If we learned anything from former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony this week, it’s the importance of well-written memos.
Comey’s memo to the Senate, spelling out his introductory statement, is clear, crisp, and to the point. It contains a wealth of precise detail that lends credibility to his report. And it is restrained: He doesn’t accuse the President of anything illegal, he merely spells out the circumstances of their various meetings and explains enough of the context so that readers can understand why the President made the FBI Director so uncomfortable.
What’s more, the fact that he wrote memos after every meeting with the President is also credibility-enhancing. There’s no better time to take notes than during a meeting or immediately after it, as every journalist knows. The passage of time erodes memories and changes perceptions.
Of course your experience is your own: It’s not like anyone is going to be recording the Objective Truth in their memos. How much you believe in the veracity of Comey’s memos depends largely on how much credit you give Comey himself for being honest and impartial. However, all other things being equal, a factual statement written at or shortly after the events in question should carry far more weight than a statement written much later.
“It turned out to be just the two of us, seated at a small oval table in the center of the Green Room. Two Navy Stewards waited on us, only entering the room to serve food and drinks.”
This is what is meant by objectivity (with a small “o”) in writing: A focus on presenting the facts as plainly as possible.
Note that the facts also include the writer’s reactions and his or her attempts to understand the situation. For example, Comey includes in his memo the fact that the dinner with Trump felt awkward. He mentions that Trump asked for “honest loyalty” but that Comey wasn’t entirely sure if the two of them had the same understanding of what that meant. In situations like this, objectivity includes your own impressions and feelings, and it’s important to include them.
The takeaways, for anyone who writes:
Incorporate salient details, including your thinking about what happened and how it felt.
Don’t overstate your case–an understated presentation of the facts will carry far more weight, in the long run, than a passionate defense of your point of view.
I’m going to attempt to swim down SF Bay, from the Golden Gate Bridge to AT&T Park, on July 9.
The distance is about 6.5 miles. The water temperature will probably be about 59 degrees Fahrenheit (plus or minus a couple degrees), or about 15C. Depending on how much of an assist I get from the flood current, it could take over 3 hours. In distance and time it’s longer than any swim I’ve done so far.
Can I do it? I’m not sure yet. I’m pretty confident, and I’m training hard. But I was never a swim team member, came to “serious” swimming fairly late in life, and I’m in no sense particularly athletic. In fact I’m an extremely average swimmer.
Most of the time the reaction to learning that I’m a Bay swimmer is something like: That’s crazy. The water is way too cold for me.
It’s true, the water can be chilly. But you get used to it.
I’ve been swimming all my life, from my first swim lessons at age 5 onwards, and I have always enjoyed the water, but it’s only in the past few years that I got really serious about it.
At some point, around 2010, I heard about a coworker who swam in the Bay every morning before coming to work. That’s kind of impressive, I thought! So I decided to try it out myself. I found my way to Coyote Point, a semi-enclosed cove near my home in San Mateo, where there’s a beach. It gets very windy in the afternoons but early in the morning it seemed like a pretty calm place to try swimming in the Bay. It was late summer, and the water was warm-ish, well into the 60s, and I wore a wetsuit. Since I was alone, I stuck very close to shore.
I learned that 60-ish water was warm enough I didn’t need a wetsuit. On the other hand, I also discovered that I could barely swim 50 yards without getting out of breath. Even though I’d been running fairly regularly and considered myself to be in good shape, swimming required a whole different set of muscles and techniques. My stroke was good enough for getting from one side of the pool to the other, and then taking a daiquiri break, but not much more than that.
I returned to Coyote Point a few times, each time swimming a bit longer, and each time marveling as I discovered the watery world, the way the dawn light looked shining through the trees, how the salty water embraced and held me floating at its surface. One morning in particular I remember watching the moon set in the west as the sun was rising in the east, and I was all alone, floating in still, almost mirror-like water, stunned at the beauty of it all.
It wasn’t long before I realized I needed to learn how to swim better, both to enjoy myself more and to keep myself safer. That led me on a journey of improving my stroke, mostly using Total Immersion techniques, off and on over the next few years. (This video showing Shinji Takeuchi’s amazingly smoooooth crawl stroke, is the one that convinced me Total Immersion had something remarkable going for it. The fact that the accompanying music has the refrain “I can see my destiny” might have helped too.) I’m not following all of its techniques any more, but TI caused a major improvement in my ability to swim comfortably over time.
