Ronn Torossian Update

News and PR Insights from 5W Public Relations CEO Ronn Torossian

UK Media and Government Clash over Coronavirus Coverage

Media outlets across the world are working out how to cover the COVID-19 outbreak, and they’re learning on the job. Where is the line between accuracy and hype, between reporting the current facts on the ground and waiting for further details or testing? And where is the line between factually reporting government decisions and taking the risk of deteriorating the confidence of citizens looking to their government for action and answers?

These questions are playing out in real time in London, UK, as even media outlets who are typically sympathetic to the ruling government have been strongly criticizing leaders’ decisions in recent days. Headlines have criticized a perceived “confusion” and “lack of clarity” from government messaging, while others are screaming for a better, faster plan to roll out virus testing.

Further complicating the tenuous relationship is the recent change in venue for communication. Where daily reports were, until recently, made in person, now reporters are getting them over video chat. While the technology is decent for communication, the audio can get choppy when various people want to ask questions at once, and it’s difficult to interrupt, challenge, or ask follow up questions. And, with Boris Johnson now undergoing treatment for the virus, the narratives have only gotten pricklier. Formerly supportive journalists have described the current communications as “pathetic” and a “complete waste of time.”

In the meantime, other members of the media are still demanding further clarity and consensus from government officials, lamenting “answers without questions.”

So, what can this scenario teach us about PR communication in the time of COVID-19?  Plenty, actually.

First and foremost, do not allow changes in how messages are getting out to increase message confusion. When venues or mediums for communication shift, the nature of the message delivery needs to shift to accommodate these changes, and more time should be dedicated to establishing and ensuring clarity of message.

Secondly, understand that people don’t like and will resist change. This may seem basic, but many brands, personalities, and entities are not practicing this “common sense,” leading to frustration for their audiences. Any kind of change to any routine can cause upset, distraction, and distance. Communicators must adjust by leaning in, offering concessions and education to minimize frustration, not just continuing business as usual.

Thirdly, accept that everyone is under additional stress, pressure, and worry. We are living through something unprecedented, and that has everyone on edge. Add to this baseline the frustration of quarantine and the worry that comes with waiting, wondering, and not getting clear answers, and people are much less receptive to messages, because of all those negative emotions. Effective communicators will account for this in their PR, shifting or revamping their approach in a way that is aware of the current situation without making everything about that. People need a break. They need something positive and authentic that is clearly communicated, whether it’s coming from the government, the media, or their favorite consumer brands.

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Patriots Deliver More Than a Million Masks

Recently, the New England Patriots were the big headline in the essentially closed world of professional sports. Their biggest name, the man some consider the best to ever play the game, quarterback Tom Brady, was headed out of New England to Tampa. Brady was a Buccaneer, and Pats fans were aghast. It was a headline many in New England, especially die-hard Patriots fans could hardly wrap their heads around. No more QB12? 

Now, though, much of the nation, both in and out of New England, has a reason to cheer for the Patriots. With reports of personal protective equipment shortages at many hospitals across the country, especially in New York, millions of Americans are wondering if their local medical facilities will have what they need if they or a loved one gets sick.

Enter the Patriots. Owner Robert Kraft worked with Patriots president Jonathan Kraft and the state to buy 1.4 million N95 masks for Massachusetts. The Kraft family also purchased another 300,000 masks for New York state.

The shipment of masks arrived on a Patriots team aircraft, part of a logistical challenge Kraft called “probably the most challenging operation our organization and team ever had to do…”

Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker took to social media to express his appreciation, posting, “Tonight’s arrival of a major shipment of N95 masks on the Patriots’ plane was a significant step in our work to get frontline workers the equipment they need… it’s an example of how collaboration and partnership can lead to real solutions during these challenging times…”

Everyone involved called this a challenging project but also a “team effort” and vowed to continue doing what they could to help.

This “challenging” project illustrates how brands that may not be receiving the earned media they would be under normal circumstances can shift their efforts to meet current needs in order to continue their PR efforts while doing some tangible good.

Brands that take advantage of these opportunities will be remembered for what they did, as well as how they make people feel, just as others will be remembered for what they didn’t do during this unprecedented time. That’s not to say every brand has to do something as massive as this. Many don’t have the resources, but there are other opportunities or digital PR options they could work toward as part of their efforts to stay connected to customers and fans in this time.

