Working in the Great Divide: PR and Journalism

When I was a reporter working for several daily newspapers in the 1980s, we instinctively fell silent when a company salesperson would walk by our desks. In those days, journalists were purists: newspaper salespeople wore nicer clothes, drove fancier cars and made lots more money, but we were more comfortable in our glow of righteousness.

Occasionally, that same cloud would enter our very own ranks. We were happy when a fellow reporter got a promotion to editor or if they took a job at a bigger newspaper. But every once in a while, a reporter would walk into the boss’ office and announce they were becoming a spokesperson for a politician or a company – or worse, that they were going to work for a PR firm. When that occurred, a pall would drift over our team for days. Usually, the departing reporter – his or her personal belongings packed quickly in a box – was awkwardly escorted out of the building shortly after announcing they were going over “to the dark side.”

I once worked for an editor who would take such an occasion to warn the remaining reporters that if they ever took a job in PR, they’d never work for a newspaper again. It was a hollow threat. That same editor a few years later welcomed back a writer who found he didn’t have the mettle for billable hours and client service.

I was reminded of this Great Divide this week when I read a Facebook post by a digital editor of the Fulton County Daily Report, a fine paper for which I used to work. Grayson Daughters wrote:

“I’d re-post articles from the SaportaReport here, such as the one by Saba Tesfanesh Long, on the domino effect of the now-open U.S. Senate seat in Georgia, but as I never know WHO the author of a Saporta Report article is working for/consulting for/receiving a paycheck from to write said articles, interesting as they might be, I’ve decided not to do that any longer. Sorry, kiddies.”

None of the writers at SaportaReport are able to afford to work full-time for this experiment in new journalism, even though – given the chance – we might prefer to. But Maria Saporta, whom I consider Atlanta’s most trusted journalist, holds our feet to the fire to make sure we disclose any potential conflicts to our readers, so they can make their decisions as to whether we are providing worthwhile commentary on issues of importance to metro Atlanta.

The ironic truth is when I worked for the Fulton County Daily Report in the 1990s, I had two jobs there: In the mornings, I would sit upstairs in front of an IBM laptop and manage the advertising staff. After lunch, I’d drift downstairs to my Apple computer and help edit news stories, scan photos, write headlines and design page layouts for the next day’s front news section. I didn’t even have to bathe in between gigs!

I love journalism and newsrooms. My heart aches when I pick up the morning papers in my driveway and see them barely breathing from a lack of advertising. Journalism was a noble profession. It still is. It’s just a challenged one.

Not only does social media offer an informational platform to anyone who can write or post a photo, my Wall Street Journal features a weekly editorial column by a former presidential aide who raised hundreds of millions of dollars this past year to unseat Democratic candidates. When I watch my Sunday morning television news panels, I listen as journalists debate lobbyists and PR professionals.

The lines are so blurred these days, it’s difficult for regular readers to know the difference, except for the occasional italicized disclosure at the bottom of articles, stating that the writer works here, represents someone there or authored a book on a subject that possibly sounds impressive.

And that, I guess, is the point: We’re all human. Each one of us is a bundle of beliefs, biases and contradictions. When newspapers were founded in 18th century America, they were started by someone with a particular voice who pushed an entertaining – and hopefully profitable – point of view. Readers bought several papers, but they tended to believe the ones that aligned with their own political leanings.

Somewhere along the way, journalists began to proffer a higher calling: objectivity. News stories could not express an opinion; they had to be balanced. Only editorials could opine. But that was just too high and mighty of a brand to promote. Reporters and editors are humans. They make decisions about which quote to feature first and how to end an article. According to the dictionary, those are not objective decisions, they are “dependent on the human mind for existence” and, thus, subjective.

I really enjoy public relations. We assist organizations in shaping messages that help customers understand what services and benefits the firms offer. Our profession even provides a decent enough income that some of us can afford the time to work part-time in our first love, journalism.

Judging by recent analysis, our website is attracting thousands more readers this month than we did in any month last year. We think we are building momentum – and trust. We are proud of our efforts. We do have families and other jobs and hobbies and groups to which we belong. We provide paragraphs at the ends of our articles reporting what other endeavors in which our writers are involved. It is not a complete description of our personalities or beliefs. It is merely a glimpse into our souls.

Thank you for reading our columns. We appreciate your feedback. If you choose to share our columns with your social media friends or co-workers, thank you for doing so. If you choose not to, well, that’s also fine. You have exercised your own judgment – and here at SaportaReport that is a right we respect very much.

