• 30Sep

    The Web has been bending our understanding of traditional journalism for some time. The United States is one of the only countries in the world that guarantees freedom of the press as a constitutional right. Part of the basis of that freedom is the implicit understanding that advertising does not affect editorial. To maintain journalistic integrity, your editorial opinion cannot be bought by advertising dollars. Those of us who have worked as journalists refer to the separation of advertising and editorial as the metaphorical separation of church and state.

    Forbes just broke that model with the acquisition of True/Slant. According to the profile story this week in Advertising Age, with the acquisition, editor Lewis Dvorkin returns to Forbes with a new editorial model where staff writers, contributors, and even paid advertisers are given a Forbes-branded blog forum; a model that Dvorkin has labeled a “much more scalable content-creation model.” To quote from AdAge:

    This isn’t the “sponsored post” of yore; rather, it is giving advocacy groups or corporations such as Ford or Pfizer the same voice and same distribution tools as Forbes staffers, not to mention the Forbes brand…

    “In this case the marketer or advertiser is part of the Forbes environment, the news environment,” Mr. DVorkin said in an interview at an empty restaurant across Fifth Avenue from the historic headquarters of the 93-year-old magazine.

    The product itself is called AdVoice, and the notion is that in a world of social media, corporations have to become participants and, in a sense, their own media companies. Corporations these days also have to face the practical problem of fewer business reporters left to pitch. “There’s fewer ways to get your message out, because there are fewer reporters, and that’s a fact,” he said.

    Granted, in the world of social media content is king, but to give paid advertisers equal access seems to be going a bit far. It wasn’t that long ago that the influence of bloggers granted them access to the press room. Although we PR pros are continually reminded that “bloggers are different” and “read their content and approach them gently,” the blogtocracy have been granted the same privileges as card-carrying journalists, even though they aren’t constrained by the same rules of ethics. In the blogosphere, opinion rules and facts, well they are sometimes nice to have as well.

    So with this new shift in Forbes editorial direction, the rules haven’t just changed, but the entire rule book has been thrown out the window. Granted, there are fewer traditional news vehicles than ever before, and we are moving into a brave new world of online journalism. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon the lessons of the past. Early on in this blog, I commented on the important role of pamphleteers and citizen journalists. What differentiates the citizen journalist from the Dvorkin model is avarice – pimping the Forbes brand to give advertisers space in the blogosphere seems to be a violation of the rules to me.

    One of the first rules of social media is disclosure – tell them where you are coming from and which side of the ax you are grinding. Disclosure does not excuse bad reporting or bad behavior, but at least the reader is forewarned. This new model that Forbes is experimenting with seems just plain wrong. It not only blurs the lines of legitimate journalism, it erases them completely. As the article states:

    Consumer marketers such as P&G and Johnson & Johnson have years of experience creating branded entertainment, and many have arms dedicated to creating entertainment properties. But the motivations have broadened in an age of social media. There’s an ongoing conversation about corporations — not always nice, as BP or Toyota could tell you — and corporations feel they must participate.

    The changes at Forbes since it bought True/Slant and brought Mr. DVorkin back have gone beyond strategy. They’ve also included an exodus of top-level editors, two of whom declined to comment for this story.

    So where does online entertainment end and dispassionate reporting begin, or vice versa? In a world where everyone becomes a news source, all sources become suspect. As so-called “legitimate” news vehicles struggle to survive in a world where information is available at the click of a mouse, other news groups like Forbes decide to turn the old journalistic values on their heads for the sake of profit cloaked as participation in the online conversation. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we need a journalistic touchstone to tell the real news sources from the emerging online imposters.

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  • 22Sep

    I recently posted a blog entry about the benefits of pro bono work. I posted the blog as a discussion topic on one of my LinkedIn forums and got a lot of interesting feedback as to why PR professionals should take on pro bono work. Here are just a few of the responses:

    “Many of my pro-bono clients have hired me later. Even if they don’t, they often provide great resume entries. In return for my work, I typically get letters of recommendation, introductions to valuable networking contacts, enthusiastic referrals to other potential clients, and an opportunity to demonstrate my commitment to improving our community and nation by supporting a worthy cause.”

    “I usually choose to work pro bono in an industry that I want to learn more about. I always let the client know that I haven’t worked in that industry and we experiment together. I have gotten paid work from it – and it is a lot of fun.”

    “And pro bono work often means an opportunity to be a bit more creative than usual, not having a client’s constraints.

    And then I saw this interesting story in the New York Times that features one of my affiliate clients, Gumas Advertising, among others. As agency president John Gumas says in the article:

    “In good times, we did not have to scrutinize our charitable giving or employee perks… But in these economic times, we’ve really had to think through what we could afford to give and still be able to make a difference.”

