Press Releases: Think before sending

bluefin-tuna_478_600x450A high quality press release can open a lot of doors and  is usually the first step in landing your story, brand or project in front of a large audience.

Some people think that crafting and distributing a press release is easy while others consider it a daunting task. Both are somewhat true, but it’s likely that you are too busy running your business or managing your brand to give your press release the attention it deserves.

Before turning to a web site that offers “free” advice and “guaranteed” results, think about how important your press release is to your project, your company’s reputation or your marketing efforts. It makes sense to talk to a pro before hitting the send key.

What do you want to land?

In reality, sending a press release is like a day of fishing. If you just want to cast a line and hope for the best in a familiar watering hole, you’re probably okay on your own. Catch a couple of mackerel and call it a day.

But if you want to land a 400-pound bluefin tuna, it makes sense to have a knowledgeable guide with the the right equipment and the skills necessary to help you achieve success.

If you must absolutely go about it on your own,  then I offer a few basic tips of advice.

1.) Know it:  In fishing, you need to know the waters, the species you are going after and the right bait to use. When thinking about a press release, you need to know your subject matter and the media landscape. Who is writing, blogging or reporting on your subject matter? Do you know these people? Do you have relationships with them? Have you fished these waters before?

2.) Earn it: A good day of fishing requires getting up early and a serious commitment. There are basically two kinds of media: “earned media” and “paid” media. Paid media is advertisements that you pay for; liking buying tuna at the grocery store. Earned media is the result of your hard work and having the right bait.

3.) Hook it: Speaking of the right bait, your press release needs a good hook. Reporters are inundated with hundreds of press releases. How will yours stand out among the rest? What type of hook will you use to arouse the reporter?

4.) Pitch It: There are many species of fish in the water. If your are after a specific species, you have to know what you want and how to catch it. Before sending your release, make a few phone calls to targeted reporters. Don’t send a press release about a new chef at your restaurant to a reporter that covers city hall.

5.) Reel It In: You need to be patient and give the reporter room to do his or her job. Your press release needs to be well-written, succinct (no more than 1-1/2 pages) and contain basic information, including an e-mail and phone number for a primary contact. You should never send a press release as an attachment. Specify whether there will be photo opportunities and include links to your company web site.

If you just want to spend a day relaxing on the water, then you will be fine without a guide. But if you want a prize catch, then it makes sense to talk with a pro to ensure that your press release opens all the right doors.


Randy Seaver is a former newspaper reporter and editor. He also has more than a decade of experience as a strategic communications consultant, helping a wide range of clients overcome challenges in the court of public opinion.  Learn More

Dealing with the media

Photo credit: flydenver.com
Photo credit: flydenver.com

Do you know the definitions of “lede,” “nut graf” or “B-roll?”

These are common terms used by members of the media.

Reporters and editors have their own jargon and their own way of doing things, but it’s important to remember that they are also human beings. They value honesty, courtesy and respect.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: the media is not supposed to be your friend. Reporters have a unique mission: to remain as objective as possible, to ferret out facts and to report that information to the public while working under crushing deadlines and  operating in an extraordinarily competitive industry.

Keeping these things in mind will help you navigate the media landscape, whether you’re sending out a press release or dealing with a crisis that is affecting your company, your brand, your campaign or your reputation.

Imagine this: the phone rings and it’s a reporter on the other end of the phone. He or she needs a quick comment for a story that will be published in tomorrow’s newspaper. What do you do?

Or imagine this: you step out the front door and you find a TV news van parked in front of your home or office and suddenly you are face-to-face with a reporter and cameraman, What do you do?

I offer my clients an insider’s knowledge of the complex media landscape. For more than a decade, I worked as a reporter and editor. I still have many friends in the business.

Drawing on my experience as a communications consultant; and with some input by my friends in the media, I’ve developed a brief list of things you should do — and things you should not do — when dealing with the media.

1,) Be honest: Consider this the golden rule of dealing with the media. Don’t play games. People will judge you by your words and actions, especially if you find yourself in a crisis situation. Don’t hype your press release. Be concise and straightforward. If you lie, you will only make things worse.

