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July 2, 2016

Corrupting "Earned media"

The Intercept reports on several news media who are selling special services at the national political conventions — meetings, cocktail parties, and more. The services are corrosive. Some are explicitly corrupt, “…they make explicit the inevitable failure of the distinction between “paid” and “earned” content.”making explicit the inevitable failure of the distinction between “paid” and “earned” content.

The less controversial services are corrosive because they let the media take money from the people they cover. Having spent a few decades as a marketing communications guy, I can promise you that in every business considering these offers, the conversation includes someone saying, “It doesn’t matter if no one comes to the cocktail party. It’d still improve our relationship with the publication.” Why? Because it’s a way to pay the journal money. That’s corrosive.

Larry Lessig points out that it’s not much different from news organizations tuning their coverage to their ratings. But such tuning at least caters to perceived piopular interest. These new services let an organization or candidate buy coverage despite a decided lack of public interest. It is worse than buying ads because the news media have traditionally had a “Chinese wall” between the advertising and editorial departments. This has been a fairly effective way of protecting editorial content from the direct influence of the marketing needs of the journal, even though the wall is sometimes breached, and Time Magazine has shamefully torn it down.

Once the media started letting companies pay for phony news coverage, they pretended to honor the breach by distinguishing “earned” and “paid” content. “Earned content” is coverage provided by media of events they think are newsworthy. “Paid content” is, well, paid content. Non-sleazebag companies and their PR reps expect media to mark paid content as paid for. Edelman, the world’s largest independent PR company, created ethical guidelines that not only say that the paid content must be well marked, but that Edelman will have its own Chinese wall between the processes by which earned content is pitched (“Yo, I have a client who’s invented a time travel machine. Wanna an interview? How’s yesterday for you?”) and the negotiations that result in the placement of paid content. (Disclosure: I had a tiny hand — Trump-sized — in drafting those guidelines.)

That’s better than nothing, but paid content still makes me queasy. Companies are willing to pay for content precisely because it looks like real coverage and thus tends to be taken more seriously than obvious ads. This erodes the phenomenological line between news and ads, which is bad for democracy and culture. Indeed, “the point of paid content is to erode the line. ”the point of paid content is to erode the line.

But letting candidates pay for interviews takes this to a whole new level. This is what The Intercept says:

Sponsors who pay $200,000 are promised convention interviews with The Hill’s editorial staff for “up to three named executives or organization representatives of your choice,” according to a brochure obtained by The Intercept. “These interviews are pieces of earned media,” the brochure says, “and will be hosted on a dedicated page on and promoted across The Hill’s digital and social media channels.”

The Hill says the resulting interviews will be earned media. Suppose the interview is stupid, boring, self-serving and non-newsworthy? If it weren’t, the client wouldn’t be paying for it. But The Hill is promising it’s going to run anyway because the client paid them $200,000. That is the very definition of paid content. So, by calling it “earned content,” The Hill can only mean that the article will not be marked as paid content, even though that is precisely what it is.

This corrupts the already corrosive practice of accepting paid content. It is disgraceful.

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December 15, 2014

[cluetrain] How Uber could end its PR nightmare

Uber’s hamfisted behavior continues to get it bad press. The latest: its “surge” pricing, algorithmically set according to demand, went up 400% in Sydney during the hostage-taking event.

Uber has responded appropriately, offering refunds, and providing free rides out of the area. At the same time, it’s keeping its pricing elevated to encourage more Uber drivers to get into their cars to pick up passengers there.

Some of my friends are suggesting that when someone at Uber notices surge prices spiking and it’s not snowing or rush hour, they ought to look into it. Fine, but here’s a radical idea for decentralizing that process:

Uber creates a policy that says that Uber drivers are first and foremost members of their community, and are thus empowered and encouraged to take the initiative in times of crisis, whether that’s to stop for someone in need on the street or to help the population get out of harm’s way during a civic emergency.

Then Uber rewards drivers for doing so.

That is, Uber’s new motto could be “Don’t be a dick.”


And for the other side of humanity: The #illridewithyou [I’ll ride with you] hashtag – Sydney folks offering to accompany Moslems who fear a backlash — makes you proud to be a human.


July 22, 2013

Paid content needs REALLY BIG metadata has just put up a post of mine about some new guidelines for “paid content.” The guidelines come from the PR and marketing communications company Edelman, which creates and places paid content for its clients. (Please read the disclosure that takes up all of paragraph 4 of my post. Short version: Edelman paid for a day of consulting on the guidelines. And, no, that didn’t include me agreeing to write about the guidelines)

I just read the current issue of Wired (Aug.) and was hit by a particularly good example. This issue has a two-page spread on pp. 34-35 that features an info graphic that is stylistically indistinguishable from another info graphic on p. 55. The fact that the two pager is paid content is flagged only by a small Shell logo in the upper left and the words “Wired promotion” in gray text half the height of the “article’s” subhead. It’s just not enough.

