How truth got so complicated


I promised a couple of weeks ago that we would explore in more detail how to discern reputable sources from those better left to themselves. I wish it were a completely straightforward process, however, in today’s world of “alternative facts” and “truthful hyperbole,” it’s becoming easier said than done.

It’s worth making a momentary diversion to answer the question, “Why does it matter?” In the 24-hour news cycle, aren’t errors, even intentional falsehoods, identified and corrected almost immediately? After all, it’s been a long time since we faced anything like the famous “Dewey Defeats Truman” fiasco of 1948. Right?

Well, consider the situation that Anas Modamani has been in since he snapped a selfie in 2015 with Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel. A Syrian refugee who settled in Germany, Modamani’s selfie has been used repeatedly in slanted, or downright false, “stories.” Some went so far as to “identify” him as one of the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks last year in Brussels and Berlin.

As quickly as the photo is taken down and corrections are posted, yet another misuse of the teenager’s image pops up again according to his attorney in this New York Times article.

Yes, the 24-hour news cycle permits quick corrections but it also permits the falsehoods to spread like, well, a virus. Consider the man who fired a weapon repeatedly inside a DC pizzeria last year because he believed, based on a piece of news-like fiction, it was a front for a Satanic child abuse network.

My point: This is serious stuff.

There are several excellent articles out there with tips on spotting fake news. I like this rundown from CNN because it gives you insight into the subtle differences of journalistic malpractice: complete fabrications, slanted news, satire that is not identified as satire, and those other amalgamations that take a scrap of truth then add speculation and remove contextualization.

National Public Radio also has some excellent observations in this piece.

Your greatest weapons in the battle for “real facts,” are free and available to just about everyone: common sense and integrity.

Common sense means you approach all the media you consume with a healthy dose of skepticism. If you are presented with something outlandish, scandalous, and unique to a single source, chances are it won’t pass the smell test. The following graphic caught my eye a year or so ago.


This has made the rounds with various texts added, some suggesting media conspiracies. That’s not what I’m talking about here. The illustration says to me, “perspective is everything. Don’t jump to conclusions.”

Be careful what you “like,” share, Tweet, and quote. If you think you have some good information, share it and use it but also cite it so your customers/donors can do more digging if they want to. Also, if something goes wrong and the information is flawed, you can tell your stakeholders from where you got the data and why you thought it was credible. Without a citation, your reputation takes an additional hit because some people will assume you pulled the info out of thin air to begin with.

And then there’s integrity. Something that foundational needs a post all of its own.

Need help gathering data or discerning the credibility of a source? I’d love to help. The initial consultation is free.

Top image: Associated Press photo, Nov. 3, 1948 by Byron Rollins.

More on press releases, newsjacking


Last week, Marketing Monday focused on press releases. I ran across a great article with links to several other resources on the topic that I think are helpful in a couple of ways. First, these should give you additional clarity and insight on what news is worthy of the “blanket” press release. Second, and more importantly, these resources give you ideas on how better to package and share your business/non-profit news through a variety of methods.

Robin Samora’s headline about the current state of the press release tells us this is a question with which movers and shakers in the public relations and marketing industries are still wrestling. To me, a definitive answer is less important than the helpful ideas created by exploring the question.

In last Monday’s post, I pointed out that some readers might find my opening thoughts cynical. Check out Mike Butcher’s comments and you might think I was incredibly restrained. A couple of things about his piece: First, he’s very frank and his language is PG-13. Secondly, although his comments are solid and important, keep in mind his “beat” is the worldwide high-tech market. (Butcher is editor-at-large of TechCrunch, and according to the UK’s Daily Telegraph, is one of the 50 most influential Britons in tech today.)

My point? The author is a big deal, but he’s not the editor of your local paper or the business/non-profit reporter. Don’t let his no-nonsense style intimidate you from trying to build a good working relationship with the appropriate media reps in your area.

Last month, I shared a cautionary article from Spokal about newsjacking, which they define as “the process of leveraging trending news to elevate your brand’s message.” The death of musician Prince last week paved the way for hits and misses for a few big brands, and presents a good opportunity to review Sarah Burke’s post.

On the “hit” side was Chevrolet, maker of the legendary Corvette. Overwhelmingly, Prince fans approved of the tribute. Why? “Little Red Corvette” arguably was the song that vaulted Prince into the stratosphere of a music superstar. That direct connection, and the respectful tone of the ad, led fans to give Chevy “permission” to do a little gentle plug for the brand. The ad gave the impression that Chevy was grieving right along with fans.

Thumbs down went to Cheerios, and Hamburger Helper, among others, according to a rundown from Adweek. Obviously, The Purple One never wrote songs about either of these products. Adding insult to injury, in my opinion, is that both products are ordinary, even thrifty (dare I say “cheap”?) fare. “Ordinary” is about the last adjective to describe Prince. Both posts are naked attempts to capitalize financially from the death of a celebrity. Even though the companies removed the posts fairly quickly, damage was already done.

