A few reminders of how the First Amendment works in the wake of the NFL’s “no kneeling” rule

One of the key reasons many journalism programs include a J-law class is to make sure you fully understand the rights that are afforded to you as a citizen and as a member of the media. (This, of course, goes against the popular theory that students have, which is the class is there to see how quickly a GPA can crash and burn after a single semester.) In many cases, people think they know the law after watching a few episodes of “Law & Order” or hearing a couple words that sound legal like “libel,” “habeas corpus” and “cappuccino.” (If I had a nickel for every time someone threatened to sue me for libel, when it was clear they had no idea what they were talking about, I could keep an old-fashioned slot machine spinning for quite some time.)

The National Football League made a recent rule change that had people arguing about the law and how it works in relationship to free speech. Commissioner Roger Goodell announced Wednesday that the league would fine teams if they had players who failed to stand for the national anthem. Over the past two years, players have kneeled or refused to stand for the anthem as a protest against racial inequality and police brutality, a movement started by Colin Kaepernick.

The NFL’s announcement has led to the question of freedom of speech, freedom of expression and the rights of the players in the NFL. In a satirical piece , The New Yorker noted that the NFL “added the First Amendment to its list of banned substances.”

We talked a bit about the reasons the First Amendment doesn’t do everything people thinks it does when we covered Harley Barber, the Alabama sorority member who took to her “finsta” to spew racist language. Given this set of concerns, it’s important to take a look back at the First Amendment itself and some of the misconceptions people have about it:

No one can stop you from publishing content or expressing yourself: The First Amendment clearly notes, “Congress shall make no law,” which was later extended to all forms of government. However, the government isn’t the only body or organization that can prohibit you from publishing things. Corporations that own your newspaper or magazine can prohibit certain things from being published. The Federal Communication Commission has a say in what can and can’t be done on television news. Even certain web platforms place specific rules and regulation about content in their user agreements. In this case, the NFL is a private entity that can make certain rules and regulations for its players, and this happens to be one of them. The new rule might be popular or unpopular, but it doesn’t violate the First Amendment. In addition, the consequences of his choice to kneel have been severe for Kaepernick, who was unable to find a team to quarterback after he protested in this fashion.

Nothing bad can happen to you after you publish or express yourself: The ability to publish without governmental prohibition isn’t as great as it sounds in some cases. People erroneously equate “free press” and “free speech” with “consequence-free press” and “consequence-free speech.” Whatever you publish can run afoul of the law and that can lead to some negative outcomes. If you publish incorrect information that harms someone, you can end up on the wrong side of a libel suit. If you enter a private area without permission, someone might sue you for invasion of privacy or trespassing. Even if you publish accurate information, you could still be harmed in the “court of public opinion,” with readers turning their backs on you. The First Amendment doesn’t protect you from every potential harm, so you need to be careful with what you publish. It also doesn’t mean that there won’t be backlash for the NFL or its players.

The First Amendment is clear and absolute: The amendment is neither of these things, as the government has limited speech and press during times of war, as it did with the Sedition Act during World War I and with the Smith Act during World War II. Courts have limited speech with time, place and manner restrictions, prohibiting people from doing certain things at certain times in certain areas. Although the phraseology of “Congress shall make no law” sounds like a rock-solid judgment from on high, plenty of people have found out the hard way that the First Amendment is open to interpretation.

In the end, the NFL will be able to stand on this from a legal standpoint as far as the First Amendment is concerned. However, as the players, owners and fans debate and discuss the merits of this rule, other consequences may develop for any or all of them.

The Junk Drawer: Some great helpful advice on storytelling, getting people to trust you and some thoughts on “fake news”

As we noted in an earlier post, the Junk Drawer is usually full of stuff that didn’t fit anywhere else but you still need. Consider some of these items:

Tell me a story and make me care:
People always ask about how they can improve their overall approach to storytelling, as it is the primary element that links all of our media-writing disciplines. Here’s a really solid article that outlines some of the habits you can break that will immediately improve your storytelling ability.

Trust, but verify:
Why don’t people trust “the media?” The Knight Foundation published a list of 10 reasons, many of which should concern any media student. I wish I could remember who said it, but it is true that we have seen a fundamental shift in how we engage media. It used to be that we read news to help us develop an informed opinion on a topic. Now, we have the opinion and we seek out content that will support what we already believe. As media-writing students (and instructors) we need to figure out exactly how we’re going to deal with this idea going forward and how best to help people see the value of what we create.

