Friday, May 22, 2009

Scared of Social Media? Time to Graduate from "Old School"

As a professional communicator, I’ve done work in a government setting (US Navy Public Affairs Officer) and I’ve done corporate gigs (Amoco Corporation and others). As a reserve officer, I would often be in the position to tell my active duty friends about all the wonderful things going on in the corporate world that they were slow to adopt. With Social Media, it’s now just the opposite. Government is embracing Social Media in a huge way and my corporate friends are well behind the curve.

The Houston Chronicle ran a story May 22 about oil companies that were planning on using Twitter to share updates on the 2009 hurricane season. The storms often shutdown production in the Gulf of Mexico, and platforms that normally operate 24/7 are shut in and personnel evacuated. It would seem Twitter would be an ideal venue for updates of that nature.

Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron plan to include hurricane updates using their Twitter accounts and Websites. (Full Disclosure: I have done media training for Chevron since 2001, but didn’t have a role in either this article or decision.) The Chevron and Shell decisions didn’t surprise me, but some of the comments by other companies did. The Chronicle checked in with Valero Energy to see if the company would be using Twitter.

Valero is the largest US refiner and its plants along the Gulf Coast are routinely shut down when storms threaten. Spokesman Bill Day is quoted, “No, we’re pretty old school.”

Old school in this context is a really nice way of saying “We’re trapped in the 20th century. And we like it!” Perhaps the quote was written on parchment and delivered to the Chronicle by Messenger Pigeon.

Contrast that with NASA. They have an entire page on their Website that lets people know how they can collaborate with the agency. NASA is on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace. Even the word collaborate tells you a lot about how the agency is communicating. NASA is reaching out to the audience wherever that audience may be. (Full Disclosure: I have done media training and messaging workshops for the Space Agency). NASA has even won multiple Webby Awards for various agency Websites, including 2009 awards for its main site and the site for the Cassini Mission.

And it’s not just NASA; a friend of mine was the director of new media for the Department of Defense before she was recalled to Afghanistan. Local governments are getting into the act, too. Check out the Los Angeles Fire Department’s use of Social Media during recent wild fires.

One of my media training partners always tells our students that it is the communicator’s job to reach the audience not the other way around. In fact, the first thing my tenth grade speech teacher taught me was to identify the audience.

Technology is merely the delivery system. Ignoring new ways to reach the audiences on which you depend isn’t old school, it's lazy.

The only thing you guarantee by not using Social Media is that your audience will get information about you someplace else.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Good Sense: 1 - Arizona Attorney General: 0

I wrote over the weekend about the ridiculous attempt of Arizona's Attorney General Terry Goddard to force Gannett Corporation to continue to publish the Tucson Citizen newspaper. Goddard claimed the shutdown of the paper violated anti-trust laws and would deprive "thousands of readers and subscribers" of an alternative editorial voice to the Arizona Daily Star.

A federal judge denied the AG's request for a restraining order and ruled “at this point the state has failed to show the likelihood of success at trial that the defendant committed an antitrust violation that caused irreparable harm by closing the Tucson Citizen.”

The U.S. Justice Department raised no objections to the closure and ending the Joint Operating Agreement agreement that allowed the Citizen and the Daily Star to share business and printing operations. Gannett and Lee Enterprises (which owns the Daily Star) informed the DoJ last October of their intention to end their Joint Operating Agreement if no buyer could be found for the Citizen. Gannet plans to continue operating the paper online.

So it appears there is justice and good sense to be found in the world, if not in the AG's office. A spokeswoman for Goddard, Anne Hilby told Daily Star reporter Dale Quinn that the AG is reviewing "how best to proceed with the anti-trust litigation."

How about letting it go?

I found it fascinating that while the AG is trying to protect 1970s-era journalism, his spokeswoman responded to the reporter's questions about the ruling via email.

If the staff in the Attorney General's office can interact with the public using information age tools, why can't the Tucson Citizen?

