Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Curious Case of Delicate Steve (and what it may teach us about PR and pr)

On All Things Considered, Frannie Kelley told a story about a band she learned about from a press release. Except, it turned out, the story was very little to do with the band and very much about the press release.

Delicate Steve is a sort of indie instrumental style, based on the clips I've heard. It's mostly upbeat, I think, and reminds me a lot of movie soundtracks. If you like Badly Drawn Boy, I think you'd like this. The band is lead by Steve Marion. Steve is a 23-year old Jersey boy who plays multiple instruments. Steve is currently on tour.

But that's not what the press release said.

The press release was conceived of by Yale Evelev, who runs the label Luaka Bop, and executed by Chuck Klosterman, former Spin writer, and author of two books (Fargo Rock City and Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story).

Yale Evelev thinks band bios are boring. Frannie Kelley quotes him as saying:
"I've watched how writers write about things," Evelev says. "[With instrumental music] they are left with just kind of describing a sound. We thought it would be interesting if we kind of came up with something that they could grab onto a little bit more."

"And I thought, since I'm really tired of bios for bands," he says, "wouldn't it be great just to tell Chuck to write whatever the hell he wanted as a bio for the band? So I wrote him an email and I said, 'Chuck, would you do a bio for Delicate Steve? You don't have to talk to the band and you don't even have to hear the record.' He wrote me back: 'I don't do bios.' And then, 2 minutes later, he wrote back again: 'Wait a minute. Do you mean I don't have to talk to the band or listen to the record? That's AWESOME! OK, I'll do it!'"
The press release uses hyperbole along with random strings of words loosely hung together in a fashion reminiscent of a metaphor. In fact, if I knew Chuck Klosterman, I might know that yes, indeed, he is having a Lewis Carroll phase. For example,
Like a hydro-electric Mothra rising from the ashes of an African village burned to the ground by post-rock minotaurs, the music of Delicate Steve will literally make you the happiest person who has never lived.
"They were just sitting around in lawn chairs, dressed like 19th century criminals, casually saying the most remarkable things," recalls Glasspiegel. "It was wild. It was obtuse. One fellow would say, `Oh, I like Led Zeppelin III, but it skews a little dumptruck.' Then another would say, `The problem with those early Prince albums is that he spent too much time shopping.' I really had no idea what they were talking about, but it all somehow made sense. `We'll be a different kind of group," they said. `We will introduce people to themselves. We'll inoculate them from discourse.'
Reading these two examples, you might think, "My 4 year old's cat could grasp this was satire of some sort." You'd think the media would do some due diligence to prevent them from buying it hook, line and sinker. You'd think they'd Google the band at least.

I don't know what each individual outlet did, but if you Google the band, they're real. Also? Quirky.

But then you read a line such as this one from the press release
Those studio sessions led to Wondervisions, the indescribable 12-track instrumental debut that reconstructs influences as diverse as Yes, Vampire Weekend, The Fall, Ravi Shankur, 10 cc, The Orbital, Jann Hammer, the first half of OK Computer, the second act of The Wizard of Oz, and the final pages of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom.
and you think, okay, maybe...it's just a copywriter who really wants to be Franzen and the record label is just quirky enough to let the writer take the facts and write them uber-creatively.

Certainly a lot of media did. Frannie Kelley admits she was nearly hoodwinked, along with others
A lot of music writers ignored it – as they do most press releases. But many of the rock clubs and venues that booked Delicate Steve published the release – in full – on their web sites, no questions asked. And some people that cover music got taken, including NPR. We fell for the 40 instruments line. So were we all just lazy?
The fallout

Kelley ponders whether media is lazy, and asks whether this was a good-natured prank or a lie.

I think Klosterman uses his words really well to answer that:
"The whole idea of public relations is to stop journalism," says Klosterman. "It's to basically give journalists an opportunity to write something without really asking any critical questions or investigating at all. It's really antithetical to journalism. So that's why doing this ... I mean, I wouldn't say it's really a media hoax or something because no one in the media really cared."
Kelley replies:
I care. And I bet all of the other writers and people who buy music and tickets to shows out there who fell for this fiction care too.
Klosterman adds:
"One person asked me, 'Will you feel bad if someone goes to this show or buys this record based on the fact that you wrote this fictional piece? And then you're kind of ripping them off in a way.' I'll be honest — I don't feel bad. Because to me, I've probably helped that person to learn that you should not make consumer decisions based on some random media message that someone just fabricated for no reason. And I'm just not talking about my press release, I'm kind of talking about all press releases."
Oh. So Klosterman's existential disdain of public relations and press releases not only explains but also validates his actions. Never mind that he and the label utterly missed the whole boat and completely failed the client...the band, remember Delicate Steve?

