Making Bricks Without Straw – Writing a Press Release When There Is No Story

You are probably familiar with the story from Exodus about Pharaoh punishing the Jews by forcing them to make bricks without straw, a difficult if not impossible task. Sometimes I feel I get the same instructions from my clients. The phone rings or you get e-mail from a client with very exciting news that they can’t wait to turn into a news announcement. And when you dig down to gather the facts, you find there is no real news and no legitimate news hook. Of course, your client is not a media expert; it’s your job to educate your client about the ins and outs of reporting and what the press consider newsworthy. But sometimes it’s just hard to tell your client that their news release subject stinks.

That’s when the real creativity kicks in. Sometimes you have to find a way to uncover or even create the news hook, even when there doesn’t seem to be one. I find these kinds of “non-news” release the absolute hardest to write, but I also understand their value. These days you often want to use a press release to tell a story designed to reach an audience other than the press. You may want to reach prospects, or customers, or employees, or the board of directors, or simply put something out on the wire to attract web traffic and pump up your keyword or SEO strategy (remember that press releases almost always rank higher with search engines). And even though this may seem to be a bastardization of the press release format, a news release is often the best format to instill some urgency and legitimacy into a story that really doesn’t have much news value.

So how do you approach this problem (other than with fire tongs)? Well, you use the same steps as you would with any news announcement, but with a few nuances:

  1. Reverse engineer the story – The best place to start is with the desired outcome. Think about how you would want the final story to read? What’s the big idea you want readers to take away with them? What’s your headline? Once you grasp the main theme it will be easy to build a story around it.
  2. Suspend your news judgment – Remember that this kind of announcement is for general readership and not necessary for the press. That means you can bend the rules a little, especially in the use of adjectives, superlatives, and elements you might not include in most news announcements. Your objective here is to imbue enthusiasm as much as to impart information.
  3. Research helps – You often can shore up a poor press release topic with facts, facts, and more facts. Do some digging and find research and numbers that will legitimize your release. If someone has statistics, the topic must be important.
  4. Practice good journalistic style – Just because you may think the release has little or no news value doesn’t mean you should be sloppy. Use good journalistic techniques. Open with a lead and use the inverted pyramid to build your story. Follow AP style. It all helps to lend credence to the tale you have to tell.
  5. Review, revise, and optimize – The best writing is about rewriting, and when you have a tough assignment writing a non-news release, it’s even more important to review your work for style and tone, as well as errors. Also optimize your press release for SEO, Twitter, Facebook, and other uses. This kind of press release is usually written to help build awareness, and that means building in key search terms and phrase to promote SEO.
  6. Distribute appropriately – Don’t undermine your own credibility by trying to sell a bad news story to the media. Instead, use alternate distribution strategies to promote online presence and support Web search. Use the paid wire services and post it to the free news sites that will accept it. But don’t make the mistake of trying to pass it off as legitimate news.

The rules of public relations are changing with the Internet, and how we use the tools of the trade has to evolve as well. The press release is still an incredibly valuable tool when it comes to getting hard news to journalists looking for information they can print or post. It also can be a useful tool to build a market presence. The most important thing to remember is who is your target audience and what format and information will best meet their information needs.

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The Open Web: From Big Brother to Neighborhood Watch

Over the years, I have worked with a number of companies in the technology security sector. In fact, I am currently working on a project for FaceTime Communications to launch a new software product to secure, track, and archive conversations on enterprise networks, including conversations sent over public IM networks. FaceTime has products that help corporate users secure Web 2.0 conversations on the enterprise, so when you log in to your Facebook or Twitter page from your office computer, you know that Big Brother in the IT department is watching.

And there is good reason for these Web 2.0 watchdogs. Government regulations are driving corporate paranoia, and legal counsel , CFOs, and others are telling IT they have to keep track of ALL online conversations and data exchanges so they are prepared in case the company is audited for compliance with HIPAA, SOX, FINRA, or whatever regulatory agency matters to you. So private corporations are becoming increasingly concerned about threats from public networks, such as the introduction of some kind of malware, or more likely, some kind of data leak or employee malfeasance that puts the company at legal risk.

