Category Archives: CNN

The Spitzer story and the media

My job here, as I understand it, is to help communicators look at the media and public information environment that we live in and adjust crisis communication strategies accordingly. And how the media is dealing with the Eliot Spitzer story provides an outstanding case in point.  The news is that one of the most powerful politicians in the nation who built a reputation based on prosecuting white collar criminals, crooks and bad guys, turns out to be one of those kind himself. That’s the news. What is not news is who the heck this prostitute is, who her brother is, what she does for a living, and any of that nonsense. But, guess what is all over the news right now. News coverage is about wives and whether or not the stand by their man in these circumstances. Parade out the psychologists and lets dig into the relationship these poor women have had with their fathers that leads them to these kind of creepy men and why they are so stupid as to stand there with grim looks on their faces while the public humiliation is broadcast to the world.

Then, lets interview (by the way–I’m talking about Anderson Cooper 360 last night because this is what was “news” on his vaunted show) the brother of the prostitute. Let’s find out what kind of person she is–and along the way, let’s laugh about the argyle NY Yankees baseball cap he has one. Let’s show a bunch of pictures about her and see just what kind of attraction she might have offered to make the governor risk everything.

It’s disgusting. Why people aren ‘t flooding the switchboard of CNN (plus all the other channels that mimic or outdo this junk) and letting them know we want news and not National Inquirer programming.

But, as much as I would love to change our media environment, that is not my job. My job is to help you the communicator understand the environment you operate in. Anderson Cooper has one overriding interest: get eyes on the screen. There are few boundaries that will not be crossed to do that. Good taste–yeah right. Legitimate news–uh huh. The question is eyes on the screen and the resulting ad rates that go with those. Cooper’s career depends on it, CNN’s future depends on it.

What is means for you is to first of all, avoid like the dickens anything that they might use to create fear, titillation, disgust or those other human emotions that represent gripping story telling and tv. But, understand what is going to happen if you are caught in it by accident or fault of your own, and prepare now to deal with it. You can’t adequately prepare without fully understanding what will happen. And if you want to see what will happen, fill your eyes with the “news” about today’s prostitutes and the women who stand by their men.

NIU tragedy, Roger Clemens, Blackberry and New York Times cuts newsroom staff

There is a lot going on for a crisis blogger to write about. Being on the road (Pasadena, CA this time) makes it hard to keep up. The NIU tragedy is depressing and horrifying–in part because it seems that these situations may accelerate. There will be much handwringing about what to do to prevent it from happening again. I hate to see our nation and campuses become impregnable fortresses in efforts to maintain safety.

One impact of the NIU incident is to push Roger Clemens, Brian McNamee and Henry Waxman off the front page. Of the three, I can only imagine Mr. Waxman being upset about it. Frankly, I’m appalled that the business of Congress is tied up in trying to determine which of these two is lying. There can be only one justification for creating this circus–and that is Chairman Waxman knew that it would generate celebrity news coverage and given Mr. Clemens’ bulldog personality, it was sure to create fuel for the media fires. He was right–but shame on him. What is the national interest here? Is it really up to Congress to keep our national pastime clean? And what is with the ridiculously partisan questioning. Why would Republicans line up on one side and Democrats on the other? If anyone wonders why Congress’s approval ratings are even lower than the President’s, Mr. Waxman’s antics and many others of his ilk are likely culprits.

I blogged earlier about Mr. Clemens’ effort to protect his reputation. He is taking the kind of aggressive, in your face defense that has been promoted by Eric Dezenhall, which is (mostly) appropriate if and only if he is absolutely as clean as he adamantly professes to be. There is no room for shades here–he has left no room. My concern expressed earlier was that if he is not as clean as he so vehemently states, then his reputation will be damaged as much or more by his bald-faced lying than by his use of illegal substances. The jury is still out–sort of. But what I have been reading is that both McNamee and Clemens have come out of this bloodied but Clemens the most. It does come down to credibility and credibility is what reputation is all about–and Clemens’ credibility went down in many minds after the testimony. The story is not finished, but the end looks increasingly predictable.

Back to NIU. I was somewhat surprised by the focus of the stories on how well NIU communicated. Not surprising on the one hand since the story out of  Virginia Tech was primarily about failings to respond quickly and communicate well. USA Today had a detailed timeline of when the event happened, when the website had information about it, when text messages were sent, when the public address system was used, emails, voice mails, etc. According to the report, all these occurred at 3:20 p.m. Thirteen minutes after the shootings occurred. One student in the article reported getting an email at 3:41. All of this is quite remarkable and may be a demonstration of just how much university leaders have learned from VT and how far they have come in meeting todays demands for speed, direct communication and transparency. Admittedly, the situation at NIU was quite different–no earlier attack, a short shooting spree, and then the shooter was dead. Still, it appears that NIU has demonstrated what can and needs to be done and set a standard for all universities facing similar circumstances.

