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Death of the Twitter Celebrity

**Editor's Note - Fresh Ground is pleased to welcome Kristin Grages to our team.  In addition to doing great work for our clients, she'll poke her head in here from time to time to talk about influencer relations, among other things.**

Much has been made of the Twitter following some celebrities have. Millions of people follow Kim Kardashian and Ryan Seacrest, reading daily about their lives and latest projects.  Sometimes interesting, sometimes not, their voices are heard by millions.

That voice can be useful.  Celebrity (and twitter) can be put to good, productive use; raising money  by pumping up (and pimping out) particular causes.  Pleas go out daily from celebrities for their latest pet charity, often to the betterment of those organizations.

For the latest celebri-twitter campaign, a number of high profile celebrities (with sky high twitter followings) came up with a new strategy.  They'd "kill" themselves on twitter and await resurrection by donation.  "X celebrity sacrificed her digital life to help save millions of real lives affected by HIV/AIDS."  The goal was to raise $1 million.  They hoped to do it in a day.  Now, three days later, they haven't even broken $200,000.

So what went wrong? With more than 26 million twitter follwers among then, this should have been easy.  That's 26 million impressions of... what exactly?  Silence? The problem is, silence isn't a twitter strategy.  It's not any kind of public relations strategy.  The absence of a conversation does not persuade.  So instead of imploring their followers with daily, even hourly reminders to consider a donation, they are silent.  And not actually dead, they're continuing  lives far more fabulous than the donors they seek could possibly imagine.

The flaw in the strategy is within the medium.  Twitter is busy, loud and quick.  With your feed continually refreshing, pumping out updates by the second, who notices when you don't hear from someone for a few hours or even days?  These celebrities overestimated the value of a day's worth of twitter.  But more than that, they overestimated the impact their absence would have on their audience, which seems to be rather small.  The conversation moves on, whether you're in it or not.  It's up to you to keep up.

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Google Moves the Earth

The earth moved under the feet of the PR industry earlier this month when Google did something simple: it distributed its own earnings announcement. It didn’t rely on one of the paid channels such as Businesswire, PR Newswire or Marketwire (among others).

To the untrained eye this seems rather simple. Companies put out content all the time, why is this any different?

I’m not going to try to rehash the idea that the press release is dead. It’s not. PRWeb pointed out at the MarketingProfs event this week that they will distribute 90,000 press releases this year alone. That’s just one service.

A lot of people saw Google’s move as an opportunity to talk about the Social Media Release, but that’s just another way to put content out through the same channel, it’s not a real change.

No, the trick here is understanding the different channels and how channels differ from form. Wire services offer a different distribution channel and for public companies it’s an important channel.  On a very basic level wire services smooth out a lot of the bumps in putting out an earnings announcement. Let’s face it, the Securities and Exchange Commission doesn’t make things easy, so if you want to make sure you satisfy all the fine print within their fair-disclosure rules you may as well just hand your announcements over to them and be done. Paying $5000 or so per release certainly beats the legal fees you could add up by messing things up on your own.

That said, wire services aren’t the ONLY way to get news out. For some companies, like Google, their blog or online newsroom speaks directly to investors.  Why not engage them there? Also, just because you have a channel doesn't mean you're restricted to form. You can have a blog full of "press releases" and a press release that looks like a blog post. You can write an interesting news-based story and put it out on a wire service. If you're Conan O'Brien you can even write a letter.

Howard Berkenblit, a partner in the Corporate Department at Sullivan and Worcester, who spoke with the Fresh Ground Podcast a while back, told me recently that the SEC ruling regarding putting out material news on blogs boils down to making sure you have an established news channel before using it. Google has certainly done that.

But what does this mean for the wire services? Phyllis Dantuono, executive vice president and chief operating officer for BusinessWire says it doesn’t mean much.  “Bottom line is that we do not anticipate any major changes in how companies will communicate with the marketplace in the future,” she said in a written statement.  “Most companies clearly recognize the risks and limitations of the SEC's interpretive Guidance Release, and have wisely decided to stick with a disclosure system that works.”

BusinessWire also sent along a MotleyFool.com article that went so far as to call Google’s decision “evil.” Rich Smith laments that Google has created a fragmented system in which “investors could soon be forced to scan the websites of every company they own, daily, continually, to be certain of not missing out on important news.”

