Holmes Report Blog

The Holmes Report blog focuses on news and issues of interest to public relations professionals. Our main site can be found at www.holmesreport.com.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Elephant Man: There's a story breaking in the U.K. right now that has interesting implications for the pharmaceutical testing business and for the biotech sector in particular. British papers are a-twitter--none more so than the Daily Mail, cited above, which specializes in medical scare stories--over a new drug test gone horribly wrong.

Several volunteer patients are in hospital, one of them described by his girlfriend as looking like "the Elephant Man," a description that understandably made its way into headlines around the country. The story is the front page banner on almost all of the tabloids. Doctors say "he'll need a miracle" to recover.

The company responsible, a small German concern called TeGenero (15 people), made all the right noises about sympathy, but when asked a straightforward question about earlier animal tests, chief scientific officer Thomas Hanke refused to answer, telling reporters: "This is not relevant." I need hardly point out that it's not his place to decide what's relevant and what isn't, and that kind of response is only going to create more problems. Reporters will dig into the story and learn the truth. If animals did die, he's going to be accused of stonewalling.

Meanwhile, the Mail is asking the question: "Is this the end for pharmaceutical testing?" Okay, so it's a stupid question, because the alternative to medical testing is the end of medical progress--and all those "miracle cure" stories the Mail also loves to splash over its front page. But it's clear that this incident has the potential to create all kinds of problems for a sector that already has its share.
Tell Me a Story, Please: I just finished judging the SABRE Awards entries in the U.S. (finalists will be posted to our website later today) and I’m halfway through judging our European SABRE Awards entries, and one of the things that really stands out this year is that too many public relations people have no idea how to tell a compelling story.

The key to a successful award entry is the two-page summary. If the two-page summary doesn’t tell the story of the campaign in a way that’s engages the judges, if it doesn’t provide a narrative that is gripping and persuasive, all the supporting materials you so lovingly packaged in a three-inch binder will never be seen.

But most of these two-page summaries are dry recitations of facts or actions, with no narrative thread, no over-arching storyline, no emotion, and no humor. In other words, they lack the elements of good story.

And with the average judge reading between 80 and 100 two-page summaries, a good story will really help yours stand out.

That’s not to say there isn’t a ton of good work out there. I think this year’s awards competition attracted more good programming than I’ve seen in five or six years. But it’s often presented in a lackluster way that does not do it justice.

And I can’t help thinking that’s symptomatic of a deeper malaise in the PR industry, that we are not—as an industry—very good at telling stories. It’s one area, it seems to me, where advertising people have the advantage over PR people. I know people who cry at television commercials. I certainly know people who laugh at them. When was the last time anything produced by your agency or PR department provoked that kind of reaction?

Am I being unfair? Is storytelling less important to good public relations than I think it is? Are there great storytellers out there? Is storytelling something you can teach and institutionalize? How do we get better at it? Am I write to blame PowerPoint for some of this> I’ll probably end up writing something on this subject for the newsletter, and you know what that means: a long, comprehensive look at the subject. If you have something to contribute I’d love to hear from you.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Reuters Gets Spun: Glenn Greenwald, a conservative blogger who really, really doesn’t like the Bush administration, picks up on a quote by Scott McClellan in response to calls for President Bush to be censured over his warrantless wiretapping (hat tip to Media Orchard). Said McClellan: “I think it does raise the question, how do you fight and win the war on terrorism?” McClellan said. “And if Democrats want to argue that we shouldn’t be listening to al Qaeda communications, it’s their right and we welcome the debate. We are a nation at war.”

No Democrat has suggested that we should not be listening to Al Qaeda. To the best of my knowledge no Democrat has argued anything remotely similar to that. But Reuters regurgitated the McClellan quote without comment or correction, and Greenwald argues that “no journalist ought to pass along this falsehood without pointing out that it is factually false.”

It’s almost impossible to imagine a mainstream media outlet allowing a Democrat to get away with the equivalent: “If the Republicans want to argue that they should be allowed to wiretap any American, even one with no connection to crime or terrorism, for no good reason except that they feel like it, that’s their right and we welcome the debate.” Such a quote would surely be followed by an explanation that that’s a pretty grotesque caricature of the administration’s position.

So is this media bias? Or are the Republicans just so much better at this kind of spin than the guys on the other side of the aisle?
The Self-Correcting Blogosphere: Here's the money quote, it seems to me, from the transcript of today's conversation between Howie Kurtz, Richard Edelman and Jeff Jarvis, who says: "The blogosphere is a much more self- correcting mechanism [than the mainstream media]. If I seem to be shilling for Mr. Edelman, somebody can attack me right on my blog and question me about that and find out."

As the Post itself found out earlier this year, the blogosphere is not kind to media--new or old--that appear to be shilling for anyone. Bloggers who appear to be regurgitating Republican talking points, or corporate press releases, will quickly lose credibility and influence and relevance.
Murdoch Sees Power Shift: Is Rupert Murdoch the Richard Edelman of the mainstream media? Murdoch has been the most outspoken of the old-line media barons on the rise of the blogosphere, and in a recent speech to an organization called (no joke) the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers he hailed the arrival of what he called “the second great age of discovery.”

According to The Guardian, “he evangelized about a digital future that would put that power in the hands of those already launching a blog every second, sharing photos and music online and downloading television programmes on demand.”

Says Murdoch: "A new generation of media consumers has risen demanding content delivered when they want it, how they want it, and very much as they want it.”

Monday, March 13, 2006

Open Dei: I may be the only one, but I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code. I tried. I bought it, at the recommendation of friends, and I started it three or four times. But I must be the only person in the world who found it completely unreadable and barely literate. For that reason (and because of the presence of Tom Hanks) I have absolutely no interest in seeing the forthcoming movie.

But I understand that it presents something of a challenge to Opus Dei, the Roman Catholic organization portrayed as shadowy and villainous in the book, and so I read with interest a number of articles examining the group’s PR response (here, and here).

I have to say I’m quite impressed with the position taken by Opus Dei spokesman Brian Finnerty, who says that while “it’s very sad that Opus Dei and the Catholic Church were portrayed unfairly in the novel… What we’re trying to do is take advantage of the interest to explain what the real Opus Dei is all about.” The group is also working with American and British television networks on independent documentaries to appear around the debut of the movie.

The lemons-into-lemonade strategy is far smarter than a boycott, or protests outside the theatres—tactics that would likely generate greater buzz (as if the movie needs it) and also reinforce the sinister portrayal of the organization.

All of the coverage I have seen so far has been pretty fair and balanced.