Missed a boat so big it makes caribbean cruise ships look minuscule

It's true that the purpose of press releases is to spin positively. It's also true that, if only facts were cited in a straight up list, stories are often fairly boring, or mundane at least.

Look at two presentations of me, for example:

Julie -- suburban, work from home mom of two with a college degree, some advanced education

versus my Twitter Bio

Julie -- Has words, not afraid to use them, liberally & civilly. Believes in always having fresh pico de gallo at hand, re-lyricing popular music, & potty training cats.

Both are true. One is a litany of facts, with no character to them. The other displays individuality. One is a paper cutout. The other is a real human being, who someone might like to know more about.

And that's the real purpose of a press release: to take what's there -- really there, as in the truth -- and pull out the best bits, then put them together in a really intriguing and attention-getting way. Because that's the number one purpose of a press release: to be so interesting that you capture media attention, who then share their newfound enthusiasm with the masses, thereby introducing your client to the world--hopefully then achieving X goal (such as album sales or club bookings).

It's not that clever to manufacture an utter fiction, designed to be so outlandish that people read it just for the jaw-dropping crazy of it. Any writer worth his or her salt can do that.

I'm not sure what Klosterman, or more Evelev, were going for here other than a self-congratulatory "aren't we clever." What they achieved was a gimmick. Delicate Steve is, in fact, the sort of music NPR might include at the end of a broadcast or in All Music Considered. But I imagine Kelley is going to be very reluctant to give any press releases from Luaka Bop any attention.

Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

What it should highlight (and what we should learn)

The real issue, the most valid point, is trust and ethics. When I write a blog post, a press release, a story, etc. I am ethically obligated to the truth. I may make a mistake or use a faulty resource. My bad, and I'd correct it. But I'd never betray my readers or media connections by deliberately misleading them. I'd never send out a press release without meeting the client, getting to know who they are and what they do. I am fairly skilled at pulling interesting stories out of people that truly highlight the neat ways in which they are amazing.

Because everyone has something amazing in their lives, in some way.

And as a storyteller, that's my job: to get the amazing story and find the right way to present it to the right people.

When I get a press release, I need to be able to trust that when I dig through the spin, there's truth and accuracy in there. For example, in my last blog post, I cited some statistics about women in tech. I got those from my source. I need to be able to trust that my source is being honest. I do have an obligation to think critically about the information--depending--and figure out if the numbers are the whole story, for example.

But let's be honest, it's a hurry-up world.

I know my responsibility and I don't shirk it, on either side of the press release. It's true that we've gotten to a place in which media is likely to run full throttle with a press release with little to no research, especially about a topic such as a new band. It's also true that resources are stretched thin.

Press releases may look like a good suspect, but they aren't the actual murderer of journalism.

I expect the murder investigation will reveal that the death of journalism was very Orient Express, with a lot of factors taking a stab at it. In this case, Lying dealt the worst blow.

The truth

The truth has fallen to the wayside in pursuit of a larger agenda.

A United States Senator publicly yelled out a completely, not even close to true, statistic to fulfill his own personal agenda. Later, when called on it, he said he didn't intend the statement to be factual.

Are you kidding me?

He sacrificed the truth on the altar of personal agenda, just as Klusterman and Evelev have done.

The world is not a big psychology experiment, in which you can behave any old way just to make or fulfill a point. You can't lie, and lie big, and say it's someone else's fault for buying it.

The person at fault is the liar.

Here's a short recap of what's wrong:
Blaming the victim

Here's a short recap of what's right:
Being professional
Being accurate

I have only hypotheses about potential ramifications of this fake bio press release, except for one: lost trust.

It's lazy and small-minded to fall back on lies to be persuasive, because you can't think how to make the truth interesting and compelling enough.

Be better than that. Be truthful and compelling.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

There are girls in tech...but there can be more (with your support)

While researching girls in tech topics, I consistently run across these awesome women doing so many things in tech...around the world. For example, while searching Twitter for Girls in Tech (on any given day) I found an international array of people supporting girls in tech in Indonesia, Africa, Asia, Israel and more. I set up Google alerts for the same search and was bombarded. I ran across a great article that explained in Africa, across the continent, young women lead the tech scene. The Silicon Sisters just released a new iOS game, made by women for girls. You've got Girls in Tech with chapters spreading around the US.

