Our Blog


The Sports Guy Returns! Long Live the Sports Guy!

By Mike Kuczkowski

He’s baaaack!

Bill Simmons, the bad boy of podcasting, has returned to the studio and is churning out his commentary on Vegas’ National Football League lines again, along with podcasts on basketball and various other pop culture topics.

I feel like Don Imus has returned to WFAN after racist comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, or Billy Martin is back in the Yankee dugout.

Actually, I don’t feel that way at all. Simmons is nothing like those guys. (And I confess to loving both Imus and Martin, despite their mistakes.) Simmons is probably the most middlebrow commentator the interwebs have yet produced.

Yet Simmons managed to get himself suspended for three weeks, after saying on his B.S. Report podcast that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was “a liar.” That description, which many observers would agree holds at least the possibility of being true, apparently ran afoul ESPN’s editorial standards.

The suspension itself became a cause célèbre. Simmons’ loyal followers (he has nearly 3 million Twitter followers and his B.S. Report podcast is consistently among the most downloaded in the iTunes store) were outraged and launched a #FreeSimmons hashtag campaign. Domestic violence supporters spoke out in his defense. Commentators quickly pointed out the multi-billion dollar relationship between ESPN and the NFL, which presides over the premier league of America’s most popular sport, was probably the main reason for the suspension.

Neither ESPN nor the NFL looked good. (Here’s our crisis scorecard of both organizations.)

Simmons, on the other hand, presents a more complicated picture. Yes, he possesses a bit of a martyr halo here, for being suspended for speaking his mind. But he also was, what’s the word… stupid.

In life and in journalism, when you hear the words “I dare you” leaving your lips, you are literally asking for trouble. So, in a way, Simmons got what he was asking for.

What disappoints me is that Simmons was pontificating rather than offering the kind of nuanced, insightful analysis of which he’s capable. The analytical side of Simmons is what’s mostly on display on Grantland, with thoughtful, long-form news and commentary from his stable of writers. As I wrote in “The New Digital Journalists” these guys are bringing all the tools of the digital journalist — stats, links, YouTube clips, infographics and replay gifs — into their reporting. It’s exciting to witness.

The dark side of this is they are their own brands, and they know it. At his best, as with his interview with legendary screenwriter William Goldman, Simmons asks excellent questions and listens well. He’s witty, thoughtful and observant. At other times, he sounds like a frat boy, full of braggadocio.

Monday, Simmons returned to the BS Report, talking about the NFL’s Week 7 games and Week 8 betting lines. His only reference to the controversy was to say he was glad to be back and to thank fans for their kind emails and tweets of support. It is perhaps the most winning moment in this entire scandal. Striking a reasonable tone in his first podcast underscores the degree to which ESPN acted unreasonably.

There’s a lot of ballgame yet to be played. Grantland itself has come under scrutiny, and it’s still evolving as a platform. There are whispers that Simmons will look to walk away from ESPN at the end of his current contract, in which case he’s likely to have many suitors. Let’s hope that wherever he goes, he stays true to the thoughtful side of the brand and persona he’s created, with a lesser dose of pontification. It would be his ultimate victory.

Crisis Scorecard: ESPN and the NFL

By Mike Kuczkowski

That ESPN and the NFL each face criticism for their handling of employee discipline underscores the unpredictable nature of the modern crisis, and how important performance in the face of unexpected events has become the measure of crisis response.

The league has botched a series of incidents of domestic violence and child abuse involving its players. Most notably, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had to backpedal aggressively in the wake of criticism of his suspension of star Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. This was after the Website TMZ posted a video showing Rice punch his then-fiancee, now wife, in an elevator at an Atlantic City casino and knock her unconscious.

Rice, who was initially given a two-week suspension, was suspended “indefinitely” by Goodell, who later admitted, “I got it wrong.”

The Rice incident involves a rather lengthy set of facts here, though they are important in terms of understanding how things went so wildly awry. (SB Nation has a helpful timeline.)

