• 05Jan

    I have been talking to a lot of executives over the years, gathering information for press releases, case studies, and strategic plans. And as I have become more involved in customer relations, I spend a lot of time talking to IT managers and C-level executives about tactical issues that affect their business. Interviews are tough, because you don’t want just the Jack Webb interview – “Just the facts” – but you want to get the Piers Morgan interview, with deep and colorful, quotable responses.

    Many marketing and PR pros (and even journalists) are being consumed by the ever-increasing demand for content. They have lost the fine points of conducting a really meaningful interview that yields more than just who, what, when, where, and why. Interviewing is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced or you get rusty. I want to thank Carol Tice for providing a refresher course from the freelance writer’s perspective. Here are some of her tips on the best way to conduct an interview, adapted with some of my own experience to make them more relevant for the marketer:phoneinterview

    1. Email exchanges are not interviews. I have been relying more on email questionnaires for convenience, but the information I get from those exchanges is always sparse. I have seen more journalists and analysts doing the same thing, and I have to urge my clients to dig deeper and provide a little color with the facts when they write their responses. Carol also notes that emails are not really quotable as part of best journalistic practice; live interaction is always preferred. You always get more from a spontaneous exchange that is fresh and quotable.

    2. Make a connection. I find that the best interviews come when you establish a rapport with your contact. Take the time to set the stage with a couple of ice breaker questions about family, sports, the weather – something to forge a connection. If you need to use that contact in the future, then be sure to leave the door open for future discussions, and try to leave a thread to reestablish the link. If they are fans of the Red Sox, for example, open with a baseball reference they next time you call.

    3. The subject is as worried about the outcome as you are. Your job is to gather the information for that killer case study, application profile, or for use in a press release. You have something at stake in the conversation. So does the other party. He or she wants to make sure you get your facts straight and don’t make them look foolish to their boss, their peers, or their customers. Use that mutual concern to work together toward the common goal – getting the best story down on paper.

    4. Be prepared. Don’t walk in cold saying, “tell me what you do.” Do your homework. Read the company  web site. Understand the basics of their business. Research their business challenges. You want to bring sufficient knowledge to the interview to ask meaningful and revealing questions, not waste time asking questions to which you should already have the answers.

    5. Respect the interviewee’s time. Schedule your interview in advance, be prompt, and be brief. Executives don’t want to waste a lot of time talking to you so be focused and get the information you need. If possible, leave the door open for a follow-up call or contact for clarification or more information, when you can go into greater depth if you have to.

    6. Be prepared to follow up. Thank your sources. Keep them apprised of the progress for a specific project. Get them to review the content as part of your fact-checking. Be sure that you have your subject’s complete contact information, and determine who else in their organization should be involved in reviews and approvals, or who else might provide additional information.

    Developing marketing content is not the same as writing for a newspaper or a magazine, but the rules of a good interview are still the same. Your objective is to get the best story you can, with all the facts and in living color. The final approval process will be different. You will won’t just be fact-checking, but you usually share the finished product with the interviewee for formal approval. That doesn’t mean you should put the onus on them to fill in the blanks or correct a sloppy interview. Think like a reporter and get everything you need the first time around. It saves a lot of effort and embarrassment later on.

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  • 30Aug

    I ran across an interesting factoid last week, complements of Marketing Pilgrim – nearly half of all marketers are willing to pay for posts on blogs, web sites, and social media. As blogger Cynthia Boris notes:

    Now, paying for posts, Tweets, Facebook shoutouts or video mentions is not only acceptable, it’s good business.

    According to new numbers from eMarketer, 48.8% of marketers have used a sponsored blog post. 39.4% have sponsored Tweets and 50.2% said they were open to using some kind of social media sponsorship.

    Paid-for-Post programs run the gamut from sketchy clearinghouses pushing articles on windows blinds and times shares, to well-funded, creative properties that pay people for posts they would have written anyway for free.

