Of snake oil and SEO…

By Sally Saville Hodge

The client was happy. Very happy. He’d just hired an SEO expert to help boost the search profile of his Web-based business.

“Yeah, the guy’s going to do a blog for us. He’s going to get us in all the directories. He signed us up for a service called INeedHits.com. And he’s doing it really cheap!”

The red flags were being hoisted with the word “blog” and reached the top of the pole when we got to “cheap.” It wasn’t an issue that we were the “experts” (because we’re not) and I was being territorial. It was more that these activities were a) not very strategic; b) time consuming (if done right); and c) more appropriate for a broad-based e-commerce concern than a Web-based business with a very narrow audience.

I’m not sure if it all was being undertaken to boost traffic or to improve search rankings or both. I didn’t think the client understood SEO. I wasn’t sure the “expert” did, either – at least according to my understanding of it.

As Mark O’Brien, president of Newfangled, a Web development firm, says, “There is no element of Web strategy that is more replete with misinformation than SEO. SEO is actually quite basic, but a lot of SEO professionals make it more
complicated than it needs to be to stay in business.”

The goal of an effective SEO program is less one of driving visitors to a website, and more one of creating traffic that actually converts, whether into actual business or as a contact that has given you “permission” to reach out regularly (via newsletters, special offers, etc.).

And these days, that’s tied to two things, according to Ryan Evans, whose Rand Media Group specializes in SEO and Web marketing activities. “One is the content on the page. The second is the number of links to that page. So if you’re not generating content that’s generating interest from relevant websites, then you’re not doing SEO.”

The thing is that Google is smart. “It’s searching for the best content to match the search query,” explains Evans. “It’s all about making the search experience excellent. If your SEO program doesn’t contribute to that, then it’s not working.”

A quick look at the specific strategies that the client was so excited about:

  • Blogs. Yes, blogs are a great SEO tool, but only if “they contain original content based on your expertise, what you know, and what your clients and prospects care about,” says O’Brien. In this instance, the blog was aggregating content – credited reposts from experts in aligned fields. Google understands and only indexes the original source of the content. So an aggregator blog is not likely to boost search rankings or meaningful traffic.
  • Directories. “Getting listed on 10,000 directories was an SEO strategy a few years ago, but it really doesn’t do any good,” says Evans. It goes back to the content issue, and is an obvious ploy that Google recognizes as such. A further concern is relevance – if visitors do click through from all those directories, will they convert or bounce?
  • “Hit” sites. “Ineedhits.com? How about Ineedabrain.com?” O’Brien queries a tad sarcastically. “For most websites, unless they’re making money off ad revenue, visitor count is meaningless if it’s not the right sort of visitor. You measure efficacy not by traffic, but by how you engage visitors once they get on your site.”

As in any business, there are SEO practitioners who don’t stay on top of changing best practices and cling to tactics that worked five years ago, but not so well today. Neither they nor many clients understand that, especially in a highly fragmented media world, effective SEO can’t be done in a silo. It requires forging partnerships with PR and marketing experts who can ensure strategies and tactics are in service to the brand.

In this client’s case, Google Analytics showed exactly how well this SEO strategy wasn’t working. Traffic shot up enormously, but in keeping with the scattershot approach, so did the bounce rate (the number of visitors who clicked through and departed the site immediately because it was irrelevant to their needs). The bounce rate actually jumped from a respectable 30 percent to over 80 percent. At that pace, it’s doubtful that many conversions took place – not that I’m convinced that was a goal to begin with.

Our business is very consultative. We can’t be experts in everything, but we make it our business to learn and stay on top of best practices in fields that are aligned to what we do. That way, we know enough to ask the right questions and to try to guide our clients in their thinking and decisions. When you can’t get together on expectations, though, that’s when you part company, as we did with this client, with a Godspeed and good luck.

July 30, 2010 at 4:29 pm 1 comment

Digital Winds of Change Blowing Publishers Away as Profitable Landfall Remains Uncertain

By Chris Scott

As magazine publishers race to remain relevant to readers and advertisers alike, the jury is still out as to whether the various forays into digital-only waters will prove to be the salvation these publishers seek.

It’s only been nine months since Conde Nast abruptly shut down Gourmet magazine. And now the magazine publishing giant unveiled a slate of apps that revived that brand, among other titles, in pure digital form. The Gourmet Live app, first announced in June 2010, gives users access to the magazine’s voluminous database of articles, but also offers interactive opportunities to access new content, buy premium app-only content and incorporate social sharing technology. Gourmet Live will debut sometime in the fourth quarter, about one year after Conde Nast launched an app for its GQ men’s magazine to go along with its fee-based WIRED magazine app for the iPad, which launched in June.

Meanwhile, print titles are dipping a toe deeper into the digital pool. New York-based website developer and design specialist The Wonder Factory teamed up with Google and Time Inc.’s Sports Illustrated magazine this spring to introduce a prototype digital magazine based on HTML5. (Tech-savvy readers will remember that this is the platform that Steve Jobs claimed makes Adobe Flash obsolete for use in Apple’s line of digital hardware products like the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, sparking a war of words with the software developer.) The demo features video that accompanies specific articles and page navigation that should entertain even the most jaded reader of paper-based magazines.

But the real issue here isn’t the technological advances or the “coolness” of these steps being taken by desperate publishers. With the profit paradigm changing nearly every day, the question is “How can these publishing firms make money as readers (and advertisers) abandon printed products?” And although general magazine readership rose eight percent in the last 10 years, circulation of magazines and newspapers continue to decline as whatever readers are left visit the Web for their access to information that used to come solely from print.

So far, The Wall Street Journal is one of the rare newspapers to make any money from its online version of its flagship product thanks to a subscription model that works for its business-focused audience. It will be interesting to see whether The New York Times, which abandoned its TimesSelect subscription service in 2007, will be able to retain the people who currently read its free content when they’re asked to pay for it sometime next year.

Ironically, a recent Times article pointed out that publishers continue to try and learn how to best present their wares online, especially when it comes to creating the viral buzz through social media. Hearst Publishing, in fact has launched a massive social networking push for its Seventeen magazine that aims to attract girls away from Facebook and other online social networks. Hearst hopes to better compete with other online magazines effort by redesigning Seventeen.com to also offer more gossip and celebrity news along with its print features.

So it looks like there’s still a long way to go from the days of “Take a look at this article” by passing the print version it to your spouse or co-worker to “Just Tweet this Time magazine article through its iPad app.” (It can’t currently be done, Time admits.) But the “test-and-learn” approach may be only way for publishers to ultimately figure out how to win the war for reader and advertiser attention in the digital battlefield.

July 20, 2010 at 8:07 pm 12 comments

Toyota and BP: Surviving the crisis

By Judi Schindler, Principal

As both Toyota and BP wage war to preserve their brands in the face of colossal crises, my money is on Toyota.

Last November, when the story broke about safety issues and mammoth recalls, the Japanese automaker violated every rule in the crisis management book by foot-dragging on safety issues, minimizing problems, distributing misleading statements and showing too little compassion. As a result, it suffered from stinging articles in the media and became the butt of every talk-show comedian.

Then, sometime in February, Toyota seemed to get its communication act together. President Akio Toyoda appeared before Congress and apologized. The company established “Smart Teams” of 200 engineers to investigate individual issues and appointed nine quality officers worldwide who could answer media questions

It created webcasts to respond to critics regarding gas pedal and electronic system issues and launched a website designed to address the issues. One of the most effective sites features video interviews of Toyota owners who have brought their cars in for recall repairs – all of whom express confidence that “if something is wrong, Toyota will fix it.”

Then there’s BP, whose issues are massive and ongoing. Worst of all, top management at the petroleum company seems to compound one misstep (or misspeak) on top of another.

On the other hand, BP hasn’t done everything wrong. The company has a well-executed  website, which includes videos, photos and press releases on the cleanup, where you hear first-hand from the individuals who are out in the Gulf every day working to contain the damage. (One video features actor Kevin  Costner praising BP’s efforts.) There are also state-by-state updates, claims forms and information on how to file a claim.

Both the BP and Toyota websites get high marks. But let’s assess the damage to the two brands.

There is no question that the carmaker’s consumer loyalty has slipped, but in the first quarter of 2010, 57.6% of trade-ins resulted in purchase of new Toyota – higher than any other brand. Sales have also recovered, up 24.4% in April, and in May the company reported net profits were 48% higher than the same period in 2009.

The public is not quite so forgiving of BP, especially since the crisis situation has yet to be abated. On June 21, several dozen demonstrations took place in cities across the country as part of the “Worldwide BP Protest Day,” a Facebook group that claims to have more than 350,000 supporters. Four days later, on June 25, the company’s stock hit an all-time low of $28.56 low, down nearly 53% since April 20.

So what’s the prognosis? In my opinion, the general public is more favorably disposed to Toyota than to BP. Toyota has a long history of building reliable automobiles and providing good service. It has happy car owners. Energy companies, like BP, do not enjoy the same favorable image. While BP had a better reputation than most oil companies, the entire industry has a reputation for price gouging and air pollution.

Toyota simply has a larger storehouse of goodwill, and, frankly, we are more willing to forgive someone we like.

The moral of the story is that crisis management must begin long before a crisis ever occurs – by building a reputation for dealing responsibly with the consumers, by behaving like a good corporate citizen, by providing reliable products and services and by communicating openly and candidly with its many publics. In other words, a company that nurtures and maintains good public relations over a period of years will have a better chance of surviving a crisis than one that doesn’t.

July 12, 2010 at 8:17 pm Leave a comment

Twitterature: A new twist on creative writing

By Sally Saville Hodge

I wish I had a nickel for every eye-roll I’ve encountered when mentioning Twitter as a social media channel.

I wish I had a dime for every person who’s ever told me they thought Twitter was stupid, without trying it first to get the context.

I wish I had a quarter for everyone who’s ever asked me what they’d Tweet about anyway, and how can anyone possibly write about anything meaningfully in 140 characters or less.

Well, no one’s getting rich off Twitter yet – least of all me. Even though an increasing number of businesses are apparently using it as a tool to build their images and contribute over the long haul to their revenue streams. Think Dell. Or Zappos. Or even small businesses without the big guys’ resources, like the coffeeshop CoffeeGroundz.

But one interesting way to look at Twitter goes beyond dollars and cents and considers its contribution to our culture as spawning a creative new literary form. Time magazine columnist James Poniewozik writes about it, and makes some relevant comparisons to how writers have, through the ages, “shaped their work to exploit technology.”