The Adweek piece includes several tributes from Minnesota-based companies/concerns. Like Chevy, there’s ownership here because Prince was a lifelong resident of the city and great promoter of the local music scene.

The lesson here is to look, hard, before you leap on a bandwagon pulled by breaking news. Like Chevy, it could work in your favor, but discuss the pros and cons with people you respect before you post. With social media in particular, it’s nearly impossible to un-ring the bell. An Escape key won’t do you much good. If you need some advice, give me a call, I’d love to help.

News to you, news to us


Deep commitment to a business or cause often creates single-mindedness in a person. As a public relations professional, one of my most frustrating tasks is attempting to convince such people that the vast majority of the globe is unaware of the focus of their efforts, and most are perfectly content to remain so.

I’m sure that sounds cynical, but a firm grasp on reality is needed to develop a marketing/public relations plan that doesn’t waste time, energy and money on efforts doomed to fall flat. One such effort repeatedly misused by businesses and non-profits is the “blanket” press release sent to local media.

Unless a large number of people are affected, a change important to you, your staff, customers, clients and donors most likely is not news for the local newspaper. Reporters and editors receive announcements regularly that are destined for the email trash bin because the interested audience is so extremely narrow, the information is essentially irrelevant.

This is why it is so important to develop a database of your stakeholders to communicate with them directly and purposefully about your goings on. Making announcements in a press release format is fine so long as your recipient list is targeted for your niche audience. Facebook ads and boost posts can be targeted to users by location, age, gender, and many other criteria. If you are a business and want to reach a specific geographic area, consider using ZIP codes and the postal service’s Every Door Direct Mail service. Distill the message down to a few seconds and record it as a video for YouTube and other social media forums. If it’s a new product you are offering, take an attractive photo and post to Instagram, Snapchat and/or Facebook.

Deciding what information to send to the local paper requires some thought, and most of all, getting to know the publication: what do they cover? how frequently? who are the reporters/editors? Consider:

Your board of directors has a new chairperson and/or members. The entire list of new personnel would be something of interest to your stakeholders, so use it on your website, in your newsletter, etc. Unless your non-profit has a big footprint in your community, chances are the local newspaper will only be interested in the story if local residents are involved. Share only the information of local interest. Make it brief, and be sure to send it to the business reporter directly. (Don’t forget the boilerplate.)

When does your information merit a release to the news desk? When it has the potential to affect a large number of people in your community. For example:

  • As a way to attract new customers, you’ve decided your hardware store will be a collection point to recycle paint and batteries. Unless you charge for the drop off, this is a public service. Depending on the size of your community and newspaper, this could be released, as a very brief item, to the news or business desks.
  • There’s a boil-water advisory in your county that has been in effect for several days. All the stores have run out of bottled water but you are assured a shipment is arriving at your store tomorrow. This is news. Email or call the news desk/editor.
  • A well-known musician has agreed to headline a concert for your non-profit. Email or call the news desk/editor.

Large metro area newspapers usually have sections in their print and/or online editions for neighborhoods and small communities. Find out what the deadlines are for your special section and who the reporter is so your news has the best chance of getting seen by someone who cares. Online submissions of news and news tips are very common today. Most will give you a word/character count limit to help you be concise. Be sure to devote some of those characters to your web address or phone number.

If your restaurant is expanding to another location or a larger more diverse menu, sure, send a press release to the business reporter, but for something that big, invest in advertising. Outside of your own assets, that’s about the only way to guarantee your news will be shared in its entirety.

If you are having problems figuring out which media is best for your message, give me a call. I’d love to help.


What to do when your message falls short

Dartboards with three darts missed off

Johnny Carson, longtime host of The Tonight Show, was the master of self deprecation. When a joke bombed, he didn’t steamroll on to another, he’d linger in the awkward silence, as if paying penance. (See 3:17-4:00 in this Christmas monologue.)

Audiences enjoyed his discomfort and loved him all the more for being humble and human.

No one enjoys feeling foolish, but acknowledging that a message has missed its mark is preferable to simply repeating it over and over with no changes.

Consider the case of presidential candidate Marco Rubio in this montage posted by Time following one of the debates last month. It’s possible Rubio’s initial message landed for some people, but I think the constant and unchanging repetition short circuited any benefit it may have had given the senator in his bid for the White House.

For those of us outside the national spotlight, it’s still possible to feel the heat:

  • Maybe that holiday tie-in wasn’t such a great idea for a newspaper ad or social media promotion. (Check out this great article from Sarah Burke on Spokal about newsjacking.)
  • Although accurate, the news story mentioning your business or non-profit fell short in some way.
  • The speech you gave to the civic organization yielded yawns instead of support. (It happens.)

How should you respond?

Own up to your errors. If you’ve lost your temper or simply said or published something thoughtless, own up to it. Although context is important, try to apologize without re-stating the offensive or erroneous information. Consider asking a professional for assistance. Don’t compound the error or controversy with a sloppy response.