    As a marketing professional, my reaction was, “Cool, a new way to promote clients and maybe make some money.” I was particularly impressed with the amount of coin that sponsors are willing to pay for content – as much as $100 for a blog post. Not bad wages for freelance writers.

    imageThen I thought about the flip side of this coin. If there is a market for paid posts, that means that any number of web sites, Facebook fan pages, Twitter feeds, and more are willing to pay for contributors to generate content. This seems counter to the spirit of social media. Do paid posts undermine the power of social media campaigns and online marketing?

    If you are paying for content from third party contributors, does that undermine the value of your social media outlets? How do these social media channels reflect your brand if you are taking paid contributions from a host of contributors?

    It also reminded me that blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds can’t be confused with conventional, or dare I say “legitimate”media outlets. When you see a byline in a publication like Forbes or BusinessWeek, you know that it was either a paid contribution by a staff writer or freelancer, or it is a contributed article by a guest expert. The publication makes it clear, and you can read the article using the appropriate filter and adjust your skepticism accordingly.

    The rules for web contributions aren’t so well defined. Content providers come from all corners of the web. Some have a story they want to share to add to the conversation. Others have a product to sell. And still others are apparently now using a pay-for-placement strategy which looks a lot like advertising to me.

    What separates the web, and specifically the blogosphere, from traditional print journalism is transparency. Journalists have a code of ethics and specific rules they must abide by, and when they fail to abide by those rules by misrepresenting the truth, manufacturing a source, or selling their influence in print, they are publicly censured and usually lose their position. The same is not true of the web. The code of ethics is different, and you can’t be clear about the objectivity of motives of the party on the other end of a post.

    So while social media is great for building buzz and can be good for business, we all still need to view what we read on the web with a grain of salt (if not the entire shaker). Web sites masquerading as news sources are potentially dangerous, and can undermine the entire concept of legitimate journalism.

    As a PR professional, I now have to ask myself, do I pitch or do I pay?

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  • 22Jun

    spin-cycleLast week, I spotted a blog by MG Siegler on TechCrunch that took Facebook’s PR machine to task for trying to cover up, or rather divert attention from a developer story they didn’t’ like. In his blog, “Facebook PR: Tonight We Dine in Hell!,” Siegler notes that the journalists are at war with the PR industry, and although there are many battles, the one he wants to tackle has to do with spin.

    I question the validity of his hyperbole, and his overdramatized position, starting with the controversial headline that sucked me in to read the blog in the first place, demonstrates that spin sells, at least to an extent. His presentation of the lengths that Facebook PR team goes to in order to discredit his story seems a little extreme, and whether he chooses to believe it or not, Siegler is spinning his tale to make his point. Maybe he should go into PR.

    In any case, he raises some valid concerns about the state of PR and some of the questionable practices of PR professionals. As he state it:

    The fact of the matter is that the entire PR industry is like a weed growing out of control. Current estimates have PR people now outnumbering journalists 3 to 1. Think about that for a second. And one of the industries in which this infectious growth is most apparent is the tech industry, where it’s boom time. My email inbox is a testament to this. As is my voicemail inbox. I’d bet that at least 75 percent of the messages I get in the day are from PR people. Their campaign strategy in this war is shock and awe.

    Now, I don’t mean to suggest that all PR people are evil or have the wrong intentions. Many are very nice people. And some are even very good at what they do. But increasingly what they do is nothing more than attempt to spin or grossly misrepresent what it is we do. For many of them, helping journalists/bloggers/writers get access to accurate information is secondary. It’s all about controlling a narrative — by any means necessary. And that has to stop.

    That last statement is one I agree with. Our job is not to control the narrative. Naturally, we present our clients and their wares in as positive a light as possible. We point out the benefits that are derived from the features. We make a case for competitive positioning, and that could be called “spin” if you wish. However, the facts will out, and like a rotten egg you can’t cover up the stench of a bad story.

