A friend and former colleague wrote me the other day that he had “made peace” with joining the dark side. He was referring to public relations.
Many journalists have long looked down on PR, perhaps spurred by bad encounters with PR professionals over the years. While I understand, I don’t share that sentiment. I know plenty of terrific PR experts and have found stories and ideas I would not have otherwise discovered. I’ve done my fair share of PR work and have advised clients on PR strategy time and again.
What’s rarely discussed is that journalism has a dark side, too. We’ve seen it many times this year.
Certainly, journalists have faced detractors from all corners with claims of biased reporting, ethical misconduct and sensationalism. The dark side of journalism should include five areas that damage the industry needlessly.
The first area is “pay-for-play,” when a media outlet expects businesses seeking coverage to pay up front for ads. Most might recognize it by a standard term: extortion. Owners and marketers often don’t realize that this is an unethical practice and not the industry norm. However, in limited media markets (such as Birmingham), we may not have many options beyond the outlet seeking payment.
Avoid pay-for-play at all costs. Patronize media outlets that keep their business interests and journalistic pursuits separate. Hire a professional or an agency to assist in obtaining earned media coverage.
The second area is media release journalism. I’ve seen it both traditional outlets and online outfits. With newsroom resources stretched beyond capacity, reporters and producers take shortcuts. One of the most egregious is taking media releases and using them virtually unchanged for print, online and on air.
For a PR pro, it’s a huge easy win: It puts the client’s message directly before the outlet’s audience without a filter but with the appearance of credibility. In the long run, it harms everyone. Journalists lose credibility, audience members lose trust, and story subjects lose another option in reaching people.
We don’t have many options to discourage this practice, other than to reward media outlets that avoid it with our clicks, our subscription dollars and our patronage of their advertisers.
The third area is a lack of innovation. The industry has been largely static, whether print, broadcast or this “new” age of digital. Essentially, the click-revenue model is similar to the emphasis on big numbers that worked for decades: readership for print, viewers/listeners for broadcast.
Have we seen any innovations that have made good journalism more robust and more profitable? Some have even made the argument that journalism should be divorced from the for-profit model, though the nonprofit ventures of late have been a mixed bag.
The fourth area is a lack of transparency. We have important questions to ask of news organizations:
- How are coverage decisions made?
- How are they carried out?
- When the budget is cut, what are the deciding factors?
- Do audience members have a say in decisions? Subscribers? Advertisers? Non-newsroom employees?
- What are the priorities in the newsroom? They could include speed, accuracy, potential metrics, cost, controversy, public service, brand alignment and so on.
A public that demands more of its media should expect more transparency than is currently and automatically offered. We want the same transparency from the media that the media asks of government, business and other institutions.
The fifth area is fake news. The first four areas have indirectly contributed to the fake news phenomenon. Any time established media outlets shoot themselves in their collective feet, it opens the door a little wider for the hucksters to slip through.
Fake news is extremely profitable and has repercussions far beyond which website, social media account or YouTube channel racks up the most hits.
- Fake news can lead to extreme voting results.
- Fake news can lead to violent actions.
- Fake news can lead to more of the same: duped consumers; wider ideological divisions; less critical thinking; more propaganda.
I wish I had a clear-cut solution on the fake news problem. It’s largely insular: People either take refuge within a fake news bubble, or they don’t. Gentle persuasion, empathy and skillful storytelling are likely not enough to entice them out of that bubble.
We can continue to make sure children have access to free robust public education, free Internet access and libraries in every community. Development of critical thinking skills should become a top priority for educators and citizens across America.
Having worked in journalism for 25 years, I know well its power for good. But I also know how it has declined in certain ways throughout my career.
I believe great journalism is essential for a great democracy. Whether we deserve either remains to be seen.
Consistency can make your brand stand out amidst fierce competition for attention. It matters not if you have limited time and limited budget — we all have those challenges.
But let’s avoid predictability. Let’s avoid dull. Let’s leave room for occasional surprises to delight and awaken fans and customers.
It’s not difficult to shake things up. Usually, the biggest hurdle is our own reticence to actually provoke our audience. We’re afraid of scaring them off.
(If they’re that easily frightened, they were never really ours to begin with, right?)
What are some ways we can surprise our online audience?
- Talk with people and call them by name. Social media, emphasis on social.
- Put the spotlight on others, including competing companies.