But then we see a few other sides to the story, too.
And there are the statistics:
  • Girls represented just 18 percent of Advanced Placement computer science (CS) exam-takers in 2009; that’s the lowest female representation of any AP exam.
  • In 2009 women earned only 18 percent of all CS degrees. Back in 1985, women earned 37 percent of CS degrees.
  • Women hold more than half of all professional occupations in the U.S. but only 25 percent of all computing-related occupations.
  • Only 11 percent of corporate officer positions at Fortune 500 technology companies are held by women.
  • A study on U.S. technology patenting reveals that patents created by mixed-gender teams are the most highly cited (an indicator of their innovation and usefulness); yet women were involved in only 9 percent of U.S. tech patents.

Is it two steps forward, one step back, or one step forward and two steps back? I think depends upon the day. And how much is talk and how much is walk.

Today is the day I walk instead of just talk. It's time.

I joined the NextGen Tech Women team with Danny Brown, Geoff Livingston and Allyson Kapin, along with Kami Watson Huyse, and a growing number of others, to support girls in technology, specifically, real girls, at the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). NCWIT is a coalition of over 250 prominent corporations, academic institutions, government agencies, and non-profits working to increase the participation of girls and women in computing and IT. They offer Aspiration Awards (among others) each year, with a financial prize, for young women who aspire, and are, working in technology (any type, and it is varied!).

And we, through NextGen Tech Women, are supporting them by trying to raise $25,000 to help this next generation of women fulfill their tech dreams. They're incredible. Check out a few of the recent winners:

Amanda is a senior at the prestigious Kansas Academy for Math and Science. She advocates for continued funding for her school at the state legislature, is an engineer on her school robotics team, and is proficient in Photoshop, Indesign, and web design including HTML. In addition to her challenging academic schedule, Amanda works on a college level research project involving researching web and graphic design technologies for the Paola Tourism association. She receives college credit for her work at KAMS and plans to study computer science and information technology when she enters college in the fall.

Arushi joined a lego robotics team at age nine, and has immersed herself in computer science since. She’s participated in science fairs since third grade, her most recent entry using image processing techniques and machine learning to diagnose melanoma cancer. She's working with Intel, and published a paper in 2008 titled, "Using fuzzy Quantum Logic to Learn Facial Gestures of a Schrödinger Cat Puppet for Robot Theatre” at the 17th International workshop on Post-Binary ULSI Systems in Dallas, Texas.

Daria will graduate this year from the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology. She started her school’s first all-female robotics team — robo chic. She's primarily interested in biomedical engineering, which led her to an internship with dr. Andrew B. Williams and the SpelBots at Spelman college in Atlanta, Georgia, where she is programming an exercising humanoid robot as an intervention method for the childhood obesity epidemic.

I'm impressed and eager to see these young women walk into our future, bringing their incredible creativity, intelligence and drive to benefit us!!

Join me in supporting them -- I'm hoping to get 10 people to give $10, and hoping each of those ten people will ask ten others to give $10 (even $1 helps!). (PS I'm competing against my team for fundraising so every dollar helps me keep my current lead! Check it out: My Team on Crowdrise)

Thank you!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Great Love Story: The Young and the Chemical

Driving home from school with my girls is what I think of Quality Catchup Time but they probably think of (or will soon) as Suffer the Mom Inquisition. The latter title comes from an inside family joke about Suffer the Mom Love, which is when I give hugs to children and pets because they want and need them even as they pretend they don't. Trust me, I can tell the difference and respect a sincere no but give a smiling "Oh Moooooooommmmm" a good squeeze.

While in the van, I ask each girl very specific questions so as to avoid potential monosyllabic responses.

My younger daughter has been trying out her storytelling skills and we've been working on the "that's a great story, what a neat imagination" distinction from "that really happened, how interesting."

Sometimes it's hard to tell. Such as in the telling of the story/report from the other day:

Daughter: Today I have a romantic tale! *giggles*

Me: A...romantic tale?

Daughter: Yes! *giggles*

Me: All righty then, let's hear it!

Daughter: At recess Jane* and Jim* had to sit on the bench!

Me: And that's romantic how? Because it's a boy and girl on the bench together? (Wondering if I need to define romance.) (Wondering where she picked up the word.) (Was it home? Valentine's Day? Elsewhere?)

Daughter: Moooooomm, no it's because they were kissing!

Me: They were kissing on the bench?

Daughter: NO! They were on the bench because they were kissing.

Me: Maybe you should start from the beginning. Set the scene, where were you, who was there, what were you all doing, and then what happened...

