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.
and
"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:
Lying
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.

5 comments:

theSpacemom said...

you potty train your cats?
:P

Karen said...

The press release sounded like something I'd get in my inbox from Groupon. Perhaps Chuck Klosterman wants to work for them?

Emily said...

Seriously? They use the toilet?

Jardinero1 said...

"This is not a business, this is show business. That is the business of show. And in this business of show, punching below the belt is not only all right, it's rewarded" - Rex(played by Benecio del Toro) from "Swimming with Sharks."

While I admire your concern, I think it is misplaced in this circumstance. If this were a press release for a political candidate or a product in a store you preference for ethical behavior would be valid. But here we are dealing with show business. Show business is about making the unreal seem real, having the audience suspend disbelief. It is an inherently disingenuous business in which ethics has no role.

Jon Guildford said...

Did you not see meet the parents? you can buy a cat toilet trainer where the litter tray sits inside the seat, when the cat has gotten used to it you remove it.