The next step was when I realized that technique alone wasn’t going to transform me into a powerful swimmer: I needed to spend more time training. While I loved the open water, I could never stick to a very serious workout at Coyote Point. I was more like a tourist. So eventually I found my way to a Masters swim group, Burlingame Aquatic Club. “Masters” in this case simply means “old,” not necessarily expert, and “old” means “over 18,” so it’s a really misleading name. In fact, Masters swim groups have adult swimmers of all abilities, from very slow to very fast. And as I found there is no obvious correlation between age or shape and speed. I was in one of the slowest lanes and was regularly getting smoked by older women of a, shall we say, comfortable shape.
But I stuck with it, after awhile, and found that with some moderate training I was getting a little faster and a lot more comfortable in the water. That brought me back into the bay, and in late 2015, I started swimming with my friend Kate at the South End Rowing Club — another perhaps misnamed organization, since in addition to rowing it also supports handball, running, and, yes, swimming. It’s also nowhere near San Francisco’s South End anymore, although it started there; since the 1930s it’s been located on the city’s north shore at Aquatic Park, adjacent to Fisherman’s Wharf.
In Aquatic Park, I discovered an enclosed cove that, while colder than Coyote Point, had stunning views: Ghirardelli Square, Coit Tower, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge. And the historic ships along Hyde Street Pier: The epic masts of century-old sailing ships, and you could swim right past them, like a pirate! I was in heaven.
Throughout 2016, Kate, her friend Chris, and I had a weekly midday swimming date. We explored Aquatic Park and its environs, in the water and out of it, swimming longer distances as we got used to the water and checking out different lunch options almost every week. It became clear to me that Aquatic Park was a jewel in San Francisco’s crown, an under-appreciated treasure, and it was right there for anyone to jump into it and enjoy. Even better, every day we swam there it was different. Water conditions, air conditions, things swimming about with us or flying overhead: Every single swim was like an amazing new voyage. I couldn’t believe my luck.
Of course, I was hooked.
In my next update, I’ll explain why the cold really isn’t so bad. Honest!
If you’d like to follow along from now until July 9, please add your address using the form below, and I’ll send you a message or two each week, as this story develops.
In the aftermath of Paris, the gutting of the EPA, and rolling back of environmental regulations all over the place, we need local environmental advocates like SF BayKeeper more than ever. Please join me in supporting them. (You don’t have to swim with me, unless you want to, I promise.)
And even if you are a Trump-loving Republican, as long as you like clean water, support me anyway! Because local environmental organizations like this are replacing former federal government functions. It’s a win-win either way!
Liz Spayd was more of a columnist than a true ombudsman, but the Huffington Post coverage points out why that role is still important: Not necessarily for accountability (since we all hold the newspapers we read accountable these days), but simply for getting answers:
by being in the newsroom, public editors and ombudsmen can often get responses from management on editorial decision-making that outside reporters and critics cannot
Sadly, almost no newspapers have ombudsmen any more. (A true ombudsman would be outside the newsroom reporting structure, reporting to the publisher or CEO, and with latitude to publish things that the editors might not want published. A public editor is accountable to the editor in chief.)
At any rate, the NYT is not exactly instilling confidence in the wake of its 2016 election coverage by eliminating this role. Many have rightly criticized the paper for spending far more time on Hillary’s emails than on, say, Trump’s Russian connections. Some of that is due to the nature of the news market (you write stories for what the audience wants, and the audience shares what it likes) but there is still an important role for an ombudsman or, failing that, a public editor. Not that Spayd was particularly good at the job, but she was something. And now she’s on her way out.
We need independent journalism more than ever. For all the great work it does, the Times is still fallible, often egregiously so, and it needs someone to hold its feet to the fire and demand answers.
I read that Annie Dillard, when composing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, was living in the suburbs and raising a family. Strange, at first, to think that one could compose such solitude in the midst of bland civilization. Or dive that deep into nature among the streets and cul-de-sacs of a small town and all its busy-ness. But then I remember Thoreau, too, sought his solitude in a cabin but placed it close enough to town that he could still bring his laundry back to the landlady once a week, a fact that goes unmentioned in his book. And the Chinese poet-sages, who cultivated an air of reclusiveness such that one might almost think they were hermits: In fact they were bureaucrats working government jobs, raising families, living in the suburbs, and escaping to the hills whenever possible to contemplate, to drink with their literary friends, and to paint the landscape of their ideal world on rice paper scrolls. All that remains today are the scrolls. We chuckle at this hypocrisy until we realize: This too is a strategy of survival. The city has its own nature; why not the suburbs? To find a place of refuge in the exurban sprawl is no mean feat. We should all be able to concentrate our minds so.
