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Posts Tagged ‘media’

The Craziest Name in Communications?

Are you joshing us, Mr. Earnest?

Admittedly, my sense of humor skews a little toward irony and wordplay, but even if that were not the case, I’m sure  the name of President Obama’s new White  House Press Secretary would give me a belly laugh: Josh Earnest.

He has probably the most difficult job title in the world, and jokes about “joshing about being earnest” certainly won’t make it any easier. Almost every day is a big news day, with plenty of  stories to ballyhoo, for sure, but press secretaries earn their keep by diverting  the media’s attention away from stories the White House doesn’t want to see in the headlines. And that means the press secretary is purposefully kept in the dark on much that goes on where he works.

As a media relations and crisis communications expert, I have done my share of  redirecting stories, but I do it by understanding the full story, not by being purposefully ignorant. That’s not how it works with Josh Earnest, and that makes his name amazingly apropos for the man sandwiched between the podium and the White House seal.

“Ernest Earnest” might even be better. If I ever write a fictional follow-up to Crazifornia, I’ll have to keep that character name in mind.

OMG! Texts R Public!

A judge in San Jose has ruled in favor of a community activist seeking to close what many see as a flagrant loophole in California’s public record act – the continuing privacy of text messages sent and received by elected and appointed public officials and public employees. Private email accounts were also included in the judge’s ruling.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James P. Kleinberg ruled that “emails, texts and other messages sent to and from personal devices by Mayor Chuck Reed, council members and redevelopment officials about city business including subsidizing a development in San Pedro Square downtown on property owned by former Mayor Tom McEnery and his family” should be turned over to the activist who filed a Public Records Act request for them. Read the Contra Costa Times article here.

The decision doesn’t have statewide application yet, but it’s only a matter of time.  Public officials should not be caught short by this decision – it was bound to happen. California has a strong public disclosure tradition that has morphed over the years in include other emerging technologies – faxes, emails – so any public official or public agency employee who thought their text messages would remain out of the public view was short-sighted.

Our rule of thumb when working with public agencies is that any and every communication may become public, so every communication needs to pass scrutiny of the “What if this was on the front page?” sort. We advise others to take the same approach.

After all, the best way to avoid a crisis is to not do things that could cause one.


Body Blows

The Susan G. Komen group sustained a bit of a body blow over the last week when it canceled funding to Planned Parenthood, then reinstated it, then fired an executive over all the embarrassments that ensued.  There’s talk of permanent damage, but if they hunker down, get a lot smarter and stay on their breast cancer mission, they’ll be OK.

Maybe the same can’t be said for global warming advocates, because a sustained barrage of body blows does a cause much more harm than a single blow, or even a triple blow, like Komen just felt.

The latest salvo against global doom prophets came today in Germany’s Bild newspaper (circulation, oh, about 16 million!), and in the new #1 best-seller in Germany, upon which the Bild story is based.  Since we don’t read German, we will borrow from a post on the No Tricks Zone blog, which specializes in reporting climate news from Germany, in English.

“THE CO2 LIES … pure fear-mongering … should we blindly trust the experts?”

That’s what Germany’s leading daily Bild (see photo) wrote in its print and online editions today, on the very day that renowned publisher Hoffmann & Campe officially released a skeptic book – one written by a prominent socialist and environmental figure.

This is huge. More than I ever could have possibly imagined. And more is coming in the days ahead! The Bild piece was just the first of a series.

Mark this as the date that Germany’s global warming movement took a massive body blow.

Today, not one, but two of Germany’s most widely read news media [The other was Der Spiegel.]  published comprehensive skeptical climate science articles in their print and online editions, coinciding with the release of a major climate skeptical book, Die kalte Sonne (The Cold Sun).

Germany has now plunged into raucus discord on the heated topic of climate change.

Die kalte Sonne is written by a Social Democrat/green activist who is credited as one of the fathers of Germany’s powerful green movement, teamed with a geologist/paleontologist.   That’s akin to a general defecting to the other side in the heat of battle.

Some numbers from the book:  800 sources cited, 80 charts and figures, 20,000 copies in the first print run … and most important, #1 on

Expect the German environmental movement to throw everything they’ve got at this over the next few weeks, and then some.  Everything from alternative findings to character assassination will be used to tromp down the furor and assure the public that they still need to follow the rules and accept the high cost of fighting global warming.

The global warming activists will hold on for now, but the movement has to realize that when major news media turn against them, it’s akin to a major ally – not just a general – changing sides during a war.  They shouldn’t minimize the harm Bild, Der Spiegel and Die kalte Sonne’s sales will do to their cause.

Who Exactly is the OC Watchdog Biting?