Bill Salvin

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Two Paths of Journalism's Future

Above, journalist Miles O'Brien (center) interviews Astronaut Loren Shriver (right) and former flight director Bill Reeves (left) of United Space Alliance during the May 11 launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis on its mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope

There seem to be two paths that the future of journalism takes these days. The first, annoying, self-serving path is the political involvement in what’s happening in the world of journalism. The second, more exciting path is what journalists are doing to tell stories in new ways.

On the first path Friday, the Arizona Attorney General filed suit against the Tucson Citizen and Gannett Corporation Friday to prevent the company from closing the paper. Arizona AG Terry Goddard will lose his case, but he’ll get attention for “defending the public interest.”

The paper has been published since 1870, but its readership has fallen to about 17,000 recently. So Goddard wants to force a company to pay to print a newspaper fewer and fewer people are reading, even though Gannett plans to continue publishing the paper online. He claims the end to a hard copy of the Tucson Citizen violates the 1970 Newspaper Preservation Act. Goddard would have us believe this law signed by President Nixon is still relevant in the Internet Age. Whatever.

Meanwhile, real journalists are working in new and exciting ways to bring information to the public. And from the evidence I’ve seen, the public is responding. My friends over at covered their second Shuttle launch last week with seven hours of coverage, and interviews with more than a dozen guests. About 25,000 people watched via the Web, most in the US, but nearly a quarter of the audience was international including Canada, China, Kazakhstan, Ethiopia, Russia, Estoniaand my favorite Togo.

The Launch Cast Team led by veteran journalist Miles O’Brien, Astronaut Leroy Chiao and co-anchor David Waters gave the best coverage of the launch of any media covering the event. Their experience was clear when there were several glitches on ascent and the audience got real-time interpretation of the anomalies.
"The barbarians are through the gates - and on the palace grounds. The Big Old Media Palace is burning - and webcasts like ours have helped start the fire. And, you know, it's a lot more fun being a barbarian." -Miles O'Brien isn’t covering the launch out of the goodness of their hearts; they are building a legitimate business enterprise by delivering information to the audience where the audience is at. In this case the Internet.

The advertisers include many of the companies involved in the Space Program including United Space Alliance (the Shuttle’s prime contractor and one of my clients), ATK (the maker of the Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters and most of the tools used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope), Lockheed Martin (the maker of the Shuttle’s orange external tank. LM is one of my clients, but in a different part of its business, not the Space Systems) and the Coalition for Space Exploration (a group dedicated to exactly what its name implies).

One of the challenges for companies involved in space exploration is the lack of opportunity in mainstream media coverage. NASA gets plenty of coverage as do the astronauts.

Co-anchor David Waters (right) interviews Mark Nappi of United Space Alliance during the launch of STS-125
But with most news organizations limited by reduced staff or editorial constraints, it can be a challenge for those companies to get their message out.

Jeff Carr, Director of Communications and Public Relations at United Space Alliance (USA) says the new format gives the public a new way to both get involved and get information about the space program.

“What I find compelling, as a strategic communicator, is the opportunity to reach a mass audience without the typical time and format constraints of television news. Engaging the public in dialogue using a blend of social and new media makes the whole experience much richer and more satisfying than standard media,” Carr says.

Any company that advertises does so with its own interests in mind. But just as newspapers served the public interest while simultaneously serving the interests of their advertisers, so too with “United Space Alliance is really proud to have taken a leading role in helping to advance this new cutting- edge approach to public outreach and engagement,” says Carr. So, businesses help serve the public interest by funding journalists cover stories that they're passionate about. Everybody wins.

So back to Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. Since he felt compelled to use a 1970 law to back his court filing, let me go back to 1941.

Duke Ellington was playing live broadcasts from the Casa Manana in Los Angeles, but couldn’t play his own compositions because of a dispute between radio stations and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). So Duke’s son Mercer wrote songs for his dad. One of Mercer Ellington’s songs became one of Duke’s most popular.

I doubt Goddard knows the title. If he did, he probably wouldn’t have filed the lawsuit. The song is called “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.”

It doesn't take a genius to know that Duke's songs age much better than a 1970 law designed to protect evening newspapers from the then infant television news business.

Apparently, it doesn't take a genius to be Attorney General of Arizona either.