2.) Have a plan: Don’t wait until a crisis arises before developing your media strategy. A comprehensive media plan will include your basic talking points, and everyone in your organization should know who the contact person is for dealing with the media. Anticipate and develop a list of tough questions, among other things.

3,) Stay on message: When the cameras start rolling or the reporter starts writing, many people have a tendency to panic. They either freeze like a deer in the headlights or they ramble endlessly. If you do these things, your message will be lost. As part of your media plan, you should have a “message box” Before your interview, memorize your message box and learn how to pivot back to your core message. Tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them what you want to tell them; and then tell them what you told them. This way, your message does not get lost.

4.) Be respectful: Basic manners go a long way in helping you tell your story. Recognize that the media is working under deadlines. If a reporter calls you, ask about his or her deadline. Don’t spam their in-boxes with press releases that are actually advertisements. Step back and consider whether your story is newsworthy. Reporters are not part of your sales and marketing team. They only want news that is accurate, relevant and timely.

5.) Comment or No Comment? This is one of the toughest questions you will face when dealing with the media, and it should be considered on a case-by-case basis. Remember that the reporter has taken time out of his or her schedule to seek your input. By saying “no comment” you lose the opportunity to share your side of the story. That said, sometimes it is advisable to not comment, especially if the story is about a legal matter or involves proprietary information. Once you comment, you can’t take it back, and your comments can be used against you. (Refer to rules 2 and 3).

Dealing with the media does not have to be a headache or a frightening experience. Just remain calm, polite and on message. It also helps to have a PR pro on your side to help you navigate these situations. I invite you to contact me to learn more about media relations and how you can share your story with the public.


 

Randy Seaver is a former newspaper reporter and editor. He also has more than a decade of experience as a strategic communications consultant, helping a wide range of clients overcome challenges in the court of public opinion.  Learn More

 

 

 

Public Relations: the good, the bad and the ugly

handsAsk one hundred different people to define “public relations” and you’ll probably receive nearly 100 different responses, many of them with negative connotations.

A lot of people view PR as some sort of shell game, something that is auctioned off to the highest bidder. Pay us enough and we’ll convince the world that your product, brand or reputation is infallible.

There is an old joke in the consulting industry: “If you’re not part of the solution, there’s good money to be made in prolonging the problem.”

Even some PR pros think that a few “white lies” are often necessary to achieve success for their clients, as outlined in this story from USA Today.

I see things differently. I don’t think of PR as “public relations.” I think of PR as “public relationships,” and there is a distinct difference.

Take a moment and consider the relationships that are most important to you: your partner, your spouse, your friends, your boss or even your neighbors.

Good relationships are built on a solid foundation of trust. If you don’t trust your spouse, your marriage is likely doomed. It’s not different when it comes to public relationships.

The truth vs. The Narrative?

The public is more savvy than most PR pros give them credit for. The public yearns for truth and integrity, and will generally forgive a misstep, so as long as the offender is transparent and contrite about their mistake.

Sure you can fool some of the people all of the time, and you can even fool all of the people some of the time. But you simply cannot fool all the people all of the time.

Developing a strong and compelling narrative for your client is essential, but that narrative must be rooted in truth and genuine honesty. This is how you build strong relationships. And there is nothing more important in the world of PR than having a strong relationship with your audience.

As an example, I point you to the popularity of two very different candidates vying to be the next president of the United States: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, two very different men on completely different sides of the political spectrum.

Sanders, a self-described socialist; and Trump, a billionaire reality TV star, have defied the odds and speculation of the pundits. As the two men continue their campaigns, the pundits now say that the candidates have both tapped into the anger of a very cynical electorate.

I beg to differ.

I think those who passionately support Sanders or Trump view their respective candidates as “honest” This trait causes those supporters to overlook flaws in either candidate.

Sure, voters always like a candidate who tells them what they want to hear, but they become passionate when they believe the candidate is being honest.

A relationship without honesty is like a bicycle without tires. Neither one is of much use.

Building relationships takes time and hard work. But every good relationship must be built on the foundation of honesty.