But what if there was a free exchange of web information? What if organizations became less concerned about locking up their corporate data and more concerned with contributing to the greater pool of human knowledge and understanding. What is fascinating about the Internet and the World Wide Web is that is an open, self-policing entity. The reason that Wikipedia works, for example, is that people are inherently seekers of truth and will correct each other’s errors. The Web is a giant experiment in the democratization of data. There is an inherent faith that for every malicious rumor or deliberate lie posted on the Web, there will be hundreds of other posts with opposing views and accurate information, and the truth will find its way to the top of the search engines.

Which is why I was fascinated by this latest report from the godfather of the web, Tim Berners Lee, who is calling for an open exchange of data between governments, scientists, and institutions. Just as the Web has the power to serve up more accurate information through democratization, by making more information public, there is an even greater opportunity for smart people to combine information to uncover new revelations and greater truths.

Check out the video and tell me, is it better to lock the data vault and hide the key, or should we be less concerned about data security and more concerned about finding ways to share information in ways that will lead to new revelations, new solutions, and new ultimate truths?

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Overcoming Blogging Inertia: Keeping It Fresh!

This marks my 67th blog post for the PRagmatist, and I realize I am only a neophyte in the world of social media. I started this blog because I recognized that to preach the power of social media, you have to practice it. And I have had some success over the last six months. I have just launched a new social media campaign for a client after talking to them for over a year about using Twitter, Facebook, and other outlets to promote their research.

 We know social media works, but as with so many things, we often don’t pursue those things we know are good for us because they take work. The number of blogs abandoned along the information highway is growing at an astronomical rate, mostly because the bloggers lack the fortitude, insight, and drive to maintain them. And the problem is compounded in a corporate setting because now you are dealing with group processes. You need to get different departments and stakeholders involved, and make them accountable as part of their MBOs or other responsibilities. But people get busy, priorities change, coming up with new topics is hard, and another blog bites the dust.

Which is why I was gratified to see a practical and pragmatic approach to blogging offered by Page One Public Relations out of Silicon Valley. While I question whether their ghostblogging strategy is in the true spirit of social media, their basic methodology has merit. Maintaining a corporate blog as part of your social media strategy is not rocket science, but it requires procedures and protocols to keep the content fresh every week, and Page One has identified the big three to start:

  1. Be a reporter, or perhaps more accurately, an observer. I maintain an electronic clipboard (thank you Microsoft for thinking of OneNote), and as I run across interesting tidbits in e-mail or on the web, I clip them for my blog. As a web commentator, you run into interesting items every day. Record them, revisit them, and blog about them.
  2. Be an editor, and offer a vision for your blog. As with all such projects, someone needs to be in charge. You need an editor to impose editorial rule and make sure content is clean and consistent, and deadlines are being met. In a corporate blog, you will have multiple voices, but someone needs to conduct to make sure they all sing from the same corporate script.
  3. Promote, promote, promote. Once you get your blog up and running, promote it. Seek feedback. Call for comments. And get the word out there. Post everywhere you can think of – Facebook, LinkedIn, Digg, Twitter, you name it. Consider using multimedia to spice things up and leverage YouTube (videos do well in search rankings). Cultivate an audience and keep them engaged. Talk to your followers.

The real challenge for corporate bloggers isn’t so much keeping it fresh, bit keeping it interesting. Don’t sell, converse. Talk about issues, not products. Engage with customers and prospects about topics that are important and universal, and don’t get mired in your own market speak.

And if you run into difficulties, we professionals are here to help you get it sorted.

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The Paper Wall Between Editorial and Advertising is Burning

soapbox-imageThe face of journalism as we have known it is undergoing a facelift. Print publications are under increasing pressure to find new revenue streams, which is placing new pressure on newspapers and magazines to adapt their journalistic approach to meet the needs of both advertiser and subscribers.

One indicator was a recent report in the New York Times that the Dallas Morning News now has sports and entertainment editors now reporting the general manager – advertising – rather than the managing editor – editorial (with thanks to Marc Hausman, The Strategic Guy, for bringing attention to the article.) As Marc points out, this is a new reality for magazines and newspapers, it also points out an age-old problem.

