Wednesday, March 18

There Is Little Room For Truth With The Future Of Media.

When you reconcile the state of communication today, its condition is critical. Journalism is giving up ground to public relations, which continues to be swept aside by content marketing. It will continue to do so at least until technology rewrites the definition of social media as we know it, with a rapidly evolving future as documented in a conversation that continues with Danny Brown today.

Follow that path to its logical conclusion and you'll discover that we really are witnessing the steady decline journalism in favor of special interest advocacy that masquerades as valuable content while being fueled by any number of organizational agendas. We now live in a world where even science becomes a public relations battleground to win over public opinion — a throwback to the era of a yellow press when news was less important than eye-catching headlines much like today.

New media has been reformatted for a new master. So now what?

Unless you live in a vacuum, you already know that the changeover from old media to new media is a pejorative concept. The media had been consolidated for some time, mostly among six media giants that once controlled about 90 percent of the media. Want to know who owned what? Look here.

This suggests that the transition from corporate-owned media to corporate (or special interest) generated media is largely lateral. Except, it's not. Even when corporations owned the media, they mostly left management alone, which left the reporters alone in turn. That isn't the case now.

When corporations and special interests decided to stop funding somewhat objective news outlets in favor of more advocacy eyeballs and carefully controlled content marketing, they created a fiscal rift that made owning a news organization an investment liability (unless that outlet earned eyeballs too).

That in and of itself accelerated a growing problem. For about 100 years, reporters only had to tell the truth or shame the devil to be successful. But with the advent of click counts and page views, the journalist started facing a very different job description. Each story has to stand on its own eyeball count and each journalist became responsible for developing his or her own niche following, which (sadly) continues to be defined by eyeball counts over professional prowess.

Under these conditions, telling the truth (or shaming the devil) really isn't enough. You have to tell the truth people want to hear and shame the devils that the public doesn't like. And you have to do it for a fraction of the cost because journalism hasn't kept up with scalable salaries.

Nowadays, only news commentary consultants and talk show hosts command real income-earning potential as they deliver the goods that people either love or hate. Call it biased infotainment — news adorned in a "what to think" packaging — sound bites that sum up most of it.

On the other side of the fence, brand journalists are attempting to do the same. The modern special interest gatekeepers — professionals who once catered to the journalists — are increasingly interested in spinning their own never vetted musings of content marketing as news, which maintains an objective that is the polar opposite of journalism. The new job is to add perspective and praise the internal angels, with budgets that eclipse what journalism once spent tenfold.

The budgets don't only make the output potentially more infectious but also make these new brand journalist/content marketing positions slightly more fun, significantly more visible, and reward with substantially better salary caps — at least enough to lure away the very people who used to be considered the fourth estate. All that is required in return is that the one-time-journalist see the world thorough the lens of the organizational perspective first. That isn't so bad. Or is it?

Earned media has become an archaic term. It's all pay, up front and often. 

There is no question some of it will be useful, even if the next generation will likely be lost in a world with no truth tellers. They'll be left in a place where everything is an opinion. Moral facts will all be optional — except when they are decided en masse by a simple majority that changes with the tides.

On the surface, content marketers seem relatively happy with a growing share of the communication landscape (over public relations, which is over journalism). But over the long term, no one should be too happy about it. Whereas journalists had a loyalty to citizens and public relations practitioners had a loyalty to both the organization and the public, content marketers serve organizational interests.

And when only the readily available content comes from an organizational perspective, then we've lost something as a thinking society. The content we will believe will largely be owned by whichever organization has the dollars to convince us as all of the others are drowned out by multi-channel repetition, with the only real irony being that most people will prefer it over time.

What do you think? Will there ever be a miracle resurgence in people being willing to pay for valuable, truthful, and objective news? Or will organizations simply fill the void with advocacy news, well-funded stories and slants that serve up "value" as long as it produces other outcomes too?

Wednesday, March 11

Has The Age Of Facebook Debates Come To A Close?