    I make it my policy to work with analysts and editors in as frank and open a manner as I can, without compromising my client. As I have told clients in the past, my value to them hinges on my credibility with the press. If I can be helpful to a reporter or editor, they will remember that service. If I lie or mislead a reporter, they will never forget the disservice and I will have lost an editorial ally forever. I tell clients that the editors are as much my clients as the people who pay me, because I will have to call on that editor Lipstickonapigagain, long after the client has gone.

    So the Facebook PR disinformation campaign that Seigler describes in his blog post is bad PR practice, although I understand where it comes from. When bad news hits, the downhill slide starts and PR is at the bottom of the hill, trying to clean up the mess. Rather than trying to put the lipstick on the pig, it’s better to admit the error or embrace the bad story and neutralize it then and there. If you deny it, or try to adopt a non-denial denial, then the evasion becomes the story and compounds the embarrassment.

    Especially in PR, it’s time we left the spin cycle to the washing machine and adopted honesty as the best policy.

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  • 01Jun

    watching_twitterOnline privacy lost another battle this week in the California courts. If you were tracking the news on Sunday and Monday, you may have seen the story of the lawsuit launched by the South Tyneside Council in the United Kingdom to reveal the identity of Mr. Monkey, a notorious blogger who made a number of scurrilous and libelous statements about the Council. Hiding behind the anonymity of his Mr. Monkey Twitter handle, it seems the angry blogger may actually be one of the members of the Council, but the jury is still out, at least in the United Kingdom.

    Not so in California, however. In their quest to uncover the identity of Mr. Monkey, the Council went to the trouble and expense of taking their suit all the way to San Francisco, where Twitter has its offices. As reported by the New Statesman, Twitter’s terms of service specify that any legal claims need to be pursued in the local jurisdiction:

    All claims, legal proceedings or litigation arising in connection with the Services will be brought solely in San Francisco County, California, and you consent to the jurisdiction of and venue in such courts and waive any objection as to inconvenient forum.

    I guess Mr. Monkey didn’t expect the South Tyneside Council to spend the money on a plane ticket to San Francisco to make their case directly to the local court. Having made their case, Twitter complied with the court ruling and released the names, location, email addresses, and other data of the people accused in the affair. As noted by Gizmodo:

    Twitter has, up to now, been resistant to releasing the account details of its users, but has also stated that it would comply with legal requests. Twitter complied with their [South Tyneside Council’s] complaint and chose to release the names, location data, and and email addresses of the people accused. Their decision begs not a few questions, particularly: Can we expect that much more litigious lawsuits based on Twitter libel? and; How much should we be watching our tweets from now on?

    This sets a new precedent. This is the first time that a foreign plaintiff has come to the United States seeking evidence for local libel laws, and getting it. Privacy laws differ from country to country, and this case opens the door for anyone with the will and the readies to travel to the U.S. to get what most may think is private information for use in a lawsuit.

    And this also serves as a practical reminder that online privacy is an oxymoron. Remember that Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and other social media destinations are not protected by freedom of speech, but companies looking to gain a profit. If they are faced with a legal action, they will do what’s best for the company and its investors, which may not be the best outcome for online privacy. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Since its inception, the Internet has been self-policing, and as the Web becomes more sophisticated, good online citizens should be allowed to express an honest opinion without repercussions, and mischief makers like Mr. Monkey need to be “outed” to make the web a safer place for the rest of us.

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  • 14May

    Once again, it seems we are getting flacks for being flacks, and rightfully so. You have no doubt seen this week’s news that two PR executives at Burson-Marsteller were engaged in a whisper campaign to undermine Google over privacy issues. The so-called “Googlegate” scandal has given one of the biggest PR firms in the business a real black eye, and it doesn’t reflect well on client Facebook either. The media pundits are once again pointing at the PR profession as a whole, noting that we engage in questionable practices in pursuit of the billable hour. While misdeeds and questionable ethics plague most professions, this one baffles me on a number of levels so I want to see if we can break this down to see how one of the biggest names in PR venture so far off the ethical reservation.