The key idea is to remember that relationship building is a significant aspect of consumer PR in this digital age. People want a reason to connect to something they’re proud of, and that makes positive brand reputation vital to any awareness campaign.

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Winning PR in the Digital Age

Public relations is shifting. While, in many ways, the fundamentals are the same as they always were, PR is experiencing a Renaissance in the digital age. As traditional media outlets are tightening their belts, because of falling advertising revenue, other forms of media communication are offering brands a direct link to their customer base, creating relationship dynamics and communication opportunities that have never been possible before.

To win in the PR business today, brands and PR pros must be more proactive, they need to update their approach to PR and take advantage of new opportunities for brand placement and expanded venues for stories and customer connection points. And, along with these new options and opportunities, there are a host of new metrics and data points marketers can use to hone their PR efforts to make their campaigns more effective. 

Much of this shift begins with thinking differently about the internet. It is not only a place where you put things and people find them, as it once was. Now, the internet is all about interaction, about people and brands sharing, connecting, continuing a conversation in order to build a relationship. Though you still need to get the attention of the market. And that’s one of the key ways digital PR differs from traditional PR.

With traditional PR, success could often be measured in circulation numbers, viewership, listeners, and demographic reach. All of those metrics are still important today, but online, they may go by different names and include additional metrics. Viewers, for example, may become “unique visitors,” and their “time on site” is just as important as their raw numbers.

Web analytics can also tell marketers what their visitors are looking at, for how long, and where they came from. Measuring each of these metrics is a key step in crafting consistent, winning digital PR. Sometimes, these metrics are surprising. People have a tendency to assume it is the bigger media engines that are driving the traffic to their site, but digging into the analytics reveal that it is perhaps a niche blog or social media page that is channeling most of the traffic.

Something else to consider is what people are responding to and what people are talking about when they respond. Which keywords and titles are getting the most traction, and which content keeps people coming back for more and staying longer when they do.

Timing is another important digital PR factor to consider. While there are still roughly defined news cycles online, these are more fluid than in traditional media, with ongoing stories continuing to develop even as new headlines emerge in a constant stream. And, since social media can keep content alive for weeks, months, even years, some element of the content should be evergreen, painting a piece of an overall picture the visitors and fans will recognize and telling the bigger story about the brand.

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3M and GE Step Into Gap to Help Stretched-Thin Medical Industry

The global calamity that is the COVID-19 pandemic has ground some businesses and industries to a halt. However, there are some brands that are in a key position to step in and act heroically to help in this time of crisis. If they take the opportunity, and they manage the messaging correctly, this could be a major positive PR move in a sea of bad news.

Early on in the news reports about the spread of the novel coronavirus, one specific piece of medical equipment became a kind of shorthand for the resources available to fight the pandemic: the N95 respirator. Headline after headline urged consumers not to purchase the masks, to save them for medical professionals, even as others lamented the lack of supply, especially in harder hit areas.

Eventually, all eyes turned toward the brands that manufacture and distribute the masks or similar versions, including US industrial giant 3M Co. Questions began to fly in: “when will you have more?” and “will there ever be enough?” among others.

After doing the internal research and looking at supply chains and manufacturing capabilities, 3M released a statement with an answer: the company would begin to “double production” of the N95 respirators in an effort to keep up with demand. In addition, 3M promised to “expand global capacity” a significant amount over the next year in order to continue to meet demand as the virus continues to spread.

The announcement corresponds with news from the US Department of Health and Human Services, which revealed plans to buy “more than 500 million masks” to supplement the Strategic National Stockpile of pharmaceutical and medical supplies. President Trump offered a hand as well, saying he would take steps to help speed up production of ventilators and masks.

Another big US-based brand, General Electric (GE) said it would begin to increase its staff in an effort to manufacture more ventilators to help people hospitalized with COVID-19. This announcement comes alongside headlines that say US hospitals are doing what they can to prepare for an unprecedented surge in patients as the disease continues to spread.

