White House Public Relations

The Presidency of the United States is probably the most important job in the country. And the person who represents the President to the press, and to the public, is the press secretary—likely the most important (and most difficult) public relations job in the country.

Last weekend’s shakeup in the White House resulted in the resignation of Sean Spicer as press secretary, with Sarah Huckabee Sanders taking his place. This is not a job for the faint of heart. While Spicer, who was the butt of numerous SNL jokes, had a brief tenure, five previous press secretaries served even shorter terms.

As only the third woman to fill the role, Sarah Sanders faces a challenging job as the primary spokesperson for this highly controversial, and some would argue highly undisciplined, administration. The first female press secretary was Dee Dee Myers who served under President William J. Clinton. The second female press secretary was Dana Perino, who served out the final years of the presidency of George W. Bush after the sudden death of Tony Snow. Perino’s stint as the President’s spokesperson is of particular interest because she is a 1993 graduate of the mass communications department at CSU-Pueblo (University of Southern Colorado at the time). Now a TV commentator for Fox News, Dana Perino is arguably the most successful graduate of our department.

Public Relations departments and PR practitioners can be found at every level of the job market and in every kind of industry. Private sector businesses, non-profit organizations, and governmental agencies all need professional communicators who understand the power and influence of the media. The field needs people who are effectively in both spoken and written communications, people who know how to function at every level of communication from face-to-face to mass media, and who can do so with the ethical and moral judgement necessary to wield the power of influence for good.

The mass communications department at CSU-Pueblo (formerly USC) is proud of all of our graduates who perform ably in their professions. Some serve faithfully for years in jobs that never gain public recognition, while others, like Dana Perino, experience the scorching heat (and the recognition) that comes from standing in the brightest of spotlights.

Advice from Perino to Sanders


Influencer Marketing: It’s Not Just for Celebrities Anymore

It used to be that you had to be a bonafide celebrity to land a celebrity endorsement deal. Win a gold medal, release a gold album, or star in a blockbuster movie and advertisers would line up asking you to pitch their products. The association principle of advertising works by associating a brand, product, or service with an intangible, but desirable, positive attribute. And celebrity status is a particularly attractive association that many brands crave.

Things have changed. Celebrity endorsements have given way to influence marketing. If you have influence, no matter how you’ve earned it, you can cash that in for…well, cash. You’ve got thousands reading your [insert hobby here] blog on a daily or weekly basis? …great, how about mentioning our brand and we’ll send you some free product.  One hundred thousand subscribers to your beauty secrets YouTube channel? Fantastic…how’d you like to represent our product line for a nice monthly salary? A million or so followers on Twitter? We need to talk!

The reason why this is such a thing is because of the power and reach of social media. At the same time, traditional advertising has been suffering from shrinking audiences and diminishing credibility. We’re more likely to believe a friend’s recommendation than an advertising pitch-man’s exaggerated promises. Word of mouth (or online word of “mouse”) is where it’s at. This graphic is from an informative post by Aaron Orendorff on the Mashable website.


The title of this blog suggests that this new form of marketing is not just for celebrities anymore. Maybe the point is that the barrier to becoming a celebrity is much lower in this digital, social-mediated landscape. However, if you want to play, you need to know the rules. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently published guidelines governing endorsement deals and has been cracking down on influencers engaging in unethical behavior.

Media Conglomerates, Comedians, and Political Influence

If you’ve watched John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight you know that he has a knack for discussing pithy issues by injecting more than a smidgen of sarcasm and irreverence. His show last week was about Sinclair Broadcast Group, a media company that owns numerous local TV stations and which is poised to grow even larger by buying up the Tribune Media network of stations.

Here’s the show.  (CAUTION: language)

You’ve already seen how Clear Channel became the powerhouse of radio consolidation and how that led to cookie-cutter formats and a loss of local control. That is part of what is causing anxiety for those watching the Sinclair deal unfold.

But there is another factor in this equation. Sinclair Broadcast Group is known for holding conservative political positions. In a media world that tends to skew to the liberal side of the political spectrum this is giving some media pundits a severe case of heartburn.