 

Randy Seaver is a former newspaper reporter and editor. He also has more than a decade of experience as a strategic communications consultant, helping a wide range of clients overcome challenges in the court of public opinion.  Learn More

 

What would you do?

reportersMany moons ago, when I was an editor at a weekly newspaper, we used to run a section in the paper that was known as the Police Notes.

It’s a common practice for smaller, local newspapers to run such police blotters, but we used to have a little fun with ours by giving each blurb a humorous sub headline,  and we never included names.

For example, a police report regarding a complaint about a neighbor’s dog doing his business in the neighbor’s yard might be titled “Canine Travels for Business” The blurb would read something like this ” An Elm Street man called police to report that a neighbor’s dog has been repeatedly defecating on his lawn.”

We sought out the most amusing police notes from the three communities we covered. More serious crimes were covered in other parts of the paper. But still, we had access to all police reports, so everything was theoretically fair game.

There are different standards when writing news stories. For example, if a city councilor were arrested for an OUI offense that story would likely be on the front page. If an average citizen were arrested for the same exact crime, it would likely end up in the police blotter without his name.

Police officers are also held to different standards than firefighters. Why? Because a police officer has authority over citizens and a sworn duty to uphold the law. A basic firefighter or public works employee has no such authority.

Bottom line: some people are treated differently by the media, most notably public officials and those who have thrust themselves into the public spotlight. An obituary for a long-time city volunteer and former school teacher would likely run longer than an obituary for someone who was not as well-known in the community.

These are always tough judgment calls for reporters and editors.

I remember one particular item that gave me pause. The adult child of a city official was arrested on a domestic violence charge.

Was this “news” simply because of the relation to a city official? I eventually decided it was not. Typically, domestic violence reports were covered in our Police Notes, not in the news section of the paper.

But if you were a newspaper editor, where would you draw the line? Do the actions of a municipal official’s relative (sibling, child or parent) warrant a news story?

What if the governor’s brother were indicted on charges of mail fraud? For me, that’s an easier question to answer.

On a higher level, the media usually keeps a clear distance when reporting on the children of the President of the United States, but President Jimmy Carter’s brother, Billy, seemed like fair game.

These are all tough judgment calls, and they become more murky as we descend lower on the authority scale. Certainly a city councilor wields much less influence than a state senator or governor.

So, I made a choice. I decided not to pursue a story about this councilor’s adult son. The action’s of the son were not directly connected to the councilor. Thus, in my opinion, it was not fair game and would be in poor taste to publish such a news story. In short, it would be sensationalism and had no impact on residents in that community.

Where do you think the media should draw a line?

I never wonder whether I made the right choice. I am as confident in my decision today as I was 13 years ago.

But what would you have done?

Who do you love?

cover-classic1.jpgI was saddened this morning to read that the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram will end their longstanding tradition of offering endorsements of political candidates and races.

Although this decision will likely be a popular one among the newspaper’s readers, I think it is a terrible mistake.

In today’s media world, newspapers are struggling to keep up with increasing competition (broadcast journalism, blogs and social media). Newsrooms across the country are also facing other challenges: budgetary constraints that are decimating newsrooms and declining advertising revenues.

For those reasons, and some others, newspapers are losing their gravitas and their once dominant position as the chief source of news and information.

In today’s editorial, the newspaper makes its case for discontinuing endorsements.

“Editorial endorsements are a tradition from the 19th century, when American newspapers were affiliated with political parties. Those newspapers existed to affect the outcome of elections, not just to report on them. The news business changed, but although most newspapers have hung on to the tradition, we could not convince ourselves that hanging on made sense for us.”

The editorial goes to great lengths to disclose its ownership interest by S. Donald Sussman, a frequent contributor to Democratic candidates and the husband of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree as a another reason why it should refrain from making endorsements.

That is, perhaps, the newspaper’s best argument, but the rest of their argument is weak, and not what one would expect from the state’s largest daily newspaper.

“Some people say that a news organization, because of its access to candidates, is in a better position than the average voter to make a choice, but no voter has a shortage of information these days.”

Based on my own experience working for both newspapers and candidates, this argument is tepid, at best.