Any of you who have ever worked as a journalist know that you are frequently pressured to make concessions for advertisers, or for the publisher. During my years as a trade journalist I often ran into challenges around stories that might reflect badly on advertisers. The editorial decision was usually based on whether the impact of the news outweighed the potential wrath of an advertiser, and every publisher approaches this problem differently. However, ever since the beginning of the printed pamphlet, editors have had to deal with similar challenges. Even today, in some parts of the world if you print the wrong opinions the local rulers might throw you in the dungeon. In the United States we enjoy freedom of the press, and we rely on that principle to promote contrarian views and to allow the press to serve as societal watchdogs. But there really is no such thing as objective reporting. Every publication has a viewpoint and a perspective, and it’s up to the reader to read between the lines.

Consider the impact Rupert Murdoch has had on the Wall Street Journal. According to a recent article in the UK’s Guardian, The New York Times is claiming that since Murdoch took over, the newspaper has adopted “a combative style more often associated with Fleet Street than the North American market.” The same arguments have been levied against Fox News, Murdoch’s North American broadcast presence. Much of the criticism against Fox News centers on its inability to separate reporting from editorializing. I don’t think the argument is whether or not media outlets are biased, but rather whether they are candid about their opinions and make it transparent when they stray from objective reporting.

And the explosion of online news outlets just complicates things. Now anyone with a computer can call themselves a publisher and start posting editorial content. If they want to make money on that content, then they have to strike a balance to attract an audience, and any biased reporting they introduce will limit their appeal to both readers and advertisers. There’s nothing new here. It’s just the same challenges publishers have always faced but using a new medium.

So the fact that newspapers like the Dallas Morning News are making changes in their editorial approach to attract advertisers is not new, and it’s not surprising. This is a survival tactic, and one that I expect will be adopted by other publications in one form or another. But this isn’t really a fundamental change, but acknowledgement of a trend that is as old as publishing. Money talks, and always has. It’s up to the reader to be informed and be wary, and to identify the opinion, whether advertorial or editorial.

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The Changing Face of Newsprint: Goodbye Daily Fish Wrap, Hello

fishy_arizona_republicIs anyone else worried about the future of the newspaper industry? I have been a newspaper reader for most of my life, and even I have found that I am getting almost all of my news online these days. And with the advent of handheld, wireless computers like the iPhone, more and more of us are going to abandon the daily printed product in favor of online information.

If you look at the numbers, the decline and fall of the printed newspaper seems inevitable. According to Reflections of a Newsosaur, a blog site started by Alan D. Mutter, a Silicon Valley CEO, college professor, new media pundit, and former journalist, newspapers are dropping like the proverbial flies. In his latest post, Mutter notes that 142 newspapers ceased publication in 2009, compared to 37 in 2008. Not only does that reflect the loss of 90,000 jobs, but it also means that some communities no longer have access to a local news resource. In other, larger markets, it means that where there were conflicting voices debating in print and offering alternative viewpoints, now there is one newspaper reporting events and shaping public opinion. (Does anyone else remember when the New York Times was actually a local paper and there were a dozen dailies competing for newsstand space in New York City?)

Of course, hope springs eternal in the publishing business. As Mutter points out, the power of the newspaper monopoly and the magic of the bankruptcy court have kept a number of newspapers afloat. I have heard some second-hand stories from those laid off from the San Francisco Chronicle that while the Hearst Corporation does its best to create a profitable newspaper/Web hybrid, it may only be a matter of time before union demands kill the dream.

But as Mutter and the numbers indicate, the optimism of newspaper publishers seems unquashable. As Mutter notes in his previous post:

“A positively effervescent survey of more than 500 newspaper publishers yesterday predicted that advertising sales would drop only 0.2% in 2010 after plunging 28.4% in the first nine months of this year.”

Of course, this is magical thinking on the part of newspaper publishers. Print advertising revenue is drying up as more brands move online. And why not? Isn’t it more efficient to drive a banner ad/pay-per-click marketing strategy with social media support? Shoppers are increasingly going online first, and so is the advertising.