While cable TV news networks have historically leaned to one end or the other of the political spectrum (e.g. Fox News leans right while CNN and MSNBC lean left), local television stations and their news programs historically reflect the political diversity of their local viewers. It is unusual for local TV news to take a clear position on a politically hot-button issue for the obvious reason that they stand to alienate a significant portion of their viewers, which is bad for ratings, which is bad for the bottom line.

The fact that much of John Oliver’s criticism of Sinclair is delivered with a heavy dose of alarmism suggests that Oliver is himself well to the left of not just Sinclair but a significant segment of the American public. Oliver is not alone. He is joined on the left by former comedic journalist Jon Stewart and current late-night comic Stephen Colbert (both alumni of Stewart’s The Daily Show).  All three (as well as many other comedians throughout history) have been effective messengers for various progressive political causes.

Media companies and media stars can exert political influence overtly or covertly. But if there’s one thing that comedians have shown time and time again it is that getting us to laugh at the absurdities of the target of our scorn may be the most powerful political weapon of all.


Selfies: Not just an American thing

I just returned from a vacation in Italy where we saw many wonderful sites. Seeing Saint Peter’s Basilica in person was truly amazing. The Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel, and the cathedrals in Sienna and Florence were highlights of the trip. Seeing these sites up close and personal was a reminder that a picture seldom does justice to the real thing. However, as the modern expression goes, “if there’s not a picture, it didn’t happen” …which leads me to the point of this post.

Present everywhere we looked was the ubiquitous selfie stick. And for those traveling with friends, lots and lots of cell phone cameras being used to document every step of the way. I didn’t take my cell phone but I did carry a camera…so I’m not above criticism.

Lining up the shot

But what surprised me a bit was the posing that seemed to accompany the act of documentation. Watching people paste on their smile or pouty lips just before pushing the button was a reminder that what we see on social media is a carefully curated version of our lives. We take multiple pictures until we’re satisfied with the shot that will be uploaded to Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat.

Posing or praying?

To the right is a picture of a gal and her friend in the baptistry at the cathedral in Florence. Please forgive me if it appears that I’m judging her personal piety, but it did seem odd that she folded her hands just long enough for her friend in the dark blue dress to capture the shot.

Elsewhere I saw plenty of folks taking pictures of themselves or their companions in poses that shouted, “I’m having the time of my life in this very famous place!”

Something that has been a real game-changer is the low cost and instant publishing made possible by digital photography’s marriage to the mobile phone.

Digital killed Kodak

The irony of this struck me as I took a photo of a young girl having her photo taken with a Kodak sign visible nearby. Just a decade or two ago photographic film and processing required made photography a fairly expensive hobby that required delayed gratification (waiting for the film to be processed and printed) before you could even think about sharing the experience with others. Now the picture is taken, reviewed, and uploaded to a global audience in seconds, without any consideration of cost.

But it is not just digital photography that has changed the way we live our lives.

Video games are a constant distraction for young and old. I watched children and adults playing games on their portable devices even while on vacation in amazing locations. Playing video games and having a paniniMy wife calls it “playing Gameboy in the middle of the Grand Canyon” syndrome. This little guy may have been a local so perhaps he was just killing time the way youngsters do in nearly every developed country.

Digital media that connects us instantly to our friends across the room or around the world has changed us…whether for the better or worse is up for discussion. As we explore mass media this summer let’s remember to think critically about how our experiences creating and consuming media change us and those around us. Only then will we be “smart” users of our smart devices.

The News Media Bubble

Politico, a left-leaning web magazine, just published an essay about the bubble in which journalists live. According to the authors the bubble is not just geographic, but also ideological. According to Politico, the media bubble served to insulate journalists from the people and issues that ultimately led to the election of Donald Trump. For most journalists it was not an issue of whether Hillary Clinton would win, but by how great a margin. Was it perhaps because they didn’t understand what was happening across the country? According to Politico,

Nearly 90 percent of all internet publishing employees work in a county where Clinton won, and 75 percent of them work in a county that she won by more than 30 percentage points.