    One of the things about an economic slowdown is it gives you more time to think about developing your business and evaluating what’s important for growth, including where where to commit your free time and resources. Some companies are increasing their charitable programs because they keep staff busy and focused. John, for example, uses the work Gumas Advertising does for the San Francisco Giants Community Fund as a focal point to pump up the staff and get their creative juices flowing. Gumas has been working for the Giants for a long time (as the memorabilia in John’s office attests) and having more time available means the agency has more opportunity to give back to the San Francisco community. For John, this is part of his philosophy of corporate karma, ““When you are doing the right things for the right reasons, good things will come of it.”

    So when the going gets tough, maybe it’s time to give more back to the community. As the New York Times article points out, in tough times every company is being asked to give more, and many are coming new creative strategies that can have a bigger impact at lower cost. I was recently asked to contribute to a fund-raising event and instead, I offered by services to help with promotion. It was a small gesture but it’s the kind of support that non-profits need these days, and it doesn’t have to cost you a cent.

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  • 16Sep

    I just love the TED web site. They post some of the most interesting discussions by some of the most controversial thinkers of the 21st century. I recently saw this animated video of a talk by Jeremy Rifkin given before the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) on Empathetic Civilization, and it made me start thinking about human empathy and its impact on social media. If Rifkin is right and we are soft-wired for empathy, then it explains a lot about the success of social media.

    If you have read this blog in the past, you know that I have posted about the tribal nature of social media, and even about the impact of brain chemistry on our inherent need to connect with others. Rifkin calls mankind homo empathicus, because our need to empathize and connect with other creatures is soft-wired into our brains.

    As Rifkin explains it, as individuals mature they develop greater empathy for their fellow creatures. Babies cry because they hear other babies crying. Children develop a sense of individuality or self around age 2, which is when their empathetic development really begins and they can start to understand how they relate as individuals to other individuals. Around age 8, children come to grips with the concept of mortality, life and death, and they start to understand that all creatures on earth are following the same mortal path, which broadens their sense of empathy even further to encompass other creatures, not just other people.

    According to Rifkin, an empathetic civilization is not utopian but rather is powered by suffering and a solidarity from understanding of our own mortality. And the tribalism of this empathy civilization expands with man’s experience. Early man could only carry empathy to his immediate circle – the blood ties of those within shouting distance. As man’s world expanded, the concept of blood ties expanded as well, promoting a sense of tribal empathy because of your religion, your country, etc. With today’s technology, we can experience a sense of worldwide connectedness or the global tribe.

    Which brings me to social media. Rifkin’s premise is that man’s empathetic nature is not only soft-wired, but basically benevolent. Rather than being driven by self-interest and greed, man’s inherent sense of empathy makes him want to aid his fellow creatures. This is what fuels the sense of tribalism that makes social media so successful. Social media is promoting an online empathetic civilization of sorts, where people are connecting on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social media looking for like-minded people to become part of a shared experience. That same soft-wired empathy also offers an explanation of why those who violate the trust of the tribe are doomed to fail. If you pervert the social media trust by aggressively selling your next webinar or your newest product, the tribe will eventually shun you because you violated the unwritten rules. How many of you have “de-friended” or “un-followed” those who do nothing more than cry”buy my stuff!”?

    So it seems homo empathicus is predisposed to gravitate toward social media, since we are all looking to connect to a larger world and expand our own sense of tribal connection.

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  • 08Sep

    LifehouseLogo I saw an item today in MediaBistro that my old PR firm, Allison & Partners, has adopted Big Brothers and Big Sisters as their first pro bono client. I  couldn’t have been more delighted. All public relations and professional service firms should take on pro bono work, especially in tough economic times. Everyone needs a helping hand, and it’s both good for the cause and good for business to offer your services without a fee. I’m not surprised that Allison & Partners selected Big Brothers as their pro bono client. Scott Allison, the founder and CEO, is a terrific guy with a strong set or family and moral values, and a commitment to the community. Adopting Big Brothers seems a natural for the firm.

    Even in my consulting practice I work to give back to my community. Over the past year I have had imagethe privilege of helping two non-profit groups here in Marin County – Lifehouse, an organization that helps people with developmental disabilities remain independent, and Meals of Marin, which provides food to homebound clients suffering from AIDS, cancer, and other life-threatening illness.

    The work you do doesn’t have to be extensive, or expensive, but just taking the time out of your busy schedule to counsel and give support to someone who really can benefit from your services is gratifying. These organizations have limited resources, and cash, and they can use any help they can get promoting awareness and funding. Through various circumstances, I had the privilege of connecting with Lifehouse and Meals of Marin, and my public relations experience was just what they needed at the moment to help promote their annual fund-raising events. If my small effort can help build awareness in the right places and add that many more names to the guest list, the difference in additional dollars means that I have a direct responsibility for helping those with disabilities help themselves, or feeding some unfortunate soul who is housebound due to illness.

    That’s how we can use what we know to really make a tangible difference.

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