Friday, April 30, 2010

Off the Record . . . er, Deep Background . . . er, Not for Attribution . . .

If part of your job involves talking to the media, there are times when you want to give them information, but don’t want to be cited as the source. And there are rules for arranging that. The problem is, the rules are squishy, and often interpreted differently by the source and the reporter – and they can get you in trouble.

Most recently a tweet by the New York Times’ technology blogger, Nick Bilton, backfired over a misunderstanding of these rules. After an interview with the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, Bilton wrote that Zuckerberg doesn’t believe in privacy – a serious charge for the head of that far-reaching media platform. Bilton acknowledged in the tweet that the comment was “off the record,” but maintains that “off the record” means he can use the information without direct attribution. Since he didn’t quote Zuckerberg directly as saying he doesn’t believe in privacy, he felt that he was abiding by the rules.

In another tweet, Bilton later said that he had discussed the attribution rules in detail during the interview. And Zuckerberg has not complained. Still, the tweet has stirred up something of a furor over how Bilton interpreted "off the record."

In fact, “off the record” generally means that the information cannot be used at all. If a source is allowing the information to be used without being cited, it is described as “not for attribution.”

Traditionally, there have been several different categories for presenting information to journalists that is not fully on the record. Here they are, as described in the NYU Journalism Handbook:

“On background”: a reporter can use the information without using the source’s name anywhere in the article.

“Not for attribution”: a reporter may identify the source by general reference – “highly placed government official” – but not by name.

“Off the record”: the reporter should not use the information at all, unless it is confirmed on the record by another source.

Any restriction must be made clear before the information is presented; you can’t say after making a statement that it’s off the record and expect a reporter to comply.

To make it all more complicated, the specific understandings of each category can vary widely, and many media are pushing back against any “off-the-record” status.

The most important rule, then, is to make it clear, in plain English, if there are any restrictions on any information – and even then, you better have great confidence in the cooperativeness of the reporter. You’re the one who could get burned.

- Potomac Communications Group

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

And the Enemy Is . . . PowerPoint!

One of the most destructive “innovations” of the past couple of decades, I have thought, is the onslaught of PowerPoint. It has destroyed subtlety and nuance in communication, has brought an end to story-telling as the heart of presentations and has ousted style and creativity for a bland cookie-cutter approach that is often as misleading as it is boring. And now we learn that it also threatens our national security.

A Page 1 article by Elisabeth Bumiller in the New York Times today examines the impact of PowerPoint on our armed forces. And it’s an ugly sight. It's "reached the level of near-obsession," becoming a major daily activity for officers at all levels. Yet, as one general says, “PowerPoint makes us stupid. … It creates the illusion of understanding and illusion of control.”

It’s not just the impenetrable charts, like this one, that are the villains, but also the lists of simplistic bullet points that reduce complications to simple assertions. Using PowerPoint "stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making."

The one time that PowerPoint slides seem effective, according to some senior officers, is when the goal is NOT to impart information – like briefing reporters. And those presentations are known as “hypnotizing chickens.”

Without PowerPoint, we would all have to write out our information and interpretation methodically, coping with the subtleties and complications, and even find a way to make the material interesting – like telling a story. Alternatively, we could learn to use the PowerPoint technology without buying into the straitjacket of its templates. That would be harder, but it could lead to actual . . . communication.

- Potomac Communications Group

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

How Henry Luce Shaped Our Life and Time

For anyone interested in the roots of modern journalism, here’s a new must-read: Alan Brinkley’s fascinating biography, “The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century.” It’s not just an authoritative history of Time magazine and its sister publications, but also a panoramic view of the 20th-century press (before it became the “media”) and Luce’s major role in shaping what he famously named “The American Century.”

Luce came from modest means, the son of missionaries in China. But along with his friend and Yale classmate Brit Hadden, he was obsessed with the idea of creating a new type of publication, a “news-magazine” for the upper classes, who he believed were illiterate about national affairs. In their early 20s, they came up with a bold new concept – digesting reports from dozens of other newspapers and magazines, organizing them by strict predictable categories, and presenting them through a new style that was more like Homer than any existing publications. And they somehow raised the money to get it launched.

