R.I.P., press releases? Not quite.

August 3, 2009

Yesterday, Jeff Jarvis used Twitter to declare the death of the press release. To quote Mr. Jarvis: “How can I tell flacks that I don’t open ANY of their press releases. The press release is dead, folks.”

In subsequent posts, Jarvis says “I love PR people asking what replaces the press release as if it is a needed element in the universe” and “PR is meaningless. Customer service is the real PR.”

All of this goes to show, once again, how deeply engaged Jarvis is in the workings of his own mind, and how out of tune he is with the way the world actually works. I don’t disagree with Jarvis that customer service is PR. But there’s a whole lot more to the story.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I’ve worked on both sides of Jarvis’s argument. I’m a former journalist and I now work in public relations, as a consultant and designer.

First of all, public relations is not meaningless. In fact, PR can and should be customer service on a grand scale. The challenge is to do it respectfully and effectively. In my consulting work, the challenge is always to help clients find their unique story–the one worth telling the world about. Despite what Jeff thinks, good customer service is not enough. Consider:

In college, I worked for a new restaurant, owned by a very nice, smart couple. Their plan was to offer a dining experience that would rival the chain eateries on the same strip. The food was remarkable. The service was excellent…these two had 40 years of restaurant experience between them, and challenged the wait staff to exceed expectations. If anyone had an issue with their meal, they’d get a personal visit from the owner, Tom, at their table. And Tom made sure everyone left happy. The food, the service, the atmosphere were all impeccable. And yet the restaurant was out of business in six months.

Why?

Public relations.

There was never really enough money to pour into a media blitz. A fairly small radio ad campaign kicked off the grand opening, but we couldn’t compete against TGI Friday’s, Olive Garden, Ruby Tuesday’s, or Red Lobsters for television spots. We had satisfied customers who returned week after week. But bringing in new customers proved too difficult and too expensive.

Had I known then what I know now (and had the owners known as well), we could have gotten a boost by contacting news departments as well as advertising departments. We could have asked to be reviewed in the local restaurant guide. And even the story of this experienced couple striking out on their own to start a business would have made good fodder for the business page. Would it have saved the restaurant? I don’t know. But it certainly wouldn’t have hurt.

All organizations need to learn how to effectively and efficiently reach out. And while Jarvis may be annoyed by the press releases he just throws out, many journalists can be grateful for well-written releases — those that are pitches for coverage of an event, a product or more — because a journalist shouldn’t have to dig to find every nugget you read in the paper.

An innovative software release? Shoot me an e-mail. New product launch? Absolutely! New hire? Definitely.

Sound lazy? It can be. But real journalists don’t do what Jarvis accuses them of — which is simply retyping the release (seriously, Jeff, that’s what copy and paste is for!). Real journalists use press releases as jumping-off points, and determine whether there’s a story to be written. Maybe there really is news in the press release. Maybe the release just leads a journalist to a bigger, better story.

Journalists should not have to dig to find positive news. And let’s face it: Bad news rarely comes in press releases. If you force journalists to dig for good news, you will never read any of it. Not ever. We aren’t wired that way. Journalists are programmed to dig for whatever it is you’re hiding. By sending us what they want us to know, companies give us more time to dig around into what they might not want reported.

And what of community announcements? Must a community journalist scour every church, hospital and funeral home to uncover the marriage announcements, birth announcements, obituaries? Should they send Freedom of Information requests to all colleges and universities to determine who graduated? All of these things are handled by press releases. And, I believe, these things are important to communities.

Jeff can declare press releases dead, but he’s got it the wrong way. To the PR world, Jeff Jarvis is worthless. He isn’t going to read your releases because he isn’t reporting on anything but his own thoughts.  His goal is not to inform but to opine.  And for him, it’s a lot easier to declare PR’s death, post about it on Twitter and grandstand about it than it is to just hit “delete.”

For more on this, see Bing’s blog, which includes a response from Jarvis.

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Sometimes the customer is wrong.

July 23, 2009

Up until a couple of hours ago, I respected Jeff Jarvis. I follow him on Twitter and read his buzzmachine.com posts. Like me, Jeff recognizes we all have the tools to be publishers. He’s a frequent critiic of those old dinosaurs in the print industry who fail to build value in their products but look for handouts to stay afloat.

Earlier this week, however, Jarvis started pumping out diatribes against his cable provider, Cablevision. I didn’t care, quite honestly, because I’m a Time Warner customer. I know little to nothing about Cablevision. Probably will never have to. Today, however, I became interested after hearing the story of therocco and ComcastBonnie…a disgruntled Comcast subscriber and the Comcast tech who tried to help him. I thought maybe I’d blog a bit about how badly therocco misinterpreted the situation (you can read therocco’s take at nerdofsteel.com) and decided to read up on Jarvis’s experience.

What I found was truly disheartening.

I’ll save you all the details (you can read them for yourself at buzzmachine.com). At first, I really felt for the guy. He says his Internet was out, and the cable company told him it would be three days before they’d get a tech to his house. Ouch, right?

So, Jarvis did what any reasonable person would do: mentions that he’s buddies with the head of the company (he is not). When the name-dropping doesn’t work (the Comcast employee called Jarvis’s bluff), Jarvis took to Twitter to bash Cablevision. And then he blogged about it.

Know what Jarvis did to everyone who stood up for the cable company? He checked their IP addresses. And berated them in his comments section. Because he’s Jeff Jarvis, and he can’t be wrong. Except he was wrong. Not only was he wrong, but he was lying.