We’ll get to that bikini photo in a minute, but first, let’s all wish the OC Watchdog blog  in the OC Register a happy third birthday – even if it has caused many Laer Pearce & Associates clients and lots of others a fair amount of heartburn.  The blog’s mission has been to write on “your tax dollars at work” – or, more specifically, “when your tax dollars aren’t working particularly well, in our opinion,” so we all have come to know what to expect when Teri or one of the other Watchdogs calls.

Watchdog’s obsession with public employee salaries (in part because the data is now readily available via the California Controller) has created a need for clear and strong messages, but we need to remember that we live in an era of transparency, so these articles are to be expected.  This is what the media does, and as traditional media fight for profitability, it’s what they’ll do more and more.  That’s why we counsel full and frank disclosure – along with making sure the Watchdog folks get additional analysis for perspective, like the salaries of private sector counterparts.

But here’s what we really have to celebrate on Watchdog’s third birthday – and it’s what we’ve suspected all along: All those articles on public sector salaries haven’t really created huge ripples.

The proof is in Watchdog’s birthday party post, which includes a list of the top ten Watchdog articles over the last three years, based on total number of clicks the articles receive.  Not one of the top ten has anything to do with public employee salaries.  Ferrets and DA fiances rank higher, as did (not surprisingly) consultants in bikinis. (It was a tough choice between the ferret and the consultant for this post’s illustration, but we figured the bikini pic would lead to more random Google hits.)

All this is not to say public agencies should be cavalier about the sort of coverage OC Watchdog provides – but it does mean you should approach your next inquiry from them with the proper perspective, and that shouldn’t involve sweat dripping off your palms.  Calm down, gather your thoughts and supporting information, and go forth with pretty darn good assurance the resulting post won’t be the end of the world.

The blog’s birthday brings to mind one of the key public relations and public affairs messages we preach: It’s important to establish your own media, because you can’t depend on others’ media to tell your story as you’d like. You’d rather talk about the good your agency does, the money it saves, the people it helps – but the mainstream media will always be more interested in your mistakes and misspending.

Blogs, eblasts, social media, brochures, websites, newsletters, direct mail pieces,  public outreach – these are your media and they will tell your story better than anyone.  But are they?  An audit of the effectiveness of your media is the first step toward finding out, so you might want to give us a call.

Fukushima Fear-Mongering

If there’s one group in America that lives by Rahm Emanuel’s axiom that one should never let a crisis go to waste, it’s the media.

With the nuclear plant accident at Fukushima, the media have two choices: They can use it as an event to teach readers about radiation and risk, or they could use it to drum up readership.  They largely see the two as incompatible, so with some exceptions, they have gone with the latter, publicizing every finding of trace radiation and using terms like “hellish” when referring to the Fukushima site.

When you have the facts – something even more powerful than nuclear fuel – the behavior of the media is regrettable.  Fortunately, some outlets have provided us with good facts. We quoted an LA Times piece earlier about radiation, risk and fear, and the Washington Post ran an excellent story about how NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, has been the voice of calm through the earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima incident.

Not so the Post itself, which has a lead story today, Chernobyl, a warning for Japan. In stark contrast, an excellent article in Reason, Nuclear News Meltdown, gives us reason to question the basis of most mainstream media coverage of Chernobyl or any accident at a nuclear plant.  It tells us:

In 1987, one year after the Chernobyl accident, the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) compared media coverage surrounding the disaster with scientific opinion on nuclear power. News coverage at the broadcast networks, news magazines, and leading newspapers treated Chernobyl as a disaster for nuclear energy in the United States as well.

By a 3-to-1 margin, news stories concluded that a Chernobyl-style disaster was likely to occur in the U.S. Among sources identified as scientists, those who called U.S. reactors unsafe outnumbered those who called them safe by a 3-to-2 margin. (For example, a scientist on the CBS Evening News delivered this soundbite when asked about nuclear safety: “Anything that can melt down possibly will.”)

Conversely, a CMPA survey of 580 scientists randomly selected from the listings of American Men and Women of Science (the “Who’s Who” of the scientific community) found that those who rated a Chernobyl-type accident as improbable outnumbered those who rated it as probable by a 4-to-1 margin, and those who regarded U.S. reactors as safe outnumbered those who found them unsafe by the same 4 to-1 margin.

Can you conclude from this that the media were profoundly biased in their selection of sources?  Maybe.  More likely, the evidence would show that the well-oiled public relations machines run by anti-nuclear organizations were much more adept than the nuclear science community was at getting sources in front of the media, and the media was profoundly lazy and unprofessional in not aggressively seeking out alternate views. The evident bias in the media coverage may not have been so much in the news coverage itself, but in the selection of sources they used to relay the story.  There’s a lesson in there for public relations and public affairs professionals: Don’t expect the media to come to you, no matter how expert you may be … especially if you’re working for someone other than environmentalists, liberal activists, trial attorneys or Democrats.