    Mercurio and Goldman of Burson-MarstellerFirst, let’s look at the two instigators of the smear campaign, former CNBC reporter Jim Goldman and political reporter John Mercurio. Both of these guys are seasoned journalists who know the ropes, and understand the rules. They have been pitched by other PR professionals over the years and they should understand the ethics of both the journalism and PR professions. Just because you have gone “to the Dark Side” by switching from journalism to PR doesn’t mean your ethics should change, and they both must of known that. I suspect that they were under some pressure from their Burson bosses to take on this assignment and make it shine for high-profile client Facebook. What’s astonishing is that they lied and distorted the facts to achieve their objectives. It’s too easy to check up on the truth in the age of the Internet and that conduct is inexcusable.

    (Note that I have some empathy here. During my days as a journalist I once was told to run a smear story for my publisher who had a grudge against one of his competitors. Although I argued that the story had no place in our magazine, served no real purpose, and could land us in hot water, I was told in no uncertain terms to run the story or look for another job. I ran the story, but I made damn sure it was airtight and my facts were sound. To this day I resent having been put in that position.)

    Now let’s look at how the media handled this. The USA Today reporter, Christopher Soghoian, who received the initial pitch knew that something wasn’t right so he decided to make the PR firm the story. When he asked who was paying for the project they said that they couldn’t reveal their client and that’s when he smelled a rat. Kudos to Soghoian for calling out these Burson boobs. He even posted the email exchange online. All Soghoian had to do was call the so-called PR pros on their request, reveal the communications thread, and he had his story. There was no need to skew the facts. This also highlights the power and value of the web – there is no need to wait for declassification of documents a la the Pentagon Papers, just post the material for all to see.

    Now what about Facebook’s involvement? Early on, speculation was that the mystery client was either Microsoft or Apple, but Facebook finally stepped forward and admitted it was their project, but that it had not commissioned a smear campaign, but rather had engaged Burson-Marsteller to highlighting a problem with using Facebook information for Google Social Circles. This from Forbes quoting a Facebook spokesperson:

    “Instead, we wanted third parties to verify that people did not approve of the collection and use of information from their accounts on Facebook and other services for inclusion in Google Social Circles—just as Facebook did not approve of use or collection for this purpose. We engaged Burson-Marsteller to focus attention on this issue, using publicly available information that could be independently verified by any media organization or analyst,” says the spokesperson. “The issues are serious and we should have presented them in a serious and transparent way.”

    So in the words of “All the President’s Men,” this is a “non-denial denial.” Facebook gave Burson-Marsteller the assignment but didn’t call it a smear campaign. I can imagine the meeting for this assignment where the client makes an unreasonable request and basically says, “I don’t care how you do it.” No culpability here, but Facebook doesn’t come out smelling too good, either.

    Now let’s look at the aftermath.This from the Atlantic Wire:

    The two Burson executives responsible for the much criticized campaign, former CNBC reporter Jim Goldman and former political reporter John Mercurio, will be reprimanded, a company representative told PRWeek today. The punishment? Not a punishment at all: more training on company guidelines. Evidently, the two one-time journalists who switched to the other side of the press release fairly recently believed it was a bit darker than it actually is.

    Facebook has yet to announce any major retributions or staff shuffles in the wake of the scandal. However, Burson confirmed that they will no longer work with Facebook on the smear campaign against Google. (Good idea!) It’s unclear how damaged the relationship between the PR giant and the tech giant might be, but this most certainly compromises Burson’s recent announcement of their new specialty in tech PR.

    So reading between the lines, I suspect what we are seeing here is a combination of the agency trying to keep a big-named client satisfied, being unwilling to say no to the client when that was clearly appropriate, and not providing enough adult supervision to two senior managers who clearly should know better.

    What lessons does this offer to us as a profession?

