, participate and connect
  • Issue a full-on challenge to marketing and advertising. Maybe I’m biased, but I feel we really are the naturals to understand and get around in this space.

So what should we call this new entity? Truth is, I’m not sure.

Social media? I like it, but there’s a day where that could seem faddish. Digital relations? Sounds like PR for the AI set. Social relations? A bit too much like someone who plans parties for the DAR. Social networking? Too much like self-help. Networked relations? Are your cousins on Facebook too?

Part of me still likes the term public relations – that is if we go back to its original definition.

Or maybe we need a completely new moniker. And if so, do you have any ideas what it should be called?

Are Canadian media responsible for spreading viral news?

You can’t pick up a Canadian newspaper, listen to radio or watch TV without hearing about H1N1, the vaccination process, supply issues, lineups…

But the story doesn’t seem to have the same intensity in the U.S. It wasn’t even mentioned in Conan O’Brien’s monologue a couple of days ago (when it was the lead on CBC) – and talk show openings are often a good barometer of big news stories (as silly as that sounds).

I did a search of ‘H1N1 vaccine’ on Google this morning* and in the first 30 results, there were 25 Canadian stories; four U.S. stories; and one international story. That’s over 80 per cent of today’s coverage emanating from Canada.

Now, we all know a pandemic is a very serious situation. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t do everything we can to prevent the spread of the virus. It’s important to be informed and educated.

But I wonder if Canadian media are making H1N1 a bigger story than it needs to be right at the moment.

What do you think?

*Search results as of 9:30 a.m., November 4, 2009

Fixing what’s broken between journalism and PR

On Inside PR #173, my ‘-30-‘ comment, the short POV remarks we’re using to end the show, dealt with a few of the things we need to do to start fixing the pretty much broken relationship between journalism and PR.

This is something that must be done. And I think it’s up to our industry to take the lead and try improve the way we interact with each other; build trust, credibility and respect on both sides. I think the same applies to bloggers and other influencers, as well.

Part of the problem lies with the way our profession functions: trying to place stories, traditionally in MSM, for clients or organizations. We often feel under a lot of pressure to deliver results for which we have virtually no control.

Fine. That’s our reality and no one forced us into it. I’m proud to be a PR practitioner and this uncertainty is one of the things we just accept.

There are many media with whom I feel I have a good professional relationship. I define that as being able to approach a journalist/blogger with an idea they might be interested in, showing them why/how it works in a quick, efficient manner and having them say either say yes or no (or sometimes saving it for a future story).

However, I think that over the years we have made many repeated mis-steps that hurt the industry and our collective reputation.

And now, with social media and two-way conversations being embraced by both sides, this seems like a perfect time to make the change.

Here are 10 steps the PR profession can take right now:

  1. Always read a journalists or blogger’s past stories (and not just from last week). We need to do our research and know who’s covering or interested in which subjects.
  2. Know the difference between hard and soft news and position a story accordingly. It may seem big to us (or our client), but we have to step back and realize where our news fits into the grand scheme of things. I mean really fits.
  3. Be transparent and tell the truth.
  4. Stop writing in corporate-speak
  5. Strive to be helpful, not a pest.
  6. Understand that while our clients are a top priority for us, the reporter has many other priorities and we need to empathize more with them.
  7. Stop making media lists from databases. Go to the source: newspapers, broadcast outlets, blogs, online publications. See who’s writing about what. If we’re not passionate about media, why are we in PR?
  8. Never blast out an email to a large (or small) bcc list. We’ve all done that in the past. And some are still doing it. Really, this was a bad idea from the start. It turned us into broadcasters, something we’re not.
  9. Leave our PR egos at the door. It’s up to us to reach journalists. Stop griping if they don’t always call back when we want them to.
  10. Help journalists and bloggers understand the new FTC rules/principles so that we can continue to work together in a mutually beneficial way.

It sounds simple but we’ve got to make the first move.

What do you think?