July 26, 2013

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Round Up: John Roderick talks narratives, Big Data in PR Week

This week in PR Week, John Roderick covered it all. He took us on a journey that started with the royal baby as a microcosm for how narratives are instantaneous shaped in the current media landscape, to a road map on how companies can leverage Big Data to break into the top tier zeitgeist.

To read Roderick’s full pieces, click on the link below the excerpts:

There is a roughly one-to-two-hour window following that initial news announcement when companies and individuals with a stake in the story have an opportunity to shape the news cycle by offering thoughtful content. This can include infographics, historical data, mathematical projections of future outcomes, smart quotes, etc. – that help journalists achieve that distinctiveness they are chasing.

PR Week — How to Shape the Narrative in 90 Minutes or Less

The same principles that make these vast troves of data so attractive to the C-suite also have an uncanny knack for attracting top-tier press coverage. Just as senior managers of large corporations now need their decisions to be supported by quantitative evidence, journalists are more likely to cover a trend if the empirical proof is there to support it.

PR Week — Big Data Obsession is Treasure Trove for Comms

July 22, 2013

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John Roderick in PR Week: When Hedge Funds Talk, People Listen

John Roderick

John Roderick

Two weeks ago, the Securities and Exchange Commission lifted a ban on hedge-fund advertising and promotion that had been in place since the Securities Act of 1933.

Twitter was quick to respond to the news with the hashtag#hedgefundslogans which produced some clever spoof taglines like: “Because you can only make so much money at Goldman Sachs!” And one of my favorites: “I don’t always pay for underperformance, but when I do, I pay 2 and 20.”

Bloomberg Businessweek also got in on the act with a less-than-flattering portrait of the hedge-fund industry on its cover. Inside, the article chronicled the recent trials and tribulations of hedge funds such as SAC Capital Advisors, which is at the center of a government investigation into insider trading.

To read the full story in PR Week, click here.

May 3, 2013

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For Sale: Fortune Mastheads — $250,000

New Trusted Original Content Initiative Tests Limits of Brand Journalism

John Roderick

John Roderick

Time Inc’s Fortune magazine announced a new program in March called Fortune TOC (Trusted Original Content), which will produce Fortune-branded editorial content exclusively for marketers to distribute on their own platforms.  According to Adweek, Capital One has signed on as the first client and will pay somewhere between $250,000 and $1 million for Fortune to create content about small business strategies.

In the short-term, this could be a big opportunity for content marketers and a quick money-maker for Fortune.  Brands are finding great success with content-creation strategies, and what better way to capitalize on the trend than by turning some of the best editors and writers into hired guns? Longer-term, this initiative has the potential to kill the Fortune brand and destroy public trust in the fourth estate.

Branded content is nothing new.  News and magazine publishers have been producing custom publications on behalf of brands for decades.  Hearst’s custom publishing arm has produced glossy magazines on behalf of Avon, Liz Claiborne and Discover, among dozens of others. The Miami Herald has a division that produces in-flight magazines for American Eagle, Cayman Airways and TACA Airlines.  And, more recently, Red Bull has established itself as the king of branded content by producing all manner of extreme sports content across print, digital, video and live event platforms.  Even the humble press release can trace its roots back to the idea of a brand creating “news” content.

But the Fortune initiative adds a new and dangerous dimension to this trend: their masthead.  Until now, branded content has been just that, content created on behalf of a brand and visibly owned by the brand.  If you wanted your story anointed by the press, you still had to convince them to cover it and take a risk that they wouldn’t cover it in a positive light.  Now, with its TOC initiative, brands can take the risk out of the equation, paying Fortune editors and writers to create the content in a controlled environment and slap the Fortune logo on it.

That logo is really important.  It’s what separates journalism from marketing and sends the implicit signal to readers that a neutral third-party has vetted this information and presented it as news.  Until it doesn’t anymore.

Over time, if initiatives like this gain traction, readers will eventually start asking themselves: Is this a real article or one of those pay-to-play puff pieces?  Ask that enough times and suddenly the news outlet behind the logo at the top of the article doesn’t have much credibility as a source.

