Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Our Holiday Project: Books for Young Readers

Years ago our late partner, Ellen Lepper, began a holiday tradition that we are proud to continue: collecting children's books and donating them to a Washington organization that would put them to good use. We ask everyone who attends our holiday party to bring one or more children's books, new or used. They seem happy to cooperate. At times some of our friends and colleagues even ship books to us by mail, if they can't attend the party.

This year we were pleased to donate the books we collected (see photo) to Reading Partners, a wonderful organization that provides reading assistance to 160 schools in low-income communities in eight states and the District of Columbia. Volunteers go to local schools and meet once a week with young students who need help with reading - reading to them, mentoring, encouraging.

We're proud to be connected with Reading Partners, and to continue a program that meant so much to Ellen.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Our holiday tradition of the 'Mystery Lunch'

This is the time of year that many of our close friends start asking, “Where was it? Where was it?” They’re talking about our Mystery Lunch.

Our holiday week is always particularly festive. On a Thursday evening before Christmas we have a Holiday Party at the office, attracting over 100 clients, family and friends. The food, wine and lively conversation flow for hours.  

Then, the next day, the Mystery Lunch.

Beginning about noon on that Friday, one of Washington’s top restaurants rolls out a tasting menu for our entire team, offering its best dishes – with wine to match – in a half-dozen or more courses, plus appetizers and a sampling of desserts.  In between the courses we have year-end announcements, anniversary presentations, and best of all, skits, songs and videos from our most creative staffers, including a production from our first-year “newbies.”  By the time we start heading out, we often see other customers filing in for dinner.

But best of all: the identity of the restaurant is a total secret until the absolute last minute. Even as we board cabs from the office, only the drivers know the address.

Needless to say, everyone begins showing curiosity before Thanksgiving – questioning, lobbying, even setting up a betting line. And the staff well understands the criteria that Mimi Limbach and I use in selecting the venue: it should be relatively new, or at least unknown to most of the team; the food and service must be top-rated; the chef and management must be happy to work with us to tailor a special, unforgettable meal; and it needs a private room that will allow a little rowdiness. Still, so far, the location has always been a big surprise.

This year? A first-rate Asian restaurant on 14th Street, Zentan. Everything about it was perfect, from the creative dishes (escolar sushi, Pekin chicken, sparkling sake, and the world’s best crispy Brussels sprouts) to the service and the “fun” quotient. You can see what a hit it was by the expressions in this photo of our team, taken at the lunch.

Over the years we’ve enjoyed some of the best restaurants in town – like Komi (generally considered No. 1 in DC), Mio, 1789, Bibiana, Ris, Oyamel and Zaytinya. And veteran Washington foodies will recognize the legendary names from the past, such as Dominiques, Galileo, Red Sage, Kinkead’s and Café Atlantico.

So that’s our Mystery Lunch, one of our favorite traditions. It’s become a special milestone for wrapping up one year and beginning to ring in a new one.

And Happy ’15 to you.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Origin of the Presidential Press Conference

One of our favorite e-mails most mornings comes from Delanceyplace, which sends a brief excerpt from a notable nonfiction book. It’s always informative, and usually fascinating.

Today’s is a particular treat for anyone interested in media relations or public affairs. It’s from “Wilson,” a biography of the former president by A. Scott Berg, and it describes the origins of the institution known as the presidential press briefing.

On March 15, 1913, Wilson invited 125 reporters into his office to talk to them as a group and even answer questions. It was unprecedented. Before that, Teddy Roosevelt and Taft, for example, would occasionally select friendly members of the press for informal discussions and sometimes even a brief Q&A session – but never an open press conference.

Wilson knew he was especially good at extemporaneous speaking, and wanted to take advantage of that talent. Sure enough, the press briefing was a big hit. The New York Times wrote: “There was something so unaffected and honest about his way of talking … that it won everybody, despite the fact that many of the men there had come prejudiced against him.”

Wilson was also the first president since John Quincy Adams to deliver the State of the Union Address in person, speaking before a joint session of Congress. He began that address – all of nine minutes long – with an explanation: he wanted to show that the President “is a person, not a mere department of the Government [but] a human being trying to cooperate with other human beings in a common service.” It sounds as if the same reasoning could be applied to the press briefing.

He was clearly satisfied with the results. In the next nine months he arranged 60 more press briefings. And an institution was born, for better or worse.

(Check out Delanceyplace. You’ll thank us.)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Survey of the Changes in the Media, from a Key Insider

Here's a set of numbers that encapsulate the historic changes in the mass media we've been experiencing for the past couple of decades: As recently as the year 2000, advertising in U.S. newspapers amounted to more than $63 billion. By last year it had fallen to $23 billion. And last year the ad revenue of a single company, Google, amounted to more than $50 billion - more than twice as much as that of all U.S. newspapers combined.