Facebook Wall
Trish Forant at Dayngr Zone Media recently posed an interesting and increasingly common question on Facebook, asking friends if they've pulled back from sharing opinions or engaging in debates on the popular social network. She is not alone. A few weeks earlier, Blog Bloke had asked a similar question, wondering what his friends posted besides kid pics, food porn, and celebrity sightings.

He had more or less asked where has the social imperative for social media gone.

It hasn't necessarily gone anywhere. But more and more people, it seems, feel that social networks are already too negative in between their servings of silly cat videos. After all, one person's social justice is another person's social poison. And unless you're up for some diatribe, it is best to be a sycophant or perhaps stay silent. Even constructive criticism is a skill set as plenty of people are easily offended.

Recently, one of my friends told me to "read the article" after I left a comment on an article she had shared. The article asked people to pick between two vices. I had said neither, which was later attributed to me thinking like a parent. I could have said I was thinking like a person and outlined my case, but why bother? It was already apparent after two invalidations that discussion wasn't welcome.

And therein lies the crux of the problem. Not all social networks really afford as much two-way communication as one might think. Facebook is especially weak in the dialogue department.

BustersFacebook is a lousy platform for meaningful dialogue and intelligent debate. 

This isn't a network criticism. It's a recognition that the platform was designed to help people manage social connections and connect with those who have similar interests and not communication or social discourse. And while sometimes a discussion might lead someone to a revelation, such occurrences are rare. Most debates only make people feel bad at worst, awkward at best. Why?

• Facebook celebrates sycophants.  It isn't by accident that Facebook has a 'like' button. The system is meant to deliver positive reinforcement from friends. "Me too" and "good job" add happiness.

• Facebook invites dogma. The wall and comment section of Facebook is much less suited to dialogue than statement making. Most discussions consist of affirmative or negative sentiment.

• Facebook skews for affirmation. Much like more and more people watch news programs that reference their beliefs, they nurture friends in the same way and unfriend those who don't fit.

• Facebook favors majority. As people mass a majority of like-minded friends, they build an army of agreement to support whatever they happen to share and sometimes to shake down dissenters.   

• Facebook creates imbalance. Whereas blogs provide an open-ended forum with the potential for thoughtful discussion and Twitter forces dialogue with a 140-character limit, Facebook creates the impression that short comments feel like quips and long comments are akin to hijacking the post.

All in all, the social network is mostly designed to deliver healthy does of "good vibes" so you keep coming back for more. It mostly works that way too. Few people actually sign on to thrive as the one contrarian among friends, on their wall or someone else's spaces. Life is too short to be grumpy.

So most people sign on to share bits and pieces of their lives, with the unstated understanding that their friends will give them support or props as needed, and the unstated assumption that they do the same for their friends. And when you know that is the system by design, it doesn't make much sense to muck it up by floating out too many ideologies, issues, or opinions that people disagree with.

Sure, there are those like Trish Forant (and myself) who are generally more than happy to celebrate our diversity of friendships and willingness to agree to disagree. But nowadays, fewer people seem accustomed to the notion that most topics cannot be boiled down into black and white, red or blue.

Why would they be accustomed to anything else? Facebook is purposefully designed for someone to either "like" something or remain silent. Anything else carries the risk of negative reinforcement. Real discussion, on the other hand, requires a better format and, occasionally, a decent moderator.

Wednesday, March 4

Does PR Transparency End Where Individual Privacy Begins?

A new lawsuit filed by Nina Pham, the 26-year-old nurse who contracted Ebola from her patient at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, ought to give public relations professionals pause. The allegations raised in the lawsuit raise some valid questions about the industry's pat answer that transparency is always an effective remedy for crisis communication.

While negligence is at the core of the lawsuit, Pham says that the hospital's public relations efforts violated her right to privacy. Specifically, as reported by ABC News, the lawsuit alleges that the hospital released false information about her condition, shot and released a video of her while she was in care without her knowledge or consent, and breached her privacy by releasing her name in an attempt to be transparent with the media.

