If you live by the sword…

We all know them… colleagues or bosses who wield enormous power often based on the most ephemeral set of skills or talents.  Many are sycophants, some are pathological, others are deceitful and conniving, but they invest considerable time embellishing their careers, often in spite of their limited talent and acumen, often if not always at the expense of others.

Network news, a business I happen to know well, is filled with such people.  There  are both men and women who have truly slept their way to power and prominence.  There are those who have married their careers to anchors and executives only to be eviscerated themselves, as if by a scythe, when their powerful benefactor’s star has lost its luster.

Last week ABC News announced the departure of long time executive Mimi Gurbst.  Many believe the 30-year veteran was edged out in a power shift that promoted those in Diane Sawyer’s coterie and cast aside those who were not among the favored few.  Others believe this is a touch of long-delayed justice for an individual who had littered her career path with other’s reputations.  What makes all this so interesting is the reaction to this story in The New York Observer “Top ABC News Producer Leaving Network To Become High School Guidance Counselor” by Frank Gillette. Mr. Gilette’s fawning lede and story, heaped with praise and adulation, triggered the most amazing series of comments – more than 100 of them, and none positive.  Reading the posts one cannot help but conclude that engaging with Ms. Gurbst professionally was like touching the third rail.

Network news is an industry which often puts its best face on its own dirty laundry and unpleasantries.  No where is this more visible than in tributes or saccharin eulogies offered about individuals who were not particularly well thought of even when they were alive.   But I cannot recall a public recollection made by colleagues laced with such vitriol and venom.  And that’s the lesson… if you live by the sword be prepared to be cut and slashed and wounded by those whose personal and professional reputations you traded as the currency of gossip, innuendo, and disrespect.

In disclosure I knew Mimi Gurbst at ABC years ago.  I haven’t spoken with her in more than a decade.

Shoot the messengers. Just shoot them and put us all out of their misery.

Over 37 years of producing and conducting TV and radio and multimedia interviews with executives, politicians, warlords and men and women on the street I rarely believe anything I hear these days, and certainly I believe less than I once did.

Why?  Because politicians and executives have been so over-coached and practiced to be sure they say nothing that will be used against them later… it is the equivalent of a hijacked Miranda warning.  Say nothing and nothing bad will happen to you.  For people on the street they are so ready to tell you whatever you want to hear in exchange that you’ll choose their mutterings for the story prompting them to call their friends to watch or listen.

I have been critical of corporate messaging for a long time.  Let me tell you why… when conducting corporate interviews it has become standard practice for their handlers to ask what the interview will be about?  If you’re working for a corporate client, you’ll be asked to participate in a “grounding call” that will last about an hour several weeks before the scheduled interview.  About 2 weeks before the interview you’ll be invited to another hour plus “briefing call” which becomes the framework for a briefing document for the executive.  It will be a pulp intensive document of multiple pages with probably 4 or 5 bullet points for each of the anticipated questions, often with a paragraph of more of embellishments for each bullet point.  For an interview of perhaps 20 questions this means that the sycophants who perform the role of communication managers will spend hours drafting up to 120 specific bullet points with hundreds of additional words to manage key suggestions for the executive’s conversation.

The funny thing is that by the time these briefing documents are prepared and delivered to the executive, often on the night before the scheduled interview, it’s frequently too late.  Countless times executives have come to the interview and asked me, “What are we talking about today?”  I always enjoy the question, as I perversely enjoy watching the blood drain from the face of the handlers simultaneously.

It’s a strange thing.  These executives are at the top of the corporate food pyramid.  They know their stuff – they have spoken the words before.  In many cases, they wrote the words.  By preparing the bullets, by over manipulating the executive, his or her handlers have frequently squeezed out any remaining drop of authenticity… the conversation sounds as canned and corny, as insincere and ineffective as imaginable.

Years ago the average length of a sound bite (quote) on the network evening news was :22.  Today I hear that’s dropped to just :08 seconds.  Is that because reporters are so enamored of their own voices that they insist on shorter sound bites?  Perhaps in part.  Is it because news makers have less to say than ever before?  I don’t think so.  Is it then a matter that people don’t say their stories or share their expertise as well as they used to… or we’re burned out hearing the same old stuff again and again… perhaps that has some bearing too.

Here’s the bottom line… why don’t you believe politicians?  Why don’t you respond to executives and others representing their issues?

Comment, email me.  I am at a loss.  What I do know is that you, me, we – the audience generally – is not hearing messages that we believe, that we trust, that we are willing to value… so why not?  What’s failing and why?

I’d like to understand this better.

Hype only serves to disappoint audiences

News producers, managers and all those create news – the content which is the stuff that keeps the soap commercials from bumping in to one another – seem to me to be more frantic, ever-so-driven to capture and hold their audiences.  More than ever before it seems  that they too have drunk the Kool-Aide and now piously justify their hype as necessary to lure and secure audiences. Sadly though this is getting sillier and sillier as boasts are proclaimed that cannot be defended, promises are assured that cannot be delivered, and audiences – like you and me – feel more cheated.

