The Dave Herbst Interview: An Analysis of Blogging, Social Media and Standards

January 5, 2012 No Comments

Dave Herbst served as a publicist at the Walt Disney World resort for 30 years.  During his career, Herbst witnessed many changes to how Disney World publicizes itself.  Recently, The Large Park Report visited with Herbst for his unique and compelling insights into these changes.
Tourist Attractions and Parks Magazine:  When you began at Disney, what were your main methods of communicating and interacting with the media?
Dave Herbst:  Sometimes we physically took a pen to paper for more than a signature. We licked stamps. We picked up the phone and called people. We sent faxes.   It was all in the process of getting to look people in the eye, literally. Charlie Ridgway, the original and legendary “publicity guy” for Disney World, believed if you could get a writer or reporter or producer or editor to see and experience our little corner of the world, we would garner the exposure we strove for on TV and radio, in magazines and newspapers.
So-called “press events,” big and small, were created around milestones and notable openings. In fact, three days into my Disney career, I found myself in the middle of the Tencennial event celebrating the 10th anniversary of the resort.
We disseminated news releases and photos on paper, typically via United States mail, sometimes using courier, overnight services or the fax machine when time was of the essence. For video, we sent tape via courier or overnight service, then had our own satellite uplink to expedite delivery.  I would like to believe a testament to our ways and means was the published results of a survey undertaken by Editor & Publisher in 1986. The project sought to determine what was important to travel writers and editors as they dealt with publicity sources, and who did it well. The favorable opinion for Disney compared to others was dramatic in regard to “quality of materials” and “responsiveness.” In other words, we returned phone calls, and we provided information and visuals the news/editorial people considered useful.
TAP:  What have been some of the most significant changes over the years in those methods of communicating with the media?
Herbst:  Obviously, technology has profoundly influenced how we communicate! Some point singularly to the internet. But that is way too simplistic. Digital technology in general is at the heart of it. That and wireless. Goodness, the developments in those areas have created improvements, opportunities and confusion.
We produce news releases, images and video that may live their entire existence in a “virtual state of being,” never shared in a physical form. In terms of servicing requests, changes in technology have provided means to sometimes fulfill media needs almost instantaneously.
The digital revolution has created an environment where you can produce communications that truly catch the eye, sometimes even the ear. When I think about the things even I have learned to do on a desktop, I’m blown away!
There’s also a sad reality concerning attitudes about what constitutes communication. An expert on social media once used the term “conversation” for the back-and-forth keystrokes of cyberspace. I pressed him to explain specifically what he would consider a “conversation,” and after a thoughtful pause, he said, “as long as the person responds in 15 minutes or so.” To me, there is stunning irony in that. People relish the instant gratification of the internet and wireless, and yet on an interpersonal level, they would consider a delay that makes the proverbial “pregnant pause” seem like the blink of an eye, acceptable to a “conversation.”
Another disturbing notion involves email. I get the sense email would be a contender as the game-show top response for “what I spend the most time doing at work.” Aside from speed and ease, has email done anything to improve communication? Let me answer my own question: No! Unfortunately, we apparently have become a society where “speed and ease” are more valued than real interpersonal relations. Sadly, “speed and ease” frequently are married to a lack of thought, incorrect grammar and misspellings in emails.
I mentioned the word “confusion” as one of the by-products of the technology. What I am referring to is the notion that anybody with fingers and an Internet connection is fully equipped and qualified to be regarded as “media.” I’m sensing a breeze from a lot of ruffled feathers, so I’ll stop right there and enjoy the “indignant air-conditioning.”
TAP:  We’ve been told that, in some ways, the internet and social media have made PR work easier and in some ways harder.  What are your thoughts on that theory?
Herbst:  Oh, boy, so you aren’t going to let me “stop right there!” Okay, so let me continue by ruffling some more feathers: What the heck does the term “social media” mean? I have a hunch if you polled a thousand people, a prevalent response would be that “social media” are people who exchange thoughts, ideas, opinions and whatever else within social networking sites and blogs, or that those sites are social media.
The suggestion that those places or the people who hang out there are “media” has always confounded me. I have Alison Doyle, a job search and employment expert, to thank for the only explanation of social media that makes sense. Writing at About.com, she defines it this way: Social media includes the various online technology tools that enable people to communicate easily via the internet to share information and resources. Social media can include text, audio, video, images, podcasts and other multimedia communications.
Thus, the Internet is merely a “canvas,” and so-called “social media” are the tools a person can use on that canvas to convey a message. As terrifically as the definition explains what social media are, it leaves me wondering how any of the tools are different than those of traditional media.
My conclusion: They aren’t! The platform (or canvas) of cyberspace is a place where multi-media reigns. Gone are the times when communicators are limited to a single medium to tell a story. I think if aspiring journalists think about it in these terms, they’ll have the mindset necessary for the future workplace.
