Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Spring training: reporting day for PR pitchers

Last April, Todd Defren recommended five ways to improve undergraduate PR programs. Although his focus was on ways the industry could help, I took suggestion #4 to heart and developed a new exercise for my PR communication class--an experiment that took place yesterday.

I gave my students a list of local nonprofit and government agencies that do community work, everything from AIDS Athens and BikeAthens to Keep Athens Beautiful. They had one hour to do research on the client and develop a pitch for Athens Magazine (I'm just now noticing that we here in Athens have a tendency to put Athens in the title of everything.) Next, my class joined Dr. Janice Hume's magazine class, and the students paired up. The "PRs" had 3 minutes to give their pitches to the "reporters," then they rotated to the next reporter and gave their pitch again, and then a third time. Next, the reporters had to write up a few sentences about each of the three pitches they heard and decide which, if they could choose only one, they would pursue.
I did not grade the PR students on their pitches--the experience and the feedback from the reporters were valuable enough. Instead, I summarized the pros and cons mentioned by the reporters in their summaries, whether referring to the pitches as a whole or to an individual's story or presentation (not, of course, using names--my purpose was not to embarrass anyone but to show the PRs what the reporters were looking for).

I was incredibly impressed by Janice's students. Most of them took it very seriously and provided thoughtful feedback on what they liked and didn't like, both about the stories and the way they were pitched. I was also very proud of my students, many of whom were nervous going in, but who acted so confident and polished that the reporters didn't seem aware of their worries. This is not to say that they can't improve on their pitching skills. But they're off to a good start--in fact, 10 of the 13 students who participated were named by one of the 13 reporters as having given the pitch that they were most likely to follow up on (three were chosen twice), and all of the story ideas were noted by at least one reporter as having some merit (i.e., a photo essay or a short blurb if not an entire feature story).

My favorite part of this project was standing back and watching my students, leaning forward in their chairs in their enthusiasm to sell their stories, and Janice's students, sitting up straight and listening with a certain degree of skepticism but also some interest to each pitch. I haven't talked to Janice yet, but I feel sure that it must be beneficial for journalism students to evaluate what a good pitch is and what they can learn from a PR person.

Mr. Defren, I salute you. This was a great idea, and I'll be doing it from now until 2031 (longer than that if my daughter chooses a private university).

The pros and cons (duplications omitted) that I posted for my students on the class Web site:
Not terribly unique
Had more than one idea, not enough detail on each one
Fits a newspaper better than a magazine because of timeliness
Unclear what the actual story is
Would profile more than the one person mentioned in the pitch
Could have provided more details to spark interest, too vague
Rushed through the proposal
Newsworthy but not new
Not sold on the importance of the event
Not clear what the organization actually does
Give a better idea of why the story is important for the publication
Too national rather than local
Not sure the event caters to my readers
Good cause but not enough to make a full story
Topic was too broad, would need to be narrowed to a specific story idea
Should have included names of people associated with the event
Too much about the organization and not enough about the event
Would come up with my own ideas because based on compassion rather than facts
Timing (too late to get it in the next issue)

Suitable for the demographic of the readers
Professionally done
Seemed knowledgeable about their organizations
Clear and to the point
Very thorough
Kept my attention
Well spoken
Has a good local focus
Very interested in her subject
Immediately noted why it’s meaningful
Organized and clearly presented
Even suggested which section it could run in
Had the facts, never had to look at notes
Friendly, polite
Timing is good
Conversational, easy-going
Full of information, well researched
Pitched specifically to the publication with a spin for them

Monday, October 16, 2006

The ivory tower meets the real PR world

As a historian, I know how the introduction of new media has worked in the United States. A new medium comes along (think radio). People talk about the possibility for cultural uplift--how virtually anyone can learn, be exposed to new ideas, hear the best music, and engage in political debate because they've heard the words directly from the candidate or official's mouth. Then along comes advertising and PR. Soon the airwaves are full of jingles rather than opera, news that attracts an audience rather than providing information about boring things like economics or foreign policy, and stage-managed speeches rather than genuine debate. (Roland Marchand analyzed this best in Advertising the American Dream.)