- Give them a gift. A real gift, not 10 percent off our stuff.
- A handwritten note on nice stationery.
- Use a different format: illustrations, charts, limericks, PDFs, anything that varies from your standard mode.
- Guest blogger, Snapchatter, Instagrammer. Someone with a distinct personality and voice who gets your audience.
- Empower colleagues to reach out online. Too often, we leave it to one or two ambassadors, when we have a company full of ambassadors itching to help others.
- Revisit past interactions. Y’all Connect speaker Ramon De Leon had his Domino’s franchise follow up with one customer annually with free pizzas, after a big screwup with her Super Bowl party order.
Whether you reach out to one or 100, you can make a splash by veering off your beaten path. Note: This isn’t license to become erratic in your online communication and marketing — only an opportunity to bolster your consistent message with a burst of fresh creativity.
First, be consistent. But then, shake things up. Your customers will appreciate you all the more.
When it comes to blogging, you and I have much to be thankful for.
- It’s easy. Most of us can have a site running within minutes, with custom domain, nice graphics and almost no cost. Help is available, and we’re free to go in any direction.
- It’s flexible. I can post as much or as little as I want. I can split into separate blogs, or delete and start over. I can post tweets and photos and links and videos and galleries and quizzes and PDFs and art and lists and sound clips and more.
- It’s collaborative. I’ve learned from commenters, sharers and guest bloggers over the years. I’ve connected with marketers, business owners, speakers, authors and more.
- It’s empowering. Blogging has helped me refine my voice and put myself out there. It’s led to speaking opportunities, books and media appearances. My work has been quoted and cited many times over on sites and in media outlets big and small.
- It’s forgiving. I can try and fail and come back the next day and knock one out of the park. I can screw up and have little wins and setbacks. I can teach others based on my years of mistakes.
After an acrimonious election year, we all need a break. Let me suggest a different approach.
When half the country is taken by surprise two presidential elections in a row, it means we’re not really listening well. We hear arguments that bolster our beliefs all too well, at the cost of understanding half of our neighbors. We think we know the score, and then face an ugly awakening.
This lack of listening cripples us in other areas: our personal relationships, our marketing campaigns, our rapport with colleagues, our clients and so on. No matter where we live, no matter where we work, we run into people with different points of view.
We can’t expect others to listen better. We need to work on ourselves.
I continue to practice my listening skills every day, knowing that strengthening it also helps my overall communication skills. I have a few oddball suggestions for interested students to try.
1. Take an improv class. Improvisational comedy isn’t about quick wit. It’s about careful listening. Scene partners rely on each other to build a world from scratch instantly, but those foundations can collapse in a wink.
A master improv performer understands that she must continue where her partner left off. She can try to think ahead, or surrender to the moment, studiously listening and watching what her partner has brought to the game.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve run through the arguments and counterarguments in my head while someone else was talking. I really missed out what they were trying to tell me, because I didn’t want to understand their viewpoint, merely one-up them.
The Positively Funny troupe offers classes in Birmingham.
2. Listen intently in short bursts. A meeting offers the perfect opportunity to go all in: no devices, no doodling, no distractions.
Can we listen to what each person has to contribute? Can we discover how others react to questions, opinions, requests and commands? Can we accurately summarize each colleague’s portion?
I would often get lost in my own thoughts during meetings and very rarely get called on it. I’ve seen plenty of people spend entire meetings and conference calls glued to their phones.
We pay a price for distracted meetings: lack of follow-through; confusion over action steps; poor service for colleagues and customers. Maybe we can’t be perfect listeners 24 hours a day, but how about for 1 hour?
3. Practice yoga. One primary skill in yoga is breathing. Through monitoring our breath, we become one with our bodies (if that makes sense). We listen to what our bodies are telling us: Mine usually tells me that ow my left leg is cramping up!
I know that when I do a better job of listening to my body, my mind and my spirit, I am better prepared to listen to the concerns of others. But if my stomach is rumbling, if my mind is stuck on negative thoughts, my listening suffers.
Yoga is a great way to tap into our noisy inner lives. It might make someone else’s noisy life a little easier.
4. See a therapist. I’m grateful when someone listens to me carefully. Therapy can be cathartic when I have so much I want to unload.
But it’s also a wonderful opportunity to see a pro at work, someone paid to listen to people’s woes. She isn’t taking calls or checking emails or scrolling through social media. She asks questions, watches my expressions, listens to my tone and participates as needed.