To my mind, there are five critical factors at play:

  • Objectivity: Goodell played two roles in this case and neither one well. He both questioned Rice, during a meeting in June, and judged him, issuing a suspension in July. These are two distinct roles. The first, which focuses on fact-gathering, requires a dogged determination to sort out complex issues. For an organization like the NFL, it’s not enough to leave the fact-gathering to the criminal justice system. It must have its own objective standards of professional behavior, and apply the facts of a case to those standards. After all, professional football players are not average people. They are invariably multi-millionaires whose conduct reflects on their teams and the league itself, as the current case shows.
  • Fairness: Someone, ideally someone not on the fact-gathering team, needs to sit in judgment, weighing both the facts of the case and key issues that are outside of the core facts of the case. (e.g., first-time offense, violent nature of the offense, etc.) To many, Goodell’s two-week suspension immediately felt too light. An indefinite suspension now seems arbitrary, like he’s pandering to the critics. This is a hard decision to get right, which is why it rests with the league’s highest official.
  • Transparency: We live in an age of transparency. There can no longer be any expectation that facts or evidence in a case like this will not ultimately be made available to the general public. Technologically, it’s too easy to transport or transfer data and broadcast it to the world, as TMZ did in broadcasting the video from inside the elevator. There are also too many eyes on situations like this. Twenty years ago, the media list on a case like this would have included the Baltimore Sun, the Associated Press, Sports Illustrated and ESPN. Now there are dozens of blogs focused on sports and entertainment news, each of which are pressing for a scoop. The instantaneous sharing of news via social networks stokes the public outrage on issues like this, immediately resetting the news agenda to put new revelations at the top of the heap. Organizations may still take steps to try to ensure confidentiality, but they should prepare for sunlight.
  • Sensitivity to Context: This is probably the most nuanced aspect of this, but it bears mentioning — crisis managers need a sixth sense about how events connect to broader cultural and societal issues and can become exponentially larger crises. Domestic violence has always been a huge concern, but we are living in a cultural moment in which women, quite rightly, are fighting bias and prejudice in multiple contexts. Between Mulalla’s Nobel Peace Prize and “Lean In,” Goodell’s initial ruling feels obliviously and wildly anachoristic, in a “Mad Men” kind of way. It’s as though he looked at Rice, who generally had a good reputation as a community-minded player, and his wife, who was also urging leniency, and did what felt right to him, which was wrong under any circumstance or any time. In the current context, the issue was bound to spark considerably wider scrutiny.
  • Accountability: Everyone needs to be prepared to be accountable for their actions. In this case, it seems like multiple parties failed the test. Rice’s lawyers, who described this as a “very minor incident” should face questions about that description. Atlantic City police, who charged him with a misdemeanor and released him and his fiancée together within hours of the incident, face their own questions. It’s legitimate to question whether prosecutors, who agreed to allow Rice into a pre-trial program normally reserved for non-violent offenders, followed their own rules. Rice, whose actions clearly jeopardized the reputation of his team and the NFL, must be appropriately held accountable. And, Goodell now must answer to owners and fans for his initially too-weak punishment of Rice, and for — by his own admission — getting it wrong.

This same set of standards could be applied to ESPN:

  • Objectivity: There’s not much question as to what Simmons said, millions of people listened to the podcast. But, there are plenty of questions as to what in his statement, which was simply a rant, violated editorial standards. Here’s the key excerpt:

Goodell, if he didn’t know what was on that tape, he’s a liar. I’m just saying it. He is lying. I think that dude is lying. If you put him up on a lie detector test that guy would fail. For all these people to pretend they didn’t know is such f***ing bulls***. It really is. It’s such f***ing bulls***. And for him to go in that press conference and pretend otherwise, I was so insulted. I really was.

 I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I’m in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell. Because if one person says that to me, I’m going public. You leave me alone. The Commissioner’s a liar and I get to talk about that on my podcast. Please, call me and say I’m in trouble. I dare you.

An objective person would have a hard time interpreting Simmons’ comments about Goodell as anything other than a strongly held opinion, perhaps an irresponsible one, but definitely within First Amendment boundaries of free speech. Odds are, as many critics have speculated and ESPN’s own ombudsman admits, there is a piece of insubordination in Simmons’ commentary — the “I dare you” part — that prompted action, which, in my opinion, is not terribly objective.