Now, there’s “Twitterature” that goes well beyond the Tweets and re-Tweets of celebrity doings, endless links to this or that article, and mindless meanderings about Average Joe or Jill’s day.

We have humor. Comedian Justin Halpern’s posts as @shitmydadsays have earned him such a following that it has led to a television show, to premier this fall. A recent sample: ”I don’t want your advice, you’re 27 fucking years old…Fine. I don’t want your advice, you’re 29 fucking years old.”

There’s satire. Consider @BPGlobalPR which has gained legions of followers since the disaster on the Gulf Coast. Its biting posts surely are giving BP’s real PR team fits. To wit: “Surprised ourselves by getting emotional on the coast today. Turns out the wind blew dispersant in our eyes.”

And satiric writing resources, even. Anyone who has ever referred to the venerable AP Stylebook for guidance will appreciate @FakeAPStylebook: “Spell it “ellipsis,” “ellipses,” “elipsis,” “ellipseseisis” – no one really knows or cares.”

I’m having trouble with the idea of a sitcom designed around a Twitter feed, no matter how good the posts. And for me, Twitterature will never replace the well-written book, newspaper or magazine or even blog article. But it does the job of providing entertainment in fast, bite-sized morsels. It’s pretty apropos for our lifestyles today.

June 15, 2010 at 8:12 pm 2 comments

A Tale of $10,000 Tweets

By Sally Saville Hodge

Despite being a faithful (if abashed) reader of celebrity publications like People magazine, I somehow missed the hubbub over one of my favorite pseudo celebrities (not): Kim Kardashian.

Kim, of course, is emblematic of a new phenomenon with the American public: The elevation to star status of people who have absolutely no discernible talent or skills, but have been smart enough to hire effective publicists. (See Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie.)

She does have one thing going for her, however. She Twitters. Over 3 million people actually follow her tweets. That apparently gives her some degree of influence over the masses. And so, in a new twist on a time-honored marketing ploy, Kim is now in hot demand as a celebrity endorser via Twitter.

It’s called “sponsored Tweets,” a gentler term than advertising and presumably one that resonates more positively in an environment where authenticity supposedly rules.

Kim is at the top of this particular heap and reportedly rakes in a cool $10,000 per tweet. She’s not the only “publisher” to do so – just for lesser amounts. Dr. Drew is a big draw and so is Lindsay Lohan and her ex, Samantha Ronson. Even business groups with a big following – the CBOE and Stock Futures Forecast – are registered as being available via the leading matchmaking platform, Ad.ly.

The whole business raises a lot of issues relative to transparency and authenticity, the ultimate barometers of successful social media interactions. Ad.ly claims that the endorsed tweets it brokers are identified through the “#advertising” disclaimer at the end of each post.

But a growing number of concerns are entering the fray and may not be so principled. And unfortunately, while the Federal Trade Commission issued guidelines on celebrity (and other) blog endorsements last year, requiring full disclosure, it somehow left the Twitter issue to fall between the cracks.

Ultimately, the $64,000 question is whether a Twitter post by Kim or Dr. Drew or even the CBOE is going to pay off with new business. At least one expert says, “Not so much.” At last month’s Ad Age Digital Media Conference, Yahoo’s principal research scientist Duncan Watts told the audience: “If I had a fixed budget, I could get more value from a small amount of very influential [influencers], or a lot of smaller influencers, on Twitter. If you recruit enough people who, on average, influence just one other person, you could get a much better return on investment if you aggregated them and altogether paid them a tenth of what Kardashian gets.”

I’d settle! And to that end I’ll need to build up my followers. Follow me at @sallyshodge so I can give Kim a run for her money.

May 14, 2010 at 4:50 pm Leave a comment

Foursquare: The Web Series

By Sally Saville Hodge

When last I wrote (which wasn’t all that long ago, for a change), I took a look at Foursquare.

In a nutshell, this location-based social media tool allows people to “check in” when they’re out and about in their neighborhoods, and post tips and comments about their surroundings. They earn points for check-ins, the opportunity to earn special badges and to become “mayor” of frequently visited spots.

Participating venues can use Foursquare to track and reward users who are frequent visitors: “We see you’ve been at our bar 10 times in the last three days: Here’s a free beer and the address of Alcoholics Anonymous…”

It’s goofy fun, and for the most part harmless, depending on how much of your life you really want to share. (One of my staffers might be having second thoughts about friending me after I asked him how Saturday night’s concert was.)

You might get more of a sense of the ridiculous that can factor into this through the Foursquare Cops web series brought to you by Hubspot. Enjoy!

April 27, 2010 at 9:20 pm Leave a comment

The year the aporkalypse afflicted Chimerica

By Sally Saville Hodge

I think we all have a love/hate relationship with buzzwords. On one hand, you can’t help admire the creativity that brings many of them about. On the other, many are just so apropos that they are used again and again and again…ad nauseum. Enough with “staycation,” please!

It’s that time of year when far-higher-profile pundits than I weigh in on the best/worst of buzzwords of the year just ended. Probably the most fun treatment can be seen in a New York Times contribution by Grant Barrett.

Barrett’s notable, by the way, as one of the founders of Wordnik, a site worth bookmarking if you appreciate words and how they change and/or become part of the vernacular.

Here are some of my favorite buzzwords and catchphrases that he identifies from 2009.

Aporkalypse: Undue worry in response to swine flu. Includes unnecessary acts like removing nonessential kisses from Mexican telenovelas and the mass slaughter of pigs in Egypt.

Chimerica: The intertwined economies of China and the United States, which together dominate the world economy. Popularized by Niall Ferguson in his book The Ascent of Money.

Government Motors: A nickname for General Motors, which is now majority owned by the U.S. federal government.

Mini-Madoff: A person who perpetrates a Ponzi scheme smaller than Bernie Madoff’s.

Vook: A digital book that includes some video in its text.

January 4, 2010 at 7:21 pm Leave a comment

New Year’s Resolutions in a Social Networking Age

By Judi Schindler

  1. I will not join any more LinkedIn groups, unless I plan to read those self-serving e-mailings from fellow members.
  2. I will not look at Facebook more than twice a day.
  3. I will “de-friend” people who write only about how tired they are.
  4. I will find out why anyone (lacking criminal intent) would follow my tweets.
  5. I will question the professional credentials of those who have the time to build social networks of more than 500 people.

December 28, 2009 at 7:21 pm 2 comments

Steve Jobs, Apple and Alfred E. Neuman: “What, Me Worry?”

By Chris Scott

apple_jobsIf you’ve never had a front-row seat at a corporate communications debacle, just Google “apple jobs illness” and pull up a chair for a lesson on how not to work the media when it comes to a serious health issue with a company CEO.

The results page generates everything from “Do shareholders have a right to know?” to “It’s a nutrition problem” to “SEC review under consideration.” Is this the image that Apple, or Jobs, wants to dominate headlines versus continued trumpeting of the success of the new iPhone 3G S?

There’s no doubt that Steve Jobs has persevered in various health issues: a cancerous tumor in his pancreas diagnosed in 2004; a speech at Apple’s 2006 Worldwide Developers Conference that raised serious questions about his unusually gaunt frame; and this year’s “hormone imbalance” that prompted a six-month leave of absence ending this month. Finally, there was the disclosure of a liver transplant in April that took several days to confirm.

There’s also no doubt that Jobs deserves a certain amount of privacy when it comes to dealing with these serious medical issues. But the wunderkind who founded Apple in 1976 — and spearheaded its stunning comeback upon his return to the top spot two decades later — appears to be following the standard script for Apple when it comes to disclosure. And the Securities and Exchange Commission has definite regulations on disclosing situations that could affect the company’s financial health.

Apple’s legendary secrecy about products and new developments, of course, make sense. (The company has no problem quickly firing employees who blab about new products in development and even successfully shut down the Web site http://www.thinksecret.com over its leaks of what Apple considered proprietary information.) But investors, the media and federal regulators are correctly questioning why Apple has repeatedly failed to provide accurate, timely information on the status of the person who is often hailed as being personally responsible for driving the computer maker to its current successful state.

SEC rules prompted Coca-Cola to report in 1997 that its then-CEO, Robert Goizueta, was suffering from lung cancer, the disease that killed him that October. And following the sudden death of McDonald’s CEO Jim Cantalupo of a heart attack in 2004, successor CEO Charlie Bell decided to resign less than a year later before he died of colon cancer. Tragically, Bell was forced to have surgery a little more than two weeks after taking over as CEO, a fact that was prominently, but appropriately disclosed by McDonald’s at the time.

These multinational companies were able to meet federal requirements while protecting the privacy of the individuals involved. The evasive nature of Apple’s corporate responses to inquiries into its CEO’s health could be attributed to a corporate culture that is used to keeping secrets. It also might be part of the orders from the top that Jobs’ medical condition is his and his alone to be concerned about.

But Jobs decided to come back to work and that complicates the already troubled public relations effort. (Some reports put him on the campus of One Infinite Loop in Cupertino last week, before his officially scheduled return on Monday, June 29.) If he had decided to retire, his medical condition and prognosis would have no public component unless he decided to divulge their status himself. Unfortunately, his corporate communications team continues to work between a rock and a hard place with a sick CEO who sees no reason to adhere to SEC rules and Wall Street investors who rightfully contend that disclosure from Apple is appropriate and long overdue.

Alfred E. Neuman, clearly, has nothing on the keepers of Apple’s current public gates.

June 30, 2009 at 5:18 pm 1 comment

Don’t curb your enthusiasm. Just find different ways to express it.

By Sally Saville Hodge

A recent post by my friend Suzanne Shelton on her Facebook page elicited 10 responses and merits some followup discussion. It read:

Suzanne Shelton wants to gently remind people not to over use exclamation points. It devalues the emphasis, and isn’t a substitute for choosing language that conveys your enthusiasm. More than one per paragraph is far too much. Plus, it’s really annoying

Those pesky, insidious exclamation points. They’re a device that people fall into the bad habit of using. Overusing, to Suzanne’s point. And I am among those guilty as charged.

I think a lot of it stems from the more casual nature of the writing environment.

WarningIt started with e-mail, where early on, you’d find many people completely ignoring rules on capitalization – either eschewing capital letters completely, whether in starting a sentence or using proper names, or playing it safe and just keeping the caps lock key permanently in play. Salutations are more often then not lost, and for that matter, so are name signoffs. Why sign your name when the recipient should know who you are from the e-mail address?