In their defense, Fortune insists that TOC will keep strict church-and-state separation and, though clients will be able to guide the subject matter, they will not see the final until it is ready to run.  So, in theory, the marketing department won’t have final edit on these articles.  But it is a slippery slope.

Let’s be honest, as anyone who has ever been a profile subject for a major US business magazine can attest – whether it’s Fortune, Forbes, Businessweek or any others – these things are rarely puff pieces.  These magazines made their names by asking tough questions, writing snarky characterizations of powerful peoples’ personality quirks and generally running their subjects through the mill to get the good story behind the anesthetized version that the PR team wants to tell.  Can that editorial edge now be bought away for $250,000?

What happens when an auto manufacturer signs on to TOC?  If Tesla Motors bought a TOC feature, would the article dare mention, as Fortune senior editor Ryan Bradley did in a February 2013 article in the magazine, that the new Model S ran out of juice on his test drive and needed to be recharged for an hour so he could make it the last 20 miles to his hotel?

Probably not.  And that’s not a good thing for journalism, or marketers. Like it or not, we’re all in the trust business.  Test the limits of that trust and you may not get a second chance to try again.

March 19, 2013

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State of the New Media creates PR gold mine

Brian Erni

Brian Erni

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism has published their annual State of the New Media report for 2013, and the findings are bleak. According to the paper, 2012 was a year of erosion in journalistic standards. The culprit? Technology.

The paper argues that the continued audience losses to technology (such as Twitter),  along with an eagerness to feed the ratings beast, have left news outlets understaffed and outgunned in an industry that has quickly developed a Wild West mindset. It explains:

“In local TV, our special content report reveals, sports, weather and traffic now account on average for 40% of the content produced on the newscasts studied while story lengths shrink. On CNN, the cable channel that has branded itself around deep reporting, produced story packages were cut nearly in half from 2007 to 2012. Across the three cable channels, coverage of live events during the day, which often require a crew and correspondent, fell 30% from 2007 to 2012 while interview segments, which tend to take fewer resources and can be scheduled in advance, were up 31%. Time magazine, the only major print news weekly left standing, cut roughly 5% of its staff in early 2013 as a part of broader company layoffs.”

How thorough can vetting of a story be with small staff and the need to produce a constant flow of new content? Not very, and it doesn’t take long to see how corporate and politician-run communications campaigns have entrenched themselves to pick up the slack. According to TwitterCounter.com, President Obama is the fifth-most followed account on Twitter. A news outlet (CNN) doesn’t check in until 32. It begs an interesting hypothetical questions: Who would have more followers had Twitter been around in 1905 — Upton Sinclair or Chicago’s finest meatpacker? Whose tweets would Americans have trusted more in 1954 — Edward R. Murrow or a McCarthey-led Senate Committee account? If an individual’s own channel outranks an independent source, are there consumers that are making a distinction between the two?

Dystopian as it may be, less resistance a creates a golden opportunity for promoters. But to fully capitalize on it, PR pros need to get smarter about what they pitch to the press, not lazier.

Over the years, Americans have become inherently distrusting of the media. Proof of this climate: Fox News was just voted both the least trustworth and most truthworthy source of news. Media consumers believe agendas are prevalent, whether they’re political, economic, or social. So while it may be easier to get your message into the ether, it’s harder to build a reputation; the hallmark of public relations.

That’s why we like using data as the foundation of our corporate communications campaigns.  There’s nothing more black-and-white than unbiased numbers, and that resonates with readers and viewers alike. Becoming a trusted thought leader takes an investment: both in your proprietary development and in your relationship with the outside world. When the two work in concert with each other, a successful communication campaign takes hold, and your PR results get in front of plenty of eyes and build your public profile. All publicity has never been created equal, but in an evolving media landscape, it’s never been more paramount to distinguish between the noise and the message that cuts through the clutter.

