Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Rauschenberger's Jedi Mind Trick

Even if you were only half-listening to Sam Madonia’s interview with Steve Rauschenberger this morning, you would have come away with a strong perception that the leaders of the state are selling out the downstate listeners of AM Springfield. He achieved this Jedi mind trick by peppering his responses with a single word, “Chicago.” He must of said it a dozen times during the ten-minute segment I listened to and his intent wasn’t to promote summer tourism in the Windy City. Just as politicians, when speaking to their base, will slander their opponents by calling them a liberal or conservative, Rauschenberger painted the governor, the speaker, and the Senate president as belonging to an opposition party made up of not only democrats, but of big city bureaucrats interested only in the well-being of their corner of the state. Pitting Chicago vs. downstate isn’t a new strategy by any means. Both sides have played it. But it does seem that Rauschenberger is going pretty hard after the downstate democrats who supported Blagojevich the last election by convincing them that the republicans have their best interests at heart.

From a communications standpoint, it's interesting how he used an almost subliminal approach to deliver his message. Whereas some politicians do all sorts of verbal gymnastics to stay “on message” and avoid responding to questions that don’t fit with that message, Rauschenberger, in the number of interviews I’ve heard him give, has shown himself to forthright and frank in his responses. Several months ago Jim Leach posed a question to him on alternatives to the budget situation that seemed ripe for ducking. He surprised Leach with a lengthy and candid reply. It's interesting then, to me anyway, how he was able to hit his message hard with the repeated references to the democratic leaders' Chicago connection, while still providing substantive answers to Madonia's questions.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

What's the Frequency Leach

I have to admit, when I first heard Jim Leach do the Purcell Tire promo leading into his show, it was just too much affectation for me. If you haven't heard it, Purcell has as its tag line "Get it Done." Only they don't say "Get it Done." Purcell has adopted the vernacular of the NASCAR crowd. And so it becomes "Git'r Dun." And that's exactly how the local talk radio host least likely to be thought a Dale Earnhardt fan pronounces it. But I've since taken to it. It kind of conjures up a folksy charm not unlike that that Dan Rather did when he said things such as "if a frog had side pockets, he'd carry a handgun."

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Button-Down Mind of an Auto Body Repairman

A radio ad for Elite Autobody calls upon the distinctive speech stylings of the legendary Bob Newhart. It isn’t actually Bob in the role of the pensive insurance agent who is calling a client about an auto claim. Nor is it a spot-on impersonation. But the vocal talent does a good job mimicking the famous Newhartian stammer. It's a pretty good ad. And who knows, maybe if you take your wrecked vehicle to Elite, the next morning you’ll wake up next to Suzanne Pleshette and realize the whole accident was just a very linear and highly-rated dream featuring Tom Poston.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The Hidden Persuaders Behind Illinois Legislation

The SJ-R is raking in a lot of dough this week from organizations running full-page ads* in support of or opposition to pending legislation. Without stooping to any type of marketing research to test the ads’ effectiveness (I won’t be influenced by polls), here is my subjective opinion on which ads work and which don’t.

The Stealth Tax ad looks the DVD cover for an “X-Files”-inspired B movie. It’s dark and mysterious and it makes me fearful of what is lurking behind the legislation. At least that’s what it is supposed to do. I’m not sure what bill this ad is opposing because it doesn’t trust the daily reader to understand such complicated matters. You only need to know that, if left unchecked, gas pumps will cause young and old alike to flee in terror. Also businesses. The ad is paid for by a host of business associations. It wisely includes quotes from Democrat and Republican congressmen alike who want to slay this scourge with a bipartisan death ray. The ad also, wisely, includes a call to action. It asks us to save ourselves by calling our legislators and registering our fear with them. It’s all a bit over-the-top for my taste, but if they would have only said exactly what the bill is proposing I might have gone for this ad.

The Illinois Hospital Association sponsored an ad with a dramatic testimonial about a Naperville boy who suffered a severe head injury and whose life was hanging in the balance while his family waited for a local neurosurgeon to arrive at the hospital. Today there are fewer neurosurgeons in Naperville, presumably because high insurance premiums are running doctors out of Illinois. Now I’m all for a neurosurgeon in every pot. And let’s assume that I believe that capping non-economic damages would replenish the doctor trade in Illinois. Now what? Do I write a letter? Head to the polls? Take to the streets? Take up arms? It’s frustrating when an ad goes to all the trouble to tell a compelling story and possible influence the attitude of a good many people, and then fail to tell them how they can help fight for the cause. The ad does end by saying, “act now.” So I’m going to reflexively order a Ronco pocket fisherman. Hope it helps.