It’s only gotten worse with the spread of texting and Twitter and, yup, Facebook and LinkedIn posts. “Good” writing (with or without exclamation points) is beside the, ahem, point when you’re trying to squeeze a lot of information into a tiny, 140-characters-or-less post. Your communiqués really become something for insiders only, almost like a secret language.

I recently re-read one of my sent e-mails and slapped myself on the side of my head. Four sentences. Four exclamation points. When did I become so darn enthusiastic?

Another overused device that I’ll cop to: the dash – using it as a way to emphasize a point. When I caught myself using it three times in one paragraph, I knew I was overdoing it. I’m making a concerted effort these days to either use colons or parenthesis or just (gasp!) changing the sentence structure to force myself to mend my lazy ways.

While I’m at it, I’d better lose the LOLs, though at least I’m not guilty of writing “hahaha” with every post even when there’s no humorous aspect to it whatsoever.

Lesson, people? Our language can be too beautiful a thing to so abuse. Let’s be careful out there.

June 1, 2009 at 5:27 pm Leave a comment

If e-mail’s dead, then what’s all this stuff in my inbox?

Sally Saville Hodge

I keep hearing rumblings, then reading blog posts by various and sundry social media prognosticators that e-mail is dead.

Taken out by Twitter, Chat and Communities,” opines Gartner Group’s Michael Maoz, saying, “Customers want more immediacy, and e-mail never lived up to that standard.”

Social American, a firm that designs social media campaigns, is a dab less emphatic than Maoz in sounding a conditional death knell. Is it dead? one of its bloggers queries, citing a Nielsen Online study that indicates more people in digitized countries use social media networks and blogs to communicate with each other than e-mail.

Of course, if you look at the difference in reach, as per that Nielsen study, the member communities were ranked at 66.8 percent versus 65.1 percent for e-mail. A 1.7 percent differential represents a stake in the heart of the e-mail channel?

Source: Sacramento State

Source: Sacramento State

Look at the numbers. Do you think 25.2 billion Tweets or instant messages are being exchanged by office workers each day?

I’d like to see e-mail evolve (in other words – that people would get smarter in how they use it), but I don’t think it’s dead. And that’s because, for all their allure, the other contenders have distinct drawbacks.

Take Twitter. Nobody (outside of Twitter itself) quite knows how many people are using it now, with estimates ranging from millions to tens of millions. You can Twitter online. You can use it from your cell phone. You can get all sorts of applications to help you use it better. You can follow Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore and Oprah or someone random, like me.

And, yeah, savvy businesses are using it to improve the customer experience, which makes it a whole lot cooler – and, yes, more immediate – than plain old e-mail. I recently tweeted a complaint about Comcast screwing up our service before a recent move and within minutes was tweeted by ComcastBonnie: “How can I help?” Cool beans.

Of course, responding to her was problematic because the issue would have required maybe 50 Tweets to explain fully. That’s because there’s a limit of only 140 characters (including spaces) per post. That limit is why so many of the tweets that I scan are incomprehensible, and why it’s no substitute for anyone who truly wants to create meaningful dialog. Between hash marks and RTs (re-tweet = sharing someone’s post with your network) and abbreviations and other forms of shorthand, you often need an interpreter to make sense of it all.

But replacing e-mail? Think again and be aware of how slippery stats can be. Consider the other side of the Twitter growth coin: The percentage of Twitter users in a given month who return the following month has languished below 30 percent for most of the past year. Not likely that’s a trend you’re seeing with e-mail usage.

Then there are the social networking communities. To me, these versus e-mail represent an apples and oranges comparison. Social networking is another communications tool, an adjunct, perhaps, to e-mail – less individual, less private, and with an entirely different functionality.

And chat? Again, it’s more immediate, and from a customer service perspective, that’s not a bad thing. Comcast, again, is using it to help solve customer issues. I tried it out the other day for a whole different matter. But how dumb is this? Because of the confidentiality issue, the customer service rep broke off in the middle of the online chat to call me on the phone to get my permission to give me the information I needed via chat. Once granted, she hung up, typed in the relevant information…and then my computer froze and had to be rebooted. Faster than e-mail maybe. But not necessarily more efficient.

And, again, as a broader communication tool, it represents a huge time suck. I know people who have juggled five or six “conversations” at once. I never could figure out when they worked because they were always available on IM. And it just seems so intrusive:  Give me e-mail, where you can control the pace of the back and forth, and delete and ignore at will.

I’ll believe that e-mail is in its death throes when I can stop tracking an increase in the missives – a substantial amount of it junk – delivered daily to my inbox. It ain’t happening yet!

May 27, 2009 at 4:54 pm 3 comments

Understanding and responding to the consumer mood

Sally Saville Hodge

Job No. 1 to creating a truly differentiated brand is developing a deep understanding of your customers and using that as a basis for words backed by actions that anticipate and meet their needs and concerns.

That’s true in good times and bad, but it’s a dictum that is particularly pressing in an environment like the one we’re living through today. The public today is both skeptical and fearful, and not particularly trustful of just about anyone in just about any position of authority.

Hyundai got that and got it early. It recognized (while the Big Three sat paralyzed) that people were avoiding car dealerships because they were scared to death of getting downsized and then stuck with a big-ticket financial commitment. Its buyer assurance program – allowing people to return their new cars if they got laid off after their purchase – made a huge difference for Hyundai in overcoming the fear factor that’s keeping pocketbooks shut tight. Its sales rose 5 percent in both January and February as a result.

JetBlue, despite the occasional and well-publicized toe-stubbing on the operational front, has always used its keen grasp of the customer’s relationship with air travel as a basis for its messages and action. It doesn’t want to live up to the typical low expectations that we have for an optimal customer experience.

A big part of its persona is irreverence. Here’s a three part series its corporate communications team produced that’s more than just irreverent. It hits the public sentiment chord exactly with spots worthy of SNL. Enjoy.

April 22, 2009 at 5:37 pm Leave a comment

PR and the respect factor

Sally Saville Hodge

rdPublic relations has always been like the Rodney Dangerfield of the communications field. You know: We just don’t get any respect.

Our collective inferiority complex has been self-created, to a significant extent. The tendency by many in the profession to use overstatement and hype as their stock in trade hasn’t helped the cause. And high profile ethical lapses haven’t added any to the practice’s luster. (Remember Ketchum PR’s payment of $240,000 to minority radio broadcaster Armstrong Williams to tout on air and with his peers the No Child Left Behind program?)

That’s on the public side. Generally speaking, PR is low on the totem pole among business professionals as well. Never mind some of the more unfortunate associations that play down PR’s value. The term “free publicity” is emblematic.

I’ve always thought much of it related to how much of a budget PR commands and controls, particularly vis a vis the far weightier purse carried by Marcom and advertising. After all, money equals power, and it’s not unusual to see ad budgets of the big players in the millions of dollars – hundreds of millions, even. On the other hand, a million-dollar PR campaign is considered exceedingly healthy.

The irony is that for all the disrespect, and for whatever reason, it’s PR that really has the power to build a brand. For all of traditional media’s failings (and recent flailings, for that matter), it’s the news coverage that PR helps bring about that carries credibility, not the “they’ll say anything to make you buy” advertising messaging that’s so transparent to the public. And that’s only part of the powerful overall PR package.

We’re hearing more stories these days of some recession-hit businesses cutting their marketing budgets, but diverting more funds into PR programs instead. I don’t know that I’m ready to call it a trend, unfortunately. We just haven’t managed to do the job of convincing our partners in marketing (and higher up the food chain) that we can be more than simply masters of spin.

Or have we, but marketing leadership just can’t bring itself to respond accordingly?

Michael Dunn, Chairman of Prophet (full disclosure: a client since 2001) has just authored a book called The Marketing Accountability Imperative. It’s a heavy read, but a must-read for senior management. But apropos to this conversation, here’s a pullout worth thinking about:

    “Our 2007 senior marketer survey showed that B2B companies believe that public relations is the most effective activity for long-term brand building and the third most effective at driving short-term sales (after field sales activities and outbound marketing). No form of advertising came close to PR in its perceived long- or short-term effectiveness. Despite this, B2B marketers spend only about 1 percent of their budget on public relations and over 20 percent on advertising. The effectiveness of PR is also rated higher than advertising among B2C marketers and their contradictory spending relationships are even more pronounced.
    …[M]arketers’ behaviors seem somewhat puzzling – they do not believe that the marketing activities that they are spending the most on are the most effective, yet they are unwilling or unable to take the steps necessary to quantify this performance.

Puzzling, indeed.

April 6, 2009 at 5:17 pm 1 comment

Atwitter over Twitter? It could happen

Sally Saville Hodge

Here’s what I’ve learned in the last three months or so that I have more actively started Twittering:

  • The name is silly, but so apropos. After all, when you’re communicating in short bursts of words (140 characters max) and following more than one or two people, it does create something of the same cacophony on your senses as a large flock of birds.
  • It has a ton of fans, some of whom are rabidly judgmental. Don’t let them scare you off though, because…
  • …despite the judgmental folks, there are no real rules for using it.
  • You really have to use it to get it and its implications.
  • It’s an incredibly exciting example of how users are shaping the experience – far beyond what the people who created it ever intended or expected.

To the last point, here’s an interesting presentation by one of Twitter’s founders explaining the original idea and how users have innovated around it. Next week, I’ll take a look at some of the reasons for climbing aboard – whether for fun or for profit.

(And by the way, if you sign up for a Twitter account – it’s free – look me up at @sallyshodge.)

March 2, 2009 at 8:51 pm Leave a comment

Are newspapers becoming synonymous to buggy whips?

Sally Saville Hodge

reading the news...I stopped my subscription to the Chicago Tribune a year ago. After about 20 years or more of faithful home delivery. And despite twinges of guilt over the loyalty thing. I did, after all, work there for a few years back in the ‘80s.

I don’t really miss it. (With a rueful apology to all my old buds there who haven’t yet been laid off.) See, I don’t have time to do a leisurely daily read in my garden with a cup of coffee or tea. I can get my news fix on the Web, weaving my scans into my workday. And it gives me access to a wealth of voices, not just the Trib’s.

My hands stay a lot cleaner, too.

Even though my decision was one of a million or more nails that have been pounded in the daily newspaper business’ coffin, I still fret over what can be done to save it, and, ultimately, what’s a proud and (mainly) honorable calling. So it was with no small degree of excitement that I read the cover headline on Time magazine a few weeks ago: “How to Save Your Newspaper.”

Great, I thought. Smarter people than I have come up with a solution. Must read!