It just feels like an era of news abuse – instead of trust – is in vogue and in turn, professionals are defending what is indefensible, hype.

For instance on a weekend report about the death of a University of Virginia co-ed the network anchors assuredly promise “we’ll have the latest on the investigation when we return.”  Really?  On a Saturday?  On a Saturday when investigators are not visible to the media and when there has been no news release from the police.  So the latest is… actually, when?  Yesterday!  And so it has already been… reported? And when?  Yesterday!  And so the boast of having the latest news coming up is really just a… hype?  A tease?  And that’s somehow OK… or if as professionals you knew there was truly nothing new, was the hype a lie? A white lie?  Or just a plain old-fashioned whopper since it was uttered with the prior knowledge that it was untrue.

Or for instance the Today show used the word “Exclusive” six (6) times about a single guest.  Exclusive appeared twice in anchor copy and four times as a graphic.  Are producers so desperate to convey the appearance of superior coverage that they cannot let that content speak for itself but must instead wrap it with banners and bravado to drive the point home?  Or maybe there is such churn in the viewership that the constant reminders of exclusivity are the only hooks remaining to lure viewers?  But if that’s the case then all the exclusives that appear day in and day out are not attracting audiences but may instead be repelling viewers who are tired of being abused with adjectives masquerading as important content.

It seems the corruption of the profession runs deep… as deep as our own self-identity.  A national radio show on journalism featured a guest who said, “reporters are now packagers” of news and claimed that he didn’t need to report because he had sufficient “listening posts” to tell him what was going on.  It feels a little absurd to ask, but I am mystified because  if reporters are not going to report, then who is?  And listening posts, who are they… and how do we trust his definition of who is responsible, and ultimately, who is vouching for them?  It is the proverbial slippery slope and, whoops!  We’ve started sliding.

Another panelist on this NPR program spoke of reporters whose job it was to now contextualize the news.  And a third said it was now completely correct for reporters to have an opinion and allow that to be reflected in their work.  I always thought that was opinion… not reporting.  Isn’t that what Op-Ed pages and Editorials  are for?  Is the new era of reporting relegating those columns to the dust bin of old journalism too?
We’re mired in the new words of the language – we have “commoditized” news to the point that it is most important to monetize it… even at risk of becoming homogenized content so as not to offend or challenge any one.  We are all now “content producers” which I suppose means we are all – as I am here – able to write and self publish, somewhat regardless of our authority or authenticity.  We speak passionately of being in touch or tune with our communities, although that seeks somewhat murky and ill-defined.  Is my community that of those who are overweight white 50-somethings of general affluence living in well-to-do communities featuring overpriced homes that represent much of our life-worth and that we fear could be depreciating in the current economic downturn?  Is that my community?  And if it is, pray tell, how is any one going to monetize me?

Look – the point is this – let’s watch our words.  Our boasts.  Our claims when we really know better.  Words matter.  That’s my clarion call.  Let’s think about the new clichés that serve little purpose but to make us sound au courant and quote-worthy.  Adjectives are colorful but when we use them intentionally to be misleading aren’t we all guilty of cheapening our profession?  Of course.  What’s wrong with reporting being the benchmark of what’s important, significant – the adage: news is the first draft of history?
What do you think?  Leave a comment… let me know.

BP’s approach to the oil spill crisis – corporate sacrifce! Let’s toss our friends into the sea.

There’s an established rule in crisis communications that you round-up your allies and stand together — sink or swim, but both human or corporate  sacrifice is frowned upon as poor sportsmanship.

That rule was cast aside Monday by BP CEO Tony Hayward who threw his Gulf of Mexico drilling vendor Transocean Ltd. directly into the deep water saying, “The drilling rig was a Transocean drilling rig. It was their rig and their equipment that failed, run by their people, their processors.”

Oh Mr. Hayward?  How do you feel about companies or people you really dislike?  In an interview on NBC’s Today Show, Mr. Hayward went on to point out that Transocean owned the giant Deepwater Horizon platform and that BP was merely a lessee.  While accepting the burden of paying for clean up costs one has to wonder what Hayward was thinking?  Why was he sitting on national television dissing what until last week was considered a valued partner to BP’s global operations?

So much for loyalty.  So much for corporate responsibility.  Hayward could be laying the framework for a legal defense to put as much of the blame, the harsh light of public recrimination and ultimately the public memory onto the shoulders of his Swiss partner Transocean.  To this observer it appears a flimsy and transparent attempt to add to the slimy oil slick also known as the ever-expanding blame game.

Kudos to Mr. Hayward – he appeared sincere and forthright.  He was well-trained and prepared.  But his statements left real doubt as to the corporate courage and conviction of BP… and I bet the blame will be shared by many more before the well or this story is capped.