So what are newspapers going to do to survive? I have been watching the experiment that the San Francisco Chronicle, my home town newspaper, has been conducting for more than a decade. SFGate was one of the first online newspaper sites (it recently celebrated its 15th anniversary), and as the Chronicle’s print circulation has slowly been eroding, SFGate has been picking up online momentum. The SFGate site had 124.6 million page hits in September of this year. At the same, the number of regular contributors from the printed newspaper writing for the online site is dwindling. A number or regular columnists and reporters have moved on, and SFGate is bringing in more newswire content, freelance contributors and community leaders to provide content; sources that are cheap or free. And there is still no guarantee Hearst Newspapers will find a way to make SFGate profitable.

Still, I am confident that a new form of successful newspaper will emerge from the current chaos. You may remember the birth of USA Today? At the time, the concept of launching a national news daily seemed revolutionary. That’s nothing compared to the revolution we are witnessing today. And as with most revolutions, those who are flexible and can adapt to changing times will thrive, including professional journalists and public relations professionals.

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The Art of the Interview

Conducting interviews can be a tricky business. I used to do a lot of interviews in my days as a trade journalist, either trying to fill in the blanks for a new product announcement, or to develop a bigger story around an emerging company or technology platform. As a PR professional I also do a lot of interviews with client customers to gather information for press releases and case studies. These kinds of interviews are usually fairly straightforward, since companies are usually anxious for publicity and will give you whatever information you need for a story.

However, the real trick to good interviewing is getting your source to reveal more than they are normally willing to share; to provide that additional nuance, anecdote, or fact that will make your story more compelling and give you an angle that no one else has. This is usually more art than science, but there are some lessons to be learned from people who conduct interviews for a living.

One interesting source of interview inspiration I stumbled across recently was a presentation by Marc Pachter, Cultural Historian for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. (And once again thanks to TED for providing such fascinating insights from EG, the Entertainment Gathering, for all to see.) Realizing that the art of portraiture is dying, Pachter has been interviewing famous Americans to create a series of video portraits.

Some of the insights that Pachter shares in this lecture offer additional insights for both interviewers and interviewees (and that means you, mister senior executive). A good interview gets to the persona underneath the professional; the insights that goes beyond the infomercial. A good interviewer will try to break the subject out of their public cocoon and get them to break out of the public narrative. This is a lesson from which many executives can benefit – there is always an advantage to showing a personal or human side to help cement the relationship with the interviewer and his audience.

If you haven’t seen it, rent Frost/Nixon and watch how the two actors spar in the interview scenes. This is a classic example of trying to get the subject to break the narrative. Nixon’s objective is to stick to the narrative; the public story that will protect his reputation. Frost’s objective is to get to the personal story underneath the public figure. It’s fascinating to watch, and actually tells you a lot about effective interviewing techniques.

I also found Pachter’s story of the interview with Claire Booth Luce quite interesting. There is an unspoken adversarial relationship between interviewer and subject, no matter how friendly the interview. In the case of Pachter’s interview with Luce, she was concerned about having to share the spotlight. Effective interviewing is like a dance with give and take. You have to be able to give something of yourself and surrender some control to the interviewer in order to tell your story. And if you are conducting the interview, you have to be willing to work with your subject and give them a platform for their key messages before asking permission to dive deeper; to get that extra information. It’s a power exchange, and if you understand the rules, you can control the interview and get what you want out of the exchange, whether you are conducting the interview, or trying to tell your story.

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Understanding the Rules of Citizen Journalism

To be a credible reporter, you have to follow the rules of good journalism
To be a credible reporter, you have to follow the rules of good journalism

I have made my living as a writer in one form or another for the past 35 years and I have watched the world of journalism change. My stepson is starting to think ahead to college and he is a terrific writer, and he is considering journalism as a profession, but with the demise of so many newspapers and print publications, I have to wonder what the future looks like for professional journalists. Surely trained media observers will still have a place in the Web-driven world, but how they will make a living at is becoming an open question.