Alas. I’m sure the author is smarter than I, but the proposed solution? To charge for content. Just a small amount – micro-payments – following the same approach that Apple took in building up its iTunes business. The problem is that it’s too late. That horse has left the gate.

I do wish that he was right in his argument. That people are willing to pay for well-written content. But the reality is that he overestimates how discerning most people are. Convenience trumps quality in most instances. I did a decidedly non-scientific poll of the 20-somethings I work with along with many of the 30-somethings I know, and only one of the 15 preferred the hard copy newspaper. None was willing to pay for online content. “Why, when I can go to a different site and get the same news for free?” asked one.

They did, however, cite exceptions, notably of one of the strongest brands in the business: the Wall Street Journal. Its quality was deemed worth paying for.

And quality is a critical component of brand equity that continues to erode in the newspaper industry each time another round of editorial layoffs is announced. Last week, the Tribune laid off another round of reporters, including Pulitzer Prize winner Don Terry and two of my favorites, Susan Chandler in business and Jeff Lyons with the Sunday magazine.

With each round of cuts – at the Tribune, and at scores of other newspapers across the nation, you see more wire copy being used to fill the dwindling news hole, and it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate one news source from any other. We no longer have much of a reason to choose one over another – much less pay for whatever delivery mode.

The newspaper business is fast becoming an anachronism. I’m beginning to think the new model will be found less in micro-payments for content and more in solutions like that devised by the Christian Science Monitor. Survivors will be those that find ways to embrace their online selves – profitably – as the “paper” part becomes synonymous to buggy whips. Hopefully, they can do it before the voice that makes them distinctive is totally lost.

February 20, 2009 at 6:17 pm Leave a comment

A modest proposal to help the financial industry’s tattered brand

Sally Saville Hodge

pigs_troughThink about it. You and I and every other U.S. taxpayer have recently taken on the additional financial burden of $5,073 each to help keep Wall Street afloat. That’s how the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program translates in an up close and personal way.

Am I willing to help out to this extent? Well, sure. I guess. Though I don’t recall anyone asking me and, even if they had, I would have said I had certain expectations tied to my generosity.

See, it’s actually a sacrifice for me to be doing this. I have plenty of other debt, personally and for my business, and really don’t need to be shouldering anybody else’s. Plus, mine is a small business and, yup, we’ve been feeling the pinch of the spiraling economy for awhile now. I’m already sacrificing, and so, for that matter, are my employees. Nobody’s gotten any raises in a long time. Bonuses? What a concept.

So I am more than mildly irked that the hotshots who played a major role in getting us into this mess a) haven’t turned the lending spigot back on; b) have not accounted for the uses to which they’ve put our money (because they weren’t required to); and c) have had the absolute and utter gall to keep bonuses and exorbitant salary structures in place for many, many executives – not to mention others further down on the business’ totem poles.

It’s all been delved into this week in Congressional testimony that has had a decidedly defensive tone. As Wells Fargo’s John Stumpf told lawmakers: “We are frugal. We’re Americans first. We’re bankers second.”

Really? The latest issue of Vanity Fair outlines in fascinating, if painful, detail how the sector has continued to line its own pockets even in the face of cascading red ink and the government rescue.

Consider Morgan Stanley. Its CEO, John Mack, and his top two lieutenants didn’t take bonuses for 2008. It was the second bonus-less year for Mack. Other senior managers in the firm saw their compensation cut by 60 to 75 percent. That didn’t mean bonuses were eliminated, though. The pool was just cut – all the way down to $5 billion.

How much did Morgan get in TARP money? Ten billion dollars. What makes it okay to put half the bailout total into bonuses? Well, the bonus and TARP monies were not the same money! Never mind, as one noted gadfly said, that “if the government hadn’t bailed these people out they would have gone bankrupt and … no one [would have gotten a bonus]!”

It’s not just Morgan Stanley. AIG had its secret “retention” awards of between $92,500 and $4 million to as many as 7,000 employees, bestowed to keep them from jumping ship during the sale of assets. One Citigroup trader took home a bonus of $125 million. Two lieutenants of Merrill Lynch’s John Thain, who departed with him last month after the firm’s acquisition by Bank of America, were lucky enough to carry home with them about $100 million in contractually agreed-upon pay and bonuses.

What’s clear through all of this is that the idea – much less the practice – of reputation management seems to have gone down the drain in this sector at a time when proactive measures have never been more needed. The financial industry is getting thoroughly tarred, and ironically enough, the hand that’s holding the brush is its own.

Here’s a modest proposal that might help restore badly needed trust and confidence. The leaders of these businesses – actually, any business that’s being forced to lay off thousands in the wake of a down economy – should consider foregoing not just bonuses, but their salaries until sales and profits begin to come back.

Unlike many who have been hardest hit by the recession, it’s not like they don’t have other assets to fall back on in the interim. And I think at this stage, the public wants more than lip service that the beneficiaries of our largesse actually do feel our pain.

February 12, 2009 at 5:13 pm Leave a comment

Bad customer service: Don’t get mad. Get even.

Sally Saville Hodge

Many years ago, I shocked my then-doctor’s officious nurse when I told her, in setting up my next appointment, that I’d be sending a bill for my time if I was kept waiting for over an hour again. And…by the way…my hourly fee was $200.

After she finished sputtering, she thought about it for a minute. “Okay, let’s get you in first thing in the morning, then, before he has a chance to get backed up.”

I never had to wait again.

Good customer service is, arguably, perhaps one of the most important contributors to a strong brand. It’s integral to the total customer experience that really defines a business’, professional’s or individual’s brand. But this fact must not be getting through. Why else do so many botch it?

We, as consumers, have many, many options on ways to spend the time allotted to us. An hour wasted waiting for the doctor to fit you in, on hold while questioning a bill, or trying to figure out where that order placed three weeks ago has disappeared to is lost forever.

For those that don’t care about their reputation, perhaps hitting them in the pocketbook is action they will appreciate.

It worked for Howard Schaffer. This Colonie, NY publicist found himself without phone service for a full month after moving offices last fall. He used stop-gap measures (borrowing a phone line from his landlord and having employees use their cells) while putting up with promises and excuses. It took an article by the consumer advocacy columnist of the local Times-Union to eventually shame his carrier, One Communications, into fixing it.

Nine apologies, however, were really not sufficient for lost time and, one can assume, lost business. Smartly, he kept careful track of the time and money he expended in trying to resolve the problem. He sent them an itemized bill for $5,481. Incredibly, One Communications paid.

You ask me, they got off cheap. And the rest of us learned how tenacity and moxie (with some help from the media) can pay off.

February 5, 2009 at 10:45 pm Leave a comment

Any PR is not, in fact, good PR

Sally Saville Hodge

Rod BlagojevichThere’s an all-too-common school of thought that “any PR is good PR,” and Illinois’ soon-to-be-deposed Governor Rod Blagojevich is clearly a leading advocate.

His whirlwind New York press tour this week only succeeded at underscoring the fallacies of such thinking. If anything, his frenzied “I am not a crook” and “they’re denying me my rights” proclamations made him more of a caricature than he was prior to his arrest in December on charges of trying to sell the President’s former Senate seat.

But it’s too easy to riff on Blagojevich. My beef is with the flack he hired to trot him out to the press. Did he (or she) warn the Guv of the dangers of this course from the perspective of an image that has already been battered to hell?

What’s been wrought is not good PR. Good PR doesn’t further decimate an already shredded reputation. Good PR practitioners counsel their clients in the interests of creating positive buzz. They ask what the client’s end objective is with the media outreach. To change minds? To shape or re-shape a brand? They coach their clients – especially vigorously if television is a primary target– on their key messages, and how to segue back to them. They learn their clients’ tendencies and try to head them off at the pass to avoid situations like the use of bad analogies (cowboys and revered religious leaders, for example) that may provide fodder for derision.

Okay, Blago was probably not inclined to listen to wiser (saner?) counsel on these matters. When his estimable attorney Ed Genson threw in the towel in disgust, it gave a pretty clear signal that the Guv was intent on bulldozing his own path – rightly or wrongly.

But still. Many perceive PR folks as generally ranking right up there with used car salesman when it comes to ethics and honesty. In this instance, someone just took the money and ran, perpetuating many myths in the process.

January 28, 2009 at 4:52 pm Leave a comment

Why online hits matter

By Sally Saville Hodge

We still hear all too often from clients and prospects who thank us very much for those online hits, “but we want to be in the paper!”

I suspect that the full implications of the “viral” benefits of online media coverage are difficult for them to grasp. Here’s a case in point I use time and again. We got mention of one of our client’s blogs (with the link) on Reuters.com last year. It was still driving traffic there two months later – long after a traditional placement would have done its duty as birdcage liner.

Here’s a good overview (below) of the media channels out there that makes the case for why online is where you want to be if it’s reach you’re looking for. Special thanks to The Bad Pitch Blog for driving this out.

January 19, 2009 at 8:43 pm 2 comments

On jargon and buzzwords and really tired phrases

Sally Saville Hodge

It’s needless to say that a lot of words and phrases are over-leveraged in today’s written and spoken dialog.

You see? I just did it with barely a thought.

I will be the first to admit that I occasionally – okay, often – fall into this “let’s show people how smart I am by the number of buzzwords I can weave into my writing” trap. I do try to stay away from really stupid phrases, but sometimes, well… okay. I just got through writing a proposal and used the word “leverage” four times. It would have been more, but I cut a few out. It’s not that I think the use of such verbiage makes me look smarter (really!) but it does show I can use the language that my audience of businessfolk uses – I can relate.

Language and its use and misuse is a favorite topic of those of us who love it – done right. One of my favorite bloggers is Dan Santow of Edelman PR, whose Word Wise blog is the ultimate in grammar and style and all things related. I also recently happened upon Lake Superior State University, which since 1975 has issued a “banished word” list – some evergreen, some having taken on new disfavor with political and cultural shifts.

    Among my favorites from that particular list:

    • Maverick. I can’t even think the word without a correlating vision of Sarah Palin as its chief utterer.
    • Staycation. A made-up word that everyone glommed onto – the non- or anti-vacation.
    • Not so much. The ultimate in overused snarkiness.

    Among the evergreens:

    • Paradigm shift. What a grandiose term for the simple matter of change.
    • “I, personally.” Would it ever be impersonally?
    • 24/7. This phrase must have caught on for its appeal to everyman’s inner geek.
    • Fairly, almost, one of the most (etc.) unique. Either it is or it is not one of a kind.
    • “At the end of the day.” Versus at its start. A single word will often do in place of pseudo descriptive phrases. Try “ultimately.”
    • Make it sticky. This has been around for awhile and I still puzzle over what, exactly, it’s supposed to mean.
    • Outside the box. We can also all try to be just plain old creative or innovative and leave the box out of it.