March 13, 2013

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Data Mining the Magic: How Disney is Winning the MyMagic+ Battle

Brian Erni

Brian Erni

Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco proclaimed he was “going to Disney World” after the Ravens won their second world title. Turns out, a ringing endorsement of America’s favorite theme park may not have been the only thing he handed over to the mouse.  That’s because, as most found out in the New York Times last month, the Walt Disney Company has unveiled their plans to bring MyMagic+ to the Walt Disney World resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

Known internally as “NextGen,” this new Disney experience will utilize radio frequency identification (RFID) scanners to, as Disney says, “customize the guest experience” by allowing guests to book reservations for both attractions and meals up to six months in advance, all while leaving their paper park passes and credit cards back in their hotel rooms. As the Times’ Brooks Barnes, explained MyMagic+ in his column:

“Imagine Walt Disney World with no entry turnstiles. Cash? Passé: Visitors would wear rubber bracelets encoded with credit card information, snapping up corn dogs and Mickey Mouse ears with a tap of the wrist. Smartphone alerts would signal when it is time to ride SpaceMountain without standing in line.

[...]

Did you buy a balloon? What attractions did you ride and when? Did you shake Goofy’s hand, but snub Snow White? If you fully use MyMagic+, databases will be watching, allowing Disney to refine its offerings and customize its marketing messages.”

Sounds convenient, except that it doesn’t take the most discerning reader to add the pieces of the data mining puzzle together. As Disney keeps track of your preferences,

Image courtesy, Disney Parks

Image courtesy, Disney Parks

purchases, and even date of birth, via these MyMagic+ bracelets, what else will they be able to find out? And how much will they be able to track you through one of their four theme parks, two water parks, and countless shops and restaurants? These seemingly-innocuous RFID readers have been installed throughout the property, so it’s clear that this has gone way beyond the experimental phase.

And with every family member in possession of their own bracelet, the privacy issue becomes more complicated because the data is being mined from the wrists of children. Parents’ concerns about their child’s privacy have exploded since the dawn for the Internet, so how will parents feel about their little ones’ ages and birthdays being stored in a Disney data cloud? The truth is, according to sources I’ve spoken to who are familiar with the workings of the company on this matter, Disney has poured close to $2 billion into the MyMagic+ initiative (double the cost the Times cited). Not many corporations make an investment that size without a planning to make a return on that investment. So how will Disney make the money back? Enticing more guests to stay at Disney hotel with bonus access to more MyMagic+ perks? Probably. But what else?  The data will more likely become part of the Disney empire’s cross-platform marketing machine, part of everything from Pixar movie marketing to ESPN Store promotional planning.

Doesn’t sound so magical all of a sudden, does it? So how does Disney seem to be winning the PR battle over this somewhat-frightening operations undertaking?

The Walt Disney Company has become incredibly adept at breaking their fan base into these sweeping changes. Some of the company’s critics say it’s what has allowed Walt Disney World to remain the most visited vacation destination in the US while skimping on guest experience enhancements at the benefit of the bottom line. Much of that is due to decades of brand-building, but there’s no doubt Disney has gone through brilliant paces to keep this and other recent issues at bay. Here’s a look the three pillars of communications Disney has executed so flawlessly throughout the introduction of the MyMagic+ program:

  • Solve a Problem: The initial strike of the Times placement gets right to the heart of the issue. Disney President Tom Staggs nailed his talking points by framing MyMagic+ not as a money maker, but as a tool that solves a problem. It may be a problem you didn’t even know you had (who knew it was so hard to fumble with paper park tickets, or that turnstiles were, as Staggs called them, “an unpleasant barrier”).  The idea of added convenience, even if merely cosmetic, tends to win people over. And in a place where parents are often frazzled, hot, and tired, the idea of dealing with one less obstacle is worth giving up something guests can’t see or feel.
  • Social Media Ground and Pound: Led by the Disney Parks Blog, Disney has cozied up to social media quite nicely over the past decade. While the Parks Blog may be the typical extension of the corporate brand, it gives off a much different vibe.  Polished, yet relatable in tone, the aesthetically-pleasing Jennifer Fickley-Baker — Disney’s Social Media Manager — leads the way with updates on all the parks under the Disney umbrella. And the Parks Blog often wins over many hardcore Disney fans with nostalgic and obscure look backs only the biggest fan would appreciate (like commercials from the opening of EPCOTCenter in 1981 or a post dedicated to the once-defunct and now returned Orange Bird from the MagicKingdom’s Adventureland.) As a result, when a controversial topic comes up, Disney has built up enough good will to insulate itself from too much social media blow back.
  • Blogger Bliss: Journalist perks have long been an area of contention for critics of Disney. Carl Hiaasen’s 1998 book, Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World, gave its readers some of the initial understanding of how widespread the company can be. But with the advent of social media giving birth to a generation of “mommy bloggers” and Disney “fan boys,” who clamor for access in the form of comped Disney perks, it has become easier to disperse a positive message.