Not to mention that therapists can help patients learn listening skills. Marriage counselors guide couples through basic exercises so each one can practice talking less and taking in more.
Many of us are probably not in a listening mood, especially to “the other side.” We harm only ourselves in remaining inert. Who will be the first to reach out and give a warm, sincere listen?
We are most creative when facing limitations. Typically, those limits are time and money.
Fortunately for most of us, we’ll never have quite enough resources to do our jobs as we wish. Bloggers can always use nicer computers, faster Internet, better cameras, more hours in a day and so on.
But typically what separates one blogger from another is talent and how it is applied. A super-skilled blogger can grow complacent. A newbie can strive with each post to try something new. Where do each of us fall on that continuum?
Even arbitrary limits can create better results. Because blogging has no word limit, I read too many posts that ramble. No one is telling that blogger to rein it in, so we all suffer.
At one news site I managed, I set a limit of 500 words on every post, including my own. It was an arbitrary number, not based on some scientific study of attention spans or ideal SEO triggers — it could have just as easily been 300 or 750. Having that limit forced each writer to be concise. It made each post stronger than if every blogger had free rein.
This word limit forced bloggers to make choices, even under an artificial circumstance. No one says books must be shorter than so many pages, or TV shows must have fewer than so many episodes a year, or movies must run under so many minutes. But we have a word that describes creators who dare to heap on more for the sake of more: overindulgent.
Arbitrary limits aside, some of us face very real limits in our regular blogging lives. For example, we lack time to write posts, and when we get going, we have to stop for other urgent duties.
This constant time challenge can bring out our most creative sides, forcing us to tackle the problem in different ways. That could mean shorter posts, writing chunks on the go, using video, setting aside more blocks of time, imposing earlier deadlines or developing ideas that require less work. Many bloggers simply give up before trying alternate approaches.
But the best bloggers try something to make it work. We force ourselves to brainstorm, on our own or with colleagues, for a better solution. This is the creative problem solving that happens a million times a day in marketing departments, studios and on assignment.
For me, the best example has been Twitter. If I want to see creative writing with the most impact, I look at what’s tweeted about current events (debates, football) and from pithy personalities (comedians, peers, writers).
It’s why I’ll never get tired of reading best of Twitter posts or “Gameday” signs. It’s why I’ll never stop working on my writing, whether with a 140-character or 500-word or 10,000-word limit.
Limits don’t hamper us. They empower and unleash our creative minds.
• • •
Limited resources for blogging?
Let me help unlock the right ones for your company …
In honor of my 11th anniversary in blogging this month, I’ve written a two-part post. The second part, Hell no, will run Tuesday on Y’all Connect.
Blogging can be a tough sell. It seems like fewer people get started, and even fewer keep going. Why not Instagram and Snapchat your lives than blog them?
I’ve seen a lot of blogs come and go in the 11 years I’ve blogged, along with blogging groups, conferences and experts. Once you figure out the domain registration, the site setup, the formatting, the schedule and the audience, you still need the energy to actually write and upload photos.
Even putting videos on YouTube daily is easier.
I’ve thought a lot about blogging in 2016, what it means for clients and hobbyists, and whether it’s worth the effort. Today, I focus on the reasons why you should blog regularly for your company or organization.
1. Good blog content has a payoff in sales. Those unfamiliar with blogging automatically assume that bloggers can make money and that it’s a direct path from publishing posts to raking in cash.
That’s never been true.
What is accurate these days is that search engine optimization still exists and evolves, driven mostly by Google. And Google now emphasizes good, unique content in ranking sites. No more keyword stuffing, no more crazy tags, no more link farming — I mean, people still do that crap, but they penalize for their sites.
Posts that are helpful, entertaining or informative perform better on SERPs (search engine results pages). That improves SEO and draws more traffic. The smart brand uses that traffic to build leads and market directly to potential customers.
That’s the profit from blogging.
2. Blogging is the best way to stand out. This is an opportunity to resonate with people. Most brands blend together, but the only way to win fans and customers is to stand apart.
A blog provides the simplest way to keep a site (and its readers) up to date. Sure, companies should keep catalogs and pages current, but they make it an annual or biennual overhaul. How do I as a first-time visitor know if you have the latest equipment or are aware of the best options?