According to Pham, the public relations department was also inappropriately aggressive, asking to talk to her for a news release "about how much she loves Presbyterian" shortly after doctors were simultaneously talking to her about end-of-life decisions. The release was part of a public relations campaign aimed at restoring faith in the hospital. The slogan was "Presby Proud."

The hospital maintains that not only was it sensitive to her privacy, but it also adhered to HIPAA rules in determining what information was shared publicly with her consent. It has since released a media statement that they will continue to support her and wish the best for her while remaining optimistic that constructive dialogue can resolve this matter.

Employees are both — part of the organization and the most important public.

One of the most challenging aspects of crisis communication is for public relations professionals to remember that employees are an independent public as much as they part of the organization. And that means that employees, those affected by a crisis in particular, are not necessarily part of the "organization" that the public relations team is trying to protect but rather its most important public.

It's all too easy to forget. During a maelstrom of media attention, especially national coverage that threatens the reputation of the organization, good public relations professionals are trained to efficiently meet the needs of the media and the public outside of the organization. But all too often, they are not trained to think of the afflicted employee as having very different priorities.

If public relations professionals did remember that afflicted employees are an independent public, then they would be more likely to remember that one of the core functions of the profession is to build mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics. And in framing the profession and relationships this way, come to very different conclusions about coercion, persuasion, and possibly exploitation in releasing videos, drafting quotes, or asking for a campaign endorsement.

On the contrary, while those relationships may naturally develop as a result of mutual trust, the public relations team ought to be working for the individual as much as the organization. In other words, they have to ask not only what is in the best interest of organization but also the employee.

Was persuading her to give up some privacy in her best interest? Was releasing the video that she allegedly had no knowledge was being shot? Was soliciting her endorsement for a PR campaign?

The answers are fundamentally different if we perceive the role of public relations as a function of protecting the organization or working in the best interest of all involved. The latter view, which is the more evolved perspective, recognizes that working in the best interest of everyone is often the most effective means to protect not only its reputation, but also its ability to mitigate a crisis and recover, ushering in a new standard for preparedness.

Wednesday, February 25

Why Some So-Called Losses Are Really Wins In Disguise

My son had been staying after school for months, hoping to land one of 14 spots on the junior varsity volleyball team. It seemed like the ideal spring sport for him to balance out football in the fall.

He worked hard at it whenever possible, missing only one practice since the intramural pre-tryout program had begun. He was a dedicated player and progressed at a faster pace than most of his peers. When you asked any of them, they expected to be cut well before him. Except, they weren't cut.

In what seemed to be a split decision among the coaches, he finished one or two spots short out of the 30 some kids who were vying for a position. Even after one of the coaches told him coldly that he was "athletic, but not for volleyball," another coach openly disagreed and told him to come out next year.

Maybe he will. Maybe he won't. His more immediate challenge was that he had missed all the mandatory meetings for any other spring sports. It's a tough spot to be in, something long-time marketer and author Geoff Livingston described as being the "first loser." It sucks to be thisclose to a win.

Our compulsion to tally up wins and losses feeds an unproductive fantasy.

For some people, wins and losses can be very real. You either pass an exam or you don't. You win the state championship or you don't. You are hired for the position or you aren't. So on and so forth.

But mostly, our incessant need to make tally marks in the win/loss column is all a bunch of rubbish. One exam isn't a measure of subject mastery. The final score isn't an adequate measure of true performance. The position you're passed over for might be turn out to be your biggest win ever. 

The point here is pretty simple. Not only does our overemphasis on any given win or loss become a distraction from some yet-to-be-seen success, we tend to frame them all up with too much idealism. You see, winning doesn't mean everything will end well any more than losing means that you have something more to learn. Either outcome can produce the opposite of whatever it is you are looking for in the long term and you may never really know what that other outcome might have been.

As the old saying ought to go, the only thing worse than losing an account is winning a bad one. Bad accounts can burn up time with unrealistic service demands or relentless change orders, cost a company its solvency with late payments or by defaulting on any credit, and damage reputations by underplaying contributions or making vendors scapegoats for their bad decisions. They can make you crazy trying to keep them, sometimes at the expense of any underperforming but stable clients. So who knows? Maybe the universe did you a favor by spinning the wheel of fortune one spoke short.

