Thursday, April 21, 2011

I've got a name... but so does she

What can you do when the infamous deeds of someone else with your name are all over search engines?
When I was born there were two other Judith Mohns very nearby -- my mother and my favorite aunt. The "Judy, Judy, Judi" made for regular Cary Grant imitations at family events, but if there was yet another Judith Mohn anywhere else in the world, I knew nothing about her.
Judith is not a Jessica or a Jennifer of a name, it pretty much died off with Ms. Garland. There were never other Judys in my school classes or subsequent offices.
Search engines were just coming into play when I became Judith Griggs 14 years ago, introducing me to name twins worldwide. Until recently they were/are an impressive lot. There is a published geologist, a lawyer/Formula One executive in Austrialia, a brilliant recording artist and a few women seriously involved in their communities. In the democracy of the web, I consistently topped them on all search engines--  not by merit but volume. I blogged. I was quoted in newspapers regularly as a function of my job. I bought the url on the advice of a literary agent. There was no meritocracy involved. I "owned" our name online.
The more accomplished Judith Griggs' may not have seen in that way, but I thought the system was quite equitable.
Then came the great "Judith Griggs" fiasco of 2010 . A heretoforth "deep pager" - someone with our name who never previously showed up in the top five pages of results -- this Judith Griggs was the editor of an obscure cooking magazine when she  ignored copyright law and stole a protected recipe without permission. When caught she did not claim ignorance or apologize -- with no facts remotely in her favor, she argued simply that she was right. The incident created a tremendous amount of online debate and coverage culiminating with the title 2010 Media Error of the Year.
Thirty years in media and communications and there is my name forever linked to that auspicious award cite. The timing, simultaneous with my opening of my own business, could not have been worse.  For all I know, my more accomplished name twins may well assume that Judith Griggs is me getting my rightful comeuppance. But it's that other JG who has landed our shared moniker in the Urban Dictionary as a synonym for incompetance and arrogance.
Although search engine algorithms are updated regularly and become more sophisticated with each generation, the only way to beat a prevalent usage is to be more prevalent. Companies have sprung up promising to clean your name online (with radio commercials sounding much like those who previously promised to clean your credit) and they have taken for themselves the mantle of "reputation management." Until this time "reputation management" was a specialized practice of public relations, the type which I practice. But they have national ad budgets and I have no ownership of a business classification that started appearing in textbooks in the 1960s. To their credit, they have recently amended their tag line to "online reputation management."
So what do you do when you have a notorious identity twin and do not wish to hire such a company? Take care of your own online presence first. Stake your claim to who you actually are by getting as much information about yourself out there as possible. Use the "Google juice" strength of Linked In , Google Profiles and similar well-trafficked sites to define clearly who you are and what you do. Update any old information you may have posted years ago.
Althought the official term for it is "egosurfing" - it is not egomanical to Google yourself. If your online identity matters to your business practice, it is necessary preventative care.
Make sure information purporting to be actually about you is correct. If misinformation appears on legimate sites, contact them directly with a request for correction.
If the information is on an aggregator site, like many that sell "public information" on people or provide "business directories," there are rarely human beings involved in gathering and posting the information. They mechanically scrape other sites for names and related information and often draw erroneous conclusions. They are notorious for getting it wrong and provide no recourse for correction. Most sophisticated web consumers see the sites for what they are and lend no credence to the eight husbands and 42 jobs they have linked me to over the last few years.
With more consumers daily qualifying their business decisions online, it's important to monitor and mend what's out there -- and push appropriate information forward every chance you get.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The global goose - what makes a news story fly

