Johnny Carson: The Death of Class

Johnny Carson is dead. He is survived by voyeuristic reality shows, self-indulgent celebrities and news-as-entertainment.

Instead of basking in the spotlight after leaving The Tonight Show in 2002, he politely shunned attention, choosing a retirement that will be remembered for its dignity and integrity. He didn’t come back, cash in, comment or carouse – he played tennis, played cards, and watched the medium he helped build be reduced to sound, fury, so much nothing.

Television missed Johnny Carson, though I doubt television today would have recognized him. He was a link to an era of civility we may never see again, or at least as long as Rupert Murdoch owns a network.

Buddy Holly’s death in 1959 was “the day the music died.” Television died when the Jerry Springer Show debuted in 1991. Now Johnny Carson is dead – and so is class.

The Armstrong Williams Blame Game — PR Needs to Stand Up

Jay Rosen makes a good point in a blog entry about the Armstrong Williams corruption case. He wonders why most PR bloggers went quiet about Armstrong and his $240,000 payment by agency giant Ketchum to promote the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind Act.

I have a theory – because it’s easier to assign blame than to accept it. And who better to blame than the media, which is responsible for everything these days, from the decline of moral values to obesity in children. If I’m late on a credit card payment I just blame the media, and that’s usually good enough for a 30-day reprieve from collections.

There are two basic flaws, however, with blaming Williams for this fiasco. First of all, he’s as much a journalist as Ashlee Simpson is a good singer. Williams is so embarrassingly awful he makes Geraldo Rivera seem legitimate. Okay, true, no one is that bad, even Williams.

I know I sound bitter and snide, but people like Williams make me nuts. I went to the Missouri School of Journalism and spent the first half of my adult life as a reporter, and I can’t stand people who treat the profession as anything less than a sacred public trust.

But what also makes me crazy is the second flaw in the “blame Williams” theory, which is if anyone is to blame, it’s the PR firm.

I worked for a major PR agency for six years before going out on my own, and while we never did anything so blatantly asenine, we came damn close. We produced “video news releases” that pretended to be real news stories – and a lot of stations, budget-strapped and starved for content, ran them as is. We wrote op-ed pieces on behalf of people who sometimes never even saw the finished product before it would appear in the Los Angeles Times. We never paid anyone directly as Ketchum did Williams, but given the opportunity, who knows.

Most PR firms and practitioners are honest, as are most journalists. Reasonable people know this. But reasonable people in the PR industry should also hold their profession accountable, and that starts first not by looking at themselves through a microscope, but by looking at themselves in the mirror.

PR professionals certainly have to do better than Ray Kotcher, CEO of Ketchum, whose op-ed in PR Week was less than forthcoming. He puts the onus on Williams for not disclosing the information about his payment, and is somewhat apologist in saying that Williams was, after all, a No Child Left Behind advocate, and besides, he had a side-business, and doesn’t that blur the lines, and so on.

A leader takes less credit when things go right and more blame when they go wrong. It’s time for the PR world to lead.

I’m Having a Mac Attack

The last time I fell in love with a machine was back in the ’90s, when Borg-babe “Seven of Nine” joined the crew of Star Trek:Voyager. I shuddered to think what our kids would look like, but other than that I was in nerd nirvana (I believe the Klingons call it Stovalkor, but that’s another story).

Anyway, I’m in love again, and this time she’s all machine. I’m in love with my Mac.

I still have my PC, but my Powerbook G4 is the new apple of my eye. Macs rule. And it’s not just the computer, but all things Mac — old MacDonald, Bernie Mac, Fleetwood Mac, here a Mac, there a Mac, everywhere a Mac Mac. Don’t look now, but I think I’m having a Mac Attack.

Why am I so Mac Happy? Because Mac — specifically Apple — inspires innovation. Microsoft creates and/or steals technology, Apple creates culture. And Apple isn’t afraid to share its knowledge, learn from others and let the market be its guide.

Consider the now ubiquitous IPod. Conceived as a digital music player, the IPod is now being used as a broadcast medium called Podcasting — even “mainstream” news organziations are “Podcasting,” as noted in an article from Cyberjournalist.Net. “Car commuters are a huge market that TV and print publications haven’t made many inroads into, and this could be their ticket,” the article says. The IPod is not only new technology, but a new revenue stream.

People are also using IPods to create mini web sites, via the device’s “notes” feature. These sites are simple but allow Podders to download very targeted, very local information, such as where to find a nice restaurant.

Apple encourages people to “look sideways” and use modern media in new ways that even the creators never envisioned. And where does this vision come from? It starts at the top, with CEO Steve Jobs.

Jobs’ keynote address this week at Macworld was a technology and culture geek’s Sermon on the Mount, albeit without the festival seating. It was a religious experience up there with a Springsteen concert or eating your first piping hot glazed Krispy Kreme. He seemed proud, even smug, and perhaps he was entitled.

I Hope Apple continues to innovate, inspire, and push the limits of form and function. Sure, I still would love to have been assimilated by Seven of Nine, but my Mac is the next best thing.

PR’s Comeuppance

Being Jewish, I never had the opportunity to go to confession — we just get one day a year to atone for our sins, and the rest of the time we keep our guilt to ourselves, which accounts for the near-constant kvetching.

Blogs allow you to confess every day, as often as you want. And you can do it without all the praying and penance. So here’s my confession: I’m a former journalist and former vice president of a multinational-owned public relations agency, and I am pratically bursting with schadenfreude because both industries are getting their collective asses kicked by the PC-empowered public.

