Wednesday, April 8

Why I Want To Tell Writers To Stop Aspiring At Comic Con

The title of the panel that I'm participating on at Wizard World Comic Con might be entitled Calling All Aspiring Writers! The New Writer's Survival Guide, but I'll have a different message this time out. I'm going to tell them to stop aspiring all together. Very few aspiring writers ever become writers.

People who write become writers, which is why there are just as many accidental writers as there are writers who had always dreamed of becoming one. You have to aspire to be something more — a freelance journalist, copywriter, communication specialist, author, etc. — that makes more sense.

Most writers develop an affinity for one writing discipline over another and then invest less time into writing and more time into everything else around it. Very few have the time, talent or desire to weave in a bit of everything into their careers. Even closely related styles are surprisingly divergent.

Not many copywriters can write a press release (nor would they want to) and not many public relations practitioners can write advertising copy (no matter how hard they try). Even journalists who write for newspapers or magazines approach the craft differently, with the latter often lending more color, life, and perspective to their stories than the former with crisp graphs filled with facts. Most broadcast journalists admit to being further removed. And authors, especially novelists, have bigger challenges than many other career paths. Most of them have to balance their passion with a paycheck.

This is also one of the reasons I'm especially excited to be part of this panel. 

Genese Davis has assembled a diverse ensemble of writers to share their experiences and expertise to participate in an open-ended conversation that will flow and evolve with the panelists as well as the audience. What is especially interesting about the four of us is that we mostly break the convention of specialization mentioned above in favor of being creatives who happen to write about what they love.

Genese Davis is the author of The Holder's Dominion, a thriller about a young woman who joins a massive popular online game called Edannair to escape the pressures of college and the tragic death of her father. While her plan works at first, one of the game's elite clans has taken to coercing members into taking offline dares.

Along with her novel, Davis is a featured columnist at MMORPG.com, the founder of The Gamer IN You, and an iGR Woman of the Year award recipient for her outstanding efforts in debunking stereotypes related to gaming. All of these experiences helped lay the foundation for her first novel.

Pj Perez is an American editor, writer, and musician best known for his reports on the Las Vegas culture for publications such a Rolling Stone. He has written for dozens of periodicals in Southern Nevada too, including Las Vegas Weekly, CityLife, and Vegas Seven. He currently writes for a variety of Wendoh Media publications and the MGM Resorts M Life magazine.

About six years ago, Perez relaunched his comic book and pop culture website, Pop! Goes the Icon, a boutique publishing label and online publishing house. It specializes in comic books, graphic novels, webcomics, and other forms of graphic literature and pop art.

Maxwell Alexander Drake is an award-winning science fiction/fantasy author and graphic novelist, best known for his fantasy series, The Genesis of Oblivion Saga. The epic series spans six novels that take readers deeper and deeper into a world of their own as the Talic'Hauth and follows the lives of its people over thousands of years.

He also teaches creative writing at schools, libraries, and writer's conferences all around the country. He is frequently a featured speaker at events such as Comic-Con International in San Diego, Gen-Con in Indianapolis, and Origins Game Fair in Columbus.

The accidental career path that afforded me a little bit of everything. 

As the fourth panelist, my place may seem a bit oddball in that my creative writing is only slowly starting to take shape after more than 25 years as a commercial writer — copywriter, journalist, content marketer, executive coach, political campaign strategist, and business communication strategist with award-winning work in everything from script to screen. Most of it happened by doing.

The truth is I never intended to become a writer. Although my first fictional story was serialized in a junior high school newspaper and my first poem appeared in print before that, I never intended to become a writer. I originally majored in psychology, believing art had limited career opportunities.

After studying psychology for a year at Whittier College, I learned the field primarily branched into two paths — listening to people's problems or teaching mice to press bars for cheese. It felt limited.

So I opted out of the program in favor of attending the University of Nevada, Reno with an intent to major in art and minor in psychology. The idea was to bring the two degrees together to begin a career as a graphic artist.

The university had other plans. The Reynolds School of Journalism recruited me into an advertising section of a journalism program that ranked fourth in the nation. They taught me how to channel artistic creativity into words instead of art, nurturing dual skill sets as a copywriter and journalist.

Upon graduation, I followed a girl back to Las Vegas rather than take any number of journalist job leads afforded to me by my mentors. I freelanced with a foot in two fields, writing advertising copy and collateral for agencies and articles for newspapers and magazines. Doing grew into a business.

Within a few years, as most entrepreneurs find out, growing a business is a different cut from freelancing. So while writing remained central to my career (about 15,000 words a week), new responsibilities required new skill sets — business management, creative direction, message development, strategic communication, platform architecture, public policy, and publishing among them. There were so many tasks that needed doing, it started squeezing out the creativity at times.

At one time, there were 40 full-time, part-time, and freelance writers and designers on our books. But after selling my first publication and surviving cancer more recently, I rewrote the business plan. And today, I only work with a handful of select clients while reviving my creative roots by doing.

In fact, there is only one thing more important than doing. You have to stick with the business of living. In other words, much like writing, you have to find an active voice instead of a passive one. Active living is where most writers find the inspiration to turn aspiration into action. Good night and good luck.

Wednesday, April 1

How To Automate PR So Even A Monkey Can Do It

You have probably heard some variation of the infinite monkey theorem, a clever little probability gem that suggests a universe of monkeys randomly striking keys on a typewriter will eventually deliver Shakespeare's Hamlet in entity, right? Well, as crazy as it seems, there is some truth to it.