One student being interviewed on tv last night commented that she just wanted to talk to her family but couldn’t get out–presumably with her cell phone. It will be interesting to dive deeper and see how many voice messages and text messages were received and how the common problem of immediate jamming up of the campus phone systems–even email systems–may have impacted message delivery.

Regarding the Research in Motion (Blackberry) outage crisis (or crises I should say given that this was one of several outages), I was interviewed by Michael Sebastian of Ragan Communications. I was probably a little harsh but felt it was quite ironic that one of the creators of the instant news world apparently has not been able to meet some of the challenges that they were a part of creating.

Finally, the New York Times job cuts.  Cutting 100 out of 1300+ newsrooms jobs may not seem like big news. But for those of us in reputation management and crisis communication it is big news. The icon of serious journalism is being seriously impacted by the huge shifts in the economics of news. I’ve commented here frequently on what that means. In short–increased desperation to keep audiences, more stretched news staffs, further shifts to online media. All these things have great and grave implications not just for the traditional media, but for those who need to work with them in building and protecting reputations. Add to this something I noticed on CNN’s website last night looking at the NIU coverage. They were aggressively asking survivors and people who were there to submit their accounts and photos and videos to CNN. In other words, they were enlisting the help of citizen journalists. It is the future, folks. While paid news staffs are declining, news agencies are aggressively looking to bolster their coverage of instant news by engaging the millions of amateur journalists and those who just happen to be there with a cellphone camera.

Is it possible we are getting more critical of the media?

One of my main reasons for blogging, and a major focus the presentations I do at conferences, is about the media landscape and why it can be so damaging. It is a core part of my mission to try to get people to be more critical of media coverage by understanding the business dynamics behind media’s imperative to build audiences. And to help them understand that simply accepting what is reported as reflective of the way things really can have serious consequences.

I must say I haven’t seen a lot of progress in increasing scrutiny of and criticism of the media and how they are, in my opinion, continuing to devolve as a result of the vicious competition with new media. Today, there were two articles in Bulldog reporter that caught my eye and give me a little reason to hope.

One, is the response of cable viewers to CNNs attempt to create a tempest in a teapot over race and gender in the Democratic presidential race. Here is the article that talks about the backlash of viewers.

The other tells about Howell Raines, fired from his job as editor at New York Times following the Jayson Blair scandal, and his new role as media critic. Funny to read about how his former colleagues responded to his criticism of them after he left. Of course, they may be right that he was a terrible boss, but the  interesting thing to me is having someone who once was a true insider at the highest levels now looking at the business of news coverage from a critical (and I hope viewer) perspective. I will look for his comments with interest.

"iNugget" News…and the possible antidote

This thought-provoking article by David Henderson of Siegel+Gale, suggests that pressure on main stream media is resulting in bite-sized chunking up of significant news stories. The example here is the CNN headline that summarized all the intrigue of he Scooter Libby trial into four words: Libby Convicted of Lying. (Of course they could have said: Libby Lied.)

The over simplification of complex stories has long been a favorite topic of mine, and I don’t attribute it as much to the pressures of New Media on Old Media as to the intrusion of journalism into the world of entertainment. Entertainment operates by a different set of standards–the premium being on capturing and holding attention–than traditional journalism. Now, of course, the pressures on Old Media is forcing them into ever more desperate measures to compete for audiences–so Henderson is very right about the result.

But the overall impact of the blending of New Media and Old Media may be positive in addressing this. There is no doubt that with 70 million  “citizen journalists” writing frequently on almost any and all imaginable topics, far more information and discussion occurs than before. And news readers have access to all that real info and pseudo info very easily through search engines. The result is that each story in its sum can get far, far more coverage than before. Not in the traditional way of the coverage in the hands of professionals paid for by news organizations, but we have seen the weaknesses of this. The weakness of the new breadth of coverage, is that it is not professional and frequently the “journalists” do not have much of significance in new or valued information to add. But, frequently they do.

Add up the increasingly brief news capsules offered by traditional media with all the chatter, discovery, commenting and analysis by millions of blogs and you have more depth than ever. I believe this will result in a stronger fifth estate–but the jury is definitely out on that.