Hold others accountable for their mistakes. If the news story contained errors, contact the reporter and ask for a retraction/clarification. Keep in mind that it will be more difficult to convince them that they have left out important information, but depending on the circumstances, it could be worth your time to meet with the editor. Letters to the Editor and polite, concise posts on the newspaper/station social media accounts can be effective to tell the rest of the story. If the issue is too complex to be brief, write a blog post and link to it from a comment on the media outlet’s social networks. A scripted and well delivered video on YouTube could be very effective, too. Again, get professional assistance if this is a controversial issue. Don’t play the victim or get defensive, just share the facts you know are needed to give the public a clear picture of the situation in question.

And the yawns? Invest time in practice and research. Speeches, purpose/position statements, interviews and Q&A sessions will go much more smoothly with preparation. Despite what we have seen on the campaign trail recently, this isn’t about stocking up on quips and insults to try to make your competition look bad, or to get payback for a wrong. Get facts from respected sources, including your own people, on why your business, non-profit or position on an issue is best.

For speeches, nail down a length from the venue organizer. In general, for Q&A sessions, set a goal for 15-second responses for most questions. Even shorter is better but avoid one-word answers by anticipating the follow-up question, “why.” Keep in mind that after a minute, eyes will begin to glaze over and ears will begin to tune out. Use a stopwatch as you practice. You’ll be surprised how much info you can share in just a few seconds.

Humor often works but avoid sarcasm, which can be misunderstood, and negativity. Often it is best to let your supporters come to your defense rather than attempt a biting comeback on the fly. Remember your goals for delivering the speech, granting the interview, publishing the post, running the ad. Here are some good, common sense tips from Mind Tools on “thinking on your feet,” that can help when you are feeling the pressure.

The Greek proverb, “know thyself,” is profound beyond an individual’s confidence in his or her identity. It is a great reminder in marketing and communications to stay focused on your stated mission. This goes beyond a slogan or even a mission statement. It requires as much thought, research and preparation as refining your product or service or expanding the reach of your non-profit’s good work.

Remember this exercise from Small Business Promotion, I posted a while back? If your message is missing its mark this is a great way to go back to the drawing board.

Egon got it wrong


In 1984, Ghostbuster Egon Spengler pronounced: “Print is dead.”

Many people likely believe he was just ahead of his time, but (with all due respect to Harold Ramis) the truth is, he’s as wrong now as he was then.

Certainly the heyday of the medium is in the past, but when it comes to local news outside the nation’s big urban centers, newspapers are still an important player. The best ones are sharing news in column inches, 140 characters or less and a half-dozen other formats.

Another characteristic of today’s best papers is a big interest in “hyper local” content: information relevant to specific communities–down to the ZIP code and even the streets.

Why? National/international news comes at us from all directions. What is really lacking these days is the story from the next block.

That’s why details on your non-profit, or a special event your business may be planning, can still find an audience via your town’s newspaper and accompanying digital assets, but don’t expect the newspaper staff to beat a path to your door begging for details. You have to provide them complete and detailed information.

And make sure you leave the advertising copy where it belongs: in your ad budget. Don’t contact the newspaper unless you have a real story to tell.

Most newspapers (and TV stations for that matter) have an email address or “contact us” form on their websites to submit news. The forms usually have a word limit, but if you are sending an email, don’t make it too lengthy.

If you are a non-profit, focus on your clients and the track record of your organization. Are you expanding your services to a new demographic or geographic area? Is there an individual or family who have experienced real improvement in their circumstances or outlook because of the assistance they have received from your organization?

Are you promoting a special event such as a Trunk or Treat Halloween outreach or free movie for the community? Provide the newspaper with all of the details including alternate plans/locations in case of inclement weather. If the event is free, include that important point up front.

If you are seeking community support in some way: a donation of canned goods, winter gloves, etc., make that clear, too. Provide the newspaper with contact information to be included in print. (Make sure the reporter can contact you if he/she has questions, but if you do not want your personal email address/phone number included in the write-up, make that crystal clear in your communications.)

Small business owners working together to sponsor a block party/open house is newsworthy. Giving away free Halloween candy, face painting or hosting a costume/pumpkin carving contest? Donating a day’s receipts to charity? Are the employees of your hair salon giving free haircuts for the homeless or students from struggling families? Is your restaurant offering discounts on Thanksgiving to local college students? How about a Veterans’ Day promotion? Is your store going to be a Toys for Tots drop off location for Christmas?

Readers of your local newspaper, who by the way are your potential customers, want to support small businesses who provide excellent goods and services and also give back to the community. Give your newspaper the information they need to highlight your good citizenship.

Last week I mentioned that “old school” still works in reference to the U.S. Postal Service. The same goes for newspapers. Don’t count them out, especially if you are living in a suburban/rural area. Keep them in mind as you market and promote your business or non-profit.


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