    • All PR professionals need to understand the ethical rules of engagement. As a profession, we need to make a stronger commitment to ethical training, and apply more common sense to PR work.
    • Transparency is important. You have to be forthright about the assignment and who hired you. I have always been a firm believer that our role is to help the reporter as much as we help our clients. Whenever I have a client ask me to do something stupid, unethical, or deceitful to media sources, I explain to them that my media contacts are my bread-and-butter and long after that client is gone, I will have to call on that reporter again so why would I risk that relationship?
    • More collaboration and watching each others’ backs is called for. One of the great things about working as a team is that you can draw from the experience and knowledge of the group. If someone suggests a questionable tactic for a campaign, it’s up to the others in the group to challenge it. All too often I see in agency settings where the junior team members blindly follows the wishes of the clients and their superiors, without question. We need to nurture more independent thinking and open dialogue to keep us all honest.
    • More adult supervision. Even the most senior PR professionals can make mistakes in judgment or tactical errors. If someone had been keeping tabs on Goldman and Mercurio, they might have been able to head off this disaster.
    • PR agencies need to be prepared to say “no” to the client. Just because they pay you doesn’t mean they are right. Sometimes you should say “no” to an assignment, especially if the task is unreasonable or unethical.

    What will be the long-term implications for Burson-Marsteller? This firm has made ethical faux pas in the past, and will probably make similar mistakes in the future. Whether they will be able to redeem their reputation or whether they will continue to be an agency you can turn to for a questionable campaign has yet to be seen, and probably doesn’t matter. However, this kind of scandal does lasting damage to everyone in the PR profession. It’s up to all of us to show the world that ours is an honorable profession, despite the few flacksters who make the rest of us look bad.

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  • 11May

    When I saw Eli Pariser TED presentation on  has come up with a concept called the “The Filter Bubble,” I was reminded of the old Outer Limits television show and their opening sequence: “We are controlling the transmission… We will control all that you see and hear…”

    What Pariser points out is that your Internet experience is being monitored and, more importantly, managed. Okay, this isn’t really news. If you have a subscription to Netflix or shop on eBay or Amazon you know that they have built algorithms into their systems to offer suggestions based on past shopping patterns and preferences. That actually seems, well, helpful. However, what Pariser points out is that by controlling what is delivered online, we are actually creating islands of Web experience that insulate us from other areas of the Web that may challenge our thinking or desires. Apparently, with the help of search bots and search algorithms, we are all creating our own gated communities of web experience where the online vendors and search providers are serving as the gatekeepers.

    For example, it never occurred to me that Google, Yahoo, and other search engines are tailoring search results based on what they know about me. Apparently the search results are filtered based on IP address (work or home), computer you are using, time of day, and other criteria. Okay, I expect that from advertisers, since microtargeting consumers is not particularly new. However, I am appalled that my search results are being filtered to provide a more personalized and thereby insular experience.

    I was fascinated by the example Pariser offered to prove his point. He had two friends search Google for the term “Egypt,” and one friend retrieved the latest political news while the other retrieved vacation and travel information. Huh? You mean web search is not a neutral playing field? You mean when I look for online information I will get data customized by some robot based on what it “thinks” I am looking for?

    Pariser is correct in his assessment that this kind of controlled experience is dangerous. We need to be challenged regarding our world view and we need to be able to share opposing viewpoints. I know my liberal spouse has spirited debates with her conservative compatriots on Facebook, but everyone appreciates the dialogue. What happens when those conversations get filtered out because those conversing are not “like minded”? Then we all lose. The Web should be used to promote the open exchange of information and understanding – that’s what Tim Berners-Lee envisioned.

    More importantly, Pariser’s observation’s demonstrate that you can’t rely on the web for objectivity. It is not a neutral news source, and the organizations that are promoting the news are for-profit, which means they are tailoring their data to keep you coming back as a user and potential customer. As Pariser notes in his presentation, in the past we have had editors as watchdogs of journalistic standards, to help promote informational integrity and promote fair reporting and access to information. With the free-for-all of the web, bloggers are now being treated like journalists but they are not held to the same standards, and now apparently the webbots are acting as news editors and determining whether we should receive the facts according to the New York Times or Page Six.