Of course, some reporters are more obviously biased, like those who write the OC Watchdog column and blog at the Register.  They have posted a total of nine negative stories on nuclear power since Japan’s earthquake, quoting suspect sources like the Union of Concerned Scientists and legislators promoting anti-nuclear bills. But when your next performance review hinges on the number of comments your posts have received, as is the case at the Register, wouldn’t you opt for sensationalism, too?

The difference between being biased in selection of sources and just being biased is subtle and the end result is identical – a populace that can’t be counted on to make the right decisions because they’ve been shielded from relevant information and swayed by the most sensational of all journalists – the headline writers.  As America faces the critical issue of how we will generate the energy we need, the media has done yet another disservice to rational thought, and rational thought is the linchpin of a successful democracy.

Perspective, Please!

The media’s breathless coverage of the Fukushima nuclear accident continues with a stream of reports about the radiation in the wind over New York, in the spinach in Japan, in your hair, on your car, over your head and under your feet. It’s all too much.  Literally.

A friend sent me this chart today.  Check out the expandable, more readable version here.  The block that’s smack dab in the middle of the box with blue blocks in it is the average daily dose of someone living by the Fukushima plant after the accident. The big blue block across the bottom is the radiation you’d get from one flight from New  York to LA.

The second tiny green box in the green blocks is the sum total of all the blue boxes – it’s three green squares.  The next largest green box is what you’d get in one year of living in a stone, brick or concrete house – four boxes.  The big green block is the maximum yearly dose allowed for U.S. radiation users.

Put all the green boxes into the top orange box. The big orange block is a fatal dose.  How’s that for perspective?

Most of the media is ignoring this kind of stuff since it doesn’t exactly make for bold headlines, but the  LA Times is to be commended for a piece by reporter Melissa Healy  it ran Sunday called, “From Japan’s damaged nuclear complex: radiation and fear.”  Here’s the lead:

In the wake of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and the powerful tsunami that followed, the stricken nuclear reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant released not one but two powerful and invisible forces: radiation and fear of radiation.

Both can spread quickly, and with insidious stealth. They permeate walls, make no distinction between rich and poor, and are particularly hard on children.

And elevated levels of either can have long-term health consequences.

Read the whole piece. It’s short and well worth it.  Stress, like radiation, has distinct and proven detrimental effects on health.  Doesn’t the media  have a responsibility, therefore, to report much more accurately about the health risks – not just the radiation levels – associated with the disaster?

PR Meltdown Update: Progress, but More Evidence of Doom

“I still have no idea what the numbers they are giving about radiation levels mean. It’s all so confusing. And I wonder if they aren’t playing down the dangers to keep us from panicking. I don’t know who to trust,” said [Tsugumi] Hasegawa, crammed with 1,400 people into a gymnasium on the outskirts of the city of Fukushima, 80 miles (50 miles) away from the plant.

Click on image to see Futuba to the northeast of the Fukushima plant, which is marked with an "A."

AP reported that quote this morning, evidencing just how horrible the PR crisis meltdown in the Japan nuclear crisis is. Before the quake, tsunami and radiation evacuation, Hasegawa lived in the town of Futuba, described by AP as “in the shadow of the nuclear plant,” yet the 29-year-0ld mother has not been provided – or does not remember – the information she needs to process the news she is receiving.

Three entities are at fault for this. Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) appears to have not undertaken the community outreach and education it should have, given its responsibility as a corporate citizen to the people near its many nuclear plants.  The second is the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which either didn’t require community education or didn’t enforce the regulations. The third is the media, which apparently is not putting sufficient perspective and explanation into their reports.

In many cases, Hasegawa herself may have been the cause of the communication breakdown.  She may have been the target of meaningful communications, but like so many do, failed to tune in.  This is highly unlikely because Japanese schools, community structures and emergency drill techniques are all top-notch, and further, the quote indicates this has been an institutional failure, not an individual one. It is from Kazuma Yokota, a government nuclear safety official, who was commenting on the failure to quickly respond to the emergency by distributing potassium iodine, which protects from radioactive iodine, to the surrounding communities:

“We should have made this decision and announced it sooner. It is true that we had not foreseen a disaster of these proportions. We had not practiced or trained for something this bad. We must admit that we were not fully prepared.”

And why not? The standard excuse is that no one conceived of a situation this awful, but after Chernobyl, nuclear plant operators should have planned for a serious meltdown and radiation release scenario, whether they thought it would happen at their plant or not.  Has your  neighborhood nuclear reactor operator performed any better?