Fake news (or is it?):
President Donald Trump has mused about taking away the press credentials of news organizations that do not provide him with favorable coverage. This should concern anyone at any level of media whether they like or dislike Trump and if they cover the president or they cover their campus. The goal of a free and unfettered press is to shed light on anything that might be of public interest, regardless of how “favorable” it is to any particular individual. Any attempt to chill that arrangement can limit what people have the right to know about things that could affect them. If this happens at a national level, what is to prevent other public organizations from trying similar things when they decide the coverage is getting too hot for them? Also, here’s an interesting take on why it has become problematic that the term “fake news” has become synonymous with the concept of “news that I don’t like to see because it’s mean to me.”

Failure is an option. Just don’t take it: I’m a huge fan of the late comedian W.C. Field’s line about success and efforts: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no use being a damned fool about it.” To be fair, it often seems we don’t get to the second “try” before quitting, so here’s a pretty good look at where failure comes from, why we tend to do it and what we can learn as we process it.

 

 

 

“He’s dying anyway.” (A primer on how not to do PR)

If I had a nickel for every stupid thing I ever said, I’d wouldn’t need to work anymore and I could probably eradicate world hunger. This is one of the many reasons I have a lot of respect for good public relations practitioners: They manage to keep on message, make key points clear and connect with an audience in some of the more difficult situations out there.

In discussing public relations with my buddy Pritch (a member of the College of Fellows and a decades-long PR professional and instructor) a number of years ago, he told me that one of the more underrated elements of PR is honest empathy. It’s hard to get across a message while still realizing that there are other forces at play, many of which can be painful for others. I translated this into “be humane” in one of the books and several lectures, and I think it sticks well.

I thought about this when this story broke about a White House staffer’s reaction to Sen. John McCain’s stand against confirming CIA nominee Gina Haspel:

“It doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway,” press aide Kelly Sadler said about McCain’s opposition to CIA nominee Gina Haspel at a meeting of White House communications staffers, according to an unnamed source cited by The Hill’s Jordan Fabian.

McCain is battling brain cancer and is unlikely to win that fight, according to all available information. As we noted in the book, the accuracy of a statement like “He’s dying anyway” isn’t the issue, but rather the fact it makes Sadler sound cold and calloused. Even worse from a PR perspective, she has now become the news and that news is clearly negative.

Consider the following thoughts as a short primer on the idea of keeping yourself out of trouble:

 

You are like plumbing: We talk in most of my classes about good media professionals being conduits of information, moving content from valuable sources to interested audiences. I often equate this to being like plumbing: The water exists at Point A and you want to drink it at Point B. You don’t really know how every single thing works, but you just want it to work.

Perhaps more to the point, the only time people notice plumbing any more is when something goes wrong. If the water in your tap comes out in a lovely shade of beige, like mine did in my first college apartment, you notice it. When a pipe breaks under the house and starts spraying water all over the crawl space, like it did when we lived in Indiana, you notice it. When it’s running fine? I don’t think, “Man, that toilet can FLUSH! So awesome!”

Get the information that matters from Point A to Point B in its best possible form and you’re doing the job well.

 

You aren’t the news: The 1980s show “The Fall Guy” follows the adventures of a TV and movie stuntman who moonlights as a bounty hunter, thus getting into all sorts of danger and wacky mishaps.

Perhaps the only enduring thing about this program was the theme song, in which the show’s star, Lee Majors, sings about life as an “Unknown Stuntman” with lyrics like:

I might fall from a tall building,
I might roll a brand new car.
‘Cause I’m the unknown stuntman that made Redford such a star.

If you do your job well, people behind the scenes will know your name, appreciate your professionalism and use the information you provide to them. However, you will never BE the news. Your clients may bask in the spotlight thanks to your hard work. Your organization might succeed because you did the dirty work. Your company may have a sterling image that you built, brick by brick. However, you are the unknown stuntperson who needs to make them look so fine.

 

Stop. Think. Then Speak: One of the hardest things in the 24/7 news cycle and the constant demand for information is the ability to pause before communicating without looking like a weasel. It often feels like if we don’t have an answer RIGHT NOW, we are clearly scrambling for some well-worn cliche or a bit of BS. However, once you open your mouth or send a release or do anything else, you can’t get it back, so it pays to be on top of your game.

Collect yourself before you speak on something. Think about who might hear what you have to say or share what you publish. Some PR professionals have told me when they have something they have to say, they imagine their grandmother was in the audience. I often tell students that there is no crime in not knowing something, so instead of going rogue, tell the people, “I don’t know the answer, but I will find it out for you.” As long as you live up to that promise (and it isn’t the answer to every question), you should be OK.