Consumers are armed to the teeth with information. They are no longer at the mercy of salespeople. Companies attempting to close the sale can either assist browsers with info — about models, specs, parts, manufacturing process, reviews, etc. — or hinder them.
And more customers want to connect with brands beyond price and color. They want to know what a company stands for, and how it crafts its goods. That’s the kind of insider info that belongs on a blog by diverse voices from all over the organization.
3. A blog offers full control and ownership of the message. Investing too much of the marketing resources into social media can backfire the moment those channels change the rules. Facebook has mastered this game, forcing even the biggest companies to pay for access to their own fans.
Setting aside resources for building and maintaining a home base platform on the company site should always be the starting point. It can drive creation of channel-specific content and guide visitors through the sales funnel.
Otherwise, marketers are always at the mercy of the rules and the limitations of each social channel.
4. Share your message with the world. Blogging remains one of the few universally accessible platforms. People can view posts in any browser without having to sign in, pay a fee or download an app.
The freedom to create and explore is unlimited. The responsibility is to offer readers a reason to stick to the end of the post and return for more good stuff.
That’s why blogging is still a thing. A big thing.
• • •
Still need help getting your blog started?
Contact me today …
Our daily routine is a constant act of persuading others to do our bidding. To get our kids to clean their rooms. To get our spouses to pay more attention. To get our colleagues to get with the program. To get another rush hour driver to let us in their lane. To get our Facebook friends to vote for this candidate (or not vote for the other candidate).
Our tactics may be to nag, to scold, to preach or to lecture. We already know their success rates.
We forget that humor is often the most effective and subtle form of persuasion. It humanizes us and offers a gentle tweak instead of a head-on attack.
Everyone is funny in their own way. Some have to work at it, but most have a natural style of getting laughs, intentionally or not. But we can be unnecessarily awkward in incorporating humor in our sales tactics.
Trying to be funny isn’t the same as being funny. We’re often better off leaving out the intentional jokes, given that the opportunity to fall flat increases dramatically with social media.
Those who succeed are willing to play the fool for others. They have a healthy self-awareness. They understand their audience. And they can be humble and contrite when jokes miss the mark.
If we’re willing to laugh at ourselves, can we get others to join in the fun?
Hit them in their funny bone. Their laughter might open their hearts and minds to our requests.
Writing never goes out of style. (Leave it to a writer to make such a pronouncement.)
I’ve coached writers and bloggers to practice their craft and to work on incremental improvement. It’s not easy. It requires time and a willingness to keep trying.
Good writing brings people to your site, and keeps people on your site. Bad writing repels them quickly.
Writing has become more important again, thanks to Google. In its myriad of factors for search engine optimization, Google puts clear informative prose as one of the most critical to ranking on searches. The searcher must find something useful, engaging or entertaining, or the search engine will rate a site lower.
Tricks such as keyword stuffing and buying backlinks have been ineffective for years. For many users, Google has one sole purpose: Take them to the right site as quickly as possible.
Site content must be unique and well written. It can be short or long. It can link out or not. But it must provide something of value or interest to someone somewhere (not a rambling nonsensical screed against the aliens of Jupiter).
This put copywriters in a great position again. Why take a chance on mediocre copy when we can hire pros to add snappy content to our sites for a reasonable price?
And for those bloggers and publishers focused on top-notch writing all along, congratulations! Keep up the good work.
This comprehensive guide to SEO-friendly copy is a must-read.
• • •
Is your site lacking a writer’s touch?
Contact me today for a free consultation …
I am not typically a fan of rewrites. Call me lazy, but I like to be done with writing something, even if it means intense editing and work on the front end.
But on the web, rewrites for specific content are mandatory.
I’ve resolved to give my About pages a good rewrite in the coming weeks. They haven’t been updated in years, and they should reflect who I am now and what my sites are about. This is good for readers, this is good for searchers, and this is good for SEO.
(SEO is search engine optimization, the way search engines understand what each site and page is about.)
Naturally, I’ll need to update other pages, too. But the About page is a good place to start. I should consider what the site goals are, which topics draw in traffic and what useful information to include on the page.
It shouldn’t take long, but it will give me renewed focus on attaining my business goals and using the right content and calls to action to draw in fans.
Casual readers won’t notice. Search engines will.
And I’ll have a better connection to those looking for help with communications strategy and training.
• • •
Need help bringing a sharp focus to your site?
