TL;DR: The Debate Around Longform Content

Some of the most beloved and heralded literary works are quite lengthy to say the least: War & Peace is 1,225 pages long, Don Quixote clocks in at close to 1,000 pages, and Les Misérables fills up almost 1,500 pages. For many folks, it’s considered a personal badge of honor for making it through these tomes, and for good reason: all three of these novels are widely understood as some of the greatest examples of words put to paper. And while word or page count shouldn’t automatically mean a piece of writing is worthwhile, there has been a movement taking place in the last few years in the media that can be loosely translated to “if an article is long, it’s bound to be good.” It’s most commonly referred to as longform journalism, and lately it’s been stirring quite the debate from a variety of viewpoints.

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I’d be the first to admit that most of my favorites pieces of journalism published in the past few years would fall under the “longform” banner – in stark contrast to the clickbait and listicles that are increasingly populating the web. Here’s a longform feature on the growing demographic of elderly AIDS survivors; here’s an in-depth look into what happened leading up to and following the tragic Germanwings plane crash last year; and here’s a piece on how the creator of the TV show ‘NYPD Blue’ gambled away almost all of his $100 million fortune. Heck, my penchant for longform content is such that I have a collection of 15-20 pieces emailed to me every Sunday morning (which you can subscribe to here).

But going back to my earlier point, just because certain content is bulky, it doesn’t mean that it carries weight. All you need to do is go back and read the autopsy of sports publication SB Nation’s bungled longform piece on Daniel Holtzclaw, a former football player who was recently convicted of 18 counts of rape and sentenced to 263 years in prison. Upon receiving deserved outrage around the piece’s overall angle (and corresponding lack of due diligence on interviewing people at the crux of the story), SB Nation’s editorial director, Spencer Hall – a fantastic writer in his own right – called the article a “complete failure” and took the action to shut down SB Nation’s arm of longform journalism.

So, just like the novels mentioned at the beginning of this post, creating quality longform content takes serious time and resources – two things that content creators don’t have in endless supply amidst today’s always-on, 24/7 media cycle. But when it’s done right it can have an enormous impact, as the folks behind the site Wait But Why have discovered. And it’s not just publications that can benefit: organizations of all types are increasingly becoming longform content creators of their own, and are finding success in it. It makes perfect sense: if your story is compelling, give readers more of it and they’ll likely keep coming back for more.

As with most things that spark our interest, from music to food to recreational activities, you’ve probably got quite a particular taste when it comes to the content you like to read. And that’s the whole point: whether it’s a BuzzFeed post with 20 GIFs depicting why Fridays are the best, or a 20,000 word exposé on the fall of the U.S. mortgage industry, it’s all about finding what you like and being unapologetic about it. The nice thing is, the Internet is expansive enough to cater to whatever your tastes might be, even if it’s a quirky article about the creation of a website aimed to promote the movie Space Jam back when dial-up was all the rage…

#PRmyths – “Get Us in the Wall Street Journal!”

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Thinkstock

The media landscape is changing. This is not breaking news: anyone who works in the PR or media industry knows this. But while this is true, and as we move towards a world in which businesses of all types and sizes are becoming their own publisher, certain habits die hard – habits like considering a cover story in The Wall Street Journal to be the ultimate PR accomplishment.

It’s easy to understand how that habit formed: many top-level executives read The Wall Street Journal on a daily basis, and therefore they want their PR departments (and the agencies they work with) to land that prized coverage. As a result, PR pros have been conditioned to put marquee business press coverage on a pedestal. And look, this can be warranted! Perhaps your clients’ prospective customers are just like your clients’ CEOs and do read the WSJ every day – in which case coverage in the Journal is PR gold. But the likelihood is that just like most of us, the folks your clients are trying to reach are consuming content and information that influences their buying decisions in a huge variety of ways – including through social media.

Want evidence of how the landscape has changed? As of October 2014, The Wall Street Journal had a daily circulation of almost 2.3 million readers. Meanwhile, BuzzFeed draws 200 million readers each month, and 18.5 billion impressions through Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. Turns out that many people would prefer to debate the color of a dress than dissect the growth potential of tech companies – and you and your clients need to adapt accordingly.

Again, a marquee piece of business press coverage can be hugely valuable, but if you’re not questioning why it might not be the best fit for your clients’ needs, you haven’t adjusted to the new media landscape – and might be leaving some huge PR opportunities on the table.

Life and Career Lessons from … March Madness?!

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Thinkstock

North Carolina State stunning Houston in the 1983 championship game (and beating future Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler in the process). Villanova downing defending champions Georgetown in the 1985 championship game (denying another future Hall of Famer, Patrick Ewing, of a second title). Connecticut, just last year, ascending from a #7 seed and subsequent long odds to upend Kentucky and win it all. Anywhere you look, the NCAA Men’s Division 1 Basketball Tournament – more commonly known as March Madness – produces amazing upsets like few other sporting competitions across the world.

