BP’s Media Management – Brilliant! Insidious but brilliant

Brilliant?  Tony Hayward and the cast of Gilligan’s Island… brilliant?  Well, perhaps as the Skipper he has left a lot to be desired, but virtually everything else the BP media machine is doing is text-book perfect and likely to be studied as a model for crisis communications and disasters of tomorrow.

BP is using the media, the web, social media and is literally crafting stories right before our eyes.  They have mastered the concept of producing and distributing their own media and communications.  Believing in the long tail of the web BP has hired its own reporters to gather news stories under the guise of journalism. Under banner headlines “BP reporters Tom Seslar and Paula Kolmar are on the ground in the Gulf, meeting the people most immediately affected by the oil spill. Read their regular updates” are an apologia of unimaginable guile and proportion featuring heartfelt reports of clean ups and mitigating the severity of the disaster. BP knows that some of these stories will fall into mainstream media either through a lack of checks and balances or an absence of editorial scrutiny. BP knows that while they cannot rebut all the stories produced by the press the corporation can muddy the water by producing and distributing its own look-like news. Clever. Perhaps even diabolical. Effective nonetheless.

Aggregating electronic media is also used to build what masquerades as a social media-oriented site where true news is co-mingled with corporate pieces.  They create and maintain a look so responsible, so balanced and fair.  Why not?  They cannot prevent the cascade of negativity so they might as well co-opt it to fit their presentation and advantage.  And goodness let’s watch them use You Tube as one of the silos to distribute their material to the main stream.

Union Carbide and Exxon were the poster children for how to bumble and fumble corporate responses to a crisis. Johnson & Johnson, Odwalla, even fast food outlets have done a better, more comprehensive and responsive job in managing a crisis over the recent past. But BP has set a new bar in how to handle the media on the ground, when to stonewall, when to provide selective access to those it favors (most notably FOX news, perhaps based on their British Sky News affiliation AKA Rupert Murdoch?), and now creating content thanks to their own news team juggernaut.

After Katrina all the networks pledged to establish and maintain news bureaus in New Orleans in response to what was perceived to be the national anguish over the tragedy. Slowly but steadily the New York based, east coast centric news producer’s interest waned until the economic costs of sustaining gulf coverage was deemed to be too high with respect to the newsness and news value of what was produced. No network executive wanted to blink first, that is to be perceived as caring less about the minority impacted city, but inevitably the networks scaled back and withdrew their staffs. Watch for the same in the gulf… the story will move from just Louisiana on to Mississippi, Alabama and ultimately the prize jewel Florida. As the floating story sails the gulf the reports will migrate too, a nomadic news team on the prowl for the oils next landfall. Meanwhile the audience’s attention to oil soaked birds and families-with-ruined-lives will become tiresome. The birds will be featured in pieces on Nat Geo. The families will become features on anniversary occasions and special events such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Cynical perhaps but predictive too. And as time passes the only ones covering the story, crafting and creating faux news will be the one organization with the most money to spend and the most reputation to change… BP.
Watch it and weep.

Use a Camera, Go to Jail… new laws make it illegal to photograph police

3 states now have laws prohibiting news photography of police… actually, any photography of on-duty police.  If this is the new trend, what does it say for society that it is more afraid of protecting illegal or unprofessional acts by law enforcement than protecting civil rights?
Gizmodo.com is reporting Are Cameras the New Guns that law makers across the country are writing laws that limit if not outright prohibit photography of on-duty police in order to limit or halt photographs or video appearing on social media.
Laws that restrict citizen’s rights also restrict the news media and drape a veil on the truth.  How far does this extend? Will news crews be allowed to shoot benign pictures of video of traffic accidents but not when police misbehave or there are questions of abuse and misconduct? What about civilian journalists who have captured police beatings, for instance the Rodney King video in Los Angeles, the Oscar Grant shooting allegedly by BART police officer Johannes Meserhle – are they now liable for prosecution for capturing evidence of potential misconduct?
Would this ban on photography extend to riots? Would this extend to coverage of police protecting the President of the United States making a visit, campaign trip or speech?
Where does one draw the line — is it permissable to make pictures of police when they are doing good things but not when their conduct might be called into question?
What, pray tell some one explain this to me, are we afraid of?  This was, still is I would hope, a country where we expect our civil rights are protected… where we expect the best and most professional conduct from law enforcement, and where we acknowledge that bad things do happen… and that there are laws to protect everyone involved.