As long as you keep doing, you will eventually have your fair share of wins and losses. And with any luck, the balance among all of them — and the real outcomes to follow — will one day amount to a legacy that you can pay forward. Because that, not any tiny win or loss, is what life is really about.

The best thing that never happened to my son was making that team. 

In less than 24 hours after being turned away from the volleyball team, my son received an unexpected text from one of his friends. While all the mandatory meetings for track had passed, the team was still looking for a few athletes to try pole vaulting. He was unsure, but undeterred.

When my son turned out on a day that the pole vaulting coach didn't make it, he asked to the practice with the shot put throwers instead. Three throws later, the shot put coach signed him to the team. Despite never having tried it before, the coach noted his perfect form and throwing potential. Now he's weighing whether he should focus exclusively on shot put or try pole vaulting too. 

Either way is a win-win decision for him. The fact that he has this decision to make tells a story that is very different from the one that opened this post. When he didn't land a spot on the junior varsity volleyball team, it opened up the opportunity for him to land a variety spots on the track team.

So was the set up really a loss? Or was it a win? Or does it merely prove one of my friend's favorite quotes that attitude is superior to circumstance? I don't know, but I'm leaning toward the latter. Losing assumes one has something to lose and most people don't. We either set out to win or merely break even. So just keep doing as long as you are happy in the pursuit of it. Being able to pursue it is the win.

Wednesday, February 18

Your Primary Objective As A PR Writer Is To Be Understood

clarity in writing
All writers share a common objective, regardless of their mission, medium, or industry. They all strive to convey a message that makes sense. And yet, very few of them really do.

Sure, some might nowadays argue that mission critical is to get clicks/eyeballs, generate leads, or miraculously prove their worth with direct sales. But while all of that sounds fine and good, such convoluted communication missions often get in the way of good business by scarifying clarity.

The truth is that it’s often those goals that get content into trouble. In an effort to attract more attention, sound like a subject matter expert, and push more sales, they say the wrong things, complicate their meaning, and destroy trust by selling too hard. In most cases, all these writers needed to do was one thing: to be better understood.

It works. You win anytime you can deliver the right message to the right audience in such a way that they readily understand it, remember it, and respond to it. Clarity comes first.

Five benchmarks for better clarity in writing.

Be Readable.
While anyone with an intense interest in a subject will read the worst writing (when there are limited sources), people generally ignore content that demands too much effort.

Be Conversational. While style ought to suit the medium and the organization, the most widely read content on the Internet tends to be human, fun, and informative. It reads like we talk.

Be Spontaneous. Much like music, movie, and media industries have discovered, formulas have a short shelf life before readers find them to be stale, uninteresting, and something to avoid.

Be Descriptive. Definitions can be useful, but descriptions are easier to understand and remember. They tend to touch our emotions in ways that definitions seldom do.

Be Focused. One point is always more powerful than 50. When you consider people are bombarded with more than 100,000 messages every day, having them remember even one is quite an accomplishment. Choose that point wisely.

Some of this might read like common sense, but most experienced writers will tell you that believing in these five benchmarks is far easier than executing them. All of us are guilty of cluttering our best content with clever writing, filler to flesh out the word count, or some lofty objectives that make clients happier than their customers at one time or another.

We might even pat ourselves on the back for a job that feels well done when we turn in or click publish. It might not even be until weeks or months later that we’ll stumble across the old content and mutter that for all the accolades we missed the mark. All people really want is a few paragraphs of honest prose that they can understand and appreciate for its value, significance, and directness as something they can apply to their everyday life or, at least, help them in making better decisions.

Even in this case, it all comes back to one thing. Clarity is the content that people remember.

Wednesday, February 11

The Psychology Of Facebook Can Get A Little Bit Crazy

As much as marketers hold on to hope for the promised land of big data — one algorithm to rule them all and in the darkness bind them — the information they covet remains convoluted. Big data can't crack what consumers don't share because algorithms play by the program rules and people never do.