Worse, once you figure out that it’s an ad, you start to react to legitimate articles with suspicion. Is the article on the very next page (p. 36) titled “Nerf aims for girls but hits boys too” also paid content? How about the interview with the stars of the new comedy “The World’s End”? And then there’s the article on p. 46 that seems to be nothing but a plug for coins from Kitco. The only reason to think it’s not an ad in disguise is that it mentions a second coin company, Metallium. That’s pretty subtle metadata. Even so, it crossed my mind that maybe the two companies pitched in to pay for the article.

That’s exactly the sort of thought a journal doesn’t want crossing its readers’ minds. The failure to plainly distinguish paid content from unpaid content can subvert the reader’s trust. While I understand the perilous straits of many publications, if they’re going to accept paid content (and that seems like a done deal), then this month’s Wired gives a good illustration of why it’s in their own interest to mark their paid content clearly, using a standardized set of terms, just as the Edelman guidelines suggest.

(And, yes, I am aware of the irony – at best – that my taking money from Edelman raises just the sort of trust issues that I’m decrying in poorly-marked paid content.)


May 25, 2012

[mesh] Michael O’Connor Clarke

Yesterday at the Mesh conference I caught the second half of Michael O’Connor Clarke‘s presentation, to a packed house, about how not to use social media for marketing. I’ve known Michael since the Cluetrain days, and it was great to warch him argue against viewing social media as a messaging vehicle.

Michael has long championed understanding the Net as, well, a conversation that needs to be respected. Keeping that conversation as open and vibrant as possible is more important than your business’s tawdry ambitions, he says. (I am not just paraphrasing here, but entirely putting words in his mouth.) If your business wants to engage with it — and not every business has to, he says — then it should be engaged with by actual people, with actual names, actual interests, and actual personalities. Completely transparently, of course.

Great teaching, great examples, plus Michael’s hilarious. [Michael on twitter]


Marketing music: Amanda Palmer shows you how it’s done.

A few days ago I pointed to Elizabeth ‘s thread at Reddit where she engaged with the public in a way that everyone who manages customer support, PR, or marketing ought to learn from.

Today, Amanda Palmer posted about her current Kickstarter project, which has raised $855,000 with eight days yet to run. Her goal was $100,000…except in her post she responds with complete frankness (she’s AFP, after all) about what her real expectations were. The post is both an explanation and a demonstration of how musicians and theandir audiences can love and support each other.


May 23, 2012

Customer support (and collateral PR) at Reddit: How it’s done

A user who goes by the name Loyal2nes (NES = Nintendo gaming platform) had a problem: the game Civilization 4 kept crashing. So s/he posted about it on the game maker’s customer support site. Two days later, a customer support agent, Alexis L, replied that the problem is that Loyal2nes’s device only has 4096mb of RAM, whereas it needs at least 2 gigabytes. Unfortunately, Alexis did not understand that 4096 megabytes is the same as 4 gigabytes. Ooops.

Loyal2nes posted a screencapture of the exchange under a sarcastic headline, and opened up a thread about it at Reddit, where it climbed to the front page.

And the top-voted comment among the 460+ comments is from the Reddit user dahanese. Here’s her response:

Hey Loyal –

I’m Elizabeth Tobey and I’m the head of customer service – first off, I want to apologize because that’s a pretty embarrassing mistake. Secondly, I want to let you know I’m reopening your ticket and escalating it up. Chances are, I won’t get a response from the team who can help test out tonight and we’ll have a bit more back and forth in the coming days to try and troubleshoot the issue, but I promise I won’t tell you 4096MB is under spec and close your ticket.

Let me know if you have more questions now (although we can use the Support system and not reddit if you want!)


It doesn’t end there, though. Elizabeth stays with the thread as it expands and diverges. She’s frank, funny, and, as the thread continues, makes it clear that she’s not an interloper at Reddit. In fact, she’s been a Redditor (participant) for a while, participating in the threads that interest her. Often those threads are about gaming, but she also comments on ther serendipitous topics that make Reddit so much fun.

So, what’s so right about how Elizabeth handled this?

  • Her reply was frank, helpful, non-defensive, and understood the customer’s point of view

  • She identified herself by name and position

  • She exhibited a genuine interest in the overall thread, not simply in patching up a problem

  • She was speaking for 2K but very clearly also as herself and in her own voice

  • She spoke in a way that did not just serve her employer but, more importantly, served the conversation

  • She was already a member of the community — an enabler for the rest of this list

The only thing that could have made this a better example of how customer support and public relations is changing would be if Elizabeth were not the head of Customer Support but was an empowered customer support rep. But all the other main themes are there. Clear as day.


July 17, 2011

Edelman and Murdoch

Jay Rosen has an amazing Storify thread in which he engages in a public enquiry about Edelman PR’s taking NewsCorp on as a client. Jay is breaking ground in how journalism works.

