Tag Archives: Media

The Magic of Media, Message and Moment

30 Jan

As much as we try to increase the precision by which we predict and measure it, there’s an art to marketing.  Strategic planning is like a sculptor examining a block of stone.  You decide what lies within, and the tools you’ll need to reveal it to the world. 

I was thinking about this with a story I’ve been writing for a couple years…the premise begins like this:  It’s your first day of school.  New town.  No friends. And secrets that you left back home…like the power inside you that killed two classmates and left your best friend paralyzed for life.  Your dad got you out of that one, you don’t know how, and then cut all ties with moved you away clinical efficiency.  So here you are, first day of school, afraid, but full of hope, too, that here in this new place, maybe you can be somebody new. And then you feel this guy behind you, his cold hand on your neck, his hot breath on your ear. And he whispers, “I know who you are.” He’s gone, and you still have to walk through that door.

I started this story as a novel, and then turned it into a comic book. Now I’m thinking about it as a novel again. Why? Because there’s nothing that an artist can draw that can recreate this sense of dread and anticipation like your imagination.  I heard Neil Gaiman talking about this on the radio the other day. He said that for him, the story comes first, then he decides whether that story is a novel, graphic novel or movie script.  

The communications and marketing story?  Marketing — sales, leads, traffic, awareness, advocacy, membership — comes from that magical combination of message, media and moment. 

Message-focused strategic planning starts by asking, “What’s your story?” and then “Who should know it?,” “Where are they,” and “What should they do?” 

The answers drive your media choices. Should they react instantly? Is it something they’ll want to share?  The message may well be blog and Twitter-ready. Or, is it a “junkie” audience that loves insanely in-depth takes on a narrow topics?  Think about blogs and websites, or gathering a like-minded community. Is it instructive? Are they eager to learn?  Try graphics and video or more immersive online environments. Does the audience see the Internet as “technology”?  Try traditional media, and make sure the message gets online anyway.  

There’s no replacement for having a sense of the moment … knowing — or intuiting — the mood of your market and how they’ll react to your story.  I was listening to a discussion with Gwen Ifill on NPR today, talking about Obama as the perfect example of this.  He’s a remarkable person in his own right, but he’s president today because his story spoke to this social and historical moment, and his media strategy supported that.  

You can – and should – research and survey and analyze and debate and collaborate to create the perfect message and the perfect strategy.  And then turn what you learn into your own work of art — where is my story?  How will a carve away the clutter and reveal it to the world,  so that it can move people?

Rally Time!

31 Oct

Last night, my wife and I went to a rally for Al Franken’s senate campaign…the draw: Bill Clinton was coming to town.  It was my second rally of the year; the first was last week I took my son to see Hillary Rodham Clinton when she came to town to goose the Franken campaign.  

I come to these things as a sort of tourist. I just can’t bring myself to get truly revved-up-fist-pumping-slogan-shouting over — as  President Clinton artfully called it — “some whoop-de-do political speech.”  Anyway, I know who I’m going to vote for, but heck — last week it was Hillary and this week it was Bill and my wife wanted to see what the fuss was about.  

So we got there at a decent time and carved out a spot in the crowd with a pretty good sightline.  And after two rallies this year, some observations: 


  1. If you go to one of these things, expect to stand.  A lot. Since it was the former president and we were lined up in front of the auditorium at the Minneapolis Convention Center, a few of us had the thought that we might get to sit in the auditorium. But you don’t want 5000 volunteers, partisans, celebrity hounds and curious folks who just want their kid to get a glimpse of the former president to be photographed lolling about in auditorium seats.  You want them standing, shouting, cheering and waving signs proclaiming that Obama+Franken=Change to stamp out that ticket-splitting idea promulgated by that silly old StarTribune! 

    So we stood. 

  2. These events aren’t exactly run like well-oiled machines.  They start early and end late — timed to finish in time for the 10 pm news (they failed on this one by the way.  WCCO had its reporter talking over Clinton live).  You get your warm-up acts — mayors, representatives, state officers.  Then you get a break. Then you get Walter Mondale, a nice surprise.  Then you get Sen. Klobuchar, and then a recorded Al Gore speech.  Eventually, Franken and Clinton arrive.  We’d been standing for 3 hours at this point.
  3. You can really tell who in the party’s ‘big leagues’ at these rallies. They speak in ways that are not just smooth and practiced, but passionate and controlled.  They’re confident, comfortable in their own skin. They tell stories that flow effortlessly from funny to personal to issues to the big picture.

    My take from afar? Though she’s not running this year, Minnesotans will have the chance to vote for Sen. Amy Klobuchar for a long time.  And Minneapolis’ R.T. Rybak seems to have matured over his years in the mayor’s office … strong speaker, and comfortable working the lines outside, too.

  4. There are a few Democrats who haven’t gotten the message about rising above identity politics.  Rep. Keith Ellison, for example, felt the need to give a shout out to the usual laundry list of Democratic ‘communities.’ Sounds 1980s to me. The Democratic message resonates strongest when it speaks to us as individuals with common issues and aspirations, rather than communities with interests.
  5. Al Franken comes across far better in speeches than he does in debates or ads.  Granted, it’s a good crowd  for him.  But the guy is engaging. He’s clearly smart. And he’s funny, but in ways that get you thinking.  Moreover, he never talks about himself – never says his own name. Never even says “vote for me.”  He talks about his audience, and he talks about issues. 

  6. Watching Clinton, I can’t help but compare him to the Republican vice presidential nominee. Clinton isn’t shy with the y’all’s.  He apologizes for not giving a “whoop-de-do political speech”.  He’s not being folksy.  He is folksy – and frighteningly conversant on issues from the financial crisis to national security. 