Contact me today for a free consultation …
I gave some suggestions for catering to site visitors via smartphone in a July post, but I missed two big options for 2016.
I’ve spent part of this summer trying out both options, ones you may already be familiar with from a user standpoint. We should all implement Accelerated Mobile Pages and Facebook Instant Articles, if only to try them out.
Both serve the biggest audience, mobile users. Both strip away extra coding and bandwidth hogs to provide lean, fast-loading pages. Both require effort to implement, though in the end, the code does most of the work.
Accelerated Mobile Pages is an open source project, allowing for developers and webmasters to implement faster-loading versions of posts and pages. We typically stumble upon them in Google searches, as the company designates AMP articles with a lightning bolt.
Video: Intro to AMP
On my existing sites, accessing the posts and pages on a mobile device brings up either a responsive theme or a mobile-only theme. But at least a couple of sites are ready to go with Accelerated Mobile Pages.
I used the free official WordPress plugin, AMP. It handles posts but not pages yet.
To see the AMP version of any blog post (even from desktop browsers), add “/amp” to the end of a URL. For example, here’s the most recent post in standard and AMP forms:
- Standard: http://yallconnect.com/2016/08/15/help-baton-rouge-heres-how-video/
- AMP: http://yallconnect.com/2016/08/15/help-baton-rouge-heres-how-video/amp/
Because Birmingham Blogging Academy is a WordPress.com site, AMP is built in.
- Standard: https://birminghamblogging.com/2016/08/14/speaking-gigs-southern-public-relations-federation-annual-conference-september-2016/
- AMP: https://birminghamblogging.com/2016/08/14/speaking-gigs-southern-public-relations-federation-annual-conference-september-2016/amp/
Visitors won’t typically hit AMP posts directly. But for those searching online, Google will feature sites optimized with AMP prominently in results.
Facebook Instant Articles takes more work. It requires implementation on the backend of a site, as well as set-up within a Facebook page. WPBeginner has a guide to installing this feature on self-hosted WordPress sites.
Video: Introducing Facebook Instant Articles
The biggest tradeoff is ceding traffic to Facebook, which caches a version of a site’s original post.
For WordPress site, multiple plugins offer the ability to add Facebook Instant Articles. I use the free Allfacebook Instant Articles plugin.
To see the Facebook Instant Articles from Y’all Connect, visit the Y’all Connect Facebook page using a smartphone and scroll to a post marked with a lightning bolt (a catchy icon). Click the update to see a Y’all Connect post in Facebook Instant Articles.
These are the hoops we need to jump through in 2016 to embrace our mobile audience. And we’ll have more hoops to cross as the web shapes itself around an audience on the go with quicker questions and less time.
Try Accelerated Mobile Pages and Facebook Instant Articles to meet this group halfway.
I asked for your biggest fears in blogging, and y’all came through.
This week’s fear: “Not knowing where to start, because I have so many things I want to write about. And getting readers.”
(For getting more readers, please see this earlier post with my suggestions.)
I know a lot of bloggers who would love to have this problem. What a great problem to have.
I believe we all have a creative side, though not all of us indulge it. We can share it through artistry, through hobbies (from woodworking to knitting), through our everyday tasks (cooking, yard work, grooming).
Really, the most important thing is to start. Have trouble picking a topic? Write them on slips of paper and draw one out of a hat. Or randomly sort them into a list. But push forward by writing and publishing a great post about that first topic.
Sometimes, the only way to break the paralysis is to stop the procrastinating behavior and start writing. I know, I’ve cleaned the house or mowed the lawn many a time before writing a blog post.
You may find over time that you gravitate toward a narrower set of topics. Or you may go wild with even more ideas, topics and stories.
The worst outcome is that 3 months from now, you still are juggling ideas in your head with nothing to show for it on your blog.
Stop reading this post and go write something and share it with the world. Now.
Tell me about your biggest fear in blogging,
and I might answer it in a future post.
More in our Blogging Fears series.
During a presentation to Alabama Media Professionals, I took a question from a group member about marketing to difficult-to-reach target audiences.
It’s not easy, and it’s not always fun. But at minimum, it requires a willingness to put in the work. To hustle. In “Crush It!” Gary Vaynerchuk insists that hustle is required to launch a personal brand.
Listen to my response in the embedded clip, and don’t hesitate to ask if you have questions about communications strategy (either in the comments or through the contact form).