A rebuttal to the previous ad appears just two pages later. I’m curious if the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association was able to arrange this with the SJ-R, or if it is just a merry coincidence. The ad trots out a variation on a tired line from an overrated movie, “you want the truth, you can’t handle the truth.” But I suppose trial lawyers couldn’t legitimately say “you make me want to be a better man.” Anyway. They present an interesting argument, if it isn’t taken out of context, based on a response from the head of a pro-cap organization. He basically admits that caps won’t lower insurance rates. The accompanying graph showing rapidly rising premiums in relation to slower rising payouts is interesting, although visually unappealing, but it does raise questions. And similar to its counterpart ad, it never tells me what I’m suppose to do with my new-found contempt for those rich, conniving doctors. I already have a pocket fisherman now.

Overall, after a thorough review, these ads are pretty good at getting their message across. But I purposely read them with the intent of reviewing them. I like advertising. I’ve studied it. I’ve created it. But what about the average SJ-R reader, skimming the daily news? Did the message get through to them? Of that I’m not so sure.

*The SJ-R, obviously, doesn't post the ads online so I can't link to them. I would link to the sponsors' Web sites if they would throw some advertising money in my direction. I hold out little hope of that.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

I Voted For the Governor Before I Voted Against Him

WMAY’s Mike Wilson was talking about comments that Dick Durbin made yesterday in response to a question that asked if the Senator would be endorsing Blagojevich for reelection. The SJ-R covered his response in a story today. I have to agree with Wilson’s take that there isn’t much of a story here in that Durbin gave the only possible response he could of or could have been expected to give – that is to give tacit approval of the governor by talking about the difficulty of the job while acknowledging that the election field is still unsettled. Durbin can still go either way depending on how the various corruption charges and the Democratic primary candidates shake out. Ask that same question in about six months and I think his response will be a lot more telling.

Folks over at the Capitol Fax blog, however, seem to read more in to Durbin comments than I did.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

A Good Sunday Read

Ever since I made my brief foray into state government, Doug Finke's Statehouse Insider has been my favorite read in the Sunday SJ-R. It has all of the elements of a good gossip column, with nary a mention of Paris Hilton.

Here's why it's a good thing for the news-reading, government-following public. The governor has the ability to control news content to a fairly significant degree. If he calls a news conference or issues a news release, the press is pretty much obligated to cover it - even if they know that the timing of the announcement is meant to be a distraction from another issue. The governor can also control news content by refusing to answer questions from the press, a tactic that seems to becoming increasingly popular with the Blagojevich team.

But Finke's column is almost immune from the governor's public relations efforts. He can write about anything that he hears or sees, he can draw on his trusted sources. The little slip-ups or faux pas that don't merit a story can get a few lines in Finke's column, to the governor's chagrin. He's a constant thorn in their side. And the public gets to see the side of the administration that the administration doesn't want them to see. The press is supposed to serve as the public's eyes and ears to balance the power of government, Finke does a great job in this role.

Friday, May 20, 2005

What struck me about today’s SJ-R article on Six Flags’ new policy to protect against sex offenders was that it didn’t seem to be driven by an announcement by Six Flags, but rather the protestations of a convicted sex offender. The article quotes a man whose daughter became upset upon reading the policy on the back of a ticket because she thought her father would no longer be able to take her to the family fun park. It isn’t mentioned if the man is an advocate for sex offender rights so it's curious as to why he chose to go public with his gripe.

There have been many stories recently about men, who as teenagers had consensual sex with their under-the-age-of-consent girlfriends, being permanently labeled a sex offender along with rapists and pedophiles. But that isn’t the case here. This guy was 16 at the time of his crime and the victim was an eight year-old relative. Given the deviant nature of his act, why would this guy want to go public and embarrass his poor daughter. Granted anyone can go to the state police’s Web site and find his name on a list of sex offenders, but people, including his daughter’s classmates, are more likely to see it in the newspaper.

And then there’s this. Six Flags isn’t screening for sex offenders as they enter the park. They will only check a person’s background for this information if they become unruly or in some other way require security to detain them. So unless this guy didn’t think he could spend the day with his daughter at an amusement park without raising a ruckus, there is really nothing for him to worry about.