The BP Baker Report–another example of headlines not matching content

Anyone who deals with the media recognizes that it is a common situation to have the headlines, and sometimes lead paragraphs, differ from the story. Understandable since most stories are more complext than can be adequately condensed into a headline, and the fact that headlines are typically written by an editor and not the reporter.

There was big news in the Baker report regarding BP’s safety record. Two items in fact. One of them is that BP has already substantially addressed all the recommendations put forward in the report. Second, and more important, the report provides a direct refutation of the very well publicized accusation of the head of the Chemical Safety Board that the safety problems at BP were a direct result of cost cutting. That theory goes well with the media and the public perception, but the Baker report said it wasn’t true.

However, you will note, these were not the headlines. The Cnnmoney.com report said: “(Baker report)said it found no evidence that BP scrimped on safety in order to cut costs” Based on this a headline writer could easily have written: Baker Report Shows Cost Cutting Did Not Result in Safety Problems at BP. That, however, is not what they wrote.

In fact, the Baker Report says that the focus of BP on personal safety instead of process safety was the real problem. Interesting. They also cited Lord Browne’s leadership in other key areas such as climate change.

Once the media decides on a story line it is very difficult to change it–impossible probably. And the way this is reported demonstrates that the story of irresponsible money-grubbing will continue to be the main theme–regardless of the facts.

Sony, racism and zwarte piet

So Sony is in the news today. The charge: racism. An ad they have run in the Netherlands has prompted cries of outrage in the US for racism. See the ad and story here from the cnn money site. I’ll let you decide if you think the ad is racist or not.

My comment is about vulnerability around the issue of racism. The increased awareness of the public of the power of the media and messages in the media have prompted a much much higher level of concern about anything that may be considered racist. Completely innocent expressions can be seen as sinister and reflecting an unconscious level of racial insensitivity. One problem is that while most in your audience may not see an issue, only one or two who have special sensitivity or even hypersensitivity can make the claim. Calling out “racism” is like yelling “fire” in a crowded theater except the fire yell is illegal and claiming racism is seen as positive. It almost always means that accused party is guilty immediately–again, even if only one or two saw a problem.

I experienced this working with a client a while ago regarding the character of Zwarte Piet or Black Peter in a Christmas celebration. Black Peter is a central element of the Dutch Christmas celebration as he is Sinter Klaas’ helper. Traditionally Zwarte Piet has been presented as a child in full black face and that is still the way it is done in the Netherlands. But do it here, even in a strong Dutch community and you are certain to have a few voices cry out “racism.” The organization wisely chose to alter the custom, but there were those angry about the changes because they do not believe they were being insensitive to celebrate an old tradition in the traditional way. Those demanding change were the insensitive ones, they felt.

The point is, here is a good way to lose both ways. Obviously the best way is to find ways to avoid it even while that recognizes limits on freedom of expression. But if you get caught in the racism cries, there’s really only one alternative for companies like Sony. Pull the ads. Say you’re sorry that people understood it in a way they never intended. And create a new ad.

Why a sleeping cable guy should make you nervous

This guy named Finkelstein in Washington DC calls Comcast to get his cable fixed. The cable guy comes over and gets put on hold by his own service department for an hour, so he takes a nap. Finkelstein thinks this is funny so he videotapes the cable guy asleep and puts some music to it.

No big deal. Just like ten thousand other service problems going on right now. Amusing even. But then Finkelstein does what young interneters do these days. He shared his video. With a quarter of a million others. He posted it up on www.youtube.com and 227,000 others got the opportunity to share in his little joke.

It didn’t end there. The news media picked it up. I watched the video on KING5 last night on the 11 pm news. Not sure how many others picked it up or if the likes of CNN or other cable networks covered it as well. I did check and it was on Newsvine (www.newsvine.com).

The point here is not Comcast’s customer service problems (I’m a customer and they have problems). But it is the fact that any of your employees doing dumb things can easily be videotaped or simply show up in a blog, on a news site, or a vodcast. Talk about a glass house. Talk about transparency. When one partied-out cable guy decides to take a nap, suddenly it can become a major, major black eye for his employer and make national news.

The value of having a house with lots of windows is that you tend to want to clean up. Even those untidy closets and corners. So that is the first thing to think about. What needs to be cleaned up? What would be embarrassing and undo all the good work you do and effort spent on communicating and building reputation? But, dustballs will happen. Nothing can be perfectly clean and sooner or later one of your employees is going to take a nap in front of a camera or do something else to embarrass you. Then the question is, are you prepared to deal with it–at the speed of youtube?