    I, for one, like to make my own determinations based on all the available data; not just the information some computer algorithm thinks I might find interesting. How about you?

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  • 22Mar

    imageI recently stumbled across the blog started by my last agency employer, Allison & Partners. I may as well get the platitudes out of the way up front. I have worked for a number of agencies and Allison & Partners is far and away the best place I have ever worked, and they are committed to delivering superior results. Thank God I love consulting because Allison & Partners has spoiled me for any other agency job. And I was gratified to see the title of the blog is “It’s About the Work.” I recall the first Allison corporate retreat where employees from offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego gathered in Pismo Beach to map out the company’s future. I was one of the members of the committee that captured the core values of the firm, and I guess it has stood the test of time. 

    And this past week I have been sharply reminded why the work matters. I have been doing some pro bono work for Lifehouse, a local organization that helps people with developmental disabilities lead independent lives. Mostly I have been helping them promote fund raisers, which is rewarding and interesting in itself, but this month they approached me with a real problem. As you know, the state of California is in a fiscal crisis, and they are threatening to cut vital funding for Medi-Cal Intermediate Care Facilities (ICF). What this means is that non-profit organizations like Lifehouse will be forced to close some of their care facilities, in essence making their clients homeless.

    What is really heart breaking about this is many of these clients have lived for years, even decades in these care homes. The residents and caretakers have become family and this budget cut will force these family groups to disband. And these people can’t advocate for themselves, which is why they depend on organizations like Lifehouse to advocate for them.

    What’s even more ridiculous is that by cutting Medi-Cal funding to ICF homes, the state is increasing its overall costs. Those with developmental disabilities will need care because they can’t care for themselves, so if the state cuts funding to support ICF homes and those homes are forced to close, the state will have to pick up the cost of care at three times the expense, or more. The California Association of Health Facilities estimates that a small community-based ICF home serving six residents costs $70,000 per person per year. The same care in a State Developmental Center would cost $300,000 per year. How much sense does that make?

    So this is one occasion where the work is its own reward, and I am happy to do what I can to help. I am applying what I know to get the word out about this issue which could impact more than 7,000 people across the state. I don’t see this as a local or government spending issue, but one of humanity where we need to care for a group that need our care and concern. And I am glad that I am in a position to bring my expertise to help spread the word.

    If you read this, I hope you will spread the word as well.

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  • 21Feb

    A few months ago I cited a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell entitled “Small Change” where he noted that Twitter and social media is really a “weak-tie” phenomenon and that it lacks the close connection required to promote a strong action or reaction. As Gladwell states it, “The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.”

    Then we have a story last week from TechCrunch of a young Egyptian man who is so grateful for the role that social media played in January 25th revolution, he named his daughter Facebook.

    According to Al-Ahram (one of the most popular newspapers in Egypt) a twenty-something Egyptian man has named his first born daughter “Facebook” in tribute to the role the social media service played in organizing the protests in Tahrir Square and beyond.

    Helmed by now-famous Googler Wael Ghonim, the “We Are Khaled Said” Facebook page showed up within 5 days of Said’s death in June and served as a hub for dissidence against Egyptian police brutality as well as a way to disseminate logistical information about the escalating anti-government protests until Mubarak’s resignation. Other activist pages like one actually called “Tahrir Square” cropped up shortly afterward.

    Apparently the revolution will be Tweeted, but does that mean Gladwell may have been wrong about the ability of social media to effect revolutionary change?

    According to the TechCrunch story, there are five million Facebook users in Egypt and growing, and there are more than 32,000 Facebook groups and 14,000 pages created after January 25th. And Wael Ghonim even thanked Mark Zuckerberg on CNN. In fact, one of the reasons it took so long for the Hosni Mubarak government to understand the gravity of the uprising was because they missed the cues that led to this revolution’; they were ignoring the chatter on Facebook and elsewhere.