In his blog, Jarvis states “they offer to send someone out … in three days.”

The ellipses hides a very important fact Jarvis left out: He was offered service the next day, and he turned it down (this according to a comment left by someone Jarvis identified as a Cablevision employee). They did not screw him by telling him to wait three days, as he led his readers to believe; the next day wasn’t good enough for Jeff Jarvis, who thought he was entitled to service NOW, dammit, because he has a blog!

So, when the powerful Jeff Jarvis turned down the next-day service, he was offered the next best thing: an appointment in three days.

Jarvis’s post is dishonest, and disrespectful to people who offered him help.

It also puts an enormous dent in Jarvis’s credibility when he lauds the truthfulness of online journalism; if the evangelists are liars, is the religion a sham?

Jeff, you owe your readers an apology. Anything less is demanding less of yourself than you do of your targets in the news industry.

The bigger point this leads to is the fallacy that the customer is always right. Because, sometimes, the customer is wrong. And sometimes (as in the cases of therocco and Mr. Jarvis) the customer is so hell-bent on getting things their way, that they completely lose sight of the idea that we should treat each other with at least a degree of respect. When that happens, you become a bad customer. And bad customers are bad for business.

Many companies keep lists of bad customers — people who call with unreasonable demands or become irate or insulting when things don’t go their way. And make no mistake: Those customers are treated differently. And not in a good way. That’s because they help destroy employee morale and take up valuable time and resources. They will mostly likely never be satisfied. In that case, it’s better to not do business with them at all.

I do believe companies should bend over backward to serve customers. But the fact that a person pays for a service — any service — does not entitle them to treat employees without dignity.

For more on this, check out this very well-done piece on why “The Customer is Always Right” is wrong.

UPDATE: Jeff Jarvis has a new, much more reasoned post on his blog, which you can find here. I give Jeff credit for listening, and for admitting there was more to the story.


Why the New York Times has it wrong. Again.

June 8, 2009

Yesterday, the New York Times continued its attempts to dismiss blogs by posting this story. I’ve linked to it, but basically the story used the recent news from Gizmodo and TechCrunch that Apple was in late-stage acquisition talks with Twitter to illustrate how irresponsible bloggers are.

The assertions are that neither website cared whether they were reporting the truth — they just blasted out a juicy rumor in attempt to get hits. The inference here is that the New York Times — and print journalists everywhere — are more responsible, and are more likely to sit on a story until they have all the facts.

I spent a bit of time yesterday looking at various blog posts and opinions on the piece, but I didn’t see anyone point out the two most glaring problems.

Problem no. 1: Despite protestations to the contrary, the Times and every other mainstream media outlet knows the goal is always to get the story first, to the best of your ability. News has a way of fleshing itself out with time. How many times do we see stories — even in the Times itself — that are filled with speculation and unnamed sources? When I worked as an editor, one of my rules was that we did not use anonymous sources. Ever. The Times doesn’t adhere to that policy, yet insists we can believe everything we read from its pages has been checked, double-checked and found entirely factual.

Have we forgotten Jayson Blair?

It wasn’t too long ago that Blair’s body of work was proved plagiarism. The Times couldn’t even root out the lies on his resume, let alone the whoppers he was allowed to print. Print journalism is filled with such instances: Stephen Glass, Rick Bragg, Jack Kelley, Janet Cooke…

And those are big time print “journalists.”

On top of that, let’s not forget that just a few short months ago, the Times was attacked for its reporting on Caroline Kennedy’s failed Senate bid.

So, the Times chooses to pick on two websites for reporting on a rumor (both sites made clear that they were reporting the existence of a rumor and both made attempts to prove or disprove the rumor), and flat-out states that neither site cared whether it was true. In so doing, the Times itself chooses to ignore the truth.

Problem no. 2: The Times doesn’t want you to know the little deals mainstream media makes to get the “whole story.”

The release of the Palm Pre and the news surrounding it actually falls in quite nicely with this story. News agencies across the country were given review copies of the Pre a couple of weeks in advance. Journalists were briefed about the phone and allowed to use it — on the condition that they didn’t say anything about it until release time.

Such agreements are known as “embargoes” and “non-disclosure agreements.” On a recent cnet podcast, the hosts blasted the Boy Genius Report blog for breaking the embargo and releasing a review of the Pre before the embargo date. Such practices, they argued, destroy sources’ faith in the news agency. And if sources can’t trust news agencies, those news agencies won’t get early access to the products or information.

That’s a problem.

Embargoes do not exist for the benefit of readers, but for the benefit of sources. In most cases, including the Pre, the embargo exists so the product will get the biggest bang for the buck, exactly when the manufacturer wants. In my newsrooms, embargoes didn’t exist. We wouldn’t agree to embargoes because they were untruthful. I would not allow a source to tell me when to print a story.

My first boss in journalism gave me this rule to live by: If you have a piece of information, it is never in the public good to keep it to yourself.

Only once in my career did I hold a story at the request of a source — and that was in an ongoing murder investigation, where the release of the information I had would undermine the case. Had I published a story about who the murder suspect was, there would be no confession. I understood that clearly. Holding back a product review only helps a source.

I also don’t buy the argument that consenting to an NDA gives you time to write a better review. If your goal is to write a good review, take the time after the product launch.

The Times really went out of its way to lambaste the blog world. But theirs is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Unfortunately for the Times, we’ve come far enough to recognize that journalism is a good ole boys network that proudly pats itself on the back for every accomplishment and stares down haughtily at its readership.

And all the while we’re getting our news, up to the minute, on Twitter instead.