Daughter: We were playing family outside (names cast of characters and roles) and then Jane said to Jim that they could be the mommy and daddy because they were in love.

Me: Wow, really? She said that? They're in love? How long has this been going on?

Daughter: A long time! All week!

Me: That long! I wonder what the one week anniversary gift is!

Daughter: What? Mom, are you talking to the wall again? (This is what they say when I sotto voce.)

Me: No no just saying go on...

Daughter: And then Jane said they should go to a romantic spot and kiss. So they did.

Me: What? Wait, really? Jane said "go to a romantic spot" just like that?

Daughter: Yes she did!

Older daughter: Oh GAH your class is crazy. What is with all the kissing and romance?

Daughter: We aren't crazy, we're chemical.

Me: Chemistry, baby, you have good chemistry.

Older daughter: Whatever they have I hope it's not catching! What if the whole school went that crazy.

Me: I think you're safe, sweetie. So listen, Jane said go to a romantic spot and then what happened, no, wait, what is a romantic spot?

Older daughter: Mom, you don't know? It's a spot. That's romantic.

Me: Right, I get that, thanks. I meant, what, specifically, is a romantic spot there, like where did they go?

Daughter: To the pirate ship.

Me (impressed): Wow, the pirate ship, that's definitely got romantic potential, pretty good thinking on Jane's part. So what did Jim think.

Daughter: Jim thought it was a pretty good idea and he grabbed her hand and they ran.

Me (choking laughter)

Daughter: Then they thought it was private and romantic so she kissed him and he kissed her but the teacher saw and she said "I have said and said no kissing so to the bench Jane and Jim!"

Me: So that's the end of that I guess.

Daughter: No, they were happy to be on the bench because they were together. Even though they couldn't play. Or kiss.

And I was touched, really, that was sort of sweet. Also, really really awesome because not my kids!

* Names have been changed.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

In which Hollywood plays the best April Fool's Day joke ever: Hop

Yesterday, after an admirably long run of successfully avoiding April Fool's Day pranks, I got punk'd but good by Hollywood. I went to go see the new movie for kids: Hop.

Ha ha Hollywood, you really tricked me with your great cast lineup, all of whom had me totally fooled that they'd never do anything except creative and clever cinema. I was lulled into a false sense of security between that and the Toy Story series. That's the best con, you know: get to know your mark, build a sense of trust and then WHAMMO!

I fell for it! You got me with your con of "worthwhile artistic cinema."

Friday afternoon, I made one of those infamous "it seemed like a great idea at the time" decisions. I joined a group of friends and we took a gaggle (honestly, it was a gaggle -- I lost count at the sheer number; I know I brought four and it seems as if everyone else brought about that many too) of kids to see Hop.

If you have kids, you probably won't be able to avoid this movie. To which I say I am so, so sorry. I felt the compulsion last night to watch The Caller, in an effort to slipcover the empty calorie crap that was the "I Want Candy" scene in Hop. And that might have been the closest to comedic (my apologies to comedy) moment. That's two hours and about $40 I'll never be able to get back. I thought, as mothers like to think, that my children's enjoyment would be enough. Yeah, it wasn't.

My husband later asked, "How was it so bad?"

Me: I don't know, I mean, right? So much talent and creativity, such potential to build a new myth and this is what they come up with!

Him: No, I mean, what I meant was...what was wrong with it?

Me: The easier question to answer is what was right with it.

Him: Okay so...?

Me: The animation was impressive.

Him: And...?

Me: I don't think any real bunnies or chicks were harmed in the making of the movie. Although, they sort of owe the entire animal kingdom an apology, maybe a big donation to an animal rescue organization, sort of "damages for pain and suffering," and maybe also to some parents group, for the same thing, and also for defamation of character.

Him: That bad?

Me: Oh yeah. Thready and pathetic story line, unredeemable and unlikeable characters, and an unapologetic co-opting of the whole Santa myth for the Easter bunny, including the closing line, which was a shameful rip-off of Night Before Christmas. It was the Grey's Anatomy of kids' shows.


Me: ...and then? Set terrible expectations of Easter, candy, baskets, crap and so forth. Do you know what the six year old said to me? She asked why we have to send donations to Japan, can't Santa and the Easter Bunny just help them out! I feel like a salmon parent here, swimming upstream against a riptide!

Him: Do rivers have riptides?

And that right there pretty much sums it up: no, rivers do not have rip tides, oceans do, but sometimes the mouth of a river causes a rip tide. Looking that up was a way better use of time and far more interesting than Hop. I'm just glad I went with friends. Bonding experience.