It just doesn’t make sense to me.  Would some one help me to understand by starting a rigorous debate?

CNN to go it alone? Network may rely on no sources other than itself?

Not so many years ago… major newspapers sent their unilateral reporters around the world, wire services competed to file first from world capitals; radio and television networks scrambled to be first with multimedia and the global news audience was the prime beneficiary of news and information, in-country sourcing due to a robust sense of competition.  Economic realities and changing market forces have picked off those reporters as if by a sniper whose aim was unfailing.  UPI is gone, AP and AFP remain though reduced in size, scope and prominence.  Now comes news that CNN is considering dropping all its outside sources CNN Close to Dropping AP… in favor of complete reliance on its own staff, I-reporters and citizen journalists, Tweats and other independent, unprofessional and inherently unreliable, untrained sources. It is not that all are unreliable they are untrained, unprofessional, unregulated and the audience is unprotected from uncorroborated reporting.
That’s the risk… the risk of spin, government or corporate news masquerading as real, and simply stories which cannot be checked and verified in what will be a competitive rush to publish and broadcast. It is already unfortunate that independent reporting has been a casualty of the economic juggernaut. The risk – and it is a significant risk – is that the network is choosing economics over prudence, responsibility and history.

When is somebody (how about you Mr. President?) going to kick some ass?

Frank Rich has written a compelling Op-Ed piece (6.4.10) in The New York Times Don’t Get Mad, Mr. President. Get Even asking if or when the British Petroleum gulf oil spill will finally trigger Mr. Obama’s anger to reach a boiling point. I think for many Americans, especially those living from Texas to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and to Florida, that tipping point passed some days ago.

Doesn’t it bother any one but me that he seems so measured?  So level headed… so unflappable even as pelicans and other shore birds die; just as beaches, industries and communities all slathered in oil may not recover for a generation?  Doesn’t this disaster rise to the level where some one in government, some one in charge, can appear to be righteously pissed off over the event, the handling, the aftermath and the guile of the company and executives in charge?

And then comes the story from The Washington Post Gitmo Becomes $500 million Camp Costly that the government’s investment in facilities at the prison camp includes features that might be considered by some, especially those suffering from the downturn in the current economy, to be lavish by any standard.  Fast-food franchises, an Irish bar, astro turf and playgrounds (mostly unused) litter the base even as its mission is on the decline and the urgency of these constructions seems to be mitigated?

A story in the Seattle Times over the weekend reported fees for the Washington Mutual bank failure have topped $100m and are still climbing.  Of course these are fees that to be paid from whatever is salvaged from the assets even as that means an even smaller fiscal pie is left to pay back to investors.  What was most alarming was the line that attorneys are charging $925. and hour for their services.  That’s a higher rate than most criminal attorney’s charge on capital cases!  Doesn’t any one wonder whether this seems exorbitant?  Is there a better way, a more affordable way?  Should there be?

The lessons learned from the bank failures and the catastrophic consequences of the financial meltdown are still yet to be calculated.  But for those responsible, isn’t tar and feathering an option worth reconsideration?  Shouldn’t many Americans who are living on savings, borrowed money, who have lost jobs and in many cases are losing hope, what little remains, aren’t they justifiably angry?  What’s wrong with showing anger?  What’s wrong with being authentically mad?  Why is showing anger something that seems to be out of place?