    There are so many ways to make your writing sing without having to resort to tired and hackneyed language. Here’s to working on better melodies in 2009.

    January 13, 2009 at 5:32 pm 1 comment

    Why PR investments should grow in 2009

    Sally Saville Hodge

    I’d like to think it’s true, but the cynic in me just keeps muttering, “Yeah, right.”

    Media prognosticator Jack Myers recently issued a report suggesting that the bright spot in the current advertising depression will be public relations. He projects investment in PR to grow by 3% in 2008 and by another 3% in 2009 to over $4.5 billion.

    There are a lot of reasons why this should be true.

    • In hard economic times, businesses need to grow their credibility with consumers. You get that with PR, particularly with an orientation that’s geared to inform, versus hammering away with heavy-handed sales messaging.
    • They also need to grow awareness. And while an ad campaign does that, so does a PR program. The difference is that PR features the credibility component, while advertising doesn’t. Furthermore…
    • …a PR program is a LOT cheaper than advertising or the majority of marketing communications programs to design and execute. That’s not to say clients ought to believe the “free publicity” misnomer of one aspect of PR, however. There’s still time and expertise involved, and that carries a price tag. But a $100,000 budget will easily be sufficient to create a robust PR program featuring traditional and social media aspects over the course of a year (providing you stay away from the larger, high-priced agencies). That kind of money will get you bupkis in advertising and not a lot more in some of the more traditional MarCom tactics.

    So why am I cynical that the growth Myers projects may actually occur? Well, for one thing, the top dog for communications matters at most businesses is still a person who has a marketing title. As a rule, these folks are still pretty tied to tradition – the tried and true of advertising, direct mail, and the like.

    Too many don’t have a great grasp of depth and breadth of traditional public relations approaches, much less how PR applies to the new media world. For example, in an article tellingly headlined, “Social Networks: Millions of Users, not so Many Marketers,” e-Marketer, an online newsletter, has projected a decline in U.S. social networking advertising, but pointedly observed, “Advertising is not the only way for marketers to participate in social networks.”

    We’re heading into one of the toughest years for business that I can remember – and 2008 was hardly a cakewalk. PR investment may or may not grow by the projected 3%. But those challenged to do more with less in a difficult climate would be well-served to take another look at traditional and social media PR approaches and adjust their thinking accordingly. (more…)

    January 5, 2009 at 10:00 pm Leave a comment

    Municipal PR, Chicago Style

    By Chris Scott

    There are 34,264 metered parking spots in Chicago and by 2013, the per hour rate for meters that charge a quarter in 2008 will rise to $2, a 700 percent increase.

    Chicago residents know this because Mayor Richard M. Daley proposed that the city follow earlier fundraising strategies and lease control of the city’s parking meters — and the money they collect — to a private company for the next 75 years.

    You would think that such a serious issue would be managed through the experienced PR machine in place at City Hall and its departments, with residents and news organizations aware of the bidding process and the proposals. Chicago citizens would then be able to attend Town Hall meetings where residents and business owners could voice their opinions on how such a deal might affect their quality of life in the Second City.

    But you would be wrong.

    In the space of less than one week of the Mayor’s proposal, drivers who will be forced to pay the higher rates — as much as $6.50 per hour in certain areas like downtown — were told that a City Council committee had passed the proposal and that it would be voted on by the full City Council within two days. And faster that one could say “Get your 26 quarters together!” the $1.15-billion deal was sealed. One bidder, one contract.

    It’s not that the infrastructure to get the word out to the press and the public in a timely manner didn’t exist. The city of Chicago spends an estimated $4.7 million each year to pay for 50 public information officers in a variety of city government offices and agencies. Additionally, weeks before the parking meter lease agreement, the Daley administration announced contracts with 10 outside PR firms for services that could net each firm as much as $5 million per year. Those contracts were announced at about the same time that city officials revealed an anticipated $469-million budget gap for fiscal 2009 along with layoffs of 929 city employees and the elimination of 1,346 vacant positions in city government. (A reduction in city services and higher fees for other things like parking tickets also will be implemented to save money in these troubled economic times, the mayor said.)

    What’s wrong with this picture? Absolutely nothing from at least one perspective. Anyone who engages a PR firm is essentially free to utilize or ignore the vendor’s capabilities or advice as they see fit. If the city believes — as Mayor Daley expressed when questioned about the new contracts — that these relationships with the outside PR firms are necessary, so be it. But don’t the agencies with relationships with City Hall have an obligation to advise the client that it might be a good idea to remove even a whiff of impropriety in the ways “The City That Works” generates an anticipated $1.15 billion in upfront revenue through solid, proven PR strategies (community forums, press conferences, more transparency)?

    As it turns out, the city suspended the contracts with the PR firms until the budget crisis “is over.” It’s apparently the same old story: Chicago citizens don’t hear about City Hall decisions in advance. What do you expect from an administration that destroyed a municipal airport’s runways in the dead of night in 2003 with no public relations effort or public comment before the bulldozers rolled? At least City Hall is consistent in how it delivers its message, regardless of the number of agencies it hires to consult on such matters. And that counts for something to taxpayers, doesn’t it?

    December 29, 2008 at 5:21 pm Leave a comment

    Blagojevich: Nobody’s buying this decimated brand any longer

    By Sally Saville Hodge

    “I will fight. I will fight. I will fight until I take my last breath. I have done nothing wrong.”

    Such heroic words. From just about anyone else, they would be inspirational. Send a shiver up your spine for their passion. Make you raise a fist in the air in support.

    But these are, in fact, the defiant words uttered by Illinois’ own Rod Blagojevich, the governor who was hoist by his own petard – caught on tape trying to sell the president-elect’s Senate seat, shake down the Chicago Tribune, and hold up the CEO of a leading Chicago children’s hospital for a big campaign contribution.

    The man is totally clueless as to the damage he’s done to his personal brand, not just through his most recent actions, but pretty much throughout his tenure as Illinois governor. His denials of culpability last week only served to denigrate his brand even further – though with an approval rating of 8 percent, it’s hard to imagine it could be more tarnished.

    You read a lot about brand these days, but most people tend to think of it as a business buzzword, associated with products (Sony, Starbucks, Apple) or a broader experience (Disney, Google, Amazon). But the principles that are behind an effective business brand management strategy are just applicable to a personal brand strategy. Both must be carefully managed, because a brand is very difficult to repair once damaged.

    It’s regrettably easy to compromise a brand. Ask Elliot Spitzer. The jarring disconnect between his public persona as a crusader against corruption (including prostitution) and his private choice to utilize the services of a high-priced call girl destroyed his credibility.

    It takes a lot to rebuild one – and sometimes that only occurs with unforeseen outside assistance. Prior to 9/11, Rudy Giuliani’s brand was probably on par with Spitzer’s today, though not sunk by the nearly same weight of negative equities that mark Rod Blagojevich’s. His stunningly impressive seizing of the leadership reins in the minutes, hours and days after 9/11 attacks renewed his brand enough to ultimately make a presidential run possible, just not strongly enough to make it successful.

    Credibility. Authenticity. Quality. Integrity. Leadership. These are among the aspects that combine to uphold the strongest brands, providing that’s the way the public experiences them. At this stage, Blagojevich’s protests are just as empty as his promises. Nobody’s buying this brand anymore. It’s time to give it up.

    December 23, 2008 at 5:36 am 2 comments

    Another Requiem for the News Biz

    By Sally Saville Hodge

    In another sign of the times, the venerable Christian Science Monitor announced today that it will cease its daily print publication by next April to focus on its online operations and a weekly print newspaper/magazine hybrid.

    With the Monitor’s print circulation, 50,000, a fraction of the 230,000 it had in its heyday in 1970, it’s giving in to the inevitable: Its future – readers and profits – lies with the Web. With 5 million online readers a month, it’s pretty hard to ignore the math.

    The question is how long is it going to take before others follow? This Internet-only concept may prove to be a workable model. But what’s long been clear, and the hemorrhaging underscores, is that the vast majority of dailies just haven’t been able to find the right balance between online and print.

    Back in early September, The Bad Pitch Blog’s Richard Laermer wrote about traditional media’s demise, positing that any PR folks still aiming for print placements had better scurry. Soon, there’ll be no one left to pitch if they don’t get with the online program.

    It’s unclear now how many will be laid off from the Monitor with this new move. But Laermer aptly makes his case with the following list (which I cite verbatim):

    • Seventy people cut from the News-Observer in Raleigh.
    • A while back over 100 gone from The New York Times including almost all the second-string critics and long-lost colleague Barnaby Feder, a science guy who has been there since, well, anyone was a reporter.
    • The Los Angles Times, Orlando Sun-Sentinel, Newsday, Baltimore Sun hemorrhaging crucial staffers.
    • The Dallas Morning News cutting 500 jobs in the next month.
    • The Star-Ledger says if there are no takers of cuts, the parent will sell!
    • Fortune Small Business drops its entire staff, The Wall Street Journal cuts a variety and Fortune kills off dozens. The Record in NJ closes down its (?) headquarters and makes everyone work at home.
    • An Atlanta Journal-Constitution staffer tells us that they’re having daily meetings now… and that if we have any stories pending, to hurry up and get them written.

    Meanwhile, today’s Wall Street Journal reported accelerated circulation declines at the largest U.S. newspapers, “owing to readers’ continuing defection to the Web…”

    I don’t hold with Laermer’s view that it’s a waste of time to be pitching anything other than online venues in this environment. Certainly, the Monitor’s new hybrid print product, for example, may still have some reporters on staff who are open to smart pitches. And hits there (not to mention the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, et. al.) are still going to win points for credibility, if not for viral influence.

    But the operative words are “smart pitches.” Shrinking pools of traditional journalists and outlets translate into limited time and patience for irrelevant, poorly researched, and flatly written pitches. That’s always been true. Only now, it’s more so.

    October 28, 2008 at 10:01 pm 1 comment

    A few choice words: What makes a good slogan?

    Judi Schindler

    Having developed slogans and taglines for numerous clients over the years, I know first-hand how difficult a task it is to encapsulate a brand with just a few cogent words. It gives you an appreciation for the really good ones, which Inc.com recognizes in a new list of the 10 top advertising slogans of all time.

    Among them?