For the better part of two decades, I worked as both a reporter and an editor at much smaller, community-based newspapers.

During my days as editor of the Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach Courier (1999-2006), I ran endorsements of local candidates. Today, as it was then, fewer than 2 of 10 people could tell you who was the councilor from Ward 4 in Biddeford or which city council candidates voted against the proposed school budget.

Today, I no longer cover local politics. I work on public policy issues across the state of Maine and beyond.

I spend very little time in my hometown. It’s now basically where I eat and sleep. If I want to know what’s going on, I read my local newspapers. I view the newspapers as more credible and more informed than a local blogger or what Susie Q. Public posts on her Facebook page.

It’s the same for most people I know. We lead busy lives: our kids need back-to-school clothes, there are bills to pay, lawns to mow, laundry to fold, not to mention the demands of our careers.  I no longer have the luxury of hanging out at City Hall as a paid witness.

But when I was an editor, I could speak with authority about local issues and the players driving them. I had a unique perspective. It was my profession.

Shortly, after I left the newspaper business, that publication also stopped offering endorsements of local candidates. I heard from a lot of people who bemoaned the lack of those endorsements and a vibrant editorial page. The purpose of the editorial page is to be subjective (a departure from the rest of the paper that should be objective and neutral) It’s the whole point of an editorial page: for the newspaper to take an informed position on important issues affecting its readers.

How an endorsement changed my life

Finally, the best reason for making endorsements:

It was almost 13 years ago today that I sat down to write a set of endorsements. There were three candidates seeking two seats on the Old Orchard Beach School Board. This was a minor race that the Press Herald would not weigh in upon. Of those three candidates, one was a respected incumbent and two were political newcomers.

But I made a mistake, I thought there was only one seat available. So, I endorsed the incumbent.

The next day, I got a rather nasty e-mail from one of the candidates who told me I should do a better job with my research.

We traded barbs for several days, an e-mail exchange that eventually turned friendly. I met her on election night, but did not dare speak to her.

There were some more e-mails and then a first date.

And then a second and third date.

We have been happily married now for the better part of 12 years.

If I didn’t make any endorsements, I would have never met the love of my life.

And if that isn’t a good reason for making endorsements, then what is?

If I could go back and do it all over again, I would not change a thing.

 

Color me bad

Elephant_LogoYou find the weirdest stuff on Facebook.

This morning, I stumbled across a new Facebook page that is dedicated to the idea of reclaiming the color blue for Republicans.

At first blush, I thought this was one of the silliest things. But then, I started thinking about it.

Why would the GOP want the color blue versus red? Isn’t red the traditional color for Republicans? Not unless you consider “traditional” as the last 15 years.

According to the Republicans Red No More Facebook page, “center-right parties around the world are Blue, and Social Democrat parties are Red, except in the U.S. where 13 years ago the media assigned Red to the Republicans. “

The page creators argue that for more than a century, Republicans were routinely associated with Blue and Democrats with Red.

That color association was changed, they say, by NBC journalist Tim Russert in 2000 when he assigned Red to Republicans on his electoral map.

Since then, they say, the media has adopted this formula, even though it runs counter to American history and worldwide practice.

Are they right? Well, take a look at the map that NBC used to portray the 1980 presidential election results between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.

1980 mapBut do colors really matter?

Apparently so. At least to color psychologists:

Color is a form of non verbal communication.  It is not a static  energy and its meaning can change from one day to the next with any  individual.

For example, a person may choose to wear the red one day and  this may indicate they are ready to take action, or they may be  passionate about what they are going to be doing that day, or again it  may mean that they are feeling angry that day, on either a conscious or  subconscious level.

Experts say the color red can cause people to feel rushed, agitated or angry. The color blue, on the other hand is generally associated with serenity. It is also associated with trust, honesty and loyalty.

So, given this information it becomes easy to see why Republicans want to “take back” the color blue.

And what about the rest of the world? Are Social Democratic political parties generally red and center-right parties blue?

That would be true in a wide range of countries, including Finland, Israel and the Czech Republic. In fact, the more you look, the more you will see that conservative or centrist parties are associated with the color blue around the globe.