One such study making the rounds even proves the point in its attempt to demonstrate the opposite. Despite some headline capturing claims that Facebook "likes" can assess your personality just as accurately as your spouse (and better than your friends), most people were miffed when they accepted an open invitation to take the algorithm for a test run. It seems that results vary.

The algorithm developed by Michal Kosinski at the Stanford University Computer Science Department, for example, pinned me down as a 25-year-old single female who is unsatisfied with life (among other things). It wasn't the only data fail among other friends who tried it. The model missed and missed and missed. There are reasons why, with mine being the easiest to decipher.

My personal usage of Facebook is best described as treating a few minutes out of every day as casual Friday. My connections are mostly limited to friends, family, and long-time online acquaintances. My principal activities include catching up with what they are doing, sharing stories about my children, and posting the occasional baked goods pictures. Why? Because I don't really do that anywhere else.

I also make a conscious effort to avoid controversy, not because I'm "agreeable" but because that social network isn't a place I want to invite deep discussion, debate, or any drama. And what that means is, in sum, that only a sliver of my personality comes across on Facebook. For others, I'm told, the assessments are wrong for a different reason. Not everyone is completely honest on Facebook, not all profiles are complete, and people "like" different pages and things for reasons you never expect.

Why big data models miss the mark with psychological stereotypes. 

Beyond the most obvious — that any algorithm is only as good as the input it is allowed to compile — there is always unexpected trouble when stereotypes are introduced into a psychological test. According to the aforementioned model, the algorithm assumes people who like "Snooki" or "Beer Pong" are outgoing and people who like "Doctor Who" and "Wikipedia" are not. Men who like "Wicked, The Musical" were defined as more likely to be homosexual and those liking "WWE" or "Bruce Lee" were not. Those who like "the Bible" are said to be more cooperative while those who like "Atheism" are competitive. And so on, and so forth.

Says who? Says some of the data that came from the myPersonality project designed by David Stillwell, deputy director of the Psychometrics Centre at the University of Cambridge. Between 2008 and 2012, myPersonality users agreed to take a survey, which asked participants about their personal details and personality traits. Their answers were then assigned to buckets such as openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and emotional stability. (The new test delivers those results too.)

But no matter how those results are derived, the best an algorithm can do is capture a data point and put it in a bucket. It has a much harder time recognizing intent, realizing something a human might notice like, let's say, that Joey isn't pregnant but his cousin June might be. The baby shower is coming up and he has been searching for and liking pages that might give him an idea of what to buy.

Stripped of any overreach that would paint Joey as an expectant mother, there is one area where analytics sometimes succeed. It might recognize that Joey is in the market for some baby gifts (assuming this deduction is made before and not after he finds a gift). Or perhaps, if Joey has also liked certain television shows, then one might deduce that he would be interested in similar shows. Or perhaps, some data might be employed to fine tune the tone of a message much like direct mail writers once did using PRISM research data.

But even then, minor research advantages were tempered by Rule No. 7 in Advertising in the past. It's the rule that reminded commercial writers that people tend to lie. They are predisposed to "like" things (or even "list" things in a Neilsen ratings book) that make themselves look a little brighter, better, smarter, or savvy regardless of what they really watch, like, or do. They also tend to share more positive life events than they do negative ones, connect and disconnect with people more easily, and like pages that friends recommend because they think they are doing their friends a favor. Maybe.

The irony in that? Some studies suggest that social networks can unintentionally contribute to depression, indicate anxiety related to relationship insecurity, and become as addictive as cocaine.

And while all three studies might provide an interesting read, marketers could probably learn more about their markets from the SizeUp tool provided by the Small Business Administration; any number of other affordable data providers like SEC filings, BizStats, or even the United States Census, or proven research methods such as consumer interviews, focus groups, and tests with a control group.

Does that sound too time consuming, cumbersome, or expensive? Then just wait until you see how expensive a product or service launch can be based on social network data alone. It's a little bit crazy.
 

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