In the last three days my cousin, a local goose and his buddy the deer have together appeared before millions of people all over the world. A quick web check shows their story has been translated into at least 20 languages so far. At no time in human history has a simple story had the capacity to go so far so fast --  and this one flew.
Yesterday -- in the midst of a potential U.S. government shutdown, continuing nuclear issues in Japan, and war on three fronts --   it was the top viewed and Facebook posted story on CNN. If a publicist had anything to do with this story it would be a career topper. But there was no publicity professional involved. It is a textbook example of what the right story at the right time can do in the world of new media.
Some folks may remember the days when news coverage was driven by local daily newspapers whose enterprise was a feeder system for television and then national news -- not any more.
The story was featured today on the front page of the local Buffalo News - three days after Andy Parker, a meteorologist at the local NBC affiliate aired the story and after it had appeared on/in CNN, New York Times, Yahoo, Huffington Post, Washington Post, Toronto Globe, hundreds of local TV affiliates, thousands of websites and tens of thousands of Facebook postings.
The way this story exploded is a new technology phenomena. Why it exploded is as basic as my first week of journalism class at St. Bonaventure University in 1978.
 Fired up by Watergate and Woodward/Bernstein, the last thing I wanted to hear from the retired Olean Times Herald editor who was teaching the class was that "pictures of children/babies, animals and pretty girls always sell papers."  I didn't ask for my tuition back immediately, but the thought crossed my mind.
He went on to explain that as an editor his job was a daily search for at least one story that could make a guy reading the paper at the breakfast table set the paper down and say to his wife "Hey Martha, have you seen this?" I wrote "Hey Martha" in my notebook and stared at the clock willing it to the next class.
He then told us someone pulling into their yard and hitting a tree was not news. I was ready to leave the room, until he explained that it was news if the same driver had just completed a perilous two month round trip to Alaska with nary a scratch and had the accident as they arrived home.
Entering my fourth decade of work in and around news, I learned early that Olean's Gil Stinger was dead on.
The deer protecting the mother goose has all three aspects of the Stinger triad... as well as seasonality with the dawn of spring.
1) Animals with babies involved
2) Animals behaving in unusual and positive ways ("Hey Martha..." )
3) A guy whose job it is to chase geese away making a point to leave the pair alone
No, these standards  do not apply to "hard news" -- the stories which outlets are duty-bound to cover and we as consumers should want to know. Editors and producers have walk a daily tightrope of finding enough of what people want to see to keep them around for what they need to know.
It's part of my job to pitch stories to media . I work hard to find pitchable angles and would rather tell a client "no" than call a media professional with a story that has no chance of  running. Even when I think I've got a good story, they don't always fly.  Any media relations practitioner who guarantees coverage is on shaky ethical ground. Those decisions are made exclusively by editors and producers locked in a mortal battle with each other for our attention.  If the story being pitched does not have significant community impact, it needs an angle.
If the best angle you have is "I worked really hard to start this business" -- this is a story best reserved for family gatherings and paid advertising.
A few years back, my cousin Craig took early retirement from the Secret Service and moved back to Buffalo with a border collie. They had been trained together to herd Canada Geese and Craig was starting "Borders on Patrol" as a safe, green way to control the health hazards and property damage caused by a protected species that was less migratory and more populous than ever.
When he asked me for publicity help, I knew we a solid story to sell based on : a growing community health problem (Canada Goose run off had closed Darien Lake state park and was a major problem for local golf courses and athletic fields); a unique solution (no one in this area had a business of that sort yet); an interesting back story (Craig was going from protecting four administrations of presidents and vice presidents in DC to coming home to hang out with dogs on golf courses and parks - yes, I used the Quayle to goose line); and .... you have to see this coming ...  a cute, clever, exceptional animal in the border collie.
This was a visual story so I went to TV first. I went to WGRZ because of their ratings.  I talked to Andy Parker because he had already done some great environmental stories... and because I really like the guy. 
Andy's first terrific story and a great piece by Jane Kwaitowski in the Buffalo News put Craig's business on the map. His hard work and excellent customer service grew his client list to the place he turns down more business than he accepts. My involvement in this story ended a couple of years ago.
When Craig sent Andy the pictures of the deer, it was as one good guy to another -- a little "Hey, Martha" between friends. Andy mentioned Craig's finding to some of his family members and they thought it was pretty interesting, so he asked Craig to come into the station for an interview. Within hours of the story being posted on the WGRZ website, Craig started to get interview requests from everywhere. The cemetery where the goose/deer team nests is now putting out its own statements -- as well as fences to keep the crowds back and a webcam to try to catch the goslings debut.
Stories can now go farther and faster -- but what makes folks say "Hey, Martha" really hasn't changed much at all.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