Another essay, this one by pollster and statistician Nate Silver, (the golden boy of recent electoral race coverage), makes the argument that the national media were the victims of group think leading up to the 2016 Presidential election. Silver’s essay spends some time reviewing a premise introduced by James Surowiecki in his book The Wisdom of Crowds. Surowiecki’s thesis is that networking theory, applied to information flow, can yield superior results given certain conditions. Whether the crowd is professional journalists or citizen journalists, the idea is that collective wisdom is superior to the wisdom of any one member of the group. That is fine if the conditions are met. If not, group-think, an idea popularized in the 1970s by Irving Janis, leads to poor judgement and low-quality decision-making. According to Janis,

the more amiability and esprit de corps there is among the members of a policy-making ingroup, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against outgroups. (https://web.archive.org/web/20100401033524/http://apps.olin.wustl.edu/faculty/macdonald/GroupThink.pdf)

Both articles point to a serious problem for national media coverage of politics. More than ever, national journalists are more highly educated, more liberal, less religious, richer, younger, more urban, and much more likely to live in communities with like-minded neighbors. The liberal, coastal, elite journalist is becoming the norm when it comes to national media coverage, and that is a problem for the future of the industry. Some have argued that this trend has led to an erosion of trust and created a credibility vacuum where fake news and lies can thrive.

This was not always the case. Journalists have not always been so out of touch with the audience that they serve. The failure of local and regional newspapers is a significant contributing factor. According to Politico, labor statistics are a clear indication of the trend.

In late 2015, during Barack Obama’s second term, these two trend lines—jobs in newspapers, and jobs in internet publishing—finally crossed. For the first time, the number of workers in internet publishing exceeded the number of their newspaper brethren. Internet publishers are now adding workers at nearly twice the rate newspaper publishers are losing them.

As news shifts from local newspapers and local reporters who reflected their communities’ values, to national news organizations located in major metropolitan centers on the coasts, it has becoming increasingly likely that the news that we’re consuming on social media and television is out of touch with mainstream values and main street sensibilities.


Another theory that may be useful to understand what is happening is Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s Spiral of Silence theory. According to this theory, unpopular ideas are pushed to the margins, where they slowly lose favor and spiral downward to eventual silence. We’re fine with this if it’s a bad idea, one that does not deserve to be sustained. But what about when an unpopular idea is silenced because those in authority don’t want to give it a hearing? What about unpopular ideas that are banished to the margins because groupthink has created a hostile climate for those kinds of ideas? What if the lack of ideological diversity in our newsrooms creates an echo chamber that drowns out dissenting voices?

Conservatives have consistently accused the national media of having a liberal bias, and that appears to be supported by these essays. But I’ll close with this quote from the Politico article…

Resist—if you can—the conservative reflex to absorb this data and conclude that the media deliberately twists the news in favor of Democrats. Instead, take it the way a social scientist would take it: The people who report, edit, produce and publish news can’t help being affected—deeply affected—by the environment around them. Former New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent got at this when he analyzed the decidedly liberal bent of his newspaper’s staff in a 2004 column that rewards rereading today. The “heart, mind, and habits” of the Times, he wrote, cannot be divorced from the ethos of the cosmopolitan city where it is produced. On such subjects as abortion, gay rights, gun control and environmental regulation, the Times’ news reporting is a pretty good reflection of its region’s dominant predisposition. And yes, a Times-ian ethos flourishes in all of internet publishing’s major cities—Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and Washington. The Times thinks of itself as a centrist national newspaper, but it’s more accurate to say its politics are perfectly centered on the slices of America that look and think the most like Manhattan.

Something akin to the Times ethos thrives in most major national newsrooms found on the Clinton coasts—CNN, CBS, the Washington Post, BuzzFeed, Politico and the rest. Their reporters, an admirable lot, can parachute into Appalachia or the rural Midwest on a monthly basis and still not shake their provincial sensibilities: Reporters tote their bubbles with them.


Survivors and Victims of Reality TV’s Deception

Reality TV is constantly inventing new ways to shock its viewers. This past week on Survivor it was the outing of transgender contestant Zach Smith by gay competitor Jeff Varner. In a side story (in real life), Varner was subsequently fired from his job as a real estate agent by a boss who was quoted as saying that Varner is “in the middle of a news story that we don’t want anything to do with.”

The uproar on social media was immediate and unforgiving. Some of the harshest criticism was for Varner and his use of the word “deception” to describe Smith’s secret. Others were harshly critical of CBS for deciding to include the scene after months of deliberation.

But it turns out that CBS and Smith worked closely to prepare for the episode’s airing this past week.