  • Fairness: Is a three-week suspension of a commentator for making a provocative but “within the realm of possibility” statement fair? I know of no comparable suspension in history. The immediate comparison was to Rice himself, whose initial suspension for domestic abuse was shorter. But commentators are another animal altogether. In 2007, Imus was suspended for two weeks after remarks so racist I don’t feel comfortable reprinting them here. ESPN has suspended people before for things like having affairs with production assistants, sexual harassment or racist or insensitive on-air remarks. The Simmons incident doesn’t have any of those elements. Candidly, I struggle to find a benchmark for comparison, which is troubling.
  • Transparency: Score a point for ESPN. They explained themselves and ESPN’s ombudsman Robert Lipsyte wrote a lengthy column about it, bringing his own perspective to the issue and saying he thought it was the right thing to do. Lipsyte raises a question that I believe is a legitimate concern – who is responsible for reviewing podcasts and columns before they are posted, and are they really in a position to push back on a ‘franchise player’ like Simmons. An excellent question, but one that should be directed at ESPN more than Simmons. After all, ESPN determines what kind of organization supports Simmons.
  • Sensitivity to Context: Again, Simmons has been on the right side of this issue. He’s been one of the set of people willing to say that Goodell got it wrong and willing to put people on his podcast who represented women’s point of view of the situation. Silencing that kind of a voice, while expedient in the context of a multibillion dollar broadcasting relationships, is dangerous.
  • Accountability: Ultimately, ESPN is not really accountable to the public in the same way the NFL is, although it probably should be. Most of the tools of accountability that would normally be used with a broadcaster, such as an FCC action, don’t yet apply to podcasts and digital sites. And it’s a general rule that unduly harsh discipline is less likely to bring an organization down than unduly lenient discipline. People can come to Simmons’ defense on Twitter, but obviously that didn’t change ESPN’s mind.

So ESPN comes out slightly ahead in this analysis than the NFL. But only slightly.

Film Festival Lessons In Transmedia Storytelling

Filmmakers at the Mill Valley Film Festival spoke about how transmedia storytelling boosted their projects

By Mike Kuczkowski

The rise of what many call “transmedia storytelling” has been both exciting and disruptive for communications professionals. My former Edelman colleague Steve Rubel speaks and writes usefully and at length about this concept; I’ve lectured on it to college classes and found it quite a powerful organizing framework for communications efforts.

The concept involves developing a single piece of content or a theme, and activating it across multiple online and real-life channels. For example, a company might develop a piece of “owned” content, such as an interactive CSR report, on a corporate web site, “share” an infographic from the report on their Facebook page or other social media, and pitch elements of it to traditional (or “earned”) media and so-called “hybrid” channels, such as blogs or new digital media. Steve and Edelman use a cloverleaf construct to describe it; I use a solar system model. No one model is right or wrong, and as new channels and platforms emerge, the models themselves evolve.

The “Active Cinema Toolkit” panel at the Mill Valley Film Festival seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore the topic from a new perspective. It was billed as a discussion with “filmmaker-innovators” who would discuss new ways platforms could support filmmakers to inspire engagement.

I assumed filmmakers would be on the cutting edge of this.

I was wrong.

The panelists had no more of a playbook for what’s happening with new digital channels than anyone else. But, their stories did offer compelling lessons for communicators.

Here are synopses of their projects:

  • Denise Zmekhol, a Brazililan-born filmmaker, talked about “Trading Bows and Arrows for Laptops,” a project born out of her own documentary, Children of the Amazon, in which an Amazonian tribe collaborated with Google on a project that trained members of the Surui tribe in the Amazon how to document their tribe’s cultural history on Google Earth.
  • Filmmaker Helen Demichiel embarked on a traditional documentary about activists who were trying to change the way children eat in Oakland’s public schools. As the cultural and policy conversation about childhood obesity gained momentum, the project morphed into a Website with webisodes, activist tools and curriculum guides, and a forum for community engagement.
  • Kenji Yamamoto and his partner Nancy Kelly produced Rebels With A Cause, the story of how activists saved the Marin Headlands as open space starting in the 1950s. He talked about how social media tools allowed him to organize around the project, overcome barriers and become his own distributor for the film.
  • Zeresnay Berthane Mehari wrote and directed Difret, a feature film about a 14-year old girl who was abducted for marriage and later became the first girl in Ethiopia to be acquitted of murder on grounds of self-defense. The project, which took six years, has won multiple film festival awards and is this year’s Ethiopian entry for the Academy Awards.
  • Wendy Levy, the executive director of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NEMAC), described the Oakland Fence Project, a large-scale interactive art project that will debut in Oakland’s Jack London Square in 2016. It’s built around a fence on which 6-foot-high photographs will be displayed. Observers will be able to get more information about the photos, artists and NGOs the artists support from their mobile phones while they stand in front of the pictures. They’ll also be able to buy the art or make a donation in the moment. It sounds brilliantly counterintuitive: a fence symbolizing a gathering place, as in “Meet me at the fence,” rather than a dividing line.