I think this misses the mark entirely. I’m sure Smith doesn’t have only one source for news today. In fact, he probably has some sort of new aggregator that helps him find the news he wants, probably some sort of RSS reader. He probably also has Google News alerts that tell him when something goes live. Then there’s the fact that companies come out with earnings announcements on a pretty strict schedule, so it’s not like these are surprises. No, Google hasn’t made the news more difficult to find, they’ve just slightly changed how you access it.

In fact, they made it a little easier. Former Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz had argued for years that the SEC’s disclosure rules unfairly favored the few. Subscribers to the wire services received the news, while those who didn’t were left waiting. Putting important news out on a blog, the argument goes, fixes that. Well, that is, unless we run into a situation in which companies like Comcast control whose content gets green lighted.

Still, there’s an action here for small, private companies to consider: where do you put your news? Our suggestion here at Fresh Ground is to establish your own news channel through an online newsroom. Not just a stagnant place where you repost your press release, but an interactive social media newsroom that lets you post different types of content and lets your audience interact with and share that content. Todd has been working hard with the IABC on establishing this sort of thing.

But the most important reason for establishing your own news channel is that despite Dantuono’s assertion that many companies will continue to use wire services, I believe that many won’t. When the earnings announcements disappear, so will much of the available revenue for wire services.

I’m not saying the wire service channel will die out entirely, but you will certainly see a thinning over the next couple of years. I can’t guarantee that the big players will continue to thrive, since some of the smaller players (like PitchEngine) do similar work for less money and a lower overhead.

So your best move may be to create your own and as you engage with your customers, partners, investors and other influencers, let them know where your news will end up first.

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Scientology, Journalism and Money in a New Media World

The age of new media means that anyone can publish. That much we know. But the full implications of this switch are just becoming clear.

Take the situation in Tampa Bay, Florida, in which the St. Petersburg Times has a long history of investigative stories about the locally-based Church of Scientology. From a traditional journalistic standpoint this is good work. The Times has an extensive record of ethical reporting and its standards are some of the best in the industry. No one questions the work they do.

Well, except for the Church of Scientology, which took exception to the whole idea. Twenty years ago the church probably would have fought any allegations in the Times through legal means or by undertaking a media-relations campaign aimed at other publications. Maybe they would have opened up their doors to a local TV news program or asked their members to bring friends as a grass roots effort.

But in today's world they did something very interesting: they turned the Times reporting tactics on the Times. First reported by Howard Kurtz at the Washington Post, the news has spread quickly, with most stories asking whether this is a good idea.  It's not like the church is a neophyte in the journalistic world. They've had a publication called Freedom for some time.

It seems that the Church of Scientology knew what it was doing when it picked its reporters. It didn't pick just anyone, but people with great credentials including a reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize, the former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors and a former producer for the venerable TV program "60 Minutes."

The St. Petersburg Times didn't answer questions and pretty much stonewalled the whole process. Their defense was pretty simple: this wasn't journalism it was a hatchet job from a biased party. Of course, the church has made similar allegations against the Times. But is this particular piece a hatchet job? The reporters themselves took the job pretty seriously. Steve Weinberg, the executive director mentioned above, told Kurtz that he put $5000 in his bank account to play the role of editor and "tried to make sure it's a good piece of journalism criticism, just like I've written a gazillion times. . . . For me it's kind of like editing a Columbia Journalism Review piece." But he continued that this wasn't your normal reporting job: "It certainly wouldn't be something just any reporter would do. My role was more limited, and I can certainly use the money these days."

Ah yes, the money, the journalists got theirs up front, by the way. When the jobs came open True/Slant pointed it out, and asked openly whether a journalist should take the gig, but ended with "work is work." Journalistic organizations are laying off quality reporters by the truckload. At the same time, companies need content to attract readers to their blogs, Websites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds or anything else that takes a feed. Journalists are people with skills who need to eat. If their skills aren't appreciated in the traditional journalism industry, they'll just make a move. Wouldn't you?

