Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Playing by the Same Rules

The FTC's new blogger rules have been in effect for a couple of weeks, so I'd like to affirm that I'm abiding by them.

"Bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service," the agency states. I found that quote through Google, the greatest Internet tool ever (full disclosure: Google owns Blogger, which publishes and hosts this blog for free).

OK, I stretched things to make a point: the new guidelines are open to wide interpretation.

For one thing, they apply only  to "bloggers or other "word of mouth" marketers." Talk about semantics! 

The difference between a blog, and let's say, an online newsletter is often in the eyes of the beholder. Indeed many online news sources can also be received in blog form. Take the many wonderful newsletters at MediaPost (very full disclosure: I have provided editorial services to MediaPost in the past, for which I have received compensation, and my wife currently works there, also in exchange for cash payments).

The point is that the average Internet user, having found something through search, often does not distinguish -- or care -- whether it's technically a blog post, a newsletter writeup or a newspaper review.  So why should the FTC make such distinctions?

After all, scores of smaller trade magazines and community newspapers (think restaurant reviews) have run editorial in exchange for advertising (or meals) for many decades (not-quite-disclosure: I've worked for a couple of the former, but this is definitely not an endorsement of such practices, so they shall remain nameless).  It's how such publications managed to survive, even when there was no recession underway.

Today, amidst the overall advertising downturn, these media outlets are moving online. You could argue that the FTC should be totally fair to other online journalists and force these print publication offshoots to also provide full disclosure. But why should they be forced to change their longstanding policies?

When I worked at such publications, I fought voraciously against providing special editorial favors for advertisers. But there's a difference between press ethics and freedom of the press.  The former is something  journalists and publishers should strive to achieve; the latter is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

So, rather than government regulators, let's depend on ethics: of individual bloggers to do the right thing, and on advertisers (and yes, PR folks like me) to make sure of it. For bloggers who instead violate the public trust, the Internet provides plenty of tools for people to spread the word about the violators.

In any case, I vow to continue abiding by full disclosure. So any advertiser who would like me  to endorse something, please send it along :)  Tis the season, after all!

"Oh, publishers are such interesting people;
It could be press-titution, I don't know.

Ting-a-ling-a-ling, advertising.
Ting-a-ling-a-ling, circulation,
Get that payoff, keep those readers;
What a headache, what a mess.
Yes, publishers are such interesting people;
Let's give three cheers for freedom of the press."
- written by Vern  Partlow,  late 1940s

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Don't Think, TWICE...

Yesterday, a half-hour after receiving a “Breaking News” email from TWICE magazine announcing it had been sold, I received another email with the subject line, this time all caps, declaring “TWICE CES DAILY CLOSING.”

The logical conclusion?  With the sale concluded, the new owners had decided to close down the magazine's daily editions at CES, January's giant consumer electronics show. But, lo and behold, the email was actually letting recipients know about an ad closing deadline!

I wanted to tweet that second email immediately as an example of how a poor subject line combined with poor timing can have unforeseen circumstances, but discovered I couldn’t do that. (If there’s an app for tweeting emails, I don’t have it.)

I wish I did, because a few hours later. at a launch party for a new virtual time travel world Next Island,  David Post, the game's founder and CEO, informed me he head seen news that TWICE was shutting down. Unlike me, he hadn't had the time to actually open the second email! After I explained what had transpired, David pointed out that neither of us should have been receiving that email to begin with, since we aren't potential advertisers.

Who knows how many other folks on TWICE's email list also think the publication has shut down, or at least that it won't be publishing at CES next month?  Perhaps whomever's in charge of crisis management at the magazine has been caught amidst the usual turmoil caused by an ownership change -- but it's now been about 28 hours and I'm still waiting for TWICE to send another email to its list that would clarify the matter.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Storing My Stuff...

(lyrics and audio of "Computer Chanty" by Dr. Seti can also be found here)

So-called Cyber Monday got me thinking not about online shopping but about the seemingly infinite capacity of cyberspace.

Urban dwellers with bulging closets, who once sought out physical storage centers for their precious belongings, are today apt to move as much stuff as possible into the digital universe instead.

At this point in time, this mainly means media memories -- stacks of records, tapes, snapshots, slides and the like. Personally, I'm on a painstaking, multi-year (perhaps multi-decade??) mission to digitize all my old media, starting with audiocassettes and photos, and then moving on to vinyl and finally video.

This requires lots and lots of digital storage space. So last year I added an external drive to my Mini Mac in order to store all the music and photos. But, after my Mac's hard drive died a few weeks ago, I began getting really worried about the external drive crashing, too. Especially after Walt Mossberg in The Wall Street Journal wrote about external drives' prevalence to do just that.