 

Stupid is eternal: Mardela Springs, Maryland is town of about 350 people in the western part of the state and the only reason I remember it is because of Norman Christopher, who was a town official in the early 1990s. Christopher famously brought attention to this tiny hamlet with his explanation as to why he couldn’t reach county officials on Martin Luther King Day:

He reportedly was explaining to other commission members why he could not reach county workers by telephone Jan. 20, the King holiday. “I forgot no one was working. Everyone had Buckwheat’s birthday off,” he was quoted as saying in the Daily Times in Salisbury. Buckwheat was the stage name of a black child who starred in the “Our Gang” comedy films of the 1930s and 1940s.

It’s been more than a quarter century since he made that comment and I still remember it as a “What the hell was THAT?” moment when it became news. In a similar way, I will never forget Justine Sacco and her “hope I don’t get AIDS” tweet, that we feature in the book.

Sacco has managed to find work recently, as IAC brought her back on board for a separate venture. In looking back at all of this, she had a pretty decent observation for anyone involved in any form of media:

“Unfortunately, I am not a character on ‘South Park’ or a comedian, so I had no business commenting on the epidemic in such a politically incorrect manner on a public platform,” she wrote. “To put it simply, I wasn’t trying to raise awareness of AIDS or piss off the world or ruin my life.”

Kelly Sadler worked on a number of projects before and will likely have many more years of professional work in the future, but this might hang around her neck like an albatross for a while. If you think about anything stupid you have ever said, imagine that being the one thing people remember about you and then act accordingly.

 

Changing jobs, changing fields and how to “be realistic about your skills and how far they can take you.” (Catching up with Jonathan Foerster)

In working on the second edition of the Dynamics of Media Writing book, I had the chance to catch up with a few folks who had been nice enough to do the “View from a Pro” segments. Things change quickly in this field, and I found that several of them had engaged in the mantra of this book: Transferable skills.

One such person is Jonathan Foerster, who now serves as the director of community affairs at Humane Society Naples, leading the fundraising, marketing/communications, events and volunteer efforts for the organization. When we last spoke, he was the communications director for Artis—Naples, a performing and visual arts organization in Southwest Florida. Foerster spent more than a decade as a news journalist, working for magazines (Gulfshore Life) and newspapers (Naples Daily News and Scranton Times-Tribune). Today, he reflects on the changes he’s seen over his career and things learned in college that he still uses today.

Of all the jobs you transitioned to, which one was the “sharpest turn” so to speak? In other words, was it this one or was it the one where you moved from the newspaper to your first marketing/PR gig? What was it about that job that made that turn so tough and how did you handle it?

“There have been three steep transitions in my career. First going from newspapers to magazines, but that was because I went from a mostly reporting and section planning role into a managerial role. There is nothing in journalism school that really teaches you how to be a good manager or leader. Being a teaching assistant at The Missourian was close to that, but it’s still different when actual jobs are at stake.

“Second, the transition from media to nonprofits. There were two big challenges there: adjusting to the pace of the real, non-media world and in knowing that your job now is always to put the organization in the best light, not necessarily the most correct light. Media has been speeding up to a breakneck pace in the Twitter age, even monthly magazines move quickly. The rest of the world does not move at that pace. Although that seems like an easy thing to deal with (better to wind down than ramp up) it takes a while for your metabolism to adjust to the new reality. It was also difficult to go from talking directly about a thing (either positively or negatively) and then switch to always finding the most positive light. I never had lie, but there were plenty of times where not telling the whole story was the order of the day. I think that was a tough thing for me at first, especially while I was trying to build trust with my new colleagues who had very different work experiences.

“Finally, this most recent change comes with revenue expectations and serious budgets. That’s another thing they never teach you in journalism school. There really should be more required course work for any college student in entrepreneurship and business acumen. It would have made my reporting life easier, because I would have known from the jump how to read a county budget or a nonprofit’s 990. Luckily, I’ve had patient bosses and great teachers along the way who gave me enough responsibility to feel ownership of things but with some training wheels for those first few spins around the block.”

One of the funniest things about talking to you now is that I just finished proofing the second edition of the media writing book, which goes to press this month and you’re in there at your old job. It also speaks volumes about the point I’m trying to make in the book: Transferable skills are crucial in this area of work. What media skills are crucial, regardless of the area of the field you worked in? In other words, what are things that some people dismiss as “Oh that’s only for newspaper people” that you rely on heavily in your various roles in your various jobs?

