Turnaround PR How to React to the Media

Only one Chicago-based PR pro was willing to comment on a New York Times piece trashing the Tribune. Wonder why. – PR Junkie

That PR pro was me.

I got the invitation to comment from Michael Sebastian while I was a business innovation conference tweeting the Google session. Afterwards I went to teach a Facebook class at College of DuPage. By the time I’d composed my reply and hit the send button it was 11:30. I like to write at night so that explains the lengthy reply. And, I thought the other PR people contacted must be doing the same thing – right?

Wrong. Maybe they didn’t see the request or were too engaged with clients to reply. It’s kind of strange being the only one, especially when I don’t typically categorize myself or my company in the high caliber of PR talent we have here in Chicago – thanks Michael! But, then again, we do advise our clients to stand up and stand out.

To continue the dialogue, I’m sharing my reply here and invite you to add your comments. Here’s the article we were asked to comment on.

In the PR Junkie post called “Are PR Pros afraid of the Tribune Co.? “, Michael Sebastian. also quotes Micheal Long a public relations professor at American University and mentions this study that predicts social media will overtake traditional media as public relations tool in two years.

Thanks to Michael for asking for my opinion and for pulling out the best quotes from the longer piece I submitted, which follows. I answered honestly and thoughtfully. What do you think? What would you advise the Tribune to do?

Hi Michael:

Thanks for asking for my thoughts. See my answers below.

1. Do you, or have you, worked with the Chicago Tribune on stories (pitching, fielding calls, et cetera)? If so, how long has your relationship lasted?

My relationship with the Trib goes back to at least 1995, as a contributing writer, when the paper purchased a gardening article I wrote that didn’t run because a new editor took over after the assignment was made. [Note that my relationship as a reader goes back to the Chicago Tribune being one of the first big city dailies I read growing up in Danville, Illinois. The other was Chicago Daily News.]

My company, CoryWest Media, LLC represents many clients who value coverage in the Tribune.
Once, a Trib reporter liked our press release for an event so well they covered it from different angles two days in a row. That was a real highlight!

Our most recent communications, last month, were 1: socially, at a social media dinner Josh Bernoff, co-authored of Empowered, in Chicago where Wailin Wong, the Trib’s talented business technology reporter, was also present; 2. with TribLocal, whose editor suggested we take the story from a client’s news release and publish it on http://triblocal.com. We did. And 3. A client’s design guide newsletter ran inside the September 27 Sunday ad pack. The client managed the printing and placement. We managed the content production.

2. Have you noticed this frat house culture to which the Times refers?

No, we’re not close enough to see what goes on in-house, but here are the few glimpses I’ve had personally over the last year or so.

In June, I was invited to attend a turnaround management conference as a guest of one of the meeting planners. Tony Hunter, president, publisher and CEO, brought about half a dozen editors along as he presented a speech about the Tribune’s turnaround. An entertaining speaker, his keynote was a highlight for everyone, especially because he compared the Tribune to the Blackhawks and they’d just won the Stanley Cup. That speech sounded similar to this one. My recap of Mr. Hunter’s key points follows.

I have attended at least one Colonel Tribune tweetup, hosted by the original character. The atmosphere was festive and celebratory as the November 8, 2008 event followed Obama’s election.

I also attended a live #journchat event at Tribune Tower where a few Tribune staff members were present, no Animal House odors or behavior were detected.

3. What do you think this does to the image of the Tribune, considering its still in bankruptcy?

According to an article published in the Chicago Tribune tonight, the New York Times story damages the company’s credibility with creditors, not to mention advertisers.

Readers and subscribers aren’t as dedicated as they used to be – to any publication. In Chicago, the Tribune’s growth of ChicagoNow is impressive. But, the entire entity is affected.

This is not the Tribune I know personally.

There may be people who need to clean up their ethics, and if they’re at the top, it’s unfortunate. Why would leaders risk alienating a workforce with sexual harassment? What kind of culture survives and thrives without ethics?

