Sunday, January 1, 2006

The Mighty Ground Game

Found a link to this CBS News story on "The PR Playbook" from a post on Nova Spivak's excellent (and often surprising) blog. I generally find Nova's posts really fascinating, and he usually goes places that I don't see others heading in the blogosphere, which is why I RSS him and point folks that way.

In the case of this post, however, I'm going to have to disagree with Nova... but only because (I suspect) he hasn't spent time inside the marketing/PR world.

From the perspective of "regular people" -- i.e., consumers of mainstream, reported news -- the CBS article is fine, yes. It seems like a little peek-behind-the-scenes into the rough-and-tumble world of hard-nosed journalism, where every fact is dug up through layers of rocky resistance, and every nugget of data has been extracted at great pains from corporate shills who only exist to keep America away from The Truth. Thank goodness we have the Fourth Estate to look after our interests and go nose-to-nose with these rapscallions of resistance... these hoodwinking horse-thieves... these... er... other badly alliterated examples I can't think of at the moment.

Problem is... the story itself is both "old hat" and refers predominantly to the laziest kind of reporting in the book, which is the kind where you call the company up and ask, "Did you do the bad thing?" "Why did you do the bad thing?" "Can you tell us more about the bad thing?" "Who is responsible for the bad thing?" "How many more times will you do the bad thing?"

This is the football equivalent of a coach, in the 21st century, telling us all about how running the ball is really the most important, exciting and strategic way to score points on the gridiron. None of the statements are, factually, wrong... but it's about as old-hat (see clever illustration above... ha-ha-ha) as it gets.

Gee. Corporations don't hire people to spend their shareholders' money (in the form of their salary) spending time doing reporters' jobs for them? Of all the "2005 Top Ten Tactics to Influence Negative News" that the CBS article goes into, only one (#7: The Cinch Connection; basically, hire famous/influential people to shill for you) has anything to do with stuff a PR department might do that's outside the bounds of response to journalistic querry; i.e., a proactive strategy. All other nine "tactics" on this list are simply things that tend to frustrate (in my opinion) lazy reporters.

Don't get me wrong -- I love the press. Well, the members of it that are left that aren't simply doing exactly what the author accuses corporate PR hacks of doing -- shilling for their corporate masters. I love good investigative reporting. It's one of the bedrocks of our democracy. But this "report" on the "Top 10 Tactics" is more of an example of what's wrong with the press than what's wrong with corporate PR. Why? Because, as I said, all but one of the tactics are exactly what PR people are hired to do. And while it may be part of a journalists job to make the understandably onerous and probably futile call to the company PR person to ask, "What's your position on Bad Thing Du Jour," to expect anything other than "Spin-Spinnery spin spin," is the height of immaturity.

And to write an article asking us to believe that good reporters are flummoxed by this is... well... doing a disservice to real reporters. So. As my grandma always said, "If you can't say anything nice... clean up the mess yourself." With that, here's MY list of the "Top Five Tactics to Influence Negative News." Not for 2005, because... jeez. Just 'cause it's January 1, we don't have to play that game. And because this crap has been around forever. Note that these are all proactive tactics. Things that a company/organization might do to actually influence (as the title suggests) news, rather than just frustrate reporters. Because if simply frustrating reporters is all we PR bozos need to do to influence news... the world will end very soon.

Why only five? I ain't getting paid for this, and I'm hoping maybe somebody, somewhere will point a real reporter at this list and stimulate him/her to add on a few of their own.

  1. Discredit your competitors/critics -- Classic example, the Plame Affair. When Joseph Wilson criticizes the Bush administration, make it look like his wife got him his job. If doing so also exposes her as a CIA agent, well that's a three-fer; you discredit him, punish him by making him look like a panty-waist whose wife wears the gun in the family, and punish her by, well... endangering her life. This is, of course, the extreme example. In the commercial/business world, usually we don't kill our competition. Usually.