“There are tons of skills you learn in reporting and writing classes that are transferable to many other fields. First just the general soft skills you learn in terms of how to get information from people, how to read body language and how to know when to press forward and when to hold back. Those are things that reporting stories (even just for a class) teaches you in spades.

“But the most important thing is storytelling. This is something people in other educational disciplines don’t do as well at. Whether I was writing a Facebook post or a radio ad, the story is what actually sells your organization or product. In my limited (six weeks and counting) experience in the fundraising world, storytelling is still the most important skill.

“You have to convince people to buy what you are selling, whether that’s a mission statement or a tangible product. People need to relate on an emotional level to what you are talking about and learning how to tell a compelling story is the easiest way to make that happen.”

 

If Jon now could talk to Jon back (in his college days), what would you tell that version of yourself in regard to the skills that matter, the things that are important in the field and the general sense of how to get somewhere good in this wonderful world we call media?

“The best advice I could have given myself is to have a niche and to learn everything you can about it. The people in media who are the most successful today are rarely generalists unless they are incredibly skilled storytellers and reporters. It’s just so hard to have the time to immerse yourself in a new subject each time out so that you can be competent to write about it well.

“That’s why sports writers always seem more advanced as younger reporters. They know their subject matter inside and out, so they can look for the small things that really make a story sing. If you are worried about just keeping up, you will never see the nuances. It’s tough, though, because most young news reporters are given generalized beats. I would have double majored in something like economics or environmental sciences if I could do it over again, just to give myself an edge.

“I would also say not to have a set idea of your career trajectory so that you are willing to take the chances needed to get yourself into good situations. I graduated about 15 years ago, and I knew plenty of people who thought they would be copy editors or page designers for their entire careers. Sadly, especially for folks like me that need the second set of eyes on everything, those positions are pretty rare now. But none of us saw that coming. Not even the most prescient media thinker in 2002 would have imagined a world without a big copy desk at metro papers.”

 

Anything else you want to say or anything else you think I’ve missed?

“Be realistic about your skills and how far they can take you. Don’t give up on your dreams, but know that even the very best have limitations. It took me almost 10 years to admit to myself that I wasn’t going to ever write like Gary Smith or David Grann. No matter how hard I worked, there were going to be things that came naturally to some people that I would never be able to achieve.

“But I’m pretty damn good at generating new ideas (be it beat stories, front of book magazine sections or marketing campaigns). So, I learned to harness those gifts. When I worked for an arts organization, I asked our CEO how she got into arts administration. She was a musician by training. But in one of her first orchestras, someone took her aside and said, ‘the world has plenty of gifted violinists, but not enough people to run the organizations.’

“So, she started learning about the behind the scenes part of the business. By 35, she was running at $30 million a year arts organization.”

Motivational Poster for Graduates (plus a “Gone Fishin’ note”)

Graduation here at UWO takes place Saturday, so I figured it was a good time to break out a motivational poster for all the students who will be getting congratulations, parties and 121 copies of “Oh the Places You Will Go!”

GetAJob

This caricature of me came from Jason Brooks, one of the most amazingly talented artists I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. Back when we were both in school at UW-Madison, he drew a version of this idea as a recruitment ad for our student newspaper. I clipped it out and hung onto it until this day, as it now is taped to my office bookshelf, yellowed and taped up after years of moves.

When I wanted to include the jobs chapter/appendix in the reporting book, I reached out to him and asked if he had that art still and if I could buy some usage rights so I could add this to the front of the chapter. Instead, he graciously redrew the whole thing for me so you could see it in the book. I loved it and I hope you did too.

As the end of the term is here, I’m going to take a time out next week. If something truly bizarre happens that needs a “right-away write-up” I’ll take a shot at it, but I think we could all use a break. In the mean time, if you have anything you’d like me to add, cover or create, email me, tweet at me or use the contact form and I’ll take care of it when I return.

New posts start on Monday, May 21.

Thanks for reading, and congrats to all the graduates!

Vince (aka The Doctor of Paper)

The Junk Drawer: Randomly bad ideas and poor journalistic execution

As we noted in an earlier post, the Junk Drawer is usually full of stuff that didn’t fit anywhere else but you still need. Consider some of these moments:

“Are we giving up on ‘Phrasing’ now?” As the hit TV show “Archer” often notes, something can be said in such a way as to evoke a dirty mind to play with it, even though it’s not likely the intent of the source. Still, SOMEBODY should have caught this odd verb choice in a headline about a “Toy Story” homage:

Woody

Sexual assault isn’t funny so don’t get cute: There are times to try headlines that will evoke wordplay, cultural touchstones or other rhetorical flourishes. When the topic is sexual assault, it’s best to play it as clear, concise and coherent as possible or else you might get this:

CosbyGuilty.jpg

Thankfully, this was just a proof and it never saw publication, but the use of the “Fat Albert” line of “Hey, Hey, Hey” was definitely a wince-worthy moment.