Oddly, in a comment on the True/Slant post, Steve Weinberg himself weighed in (first), saying "Recently, an experienced investigative journalist who has found it difficult to Steve Weinbergconduct his work because of the economic downturn asked me if he should apply for the Scientologists’ opening. I told him no, even though I like to see superb investigative reporting no matter who is funding it. More than any other existing organization that comes to mind, the Scientologists have been so hostile to outside journalists that I cannot see crossing the line to accept employment there. But I told my acquaintance that I’m speaking only for myself. After all, for some folks, work is indeed work, as the T/S posting by Matt Stroud says."

I guess "work is work" trumps his fears about the Church of Scientology. Or maybe he told his buddy "no" because he needed the work himself.

But the question still remains: is this particular effort really journalism? The journalists who worked on the report certainly think so, though the critics have their knickers in a knot about the whole thing. They're asking weighty questions like "what does this mean for the industry?" Although, I'm curious how loudly they'd ask those questions when the pinkslip lands on their desk and they're forced to find new jobs.

My personal problem with the actions of the Church of Scientology aren't in what they did, but what they're not doing. They're not releasing the reporting. That's what journalism is all about, shining a light into the darkest corners of society. It's not just about finding those places, but about turning on the light and letting the world see it. The Church isn't releasing the reporting.

If you're going to create content, then let's see it.

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Oh So Excited! And Pleased!

A former client of mine was bought recently. Great news for them as they all worked hard and earned the buyout. I'm sure the company buying them knows that they picked up a great technology and a smart team.

But when I read the release I almost did a spit-take of my coffee--and what a waste of good coffee that would have been! The release had the typical corporate stuff such as the "leading provider" language and the platitudes of two corporate executives doing a new dance.

But the quote from my former client was... how can I say this lightly... horrible.

I know people have been trashing the poor press release for quite a while and the social media release is at least an attempt at something different. But even that release comes with its own set of canned quotes for reporters, bloggers and other content creators to use at will. So quotes remain an important part of any release process.

However, if any Account Executive handed a quote to me with the opening line of "We're pleased..." and later threw in some "excitement" I'd send it back with the demand that they do some more work.

Of course these executives are pleased and excited. If they weren't why would they be putting out a release? What journalist in their right mind would ever pick up such an inane and lifeless quote? It doesn't say anything. If you're going to write a quote for an executive at least make an effort to have it add some color to the story. Provide a little insight or at least some colorful language.

I know I'm not the only one who believes this, but I know the fight against over-exuberant "excitement" will go on and on and on and on.....

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AOL PR Fail

Yesterday, AOL previewed its new identity to fairly mixed reviews. There's plenty of conversation about the new logotype, which you can find simply by typing "AOL" in your favorite search engine. What I'm most curious is their resistance to adopting social media technology in their communications.

AOL's News Release

A Link-Free Press Release

As a member of the IABC working committee on the subject, I've been my own worst critic when it comes to the social media news release. It took an impassioned, patient conversation with Shel Holtz (that's @shel for the record) to finally win me over. So I minght be the last guys you expect to criticize anyone for not adopting it. But the announcement of a new logo seems a perfect opportunity to try out a few extra bells and whistles with your news release, something AOL failed to do. If you have a look at the press release announcing the new design, the one thing obviously missing is the actual design, or even a link to the design. In fact, there are no graphics or even links to the new graphics in the press release at all.  In fact, there are no hyperlinks in the release at all, unless you count the automatically hyperlinked email addresses. I guess we're just supposed to close our eyes and imagine what the new logo looks like.

Mind you, I've seen the design, and so has the entire tech community -- no thanks to the news release, however. This indicates one of two things: either the press release is dead and AOL simply doesn't care about them anymore, or AOL just doesn't get it.

Digging (hah, get it?) even deeper, the press release as it's shared on their corporate home page also includes no social bookmarking features, which even the staunchest social media haters have (however grudgingly) agreed to incorporate under pressure from the twenty-somethings in their communications department.

Something tells me AOL doesn't get it. Perhaps freeing themselves from Time Warner will free up their thinking a little bit when it comes to embracing the new media. Dear AOL: I've done a little work for one of your subsidiaries in my past, and Chuck and I would love to help you "take the company into the next decade" as you shed the cobwebs of outdated technologies and twentieth century modes of thinking. Call me!

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