With each film, the rise and availability of new digital channels—though not necessarily case studies for integrated, transmedia storytelling—played different and important roles in their success.

For example, Yamamoto said he was unable to get a Bay Area theatrical release without a review in The San Francisco Chronicle. But in a kind of Catch-22, he could not get a Chronicle review without a guaranteed San Francisco theatrical run. He and his wife secured a screening at The Roxie, in San Francisco, and persuaded the Chronicle to review it.

Yamamoto and Kelly then self-distributed the film, securing week-to-week renewal deals with several area theaters, including what became an 11-week run at the Smith Rafael Film Center. They then used social media channels and screenings in small towns to drive further buzz and turnout. Interestingly, the power of good old-fashioned celebrity endorsement was key: After a celebrity agreed to promote film on her web site, their Facebook and Twitter views jumped from 5,000 to 26,000. They secured a deal with American Public Television to distribute the film to PBS stations, and hired a ‘station relations’ person to persuade more than 300 broadcast station managers to air the film, getting 83% of PBS stations on board during Earth Week 2014.

Mehari, on the other hand, started out wanting not to be an activist and being rejected by NGOs because his feature film was a non-traditional approach. Over time, though, he found support from an NGO that led to a dramatic spike in fundraising efforts, including two Kickstarter campaigns and a series of sponsored dinners in New York and London. (As with so many so-called “overnight” successes, Mehari had toiled for years without getting traction.)

Of all the projects, Levy’s seemed the only one to be designed as a multi-channel storytelling effort, with all the depth and dimensions that the technology allows. Hers is still in development. And while the interactive elements sound engaging, I wonder whether mobile devices will enhance or detract from the experience of viewing public art.

Here were my takeaways from the discussion:

  • Change is hard: Filmmakers, as creators, think of themselves as storytellers specific to their medium. So, while I might have thought that the rise of short-form video would naturally play to their strengths, it’s not necessarily so. As much as we say “form follows function,” in this case the functions have been emerging so quickly that it has been very disruptive, and hard to master, even for skilled artists.
  • Adaptability is critical: No single “model” dominates. Some filmmakers used multiple channels to raise money, some used it for publicity purposes. For the most part, it seemed that the filmmakers flexed to changes in their environment, and allowed themselves to explore new approaches in the face of unexpected challenges or opportunities. Demichiel made it clear that it wasn’t easy for her to let go of the concept of a full-length feature documentary, but the emergence of the childhood obesity issue and the needs of the activist community around it led to the webisode and resource center approach.
  • New skills are needed: As much as filmmakers know how to produce a film, they also needed to acquire skills in social media or, as in Zmekhol’s case, technology tools. Her videos of Google training Surai tribesmen and women in coding skills, so that they could embed their cultural map in Google Earth, was itself a fascinating story.
  • Old skills still matter: Yamamoto and Mehari said each said that a lot of what worked for him involved old-fashioned networking and pressing the flesh. “If I can’t look someone in the eye,” Yamamoto said, “I’m not going to be able to understand how to work with them.”
  • Passion counts: Asked by a novice filmmaker in the audience how to raise funding Mehari replied, “I could tell you the story of how I raised money for my film 500 different ways, but it would never happen the same way again. Ultimately, it’s about the passion you bring to the work; that’s what people will see in you.”