According to the New York Times,

From the moment the episode was filmed nearly 10 months ago, the “Survivor” producers had been consulting with Mr. Smith about how best to handle airing the incident, which included a strategic media rollout and working with Glaad, the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights group, before the episode’s broadcast.

Jeff Probst, the show’s host and executive producer called it “one of the most raw and painful studies of human behavior that has ever happened on ‘Survivor.’ ”

But I’m left with a question that goes to the heart of reality TV as a programming genre. For the Survivor-type shows where contestants compete for a grand prize, deception, betrayal, and backstabbing are not only allowed, they are encouraged. Deception is how you play the game on reality TV…and, unfortunately, increasingly so in the world of politics and international relations. But I digress.

One viewer took to Twitter refusing to accept Varner’s apology saying, “Apologies only have meaning when they are expressing sincere regret for a mistake. What Varner did was no mistake. He intentionally humiliated Zeke and tried to justify it.” Exactly! That is how you play the game on Survivor. The drama created by conflict is why most people watch, and have been watching Survivor for more than 13 years. The business model for Survivor and CBS is based on people doing outrageous things in front of cameras and microphones. CBS will cash that check over and over again…or at least as long as the audience shows up asking for more.

But we’re still left with the question; why did this tactic by Varner elicit such a strong response from viewers? Just like the collective judgement directed at United Airlines, the moral outrage targeting Varner and CBS is indicative of society’s desire for justice. We know when something is over the line. But whose line is it, and where should it be drawn?

Some of the ugliest disagreements (on social media and elsewhere) are between people who want to draw the line in a different place than where others think it should be drawn.

Bad PR for United

United Airline has experienced some self-inflicted wounds recently and the latest PR pratfall shows little sign of easing. The forcible removal of a man from a plane at the Chicago airport was video recorded and shared far and wide on social media, including in Asia where David Dao lived before immigrating to the USA.

Bumping passengers from over-booked flights is pretty standard practice. Nearly half a million passengers voluntarily gave up their seat last year, including 63,000 on United. My son took a bump this weekend and got a nice meal and a $500 voucher for his trouble. When not enough passengers volunteer their seats, airlines are allowed to bump passengers. However, they must give them compensation in the form of vouchers, gift cards or cash.

But the execution of the bump in this instance was anything but routine. Not only was the passenger forcibly removed but he was injured in the process. Adding insult to injury, the airline responded with
the kind of statement that gives PR a bad name. Social media lit up when the procedure was referred to as “having to ‘re-accommodate’ these customers” …customers who, we might add, were ejected to make room for United employees traveling to Louisville. That led to this meme by NFL player Joe Thomas………


And this tweet…










The story is complicated by the passenger’s troubled history including the suspension of his license to practice medicine. But that doesn’t excuse United’s behavior and public outrage has been pronounced. According to USA Today, at its low point on April 11, United’s stock lost nearly $1 billion.


Juan Thompson, Disgraced Journalist, Jilted Lover, and “Hate Crime” Counterfeiter

media-ethics-980x560-c-default1The tragic roster of journalists who have disgraced their profession gained a new member last week when Juan Thompson, a reporter for the Intercept, was arrested on a number of serious charges. Those charges include “making more than a half-dozen bomb threats against Jewish community centers, schools and a Jewish history museum” as reported in the NY Times.

This come after Thompson was fired from his job as a reporter last year. According to media reports Thompson was “accused by the website the Intercept of fabricating quotes, creating fake email accounts, and impersonating other people, including the editor of the website. The site had described Thompson as a former reporter for DNAinfo Chicago and for WBEZ.”

Turns out that his journalistic malpractice was just the tip of the iceberg. Actually an iceberg it too generous of an analogy; glacial ice too pure to describe this maleficence. Thompson’s deceptive acts as a journalist were just the festering sore on the surface masking the cancer inside.

Thompson’s threats against Jewish schools and community centers came at a time when other, unrelated, anti-Semitic threats were being made and Jewish cemeteries were being vandalized. These hate crimes have been and continue to be covered by the news media as further evidence of the hatred and divisiveness ailing our country.

But Thompson’s acts were not, as it turned out, hate crimes against a religious minority, but rather an attempt to frame his former girlfriend who ended their relationship last summer. That’s right, a jilted lover stalked, harassed, and threatened his former girlfriend, and then tried to frame her by committing “hate crimes” in her name. According to Daily Mail, Thompson threatened to tell his former girlfriend’s future employers “that [she’s] a racist and homophobe.” Accusations that were sure to intimidate and harass.