DISCLOSURE: I count Richard Edelman as a friend. I like and respect him. I have also been paid during a couple of stretches as a consultant to Edelman on PR in the networked age. The last time was maybe a year ago. I have not spoken with Richard or Edelman employees since then.

In my last engagement, I tried in my small way to get Edelman (the company) to adopt a view that recognizes that the Web is quite literally built out alignments of interests: People put in links and affiliate with one another because they share interests. Marketing traditionally has been premised all too often on a misalignment of interests: The business wants one thing and the market wants another. PR should, imo, recognize and respect the Net’s aligned nature. PR should genuinely enhance the interests expressed in the market, and otherwise shut up. Something like that.

I have also advised Edelman that when a business’s interests and the market’s interests are not aligned over matters of fact or philosophy, the business should consider adopting a tactic of “advocacy marketing” in which the business states its case frankly, truthfully, transparently, honestly, and respectfully. So, if the company think it’s getting a bad rap, it should (for example) put up a site that acknowledges what’s being said about it, make its case, address the contrary claims, engage with those who disagree, and always link to its sources.

If I were Edelman PR, I would probably agree to take on NewsCorp, but only if I were satisfied to a reasonable degree (yes, them’s fudge words) that NewsCorp was ready to tell the truth. (Clients do lie to their PR companies. The first time Edelman catches NewsCorp lying to them, Edelman should quite publicly drop them.)

If I were Edelman, I would not suggest advocacy marketing. NewsCorp does not have a side of the story worth telling. The only way forward for NewsCorp is to go many extra miles in transparency. Come clean not only about the phone tapping and the bribery, but about the culture of soft influence, the partisan reporting that fruitlessly claims it’s non-partisan, the degradation of once worthy newspapers.

Edelman should not, in my opinion, be helping Murdoch tell his side of the story. Edelman should be helping Murdoch to confront the truth, to follow the truth all the way through, and to tell the truth over and over and over again.

Taking on NewsCorp will test the ability of PR itself to continue to exist as a representative only of the client that pays the bill. I do not believe PR can survive if it does not see itself and its client first and foremost within the web of shared interests.


May 6, 2010

Google’s videoadprmeme

Google’s video showing how quickly Chrome paints the screen is a good example of the lines blurring between advertisements, memes, and PR. It’s informative (including a making-of video), convincing, and totally geeky in the MythBusters blowing-sh_t-up way. And beneath its shambling nerdiness, there’s some damn fine direction and production values.

It’s an ad I watched voluntarily, which makes it hardly like an ad at all.


[A few minutes later] If I’m going to tout that Google vid, then I definitely need to push this amazing, non-commercial piece of footage about nature, numbers, and geometry.


October 14, 2009

When markets are angry conversations

The Financial Times asked four concerned experts how a CEO should handle a mob outraged at his or her corporation’s behavior. All four recommend some form of conversational engagement, including the possibility of changing corporate policy if it is discovered to be wrong. The hard part, of course, is what you do if rational minds simply disagree, and if the stakes are high enough that conversation fails and confrontation remains. At least one of the four commenters acknowledges that the CEO may just have to push back, and Oxfam says it engages in dialogue even as it also runs campaigns.

(Disclosure: I am consulting to Edelman and am friends with the Edelman person who is quoted in the piece. Also, we regularly donate money to Oxfam and I hope you do, too.)

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July 26, 2009

Deval Patrick plummets, and responds with talking points

According to a Boston Globe poll, the popularity of Mass. Gov Deval Patrick has plummeted.

Too bad. I think he’s been doing a good job in an economic and political environment within which success can only be measured by degrees of failure. (Those who worry about one-party control turning into a tyranny have never met Massachusetts Democrats.)

But, I was disappointed to receive an email this morning from Doug Rubin, of the Deval Patrick Committee, containing “talking points” for his supporters, with a form that lets us forward it to ten people. The msg begins:


In light of today’s Globe Poll, we know that many of you will be receiving many questions about the Governor and the Commonwealth. Below are some talking points to help with those conversations. We ask that you use these in conversation and distribute them to your friends and family. I’m proud of what we have accomplished, feel confident talking about our work, and I hope you are as well.

Doug Rubin

Jeez, I really don’t want to be recruited as a spin agent.

Governor Patrick, I know this has to be a sucky day for you. There are lots of us in the Commonwealth who think you’re the right person for the job and that you’re an exceptional person in near impossible circumstances. We want to help. Don’t spin us. Fall back on us. We’ll rise to catch you. Trust us.

One more thing: The email msg and the site it comes from do not explain who Doug Rubin is (Google reports he’s the Governor’s Chief of Staff [NOTE later that day: Doug Rubin says in the comments that he was Patrick’s Chief of Staff but is now part of the Governor’s campaign team] or Deval Patrick’s relationship to the site, other than noting that it is not an official government site. How about a little more transparency than that?

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