I cannot help but recall the lead character from the movie “Network” who asked his viewers to go to their windows and scream, “I’m mad as hell and I am not going to take it any more.”

On the eve of election night here in California, as well as other states, I do wonder when the electorate will find its way of expressing its simmering anger… not just in a ‘toss the bastards out” kind of knee-jerk response, but when will we demand and get better?

Death – unedited, raw and disturbing captured on camera

Death – captured on video – in June 6th’s Los Angeles Times Death of fugitive porn actor captured in disturbing video is a short metro (L.A. Now) item on the death of a porn actor named Stephen Clancy Hill, who was wanted in connection with a rampage that left two others dead.  In all, not a terribly monumental story when compared with carnage that dots the worldscape daily, except that this story features video of the actual moment of Hill’s death captured and shown as a link from KTLA Channel 5.

Is this news worthy?  And why have the editors determined that watching a raw tape of his body tumbling off a cliff, ricocheting and bouncing from is something that adds to our understanding or appreciation of the death?

In the final act of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”, Guildenstern wonders aloud if the concept of death can be portrayed on a stage. It is not a large leap to extend this question to citizen journalism and modern media.  Somewhat at an emotional loss he asks, “No…no…not for us, not like that. Dying is not romantic, and death is not a game which will soon be over…Death is not anything…Death is not…It’s the absence of presence, nothing more…the endless time of never coming back…a gap you can’t see, and when the wind blows through it, it makes no sound.”

For the editors of the Los Angeles Times the death of this man makes a great deal of disturbing visual noise.

So long, farewell… Buh-bye Tony

BP CEO Tony Hayward is a marked man emerging as America’s latest leading corporate villain.  He’s the new poster boy for what not to say in a crisis.  His apparent self-focus that “he wants his life back” pits his desire for normalcy against the loss of 11 workers in the fire and sinking of the Transocean rig.  One might imagine their families would like those lives back too.

Tony, you’re doomed man. Say goodbye.  It’s all now a matter of time… you’ve been tar and feathered, smeared in oil.  When you now appear on camera the common reaction is to throw darts or change the channel.  In a world where trust and believability, credibility and likability rule… you’re sinking like a rock.

It seems truly amazing that – for some one who teaches crisis management -BP continues to make mistakes, missteps, misstatements 45 days in to the disaster.  The failure to explain what would be deemed “legitimate” claims before Congress in the earliest days of the story is today compounded by an artful, expensive PR campaign that features Hayward and his cabal of advisors doing the ‘best they can’ all the while oil gushes from the pipe.  Isn’t there an inherent contradiction in all this… are they really doing the best job they can?  Difficult admittedly, but not a success by a long shot.

The real lesson remains the experience of Valdez, Alaska.  Twenty one years after Exxon ran their tanker onto Bligh Reef there is still an oily residue just under the rocks along the shoreline of Prince William Sound.  Droplets of oil abound in the water, in pools, coating the underside of rocks that cover that shore.  Billions of dollars spent and tens of thousands of man hours invested in clean up have failed to restore, entirely restore, the waterways and shoreline.  Yes the sound is healthier than some doom and naysayers predicted, but it is not without lasting injury.  It would seem evident that a similar fate awaits the gulf coast and possibly other eastern beaches and the communities that depend upon the water for food, tourism, attraction and livelihood.

So as we watch for the expected outcome — Hayward will walk the plank with a shove from the BP board; the company will lose its financial luster and ultimately file for court protection or receivership to protect its reduced and falling assets.  Thousands of workers will lose jobs and homes; alcoholism will rise… abuse, domestic violence, divorce all soared in Valdez and the surrounding communities too.  Suits and class action filings for worker compensation due to illness stemming from the clean up will clog the courts the way the oil stifles marine life on marshes today.  Perhaps even years from now medical claims, lung and other injuries will continue to haunt local residents and their families, perhaps too even birth defects.  This will be a petri dish for health, injury and litigation for generations.  Within this year I predict BP and it’s eco-friendly logo will be replaced with a new name and consumer  brand, as if that is sufficient to hide the experience from the public’s memory.
Sadly it doesn’t take scientist to see where this mess is headed… admittedly it’s a bona fide crisis.  Hayward may become the fall guy but the corporation and those who are advising it deserve some of the blame for the handling of the story.   Black oil, corporate greed… mistakes and mishandling.  Dishonesty.  Shame.