  2. More dirt yonder -- A kissin' cousin to #1, you'll notice that the CBS report never mentions PR tricks that play directly on journalistic shortcomings. My favorite being the "look over there for more dirt" tactic that works really well on the American press. "You think our product is dangerous... you should see our competitors' numbers!" The only thing better than a helpful PR director is one who will help you to someone else's dirty laundry. Now... I said all these tactics would be proactive, and of course this can be used as a reactive measure. But really good PR folks will court and keep a list of journalists whom they will feed information to that sets them on trails other than their own. If the dog is busy worrying a bone, it ain't chewin' on y'all's leg, after all.

  3. Change the name of your company -- See those nice RJR... er... "Altria" people for a good example. They said, of course, that they were doing it because, "we have evolved into a substantially larger, more diverse enterprise than we were originally." Not a lie. But I'll bet that the association of RJR with a few million cancer deaths had something to do with it, too.

  4. Fake corporate communications -- Sorry, but we've got two tobacco related tactics in a row. They've got so much bad PR, it's hard to avoid 'em. In 1998, the multi-state tobacco settlement had provisions in it for youth anti-smoking ads. Problem is, if you're really good at advertising -- and toboacco marketing is some of the best on the planet -- you can make anti-anti-ads. Here's a good blog post that goes into it in depth, but the basic point is this; if you do an anti-smoking ad aimed at youth, and make it really, really lame, it will have the effect of being a pro-smoking ad. Witness some of the TV ads funded by the tobacco industry where kids on school busses talk about how uncool it is to smoke. Yeah. Because a school bus is truly the bully pulpit of cool. Problem is, all the people that vet these ads are old geezers who look at the straight-up content (similar to the content of the CBS article I'm spending too much time disecting), and not the context. Hmmm... Maybe some super-savvy US journalists could take a crack at really exposing the true memes of anti-smoking ads, rather than leaving it to weirdos and bloggers.

  5. Be less (or more) entertaining -- the worst, worst, worst thing in the circus of the American mediasphere is not murder, child-molestation, terrorism, gay marriage or lipstick parties. It's "The Great Ennui." Boredom. Stuff that has no glam appeal. If you can make everything your company does so completely dry and uninteresting to the press-consuming public... you are in like Flynn. On the flip side, if there is an "us and them" in a particular issue, and you can be more photogenic, more appealing to the press corps, more responsive, provide more background and generally be more entertaining in the details you provide... again, you win. The trick is to always tilt the ball away from whatever it is you want hidden. This can be very subtle. For example, if you are having problems with monopolistic trade practices and employee fairness issues (WalMart, at one point, for example), you might think that the best thing to do would be to shift focus onto positive things you're doing; good works, environmental clean-up, employee education programs. No! You're so "ground game!" If your fair-trade and employee benefits issues could possibly cost you a couple billion bucks, the press isn't going to fall for "look at our donations to UNICEF." They will, however, fall for a more entertaining story about how you're screwing up something with more of a juicy bite. Like how you're banning certain books and music in your megastore. A few of those stories, and the billion-buck stuff (i.e., the important stories that the PR flacks are paid to bury) gets burried. Why? Because there's only so much room for WalMart in the media, unless they are sacrificing nude, Siamese-twin virgins to Pantheist senior citizens while wearign Brittney Spear's new line of hip-hop clothing. That would have more entertainment value. See... it's not about what is true-er-er, it's about what is fun-er-er.

OK. I'm done. You either buy the point or not. And why are we going over this on a creativity blog? Because really good PR people -- spin doctors, corporate flacks, marketing hacks, call them/us what you want -- are creative people. And so are really good journalists. They find new ways to get around old roadblocks. They figure out what people need and/or want to see, hear and read and push it out there. They question the status quo. They never take "no" for an answer... unless "no" is the answer they were looking for all along.

Beware the ground game. Beware the easy answers. Beware the "tell all" articles that promise you a peep inside the machine, but that don't turn any of the glare on the "peeper's machine." Beware your own first response.

Oh. And Happy New Year.

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