So now we get to the point where I answer your question – at least sort of. Have the internet and social media made PR work easier and in some ways harder? No and Yes. Or maybe Yes and Yes. Let me explain. Or try to.
Just as the term social media has been misinterpreted to represent a group of people, “easier” and “harder” are terms that can be interpreted differently. There is no doubt we have the technological means to launch communications quickly, using a variety of media tools such as text, audio, video and photos and through training and repetition, we can make this stuff look and sound great.
Now the challenge (the part of the discussion preceded by “But” or “However”): Who’s watching? Or listening? Or reading?  Whether we are packaging our complete message in an email to a person or group of people, or using an eBlast that serves as a billboard with a click-through to the full story, or posting material on a blog, who is consuming our message?
Egomania or narcissism or whatever other word you choose for “self-absorption” has been around since Adam and Eve. But I’m confident in suggesting there never has been a time when people were more self-absorbed than we are today. Nor has there ever been a time when we had more means to slop around in our ego-centrism.
Technology has allowed us to go through life with a network of “virtual others” – generally called upon when we need something, to satisfy us.
Which brings me to the challenge of getting through to people in this age: Many of us have succeeded in filtering out virtually everything that isn’t on our personal list of interests or from our “friends.” So you can forget about consumer direct except when you have a message to share with “the choir.” As for SEO: it only means you may get eyes and ears on your message in the course of someone doing their thing, which is not a bad thing, but it does represent a limitation.
It isn’t just a dilemma for marketers; it’s a dilemma for organizations charged with a responsibility to inform the public with bona fide news. The best way I can explain the phenomenon is to point to, say, USA Today. If the online version were to contain every element of the print edition, in which format do you think there’s a better chance a reader will be pulled into a story he wasn’t searching for? Inasmuch as I’ve done a test study on myself, I can say with absolute uncertainty paper is easier to browse, unless you are riding on public transit. But narcissism isn’t limited to information consumption. Take a look at a common, incorrect use of the term social media: bloggers. I have no issues with blogging per se. After all, a blog is a cyber-op-ed page.
A blog represents the ultimate freedom of speech, seldom put through any kind of filter, often masked in presumed anonymity and attached to no accountable entity. Oh, the price we pay for freedom! Collectively, if the “gas” that flows through the fingers of the multitude of bloggers were combustible, there would be no energy crisis. Of course, they would claim they had solved the “nrg crIsIs” (in cyberspace, you can’t butcher the spelling of too many words or use too many first-person singular pronouns.)
One of the 100-million-and-then some people who professes to blog is Arthur Levine. He should not be confused with the multitude of bloggers I just depicted. Rather, Arthur is a travel parks expert with About.com. Recently, as he reflected on the time we have known each other, he shared as to how, in one sermon about bloggers, I had both amused and infuriated him.
I didn’t press Arthur on what part of my diatribe amused him. It might have been in knowing I wasn’t talking about him. In fact, Arthur Levine is among the thousands of bloggers who expertly convey information. They offer opinions in the context of explanations and real reporting that expresses “what is” rather than merely “what I think.”
What I think is: communicators of Arthur’s ilk ought to take a cue from our Disney’s Animal Kingdom advertising campaign “nahtazu” (not a zoo) that sought to distance our park from the perception of a typical zoological park. And I think the Disney Parks Blog ought to be part of the same crusade, to proclaim their efforts nahtablahgs. Imagine it: The Disney Parks Nahtablahgs.
I wouldn’t be commenting about any of this were it not that some among the multitude of blogospheric narcissists masquerade as “media.” They expect access to news/editorial materials and events equal to the privileges accorded honest-to-goodness reporters. I have it on trustworthy authority that some, having duped the decision-makers and gained entrance to an event created for news media, even brag on how much they’ve gotten out of the event host, namely Disney. I have watched with annoyance the self-video of bloggers beaming as they showed off the tchotchkes they received at a “meet up.”
I recognize the price for surfacing this issue: more ruffled feathers, probably both among the blogging community and among PR people who consider the influence of bloggers valuable as they formulate their plans.  To bloggers, I would simply ask: Does the shoe fit? (Note that this is not a Cinderella story; in this tale, the shoe fitting is not good!)
To the PR people, I would respond with this advice: Be as selective choosing bloggers as you would be in evaluating so-called traditional media. Seek verifiable information about their scope of influence, which never should be merely a numbers game. Take a look at the substance of the blog. Is it fundamentally a guide or directory rather than a report? Does it balance “what I think” with “what is”? Is it a place you actively want to partner with?
If you decide the answer is “No,” try to reach the person by phone or even face to face. Don’t diminish them as a person. “Turn the other cheek” if you have to. And if you subsequently visit the blog and discover you have been “flamed” or defamed, just smile, knowing you certainly made the correct decision. All things considered, I can’t conclude the work of the PR person is any easier due to the Internet. In fact, in many ways it is more challenging.
(Reach Contributor Chad Emerson at chaddemerson@gmail.com.)

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