As a public relations professor, I'm fully cognizant that what I teach in the ivory tower isn't necessarily what happens in the real world of PR. We talk about the ideal speech situation (Habermas), two-way symmetrical communication (Grunig and Hunt), call it what you will--but the idea is supposed to be that PR professionals, in addition to providing facts and information, create dialogue between an organization and its publics. This is the only meaningful justification for the practice. Don't give me the tired "marketplace of ideas" concept; there's no such thing, and even if there were, just like in the economic market, the people who are already rich have a big advantage over everyone else. That's why I'm so excited about the potential of social media, which does level the playing field, and that's why Edelman doesn't get a bye this time. (See Constantin's roundup on PR meets the WWW if you somehow missed this story.)

Social media have the potential to "uplift" much like radio or television did. They also have the potential to become polluted with advertising garbage, public relations fluff, or lies, so that even the genuine, good stuff out there is looked upon with suspicion by participants. It doesn't have to be that way. But when an agency that positions itself as the market leader fails on the principle of "Protecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information [that] is essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision making in a democratic society" (if you don't recognize it, that's the PRSA Code of Ethics), it makes it hard for the rest of us to forgive and forget. If Edelman will do it, or allow its client to do it, or whatever happened, what's to stop a smaller, less visible, or more desperate organization from doing it without qualm, or even second thought? As Todd Defren points out, the silence from Edelman bloggers screams hypocrisy.

The blogosphere is a more fragile place than people may realize. Who will protect it--Edelman? You?

Addition: Now this is what I'm talking about!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

BusinessWire's 100th anniversary of the news release

I woke up this morning to find that Stuart Bruce and our friends across the pond questioning the very thing I've been working on for my remarks at the Business Wire 100th anniversary of the news release meeting in Atlanta today.

In fact, the news release is not 100 years old; but it as I pointed out in my presentation, 1906 is a year worth celebrating.

Here's what I said (warning, long):

Working on behalf of the anthracite coal operators, Lee issued frequent handouts that updated reporters on discussions between the operators and the miners at a time when another huge coal strike was pending. One reporter stated that it had been almost impossible, during the 1902 strike, for a reporter to get any reliable information from the owners. In 1906, though, because of Ivy Lee "news of importance and interest was easily obtainable from operators as well as from miners."

Despite this change, Sherman Morse was, in 1906, still skeptical. "The new plan has not been in effect long enough to enable one to foresee its real meaning,” he wrote. “Much depends upon whether it results in disclosing all the facts in which the public has a right to be concerned, or whether it results merely in obtaining for the corporations greater publicity for such facts as are directly favorable to them."

It is worth noting that, under Lee’s new system, the coal miners went back to work under their old agreement, gaining nothing but a three-year peace.

It’s also worth considering that Lee failed to live up to the standards he set in the Declaration during his work for the Rockefeller family during the Colorado Fuel and Iron strike, less than a decade later. Sherman Morse would not have been surprised. But, having debunked one myth already, I will save that story for another day.

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Sunday, October 01, 2006

Blogging rights -- and wrongs

My PR writing class is discussing gatekeeping today, and local events have provided me with a perfect case example. Our local paper, the Athens Banner-Herald, is reporting on a high school blogging scandal that points up the differences between journalism and blogging -- and a lot of it has to do with training.

The paper reports (registration required) on a Peyton Place-ish situation in which an anonymous blogger posted stories and/or rumors about other students at her high school. The police are now tracking her down, and some parents are evidently considering libel suits. What high school student knows and understands defamation law? Yet this young person could be in a boatload of trouble, because these days anyone can publish anything for anyone else in the world to read.

We usually talk about gatekeepers as barriers to get around. But this situation points up why a journalist's gatekeeping role can be beneficial.

"More important than the curriculum is the question of the methods of teaching and the spirit in which the teaching is given" --Bertrand Russell

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