Welcome to wherever you are: When running a big story, you often want big art. A few nice shots of Coors Field to go along with “The Ultimate Visitors Guide to Coors Field” seemed like a great idea. Only one problem:

CoorsOOPS

If you look reeeeeeaallly carefully into the background of this photo (or stare at the zoomed shot in the lower right corner of the tweet), you can see the problem: This isn’t Coors Field in Colorado, but Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. The whole “Phillies” scoreboard really kind of clues you in. Nothing says, “We know everything about this ballpark” like not recognizing that the photo isn’t right.

Ow… Just… Ow: The designer’s motto is that “Design is content, and content is king.” This is all true because design is more than “just making things pretty.” Designers are required to show prominence and value through the placement of certain elements. They are also required to make sure things that don’t belong together don’t go together, like this unfortunate pairing of advertising and editorial copy:

SunSentinelGun

On the same page as a Parkland shooting story, you had an ad for the local gun show. Not exactly what the designer probably had in mind when beginning the day.

Just because it’s funny, it doesn’t mean it’s true: When errors lead to some unintentional humor, it is fantastic. This is especially true when someone is trying to promote something. The infamous “South Bend Pubic Schools” billboard remains a standard bearer for the fantastically awkward. This week, it looked like Kansas City joined the club of bad spellers:

Anally

As someone noted on Twitter, “You had one job…”

However funny, it turns out to be a fake. Officials at Visit KC said no such misspelling existed and even shared the original image, complete with proper spelling and the same silver car in the background.

Just one more reason to follow the journalist’s adage: If your mother says she loves you, go check it out.

Bicentennial Blogging: A look back at 200 Posts

SAGE: “We want you to write a blog to go with the book.”
Me: “What the heck do I know about writing a blog?”
SAGE: “We know you’ll figure it out.”

That was the conversation that launched the DynamicsOfWriting.com back in late June, where I started wandering into this like a kid who lost his mom at Walmart. The great hope was that I was able keep up a blogging schedule that didn’t have people wondering, “Is this thing still on?”

With 200 posts in less than a year, I’m guessing I got there, so I figured it’s time to take a look back at some of the various things that were helpful, interesting or just amusing.

From Humble Beginnings: When in doubt, focus on the audience. That’s the theme of the book, the blog and my very first post.

Filak-isms: At some point, I’m going to need to translate the random theories, ideas and other sewage that swirls around in my head so that more people can understand what I’m saying on the blog. In the mean time, check out the concept of a handful of Jell-O, why you shouldn’t change a light bulb with a hammer, how you earn the fungus on your shower shoes, how I rely on only a specific amount of pain in teaching and how you will never end up on a lunch box, so it’s OK that you screw up occasionally.

Student Journalists Rock (and so can you): One of the biggest things I tried to incorporate into the book and the blog was student journalists and their work. The reason is that if you only put things from the New York Times or Washington Post in there as examples or only rely on Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism, students can say, “I’m not that and there’s no way I’ll ever do that kind of stuff.” However, students do incredible journalism on their campuses and they’re people just like the folks reading the book. The students at the University of Virginia covered the “Unite the Right” march and they talked to us in a three-part series. Student reporters at Rice talked about Hurricane Harvey’s wrath and their work to cover it, even as it messed with their campus. A student at Southern Illinois University dug into the shady past of the school’s top administrator. And the ongoing saga of The Sunflower at Wichita State showed how students balanced their own crises and the need to hold public officials accountable. College students with the same issues, class schedules, work requirements and experience did all this and more. So can you.

Why Did You Tell My Professor About This?: As if instructors don’t have enough ways to make school painful, I shared a couple of my favorite things we did in class. The boatload of AP style quizzes should be more than enough to sharpen your editing, but the bigger things were probably the “labs” and exams I pitched. The “Feel It” Lab is still a classic that students remember years after participating in it.  The same is true for the “Smell It” Lab. However, the “You don’t even know, man…” exercise my students often reference in their course evals is “The Midterm from Hell.” Whatever you think of these exercises, please don’t mail me a bag of dog excrement. We have a high-strung mini-Schnauzer, so we have plenty of that as it is.

Beating the Drum on the Basics: Just like everything else, your writing improves when you practice the basics over and over. That’s why we talk about the “holy trinity” of noun-verb-object, show you an example of how the inverted pyramid can keep you from finding out about a naked man on fire only in paragraph 11 and why attributions will save your keester at every possible turn.