– Chris Schroder Schroder PR and SaportaReport!

Private Blunders and Public Apologies

We all make mistakes, and I’d like to think we all apologize when we’re in the wrong. Fortunately, not many people notice when I make a mistake – but when newsmakers such as Lance Armstrong, Manti Te’o, Anthony Weiner or a CEO of a major corporation make a blunder, the whole world pays attention.

The reputation of an organization or a celebrity is an intangible asset, but it’s an extremely important and valuable one. Many CEOs, actors and sports stars face a crisis situation with the potential to seriously damage their good reputations. When in this situation, a public apology is often the beginning of the road to redemption – whether through a statement, a press conference or an appearance on Oprah or Katie Couric’s television show.

This hoax was perfect for Internet comedians – this GIF was one of many out there.

I thought about writing this post when I read that the alleged “mastermind” of the “dead girlfriend hoax” of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o – Ronaiah Tuiasosopo was going to tell his side of the story this week. Te’o has already scheduled an interview with Katie Couric. In a sermon last Sunday, Tuiasosopo’s father, a pastor at Oasis Christian Church, told his congregation that he was learning to say “No comment” in 20 languages!

With my crisis training at Schroder PR, the first thing I thought was – that’s the last thing he should say! Maybe 20 years ago, “no comment” was the advisable go-to response for responding to hard-hitting questions, but not anymore. The world has changed. When the public reads that phrase now, it assumes the party is guilty and being evasive.

I do think it’s smart that the whole Tuiasosopo family is planning to meet to figure out when and how to tell Manti’s “side” of the hoax story. They should get the complete story gathered in an understandable narrative and then decide who is going to be the family spokesperson. Whoever is behind the hoax, “No comment” isn’t going to pass muster with the public and the media – both of which feel duped. Tuiasosopo isn’t well known, or even a little known, and he and his family are already under the media spotlight. It will be very interesting to see how they plan on responding – and hopefully apologizing.

Another recent fiasco in the news is Lance Armstrong speaking about his use of performance-enhancing drugs. He sat down with Oprah (who else) and addressed the doping scandal, years of accusations of cheating and the drugs throughout his career.

Lance apologized on the show – and that’s worth something right? An apology to all those he inspired, competed against and beat probably came to welcome ears. Throughout the first night’s interview, Armstrong appeared “defiant, distant, difficult” and “arrogant, unaware, flippant.” He obviously had a coach – and the plan was to appear open and honest. If you saw the interview, you could tell it was rehearsed, until he apparently went off script on the second night.

On some level, Armstrong seemed to understand that he had to make a perfunctory admission – but that’s all he gave. In my opinion, a person who is genuinely sorry doesn’t say they looked up the definition of the word “cheat” and then declares he doesn’t think he meets that definition.

Another interesting part of the interview was Armstrong referring to himself in third person. He seemed to be trying to distance himself by calling himself “Lance Armstrong,” and trying to separate “that part of my life” from “this part of my life.” Given his celebrity, we all expected him to be media-trained, but I can imagine his PR team wasn’t thrilled with the way he appeared on camera. Even with the best team and the most media training – you can’t prevent someone who has no remorse from giving a fake apology and diminishing his or her brand.

There may not be just one way to publicly apologize, but we definitely have witnessed a lot of examples of what not to do. In giving an apology, choosing the appropriate venue or outlet is important. Armstrong could’ve conducted his first interview since being stripped of his titles with anyone – but he chose Oprah, assumedly because he thought it would be the best chance for an image revival.

CEOs have internal and external audiences – including investors, employees, customers, competitors and media – to worry about. Waffle House CEO Joe Rogers Jr. recently came under public scrutiny when he was accused of sexual harassment. He managed it remarkably well, telling his employees about the scandal before it broke in the media. In his apologies to the media, he spoke of the pain and embarrassment he’d caused his wife and family – showing sympathy for others, not himself. He accepted wrongdoing, although he denied any sexual misconduct.

Once a press conference, television appearance or other event is scheduled, it’s important to prepare an open and transparent apology. Showing respect for victims and accepting blame should be a perfectly human response, but demonstrating genuine action that corrects any wrongdoing would be divine.

Sarah Funderburk

As we were telling a potential new client yesterday, it’s all about what’s “between the commas!”

In the summer of 2005, I was struggling to find the right words when an important new client’s chief marketing officer proudly handed me a large three-ringed binder that contained the official branding statement for which his firm had obviously paid a handsome sum.