But I don’t expect the U.S. Democratic Party to go down without a fight in the upcoming color war. After all, the last thing Democrats want is to be associated with the color red (Think Soviet Union, the Red Invasion and all sorts of other negative stereotypes.

Who changed the color? Was it a mainstream media with a liberal bias? Was it an oversight or an intentional switch by the GOP? There’s a lot of conflicting information out there, but one thing is for sure: you can always find some strange stuff on Facebook, which relies on the color blue.

 

Just like a prayer

Bobby Mills
Bobby Mills

Biddeford City Councilor Bobby Mills has a lesson for all of us who use social media.

It doesn’t matter much if the NSA has tapped your phone or if Google is using your online data to create a psychological profile, you have a responsibility to be careful about what you share on social media outlets.

Mills, an elected official, is upset that he was contacted by a local newspaper regarding a potential conflict of interest issue. According to Mills, the newspaper received an anonymous tip regarding something he posted online.

I’ll let Mills tell the story . . .

Interesting enough I just got a phone call interview from the Courier. Someone made an “anonymous” complaint about the unsuccessful Go Fund Me page I set up back in October/November for assistance in our down payment for our lease to own home. Since this page was only created for my family and friends on Facebook I’m simply amazed.
“The complaint was about public officials creating pages seeking donations and conflicts of interests that it may generate.  Seriously.  My family doesn’t live here and any friendships in Biddeford would never be in a situation to assist us if they could. Nonetheless conflicts of interests? Amazing.
 Everytime I’m reelected,  there’s always some “anonymous” nonsense. Hey. Why don’t you call me? 207[redacted].  Your welcome to come and visit as well. Obviously you know where I live”

Bobby Mills and I have not always seen eye to eye. In fact, I’ve often been one of his loudest critics. But in this story, I feel some of his pain.

Please note: I said some.

Mills and every other adult who uses social media ought to understand how those platforms work. Social media is a power tool in the realm of mass communication, and like any other power tool, you can expect really bad results if you don’t follow some basic guidelines.

Mills said he posted his personal request for the benefit of his family and friends. He didn’t expect criticism or harsh comments about his financial situation from outside his circle of family and friends.

While I sympathize with Mr. Mills’ situation, his defense is extremely weak. He wanted to raise a lot of money (thousands) to help secure a down-payment for a home. You don’t post something online if you don’t want a lot of people to see it.

Rule No. 1 of social media: Never post or tweet anything that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper.

Bobby Mills likes to use social media. In fact, he’s set up a Facebook page for a second run at becoming Maine’s next governor. Criticize him for that, if you want (and I will . . . later), but don’t knock the guy for being in a tight financial spot and then attack his character because of that fact.

Times are tough for a lot of people. There’s nothing wrong with asking family and friends for help. It’s a tough situation. If you haven’t experienced it, thank your lucky stars.

Raising questions about whether Mills’ original fundraising post constitutes a potential conflict of interest is a bit of a stretch.

By all accounts, Bobby Mills is a good husband and father who loves his kids. He holds several jobs and works hard. He gives a lot back to his community. His only crime here is being a bit naïve about how social media works.

However, if Mills still serves as a member of the Biddeford Housing Authority, and if the home’s sale is connected in any way to that agency, then Mills needs to put some distance between his personal objective and his role as a city official.

Elected officials are treated differently by the media for good reason. When you run for office you have to expect that.

And when you post something on Facebook, you should expect that a lot of people will see what you may not want them to see.

UPDATED: Bobby Mills is NOT a member of the Biddeford Housing Authority.

Goodbye Stranger

reporterI want to scream.

In a world chock full of culprits that are partially responsible for everything from the “dumbing down of America” to the nomination of Mitt Romney and the advent of Twitter, it’s become increasingly difficult for me to stomach the banality associated with blaming “the media.”

While media criticism is important and necessary, a lot of people who blame “the media” have no idea what they are talking about.

Instead, blaming “the media” has become a catch-all phrase and a convenient target for those who want to ignore two very much larger problems: laziness and stupidity.

There is no question that media has changed, but I challenge you to define the word in its present-day context.