Taking Walt's advice, I decided it was time to enlist an online service to back up my music and photo files. The industry calls this SaaS (Software as a Service), part of the cloud computing explosion where everything's done in cyberspace rather than on your own computer. So I headed off to the clouds.

First, I paid for Carbonite, downloaded the Mac version, and discovered it would not work with non-Intel-based Macs. I asked for a refund.

Then I went to Mozy, contacted customer support to make sure it would work on a Power PC-based Mac, downloaded the software, and then spent several days trying unsuccessfully to get it to upload my files. Again, I asked for a refund.

I bypassed Walt's third and final example -- SugarSync -- and decided to try Crashplan instead. It's still backing up my files after several days, so I don't know if it will actually work in the end. But Crashplan offers 30 days free, not even requiring a credit card upfront, so if it fails at least I won't need to ask for a refund!

That, by the way, is the best kind of cyber shopping!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

As God is My Witness...

I was going to write about turkeys masquerading as SaaS online storage solutions, but decided I'd rather just offer the above classic of TV comedy (if not radio promotion). Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Failure is Not an Option...

At WebbyConnect NYC last week, Steve Wax, managing partner of marketing firm Campfire, stated his companys' business philosophy: "The Greatest Success Comes from Failure."

Not everyone can afford to fail, though, which may be why the far more popular phrase (662,000 Google results vs. two) is "Failure is Not an Option," used by the very best business brains, as shown in the clip above. And why most of us prefer to say that we learn from our mistakes, rather than that we succeed from our failures.

I discovered a couple of my own mistakes during that same WebbyConnect confab. As BermanBraun's Lloyd Braun was about to extoll the virtues of MSN's Wonderwall (it scrolls horizontally, not vertically!) and other examples of branded entertainment, I checked on this blog and discovered that nobody was reading my latest post, Survival of the Couch Potato! Why? The explanation had to be that I had posted in the evening and then sent out my social media notifications in the early morning -- while my audience is basically a 9 to 5 crowd.  

So I've learned from my mistakes. This is being posted at a decent time (just ignore whatever time it says below -- Google's Blogger, my host, has apparently decided I'm on the West Coast, and I'll let them have final say in the matter).

As for failure, the day after WebbyConnect, my hard drive died. Thanks to the great work of the folks at Tekserve, the problem was fixed by the next day. I'm still waiting for my greatest success.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Survival of the Couch Potato

So TV isn’t dying after all!  In fact, it turns out that Americans are watching more TV than ever, according to Nielsen

The average household now watches 20% more television than 10 years ago, when the first Internet pundits had already been predicting the death of the older medium. Oops, did I say 10 years ago? Let’s go back 20 years, pre-Internet, to George Gilder’s book Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution In Economics And Technology, which actually included a chapter titled “The Death of Television.” "In an age when computers will be responsive to voice, touch, joysticks, keyboards, mice and other devices,” Gilder wrote, “television is inherently passive, a couch potato medium.”
Old dogma dies hard. Just a day before Nielsen’s latest report, TG Daily ran the following headline: “AMD Claims TV Couch Potatoes are Dead." Bad timing aside, Jonathan Seckler, senior manager for the computer hardware company more formally known as Advanced Micro Devices, declared, “Television is a fad and the end of television can be seen. Entertainment has become much more visual [sic] intense. People do things now with all that video. People take entertainment with them and don't just go home and watch what happens to be streaming through the air at that time. You can see the end of couch potatoes."
Except that Americans have an awful lot of couches. And they have more TV sets than ever, so where there’s a couch, there’s bound to be a television. They have more channels to choose from than ever.  They have high definition pictures. They have on-demand services. They have DVRs, the ultimate time-delay device. All this means that nobody ever says anymore, “There’s nothing on TV.”
Note also that primetime viewing is actually flat from a year earlier. The average family no longer plops down in front of the master TV and watchew together anymore. Household members come in and out all day (or night) and construct individual TV schedules based on their own lifestyles. 
And the Nielsen numbers don’t even take into effect the TV shows being viewed on Internet screens via Hulu and its ilk, or on iPods, or on mobile devices.
Credit for at least some of the increase in TV viewing must also go, ironically perhaps, to the promotional power of Web tie-ins and social network buzz.
Of course, social networking and Internet use are also up in American households, often being done at the same time as TV viewing. The former activities provide the interactivity that the Gilders, Secklers and other pundits have been expounding on over the years. And, judging by the continuing failure of interactive TV schemes, the TV set provides the passivity that Americans seem to take as their birthright.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What's My Line?

At a Freelancers Union workshop I attended last year, Smart Networking guru Liz Lynch stressed the importance of a strong opening line when forging strategic relationships.

But am I a freelancer? A consultant? A small business? All of the above? Or one of dozens of other possibilities?