“This is our Branding Book,” he said. “It contains our Branding Statement.” My client had obviously paid thousands of dollars to engage his top executives in months-long process of introspection that resulted in the delivery of this heavy book that had since sat prominently on his bookshelf.

“What do you think of it?” he asked me.

I faced a big dilemma. Speak honesty and risk insulting his large investment and possibly lose a wonderful client. Or tell a white lie, praising the lofty branding statement and then from then on be saddled with infusing that into public relations documents.

“It’s a nice statement,” I said, after staring at the 10 words for what seemed like an eternity. “It conveys a soaring feeling, but it does not distinguish you from any of your competitors. You will never ever see that sentence ‘between the commas.’ ”

“What do you mean?” he said, looking at me with puzzlement. “What do you mean by ‘between the commas?’ ”

“It’s not a natural phrase that will end up being used in any story we place in newspapers or magazines. We’ll need to come up with something more accessible,” I said. And we did. The phrase we eventually sculpted for the firm not only appeared in many publications, a Google search today returns nearly a thousand references to those exact words – all associated with our client.

Just yesterday, we were meeting in our Peachtree Street office in Midtown with a potential new client. I was excited to see my associates begin to participate more in the interviewing process. At one point, our editorial director was answering a question about whether we could help this 10-year-old firm with branding.

She was telling the story of how branding is important, but needs to be accessible. She said, “it’s really important to develop what is …” She paused and looked at me and asked, “Did you make up ‘between the commas?’ ” I smiled and quickly said, “I think I may have,” before she continued explaining the concept to our guests.

I’m quite sure someone else said those words before me. Thanks to a Google search, I can see that other people have been quoted using those words, but they are dated after I first uttered them in my clients office eight years ago. I think some band has a song by that name now. And a bright young college student started a blog by that same name last year after crafting the phrase herself in a high school newspaper column.

No matter its origin, the concept is simple and very important. Today’s business professionals are often very good at what they do, but they stumble when telling people what that is, exactly. Skilled at their crafts, a professional must also communicate clearly what benefits their potential new clients will receive when hiring them.

It’s one of the most important gifts we give to our clients: the confidence to quickly express in a few actionable, expressive words what they do that distinguishes them from their competitors. If we are successful, the reporters who write about our clients will appreciate those words and place them in the first paragraph of their stories, right after the name of our client … between the commas.

If we’re effective, years from now, when our clients Google themselves, those words should be tucked in the first line or two of results – even if Google doesn’t present its concise results with punctuation marks.

– Chris Schroder

Announcement by The Associated Press to include Samsung-sponsored Tweets is part of an evolving platform

The Associated Press announced it will begin having sponsored tweets on its Twitter feed and Samsung will be the first company to take part in it.

Twitter has had advertising for some time in the form of Promoted Tweets – tweets purchased by advertisers that appear in targeted users’ Twitter feeds. The Promoted Tweets are denoted with the sponsor’s name or a little orange box and white arrow so they can be clearly identified on users’ feeds.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Twitter updated its terms of service in 2010 to ensure that advertisers only promoted their tweets in this Promoted Tweet format rather than infusing spam-like promotions through individual users’ accounts. AP’s Samsung announcement seems to fall somewhere in the middle.

Samsung will provide sponsored tweets through AP’s primary Twitter account during the upcoming 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Leveraging Samsung as a sponsor for this high-profile tech event might help expand advertising beyond an individual Twitter feed and make sense to the public.

AP stated in a release: “The effort builds on AP’s expansion into new advertising for mobile and social media.”

In the past, new advertising platforms for mobile and social media has developed traction with the media and and sometimes backlash from the public. Do you remember the Instagram debacle of 2012? Perhaps ‘debacle’ is an exaggeration, but Instagram’s moment in the spotlight certainly caused a stir among my social media community.

Infographic and GIF fromfastcodesign.com describes Instagram’s impact. –––>

When Instagram announced new terms of service in December 2012, users took to their social media accounts to complain. The new terms of service implied that Instagram would be able to take users’ photos and use them in promotions. The social media community panicked. My own social media feeds were flooded with pleas from others to delete my account to protest the insanity.

Instagram quickly retracted the new terms and released an apology and clarified what it had intended. Titled, “Thank you, and we’re listening,” the blog post stated that legal documents were easily misunderstood and that it would clarify its meaning in a less elusive, and more concrete manner. Instagram experienced the downside to presenting the public with a big idea rather than exact details – especially when it comes to people’s privacy and their understanding of advertising.