At bottom, the slow adoption of new media channels by filmmakers may be a comfort to communicators who have taken a similar “go slow” approach. Levy recalled dealing with the filmmaking community in 2004 through her involvement in NEMAC. “They’d say, ‘I don’t need a Web site.’ I’m a storyteller. We’d get lots of resistance,” Levy said. “Then in 2008, they would say, ‘I don’t do Facebook.’” In time, those answers changed, she said.

Fastforward to 2014. The ad hoc experiences these storytellers have had with various social media channels shows they are now more open, and more willing to experiment, when it comes to emergent digital channels. Imagine the power they’ll unlock with a truly integrated, transmedia storytelling approach in the future.

Don’t Call It A Comeback

By Mike Kuczkowski

A couple of weeks ago in Cupertino, a huge brand put everything on the line to try to re-establish its relevance in the face of doubts about its ability to execute. Its actions were beyond innovative — I’d argue they were revolutionary and hold the potential to transform the industry going forward.

I’m not talking about Apple. I’m talking about U2.

If you haven’t heard the entire story, here’s a quick synopsis. At the close of Apple’s big Sept. 9 event, where it revealed the new iPhone 6, the iPhone 6 plus, Apple Pay and Apple Watch, U2 took the stage to play its first single off its new album. Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that all iTunes users would receive a copy of U2’s new album.

I happen to like U2’s Songs of Innocence, but this isn’t an album review. The music industry has been greatly disrupted by the rise of digital technology in the past two decades in very interesting and unpredictable ways. In that context, U2’s promotional arrangement with Apple is a stroke of marketing genius that shows that the band is thinking like a brand.

Apple paid U2 for the privilege of giving the album away — a combination of unspecified royalty fees and a marketing campaign worth up to $100 million, according to The New York Times.

What’s brilliant about the deal is the unprecedented scope and scale of distribution. For context, the best-selling album in the history of popular music is Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which has certified sales of 42.4 million since its release in 1982.

With U2’s iTunes deal, the band distributed its album to 500 million users worldwide overnight. Three days later, Apple reported 2 million users had downloaded the album. Within a week, 33 million users had accessed at least one song.

This is one innovative approach, and it pits Apple as a music distributor against its clients, the record companies themselves. It’s not the only one either. Another band brand worth watching is Radiohead, who surprised markets by offering an “honor system” download of its In Rainbows album in 2009. Radiohead continues to experiment in this space, recently releasing music via its app, PolyFauna.

For bands that will undoubtedly make most of its money off a massive stadium tour, the impact of global exposure to its new music is extraordinary. Fed by publicity surrounding their novel approaches, both U2 and Radiohead are defining their brands by actions. Specifically in the case of the U2-Apple partnership, it’s a win-win. U2 gets immediate access to a global audience and proclaims its return with authority; Apple gets an iTunes subscriber base grateful for the gift of new music.

That said, there was a very interesting backlash among non-U2 fans for finding Songs of Innocence in their iTunes libraries. Apple had to create a tool to remove the free album. On one level, it’s an astonishing case of looking a gift horse in the mouth. On the other hand, it’s an important lesson about the iTunes platform as a distribution network — people want to know they have a right to opt out. Some critics said Apple violated its social contract with iTunes subscribers by operating as a music publisher, but I think those critics are simply late to recognize new industry realities. But, there is something to this: Users expect to have control their experience, rather than have something unwanted (even free) forced upon them.

What fascinates me is how U2 leveraged the changed nature of music distribution at a system level. There have been a lot of complaints about how digital music has destroyed the music industry, but iTunes is now a distribution channel like none that ever existed. The U2 deal shows that if Apple and an artist want to make themselves known, they don’t need radio stations or brick-and-mortar stores to do it.

U2 is both a fantastic rock and roll band and a savvy publicity machine. As last week’s story in Time Magazine shows, they’ve been thinking long and hard about how to return to the music scene with a splash five years after their last studio album. They are reportedly working on even more new music, plus a plan — with Apple — for a new digital music format that they hope will encourage people to buy more music and boost revenue for struggling artists.

I have no idea what that means, but the Songs of Innocence deal shows that Apple has the ability to transform music distribution. If there were a way to shift the economics of the industry such that songwriters and performers get a significantly bigger share of royalties from digital downloads, that would be truly revolutionary.

That’s a big lift. But then again, U2 has never been known for small ambitions.