I don’t want to judge the guy. Maybe he was wrongly convicted. Maybe he’s a terrific father. But for god’s sake man don’t splay yourself across the public square and scream until the tank changes course to run you over. (It occurs to me that this isn't an apt analogy, but I'm tired so it will have to stand for now.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Saputo's Smoked Linguine

A place such as Saputo’s probably doesn’t worry too much about public relations. As long as the quality of food and service doesn’t slip, their strong name recognition and loyal base of regulars will keep their tables full. Even still, it’s hard to imagine that the SJ-R article on the proposed bill that would allow municipalities to ban smoking in restaurants didn’t paint a negative picture of the restaurant in the minds of some readers.

Saputo’s owner is quoted in the article as being against a ban. He mentions that 80 percent of his employees smoke (little problem with employees concerned with secondhand smoke) and that the ventilation system is effective in circulating the smoke away from customers. Unfortunately, his comments appear after one of his bartenders is quoted as saying that “I feel like I'm going to pass out” in reference to excessive cigar smoke in the restaurant, a sentiment that doesn’t put one in the mood for a bowl of pasta primavera.

From a PR standpoint, it’s never good for a business when an employee and management disagree in a news story. A good reporter will always look for such discrepancies and won’t fail to include them in their story. In this case, the owner seems a bit disingenuous in his remarks. It’s clearly his right to allow smoking in his restaurant, but it does result in a smoky restaurant. And that’s the impression that some readers surely gained from reading the article.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

It's a Man's World in the Governor's Office

Look no further than Mike Ramsey's frontpage article in the SJ-R for evidence of the adversarial relationship between the governor and the press. If a more humble and congenial pol had let slip with the unfortunate phrase "testicular virility", reporters may have very well ignored it and would have certainly not included it in the lede as it appeared in this story. But Blagojevich is not congenial and the phrase wasn't a slip of the tongue, but rather a deliberate attempt to make the gov seem . . . something. So Ramsey gave the ridiculous phrase top billing to let the governor bask in the embarrassment.

The kingmakers behind the governor's reign try to cast him as too average to be a slick government insider by having him recount publicly how he tanked the ACT and his undistinquished performance in law school. But they counteract the "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" routine by feeding the governor obscure quotes and unusual phrases to reveal his inner Renaissance man. It all shows how the business of running the state takes a back seat to the dog and pony show that is the Blagojevich administration.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Britt's Fat General is Off Base

I don't think Chris Britt struck the right chord with his cartoon on the 183rd story in Sunday's paper. The SJ-R doesn't publish his work online. It shows the Pentagon as personified by a fat, sloppy, highly-decorated general simultaneously thumbing his nose at and giving a raspberry to Springfield.

While the I83rd situation is unfortunate I don’t see how the decision was made specifically out of spite or indifference to the guardsmen and citizens of Springfield as the cartoon would suggest. There appears to be a lot of good reasons for the Pentagon to reconsider their decision and there are a lot of people who will put forth effort to try to convince them to do so. Britt isn't advancing that cause by portraying it as a case of being slapped down by the man or being victimized by a bloated bureaucracy. There's better ways to rally the troops than whining and playing the victim card.

Springfield isn't the only community that will be hurt by the announced closings. Hopefully, it will be the one to make the best case for reversing the decision.

Hi, I’m Wavy Gravy. When I’m in Springfield I like to have an angioplasty performed at the Prairie Heart Institute.

That’s the basic concept behind an advertising campaign that hopes to make baby boomers aware that all that free love has finally taken a toll on their hearts. Okay, I hyperbolize. But the campaign does use sixties-style art and Alfred E Newman as a way connect to the 40-60 year old crowd and turn them on to something called CVD.

What’s CVD? Hopefully the boomers know because a local advertising campaign is banking on it. Actually, the Prairie Heart Institute is banking on it because they’re the ones footing the bill. The letters CVD are the sign’s most visible element and unless it’s common knowledge among the target audience that it’s an acronym for cardiovascular disease, then it might as well stand for Charles Van Doren (who was from the generation that gave birth to the baby boomers.) Nothing else in the design would suggest preventive heart care. The tag line "a sign of the times" is also vague in the context that it appears.

I’m not sure that images that harken back to their carefree days of youth are the best way to make boomers aware that they may have a time bomb about to go off in their chest. Living in the past is what keeps people from recognizing that their bodies aren’t the resilient machines they once were. And if CVD is supposed is meant to play off LSD, then the whole concept has gone off on a bad trip.

The campaign has shifted gears recently, and for the better. The new ads get the attention of their target audience by mentioning a defining event from an earlier time in their life (in 1969 we walked on the moon) and then brings them back down to earth in terms of where they are today (in 2005, we walk on treadmills.) The graphics are clean and legible. The message is direct and relevant. It tells the target audience that they aren’t so young anymore and they have to work if they want to maintain their health. There is even a call to action by asking people to order an information booklet, an element that would make famed adman David Ogilvy proud.