However, there is still a real need for good journalistic practices, whether you are writing as a professional journalist or as a blogger who wants to build journalistic Web cred. If you are going to do the work of a journalist, you have to follow the rules of good journalism. I recently spotted a Huffington Post entry outlining Citizen Journalism Publishing Standards, which outlines the basics and are always good to keep in mind if you plan to offer objective reporting:

  1. Present the facts: Offer what you have directly observed or verified, and don’t invent details or speculate. This means being stingy with the use of superlatives and adjectives. If you are writing fact and not fiction, you need to be meticulous about getting the facts right. This includes accurate quotes from interviews; don’t clean up the grammar or add words, and never paraphrase and call it a quote.
  2. Avoid hearsay: Never trust a single source, no matter how trustworthy, but check your facts. Verify any claim before reporting it, and if you can’t verify the claim, attribute it – “According to ….” Also keep it relevant and don’t embellish with negative or irrelevant comments (“He was foolish to…”). And if someone reports something negative about another person, verify the facts, especially if it the statement implies illegality.
  3. Omit your opinion: If you are reporting as a journalist, stick to the facts and leave your personal views out of the story. If you feel you need to expose an injustice, let the truth of the story do it for you.
  4. Avoid plagiarism: Always attribute material you are citing (which is incredibly easy to do with Web links) and attribute your sources, whether print, broadcast, online, or from other outlets.
  5. Always identify yourself: Make sure the other parties you interview know who you are and what you are writing about. Before quoting them, make sure they know where you plan to use the information. It’s important to respect your sources.
  6. Identify your sources: Make it clear that your sources’ comments are “on the record” and the can expect to be quoted. If you are working on a sensitive story and the sources want to remain anonymous, you need to verify that arrangement in advance. There are some rules about the use of “off the record,” which basically means the comments are for information only and not to be attributed or quoted. Similarly, “on background” means you are looking for information to paraphrase but that won’t be attributed or quoted. Even professional journalists get tripped up by what’s on and off the record, so if you can, make sure everything is on the record from the outset. (I always advise my clients that there is no such thing as “off the record.”)
  7. Fact checking: Never take anyone’s word for the truth. Verify information from other sources and use trusted news sources and documents as well as interviews. That way you can eliminate errors and exaggeration and write a truthful and balanced story.
  8. Integrity of photographs: Just as news stories should be factual and demand integrity, so should photos. Never alter a photo so it could mislead or deceive a reader.
  9. Spelling and grammar: Be sure to proofread your content and check for both spelling and grammatical errors. Be especially careful of proper names and look for missing words. I also suggest you invest in an Associated Press Stylebook and conform to their style for things such as datelines, quotes, capitalization, and punctuation.

If you are going to be taken seriously as a journalist, you have to follow the rules of the profession. That’s why the White House has been questioning Fox News’s rights as a news organization. They frequently fail to maintain the rules of fair reporting and objectivity, and continually blur the lines between reporting and editorializing. They broke the rules of good journalism, and it has undermined their credibility. If you want to practice journalism and be taken seriously, you have to follow the rules.

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The Obama/Fox Faceoff – Round Two


In my last blog post, I offered some thoughts on whether President Obama is right in singling out Fox News for bias, or whether all news organizations deserve equal time and consideration despite their political stance. I posted the same question on LinkedIn and generated a lively debate amongst my PR peers.

There was a lot of back and forth about this topic, with people landing on different sides of the political issue, but there were a lot of interesting comments on the role of bias in journalism and when bias goes too far because it is no longer subtext but the main part of the media agenda. To quote from Roger Griendling of Griendling Communications, who also blogs on this subject:

“Obama’s goal is not to change Fox’s line-up or to get them to be more fair and balanced. Rather, he’s sending a message to the mainstream media (MSM) that they can’t let Fox News be their assignment editor. Many MSM echo stories started on Fox even if they have no shred of truth or relevance to the important issues of the day. But MSM feels compelled to follow them.”