This isn’t to say that Disney latest innovation hasn’t been met with some resistance. On January 24th, Iger received a letter from Congressman Edward Markey (D-Mass) asking for further clarification on program, which Iger responded to. It has yet to change the narrative, and considering the scope of the MyMagic+ project, Disney has won the early battles. We’ll see how this plays out over the next year, but so far, so brilliant in Disney’s ability to sell this to the majority of the public.

January 2, 2013

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Sulia, Hegemony, and Social Strategy Grab Readers’ Attention in 2012

2012 was a year of experimentation. Brands tried new ways to engage their customers, mostly in the form of aggressive content creation and social campaigns. Journalists attempted to solidify their places in the digital world and the media conversation moved on a dime as one very influential scripted show seemed to incite a Murrow-esque resurgence of confrontational reporting.

So what stories rose above the rest? Here were our five most-read blog posts of 2012:

5. So Long, Schlocky SEO!

We’ve all seen our fair share of hack jobs trying to infiltrate the Google algorithm. But Google’s “Penguin” finally rewarded quality over quantity when it comes to content marketing.

4. 2012: The Year of the Infographic

PR pros’ embraced infographics much the same way Jason Segal’s character Marshall on How I Met Your Mother expressed his affinity for charts, and John Roderick saw the writing on the wall all the way back in the waning weeks of December 2011.

3. Did HBO Drama Influence Sanford Weill’s Glass-Steagall Proclamation?

Aaron Sorkin’s latest drama, The Newsroom, and fictional news anchor Will McAvoy made plenty of noise when it hit the airwaves in June. But did life imitate art when, just days after the show took on deregulation on Wall Street, Sanford Weill charged the 1999 repeal of Glass-Steagall as the impetus for the Great Recession?

2. Paste Magazine: The 50 Best Band Logos of All Time

Digital music has never been bigger, but the great band logos of all time live on. So what does this mean for their overall brand? And is there something to be gaining by dealing in the currency of nostalgia?

1. Is Sulia Helping or Hurting Journalists?

Seemingly overnight, journalists on Twitter had a new toy: Sulia. The cumbersome platform that allowed journalists to tweet longer also confused readers to no end. Why did writers use this? What was the point? And did they get paid for it? Brian Erni tackled those questions and more in our most popular post of 2012.

December 28, 2012

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John Roderick in PR Week: Tighter Marketing Budgets Bring Opportunity, Risks

Time for Doing More with Less is Boon for Those Who Embrace Smart Comms, But Beware Pitfalls of ‘Advertorial Creep’

John Roderick

The term “new normal” took on heightened significance for the communications industry this month when WPP, Publicis Groupe and Interpublic Group revised down their projections for 2013 global ad spending growth.  Citing corporate uncertainty around the Fiscal Cliff and ongoing troubles in Europe, the big ad firms all agree that we’re headed for another lean, mean year.

While the forecast has many in the communications industry wringing their hands, tighter budgets aren’t necessarily bad for all of us.  In fact, for those of us on the PR side of the house, they could be blessing.  In a continuation of the trend that has been unfolding gradually over the past four years, ad dollars are being diverted to more grass-roots communications campaigns where messaging can be targeted to discreet audiences.

To view the full article, as seen in PR Week, continue reading after the jump:

Continue reading…

September 20, 2012

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PR Daily: 8 Twitter essentials for PR

PR Daily has listed the eight Twitter essentials for public relations professionals.

Among the tips are to practice full disclosure, always be professional, and don’t recycle breaking news.

For the complete list, click here.
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Brian Erni

This is a list every single PR person needs to read. I can’t tell you how many times my timeline has been inundated with 100 tweets of the same news story. Learning to become a worthy follow is a much better strategy than relying on the “follow back” plan, and this list helps you get there.