The idea that the national medical infrastructure may soon be overwhelmed is a stressful and frightening potential for many. When a company steps up and promises to invest as they can to help where they can, it’s an opportunity to offer comfort and to come through by keeping their promise. Once through this, 3M and GE may stand as two of many American companies that stepped into the gap and helped where they were needed, much like Ford and General Motors during the run-up to US entry into World War II.

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Movie Fans Turn to Streaming During Lockdown

With movie theaters coast to coast operating at 50 percent capacity or closing altogether, Hollywood production studios are faced with some tough decisions: hold off on movie releases, pull the trigger on releases and hope for the best, or find another way to get their investment back and try to earn a profit on movies that were slated for spring or early summer release.

There remains, of course, an obvious choice. With millions upon millions across the globe stuck at home practicing “social distancing” movie producers could look to the one thing they know many of these people would be doing: streaming movies. Services like Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix, Disney+, NBC, and WarnerMedia are all jostling and jockeying for attention from frustrated and worried people looking for any kind of distraction from the threat of COVID-19.

There are already rumors of movies planned for theaters being released on Netflix and Amazon, and other smaller or independent productions are lining up for distribution through streaming services.

This new attention, especially from consumers outside the bullseye market for streaming services, could create a ripple effect that shifts the way Americans view media long-term.

It’s an interesting tightrope for movie studios to walk. They need eyes on their product, but they have long-standing relationships in the theater industry, as well as a wildly profitable business model.

The streaming model does have some good profit potential, but, it’s been around for many years now, and there’s a reason movie studios still choose big screen distribution, waiting months to allow their content to be streamed.

If market watchers and prognosticators are correct, that dynamic may shift a bit. Some are already saying streaming services could see a 20 percent increase in subscribers’ time watching streaming content. And that’s only current subscribers. There’s expected to be an increase in subscribers as well.

More customers spending more time consuming more products is a good challenge for streaming services to meet. It’s also an opportunity for movie producers looking for a way to get their product to market on time.

If they go that route, another question is created: How long will it take consumer habits to shift away from theaters to streaming, and what influence will that have on the industry going forward?

These questions don’t have any answers yet, and they may end up being tested and answered in real time, as the lockdowns and “social distancing” continues to stretch through March and into April.

The messaging around how these questions are answered, reaching out to consumers while trying not to overplay their advertising hand, will be interesting to watch.

How it’s handled now could be a preview of how Hollywood producers continue to communicate about the pros and cons of streaming, from their perspective, going forward.

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Citi CEO Attempts to Calm Financial Fears

In the midst of a major stock market tumble, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the closure of multiple major events and venues, fears are rising. Investors are worried. Workers are worried… Everyone is hoping for the best and trying to prepare for the worst. Into that maelstrom, one top-level financial sector executive is trying to calm fears.

Citi CEO Michael Corbat has a message for people who are forecasting another recession: “This is not a financial crisis… Banks are in solid shape…”

This message came after several CEOs of America’s largest financial institutions met with U.S. President Donald Trump to discuss the stock market downturn and the next steps to get the economy back on track. Coming out of this meeting, Corbat was not the only CEO saying not to panic, saying everything is alright, and asking concerned investors, workers, and consumers to calm down and understand that things are fine and getting better.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch CEO Brian Moynihan reminded worried investors that the banks are “very strongly capitalized” even as the Dow fell into a bear market. Meanwhile, after hitting an all-time high mark about a month ago, the S&P 500 also slipped sharply.

The reasons for the drop are stark and there are many. Dropping oil prices, fears about the spread of Coronavirus, and uncertainty about responses and the overall impact of the disease topped the list. But financial firm leadership encouraged people to be patient and be calm, promoting a cohesive narrative that this was a momentary blip and not a major issue. Bolstering this, the Federal Reserve planned to inject billions of dollars into the financial system in hopes that this would ease worries and keep things flowing in a positive direction.

From a consumer PR standpoint, the messaging here should be clear: don’t fear, don’t panic, this too will pass. That’s the message, because in the best of times, markets don’t like uncertainty. With oil prices doing what they’re doing and the ultimate uncertainty of a fast-spreading viral illness that no one seems to know how to stop, “uncertainty” is a polite term for how most people are feeling.