As Instagram’s parent company, Facebook, has seen in the past, people become uncomfortable with social media and advertising worlds colliding. In Instagram’s blog post apology, it made a simple, yet – I believe –necessary statement: “From the start, Instagram was created to become a business.”

Because we have incorporated our personal lives so much into social media, it is often forgotten that social media exists as a business commodity first and foremost – perhaps because ways to monetize the new media platforms often come months and years after their launch. Unfortunately, the medium has grown so quickly, it may take a while for perceptions to catch up. The Associated Press and Instagram are not the first to discuss their advertising tactics with social media and they will not be the last.

As the WSJ article eloquently states in its coverage of AP’s announcement, “plenty of media companies have very popular Twitter feeds and commercial departments keen to find new revenue sources.”

As social media’s audience and influence grows, we cannot expect money to stay out of the conversation. If we want our media to continue meeting our needs, we cannot always seem so astonished and offended when they announce they need money in order to do so.

  – Bailee Bowman

Many things have changed since Schroder PR begin 10 years ago; many have not

Ten years ago this week, Schroder PR opened its doors to provide writing and media relations services to a few select clients. Since then, a lot has changed in the business of public relations, but a few enduring principles remain more important than ever.

When we opened our doors to the public in 2003, we were already serving a few commercial real estate developers and soon were hired by one of the two largest law firms in town.

At that time, the primary request of our clients was that we carefully craft well-written press releases and provide them media counsel. Since then, the media world has exploded to an immediate online delivery of news from many news sources – including posts by many writers who have had no professional news training and are not professionally edited.

A decade ago, clients were still trying to understand the potential of the “world wide web” and we were often asked to help re-write their websites with new copy that would attract a prominent listing in developing platforms called “search engines.” Google was still a small private company that was a couple of years from going public.

The word blog was less than five years old in 2003 (it was coined in 1999 from its original term of weblog). Managing partners of large firms were trying to understand how to follow and regulate their use by leading-edge partners in the firms. It wasn’t long before our clients were asking us to assist them to host blogs on their own websites.

Networking and business development is a vital part of any business, particularly a new firm such as ours. Back then, the primary tool of business development was the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s Book of Lists. A few days after we opened our doors, a new web-based platform was launched that changed everything. It was called LinkedIn. Today, LinkedIn is a primary business development tool, though we still usually begin our new year making lots of notes in the printed Book of Lists, which is also available in electronic form.

Email and instant messaging had long replaced the idle chatter and gossip around the proverbial water cooler. Then in 2004, we all re-learned an entirely new way to peer into the lives and thoughts of others with the launch of Facebook. Although office productivity initially took a big hit with its growth, we now spend many hours a week updating business pages on Facebook for our clients.

In 2003, we began helping clients produce videos to explain their service offerings. New computer editing tools brought down the cost of this formerly cost-prohibitive medium. Ten years ago, we were still advising clients to trim their videos to five to eight minutes in length. Then in 2005, YouTube launched and video exploded. Today, based on Pew and Poynter research, we caution clients to edit their videos to no longer than 60 seconds and we help manage their YouTube channels.

While Schroder PR has always been an advocate for concise use of the English language, we all learned to edit even tighter in 2006 when Twitter reduced our world of communication not to 140 words, but 140 characters!

As Schroder PR moved offices several times around Midtown Atlanta, we were careful to always provide a cork bulletin board above the desks of our teammates so they could post personal photos and important lists. Now we primarily use the cork boards to soften the sound in more efficient working conditions while our team is busily posting photos and lists for our clients on Pinterest, which launched in 2010.

While many things have changed in 10 years, many principles still endure. Yes, our team spends much of our time monitoring social media for our clients, but we still spend a surprising amount of time editing press releases that we can post online. Yet, we rarely send press releases to reporters. Today we boil story pitches down to one-page backgrounders full of bullet points or send short emails or Twitter pitches.

Though we have so many new tools with which to communicate, we’ve found there is an increasing need to have regular face-to-face meetings with our clients. Client service remains the most important facet of our business and in this new year, we hope to spend more time in person with our clients than ever before. That’s where the magic in this business really happens.

The proper use of the English language is still paramount. Each of of our teammates has an AP Stylebook on their desks. We did try the electronic version for a while, but the book is still our bible.

When we start working with a new client, we still spend the first few weeks and months helping to sharpen their “message” and “position.” When we launched our own website in December 2002, we introduced our company’s slogan and mission, which endures – perhaps with even more significance – to this day: “Clear Messages in a Cluttered World.”

– Chris Schroder