The AP article also has two other quotes worth noting as we evaluate the crisis communications program the Japanese are struggling, largely unsuccessfully, to implement.  The first is from Deputy Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama:

“We consider that now we have come to a situation where we are very close to getting the situation under control.”

The second is from another government official, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano:

“Even if certain things go smoothly, there would be twists and turns.  At the moment, we are not so optimistic that there will be a breakthrough.”

At this point in the crisis, systems should be in place to ensure that a deputy secretary and a chief secretary of the same government are on the same page, but they’re not.  Edano, who said the second quote, may not be as reassuring, but at this point, being believable is much more important than being reassuring, so his message will be more effective than Fukuyama’s.

An Unfortunate PR Lesson Emerges in the Desert

Amid the dark cloud of horror and sadness that engulfed our nation upon last weekend’s unspeakable tragedies in Arizona, there lies a glimmer of pride.  Chaos had erupted and a nation sat on the edge of its seat, eager for even the slightest tidbit of news.  In the blink of an eye, Tucson had become the center of the universe, and the University of Arizona became the public face of one of the most gripping news stories in recent history.

It’s not every day a university’s public relations department manages communications for a crisis of this magnitude.  Every media outlet in the nation simultaneously descended on the U of A, which was thrust into the spotlight because many of the victims of Saturday’s attack, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, were being tended to at the university’s medical center.  With the whole world watching, U of A’s PR team masterfully managed a torrent of information (and disinformation), and executed a crisis response that has impressed an entire industry of its peers.

Around-the-clock press conferences.  A dedicated news wire.  Constant twitter updates.  And a team of all-star doctors equally adept at addressing the media as they are at saving lives.

As an alumni and former employee of the U of A public relations department, I couldn’t be prouder.  (If you saw our recent bowl game, you’d know we haven’t had much to be proud of lately.)  Especially when compared to the efforts of the Pima County Sherriff’s Department and the un-corralable rantings of its top cop.

I’m also proud because, as a veteran of many crisis situations, I understand the challenges U of A’s PR team faced and know that it did things the right way.  It was able to respond so quickly and successfully (on a Saturday morning no less) because it followed rule number one of crisis PR:  Be Prepared.

In my time on the U of A PR staff, planning was a key component to everything we did.  Its current PR team had a strategy mapped out well in advance for incidents just like this and many others…and it showed.

U of A’s motto is “Bear Down.”  Kind of fitting given the performance of its leadership in recent days.  It’s also a great bit of advice for the rest of us PR pros as we lament dusting off our crisis communications plans.

Woe, the Hapless Journalist

There was a day when they made movies about heroic newspaper journalists and got heart-throb actors like Robert Redford to star in them.  Heck, there was even a day when a certain Krypton-wary superhero chose the journalistic profession as his preferred alter-ego.  Superman could have been anything as an alter-ego – who would have stopped him? – but he chose a fedora, a notebook and Perry White for a boss.

How the mighty have fallen.  A recent Wall Street Journal and CareerCast survey just ranked the 200 best and worst jobs based on based on income, working environment, stress, physical demands and job outlook.  Guess where newspaper journalists came in?  The top 50? No. The top 100? No. The top 150? No.

The bottom 12? Yes.  They came in 188th, between sheet metal workers and seamen, and within spitting distance of the worst job of  ‘em all, roustabout.

As a former journalist myself (albeit, one who was smart enough to flee the gig after a year), I can attest to the low pay of the job, and certainly the stress.  It’s not just the deadlines; it’s also having so many people becoming uncomfortable in your presence.  Stress does rank high in CareerCast’s assessment, but the negative job outlook for journalists has played a huge part in doing in the profession.

I for one am not happy about the fall of newspapers because, let’s not kid ourselves, newspapers always have been the best news source around, even if they tend to be sensationalistic, error-prone and bias-riddled.  Where are you going to go for news without ‘em?  Blogs? They don’t report; they get their news from newspapers. TV? Perish the thought! The Internet? Vast but iffy.

The sad reality is that newspapers failed more grandly in responding to the internet than Motor City failed in responding to Toyota, and for that, they’ve earned their current tenuous position.  I hope they figure it out and come back, but I’ve been hoping that for years.  The list didn’t include on-line journalist, unfortunately.  It would have been very interesting to compare the two.

How did public relations and public affairs fare in the survey, you ask? They don’t; they’re not included.  But let’s just note for the record that the extremely closely related job of philosopher came in 16th.

How things change

Laer will be giving a media training presentation to a professional association next week. As part of that presentation, we are including a slide on today’s media climate. We made one back in 2006 for a similar presentation and decided to start there. We all knew back in 2006 the power that the internet had to get information out. But what we couldn’t predict was how much the media landscape would change—and how quickly.