Media Hype: The Power of Hot Air

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Filed under: Spin

Need Press? Repeat: ‘Green,’ ‘Sex,’ ‘Cancer,’ ‘Secret,’ ‘Fat’
by Joanne Kaufman
The New York Times
June 30, 2008

toxic190v.jpgThe original pitch landed in the inbox with a whiff of medical authenticity overlaid with a snicker-inducing headline: “Toxic Ties to ‘New Shower Curtain Smell’ Evident, According to Latest Laboratory Testing.”

There was a news conference, this release said, at New York University Medical Center. It was led by a doctor representing an obscure if official-sounding group that few people have heard of, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. There were revelations about how shower curtains that are “routinely sold at multiple retail outlets” and can “release as many as 108 volatile chemicals into the air.”

Thus, the Toxic Shower Curtain Story was born.

ABCNews.com picked up on it, only to debunk it. With varying amounts of credulousness, other outlets ran with it as well, including U.S. News & World Report, The Daily News in New York, MSNBC.com and The Los Angeles Times. The gist of some of the coverage was that it was all a tempest in a bathtub, though other reports took the information at face value.

How do stories of this ilk get such bounce from major news organizations?

Those who make their living composing news releases say there is an art to this easily dismissed craft. Strategic word selection can catapult an announcement about a study, a product or a “breakthrough” onto the evening news instead of to its usual destination — the spam folder or circular file.

“P.R. people want to invest time in things that are going to get picked up, so they try to put something to the ‘who cares?’ and ‘so what?’ test,” said Kate Robins, a longtime public relations consultant. “If you say something is first, most, fastest, tallest — that’s likely to get attention. If you can use the words like ‘money,’ ‘fat,’ ‘cancer’ or ‘sex,’ you’re likely to get some ink in the general audience media.”

David Seaman, a P.R. stunt planner and the author of a book to be published in October, “Dirty Little Secrets of Buzz,” is a proponent of “safe,” “easy” “secret,” “trick” and “breaking” because they suggest that something is new and fresh, he said.

Anyone who read or heard the Toxic Shower Curtain Story can probably relax: the unsettling findings about possible respiratory, liver and reproductive damage were dismissed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. “Our staff scientist found many problems with the testing methodology, which called into question the credibility of the science,” said Julie Vallese, a spokeswoman for the commission.

The Center for Health, Environment and Justice stands by its study and says that it was trying to issue an earnest public warning about an environmental hazard. “It’s so important to let people know all the evidence out there when making decisions about which products to bring into their homes,” said Dianna S. Wentz, a spokeswoman for the group.

The center was founded by Lois Gibbs, who in the ’70s fought successfully against the toxic waste dump at Love Canal.

But if the organization’s testing methodology drew skepticism, its P.R. methodology was spot on.

“Anytime you have ‘toxic’ next to an item everyone has in their house and has always been assumed to be the last thing that would harm them, you can be sure it will get picked up on the news, and the Web will spread it like wildfire,” said Allen P. Adamson, managing director of Landor, a corporate branding firm, and the author of “BrandSimple.”

The words that attract media attention change with the times. “Anything that speaks to long-term health risks is good these days, because there is a belief that there’s a lot of stuff out there harming us, from the cellphone on down,” Mr. Adamson said.

David B. Armon, the president of PR Newswire, a distribution service for public relations professionals, likens writing a news release to writing a headline for the front page of a newspaper: every word has to do heavy lifting.

“It’s a lot more scientific than it used to be,” Mr. Armon said, “because you’re not just trying to get media pickup, but to get search engine attention.”

To aid in this endeavor, PR Newswire offers its members a so-called keyword density tool. “It lets you know the words someone would have to type into a search engine for your particular press release to be found, and helps put your release at the top of the search engine,” Mr. Armon said.

“Green” and “environment” are huge right now, he said, as is “foreclosure.” “We’ve done 412 press releases that incorporate that word so far in ’08, up from 261 last year.” For the record, Mr. Armon added, the use of the word “toxic” in news releases is up 5 percent.

The words that may help get a news release picked up vary from region to region. Brenda Baumgartner, the news director and anchor at KPVI, the NBC affiliate in Pocatello, Idaho, for example, looks for words like “fishing,” “hunting,” “Mormon” and “polygamy,” she said, “because they fit the culture we live around.” KPVI also went with the toxic curtain story. “Everybody takes showers,” Ms. Baumgartner said, by way of explanation.

Words that help elevate a news release also vary from industry to industry. For instance, Tom Gable, the head of a San Diego public relations firm, said a news release about video games could benefit from a phrase like “faster graphics.” When talking about technology, he said, it would be “ ‘cost breakthrough,’ like the $200 computer.”

In the entertainment industry, on the other hand, the most basic of nouns will do — baby, breakup, marriage, divorce — according to Cindi Berger, co-chief executive of the public relations firm PMK/HBH. “Now attach names like Madonna or Jessica Simpson,” Ms. Berger said, “and of course the assignment editor is going to pay attention.”

Perhaps because many people in public relations are former journalists, they know what grates on the Fourth Estate. Mr. Gable, who was once the business editor of The San Diego Union, has compiled a list of words that will do a news release no good whatsoever, like “solutions,” “leading edge,” “cutting edge,” “state of the art,” “mission critical,” and “turnkey.”

Mr. Gable said that his company once did a weeklong survey of the releases that came out of PR Newswire and Business Wire, a commercial news distribution service, “and most of the releases identified their company as ‘a leader’ and described their research as ‘cutting edge.’”

“They were empty, unsubstantiated and had no news value,” he said.

Ken Sunshine, the head of a P.R. firm in Manhattan, said he thought the media had an institutional bias against “hype-y terms” like “world renowned” and “once in a lifetime,” which he studiously avoids putting in his news releases. “But ‘unique’ is fine,” he said, “if something really is unique.”

Ultimately, perhaps, the whole thing is less about terms than timing.

“Was it really the issue of toxic shower curtains that fired up assignment editors?” asked Mr. Armon of PR Newswire. “Or was it just a slow news day?”

thanks Erin