As PR professionals, we can learn a lot from March Madness and the crazy twists and turns it takes each year – lessons that we can apply to both our careers and our lives outside of the office. Such as:

  • Prepare for the Unexpected: We mentioned just three of the upsets that have taken place in the NCAA Tournament throughout its history, but there have been so many more (my busted brackets accumulated over the years can confirm that). And we’re guessing that as a PR professional, you’ve run out of fingers and toes counting the surprises you’ve encountered during your career – be it a New York Times editor suddenly calling you out of the blue to discuss a pitch you didn’t think they had the time to read, or an industry-changing piece of news turning your week upside-down. While you can’t know what’s around the corner, simply knowing that anything can happen is all the preparation you need.
  • Take a Break to Enjoy Yourself: It’s such an old and tired cliché, but it applies here – “PR isn’t ER,” and any job that doesn’t involve saving lives should probably not be treated with a constant, manic level of urgency. It’s not only okay to take a breath to get away and immerse yourself in something completely unrelated to work, but it might be good for your health and your level of focus.
  • Live in the Moment: The NCAA Tournament produces a wealth of memorable moments each year; heck, there was a song written about the tournament called “One Shining Moment.” Countless athletes and coaches who have won the national title talk about how they “lived in the moment”: essentially, intensely focusing on what is needed to be accomplished while also taking the time to enjoy the experience. Your job should ultimately be enjoyable and rewarding, so make sure to savor those moments when you land a huge media hit or the event you ran turned out to be a huge success.

As a huge sports fan I’m biased on this topic, but I truly believe that there’s a lot to learn from sports outside of the final score of a game or how Team X matches up against Team Y. And I guarantee you that all you need to do is watch some of these March Madness games to understand what the tournament – and your career and your life – should be: enjoyable.

The NFL: A Runaway Train

Wreck imminent. (BigStock)
Wreck imminent. (BigStock)

I don’t personally know NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Every opinion I have about him as a person and the leader of the NFL is gleaned from third-party sources. But I’ll say this – based on everything I’ve read and heard, he’s one of four things: unfathomably stubborn, exceedingly arrogant, amazingly delusional, deeply incompetent … or all of the above.

Now that the NFL season is in the rear view mirror, you don’t need to be a practitioner of hyperbole to call it one of the most exhausting and trying seasons in decades. Back in September, I wrote about how the months leading up to the 2014 season were a PR disaster for the league. Well, if you’re an NFL fan, this season was the campaign that really tested how much you were willing to tolerate to remain a devout follower of the sport. This season ran the gamut of depressing incidents: horrific domestic abuse cases (both against women and children); supposed cover-ups (or incompetence) by the league office in response to those cases; allegations of cheating against the eventual Super Bowl champions; and the disclosure of more grisly details around the toll the game has taken on ex-players. And at every turn, Goodell appeared to fumble every opportunity he had to address these incidents and mitigate their effects. It reached the point where the average person on the street probably thought they could do Goodell’s job better than him. I know I did.

And yet, the juggernaut that is the NFL rolled on, remaining as popular and lucrative as ever. Heck, this year’s Super Bowl was the most watched broadcast of any kind in U.S. TV history. It’s almost as if this past season was a science experiment to test how many public relations blunders a business could withstand before it buckled. The results for the NFL: they’re gonna need a lot more blunders.

Those blunders will come, as Goodell undoubtedly has some PR mishaps in front of him: while he’s delivering those ever-valuable profits to his bosses – the owners of the 32 franchises – he has a knack for making uninformed, knee-jerk decisions that cause him far more trouble further down the road and alienate the league’s fans and players. But here’s the thing: due to its popularity and ability to pretty much print money, the NFL is akin to a runaway train – it doesn’t need a driver, and it’s going to steamroll over any trouble it encounters on the tracks. It’s important to remember, though, that runaway trains don’t run forever. Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, said that the NFL “is 10 years away from an implosion.” Parents are increasingly forbidding their kids from playing football, thereby drying up the talent pool – President Obama is one of those parents. And the issue of the far-reaching effects concussions are having on ex-players is only going to grow as the years go by.

So what can the NFL do to avoid its potential demise, or at the very least, improve its image and keep the league alive and kicking? Let’s face it: the NFL faces a communications challenge so daunting that even the most skilled marketers on Earth couldn’t completely right the ship. But as with any organization faced with image issues, the league should take it one piece at a time. My advice to the NFL? Be more transparent, honest, and frankly, ethical in your day-to-day operations. Admit that you’ve had significant challenges managing player safety, appropriately addressing cases of domestic violence, and administering consistent disciplinary punishments. These issues deserve more than half-hearted lip service. At this point, Goodell’s reputation is so tainted that ANY attempt to show remorse and a desire to get things right will be a breath of fresh air.