At times, Clinton dances on the edge of being condescending or didactic, but largely, it works … you’ve got to respect what he he has to say (and besides, as my mother-in-law says, “he’s a very handsome man). 

    At 700 words, I’ll stop here… a few more thoughts tomorrow on politicians as public speakers. Thanks for reading! 

    Big Bad Russia: Back in the News

    13 Aug

    Are we witnessing the return of the “big bad Russians”?

    The other day on Twitter, a public radio journalist I follow wrote, “It’s like the ’80s again. Russia’s soldiers are invading countries and its judges are jobbing us at the Olympics.”

    Back at the end of the 1980s, I was sliding seamlessly from graduation to graduate school.  As I cast about for a master’s thesis topic suitable for journalism school, I kept coming back to one issue:  how is it that everything we knew as ‘eternal’ about the Soviet Union could be wrong.  I wanted to see how this played out in the media.  I analyzed Associated Press stories from 1983-84 — when movies like “The Day After” and “Red Dawn” seemed plausible — to 1988 — across the years of glasnost and perestroika when our whole worldview was turned upside down.  What I studied was how the state of relationship and conflict between countries has an impact on the use of stereotypes in the media about Russia and its people.  The hypothesis: that when our countries were opposed, there would be an emphasis on differences in culture and values between us and them; in times when our interests were more aligned, the emphasis would be on similarities.

    The thesis was, perhaps, a bit obvious.  But the AP was supposed to deliver the news; it wasn’t supposed to be portraying Russians as evil, violent, bearlike, ruthless, drunken and foolish with an evil government that every last Russian would flee if they could. But they were, subtly.  And as our conflict with the Soviets thawed, so did the use of these kinds of stereotypes.

    And now, as Russia continues to rise as a US competitor and as a potential threat to US interests in Georgia … and perhaps Ukraine, the Middle East and South Asia?  Well, if you believe a callow graduate student from the early 1990s, watch for more stories in the media that make you see the Russians not just acting against our interests, but as different. And in international relations and journalism, different is not good.

    Media Romp

    5 May

    This morning, let’s take a drive through the sticky business of The Newspaper, shall we?

    Our tour today takes us to my hometown StarTribune newspaper, one with a fine jouranlistic tradition, one of late put in the service of an advertising strategy and debt payoff — never a great combination.

    Today, the StarTribune’s investor-owners are in their own media hotseat , fending off a New York Post story that claimed the paper wasn’t paying its debts, and claiming that the paper on the brink of bankruptcy.  Their response:  No, but we’ve hired the Blackstone Group to look at our options.

    The problem for the StarTribune is simple:  Advertising is going elsewhere. In a media environment rapidly moving online and to search, newspapers are stuck with a business model that is just not working.

    The recent State of the News Media 2008 report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism is telling.  On advertising, the report quotes a major media buyer:

    “We used to be in the trucking business. We used to take ads and commercials and deliver them,” says Charlie Rutman, CEO of North American Operations at MPG, which controls over $3 billion in U.S. ad spending annually.

    While ad executives know that trucking analogy is no longer accurate, they aren’t really sure what is replacing it.

    Craig’s List, online ad sales and employment websites have decimated the the classified market.  And according to the report, newspapers’ print versus online ad ratio still lingers at around 90 percvent versus 10 percent.

    The StarTribune is in the same trouble — according to today’s article, as of March 31, circulation dropped 6.7 percent from the previous six months, annual revenue dropped $75 million between early 2005 and early 2007, and classified ads were half the level they were at in 2000.

    The question to me isn’t so much one of how their ads are going to make up for the loss, but how their going to continue supporting continuation of a tradition of good journalism in this community — and every other community that has enjoyed the benefits of having good a good paper in town.

    The StarTribune’s most recent change in strategy was to create localized sections for various suburban regions.  That strategy seems to be sagging.  While there seems to be strong coverage lately of Edina parents complaining about families wanting to transfer into their great schools, my Twin Cities West section today has these front page stories:

    > Someone in Rice County won the lottery.

    > Committees talking about tackling Downtown Minneapolis crime.

    > A Hopkins school teacher winning teacher of the year (nice, but should have been on page 1 — maybe in place of the ‘what kids are reading’ list from the Washington Post).

    > A story on teens in Hudson, Wisc. putting photos of themselves unclothed online, based on no discernable news hook.

    I’d be shocked if these are the kinds of must-read, hyper-local stories that will hook readers and draw ad dollars (and I promise to read this section the rest of the week and eat my words if I must).

    The StarTribune has continued to try addition by subtraction — the number of excellent journalists no longer working at our local papers could make for a great news operation.  As we’ve seen across multiple industries, you thrive and grow not just by cutting back, but in doing so, concentrating on your core — doing what you do best and doing it better than anyone else.  It may require the painful process of starting over — recasting the organization not around generating double-digit profit margins but on how, if you were starting today, would you create a sustainable organization to support excellent locally based journalistm.

    And this is a time when the values of professional journalism — of professional news gathering organizations — have never been more needed.  We need folks who can ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ Who can question authority and call out those in power when their abusing them.  And, frankly, we need journalists who are professionals — who can cover local news with more commitment and perspective than your typical citizen journalist.  Whatever their many faults, professional news organizations are structured to cover news, get answers, check facts and most always get their stories right.

    Call me old fashioned, but there’s a need for this.  There may not be a need for trees to fall, factories to belch smoke and waste and trucks to roll hither and yon just so a folded sheaf of smelly ink and newsprint can land in my mailbox every morning, but there’s more need than ever for the content and commitment it represents.

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