Earlier this year, doing PR on behalf of IAC-EZ, which provides online bookkeeping services to freelancers and the smallest of small businesses (three or less employees), I wanted to reach journalists who might cover trends involving the company’s target audience. So I began tracking relevant keywords.

Some journalists were indeed covering freelancers, consultants or small businesses. But I needed to add entrepreneurs and home-based businesses…self-employed, sole proprietors, independent workers, contract workers and independent contractors…even microbusiness, solopreneurs and homepreneurs. And I know I’ve forgotten a bunch.

As I pondered how to define my line of work for my line of introduction, the classic TV game show What’s My Line? came to mind. Looking for an appropriate video to lead off this post, I settled on the above clip from the very first episode in 1950 – due to its tidy tie-in to the World Series later that year, the only one to feature the Yankees and Phillies until this fall.

But while Yankee great Phil Rizzuto made sense to me, the celebrity panelists did not. Gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen was present. But not long-time panelist Arlene Francis. Certainly not Soupy Sales! And who were those three other, rather boring men?

I began to investigate. One panelist was soon-to-be-blacklisted poet Louis Untermeyer. Two were named Hoffman, although unrelated: Harold, a soon-to-be-scandalized ex-New Jersey governor – and Richard, a soon-to-be-forgotten neuropsychiatrist.

Unlike his fellow panelists, Dr. Richard Hoffman has earned no Wikipedia entry. His lasting claim to fame, based on my initial Google search? Appearing as a panelist on the first three episodes of What’s My Line?

But surely he must have done something to merit that slot. So I dug deeper, discovering that the press called Dr. Hoffman a “Park Avenue” psychiatrist, meaning his clients were rich – and often famous. Indeed, Dr. Hoffman was sort of the Dr. Phil of his day. He made the society pages by attending fancy parties. Decades before Lorraine Bracco on The Sopranos, he treated famed mobster Frank Costello. Other clients included actress Gloria Swanson and novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. He was “resident psychiatrist” on a network radio series. He wrote books and contributed to Reader’s Digest.

He also provided expert testimony at celebrated trials, including what, pre-OJ, passed as the “Trial of the Century”– the 1930s case against Bruno Hauptmann for kidnapping and murdering Charles Lindbergh's baby, where Dr. Hoffman testified on behalf of the prosecution. But, once Hauptmann was convicted in that New Jersey-based case, guess who led the fight to overturn the verdict. Yes, the state's governor at the time -- the other Hoffman on the What's My Line? panel! (A tale of two Hoffmans, foreshadowing Abbie and Julius and yet another “Trial of the Century” some 20 years later!)

For whatever reason (lack of posthumous PR perhaps?), Dr. Richard Hoffman and his life's accomplishments have faded into obscurity. Fame, of course, can be fleeting. But so can entire occupations. And not just neuropsychiatry, which long ago split into psychiatry and neurology.

Watch the complete episode of the first What’s My Line? and you’ll see that the first two contestants were a hat check girl and a diaper service executive. But fashions change. Soon, men would stop wearing hats, and babies would go disposable.

As for the third contestant before the mystery guest? Well, veterinarians would seem to be forever.

So will the current trend of independent, self-employed, freelancing, home-based, entrepreneurial consultants prove as enduring as the family pet – or is my line destined to follow Dr. Richard Hoffman into history’s footnotes?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Put Another Nickel In...

After my second blog post last week, I earned my first nickel from Google AdSense. Yes, one of you apparently clicked on an ad!

A nickel didn’t sound like much, but then I looked at the daily email alerts I get from such freelance job listing services as oDesk and Donanza. A typical oDesk writing gig seemed to offer $25 for 500 words, or exactly a nickel per word! And 5 cents actually seemed on the high side for these listings.

But this sounded incredibly low to me, so I checked Writers Weekly to find typical freelance rates. Up popped a 2007 article from the mag’s co-owner boasting that Writers Weekly itself had raised its rate for freelance feature articles – to a dime a word! However, for freelancers' "success stories," the rate was a whopping 13 cents for 300 words, or $40 an article!

Any freelancer who would accept $40 for a 300-word article couldn't really be that successful, I thought. So I pulled up this week’s success story. The author still dreams of making $1 per word from national magazines, but feels she’s been quite successful with what she terms “pin money.” “Although not rich in dollars now, I am in new experiences and friends,” writes Polly Tafrate. “When I look at it that way, I'm a successful freelance writer!”

OK, I get it. And just this weekend, Mitch Joel, in a Six Pixels of Separation post titled "The Part of Social Media that Freaks Out Freelance Writers," elaborated on the many ways that a personal blog like this one also helps freelancers. Much more eloquently than I stated it two posts back, Joel concluded,The challenge is that you have to mentally get over the hump that you're writing for free, because you're not. You're writing to free yourself.”
So I shouldn’t dwell on the mere nickels coming into this blog. After all, having earned a solitary nickel over the past three weeks, this blog’s rate per word is a tiny fraction of a cent, making even five cents per word for outside work sound enormous.
Nonetheless, I’m thankful I can command much more than a nickel a word for my other writing – and that I don’t depend on writing gigs for the bulk of my income. Because, if the going rate for freelance writing is so low, the prospects of anyone reeling in really big freelance bucks isn’t so hot.