At the end of the day, if you’re Roger Goodell right now, you’re probably sitting in your plush office in New York City and feeling a sense of invincibility: “If my league can survive this season, it can survive ANYTHING.” And for now, that’s true. It was the season from hell, but not really. But at some point, that runaway train will need to be corralled, and if Goodell has taught us anything, it’s that right now he’s not the guy equipped to apply the brakes.

LeBron: A Lesson in Reshaping Perception

What a PR superstar (oh, and basketball, too). Credit: Keith Allison
What a PR superstar (oh, and basketball, too). Credit: Keith Allison

Let us take you back to early 2003.

LeBron James, the most hyped high school basketball player of all time and the supposed next Michael Jordan – which is one of the most misused pieces of acclaim for any basketball player who shows any flash of brilliance – was in his senior year and the undisputed #1 pick in that year’s talent-rich NBA draft. True to the ideal narrative, LeBron, raised in Akron, Ohio, was taken with the #1 pick by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. In his seven years with the Cavaliers, LeBron made all the right moves (short of winning a championship). To the NBA, its fans and the media, LeBron was an uber-talented player who had deftly and maturely handled an enormous amount of pressure since entering the league. Public perception: overwhelmingly positive.

And then, in 2010, came “The Decision.”

The main storyline of the 2009-2010 NBA season wasn’t the actual games, but LeBron’s impending free agency. The bottom line was that there were only a few teams that had the financial flexibility to sign LeBron to a full-term, high-paying contract, including the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Miami Heat. On the evening of July 8, 2010, LeBron was the star of a bloated, self-indulgent television special on ESPN that was held solely for LeBron to announce which team he had chosen. The now-iconic line uttered by LeBron at the climax of the show: “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.” Miami it was.

The backlash was immediate.

Back in Cleveland, LeBron’s former fans burned his jerseys in the street, and the owner of the Cavaliers wrote a scathing screed against LeBron (that might’ve held some weight if it hadn’t been written in Comic Sans font). Everyone who wasn’t a Heat fan was sour on the fact that he was teaming up with fellow superstars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form a “super team.” The result was that LeBron was public enemy number one to everyone but Miami fans, and the crassness of “The Decision” had a lot to do with it. Public perception: overwhelmingly negative.

As LeBron won two championships in Miami, the majority of the public began to somewhat warm back up to him: chalk it up to the adage that time heals all, or most, wounds. Cleveland also positioned itself perfectly to potentially sign LeBron to a maximum contract and bring him home in the 2014 offseason, when LeBron was once again (and maybe for the last time) a free agent, and this became more of a reality when LeBron’s Heat team got thoroughly outplayed in the 2014 NBA Finals by the San Antonio Spurs. The best player on the planet surveyed his surroundings, perhaps realizing that his current super team wasn’t so super, and disappeared for a few weeks to make one of the most crucial decisions of his life.

Then came the bombshell.

On July 11, 2014, LeBron revealed in a first-person essay in Sports Illustrated that he had decided to return to the Cavaliers. His announcement was in stark contrast to The Decision: his essay was genuine, heartfelt, and devoid of fanfare. Here was a player who wanted to return to his roots and deliver his hometown team something they’d never had: a championship. THIS decision – probably owing largely to how it was communicated – was roundly applauded by fans and the media. Public perception: overwhelmingly positive.

In life, and especially in the sports world, people tend to get second chances. You need to look no further than the NFL’s Michael Vick for a prime example. But LeBron’s case was unique in that he never really did anything wrong – at least, nothing that brought real harm to anyone or justified any legal action against him – but he toyed with a few of the emotions that are most sacred to sports fans: loyalty (leaving Cleveland in such a cold manner) and humility (doing so during a national TV show). In returning to Cleveland, however, LeBron orchestrated one of the most profound and immediate reputation makeovers in the recent public consciousness. He let us know that he had unfinished business in Cleveland and that delivering a title would be one of his greatest accomplishments, and we knew he had the wisdom afforded by experience to mean what he said. But undoubtedly most importantly for LeBron, he was making a decision that was completely true to himself – and at that point, public perception be damned.

A Case Study in Bad PR: The NFL

Ron Almog/Wikimedia Commons
Ron Almog/Wikimedia Commons

We believe in the power of PR. Whether it’s to communicate a brand’s vision, increase engagement with customers or get the word out about a new product, PR can have all sorts of positive effects on a business. And while fundamental changes in the media landscape and skyrocketing consumer expectations are increasing corporate accountability and transparency – and in the process putting PR front and center – one of the largest and most popular organizations in the United States appears to be ignoring every possible best practice.

Are you ready for some football?