Thompson’s crimes do damage to the journalistic profession he once represented and to those who faithfully do their job with integrity and honesty. But they also do damage to the cause of those who fight against the injustice of hate crimes. Sadly, and somewhat ironically, each time the acts now attributed to Thompson were reported as hate crimes it diminished the impact of real hate crimes…crimes that deserve public outrage and judicial action.



Picking a Fight

President Trump crossed a line and ruffled a lot of feathers the other day with a tweet that called “the FAKE NEWS media” … the “enemy of the American people.” Admittedly, President Trump and journalists are both suffering a crisis of credibility. According to a recent poll of registered voters, it is a statistical tie when it comes to who they trust to tell the truth (45% to 42%, +/- 3%).

But as we consider who’s winning this war of attrition, let’s be clear about two thing; 1) the press plays an important and essential role in our democratic process as a check and balance on power (see earlier blog posts here and here). And 2) Presidents throughout history have had adversarial relationships with the press. Nearly every US President has a quote (or two or three) that captures their frustration with the folks whose job is to hold them accountable.

This should come as no surprise. Any administration trying to advance its agenda will be annoyed when journalists challenge their assumptions, ask difficult questions, and hold their feet to the fire. In response Presidents have deployed various tactics to take their message directly to the people…bypassing the traditional media whenever possible. FDR had his fireside chats, Trump has his Twitter account, and every president has used the bully pulpit, e.g., the State of the Union address, to speak directly to the American public. (Regarding press conferences there’s even discussion about which news outlets are called on and whether the President is taking or not taking questions from certain media organizations based on their ideological leaning.) 

On a related note, leaks of classified information about the President and his staff  by members of the intelligence community (aka the “deep state”) have raised questions about anonymous sources and journalistic ethics. The NSA, CIA, FBI and the DHS have staff who appear to be willing to share inside information with members of the press when they uncover either illegal or unethical behavior that could put the nation at risk. The challenge for the press is to ensure that their inside sources are not selectively leaking information to further other, less noble, goals.

Back to the point of this post. Early on in his campaign President Trump decided to pick fights with the Washington establishment, with the intelligence community, and with the press. All three can do this administration great harm if and when they decide to punch back. But it may be the press who wield the strongest blow. In the words of Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.”



Take the Oscar Challenge

logo_oscars_3d-colorIf you’re 18 years of age or older, are a legal resident of the USA, not a felon, not an employee of the Academy (or family member of an employee), and don’t mind signing in with your Facebook account…you can enter the Oscar Challenge sweepstakes for a chance to win a trip to  next year’s ceremony.

Just go to http://challenge.oscar.com/ and submit your ballot by picking the winners in 24 categories up for selection. The grand prize winner (randomly selected from those with the highest number of correct predictions) will win,

… one (1) Oscar® All-Star Winner prize package, which consists of a 3-day/2-night trip for two (2) to Los Angeles, CA and tickets to sit in the bleachers next to the red carpet arrival area at the 90th Academy Awards® tentatively scheduled to take place on March 4, 2018 (“Trip”). The exact date of the 90th Academy Awards® is subject to change; exact date will be provided to winner at least sixty (60) days prior to the event. Grand Prize Trip includes round-trip coach class air transportation for two (2) to Los Angeles, CA from an airport near winner’s residence (as selected by Sponsor in its sole discretion); two (2) nights’ hotel accommodations (one room, double occupancy) at a Los Angeles area hotel (as selected by Sponsor in its sole discretion); ground transportation between Los Angeles area airport (of Sponsor’s sole choosing) and hotel; and two (2) tickets to the bleacher section next to the red carpet arrival area at the 90th Academy Awards®.


Of course if you want to witness the grand spectacle from INSIDE the venue, you could always look into becoming a seat filler. Or, if you prefer, just kick back and watch the show, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel (for the first time). The live show is scheduled for Sunday, Feb 26 at 5pm MST.

This year there are nine nominees for Best Picture. The film with the most nominations is La La Land with 14 (including Best Picture)!

Recently on Kimmel’s show Viggo Mortensen had some advice for Jimmy.