That doesn’t mean all is lost. Strong, positive, and consistent messaging from the leaders in the financial industry could help assuage fears and calm the upset that is surging through other sectors of the national economy. Open communications with financial sector media will help them amplify that message and go a long way toward getting people to respond in a more careful, measured way.

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CBS News Becomes Part of the News Cycle

Round the clock news coverage of the COVID-19 virus became to ramp up as the first cases were diagnosed in the United States. Not long after, one of the news networks became part of the story. CBS News shut down its NYC headquarters for “cleaning and disinfecting” this past week after two employees at that office tested positive for coronavirus. For two days, most employees worked from home and the network tried to keep up business as usual.

Eagle-eyed fans could tell CBS This Morning was broadcast from Washington, though most viewers barely noticed a blip. The network managed to continue operations without missing a beat, much to the relief of management, staff, and the loyal fans who depend on the network for their news coverage.

And CBS was not the only news agency to announce precautions being taken relative to COVID-19. The Associated Press announced that employees would be allowed to work from home if their job permitted doing so and their managers approved. Because the agency is global, this policy change was announced as an incrementally implemented change, so operations were not disrupted and leadership teams could make sure everything kept working on schedule.

According to a statement, the AP said the first employees granted this opportunity would be staffers in offices where “employees have had direct or indirect exposure” to a person who tested positive, or if their local government was requiring them to telecommute. The statement also said no employee of the Associated Press has yet tested positive for the virus.

Soon after, other news agencies followed this policy, allowing employees to work from home. This included CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. Employees who work in television production were expected to come to work as usual.

While no news agency likes to be included in the headlines of a news cycle, unless it’s a positive story, this one may provide a framework for some businesses struggling to find ways to deal with this pandemic without hurting business or their workforce. Given the 24-7 news cycle, if these multimedia production companies can make it work, other companies may find some ideas there worth emulating.

The key metric, though, for these media brands is to keep publishing, keep broadcasting, to keep informing the public of the news that’s important to their lives. Given the spotlight these businesses have in reporting the news, they have an opportunity to lead by example and show what it means to have a competent, proactive, and dedicated group of professionals respond to a difficult, uncertain situation. 

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Netflix Winners Use Exposure to Increase PR Footprint

Streaming media continues to thrive, using its growing clout to siphon more ideas and more eyes away from traditional network television. Some of its most recent successes provide object lessons in the potential of applying effective consumer PR to transition a success in one area to a head start in another.

In less than a year, Netflix has launched three new reality TV programs, and the winners of those shows are leveraging digital PR and smart social media action to launch new careers.

The winner of Netflix’s design reality show, “Next in Fashion,” was Minju Kim, a 33-year-old fashion designer known for designing fashions for famous K-pop singers BTS. That resume was enough for notoriety heading into the competition, but it was the time on the show that allowed Minju Kim to skyrocket in fame. By partnering with a show sponsor, Net-a-Porter, the designer was able to turn good ratings into sales in a different market altogether.

Clothes designed by Kim and marketed by Net-a-Porter were featured on the show and cross-promoted on social media and other websites. The retail company helped Kim with pricing, marketing, and PR. Sales went big and went fast, and Kim told reporters many of her clothing selections were sold out in just a few months.

Another Netflix reality winner, Daniel Farris, won the rap contest program “Rhythm + Flow ” using the stage name “D Smoke.” While his bars and his ability to rap in both Spanish and English impressed the judges, D Smoke and the other contestants were told early on, the competition was about more than talent, it was about who could sell. 

Speaking to CNN Business, D Smoke reflected on that lesson: “I’m not bubble gum. I’m not soda pop, but I’m a product as well…” And he played that role well, growing his Instagram following from 10,000 to 1.7 million during the course of the show. Now, since he still has recording freedom, D Smoke can leverage that big following into massive sales, especially for an independent artist.

The success of these reality shows, as well as the ability of their winners to transition into successes after the show through partnering with Netflix and targeted digital PR, is another example of how the streaming service is starting to compete directly with traditional network TV. While most networks have broadcast reality shows, many of the winners have failed to translate that success to success on the next level. There have been a few major standouts, but Netflix seems to have found a fan connection that works using key partnerships and targeted digital PR.