    Apple – Think different
    Wheaties – The breakfast of champions
    Wendy’s – Where’s the beef?
    M&Ms – Melts in your mouth not in your hands.
    Miller Lite – Great taste. Less filling.
    Nike – Just do it.
    Maxwell House Coffee – Good to the last drop.
    Clairol – Does she, or doesn’t she?
    United – Fly the friendly skies.
    Coca Cola – It’s the real thing.

    They’re hard to argue with, although I would have preferred the Apple copywriters to think “grammatically.” I personally don’t relate to the notion that the last drop might taste different from the first – for any brand of coffee. And with the long-standing labor problems at United, it’s hard finding truth in the “friendly skies” tag.

    On the whole, though, these all pass my personal criteria for a good slogan:

    1. Is it memorable?
    2. Does it ring true?
    3. Is it distinguishing?
    4. Does it speak to benefit?

    Against that set of standards, here are a few on my own list of favorites.

    Fed Ex – When it absolutely, positively has to get there overnight.

    This worked for launching a brand new concept from a brand new company. The slogan both explains the service and makes it sound absolutely, positively credible.

    Loreal – Because you’re worth it.
    Volkswagen – Think small.
    Smucker’s – With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good.

    All three are noteworthy for turning a negative into a positive. Loreal is expensive compared to competing products. The Volkswagen was introduced to the U.S. market when big, honking cruisers dominated the highways. And, with due respect to Mr. Smucker, he has a funny name. His agency wisely used that fact to advantage.

    KFC – Finger lickin’ good.
    Disneyland – The happiest place on earth.

    Two more I like – simply because they are evocative. You can imagine yourself eating something so good, you want to savor the last taste off your finger tips. And what conjures better images than spending a day at the happiest place on the planet?

    If you are interested in refreshing your memory or just want to look up old slogans, here is an online database with a very extensive collection. And please share your favorites – as comments – telling us why you like them!

    September 11, 2008 at 3:29 pm 3 comments

    Another word…or two…on HARO

    Sally Saville Hodge

    In my humble opinion, the new Help A Reporter Out (HARO) media matchmaking service comes out ahead of the venerable ProfNet by virtue of the KISS factor, if nothing else.

    I did a down and dirty, point-by-point comparison a week or so ago from my perspective as a communications professional who’s been using ProfNet almost since its inception, and who has now added HARO to my bag of tricks.

    But here’s the deal. The scuttlebutt I’m hearing from my friends on the other side of the fence is that journalists actually like it too. Who knew? Especially since I’ve lost track of the times I’ve listened to them complain about how so many PR folks abuse the ProfNet service.

    By not being an abuser myself is how I met Deborah Cohen, a Chicago freelancer who, among other assignments, writes a weekly small business column for Reuters. I actually knew how to respond effectively to a ProfNet post in February, and she called me minutes later to tell me so, and get more information.

    Today, she’s pretty much abandoned ProfNet for HARO. “I’m seeing a lot more legitimate sources on it, instead,” she tells me.


    What she means by that is, primarily, sources who have not been filtered through a PR functionary. Deborah recalls posting on HARO for people who could share their experiences utilizing merchant cash advances or were experts on the topic. She got some very on-target responses, including one from a business owner who had been burned using this financial tool.

    “On-target” may be the operative words. She would consider “illegitimate” the number of responses she got off many of her posts with ProfNet that were often not even remotely related to the query and/or broke the accepted rules, like including attachments (massive case studies, for example), waaaaaaay long pitches, and the obligatory follow-up call for the unwary who make the mistake of including their numbers. In short, so-called PR pros who are looking to get lucky even if their clients’ relevance to the query is marginal, at best.

    What I find interesting is that apparently, a fair number of non-PR types subscribe to HARO, no doubt a function of the pricing structure (like free), which makes it all the more attractive to savvy bootstrappers, who may just get how to work the deal better than a lot of so-called professionals. That’s a pretty sad commentary.

    C’mon people. Let’s all do better. HARO’s Peter Shankman plans a teleseminar to help at 1 p.m. (EST) September 9. Keep checking the HARO site for info as it develops.

    August 27, 2008 at 5:54 pm Leave a comment

    Is HARO a new PR HERO?

    Sally Saville Hodge

    After more than a month away from blogging (don’t you hate it when work gets in the way of fun?), the big issue for me was whether to whine about my limited bandwidth or write about a relatively new development in the PR realm that has me intrigued.

    One aside, and I’ll then forgo the whining: How the heck does Richard Laermer of the Bad Pitch Blog manage to post with great regularity on at least three blogs, write a gazillion books AND run “an acclaimed” (you can tell he’s a PR guy) agency?

    So a few weeks ago, a co-worker forwarded me a new media matchmaking feed called “Help A Reporter Out,” or HARO for short. This free service is a project of Peter Shankman, who bills himself as a “CEO, entrepreneur and adventurist.” (Another one who seems to multi-task a lot better than I.)

    Anyone who’s serious about PR knows about Profnet, which until HARO launched was really the only game in town: Journalists can submit, for free, descriptions of articles they’re working on and the kinds of sources they need to help round out their stories. PR folks can respond, but we have to pay an annual membership fee to play. We get e-mail “feeds” a few times a day where queries are compiled by category, and can respond to those that are appropriate.

    So now Profnet has a competitor, and not a moment too soon. On one hand, I think Shankman gives HARO a bit too much credit for better helping all us flaks out here to pitch the media more effectively, but it’s always good to have more options.

    Having used Profnet for about the last 10 years and HARO for the last two weeks or so, I’ve been musing to myself about their similarities and points of difference. So how do they stack up?

    Journalist posters: I see a fair number of redundant posts, not a bad thing, and both services seem to have about an equal number of queries per feed. My sense, however, is that HARO has more “reporters” and “editors” versus the “freelancers” that tend to dominate Profnet. That’s not a bad thing, either; just a difference.

    Storyline/media variety: Here, too, both services are fairly equal, and, honestly, it’s almost an issue that’s out of their control. Reporters are often assigned (or choose to write about) topics deemed to appeal to either the lowest common denominator or to those where esoterica is the name of the game. I remember getting hits off Profnet years ago with reporters from the national business press who had fairly sophisticated queries. These days, you rarely see a query on either service from the Wall Street Journal or Fortune, say, unless it’s cloaked. To HARO’s credit, however, Shankman regularly urges his members to spread the word among their journalist contacts and notes the subject categories that could be beefed up.

    Personality: Thumbs up to HARO on this front. The more corporate Profnet is “just the facts, ma’am,” while Shankman has enlivened each feed by leading off with a fun message from a sponsor (way to go to make this pay!) and asides. One told of the subscriber who sent him a birthday cake. That HARO T-shirts are on the way. That membership has surpassed 20,000. And, by the way, that Profnet’s not happy with the competition. All delivered in a breezy and engaging writing style.

    Functionality: A few years ago, Profnet did a redesign so that each post was essentially an HTML message within the email body. The summary line at the top of each post linked to the detail. Neat on the bells and whistles front, but I, for one, hate it. It takes forever to load in my inbox and in these days of instant gratification, I don’t want to wait for 120 seconds for something I’m just going to trash after skimming in 30 seconds. HARO is just a numbered list of posts by category (business and finance; general; technology; yadda, yadda, yadda); you just scroll down to the right number to get the detail. Thumbs up to HARO for keeping the KISS factor in mind.

    Profnet has a full Web site in addition to its daily feeds that presumably enriches the user experience. For some, features like the ability to post profiles of your “expert” client sources may be just fine and dandy. For us, we never saw enough of a return on time expended to put the profiles together to make the effort worthwhile.

    It will be interesting to watch this new competition evolve in the months ahead. But for now, HARO’s my hero for a clean, easy-to-use and fun service. (Never mind that I always root for the underdog.) Check it out for yourself!

    August 14, 2008 at 3:57 pm 1 comment

    Don’t try this at home. Seriously.

    Chris Scott

    We get the idea that businesses are trying to trim their budgets in these economically challenging times (and are there any other?). And we’ve all heard that old saw that economic downturns are when businesses can least afford to reduce their spending for marketing and PR efforts. (You risk being forgotten when client dollars begin to flow again, etc.)

    But a larger issue comes into play a lot more frequently (at least on an anecdotal level, so far): The “Do-it-Yourself” phenomenon. You probably know the drill – or at least have seen it. The head of Company X taps the human resources chief or the head of sales to develop a quick-response effort that can keep Company X’s name before prospective clients. (Or, in some cases, someone at the company’s cousin “knows someone” who “makes stuff” and can “do something” on the cheap. It’s a poor-man’s approach to PR and marketing and comes with consequences.)

    Whether it’s a Web site, a promotional piece, an overpriced ad or an “e-mail blast” (so early 2000s!), what you’re likely to get is “something” that stands far apart from your previous efforts like a wallflower at the orgy, to borrow a phrase from Nora Ephron. It probably fails to support your brand, doesn’t look like anything that came before it, carries messaging that falls short of advancing your position and carries that patina of “this wasn’t done by a professional.” Inappropriate paper choices, bad design, clunky navigation, poor graphics all combine to threaten all that positive messaging Company X had built up in one fell swoop.

    And if there are failings on the marketing side, let’s face it. On the PR side, most businesses don’t know how to get in touch with the media – much less speak with reporters. They don’t know how to provide that expert source quote or convince a relevant publication to write a feature story about how Company X is faring during tough times. And who has the time when there are so many other fires to put out on an operational level?

    So resist the temptation. You might save a few dollars on the front end by not hiring an agency or laying off your in-house pros to help guide you through the process (if not manage nearly all of the actual PR and marketing work involved). But your reputation may end up paying the price if you try to tackle these specialized functions yourself or on the cheap. Even the most experienced do-it-yourselfer knows when it’s time to throw in the towel and call the electrician, plumber (or PR and marketing agency).

    Why risk the company’s image and progress by taking on jobs that do not fall under your areas of expertise? You’d be amazed at the number of companies that wind up hurting their reputations with the exact people who could help them survive (or event thrive) as the economy shakeouts continue.

    August 11, 2008 at 2:50 pm 1 comment

    New respect for PR? If Ad Age is any indicator, maybe so!

    Sally Saville Hodge


    That’s my somewhat gleeful chortle at the ironies of life as I ruminate on ongoing changes in the advertising/marketing/PR landscape, reflected in the pages of Advertising Age.