Here’s a lovely turn of phrase from a friend of Tomasz Tunguz:
The entire story reminded me of an old friend who often tells me, “We are lent into each other’s keeping.” Our time with each other is borrowed, its duration is unknown, and that uncertainty makes it precious.
There’s also a moving story about Muhammad Ali’s empathy and his definition of evil.
No matter how you slice it, the media is in trouble.
Fake news. Guest “experts” who don’t tell the truth. Clickbait headlines. A President who calls the media the “enemy of the American people.” No wonder public trust in the media is at an all-time low.
Meanwhile, news organizations are continuing to lay people off, even after decades of cuts. Ad revenues continue to drop, and few publications are able to make up the difference through subscription revenues.
Reporters are required to cover larger beats, produce more stories, and generate more pageviews than ever before. And everyone hates them.
It’s a stressful job, as I can tell you: I worked in daily online news from 2007 to 2015, and each year the demands on me and my team ratcheted up while the overall media business looked worse and worse.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 54,400 working journalists in the U.S., and the total is declining. If you look at just full-time daily journalists, the count is down to just 33,000, about half of what it was in 2000.
Meanwhile, BLS counts 306,500 public relations specialists and PR managers. That means the people who are paid to get corporate messages across outnumber daily news journalists by nearly 10 to 1.
That’s not even a fair fight.
This imbalance explains why reporters’ inboxes are overflowing with email pitches, and it also explains why it’s so hard to get a reporter to reply to a pitch, even to say “No thanks.”
Understanding that, how should companies and the PR pros who represent them respond? As I see it, there are two main options.
Note: I’ll be discussing this topic onstage at the PR Summit in Austin, Texas on March 8, together with PR entrepreneurs Josh Jones-Dilworth and Conrad Egusa. I’d love to see you there. And if you want discount codes on tickets, let me know!
Option One: Be Like Donald
Ignore the press. Forge your own, direct connections with your target audiences. Create a strong social media presence on Facebook (which will cost you, because Facebook doesn’t promote brands without getting paid) and on Twitter (where anything goes and you can easily reach a targeted, polarized audience at low cost). Your independence from the dying media is directly proportional to the size of the audience you have built. Accordingly, focus on building that audience.
Own your own media. Build a rich website full of interesting things to watch and read, because you don’t want to be totally dependent on Facebook, and you need a way to deliver your message to all comers. Or create a YouTube channel, or a Snapchat channel.
You will need an authentic voice and you’ll need to have something interesting to say on a regular basis: weekly or daily. If you’ve got an outrageous personality, so much the better. People on social media love to be entertained.
If your brand is not outrageous, all hope is not lost. You can still carve out a niche by being dependable, interesting, informative, or useful. Decide what your advantage is and deliver that constantly.
Focus on the metrics. Unless the polls go against you–then forget the metrics and say something that will get people talking.
This isn’t rocket science: It’s storytelling and showmanship. Talk loudly and carry a big schtick.
Option Two: Be More Useful
Double down on the idea that PR and press have a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship. Too often communications pros give lip service to this idea but don’t actually deliver. Instead, take the role as a facilitator seriously, and figure out how you can help the journalists you talk to, not just your clients.
Prioritize quality engagements and understand how your client fits into bigger-picture stories, rather than just touting the latest big fundraise or the newest product features.
Help promote stories that journalists write. You’ve got the ability to help amplify stories. Use it. More page views and more RTs are always welcome.
Develop more thoughtful op-eds and bylines, because most publications are starved for informed perspectives that aren’t horribly written and self promotional. Your goal should be to get your executives recognized as smart, interesting people worth paying attention to, not to promote their brands. This isn’t direct response marketing, it’s indirect response PR.
Support institutions that defend freedom of the press, like the ACLU and the Society of Professional Journalists.
Subscribe to a newspaper. Or three. Seriously, spend money to support quality journalism.
And if you’re wealthy enough, buy the whole paper. Just don’t expect to make a lot of money out of it–owning a publication is more like philanthropy than it is like capitalism.
Remember, if the press goes away, PR people don’t have a job any more either. It’s time for public relations to step up and take responsibility for helping support the fourth estate.