Understanding Your Professors: Professors often gripe about students and students gripe about professors. It’s the natural order of being. In an attempt to use humor to break down those walls and improve your class, we offered you a few ways to prevent your class from sucking, the “five conversations journalism professors have in hell,” better ways to ask questions that drive your professors nuts and how to make the most out of you course evaluations.

The Bad, The Weird and The “OK, so THAT Happened” Moments: Journalism reminds us that there’s a lot of stupid out there, some of it comes from the journalists themselves. Still, there’s plenty to learn when a company puts out a racist sweatshirt, a sorority member decides she can use the “N-word” on social media because she’s “in the South,” how to avoid digging yourself any deeper into a social media rabbit hole after you call a U.S. citizen an “immigrant” on Twitter, how women in the news should be covered as more than the owners of a productive womb, how to avoid talking about hand jobs in your publication and other random screw-ups you should avoid.

In looking back, we covered a lot of stuff in a small amount of time. It went by in a blink, thanks in large part to guest bloggers, professional journalists and other folks who gave their time to break up the monotony of me. I hope it’s been as helpful for you as it has been for me. And, as always, if you have any questions or need something you haven’t gotten, just ask.

Vince (aka The Doctor of Paper)

 

 

 

 

A few more things PR students wanted to know but were afraid to ask…

Last semester, our PR guru Kristine Nicolini asked if I’d sit with her PR techniques class (a small group of about 20 student or so) and answer questions for them based on my experiences in news and working with PR folk. What came out of our discussion can be found here.

This semester, she was nice enough to ask me back, so here are a few more questions from her PR students and some moderately decent answers I managed to cobble together for them:

 

What are your pet peeve when it comes to PR professionals?

Liars and weasels are my pet peeves about ALL people with whom I interact, not just PR folks. If I feel like I should check my wallet or wash my hands after talking to you, I’m not all that inclined to spend time with you.

When everything about you feels like a performance or a veneer, I really get annoyed. It’s why I feel like I’m better as a press agent for myself in some cases and so does my book publisher when they tell me to call on a potential adopter of the book. I’m like, “Hey, here’s who I am, here’s what I honestly believe and at the end of the day, I understand if you don’t agree.” Honesty is refreshing, but so is honest enthusiasm. I can tell when you like what you’re doing and I can tell when you’re faking it.

 

How do you communicate/deal with pushy PR people?
How much is “too much” when it comes to contacting a journalist about a story? (Assuming the reporter hasn’t answered)
What’s something that you should absolutely not do?
What should you avoid when contacting a journalist with a press release?

I grouped the four of these things together because they all fit the same basic paradigm. The premise I espouse here is the “Guy at the Bar” thing. All of us have seen the “Guy at the Bar” who is really too damned desperate for his own good. He offers to buy a woman a drink, an appetizer, a game of darts, a steak dinner and a 1998 Honda Civic, shortly before she calls the cops on him.

You don’t want to be the “Guy at the Bar” when it comes to approaching journalists about the story you want to pitch. They’re either going to be interested or they aren’t and that’s part of the process, so you have to understand that some times, they’re just going to say no. That doesn’t mean “no” forever, but it means “no” now. However, the more you start pressuring them, the more they’re going to try to wriggle away out of panic and just “eeew.” It’s like a fist full of Jell-O. The harder you squeeze, the less you have.

To that end, don’t grip it so tight. Just let things go. People in general, journalists in particular, can just SMELL desperation.

Do you have any NO moments when reading a pitch or email from a PR professional?

Yes:

  1. It’s clear I’m part of a laundry list of emails/faxes/phone numbers/addresses that somebody left you and said, “Go spread this generic crap to these random people.”
  2. They make a fact error that lets me know they don’t know anything. A person pitching me on a charity event kept telling me about how great the Advance-Titan was as our student newspaper, but she kept saying we were at UW-Superior.
  3. You’re trying too hard. Don’t tell me. Show me. If you come across like a crappy used car salesman, I’m dodging you.

 

How do you handle negative feedback/move forward from it

Negative feedback sucks. Here are some things that help me kind of “partition” it a little bit.

  1. Is the negative feedback part of a pattern or is it a one-off. I got feedback on my book when they put it in the field. Of the 24 responses, 23 were positive. The one-off told me that I didn’t know how to write and that I clearly didn’t understand journalism. (I, of course, obsessed about this with the hope that I would somehow meet this yutz in a back alley and scream, “Who can’t write now? HUH?”) If it’s a pattern, let’s go to point two.
  2. Is the feedback negative because of me, my client, my approach or the person on the other end of the feedback? If it’s me or my approach, it goes in one pile. If it’s my client or the other person, it goes in another pile.