Sure, we can turn to the dictionary and find this: media: (noun) 1.) plural form of medium; 2.) the main means of mass communication (esp. television, radio, newspapers, and the Internet) regarded collectively.

Media, whether it’s a daily newspaper, the evening television news, a blog or something that a “friend” posts on his Facebook page, is multi-faceted, multi-layered and increasingly accessible to every person on the planet.

That’s not necessarily a good thing.

Blaming the media is sort of like blaming your reflection in the mirror for having that fifth margarita or being late to work. Too often, blaming the media is just a convenient form of mental masturbation that serves no good purpose except helping you sleep better at night.

The good ol’ days?

The opening pages of the book Leaving Readers Behind: The Corporate Age of Newspapering contains this stunning contrast of two very different media mission statements:

This is the Journalist’s Creed written by Walter Williams in 1914:  I believe in the professionalism of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of lesser service than the public service is a betrayal of this trust.”

And this is the Statement of Strategic Intent issued by Knight Ridder Newspaper Corp. in 1991:  We stand for excellent  service to customers and communities, a fair, respectful and learning environment for all our employees and a strong return for our shareholders. This responsibility is shared by each of us in Knight Ridder, regardless of title or function.”

So it seems easy to be cynical about the so-called “mainstream media” or as Rush Limbaugh describes it: “the drive-by media.”

Oh, how we long for the good days of journalism; the fair and balanced reporting and the loyalty of preserving the public trust. Too bad it’s gone right?

Wrong.

We are surrounded and inundated with loads of good journalism and a diversity of media that is unparalleled and will be surpassed in its diversity in less than 15 minutes.

Before you moan about the demise of media, or the sentimental loss of the warm and fuzzy images of Walter Cronkite and the proverbial grumpy editor such as Ben Bradlee, chew on this: Why haven’t you switched the channel?

Try it, you’ll like it

Better yet, what’s stopping you from being the media? It’s probably the same four things that stop most media endeavors: Money, Time, Resources and Audience.

Sure, go ahead and bitch about advertiser supported media, but how are you going to pay your reporters?  For those of you who will predictably point to examples such as “listener supported” public broadcasting, you may have missed those corporate announcements at the beginning of each segment.

Without corporate and taxpayer subsidies, National Public Radio would be nothing more than a distant memory because the vast and overwhelming majority of its listeners don’t dig very deep into their own pockets.

Yeah, and state-sponsored media is a sure-fire way to ensure credibility and a lack of bias. I mean, really . . . what would could possibly go wrong if we let the government report to us about the government?

I find it annoying that the bulk of those who bitch about the media have spent zero hours in a newsroom nor  ever required to sit through three hours of a planning board meeting while earning slightly more than minimum wage.

Pull back the curtain

Of course, no one loves to talk more about the media than the media. They are a narcissistic lot, full of righteous indignation. I know this because many of my friends and former colleagues still work in the media. God bless them.

These folks are professionals, but they are no different from anyone else and subject to all sorts of the very same pressures you will find in any other profession: gossip, bias, greed, competition and ego.

A few weeks ago, I found myself on the phone with one of the editors at the Portland Press Herald. I was calling on behalf of one of my clients and asking for a favor.

The editor was a bit pissed off about my intrusion, and he didn’t try very hard to mask his annoyance: “Randy, you used to be a journalist, how can you ask me a question like that?”

Surprisingly, he accepted my honest response. “I’m not a journalist anymore, and you know damn well my current occupation requires me to ask the question even though I know you are going to refuse my request.”

That honest exchange led to a compromise we could both live with: he did not budge and I accepted his decision.

Where’s the good media?

As I said before, we are surrounded by some excellent examples of journalism. A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a copy of the Southern Forecaster newspaper. That free, weekly newspaper was chock-full of solid community-based reporting.

There was an in-depth, comprehensive story about growing tensions between the Scarborough Rod & Gun Club and a group of neighbors who chose to build their homes near the club. It was a universal story about the themes of gentrification and it made me think about the tension in my own community between those who use the Biddeford Airport and their residential neighbors.