I particularly want to thank Roger Johnson of Newswise and moderator of the LinkedIn PRwise group for some cogent thoughts on this issue. From the threaded discussion, Roger offers this comment:

“Fox News does not “slant right.” It represents and trumpets the right without regard for truth. Its news is propaganda. While it is transparent with its “rightness” it is egregiously false to claim to be a news organization.”

Roger also pointed out a very interesting editorial on this issue from Newsweek that clarifies this issue with a different perspective I had not considered. What Rupert Murdoch is doing is using the same playbook that has succeeded for him in the UK, Australia, and Europe, and his rules have absolutely nothing to do with the American concept of freedom of the press. From the editorial:

“What’s most distinctive about the American press is not its freedom but its century-old tradition of independence—that it serves the public interest rather than those of parties, persuasions, or pressure groups. Media independence is a 20th-century innovation that has never fully taken root in many other countries that do have a free press. The Australian-British-continental model of politicized media that Murdoch has applied at Fox is un-American, so much so that he has little choice but go on denying what he’s doing as he does it. For Murdoch, Ailes, and company, “fair and balanced” is a necessary lie. To admit that their coverage is slanted by design would violate the American understanding of the media’s role in democracy and our idea of what constitutes fair play. But it’s a demonstrable deceit that no longer deserves equal time.”

So what litmus test should we use to sort the true journalists from the propagandists? To qualify as a journalist, you have to be able to distinguish fact from opinion and report the news, without commentary. That’s the difference between news and propaganda. You also have to be factual, something which the Fox News organization seems to overlook on a regular basis with factual errors meant to mislead, such as reporting that Obama was actually born in Kenya, not Hawaii. Since Fox is using Murdoch’s playbook and not the best traditions of American journalism, there doesn’t seem to be any distinction between fact and opinion or truth and fiction.

And, as Tony Loftis of The Loftis Group pointed out, by calling out the Fox News organization for a shootout, the Obama administration has at least raised doubts about Fox’s legitimacy as a news organization:

“By declaring war on the outlet, Obama served noticed that he thought Fox was biased, forcing everyone think about the bias in Fox’s coverage of his administration. It worked. At this point, everyone thinks Fox pushes the GOP’s agenda. From now on, whenever Fox reports on a story, independents will think of Fox as a right wing news organization. The Obama administration has successfully stolen a page from the GOP’s play book – taint the messenger.”

So what do you think? Should you engage with news organizations who disagree with you, even if you know they have an agenda? Can we trust the average reader to see through the bias and make up their own minds? It will be interesting to see how this battle between the White House and Murdoch’s media empire will play out, and what long-lasting effect it might have on American journalism. I would welcome your comments here. Let me know what you think the future holds.

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Why the Fourth Estate Needs to Come First

newspaper-press-thumb-283x424If you have been following the news, you have probably heard that the Obama administration has once again attacked Fox News for bias, claiming it is not a news organization. Please don’t think that I will use this blog as a political soapbox; in the interest of full disclosure I will say that I supported the president through his campaign and I support him now, except on this issue. This is an issue of freedom of the press, which is a critical part of the American democratic process.

Just because you don’t agree with the politics of a news organization doesn’t mean you have to censure them. Bias in the news is fairly commonplace, and always has been. In socialist countries the media are state controlled, so they issue propaganda and the populace knows that the media is biased. In democratic countries, the press promotes dialogue, offering views and opinions that ultimately create balance. The bias is there, of course, but the populace knows how to filter it.

As far as I know, the United States is the only country in the world to guarantee freedom of the press as part of its constitution. Freedom of speech is guaranteed, no matter what you have to say,

This is why I find it curious that the office of the President of the United States would take such an adversarial stance against a recognized news organization. Bias notwithstanding, Fox News still reports the news and they should get the same consideration as any news organization.

In looking for news coverage of this particular issue, I did a quick comparison from three randomly selected news sources dealing with the most recent statements about Fox News from the White House: Fox News, the New York Daily News, and the Daily Telegraph in the United Kingdom. The three reports have very similar information and tone, and even the Fox News report seemed to have its facts straight. There is bias that shows in each report, whether through the Daily News’ snarky style or Fox News statements such as “Though Fox News has won the cable news ratings race consistently for years and is closing in on network news numbers…” All news reports have bias, and it’s up to the reader to filter that bias and make up his or her own mind.