    I really started paying attention back in January when the publication – considered by many as the Bible of the ad industry – actually named a PR firm as its Agency of the Year.  You could almost hear the collective gasps of surprise, chagrin, horror and what all as the big ad agencies and marketing firms opened their copies of that particular issue to find Richard Edelman’s smiling face looking out from the prized spot (subscription required) in the magazine.

    What I found interesting was not just the nod to the job Edelman PR’s done in managing – being on the forefront, actually – all of today’s converging media. It was the implicit acknowledgement of the philosophy Richard espouses and that I, for one, agree with wholeheartedly. As he says on Edelman’s Web site: “PR should lead the communications mix because we uniquely engage all stakeholders in a dialogue that is timely, consistent and credible.”

    Ad Age has only added insult to injury by continuing to play up PR-related trends and issues in prime real estate once devoted to the ad campaign du jour. On the front page of the June 9 issue, for example, it delved into how the spinmeister sector was coping with communicating about its biggest current issue: the slowdown in business. (Who’s glossing it over? Who’s actively concerned?)

    And then…Ad Age had the nerve to opine that Jet Blue, beset with PR woes, actually NOT advertise (as per the carrier’s new push), but instead get back to the basics that set it apart to begin with:  “Customer service and good internal and external communication.”

    I can’t say that I actively participated in the hand-wringing over the lack of respect that PR has typically gotten over the years from non-PR communicators, decision-makers, and, of course, the media in general. But it is nice to see that we’re getting some credibility outside of our own little sphere of influence.

    Living up to the promise, though. That’s the challenge facing the PR brand moving forward.

    June 9, 2008 at 9:30 pm 4 comments

    A brand promise story with a happy ending?

    By Chris Scott

    Everybody has a horror story dealing with a utility company – from telephone to gas to electric service provider. But few of these companies inspire more customer wrath than the cable company, especially one with a shoddy reputation.

    How many times has a friend moaned about the cable company’s missed installation appointments, surprise billing errors, intermittent service or rude customer service?

    The complaints I’ve heard usually involve one of the biggest players: Comcast. In recent years, it’s moved into providing Internet and phone services alongside its cable TV offerings for residences and now for businesses. Oh joy. Now they can screw up all of our electronic connections to the outside world simultaneously!

    So when we decided to research a new Internet and Internet-based phone service provider for Hodge Schindler, Comcast was last on our list, especially because its push into business services was an unknown quantity. We had visions of the phone cutting out for no logical reason, or losing e-mail and Web access for an extended period of time.

    Imagine our surprise when Comcast (and its Business Services department) came through not only with Internet speeds four times faster than our previous service, but also with reliable VoIP phone service for our 10-person office. We’ve had the service for nearly a month now and have (knock wood) experienced very few problems. (The company even threw in free basic cable TV service for our conference room set.)

    And all of this costs about 30 percent less a month than the old service for the next three years – the regular price, not an introductory rate.

    Not that there weren’t some glitches that had us questioning the entire deal for a time: pre-installation issues with certain Comcast technicians telling us to pay a separate contractor to wire the cable from our building’s basement to our offices; unreturned phone calls seeking answers on installation timing; and, yes, a missed appointment from a technician.

    Our skepticism was heightened when it appeared as though Comcast wouldn’t live up to promised pre-installation services due to a lazy technician who lied about his actions (or lack thereof) to the bosses back in the office.

    Still, the tale ended happily, partly because we contacted a newly installed Comcast customer ombudsman. And also, I think, because the company really wants to expand its local business customer base. As the beneficiaries so far, that’s pretty cool.

    So what have we learned?

    • Comcast is trying (with some success) to overcome its negative brand associations and really is able to offer reliable Internet and Internet-based phone service to businesses at reasonable rates.
    • Albeit with a bit of arm-twisting, Comcast is willing to do what it takes to expand its business client roster, to the extent of wiring an old, not cable-ready building.
    • Sometimes it pays off for customers to take a risk, even when a potential vendor’s poor reputation makes you take pause at doing business with them.

    Let’s keep that last point in mind the next time a company suggests giving them a try for a service you might be shopping around for. We certainly plan to.

    June 3, 2008 at 3:27 pm 4 comments

    Coming soon to a gas pump near you

    Judi Schindler

    Try Googling “digital out of home media.” In doing so this morning, I got 27,500 hits. My cursory research indicates that number will increase exponentially over the next few months.

    What started as a kiosk in a hotel lobby or an occasional elevator video screen has now become a $2 to $3 billion industry with projections of $10 billion for next year. Some 900,000 screens are currently in place at gas stations, health clubs, coffee bars, train platforms – even men’s urinals. (Now there’s a thought.)

    The advertising industry, which has been wringing its hands over the ever-slipping numbers for traditional media, is jumping on this bandwagon with both feet.

    Many of the major ad agencies have formed special divisions to manage it. The media companies are delivering “narrowcast” programming. A new trade association (the Out-of-Home Video Advertising Bureau) has been formed. And MediaPost, the online marketing publisher, held its first forum on the channel in April and launched Digital Outsider, a weekly e-letter, May 23.

    And if there was any doubt about the legitimacy of the medium, the Nielsen Company, best known for its television ratings, is planning to launch a similar service for out-of-home media.

    What’s all the fuss?

    Proponents believe that out-of-home media is a way for advertisers to reach active, highly mobile consumers at times when they are more or less captive. They may be waiting for an airplane or train, sitting in the back of a taxi or waiting in line at a store – occasions when they have time to be attentive.

    Media buys can be targeted by geography, interests, demographics. When combined with cell phones, out-of-home ads can be interactive. (Call or text for a free sample or coupon.)

    Media Life Magazine says that travel, financial services and automotive are the top categories for out-of-home digital media. Local businesses like dry cleaners, real estate and healthcare providers are also said to do well with it.

    While out-of-home may not be appropriate for all advertisers, others may well find it worth a test run. Success, however, will ultimately depend on targeting, messaging and integration with other forms of marketing.

    May 27, 2008 at 8:08 pm Leave a comment

    Managing the viral spread of bad customer experiences

    Sally Saville Hodge

    You may have heard this factoid mentioned when it comes to customer service: A satisfied customer is likely to share the experience with one person, while one who’s dissatisfied will share it with ten.

    Now, think about the implications of those numbers in a Web 2.0 world, when anyone and everyone has a voice and can make it heard resoundingly around the world. Whether through a blog, a Twitter, a YouTube feed, or a MySpace post. The possibilities for sharing positive, but (human nature being what it is) more often, negative experiences have exploded.

    Any business that understands the value of a strong brand is going to do whatever it takes to consistently deliver a superior customer experience. Part and parcel of the deal is monitoring the conversation and seizing any opportunity to identify any disconnects – real or imagined – in the way the business is delivering. And find ways to make it right.

    What’s amazing to me, though, is the number of businesses that still don’t get the power of the Web as more than just a messaging channel du jour. It’s also a great, grassroots way to keep the pulse of changing customer perceptions and to respond in real time and in authentic ways to shape them.

    Or not.

    Consider Brenda and Gerald Moran. These folks love cruises. They were such fans of Royal Caribbean that they booked two trips a year and even bought stock in the company. This despite a customer experience that was less than ideal for each and every trip.

    Some of their complaints were laughable: Her birthday greeting was delivered to the wrong cabin. (Get over it.) Others? Not so much. On their most recent, two-week Alaska/Northwest cruise, their cabin reeked of sewage, which was blamed on other guests flushing everything from oranges to diapers. With no more rooms available at this floating inn, their balcony door remained open in 40-degree weather to offset the odor. Yet the Morans were happy with the cruise line’s offer of a 20 percent discount on their next cruise.

    But here’s the deal. Brenda wrote, as she always did, a post-cruise review on Cruise Critic, which sparked an active viral dialogue. Royal Caribbean responded by offering the Morans an additional discount for their next trip…and, oh, by the way, now will you pull your review?

    Brenda declined. Cruise Critic later declined to pull or modify it. And Royal Caribbean soon thereafter banned the Morans from its cruises – for life.

    Even in the olden days before the Web boosted the power of word-of-mouth, such heavy-handed tactics would have been ill-advised. Royal Caribbean would have been much better served with a variety of other courses of action:

    • Apologizing in the discussion forum for the Morans’ experience and detailing steps being taken to make it right (and remember, it’s not always about money!) and create a consistently positive customer experience for all its guests.
    • Identifying the Morans’ (and others’) specific complaints about the customer experience, their relative degree of importance, and possible fixes besides discounting that would create goodwill.
    • Identifying and cultivating other satisfied customers (which the Morans really were, overall) who could serve as brand ambassadors and encouraged, among other things, to share their own positive experiences.
    • Monitoring the conversation and employing an ombudsman, perhaps (see what Comcast is doing), to run interference in real time as a means of enhancing customer satisfaction.

    The Web’s current role and future potential to help make or break brands is only growing. For those that don’t like the way the conversation goes, killing the messenger isn’t the answer. Finding better ways to keep the negative word of mouth from spreading virally to hundreds or even thousands more is.

    May 20, 2008 at 8:23 pm 3 comments

    Don’t titter at Twitter – there’s a place for almost everything in this changing new media world

    Sally Saville Hodge

    A month or so ago, Helena Bouchez, our erstwhile, soon-to-be-former VP and resident guide to all things new- and social media-related, started telling me about the marvels of Twitter. Then she sent me some links to some of her favorite Twitterers.

    I kind of knew about Twitter. Little top-of-mind messages – 140 characters max – that you can use to keep your friends and followers abreast of what you’re doing and thinking during the course of the day. A mini blog, as it were. Accessible through the Web, your cell phone, and instant messaging.

    Now, Helena is a self-proclaimed early adopter, God love her. Once she gloms onto something, she does it with gusto. She now oooVoos and/or Skypes with aplomb. She has several blogs. So it’s not surprising that she’s Twittering away with great regularity.

    It takes me a bit longer to embrace a lot of this stuff. It’s only been the last several years, for example, that I’ve been satisfied with the business benefits of a blog strategy, and, heck, we only just launched this one in January. (The time commitment I was worried about? I was right: It’s 1:21 p.m. Saturday and I’m writing this post instead of playing outside!)

    So I went to some of Helena’s recommended Twitterers. One I liked. Gaper’s Block’s Twitters are useful little facts about stuff going on in the city. The others? Not so much. When I see a bunch of messages that read like this…

    11:45 a.m.: landed at Las Vegas airport.
    Left laptop in room; had to go back for it.
    Was late to my meeting with students.
    5:45 p.m., and I’m boarding now to go back home.

    …my first reaction is: Does anyone really care?