Then again, at just a nickel a word, I can afford to hire a ghostwriter! Any volunteers?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

My World...and Welcome to It

(quick disclaimer: the estate of Sheldon Leonard has provided no financial compensation to this blog; ditto for James Thurber)

If you’re in the PR biz, you likely know a publicist who really dislikes journalists.

I’ll admit to occasional pique about individual reporters who are impossible to contact, who see through my spin, or who otherwise make my world difficult by doing their jobs. But you won’t see me denigrating the whole profession – because I’d also be damning myself.

Yes, I’m one those combo flacks/hacks, taking on journalism assignments as long as they don’t conflict ethically with my PR clients. And when I’m playing editor or reporter, nobody's a bigger critic than me of bad PR practices – whether a press release that makes no sense or a publicist unable to take no for an answer.

And now journalist Les is annoyed with PR again. Not an easy task when I don't even have any journalism assignments at the moment!

Let me explain. Earlier this year, I freelanced as a reporter for MediaPost’s Marketing Daily. The gig ended five long months ago, so imagine my surprise when last week a PR agency pitched me a story idea and interview op.

Some quick detective work deduced that this agency had responded to an old ProfNet posting. So some pitching 101:

1. If you’re responding to a ProfNet or similar request, note deadlines! While my post did cite an ongoing need, there was also a clear end date noted.

2. When you’re sending a personal pitch to a reporter, check to see what he or she has reported on recently! That simple, useful step of familiarizing yourself with the journalist – and with his or her media outlet as well – would have shown this agency that I had written nothing recently for this pub.

To be completely honest here, it’s not journalist Les who’s upset by this incident – after all, what’s one more email out of hundreds? – but publicist Les. As a sole PR proprietor, I rarely see how bad a lot of PR is. But when I work as a journalist – as the above PR agency thought I was last week – the dross comes pouring in. I get ashamed of my prime profession – and more cognizant of why some journalists might just cut us out of the picture.

It’s always been easier for my journalist side to criticize PR folk than vice versa because – since the ultimate goal of PR is to get press – publicists simply can’t succeed without journalist cooperation. A journalist, meanwhile, can ignore or simply go around any individual publicist.

So what’s really gnawing at me is that in the current social media world, PR people en masse are becoming two-faced. They’re both pitching and creating media. Now that I’ve started this blog, I’m a “journalist” again, right? Perhaps there's already some PR person out there itching to pitch something to More of Les (of course, this blog has no real focus yet, and doesn't include any contact info – but a good PR person should be able to figure out who I am in, let’s say, five minutes?)

So, to any PR person who blogs or tweets, you're now on the other side too. You're both the pitcher and the pitchee. Welcome to my world.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

It's a Good Life...

I never thought I’d do a blog. To me, blogging was akin to keeping a journal. And I’ve always resisted all calls toward that end, ignoring countless words about how the very act of journal-keeping would lead to personal growth, business success…the good life.

The idea of writing for my own amusement just never interested me. I was a journalist – I wrote for a living, and I required an audience. Since you’re reading this, I guess I’ve got the latter again. Income? I’m an entrepreneur these days, so chalk it up to the cost of doing business.

I’m an entrepreneur because I was invited this summer to become a charter member of Sprouter, a startup that connects innovators with each other. This interaction mainly occurs online, but I did attend an in-person Sprouter event (let’s call it a SproutUp!) where guest speaker
Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library TV encouraged everyone to turn their passions into online videos or blogs. His new book, in fact, is titled, Crush It!: Why NOW Is the Time to Cash In on Your Passion. It went on sale earlier today and, as I write, has just reached #23 on the Amazon best-seller list!

Alas, my passions range from writing and PR…to the TV, advertising and Internet industries…to music, photography and movies…to progressive the joys of New York in general and Brooklyn in particular. For now, I’m content to see where my muse moves me from posting to posting.

Of course, writers have always been told to write about what they know. But thanks to the research power of the Internet, what I know today could be something I had no clue about yesterday.

One thing I’m supposed to know about is how to use social media techniques in the PR world. So that’s another reason for this blog. I’m confident I’ve mastered Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, but my blogging experience has been scant.

That’s changing starting today. While tweeting in 140 characters can be trite, I’m hoping these blog posts prove both prosaic and bright. (okay, that may well be my very last rhyme.) In any case, each post should at least give me something to tweet about!

Stay tuned for more of Les…