Jesse Anderson used Amazon's cloud computing resource to create an army of virtual monkeys who randomly assembled some of Shakespeare's works. What's more, it takes significantly fewer monkeys to bang out a basic press release. A dozen or so can do it, maybe less with the right automated tools.

8 tools that that will change the way you don't think about public relations. 

1. Start with a premise. Don't worry about coming up with news content again. Mash up existing headlines or enter a new subject for your premise and then plug in the name of your organization in place of the more popular names that come up. You'll have juicy ideas for news in no time.

2. Write a release. All you have to do is fill in the blanks to turn out reams of press-ready news releases, suitable for email and/or stationery. The automated program will even generate a properly formatted HTML code, complete with a beautiful array of background colors.

3. Make media contacts. Some public relations professionals are quick to tout their lists, but there are plenty of places to go, scrape, and call them your own. You'll have hundreds of emails in a matter of minutes, news hungry journalists who are waiting for something to drop right in their laps.

4. Submit to all. Too lazy to build a list? No problem. There are hundreds of submission software programs, wire services, and online distribution sites to ensure your news release goes anywhere and everywhere. Submit everything you do as often as possible.

5. Change it up. If you cherry pick three nouns from your news release and plug them into the right algorithm, it will immediately transform your news story into compelling content marketing. Make it a blog post headline or a white paper. It doesn't matter as long as you get clicks.

6. Make your own meme. Nothing says relevant like a meme. Transform your news and content into eyeball attracting memes for Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. Simply copy your headline into the caption and you are good to go.

7. Make another pitch. Follow up your press release with a well-timed post pitch, preferably one that has the sizzle journalists really seem to need nowadays. Plug in your topic one more time and get it all.

8. Take the call. Have the intern answer or, better yet, don't take the call. The industry is only a few years out from automated answering services that can be pre-programmed to answer any question a reporter might ask (or not answer any question by claiming you'll get back to them). Genius.

9.* Clip for success. Most people already know that Google captures all the news worth collecting, but few people know that you don't even need to make the news to be the headline. If the proof is in the clipping, skip all the other steps and make your own news! *Bonus tool.

See how easy it is? Public relations can be as easy or hard as you make it. And nowadays, you can make it all automated with a little less than a dozen monkeys running the show for big time results.

Links are not an implied endorsement. Results may vary. Good luck and happy April 1! For more April Fool's fun and communication satire, stick around and enjoy the archives from previous years.

Wednesday, March 25

Customer Loyalty Is Hardwired Into Customer Experience

Enrollment levels in customer loyalty programs may have reached an all-time high, but that doesn't mean all loyalty programs are created equal or that all customers are equally loyal. According a study recently released by Bond Brand Loyalty, as many as one-third of all loyalty program participants wouldn't remain loyal to the brand if it weren't for the program.

Some executives might not care beyond the surface sales data, but expect that sentiment to change in the near future. Customers are becoming more selective about loyalty programs despite having increased their enrollment from 10 in 2014 to 13 in 2015. Mostly, they want to avoid spam-centric programs that push out content and opt in to those that truly listen and understand their customers.

Shelly DeMotte Kramer, CEO of V3 Integrated Marketing, was right to note that there is often a perception gap between customers and the companies that are trying to win them over, citing a recent report by DotMailer. Whereas most customers said they join loyalty programs to receive discounts as an incentive to make a purchase or when they are ready to make a purchase, most businesses said their program participants want to learn about new products and receive product information.

Wait, what? Customers want to buy stuff but companies want to talk?

Of course, this one finding doesn't mean customers are in it for the discount alone. As marketer Danny Brown so eloquently wrote last year — it ain't what you do, it's how you do it. All the discounted carrots and rewards in the world won't create customer loyalty unless you're prepared to better serve your customer or make their experience even better. That's what they really want.

Consider the common denominator among three of the better run loyalty programs in the country. Starbucks fans receive drinks, food, and refills when they earn stars. Hertz Gold Plus members receive the fastest pick-up and drop-off experience in the car rental business. Barnes & Noble book fans receive book coupons, in-store discounts, and free shipping for online orders.

All of them focus not only on delivering a discount or reward, but do so by also removing perceived industry barriers. Do you want a second cup of your favorite coffee for free? Do you want to skip the line and head right to your car rental? Do you want to skip the cost of shipping (with no regard to how much is being spent)? It doesn't matter if you do. These companies know their customers do.

Do you know what is important? According to the study mentioned earlier, 70 percent of 10,000 consumers surveyed did not strongly agree that loyalty program experiences are consistent with their brand or company experiences. But nearly 20 percent of them strongly agreed that they could replace their current loyalty program if the competition was willing to offer them something better.

If that's true, then the loyalty program might only be a business Band-Aid with just enough stick to keep unloyal customers around until the next shower. And what's worse? If it is washed off or the card is tossed or the app deleted, it will be considerably tougher to recapture that customer again.

The research-backed takeaway here ought to be obvious enough. If the point of a customer loyalty program is to increase customer-business interactions (purchases and referrals), then it is even more important to make those interactions count — online, offline, with an app, or as part of an extended CX ecosystem. After all, discounts aren't always remembered but experiences are hard to forget.

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.
 

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