The hippy-dippy campaign was probably more fun for the agency to work on and it is more likely to receive an industry award than the simple ads that followed. But advertising isn't about being having fun or winning awards, it's about getting the client's message noticed and getting the audience to take the desired action. I'd bet that the cats at Prairie Heart are digging the current campaign a lot more.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Bad News for the 183rd

The SJ-R reports that the Springfield-based Air National Guard 183rd Fighter Brigade will lose its F-16 jets and 163 employee positions in a realignment. Certainly bad news for those in the Guard and for the city. The SJ-R and other local media, in particular WMAY's Jim Leach, deserve credit for the extensive coverage that they've given this story since it became known that the local unit was in jeopardy.

Apparently, once these decisions are made they're likely to be carried out. A host of state politicos are vowing to fight to reverse it nonetheless. I'm sure the governor's PR people are licking their chops. Maybe Obama can trade in on some of his national appeal and a congressional vote or two to make something happen.

What's Your Ideological Sign?

I don’t intend for this to be a political blog where issues and ideology are expounded upon. It will, on occasion, examine how local and state politics are being played in the media, and through public relations and advertising campaigns. Occasionally my own political biases will be on display, but as a moderate, I don’t expect that they will ignite much fervor in the rabidly partisan blogosphere. Readers from everywhere along the political spectrum are welcome to comment here, but I would ask that the focus remain on how issues are communicated rather than on the relative merits of a particular position.

I called myself a moderate, but according to a topology quiz being administered by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, I’m an Upbeat. The online quiz asks 27 questions and also for some basic demographic information, and then classifies respondents into one of nine profiles. The profile that I was assigned is basically on the mark, but it doesn’t really have me nailed. For example, there are some issues that I slightly lean to one side, but in general my Upbeat brethren seem to be more convicted.

It’s an interesting little exercise and I’d recommend giving it a go. For those intolerant of political views that differ from their own, AND are looking for that perfect someone to share their hidebound life, this could be useful way to measure compatibility. Although one need only look at James Carville and Mary Matalin to realize that true love can conquer all, even the most polarizing of issues - the Clintons.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

SJ-R Corrects a Tall Tale

A correction in today’s SJ-R quelled the excitement of Illinois fans who had been mistakenly lead to believe that Illini guard and Springfield native Richard McBride would be the Big Ten’s only 8’6” guard next season, creating mismatch problems for opponents and possibly leading the team to another Final Four appearance.

What’s significant about this correction, from a journalistic standpoint, isn’t that McBride stands 6’3” rather than 6’30”., it’s that the correction was given a prominent position on the front page.

In the past, when newspapers thought that to maintain credibility that had to be thought infallible, corrections were buried deep in the pages, if they appeared at all. The rise of other mediums and news sources led to a more sophisticated news consumers who could more easily identify mistakes. Newspapers soon realized that openly acknowledging and correcting mistakes was the only way to maintain integrity.

Bernie Schoenberg explained to me the SJ-R correction policy in an email a few years back. When it was put in to place in 1997, it was one of the most progressive in the country in terms of openness. Their policy is to print the correction on the first page of the section that the error occurred, except for columnists who make their corrections within their column.

A few other interesting points, at least to me, concerning the sprouting guard snafu are this. The SJ-R didn’t identify exactly what the error was (6’30”), just what the correction should be (6’3”). In doing so they avoided further embarrassment over a rather glaring mistake.. This is a common way to make corrections, but it can sometimes lead to confusion.

By printing the correction the next day, they probably staved-off some sarcastic letters-to-the-editor by clever little readers wishing to point out how that McBride “sure has gone through a growth spurt. They’re going to have a tough time defending him next year.” Believe me, it would happen. People can be insufferable like that.

Finally, as of Thursday afternoon, the story on the Web site hadn’t been corrected. There are different opinions on how corrections should be handled on the Web. Some think the change should be made in the story immediately to minimize the number of people who see the erroneous information. Others thinks that the story should remain as published, but a correction appear at the end of the story.

The SJ-R has a separate page for corrections on their Web site that is kept up to date.. The problem with this, especially for errors that are not as obvious as this one, is that most people won’t go to the corrections to see if everything they just read is correct. If an article is archived without being corrected in some way in the article itself, then it goes down on record as incorrect.

The SJ-R doesn’t have a public editor or ombudsman, but I’ll try to get someone from the paper to explain their online correction policy.