Brinkley traces the vast impact of Luce and his publishing empire on the publishing industry, American lifestyle, politics and foreign policy (slow to condemn Hitler and Mussolini, strongly pro-China). And he brings to life the swaggering egos of the period’s press lords – especially in the drawn-out and hilarious feud between Luce and Harold Ross, who launched The New Yorker only two years after the first issue of Time in 1923. Both magazines delighted in running articles slicing up its competitor.

The New Yorker loved to ridicule Time’s artificial neo-classical style dreamed up by Hadden, based on his love of Homer and the Greeks. He loved hyphenated words and action words, even when they never before existed in the language, and many came into standard use: snaggle-toothed, coffee-colored, bandy-legged, tycoon, “cinemactress.” And the pontificating sentences often seemed parodies of Homer: “Up to the White House portico rolled a borrowed automobile.” The New Yorker had fun deflating Time-ese, especially in a profile of Luce written by Wolcott Gibbs, which included this devastating passage:

“Certainly to be taken with seriousness is Luce at thirty-eight, his fellowman already informed up to his ears, the shadow of his enterprise long across the land, his future plans impossible to contemplate. Where it will all end, knows God!” (For more on the astonishing public battle between Luce and Ross, see the New Yorker’s summary here.)

From today’s perspective, we can see that Luce was the first great aggregator – for years Time did no reporting, but just collected and rewrote material from other publications. It grew to become one of most powerful publications in history, with a vast staff doing real reporting around the world. Let’s hope some of our current web aggregators can follow that example. But while we’re hoping – read this absorbing book.

- Potomac Communications Group

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

What is 3G?

Today's cell phone providers constantly bombard us with advertisements about the power of their networks. The word 3G is often included in these ads and now we are also beginning to hear more and more about the next technological leap to 4G. As communicators, we are transfixed by new ways to deliver content to cell phones through these 3G and soon to be 4G networks. In order to do so intelligently, it's important to understand just what the "G" means. Click on the video below for a short explanation.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Information Homeowners Trust

When we facilitate focus groups for clients, we always seem to learn something that we can share with everyone. It happened again when a long-time client, the National Fenestration Rating Council (think windows and doors), recently asked us to conduct research with homeowners to help them design a new energy performance label for shades, blinds, and other window attachment products.

We asked participants to tell us where they get information about the home improvement products they buy, and then to rate those sources in terms of how much they trust them. By far the most common and trustworthy source of information: recommendations from family, friends, and neighbors. This confirms what national surveys have said for years: the information we trust most comes from people like ourselves.

Participants also told us that while they spend a lot of time shopping in retail stores and surfing the Web, they don’t necessarily trust what they learn there. And the good news for our client: NFRC is considered very trustworthy.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Tooting Our Own Horn

We don’t do this very often, but here are some recent accomplishments that we’re particularly proud of:

We’ve signed on with the Solar Electric Power Association to help with its marketing and media outreach. SEPA is the primary source of information about solar technologies and business models for electric utilities around the country. We’re honored to be on the team.

We’ve begun our seventh year of training federal and state on-scene coordinators and international responders in risk communication and crisis media relations for the Department of Homeland Security. We’ve trained more than 1,000 senior U.S. Coast Guard officers, their international counterparts, representatives from government environmental and safety agencies and senior executives from the shipping industry.

We're working with long-time client Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) on a brand new project, this time to promote the latest version of CSI's flagship MasterFormat™ product with architects, specifiers, engineers and other construction professionals.

We conducted customized presentation skills training programs for more than 90 engineers and business leaders at the Idaho National Lab. PCG has a day-long program focused on helping scientists, engineers, financial and other professionals learn to make interesting and compelling presentations to nontechnical audiences by combining story-telling skills with messaging and practice.

Just a few examples of what we do around here, besides blog.

