Rob Martin, Agency Principal
I can remember the first time I read an editorial comment that had somehow crept into a news story. It was in TIME magazine sometime in the early 1980s. Since studying journalism in college and launching into my career in communications, I had always followed the newswriting style in TIME – casual yet factual – as the standard that I would try to mimic.
I don’t remember the specific story I was reading, but I do remember the moment of surprise I experienced. What was that I had read? The writer’s opinion? I probably passed it off at the time, but now I see that moment as eerily prescient. Today we live in a world where it would be difficult to find any news story that doesn’t have at least an element of editorial opinion inserted somewhere – if not in the actual copy, then in the headline, placement, or sources included to support the idea. It’s the world we have built and chosen for ourselves, and it wouldn’t exist if it weren’t profitable – or at least perceived to be a path to profitability – for the media companies that propagate it.
So is there still a role in this world for basic journalistic principles based on truth, fairness, accuracy and objectivity? I certainly think so. I hope so. Not only is journalism one of the cornerstones of our democracy, assuming the role of public witness for members of society, but we all can benefit from experiencing the thrill of reading a well-written and thoroughly researched piece.
In the public relations profession, good writing still counts, and I’m excited to see new young professionals who bring these skills to their work. Part of what we’re selling is quality, and you can’t argue with a well-written sentence or clever turn of phrase.
In fact, respecting the principles of journalism in our work can provide a number of benefits:
- Seeing multiple sides to a story
- Learning what is newsworthy and what isn’t
- Practicing objectivity and refining critical thinking skills
- Speaking the same “language” as the editors and reporters we interact with
- Adopting an approach to writing that is well suited to a variety of situations
- Appreciating the craft of the p.r. business, not just the mechanics of it
I do believe that opinion is now an important part of journalism as well, and informed consumers will recognize the difference. In creating content for our clients, we can leverage the benefits of various types of media content while staying true to our roots in journalism. Don’t throw out that AP Stylebook just yet!
Rob Martin, Agency Principal
We hear a lot about “fake news” these days. But what is it exactly?
Usually the term fake news may refer to a story that is patently false, having been fabricated out of thin air. But some stories that earn this label may actually contain an element of truth that has been misrepresented or exaggerated in a way to mislead or generate profit. Thinking in those terms, does our work in public relations – with a focus on the positive and promotional aspects of a client’s business – qualify as one form of fake news?
First, some background. You may think “fake news” is a relatively new phenomenon, having achieved prominent notice during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Only the term is new, but the concept is quite old. Did you know that Roman politician Mark Antony’s suicide in 30 BC was due in part to a misinformation campaign conducted by his political nemesis Octavian? And there are many other examples of fake news through the centuries, including major instances during both world wars of the 20th Century, and Benjamin Franklin’s fake news story about murderous Indians working with King George III during the American Revolution.
Now, what about the public relations profession today? It may be true that we hope to present a positive outlook in our work, but our output doesn’t have to look like total propaganda. There are many things we can do to ensure quality and fairness:
- Thoroughly check all facts to ensure accuracy.
- Remain transparent, and don’t pretend to be something you’re not.
- Use multiple sources to support the story, including analysts, customers and other third parties.
- Recognize there are opposing viewpoints where possible.
- Make sure it is clear that the client is the source of the material.
Finally, when writing a story, we should always adhere to sound journalistic principles. That will be our topic for next week.
Rob Martin, Agency Principal
Broadway shows such as Hamilton often generate plenty of publicity outside the theater, but 57 years ago this month one new Broadway show – Bye Bye Birdie – featured a publicity stunt as the core of its plot. The show opens with news that a famous rock star, an Elvis-like character, will soon be drafted into the U.S. Army. When his agent arranges for this musician to deliver “One Last Kiss” to a teenage girl from a small town in the Midwest, life in that town turns upside down. Applying current p.r. and marketing knowledge to this fictitious idea, I’m wondering: Was this a good idea? Would it still work in today’s world? And what would have to change?
Actually, I think the stunt at the center of Bye Bye Birdie was a pretty good idea, maybe even a little ahead of its time. It was certainly a big-scale idea for that particular era in American history. And even though the publicity stunt was derailed in the show and never fully executed, it had several elements that should have worked in its favor:
- Celebrity: The character, Conrad Birdie, was presented as one of the top musical acts of the day, with celebrity status at the level of rock-and-roll stars such as Elvis Presley or The Beatles.
- Audience: A well-defined target audience of teenage girls was spot on for this particular idea.
- Visual: The concept for the stunt created media-worthy visuals in the form of a photo opp as well as a live TV event.
- Reach: The television program selected for the event – The Ed Sullivan Show – was one of the top-rated entertainment programs of its day, with an audience that was about five times larger than the following for The Voice today.
- Measurement: A key business metric was built into this concept, with record sales from a soon-to-be-released single called “One Last Kiss” as the primary indicator of success.
The other interesting thing about the Bye Bye Birdie idea is that it took a larger-than-life image – that of a major rock star – and delivered it through a smaller-scale execution, involving one unknown girl in a small town in Ohio.
Would the same idea work today? It might. But there would need to be a few changes.
First, we need to engage a lot more people through social media and other tactical components. I’d like to see a competition or build-up in advance of this event that allows every fan to vie for the chance to be selected.
Next, we would probably need a much more prominent location for the event than a single TV show, based on differences in media, viewership and the way entertainment is delivered to the public. How about The Grammys? Or maybe a live event in Times Square?
Another consideration is which celebrity would merit this level of attention in 2017. Beyoncé? Ed Sheeran? Katy Perry? Justin Timberlake? I’ll leave that to you to decide.
Today, music fans follow celebrities mostly in a digital world, not a physical one. The era of Conrad Birdie may be behind us, but we might still spark a few good ideas by examining his public relations success on the stage.