The “me” pile: I look at the feedback and see what’s there that’s actually workable in terms of me and my approach. What did I do that the person didn’t like and how much of this is alterable behavior? If the feedback is, “God, he’s so ugly I couldn’t focus on his pitch.” Well, I guess I’m bald, old and ugly. Screw you anyway, Bucky. If it’s “The whole presentation felt like nothing but hype” then I look at what I did and see how likely it is that this is true, what I can do to dial it back and what else I can do to improve this?

The client/that guy pile: Some things can’t be fixed. If this person constantly hates you because “PR people suck,” forget them. The more you suck up, the more they’ll beat you like a dog.

 

What was your favorite article you wrote based off a PR pitch?

A jewelry store sent us one that gave away a diamond ring as part of a Christmas Promotion. The winner was a lady who wasn’t rich and had lost her diamond out of her engagement ring a few years back. The reason it worked was that a) the store was local, not a chain, b) the winner was the exact person you’d want to win the thing, c) the timing was right for a “Christmas Miracle” story and d) the owners were friendly and helpful in the whole process. In other words, it was perfect in a PR moment: Planning that led to luck and the confluence of events that just screamed “WRITE ME!”

 

Three random story ideas picked up while rummage sale shopping

Wisconsin has several proud traditions, including Friday Fish Fry and shoveling snow into April. One of our favorites, however, is rummage sale season. In some places, they’re called yard sales, garage sales or rummages, but they all serve the same purpose: People who want to get rid of some of their stuff will post an ad/signs and other people will come from all over the place to find hidden jewels among the junk.

Ever since I can remember, I spent my summers seeking out rummage sales, estate sales, flea markets and more. I stocked my life with secondhand books, Mad magazines and old baseball cards. Now, I tend to look for old furniture to restore, vintage signs to hang in the garage and… well… old baseball cards.

After spending a pretty darned cold weekend scouring the city of Neenah for these items, I came back with a corner hutch for my wife, a SPAM T-shirt for my kid and three potential story ideas for you all:

WHEN HIP AND TRENDY GOES SPLAT: Last year around this time, my kid was begging for a fidget spinner, to the point I was stalking the only area Walgreens that got a shipment once a week. When I finally got there at exactly the same time as the shipment, there were at least three crazed parents digging through a box that hadn’t even been stocked yet. We had all the grace of a pack of “walkers” that caught a slow, fat guy on “The Walking Dead.” I bought four of them, kept two and sold two to a colleague, whose children were so grateful, they wrote me these wonderful thank you notes.

This year? They are rummage sale fodder at about 50 cents a piece.

Rummage sales are great opportunities to recall what used to be cool, given that people tend to use the sales to dump off things they bought as part of a trend, but now wonder, “What the heck was I thinking?”

Beanie Babies, pogs and Tickle Me Elmo dolls are just a few of the toys that fit that bill. There are also the “health trends” like the Ab Lounge and the Thigh Master that show up from time to time. Look at what’s out there and help people take a trip through time as you recall what used to be the “it” thing.

FOLLOW THE PROFESSIONALS: Shows like “Storage Wars” and “American Pickers” showcase the glamorous life of big finds and digging through other people’s stuff. On a much smaller scale, areas that have estate and rummage sales tend to have lower-level pros as well. These are folks who have specific collecting needs, antiques shops and other similar desires to find “that one thing” they desperately want.

For a while, my wife was into Jadite dishware, a 1930s-1940s-era green glass stuff that was utterly ridiculously overpriced at antiques shops. However, if I scoured the rummages around me, I tended to find a piece here and a piece there on the cheap. In showing up early for these sales, I kept bumping into the same six people who were all waiting early. There was a “tool guy” and a “fishing guy” who always were there for one or two items they collected. There were three women who ran antiques booths at the local vintage shops who were polite while we waited, but went after each other like “The Hunger Games” when the doors opened. They bumped and checked each other out of the way as they flung themselves through the house in search of items that could be flipped at their booths.

Find one or two of these people and do a profile piece on the life of a professional rummage-sale junkie. See if you can tag along for a weekend and see what it takes to be that person, what motivates him or her and the ups and downs of the “business.”