- Potomac Communications Group

Monday, April 5, 2010

Your Crisis Communications Could Cause a Crisis

Here’s a warning for communicators in all types of organizations: Responding to a crisis has become totally different – and much more complex – than ever before, thanks to the viral world of social media. If your crisis communications playbook is more than 18 months old, throw it away and start over. We’re in a different era.

At our offsite meeting earlier this month, Jim Van Nostrand, Web Editor of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau, told us that crisis communicators need to think of themselves as digital journalists, making use of every form of media as rapidly as possible: get the message out by tweeting, then blog posts, then conventional statements and Web site content, update tweets and blogs, and don’t forget YouTube. Your critics will be pounding every digital medium – so must you.

Beyond that, we are seeing another new threat. In the wake of a crisis, critics will pore over the company’s response – especially its use of social media – as a reflection of its culture and trustworthiness. And that can lead to another wave of crisis.

Just this week, three major MSM publications have taken whacks at companies for not using social media effectively during a crisis – and in passing, to praise companies for using it well.

The Wall Street Journal describes how Nestlé is taking “a beating on social-media sites” in a crusade led by Greenpeace. The issue: purchasing palm oil from sources that are “contributing to destruction of Indonesia’s rain forest.” But the real focus is Nestlé’s heavy-handed strategy for Facebook and YouTube, which incited more protesters to post thousands of critical articles on the company’s own Facebook fan page. By comparison, the article cites Domino’s Pizza as an example of an effective response to digital media criticism, with its own immediate use of the Web and on-line videos to apologize and describe its corrective actions.

In an on-line article on “5 Lessons from Social Media PR Disasters,” the Atlantic said that Nestlé violated a basic rule: “Don’t insult your customers.” Its response was too combative and in effect shifted the debate to its very handling of the crisis. The other four rules are based on case studies of social media used in crisis response by Southwest Airlines (good), Toyota (bad), Domino’s (good) and Motrin (bad).

The New York Times Magazine focused on how companies have used their own Web sites to respond to crises – often making them worse. A British company that sells umbrella strollers posted “the classic insincere apology” accompanied by “petulance and paranoia.” Toyota made its recall crisis sound “exciting and newsy,” just business as usual with no tone of apology. And seems untouched since 2008 – “delusional.”

So the lesson of the week: in our digital world, how you respond to a crisis can create a new one. Are you prepared?

- Potomac Communications Group

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Politico Wins Favor Via Facebook

Facebook continued to expand its social media kingdom last night as it hosted an online political event. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty staged the first-of-its-kind "town hall meeting" on the popular networking site, fielding questions from around the country. The Governor spoke briefly about some of the challenges facing our nation and some of the candidates he plans to support in 2010. Participants had the chance to log-on to their Facebook, Twitter and AIM accounts to raise issues, ask questions and suggest other conservative candidates to support for the Freedom First PAC.

Facebook has been a powerful tool for politicians for several years now: Facebook Election 2006 and Barack Obama’s “A+” use of Facebook in the 2008 presidential campaign are just two of many examples. Fox Business claimed this was the latest of a series of moves which political insiders see as Pawlenty “positioning himself for a run at the 2012 GOP nomination.” Wearing a casual blue shirt and seated between a U.S. and a Minnesota flag, Pawlenty showed he was approachable, accessible, and relatable to viewers. During the virtual meeting, I saw positive comments from views such as: “thanks governor, this rocks,” and “I want to see tpaw in office.”

Prior to the meeting, Pawlenty plugged his Facebook Town Hall meeting on FOX News with Greta Van Susteren and MSNBC.

Facebook has grown beyond a simple two-way communication between friends. The application has become an indirect marketing channel to promote products, services and politicians to specific target groups. During the town hall meeting, Pawlenty even unveiled a new icon/widget on his web site that allows people to directly donate to the candidates he is backing.

With more than 31,000 Facebook fans, utilizing Facebook was a smart way for Pawlenty to connect with potential supporters and get a "lot of press" without having to go through mainstream news media to communicate with people.

-Potomac Communications Group