Bombast and Bravado – and just who are you calling “riff-raff”?

Korean News, the public face of the North Korean government offers a daily menu of just about the most colorful propaganda available anywhere.  In today’s posting “National Defence Commission Issues Statement” the DPRK  warns the world not to take any action retaliating for the alleged torpedo attack on a South Korean naval warship.  Fair enough – it’s sabre rattling and diplomats, journalists  and analysts closely read these pages carefully noting even slight variations in words and phrases as indications of true policy.

Here’s how they drive their point home, “It is our invariable iron will to react to “retaliation” with more powerful retaliation and to “punishment” with indiscriminate punishment of our style.

Availing ourselves of this opportunity, we sternly warn the U.S. and Japanese authorities and riff-raffs, their poor lackeys, to act with discretion.

The world will clearly see what dear price the group of traitors will have to pay for the clumsy “conspiratorial farce” and “charade” concocted to stifle compatriots.”

Well, I hope their not calling either me and you riff-raffs.  And certainly not on a Friday.  We might justifiably take umbrage.  We can safely presume they’ll have more to say through diplomatic channels but for sheer propaganda, this is unadulterated mastery.

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.

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.

Why do the words “Trust” and “News” in the same sentence seem unbelievable to the audience?

Perhaps the problem isn’t that audiences do not believe their news providers, as one recent poll would have us believe, maybe we just don’t want a diet of facts we disagree with or truths that disturb us?  Maybe it is that we are becoming largely a nation of self-righteous, opinionated zealots who disagree with any voice other than our own?

There has been a lot of coverage about the recent survey that Americans do not trust their news sources.  It’s prompted many news managers to assert their coverage is absolutely grounded in fact, rooted in the inherent bedrock of journalism and the larger audience’s problem stems from reading, watching and listening to other organizations who clearly, evidently don’t respect or even value news, truth, and fairness in the same high degree or standard.

But I haven’t read any one yet who has laid some of the blame on the audience.  What, blame the audience?  Are they the victims of poor reporting or to blame for failing to demand better?  What?  Wait!   Could not a compelling argument be offered that over the past 20 years the audiences have demanded less and worse, they have appeared to be satiated on a measly diet of incomplete news mush.

Audiences today seem to be divided in Foxes or Hedgehogs, those who find a web source and burrow down (foxes) or those who behave like hedgehogs nestling among many stories or sites picking up tidbits of information that they associativity relate into a  pastiche.

Whether that audience finds the right blend of news and facts and information seems irrelevant for they feel informed, and based on a wide array of bits of information they are as assertive as they believe themselves to be well self-informed.  But audience surveys show how poorly informed they truly are.  USC’s Annenberg School did a survey – both print and TV side by side – of the Los Angeles market and found “A composite half-hour of LA local TV news contains 8:25 of ads; 2:10 of teasers (“stay with us – there’s a story you won’t want to miss”); 3:36 of sports and weather; and 15:44 for everything else. So besides sports and weather, only about half of a half-hour of news is news. How much of that 15:44 is about events that happened in the Los Angeles media market? Local news takes up 8:17; non-local news gets 7:27″  The full document can be found as a link from there.

So what has gone wrong?  How do we dissect the road we took that has led to our own dismay and destruction as a trusted source of information and news?

TV News is an industry which became a playground for consultants invited by general managers and news directors in pursuit of dollars.  The professionals were often co-conspirators in the rush to expand audiences and achieve higher ad revenue as news became a business instead of a responsibility.