I tried for years to get my former employer to understand the Internet — truly listen to it and understand it, not merely try to control it like they try to control everything else. I felt sorry for our clients, who were getting bad advice or no advice on the Internet’s implications. That’s why I left to start a company focused on modern media and to help clients communicate in today’s and tomorrow’s world.

So what’s happened? Blogs and the “regular people” who write them are by and large more timely, more accurate, and more credible than “professional” journalists and PR mouthpieces. Bloggers don’t need to worry about seven-second sound bites, shrinking news holes or corporate parents. They don’t need editors because blogs are self-organizing, self-policing and self-analyzing. And in most cases they don’t need training, because they tend to ask more insightful questions and do more investigating than the “real” journalists.

Shel Israel, who is writing a book on corporate blogging called The Red Couch, perhaps puts it best with regard to the PR profession: “…today PR communications channels are generally perceived as being corrupt and uncredible. As such, they have deteriorated as a business tool. Blogging today has superior credibility, adheres to better rules of self-governance and reshapes how and why PR will be practiced if it is to survive.

“PR people cannot just treat blogging as another channel down which they will toss the same old crap. Their new role will be to teach company officials to speak for themselves, in a plain language and adhering to the rules that makes blogging a more credible communications channel.”

Israel says this creates opportunity for the “very best” of PR practitioners — I couldn’t agree more.

By the way, The Red Couch looks like it will be fantastic. I hope it is among the first of what will be many more books and blogs about the changing face of journalism and PR (Dan Gillmor’s We the Media is a must read), and I pray that journalists and PR professionals will read them, too.

You know, I could get used to this confession thing. Best of all, I don’t need to wait until next Yom Kippur to admit to God that I sometimes sing along to the songs on Radio Disney, or that I think CNN anchorwoman Daryn Kagan is kinda hot. Whew, I feel better already.

Blog 360 Should do a 180

I’m not surprised that mega PR firm MWW Group this week announced a weblog marketing practice (called “Blog 360”). I am surprised, however, that it took management this long to see blogs as a new way to make a buck.

I’m not knocking the need for PR agencies to help their clients understand and participate in the blogosphere; on the contrary, it’s an absolute necessity. Some agencies are doing it very well and should be commended (Steve Rubel of CooperKatz and the author of Micro Persuasion, where I first saw this story posted, is an example of what’s going right with PR today).

MWW, which is owned by Interpublic, is putting profit ahead of practice. The company doesn’t even have its own blog. Moreover, they continue to ignore the reality of today’s modern media environment, that they (the PR people and their clients) are no longer in control of the message.

In the company press release, MWW says they are “expert at identifying and leveraging strategic marketing tools that generate significant ROI for clients. As media channels continue to become more segmented, blogs represent a new and emerging opportunity for companies to pinpoint communications to key constituents.”

That last line says it all — “pinpoint communications to key constituents.” What about listening? Participating? Rubel perhaps said it best in an interview with ClickZ : “Consumers are in control, and consumers are the media. It’s a paradigm shift that’s going to change PR forever. We need to be listening to bloggers as much as talking to them.”

MWW took the first step — recognizing that blogs are important and that clients need to be educated. But before they launch Blog 360, they should do a 180 and participate in the medium, listen to what’s being said and how, and understand that people are not just consumers of information, but creators as well.

Read more about Blog 360 at Micro Persuasion.

Lose a Little Control

I used to cringe when my former journalism colleagues painted PR and marketing communications people with the same broad, insulting brush. After all, it seemed hypocritical to call us manipulative and accuse us of “spin” when later they would ask me if there were any openings at my agency. Self-righteousness only goes so far, and it doesn’t pay the electric bill.

I am still a marketing communications person – but now I cringe, too.

Far too many of my marketing colleagues continue to spin and try to control their clients’ message, even though the reality of modern media makes it impossible. Marketing today is a conversation, not a lecture – it’s a democracy where all voices can and do get heard. You can’t “control” what the market is saying any more than you can control a hurricane.

Marketing today is about fostering conversation and participating in what’s being said. And although Big Media still exerts enormous influence over people’s perceptions and decision-making, journalism is also changing and expanding. As Dan Gillmor says in his book, We the Media, “citizen reporters” help create thousands of new “listening posts” around the world – and they spread the news instantly via blogs, mobile phone video, RSS feeds and SMS messages.

Still think you are in charge? If you want to succeed, you must first embrace four simple truths:

1) You don’t control your message.

2) You never will.

3) You communicate only when you participate.

4) When you participate, your message will be heard, understood, and respected.

Tell the Truth, Go to Jail

I’m not sure what’s more shocking about the local NBC reporter in Rhode Island who was sentenced to six months of home confinement for refusing to reveal a source — the fact that journalistic integrity is being compromised, or that a television reporter actually has sources.

Jim Taricani, 55, was sentenced to six months of home confinement for refusing to say who leaked him an FBI videotape of a politician taking a bribe. Never mind that his reporting led to a corruption probe that ultimately sent city officials, including the former Mayor, to federal prison.

According to the Associated Press, Taricani is one of several journalists nationwide who have become locked in First Amendment battles with the government over confidential sources. That includes reporters for Time and The New York Times who have been threatened with jail as part of an investigation into the disclosure of an undercover CIA officer’s identity.

Here’s the real problem: Journalism in America has gotten so bad, that when a reporter actually, you know, makes the effort to "report" something real, he or she should be applauded, not punished. If we keep threatening to send journalists to jail, then all we’ll have are a bunch of mindless sychophants with PR degrees who will just regurgitate whatever government officials tells them. I don’t know about you, but I think one Fox News Channel is more than enough.

Read the entire story at