Bill Salvin

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Power of a Good Story: Why Journalism Will Thrive

Editor's Note: Today is launch day! Space Shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to launch shortly after 2pm EDT for a mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. Best place to watch the launch is at

I've written several posts on journalism's future and I'm sure people have lots more to say. The Senate weighed in this week with a three hour hearing on the future of journalism. James Rainey of the LA Times said the platitudes the politicians threw out toward newspapers made him almost blush. Rainey also concluded, rightly, that newspapers will have to figure out how to save themselves.

I realized how much hope I have for journalism when I was preparing two legends of the space business for interviews during the run-up to the launch Monday of Space Shuttle Atlantis to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

Loren Shriver is a former astronaut who now works for United Space Alliance. (Full Disclosure: United Space Alliance is one of my clients) Shriver is a retired Air Force pilot and veteran of three Shuttle missions, including commanding the mission that put the Hubble Telescope into orbit.

Bill Reeves was the lead flight director during the mission that launched Hubble and now also works for United Space Alliance. If you are unfamiliar with the role of a flight director during a space mission think God, with a little more pull. They are responsible for every aspect of the mission and their decisions can not be overruled. In addition to the Hubble mission, Reeves worked in mission control during every Apollo mission.

The stories that these two guys can tell are amazing. They helped make history. The scientific data the Hubble has provided could fill 3600 feet of shelf space in a typical library. For the computer crowd, Hubble transmits 120 gigabites of data every WEEK.

Shriver still feels personally connected to the scientific marvel he put into space. "Don't break my telescope" has been his advice to astronauts who have four times gone to Hubble to service it; making it one of the greatest scientific instruments ever built.

Reeves says the Hubble has changed the way we understand the universe. "We knew we were doing something special when we launched it. I told my team that they just put an instrument in orbit that would require astronomy books to be rewritten." If successful, this latest servicing mission will extend Hubble's life five to seven years to nearly a quarter of a century. Astronomy texts may need further rewrites.

So the telescope that Reeves, Shriver and their respective teams launched is as valuable to our understanding of the universe as Galileo's telescope was when he used it to discover the moons of Jupiter in 1610.

The common thread between Galileo's telescope, Hubble and the future of journalism?

Human beings.

Technology can change our worldview. But only when journalists use the technology to tell the great stories will those changes start to matter.

Journalism will be fine because there are people like Reeves and Shriver who have great stories that need to be told.

So for all of the worried journalists out there... find the great stories out there, look into the telescope and tell us what you see.

Bill Salvin

Friday, May 1, 2009

My Least Favorite Word

I’m a former journalist and I often exasperate my accountant. I ask him question after question regarding taxes (I am convinced I’m being taxed twice. He insists I’m not.) His final response, offered to move the conversation to other topics is usually, "It is what it is.”

I spend much of my time media training. I frequently get asked how to make sure "good news” gets out in today’s media environment. I explain that good news to a journalist is not necessarily good news for an organization. Journalists are trained to cover events that are out of the ordinary and that means, usually, adverse events. The fire at the plant or the fatality at the construction site is more newsworthy than the fire prevented or the accident avoided.

I counsel clients to focus on the story that is and not the story they think (or wish) it should be.

This brings me to my least favorite word in public relations. Spin.

Spin implies the use of fancy words to convince people that an event or issue is something it is not. Take Swine Flu for example. Vice President Biden offered some pretty drastic advice when asked on the Today Show what families should do to prevent the disease.

VP Spokeswoman Elizabeth Alexander used many more words than her boss trying to convince us of what the Vice President actually meant.

New York Times columnist Gail Collins found the humor in all if it (as she always does). The airline and travel industry less so. According to MarketWatch, shares of U.S. Airline stocks fell between two and five percent that day.

I believe one of the reasons we don't like politicians much is that they don't seem to be bound by the truth. Truth inspires confidence.

Companies are bound by the truth, especially public companies. In an adverse event, truth is usually simple, clear and easy to discern. Details emerge over time that provide context and can give us a more complete understanding of truth… what “really” happened. Truth has shelf life. Spin doesn’t.

Reputations are not spun out of whole cloth.

Reputations are earned.

It is what it is.

I might owe my accountant an apology.

Bill Salvin