By the way, you can follow me: @brianerni

August 30, 2012

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Does Sally Kohn’s “Three Words” Article Improve Fox News’ Image?

Brian Erni

You may have read this article today, penned by Sally Kohn, the self-professed “progressive voice” of Fox News. The piece, which details the inaccuracies of attacks made against President Barack Obama by Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan in his speech at the Republican National Convention, has gone viral. Last night, former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann tweeted out the article to over 393,000 followers, and by this afternoon, AOL/Huffington Post had picked up the story and begun promoting it across the AOL platform.

Olbermann joked that readers may want to take a look at the report before it, or Kohn herself, completely disappeared, but it appears too late for that. The whole world seems to have taken notice of this story. And maybe, just maybe, that’s exactly what Fox News had in mind.

Fox News carries a specific connotation in the media landscape. And whether you have ever turned on their channel or not, you probably know their slogan: Fair and Balanced. Media critics have had their doubts whether Fox’s claim carries weight, which is why I find this specific article seems intriguing.

By allowing this article to be published in the first place, Fox creates an interesting dynamic. Does it harm the Romney-Ryan campaign to get called onto the carpet on a site that may perceive to be right-leaning? Probably, although they may be insulated slightly since the run was made at the bottom half of the ticket instead of the top. But does it also give readers, viewers, and to take the theory a step further, the most desirable Independent voters, the impression that Fox News is indeed what it claims to be? I think you could argue yes.

Fox’s business model has been very profitable thus far, but there’s no doubt their brand struggles among those who identify as Independents as well as Democrats. With the Internet abuzz about the Fox News taking a swing at the Republican ticket from the right, it could push the idea that Fox is taking a calculated stance in the coming election. And if that’s the case, the cable news company could reap rewards by courting a demographic that they couldn’t have gotten going about business as usual.

July 26, 2012

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Did HBO drama influence Sanford Weill’s Glass-Steagall proclamation?

Brian Erni

Is HBO’s newest drama shaping public discourse? In the last four days, you may be remiss not to at least give it an assist; a perfect drive of the lane and a floating alley oop pass to one of the least likely candidates to echo its sentiment.

If you’re not already watching The Newsroom, you may be missing the driving force behind this week’s news cycle. From the pen of Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The  Social Network, Moneyball) comes a story of fictional news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), who has had it with the media landscape as we’ve grown to know it. After an impromptu venting session on a college Q&A panel, McAvoy and his new executive producer (and ex-girlfriend) MacKenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer) set out to do a news show that Edward R. Murrow would be proud of.

This past Sunday, MacHale was being given an economy 101 session from economist anchor and Ph.D Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn), when Sabbith educated MacHale (and the audience) about the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act: a Depression-era reform law  passed as part of the Banking Act of 1933 that put separation between commercial banks and security firms. It was repealed as part of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in 1999 by President Bill Clinton.

Fast forward three days later. Citigroup’s former CEO, and once-avid champion of bank mergers, Sanford I. Weill made waves when he said the repeal of Glass-Steagall, and the ensuing merger of commercial and investment banks, was a mistake and could be a cause of the financial crisis.

“What we should probably do is go and split up investment banking from banking,” Weill told CNBC. “Have banks do something that’s not going to risk the taxpayer dollars, that’s not going to be too big to fail.”

And just like that, a national debate about banking regulation and reform began.

True, this debate has been waging on for the better part of four years, but it has exploded onto the scene of the public consciousness. Don’t believe me? Here are the Twitter search results for “Glass-Steagall” (as of July 26th, 2012, 11:09AM Eastern).

Some of the more interesting:

CNBC, Fox News, Fox Business News, and MSNBC all had items on Glass-Steagall during yesterday’s programming. Weill’s comments were plastered front-and-center on the cover of the New York Times’ business section. And the comments have made former U.S. Senator Phil Gramm, who wrote the law the repealed Glass-Steagall, respond, most notably in this Bloomberg Businessweek article.

So what’s the takeaway? It certainly makes an interesting case for hegemony. And as The Newsroom (which has already been picked up for a second season) continues, it could have a very profound impact on American culture.

More as the story develops…

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