We are of course talking about the National Football League (NFL). From extreme player controversy to inadequate safety practices (and that’s being polite), the NFL has had more than its share of PR mishaps lately. For example, earlier this year Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice was caught on camera dragging his fiancée out of a Las Vegas elevator after knocking her unconscious. Both the Baltimore Ravens and the NFL took some highly questionable steps following the incident, including the Ravens holding a press conference with both Rice and his fiancée-turned-wife, during which Rice delivered an unbelievably insensitive line about how he was handling the situation: “Sometimes in life, you will get knocked down.” Keep in mind, he was talking about himself, but the irony of his victimized wife sitting next to him during this was overwhelming. Of course, it’s unlikely that the Ravens gave that to Rice as a “key soundbite,” but what kind of reasoning led them to believe that a press conference of that nature was a good idea?

Enter the NFL, which had the opportunity to take a strong stance against domestic violence by throwing the book at Rice and suspending him for an extended period of time – say, the entire season, which is the punishment the NFL just gave another player for smoking marijuana. The NFL’s decision? A puny two-game suspension. The public outcry to the NFL’s decision was justifiably swift and far-reaching, and the NFL soon realized it had committed a critical fumble and quickly instituted a new stringent domestic violence policy. But the fact that the NFL wasn’t able to correctly address something that was so glaringly wrong in the first place was massively shortsighted and, frankly, appalling.

And it’s not just us who are highlighting the many issues the NFL is dealing (poorly) with: take a look at this Washington Post article documenting the problems the organization has faced over the past few years.

However, while the NFL has been roundly criticized for the Ray Rice debacle, as well as its reluctance to advance concussion research to protect former, current and future players, business is booming. In fact, revenues exceeded $10 billion in 2013 and are projected to reach $25 billion by 2025. And as I write this blog post highlighting the failures the NFL has had in brand reputation, I’m giddy for this Sunday’s opening weekend of games. So clearly, the NFL not only banks, but also capitalizes on millions of fans that act just like me.

The Washington Post article argued, “the NFL doesn’t have a PR problem … it has a reality problem.” We think that should be flipped – the NFL does have a PR problem because it’s so negligent (or flippant) towards it. Although it continues to drag its reputation through the mud, the reality is that the NFL’s future is blindingly bright despite these stumbles. But as PR practitioners, we can tell you from experience that ignoring PR best practices as blatantly as the NFL does almost always results in bad business. Almost always.

Look, I love this sport. I just hate its PR practices.

What’s Your Point? Ernest Hemingway Would Like to Know

“Yeah, writing the great American novel was cool, but I’m glad my legacy is forever preserved by this mobile app.” (Lloyd Arnold/Wikimedia Commons)

“Robert Jordan lay behind the tree, holding onto himself very carefully and delicately to keep his hands steady. He was waiting until the officer reached the sunlit place where the first trees of the pine forest joined the green slope of the meadow. He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.”

Those are the final few lines of what I consider to be the best novel by my favorite author, Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway is famous for his simple, direct, and unadorned style of writing, likely owing to his beginnings as a newspaper reporter. Some people hate this style, claiming that it’s too elementary, but many others love it, because it gets straight to the point without losing any appeal.

As PR practitioners, we are constantly trying to better understand the wants and needs of the journalists we pitch. And one of the most consistent pieces of feedback we get from them is, “get to the point.” We’re thus always looking for the most efficient and direct way to make the most impact, which means avoiding jargon at all costs. Unfortunately, the technology industry is one of the most jargon-laden; when you’re “engaging by utilizing a cloud-based interaction and collaboration tool,” you’re really just catching up with a friend on Gchat. Heck, there’s now a Google Chrome app called The Dejargonizer, which detects jargon on websites and provides that term’s definition in “everyday” language.

In a turn of events that delights me to no end, there’s another language-centric tool aimed at simplifying prose, and it’s called – wait for it – the Hemingway App. This app highlights various parts of text in different colors – such as adverbs in blue and passive voice in green – but the best part is that it highlights sentences that are difficult to read in yellow and very difficult to read ones in red.

This may well be career-limiting, but let’s see what the Hemingway App thinks of some of the recent writing from our fearless leader, Josh Reynolds. Take this sentence:

“Whether you’re in a maturing space with massive consolidation and commoditization of technologies, or whether you’re in a hot new space flooded with startups, there are so many different companies clamoring for attention that virtually every PR practitioner has their own formula for smart messaging.”

The Hemingway App gave that sentence one big fat red highlight. But just to show that I’m not above picking on myself, the app also gave the last sentence of my prior paragraph an identical fat red highlight.

Of course, it’s often impossible in tech PR to avoid superfluous language. But while the Hemingway App may be a harsh critic, it’s also a handy reminder that unless you’re writing fiction, your audience probably wants you to do what Mr. Hemingway did best: Get. To. The. Point.