What happened to the print media, and what it means for our society at large, is the subject of an insightful new Brookings Institution essay by Robert Kaiser, veteran reporter and until recently senior editor for the Washington Post. This may be familiar territory to anyone interested in mass communication, but it's fascinating to get the perspective of a major Washington journalist who's been at the center of most of the great changes. Even his alma mater, the newspaper that took on a president with its Watergate coverage, is now owned by the founder of Amazon.

Kaiser surveys the rapid transition from a world of a few relatively objective national networks and publications, with the resources to conduct groundbreaking investigative journalism, to our current environment of countless cable channels, internet sites and other news outlets that mostly serve up the superficial facts and interpretation that their audience wants: "The news media are fragmenting just as American society is fragmenting - by class, by region, by religious inclination, by generation, by ethnic identity, by politics and more."

Much of his analysis is simple nostalgia, for the time when he began his career, when major publications had a string of foreign bureaus and reporters flew first class. But he thoughtfully reviews major mistakes made by newspapers that contributed to their downfall and the impact that the media evolution is having on the country. For example, "there's no paper in the country that can offer the same coverage if its city, suburbs, and state that it provided 20 or even 10 years ago, and scores of city halls and state legislatures get virtually no coverage by any substantive news organizations." The public, he believes, is simply not being served as well as it used to be.

He tries to end on a hopeful note, but it seems half-hearted. He clearly represents the ink-in-his-veins journalist of the old school. We have to hope that there are still young journalists with pixels in their veins who will work to keep up some of the standards and instincts that Kaiser pines for.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The media discover good news

Have you noticed something new in news coverage recently? Maybe, even, something a little . . . positive?

The Columbia Journalism Review has. It has identified a new trend – the news media emphasizing upbeat, good-news stories. And it even says that they are good for business.

To me, the new attention to positive, inspiring stories has been most obvious in network news. All the national prime-time news shows now end their half-hour with an uplifting piece that can often lead to misting around the eyes. Of course, the morning shows regularly emphasize upbeat pieces, as does CBS Sunday Morning. And even 60 Minutes seems to present more profiles of role models and heroes than the investigative exposés that used to be their forte.

But CJR shows that the trend goes far beyond TV. It has evolved into its own successful brands: Huffington Post Good News, ABC Good News, websites like Positive News and the Good News Network. And just this month, the Washington Post is launching a new newsletter for its digital subscribers called The Optimist. (Here’s a sample, courtesy of CJR.)

The trend is controversial in journalism circles. Is it leading down the path away from real news and toward entertainment, like the websites that offer a steady parade of cute cats and dogs? It is attracting sponsors, and eyeballs, and making money for media outlets, but is it news?

To communicators, it raises another question: Will the discovery of good-news stories open the door for more articles that are, just, positive?

Stay tuned.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

PCG Managing Partner Named President of Nuclear Energy Industry Organization

At PCG, we pride ourselves on being the leading experts in industry communications, especially in technical fields like nuclear power. Rightly so, since our staff members are active participants in industry organizations like the American Nuclear Society, Utility Communicators International, International Atomic Energy Agency, Nuclear Energy Institute and others.

Now, we can also proudly share that our staff includes the president of one of the most respected nuclear energy industry organizations. Mimi Holland Limbach, our managing partner, was just inducted as president of the Pacific Nuclear Council (PNC). Mimi will serve in this role until 2016.

The PNC is an organization composed primarily of nuclear societies and associations from nations around the Pacific Rim. This organization provides best practices to those nations through its working groups, which address key industry issues and areas for improvement.

Mimi’s formal installation took place yesterday evening at the PNC’s 19th biannual international gathering, the Pacific Basin Nuclear Conference, held in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Please join us in congratulating Mimi on her new position!

Mimi taking the helm of the PNC

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Horror of the Blank Page

Here at PCG, we help clients communicate effectively through almost every form imaginable, except skywriting (so far) – from press releases to infographics, from presentations to online advertising. But no matter how the information is delivered, it all begins the same way: with words on paper, or on a screen.

So even deep into the digital age, we still emphasize the basic skill of effective writing. Get the messages clear, get the storyline clear, and then present it in a persuasive, appealing style.

The hardest part is getting started. That was the subject of an in-house tutorial led by our partner Leonard Greenberger. He was the right tutor since last year he published his own book, What To Say When Things GetTough: Business Communication Strategies for Winning People Over When They’reAngry, Worried, and Suspicious of Everything You Say (McGraw Hill Education). And he admits that the hardest part was filling up the first page.

So he began the session with two telling quotes from major writers:

When asked about the most frightening thing he had ever encountered, Ernest Hemingway – the war correspondent on the ground in both World War I and World War II – answered, “A blank sheet of paper.”

And Stephen King, the master of horror, once said, “The scariest moment is always just before you start writing.”

They reminded me of one of my own favorite quotes about writing, from the journalist and author Gene Fowler: “Writing is easy. All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

Good writing isn’t for the queasy. Maybe that’s why it’s so rare.