    Apparently, the new regime has learned from the mistakes of the old. Apparently the new military regime is using Facebook to reach Egyptian youth, and the Ministry of Interior has set up multiple pages to try to repair the image of the state police.

    The impact of social media did help galvanize the Egyptian protesters. It gave them a common location to air their views and share information. However, as one of the TechCrunch commenters who actually was in Tahrir Square noted, “social media exist largely as a means to manufacture consent.” When the government blocked access to the Internet, cut off cellular service, and silenced media coverage, the people took to the streets to find out what was happening. That’s when the revolution really took hold, because people were connecting in a personal way using “Streetbook,” face-to-face interaction. So should we think of the Egyptian revolution as a gigantic flash mob with Molotov cocktails?

    I tend to agree that social media is a place to forge consensus, whether it’s to protest a dictatorial government, or back a brand. People gravitate to things they are passionate about online, and they share that passion with their friends. That’s what makes social media so powerful.

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  • 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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  • 14May

    As a PR professional, it’s odd to be on the receiving end of a media pitch.

    Last January, I blogged about ArmyStrongStories as part of a discussion on letting go of control to let social media work in your favor. Well, not long ago I received an e-mail, or rather a “pitch” in PR parlance, about the new ArmyStrongStories web site and interface. It was a fairly soft pitch as they go, basically pointing out that there is a new Web interface and that provides unfiltered access to soldier stories. The Web site “brings together Soldiers and Army supporters to connect and interact online with fellow Soldiers, recruits, family, friends, community leaders and others interested in Army service.  Whether someone is a Soldier, Soldier’s spouse, family member, friend or troop supporter, they can visit the Army Strong Stories community and share their story through written or video submissions.”

    This remains a great concept (not to mention a great recruiting tool). According to my e-mail source from the PR agency, social media is taking the Army by storm:

    –          More than 165 soldier bloggers have signed up to participate in ArmyStrongStories

    –          There have been more than 890 blog posts to date

    –          ArmyStrongStories has more than 260,000 Facebook connections

    –          The site also has 95,000 MySpace friends

    –          And ArmyStrongStories has 27,000 Twitter followers.

    This is something the Army can be proud of. Its online recruiting poster is picking up a real following, and social media is working for them as it does for any other big brand or product. It’s getting positive attention, including by me in this blog entry. And they are clearly making the most of it since they hired Weber Shandwick to help promote it.

    Of course, I am sure that someone is keeping an eye on the content, if not for political correctness and brand monitoring then for possible security or data leaks. One of the things I have been learning about from my recent work with my client FaceTime Communications is the prevalence of inadvertent data leaks over social networking media. FaceTime makes security software designed to make it safe for companies to use social media, instant messaging, and unified communications by managing online conversations, including filtering for keywords and possible data leaks. Although users are getting more business value from the relationships they nurture through their social media sites, they also get carried away and can reveal too much, like the developer who is excited about the features in a new pre-released product or the sales rep who turns to his LinkedIn connections for help with a competitive bid.

    When you live your life online, people tend to forget the rules of discretion or even common sense. People forget that the Web is an open forum, where you are not only chatting with friends and loved ones but also with anyone who wants to listen in. That’s the power of social media, and with power comes the responsibility of knowing how and when to be discrete.

    So I’ll be watching ArmyStrongStories.com to see how the experiment progresses. To be effective as a social media outlet, it has to be open and largely uncensored. After all, the appeal of social media is that it gives you an opportunity to express yourself without watchdogs monitoring what you have to say. But if the forum comes across as too much as a staged online recruiting poster, without naysayers or even soft critics, then it will lose credibility as an unfettered social media forum. This is clearly going to be a test case on how to build a social media community using communication that is open, but not too open.

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