    Apparently they do, or Twitter’s ranks wouldn’t be swelling with each passing day. (*Pat on my own back: Many people have lives that seem to be as boring as yours!)

    Helena hasn’t yet talked me into setting up my own Twitter feed. I am, nonetheless, keeping an eye on this utility to see how its applications expand.

    The Bad Pitch Blog, for instance, just exhorted its readers to learn not to hate Twitter, and shared how some have used it for more than just mental masturbation. Like the PR person who followed one journalist’s feeds, and used the tool to not just successfully make a story pitch but to see the article through, including fact checking.

    Now, that’s cool and useful. And the kind of thinking may make a believer out of me yet.

    May 13, 2008 at 5:14 pm Leave a comment

    A post with a point!

    Sally Saville Hodge

    Pet peeve No. 322: People who use exclamation points to excess!

    (It’s funny how, the older you get, the more crotchety you get, and that list of pet peeves seems to get longer and longer.)

    I started thinking about the insidious exclamation point upon reading Word Wise, a must-read blog on writing and style by Edelman PR’s Dan Santow. A recent post pokes gentle fun at Hamilton, Ohio for formally changing its name to Hamilton! Ohio (yes, really!), and uses the occasion as a (ahem) point of departure for when and how to use it to best effect.

    While I’m not one to discourage the enthusiasm that this device implies, it’s typically a sign to me of an entry-level or not-very-creative writer, whether it’s being used in an article, press release, advertising copy or even e-mail.

    Wait a minute.

    In the spirit of total honesty, I have to admit that while I use the exclamation point sparingly in my “official” copy, I’ve recently found myself reading my e-mails before hitting the send button to remove an overabundance of the things. (*Mental slap on the side of the head: “Really, Sally, four sentences and all of them ending on this kind of upbeat note?”)

    It’s all about using such devices for effect. The rules should still apply whether they’re being used in casual correspondence, like e-mails, or more formal writing, like reports. And, really, the rule here (as well as in utilizing dashes and ellipses, which I also abuse) is pretty simple: Don’t overuse or you lose the effect!

    May 6, 2008 at 3:13 pm Leave a comment

    On journalists and the upside/downside risks they face

    Sally Saville Hodge

    Ever since I first worked with Herb Greenberg way back during our tenures at Crain’s Chicago Business and the Chicago Tribune, I’ve considered him the epitome of what journalists should aspire to: Relentless in pursuit of the next scoop, resourceful in how he goes about getting it, principled in his dealings with sources, and passionate about his calling.

    So it was with surprise and some sadness that I heard he was not just leaving MarketWatch, where he cemented his reputation as a leading prognosticator on stocks and the businesses behind them, but he’s leaving journalism all together.

    He and I chatted last week about his move, catching up for the first time in a couple of years. He and a friend are launching a boutique research firm. The strength of his brand alone, supported by a highly loyal following, and his partner’s contacts and capabilities as a CPA and terrific modeler should make success a shoo-in.

    But he talked about things that business and financial reporters typically save for their copy and don’t normally apply to their careers and futures. Things like the upside and downside risks of taking on an entrepreneurial venture versus sticking with the traditional journalism path.

    Who would have thought that journalism would come up short?

    It’s not surprising that many of my print journalist friends are similarly feeling angst about their future directions. Their relevance is increasingly in question in an era of fractured media channels, instant news delivery, egalitarian content creation, and a decided shift in trust away from newspapers and magazines toward sources like Wikipedia.

    Newspapers are especially hurting in this environment, of course; their general inability to respond effectively to the dramatic changes altering the news landscape is a repeated theme by pundits. Here in Chicago, the financial bleeding is forcing many fine and talented journalists to make decisions sooner than maybe they’d like.

    So where’s their future? Good question. Not everyone is going to be able to make the transition, whether to PR agencies (a time-honored move) or to freelance or corporate writing positions or to Web-based venues or to other, more entrepreneurial ventures like Herb’s.

    But as they start thinking, like Herb, about upside and downside risks, they need to realize that the risk with the greatest downside lies in standing still.

    May 2, 2008 at 6:32 am 3 comments

    Who do you trust?

    Chris Scott

    PR professionals and marketers rely on a variety of media sources to get our clients’ names and accomplishments in front of business leaders that may be in a position to hire them. And smart business leaders are influenced on those decisions by information gleaned from traditional media as well as online sources.

    But it appears that our next generation of business leaders is more willing to accept homegrown – or unverified – information than ever before. In fact, the 25-to-34 demographic ranks the online do-it-yourself encyclopedia Wikipedia as one of the top-trusted sources of information available anywhere. It has had profound implications for the way agencies do business.

    This is the message from the Edelman PR’s 2008 Trust Barometer. The survey showed generally higher levels of trust in all forms of media among the “younger elites” than their older counterparts. That included articles in business magazines, television coverage, newspaper articles, company-issued communications, blogs and online message boards.

    To me, this raises a huge red flag. The line between researched, documented fact in a journalistic product vs. opinion, counter-opinion and speculation offered by many online venues apparently is becoming blurred. And this is the generation that will be in positions of power within the next two decades.

    For every well-researched Wikipedia entry like the one on General Electric Co., there are others that are either incomplete or just plain poorly researched and written. These entries are generally noted by warnings about a lack of sourcing or questionable sourcing at the top of the entry, but doesn’t that make the information that’s there even more suspect? (It must be noted that the site’s managers also seem to be proactive about disruptive edits.

    And this is the information source that the next generation of business and political leaders trusts the most right now? Should PR and marketing professionals take advantage of this situation and pump up the volume on client achievements? Where do ethics come in when it comes to using a proven method to reach this group?

    This former journalist finds it appalling to think that the level of healthy skepticism toward any source of information is on the decline. Questioning information, whether from company sources or from newspaper or magazine articles, is as critical to making smart decisions as it’s ever been.

    Wikipedia’s standing as the most trusted information source by this group could have repercussions for our businesses. An unscrupulous agency might be tempted to create faux entries to boost the profile of a client, relying on whatever impact the entry might make before it is removed or revised. Or clients might request that agencies create entries for this express purpose as yet another “news outlet.”

    Participating in the Wikipedia concept isn’t the problem here. The potential for abuse along with the lack of that “grain of salt” skepticism among this particular demographic is. Let’s hope that Wikipedia managers remain vigilant and that our future leaders develop a healthy skepticism that’s needed when it comes to information sources.

    April 29, 2008 at 8:15 pm 1 comment

    Verbal vs. written: The same but different

    Helena Bouchez

    I just received 1to1 Marketing’s e-mail previewing the May/June issue. I like this magazine a lot and read most of every issue – unlike many others, which barely graze the top of my desk before sliding into the trash. In the e-mail was a link to a podcast titled “Can Online and Offline Channels Get Along?” I’ve been writing a lot on the importance of marrying online with offline channels for one of our clients and so it piqued my curiosity. I fired it up.

    Oh. My. God. The sound that screeched forth from my computer was nails-on-a-chalkboard bad. Noise cancellation anyone? Tone control? Moreover, whose idea was it to pass off this recording of a phone interview as a podcast? I listened for a few painful minutes and then bailed out.

    This had to be a writer’s idea. Writers are used to communicating in relative silence. We type the words and others read them in similar solitude. And when we read, we “hear” the words inside our heads. Good writers know how to control this; good business writers, for instance, aim for an internal voice that is confident and authoritative.

    Once words move from the page onto the airwaves, however, the rules change. That’s because the perception and comprehension of writing and speech are not the same. Written and spoken English are different.

    Here are some guidelines for creating good audio assets.

    1. To maximize comprehension, spoken words must sound good. Sounding good is the responsibility of the speaker. If you are a writer who is required to express your ideas verbally as well as in written form, get training. If you need a vocal communications coach, call mine. She’s fabulous. (Surprising bonus: Vocal communications training also will make you a better writer. You’ll see.)

    2. Trust your ears. Someone must have listened to this recording before it went up. If this were my shop, my response would have been “Gee, it’s a little rough, we really need to fix it. Let me find some software or a partner who can help.” I wouldn’t have let it go up as is. No way. Someone like me might blog about it!

    3. Test and learn. If this was recorded over the analog phone line and it didn’t come out very well, next time try Skype. Or ooVoo. Experiment. And even if it’s meant to sound homegrown, keep the standards on the high side. Today’s professional information consumers (read: marketers) have very sophisticated ears. That means your recording is probably not good enough to post unless it’s pretty darn good.

    Good: 1to1 Marketing Magazine, a well-written and useful source of information for readers. Better: Well-produced audio-based communications vehicles that match the publication’s high standards.

    April 15, 2008 at 3:31 pm 3 comments

    The dying art of good writing

    Sally Saville Hodge

    Just when I’m ready to sound the death knell for the craft of good writing, out comes a New York Times article saying “not so fast.”

    The piece outlines results of a nationwide test that suggests one-third of U.S. eighth graders and a quarter of its high schoolers are “proficient” writers. Now, that doesn’t sound so hot to me, but the folks with the federal government’s school testing program said the overall results were heartening and counter other studies citing a decline in our society’s ability to write.

    Maybe I’m just harder to please than your average bureaucrat.

    Frankly, I’m with the National Commission on Writing, which back in 2003 issued a call to put “the neglected ‘R’” back as an emphasis into the school curriculum at all grade levels. Other studies have found that a large proportion of college professors believe high schoolers advance to college with limited writing skills. And businesses are concerned as well: Another survey suggested blue chip companies are spending billions in remedial writing training.

    But to my way of thinking, writing “training” only goes so far. It does impart the rules, for example. You know. The “never start a sentence with an ‘and’” and “every sentence must have subject and verb” kinds of things. (Rules that really great writers break with panache.) It may help with ways to plot your outline as a means of organizing the chaos of your thinking. And it may provide those who really want to do better with good resources to guide them on their journey. (One that I recommend to all my staff as a must-read is a terrific blog called Word Wise.)

    But you can’t train people to love good writing and how it comes about. You can’t train them to understand the nuances that differentiate an okay word from the right word for the context. Or to understand why “it was a dark and stormy night” is cliché, while “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is classic. Or why a spare writing style is fine, but sometimes you need to add meat to those potatoes to make your copy sing.

    We need to find ways to instill that love in our young people from a very early age. I wish I had a sure-fire way to do so. I hate to contemplate a world where communication is dominated by staccato blasts of texted acronyms and video sound bites. But that does seem to be where we’re heading.

    April 7, 2008 at 4:39 pm 2 comments

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