When the flying monkeys attack

One of my favorite t-shirts says "it's all fun and games until the flying monkeys attack" -- amazing the wisdom contained on a Hanes 50/50.
No one anticipates flying monkeys and odds are they aren't going to hit your business, but if they (or one of  a million other challenges you normally would not consider) strike it's going to be a whole lot easier on everyone -- employees, stakeholders, media and your bottom line -- if a crisis communication plan is in place.
While I have gotten the call saying "a reporter is in our conference room right now" and there are still things that can be done at that point --  it's cheaper, more effective and much less painful to have a simple plan in place in advance.
Most flying monkeys arrive without any malfeasance whatsoever on the part of the business. Accidents are more likely than indictments. Either way, few people arrive at work expecting that today will be a "monkey" day.
 A crisis plan delineates clearly who is responsible for gathering information and how it will be communicated internally and externally. Depending on the complexity of your enterprise, it can be as simple as a few simple pages of instruction updated annually or as complex as a detailed binder detailing dozens of specific internal roles and tasks, templates and instructions.
Either way, precious time is lost when homework hasn't been prepared in advance. Rumors, lies and innuendo will always fill a void left open by lack of adequate information. Alternately, in a complex situation well-meaning employees and even corporate officers will often speak to media and others giving as fact what is a small or distorted piece of the entire situation.
Study after study shows that people tend to believe and recall what they hear first, regardless of subsequent corrections or amendments. In cases of significant property damage or the threat of personal injury it is natural to respond to those needs first, yet too often the reputation threat can have more devastating, long-term impact if not addressed directly and correctly.
No media practioner wants to be spoonfed pablum by a spinmeister, but most appreciate getting the facts quickly and in an organized fashion.
Tools now include instant websites, social media, and text messaging allowing direct, unfiltered information to virtually any audience selected. A good communications plan will address how to activiate these tools best.
The process of preparing a plan is generally simple -- a few meetings with key personnel, team review of a draft plan and the presentation of a final plan. I work with clients both who wish to use their own internal resources to execute the plan as necessary or wish to reserve the option to call me to assist the team. Either way it's a small investment of resources in contrast to the incalcuable damage possible when flying monkeys attack.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The untold truth about press releases

I often get calls from potential new clients asking if I can write a press release for them. While I enjoy paying my bills as much as the next guy, many times I ask a few questions and tell them I can't do it.
Having spent many years on the receiving end of press releases, I am often astounded by what clients think a press release should accomplish.
I once had an attorney agonize for days over what turned out to be a five- page release because he assumed that based on his particular expertise the paper would print it verbatim.  I tried to convince him to boil it down to a 400 word commentary for editorial page consideration to no good result. He was astounded and insulted when I told him that if we were lucky we would get one quote in a larger wrap-up story on the issue. In spite of his actual brilliance on the subject matter, the resulting release was so opaque, we didn't even get that one quote. His response to the missed opportunity? "But I thought they needed good stories so they wouldn't have to use all that out-of-town news."
News is in the eye of the beholder. When you present a press release for consideration you are the beholden.
Here are a few realities even your favorite journalist may not tell you:
1) There is still nothing more important than the Big 5.
If your release does not include the who, what, when, where and why, the overworked person reading it  is going to have to make a call.  Unless you are announcing a major event or activity of great importance to the larger community , it is just as easy to go to the next release on the stack that has the necessary information. Have respect for the person going through the press release mountain and put the key information up high in the release.
2) Fluff was delicious with peanut butter when you were a kid -- it has no place in press releases.
Maybe not everyone recalls or loved that gooey marshmallow product, but it is about as relevant to nutrition as puffed-up claims and elaborate adjective strings are to press releases. Statements have to be factual, opinions must be attributed to someone in quotation form. Don't make comparative or competitive claims unless you can back them up with objective, third-party data.
3) Respect their time, know their rules
Editors and producers have the daily task of sorting through reams of emails, faxes and phone calls to keep feeding the beast. Even traditional media now have 24-hour Internet news cycles giving them much more work than ever before with the smallest staffs and tightest budgets in modern times. Know their deadlines and whether they prefer fax, mail or email. Call only once to confirm they got the release. Do not call to complain if it wasn't used.
If you are seeking coverage of anything less than a joint press conference of Charlie Sheen, Lady Gaga and Nelson Mandella -- give media a few days notice for their planning purposes. If you want to comment on something that happened that day-- the information has to be in their hands within that news cycle. You are not doing them a favor, you are asking for their help.
4) This isn't pasta
The idea of throwing it against the wall to see if something sticks works only in the kitchen. There has to be a reason for a greater audience to care about your release. Every person who has ever worked a news desk can tell you horror stories about  the chronic releasers who make their bosses/clients happy by apparently getting paid by page and word volume. They would all  do well to read a copy of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf."
Don't send separate copies to everyone in the same news organization. An assignment editor/producer and the regular beat reporter are enough, unless there is a reporter who has a longstanding relationship with the company/ client. If that's the case, they should get a personal heads up that the release is coming.
5) Sometimes a release should go directly to in-house channels
Corporate websites are full of online newsrooms with glittering, detailed releases full of promotional information.  That is an excellent use of such copy. It works because information that is interesting to involved readers who brought themselves to the website is not necessarily interesting to the general public. I have often sent such releases to primary beat reporters with a cover note saying that the copy is strictly for their information as it will be posted on the website. I've yet to have one make a story out of it anyway, but I have had several thank me for acknowledging what I gave them was not news.
6) Sometimes there should be no release at all
Some issues are best addressed with simple statements, fact sheets, one-on-one interviews or direct media like advertising , websites or social media. In all professional communications the first questions have to be:
--who is the audience?
-- what do you want to tell them? 
With those facts in hand, the best path should be clear. There's a special place in heaven for those who spare hardworking journalists the blight of bad releases.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