EMBRACE THE WEIRDNESS: If the eyes are the windows to the soul, rummage sales are the door to the weirdest room in someone’s head. Most rummage sales are simple affairs: Parents dumping off baby clothes and equipment now that their kids are grown, older adults “downsizing” before they head to a smaller home or folks just trying to clean out some  clutter.

However, some of the things that pop up at rummage sales have you thinking you’re about three steps away from being part of a “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” reboot. Or even worse.

I went to rummage sales where the main item is dead things. Bleached animal skulls, lamps made from animal horns, bone-based items and more. Hunters live in this area make that a little less weird than it might seem at first blush, but I’m not exactly sure who goes to a rummage sale thinking, “This is perfect! I was looking for a skull of about this size!”

There are also people selling tons of unopened products like shampoo, toothpaste, body wash and cereal. Occasionally, there are “opened” products as well. Who the heck wants to buy a “once used” stick of deodorant? I don’t know but it could have been mine for a dollar. Also, I have no aversion to used clothing of some types (ties, shirts, even pants) but some things I want my own of. I don’t know why but this weekend I ran into three sales that had rows upon rows on a table of used bras. Someone can clue me in what that’s OK, but undergarments tend to have me thinking, “I’ll just buy some new ones, thanks.”

Figure out what are some of the weirdest things for sale and ask about them. See if you can find trends in the weirdness or if there’s just that “one guy” who is selling stuff that makes you think, “I’d better make sure I can get cell service out here…”

 

From “first big interview” to felony charges: A journalist reflects on his former chancellor

Each week, we will strive to post content from a guest blogger with an expertise in an area of the field. This week, Alex Crowe, the news and social media director for WMDC in Mayville, Wisconsin, reflects on his student media experience interviewing former UW-Oshkosh Chancellor Richard Wells as a “first big interview” subject. Last week, Crowe covered the latest development in an ongoing financial scandal in which Wells and former Vice Chancellor Tom Sonnleitner were each charged with five felony counts. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.
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My interviews with then Chancellor Richard Wells were always good, but I never got more than a few words in before he started talking. Wells loved to talk to anyone who would listen, especially about things that were being done around the UWO campus. And, as I told myself at the time, why wouldn’t he? The projects being done at UWO were all massive, and all of them seemed to start at the same time.
My interviews with him were a informal sit-downs during the Chancellor’s Breakfast, an event that comes around at the end of every semester. Students can take a break from studying to get a free breakfast at Blackhawk Commons, served by some of the higher-ups at UW Oshkosh. I usually met with and interviewed Athletic Director Darryl Sims, Wells and maybe one or two other people. The interviews were very informal, me in a radio polo and my guests usually in aprons and hats fresh out of the kitchen.
I remember distinctly asking Wells about the projects at UWO. There were so many going on that it was hard to keep track. My freshman year (2011-12) was the final year of construction for the new Horizon dorm and it seems like the floodgates opened after that. New lecture halls and classrooms in Clow, renovations at Halsey, new dorm rooms and renovations in Fletcher Hall, the brand-new Alumni Welcome and Conference Center and so on. As soon as I would bring up the construction projects on campus, Wells would begin beaming with pride, then start talking.
Wells would tell me of the great public-private partnerships that the University had formed under his leadership, such as renovating the downtown Best Western hotel with the intentions to implement a hospitality major at the University. He would also talk a lot about the newly constructed bio-digesters in the area, and how public-private partnerships helped him to secure the funding to make it all possible.
I suppose a more seasoned journalist would have asked those tough questions, probing him in exactly where the money suddenly came from to begin all of these projects at once. As a college student and head of the campus radio station, I was mainly concerned with studying for finals and getting everything set up and on-air.
Now that Wells and his former Vice Chancellor have been charged with five felonies each, it’s easier for me to look back on the situation and see things differently. More information is sure to come out in the criminal complaint and during courtroom proceedings, but right now I’m left with a lot more questions than answers. If Wells did what he’s accused of doing, there would be a lengthy paper trail leading right to him. Why, then, would he go on media tours (albeit small, campus media outlets) to tout the projects themselves? Was there just an assumption everyone would be as naive and wide-eyed as me?
A lot more information will come out about this, and everyone will have the opportunity to form their own opinions about what happened. As a student, I feel glad that a certain level of attention was given to improving campus resources, especially with cuts to education funding throughout my time in the UW System.
As a taxpayer (I held many jobs throughout college for which I paid state and local taxes, as I do now) I feel proud that the state is doing all it can to follow the money and see exactly who paid for what, and if the law was broken. And as a journalist, well, I learned to prepare for everything and always ask the tough questions, even if your guest is coming straight from cooking pancakes for the entire student body.