This slippery slope dates back generations.  In the 1970s consultant-inspired thinking gave life to happy talk and eyewitness news which were innovative at the time but became feeding grounds for wasted time, irrelevant comments, and ersatz displays of emotion.  In the 1980’s live trucks enabled reporters to use technology – some of which were over by the time the newscast began but by-God they had presence.  They were there LIVE and again precious air time was sacrificed for glitz.

Stories that were complex were deemed to be too difficult for TV or were said to be “too depressing” for the audience that might be watching at meal time, and the consequence is an entire generation was fed a buffet of crime and chaos.  The ‘if it bleeds it leads” style of news still predominates in  even the largest markets.

News is partially to blame for creating an audience which has been stuffed on the candy of irrelevance at the expense of substance.  A friend says television news doesn’t handle complex carbohydrates well and that’s true.  It doesn’t because anything serious or chewy is skipped over with the conviction that the audience either doesn’t care to be bothered with the facts or wouldn’t understand those complexities or the nuance.

Consultants told news managers the only things the audiences care about was weather and traffic, witness the boom in high dollar technology and promotions for super duper Doppler and accurate at all costs weather and traffic graphics that proliferate in all media markets today.

It is easier to watch weather… it is certainly easier for anchors to engage with banalities about the weather in lieu of risking showing ones true ignorance of substantial news matters.

I recently watched the NBC affiliate in San Jose take more than 30 seconds to announce and illustrate a set of 4 new stamps about cowboys on their evening news.  The fact that none of them stemmed from the bay area, the artist was a not local resident, nor was there any editorial linkage to the story that made it relevant was, in itself, irrelevant.  On any night when there is substantive news to report, the producers chose this story as more important, and it became the subsequent subject of an engaged dialogue between the anchors, as if 30 seconds wasted on the story itself wasn’t indulgent enough.

If the education system has done a poor job teaching civics it is a lesson that has not been lost on reporters who are assigned to important stories without the proper grounding.  Just before opening arguments in the 2005 Michael Jackson molestation trial in Santa Maria, California a reporter from the Los Angeles market asked me, “Which side goes first?”  They truly had no idea; clearly they had not even watched enough episodes of “Law and Order”.  It is a simple thing, and they should have known – but they didn’t – and the amount of other, missing information was daunting.  This was a person who would go on to report the trial, assumed to be some one with knowledge, and yet they were vastly out of their league reporting anything but a fender bender.  Or new stamps.

Should we be surprised that we have created a generation of idiots?  Hardly.  In entertainment this is an audience who watches programs such as “Are you smarter than a 5th grader?”  Why we set the bar so low, not even at the junior high school level, is probably because we have little conviction the adults in the audience would be competitive if the curriculum was more challenging.

News today is in an economic crisis.  Networks are closing their overseas bureaus preferring to simplify and voice over material from bases in London.  Former CBS correspondent Tom Fenton warned of the consequences of this in his book Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All.  What was bad then (2005) as overseas bureaus were closed and reporters on the ground in distant lands were fired is being replicated today by ABC News in the United States.  One cannot cover news as if it is an exercise in distance learning.  Nothing can be substituted for feet on the ground, eyes on the scene local knowledge of the people and institutions making important decisions and creating news.

The point is this — when confronted by a survey that the audience doesn’t trust its sources of news is really not that unexpected.  Distressing to professional news people – yes, it should be.  Distressing to any one who cares about an educated public, yes!  it should be too.  But is it the fault of news, per se?  Partially of course.  The blame or responsibility for this is at the feet of a society which doesn’t really seem to value its news, or any one that gives lip service to news instead of really understanding and wanting to be taxed with serious substance, instead of the pabulum that has passed as news for so long?

There is blame for many – for education systems that don’t teach the value of news and information; for individuals who shun anything but infotainment, and then participate in surveys to say they don’t trust news.

It prompts me to wonder, just who do they trust?  Who do you trust?  Comment or email… let me know what you think?