All the news that's fit to...

I won't tell you where I was sitting when I wirelessly sent a coupon to my printer from my iPad, but that instant took me directly to 1998 and a pair of suits in a crowded Houston Chronicle elevator.  They entered the car talking about a meeting on the newspaper's website.
"We're in the news business not the video game business," said the shorter one.
The other one was young enough to know better, but stated with supreme confidence that "the internet will replace newspapers the day you can read it on the can and clip coupons."
I was among those who nodded my head in ignorant assent. We were the candlemakers in a world about to go incadescent.
I grew up with the morning paper at breakfast and the evening paper at dinner. Leaving home meant I could have any section I wanted any time I wanted. Working for daily newspapers meant I could have the very first editions still warm from the press.  I was of the Woodward and Bernstein J-School generation who fought ferociously for the one job in the field available for every 14 absurdly idealistic graduates.
The pay was as ridiculous as the hours, but like most of my colleagues I was grateful for every minute. We were the gatekeepers, the arbiters, the message makers.  We fought each other daily for a share of the coveted news hole. They only thing better than a byline was the snowball effect a good story could create. The copy desk was the battleground for hundreds of stories and pitches that would result in the dozens of stories that ran each day. Successor media - newsmagazines, radio,  and television -- worked on the same scale and principle.
Many people worked to provide the best possible product which was paid for by the advertiser who wanted their messages with that product--  because it delivered captive and engaged readers/viewers/listeners to what they had to sell.
When I started in newspaper in 1980,  the editorial and advertising staffs were forbidden from each others' floors in the building. We were as likely to sit together in the caferteria as the cheerleaders and the chess club.
But, as you have likely heard,  that internet thing caught on and with it came new digital delivery systems in publishing, television, radio, music, newsgathering and even how singles date and mate.
The concept of trained and highly competitive people deciding what you wanted to know was immediately challenged by the ability of anyone to post anything and for you to find what you want when you want it.
Knocking out most of that obstruction also removed much of the fact-checking and fairness that was previously at the core of the process. Anything can go anywhere on the internet instantly and live there for perpetuity. The line between news/entertainment/advertising is worn thin when it exists at all.
Opportunity today exists not in discarding traditional media or exclusively embracing the expanding digital horizon. It is essential for anyone with a message that needs to be shared to know their audience -- who they are and where they are --- and deliver the message on their terms.
Print/broadcast held the hill for a long time before the digitial revolution exploded. In this third phase, Reputation 3.0,  the medium is not nearly as important as the message/ audience couplet. P.T. Barnum had it half right when he said to give the people what they want -- it's just as important to deliver it where they want it.