And as the definition of “journalist” continues to expand to encompass bloggers and smaller news organizations, it shouldn’t matter if journalists “buy ink by the barrel” (to paraphrase President Bill Clinton). Every voice should be heard, and the people can filter out what is noise and what is relevant.  As a PR professional I have come to acknowledge the efforts of bloggers and the more obscure news organizations, not because all coverage is good coverage, but because every media outlet is due respect for the sake of their respective audience, whether their readers number in the tens or the millions.

The floor is open for comments…

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Look, Up in the Sky – The Air Force Is Piloting Its Own Social Media Strategy

I am always scanning the Web for informational tidbits, and one blogger I have been following is Jeff Cole of JJC Communications LLC, who posts his PR101 observations every Monday. Last week’s blog particularly caught by eye, “PR 101 – Lesson 31 – Social Media Is Everywhere – Even Places I Didn’t Expect To Find It.” In this installment, Jeff recounts what he uncovered about how the Air Force is harnessing social media to facilitate coverage of the war in Afghanistan.

How progressive! The military embracing an open forum like blogging! Of course, “open” is a relative term when you talk to the government.  

“There has been a major debate in the Air Force over social media. There was an “old-school mentality” over its use, [U.S. Air Force Captain David Faggard, Chief, Public Affairs for the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing] said. From talking to Faggard and reading about the Air Force’s social media efforts, I think the senior commanders are having had the same debate many C-suite executives are having. The Air Force commanders are in their late 40s and 50s. They grew up reading newspapers and watching television news. In their worldview, those mediums still dominate. They are not sure about social media, what it is, and what it can do.”

As Cole notes, bloggers have become field reporters like Ernie Pile in World War II. And why not, Twitter is playing a major role all over the world any time a disaster or political upheaval strikes. When traditional communications channels close, the Web is still there with fresh information.  And I noted a story on CNN today that military recruiters have met their goals this year for the first time since the draft was discontinued in 1973. The report said it may be largely due to the economic downturn, but it also has to be due to the fact that the military is now hipper than ever with pages on Facebook and channels on YouTube. 

Of course, the U.S. military is still erring on the side of caution, and there isn’t a consistent policy. There is still a huge concern about data leakage. The U.S. Marines banned use of Twitter, MySpace and Facebook from its networks as a security risk – see the article in Wired. Letting the social media genie out of the bottle clearly can have some disastrous side effects as well, but the same concerns are true in any corporation.

I have been working on a project for a client, FaceTime Communications, which just shipped a new unified security appliance that monitors and records Web 2.0 traffic to prevent data leaks and promote compliance. Theoretically, with the right policies in place, it prevents Facebook data leaks such as status posts like “Our patrol attacked this well-protected village today,” or a LinkedIn query such as “We are working on a multi-million dollar deal with Acme and I need information…” As Faggard notes:

“In my personal opinion, the military is still trying to figure it out… Of course, anyone talking to a blogger, or writing a blog, cannot violate standard Air Force rules. You cannot talk about war plans for instance or about operational plans.”

But like the Internet, the blogosphere cannot be controlled, which is what scares both the military and corporate leadership. However, they can control the message by being proactive, and embracing the social medium that will help them deliver the message (with apologies to Marshall McLuhan). This means attacking the problem on three fronts:

  1. Taking a proactive approach and embracing social media, as the Air Force is clearly doing with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube;
  2. Using a reactive approach where you are using social media tools to track the conversation (both good and bad) on the Web – check out the Air Force’s “Counter Blogging” strategy and their Web, Posting Response Assessment; and
  3. Applying strict policies and procedures, bulletproof security technology, and common sense to prevent leaks of sensitive information.

The U.S. military has been fighting its battles in the public press and in the trenches for as long as we can remember. Social media is too powerful a tool for them to ignore, and could be the most effective weapon in their PR arsenal once they figure out how to use it effectively.

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