In terms of the bankruptcy situation, what really jumped out at me was this:
Despite the company’s problems, the managers have been rewarded handsomely. From May 2009 to February 2010, a total of $57.3 million in bonuses were paid to the current management with the approval of the judge overseeing the bankruptcy. In 2009, the top 10 managers received $5.9 million at a time when cash flow was plummeting. Mr. Wood, the board member, said, “We think they earned those bonuses. They’ve done a fabulous job in very difficult circumstances.” source

Wow! $57.3 million in bonuses?!?!?!

4. How would you advise the company moving forward?

Certainly, the Tribune Media Group needs to respond. Who is the conscious of the paper? The editorial page? Do they defend the management, apologize to the offended, give away bonuses to charity, arm their ad sales force with a defensive response, start a campaign? With many options, every action must convey integrity, ethics and professionalism. Here are 13 thoughts.

1. Come up with an honest response that apologizes and outlines changes.
2. Appoint a spokesperson with credibility in the journalism community.
3. Report on all the good that’s going on with revenue and outreach.
4. Turn up local focus with outreach to content contributors.
5. Connect more with readers and advertisers in real life.
6. Don’t over react, acknowledge, respond, move on.
7. Plan for the future and let everyone know about it.
8. Run a feature series on corporate ethics with leading Chicago authorities.
9. Work with Loyola University’s recently established digital ethics center
10. Replace questionable management with respected leaders.
11. Invite leading thinkers and influencers in for an open discussion.
12. Honor the legacy and lead the future.
13. Remember that people – inside and out – drive the company, so respect them.

At a time when blemished leaders seem to be more the norm than the exception, rebuilding trust is challenging. While it’s disappointing to see reports like this coming out, we all know that the news business is changing – behavior and ethics aside. The old publishing model is giving way to on demand digital platforms. Now, when being an innovative industry leader with an attractive culture is critical to attracting valuable investors, leaders and employees, companies who slack on ethics will lose their competitive posture very quickly.

5. Feel free to add anything else that comes to mind.

In thinking back on Tony Hunter’s speech and how he impressed a group that is in the business to turn struggling businesses around, maybe the Tribune needs to replay his presentation. And maybe they need to call in those turnaround management guys to clean up the company and get it back in shape before it’s too late.

Here’s what I wrote to my newsletter subscribers on the day I heard Mr. Hunter’s speech:

My morning started by listening to Tony Hunter, president, publisher and CEO of the Chicago Tribune, give a keynote address on: Thriving in Chaotic Times: Strategic Imperatives of Cultural Change.

The Chicago Tribune is part of my life.

I read the Trib on the train on the way into Ogilvie Transportation Center. Two weeks ago, one of my citizen journalism articles appeared in Trib Local, the Chicago Tribune’s local source. Last week, I was a guest host on an internet TV show with a ChicagoNow Blog writer.

When I met Tony, I mentioned how Social Media Club Chicago enjoyed having Chicago Now’s social media director on our ethics and journalism panel.

While my takeaways are still fresh, I’m sharing three highlights of Tony’s presentation with you.

1. “Skate to where the puck is going.” Wayne Gretzky
Simple, yet profound – yes? But. . . . where is the puck going?

2. Mobile will surpass online by 2012
Why spend all energy online when you should be going towards mobile?
Tony asked. By the way, who here is on foursquare?

3. Culture Kills Strategy
I’d edit this a bit to show more of a co-dependent relationship.
But, Tony made a good point that came back up in subsequent presentations. Companies that aren’t doing well don’t have good cultures or good strategies. You need both.

Going back to the May 2009 speech at Community Media Workshop where the Trib said they wanted to be the watchdog, [source], the tables are turned. Other papers, news outlets, sites and people are watching them now.

Barbara Rozgonyi
CEO, CoryWest Media, LLC
Founder, Social Media Club Chicago
Publisher, https://wiredprworks.com
630.207.7530 voice/text
corywestmedia@ gmail.com

Image credit: Barbara Rozgonyi for thesociallens.com from the Chicago Shots: downtown collection c2010 all rights reserved.

Disclosure: I will be presenting a LinkedIn webinar for Ragan Communications on October 26.

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