Another front-page story examined the plight of the South Portland City Council in light of a recent court decision that would allow municipal employees to serve on municipal boards and committees. Again, the same dynamic is an issue in my own community.

The Forecaster group of newspapers is one of the few remaining Maine-owned media outlets, and its staff seems to understand the importance of digging deep and solid reporting. Mo Mehlsak is the editor of the Forecaster. I remember him from his days as the city editor at the Journal Tribune. He is a newspaperman’s newspaper man: tough, intelligent and insightful. I never had the pleasure of working with him, but I have admired his work for nearly 20 years. He is obviously grooming an exceptional staff of reporters.

Speaking of the Journal Tribune, Tammy Wells has been covering York County issues longer than anyone else. She offers her readers a ton of institutional memory and insight.

When it comes to unbiased reporting and a willingness to cover stories in-depth, check out the work of my former colleague, Kate Irish Collins, a reporter for the Saco-based Sun Chronicle, part of Current Publications, another Maine-owned media outlet. No one person can come close  to matching Kate in producing such a volume of news content with consistent accuracy and lack of bias.

My friend Kelley Bouchard at the Portland Press Herald consistently delivers solid reporting and poignant features. She led off her newspaper’s insightful (and painful) examination of Maine’s aging population. The Challenge of Our Age.

On Election Night, every political junkie in Maine turns to the exceptional coverage provided by the Bangor Daily News.

And if you’re looking for a good compilation of Maine news and opinion, check out Bob Mentzinger’s  Writing Maine feed. Mentzinger is a close friend, but he’s also the editor at the Brunswick Times Record, another afternoon daily that strives every day to produce exceptional journalism on a shoe-string budget.

Yes, there is plenty of room for media criticism, and Al Diamon does an exceptional job of keeping Maine’s media outlets on their toes with his sometimes harsh, yet consistently detailed analysis that can be found in his weekly Media Mutt column published at The Bollard.

These are just a few samples that show it’s not hard to find solid journalism in Maine or anywhere else. You just have to look for it.

The next time you feel like bitching about the media, go take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask yourself this: are you part of the solution or part of the problem?

Too big to fail?

I never expected it to happen so quickly.

Almost every day I am deep in the trenches of public opinion, helping a wide variety of clients navigate the perilous waters of brand reputation management, crisis communications and message development designed to garner strong public support.

But last night it got a bit personal, and I tried a social media experiment.

urlI had an issue with my mobile phone provider, AT&T, one of the nation’s largest corporations. I spent more than an hour on the phone with their customer service representatives, haggling over a bill that was grossly out of balance. You can find the details here.

The company failed on several fronts. First, they did not live up to the promises they made during prior calls about the same issue. Secondly, perhaps more importantly, they let me off the phone without asking me if I was satisfied.

I waited 24 hours and then launched an all-out social media battle with the company. I dragged their competitors into the fray. I hounded their Facebook page and chased them on Twitter. But it all ended rather abruptly.

I never had the chance to execute the second phase of my PR battle because they smartly surrendered and resolved the issue to my satisfaction.

I am just one person, but I used my social media connections to leverage my message. The results were clear. It took fewer than 24 hours for them to surrender to my one-man war on the blogosphere.

This was all preventable. AT&T spent far more than the $1,000 they claimed I owed. They also suffered as others jumped on my bandwagon, further diminishing the company’s brand and reputation.

There are lessons here.

1.) No company is too big to fail.

2.) Do not underestimate the power of social media.

3.) Your brand and reputation are your most important assets and must be guarded.

AT&T ought to take a lesson from companies like AVIS, which authorizes its front-counter rental agents to do whatever it takes to resolve customer complaints; or LL Bean, a company that built a reputation for the quality of its products by honoring their replacement for any reason whatsoever. Or, GWI, a locally owned Biddeford-based ISP and telecommunications provider that always goes the extra mile to make customer satisfaction a top priority.

Fletcher Kittredge of Biddeford started GWI with vision and commitment, but he also had to endure many, many battles with larger telecomm giants. Fletcher proved that you can compete with anyone by focusing on the quality or your product and developing strong relationships with your customers.