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Apple to Pay Big for Slowing Down Older iPhones

A bombshell headline hit the tech world when, in December of 2017, Apple was forced to admit something customers had been claiming for years: the company was “slowing down” or “throttling” older iPhones through software updates.

When this news was confirmed, technology consumers fired back, venting years of frustration. Apple’s argument for the practice didn’t hold water with them at all. They said the process was done for safety reasons. Customers argued that, to them, it was clear that Apple was doing this to “force” customers to buy new iPhones.

In an instance of taking bad digital PR and making it worse, Apple responded to these complaints and allegations by offering to swap out handset batteries… if consumers paid them around $80 per battery. Backlash to this follow up offer was intense, and that price point didn’t last long. About a month later, the price was dropped to around $30. Later, Apple CEO Tim Cook would claim the price reduction created a revenue hit for the company in 2018.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Now, thanks to the settling of a class action lawsuit, Apple will have to pay up to half a billion dollars to customers who purchased certain iPhone models before December 21, 2017. The settlement breakdown is that owners of these specific devices should receive about $25 per device, which is estimated to cost the company between $300 million and $500 million.

The announcement of this settlement, which still has to be approved by a judge, brought this digital PR challenge back front and center for Apple. The company has been trying for the past two years to put this issue behind them and move forward into the imminent 5G era. But, on social media, iPhone owners are not letting go of the frustration they feel.

Many still believe the company intentionally “sabotaged” their phones, making them function slower, so that the user experience was diminished and they were motivated to go out and get a new handset. This assumption is fast becoming the truth for millions of aggrieved, but loyal, iPhone customers. While there are no clear numbers on if, or when, consumers have switched to other brands over this PR issue, the negative narratives online should be some cause for concern for Apple.

With these new headlines, and the issue moving back into the tech news cycle, Apple should do more than just stay silent. The brand needs to put a positive, customer-first message out to give consumers something new and interesting to focus on. Something interactive that draws consumers in and gets them focusing on the benefits of owning and using an iPhone, rather than the frustration of feeling like the company is actively ripping them off.

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Recording Academy Responds to Reports CEO was “Ousted”

Deborah Dugan, the now-former president of the Recording Academy, has been fired after the organization which hosts The Grammys conducted what they called “two exhaustive, costly, independent investigations” into allegations made by Dugan.

Each investigation followed up on accusations made by Dugan about both the Academy’s culture and nomination process, as well as separate allegations made by Dugan that she was sexually harassed. Dugan insisted that the voting process for some top awards was “rigged,” insinuating that the process was unfair, casting aspersions on the winners of some of music’s most prestigious awards.

In addition to finding no substance to the allegations made by Dugan, the independent review stated that there was evidence of Dugan’s “consistent management deficiencies and failures…” though reports have said no specific examples were listed.

All of this touched off after Dugan was put on administrative leave early in 2020, after a complaint was lodged about her interactions with a longtime Academy employee. Dugan filed a discrimination complaint, adding an accusation that attorneys for the Academy “acted inappropriately” during a business meeting.

After the firing, Dugan’s representatives fired back with a prepared statement which read, in part: “The decision is despicable and, in due course, the Academy, its leadership and its attorneys will be held accountable…”

The response to this claim was scathing, with Academy officials sending out a clear message that Dugan would not be receiving any kind of settlement for her alleged grievances: “We could not reward her with a lucrative settlement and thereby set a precedent that behavior like hers has no consequence… Our members and employees, and the entire music industry deserve better than that…”

Given the sensitive nature of allegations such as those Dugan made, especially given the kinds of reactions music fans are likely to have on social media, this kind of emphatic negation and strong stance must be accompanied by a very clear message that the organization behind the accused did a thorough investigation, with clear indicators who is telling the truth.

This is especially key given the ongoing criticism of both the music industry and awards shows. Many fans already have strong opinions, making them liable to believe one side or the other, based on those views. These strong opinions often cause fans to provide digital megaphones for narratives, spreading them, loudly and enthusiastically, across social media and other digital platforms.

All parties involved should understand that, with digital PR, very few things are settled. Nearly everything is an ongoing conversation, even if all the facts are “out there” and readily available. People believe what they believe, and they will strongly defend that position. Parties involved in public disagreements that end up online should understand this going in and prepare their messages and counter-messages accordingly.

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