AT&T, by comparison, is a multi-billion dollar corporation. Why is it so hard for such a large company to understand or appreciate the value of customer satisfaction and loyalty?

Dancin’ with myself

echo chamberHow do they do it?

I mean . . . really? How do they stay together, despite their almost polar opposite political views?

I’m referring, of course, to James Carville and Mary Matalin, two political strategists who have gained national prominence for their sage political advice and their respective close relationships to former presidents and aspiring politicians across the political spectrum.

Carville is a passionate, outspoken and often controversial leader of the political left. Matalin is a passionate, outspoken and often controversial leader of the political right.

And yet, despite their divergent political views, they are married and are able to find respect and admiration for each other.

I mention this because of an experience I encountered earlier this week in the sphere of social media, where the subject of politics can be a dominating topic, allowing just about anyone to espouse their political views while attracting commentary from their “friends.”

While social media platforms such as Facebook have become powerful tools to promote various forms of political commentary, there is a growing concern that they are only reinforcing our own, pre-conceived political ideology and creating massive “echo chambers” of political discourse.

With tools such as Twitter, Facebook and cable television, we today have immeasurable ways to filter our news, information and opinion. More than ever before, we can more easily gravitate to our own pre-selected sources of information, a process that robs us of the opportunity to question, challenge and discern the validity of our opinions and viewpoints.

I am guilty of this practice, but I do try to absorb contrary viewpoints, believing that it is a valuable process for expanded learning.

I am a self-described political junkie, and there are few things I enjoy more than debating public policy issues. My real life friends know this about me; I am a born-again contrarian, willing to switch sides when necessary if only to provoke and debate hot-button political issues.

My core political philosophy mostly follows the Libertarian model. I am pro-choice and pro-gun, yet I generally abhor abortions and try to remind others than the Second Amendment includes the words “well regulated.” I voted in favor of same-sex marriage. I am a fiscal conservative who appreciates the need for sound public spending and government regulation. I like renewable energy projects, but believe global climate change is being exploited for political purposes. My Facebook friends span the political spectrum, from hard left Democrats to hard-right Republicans.

In essence, I like to believe that I belong to the Common Sense party. This position earns me no respect whatsoever from those who have staked out much more stark positions. Some members of the GOP call people like me a RINO (Republican In Name Only). Some on the left, describe me as a hypocrite and a sell-out.

But I doubt very much that I am the only one who vacillates between the political poles. I am a firm believer in the political center and the notion that the “middle” is the most important demographic for any election.

Now, back to earlier this week. A real-life friend, a woman I very much respect and admire, threatened to block me from her news feed on Facebook.

Her rationale for this action: “Do you ever post anything that isn’t provocative?”

The subject at hand was last week’s announcement that helped clear the way for women to serve in combat roles. I think this was a good decision, yet I also asked whether women should now be required to register with the Selective Service, just as my sons will have to do when they turn 18.

The majority of the feedback my comment received indicated that most of my friends feel that “fair is fair,” and what’s “good for the goose is good for the gander.” But still, I was bothered that someone would threaten to block my opinions only because they did not align with hers.

My response was almost immediate, but not very well thought-out.

“I enjoy rigorous debate and alternative points of view; it’s why I like social media because it allows me to be exposed and digest opinions other than those I may have already conjured. I have “friends” of all political persuasions; sometimes they drive me bonkers and I’m sure I rattle their cages BUT through that discourse I gain valuable insight.

“I never want my news to be single-focused; I appreciate diversity…including diversity of thought and opinion; and I sincerely value your friendship. Block me if you must, but please know that would be a big loss for me. My previous career [as a journalist and political commentator] was geared toward provoking to inspire thinking. I don’t like echo chambers; and I have learned much from my Dem friends, and always appreciate the challenges to my thinking.”

In closing, my concerns about the proliferation of echo chamber discourse is shared by several academics and other thought leaders (see the links below). I also hope that this issue of echo chamber mentality will become part of a much larger conversation.

Step Outside Your Own Echo Chamber

The Echo Chamber Effect: New York Times

On the flip side: “Echo Chamber” is just a derogatory term for “community”