Friday, December 29

Remembering Top Posts Of 2006

With the new year upon us next week, we would like to say goodbye to 2006 with a recap of our five most popular communication-related posts, based on the frequency and the immediacy of hits after they were posted.

Wee Shu Min’s Post Impacts Economic Reform

When Wee Shu Min, the teenage daughter of a Singapore member of parliament, stumbled across the blog of a Singaporean who wrote that he was worried about losing his job, she thought she’d give him a piece of her mind. She called him “one of many wretched, under motivated, over assuming leeches in our country” on her own blog and signed off with “please, get out of my elite uncaring face,” a post that received international scorn and had such an impact that the Singapore government paid out S$150 million to about 330,000 low-income workers five days before its recent election.

Links: Wee Shu Min, Wee Siew Kim

Jobster Loses Control Of A Blog Rumor

After starting a rumor that 2007 would mean more profitability for Jobster, the rumor runs away from the company as bloggers speculate whether that will mean layoffs at the young, but fast growing online recruitment company. The outcome leads to one of the worst public relations and internal communication nightmares in recent memory. From the net to mainstream media, the Seattle Times picks up on what continues to be an interesting communication case study. A few more days and Jobster might have overtaken Wee Shu Min’s post. Go figure.

Link: Jobster

Wal-Mart Fires Julie Roehm

Julie Roehm never intended to gain her most fame for being fired by Wal-Mart, but that is exactly what happened after Wal-Mart allegedly grew uncomfortable with her friendly connection to Draft FCB, which she had pushed for to become Wal-Mart’s agency of record. Draft FCB was fired three days after Roehm. Still spinning an upbeat message, Roehm told Advertising Age she would take “60 days to find out exactly what I want to do and take advantage that people want to talk with me…” Her other alternative, she said, is to open her own shop.

Links: Roehm, FCB Draft

Jim Gibbons Elected Nevada Governor

Fueled largely by last minute assault allegations made against Jim Gibbons by Chrissy Mazzeo, a 32-year-old cocktail waitress at Wynn Las Vegas, the governor’s race in Nevada became a hot topic nationwide. Eventually, Gibbons overcame the obstacle after video evidence proved he was not in the location where the incident supposedly took place. Gibbons won over Dina Titus, 48-44. For our part, we worked on Gibbons mailers for the Nevada Republican Party’s Victory 2006 campaign after working with State Senator Bob Beers on his spirited policy-changing primary.

Links: Jim Gibbons, Gibbons Wins

Miss USA Crowns In Turmoil

The Miss USA pageant scandals remind us that all of us have personal brands. Donald Trump capitalized on the publicity by teasing Miss USA Tara Conner with the statement, made days ago, that he would be "evaluating her behavioral and personal issues and would make an announcement within the week." He forgave her, but Miss Nevada, Katie Rees, did not fare as well when 3-year-old photos surfaced on the Internet. The decision prompted many to ask whether the Miss Universe Organization had double standards in regard to ethics rulings.

Links: Rees, Conner

Those were the top five topical posts in 2006, followed closely by predictions for YouTube, e-mail disasters, Stoern’s publicity stunt, business card techniques, and Sam Sethi’s dismissal from TechCrunch.

Links: YouTube, E-mail, Stoern, Business Cards, Sethi

Let us hope 2007 brings more attention to the best practices as opposed to the biggest mishaps. Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 28

Knowing When To Post

Jason Goldberg is an Internet pioneer of sorts, not only for developing Jobster (one of the first employee recruitment search engines), but also for starting one of the first truly transparent corporate blogs three years ago. It has never been as polished as some corporate blogs, but Goldberg seems to prefer it that way and it seemed to work, er, until now.

The main reason Jobster has suddenly resurfaced on everyone's radar is because the company, the biggest new Internet company in Seattle, recently instituted a hiring freeze, which venture blog writer John Cook says is a sign that the company may have grown too big too fast. Shortly after, rumors began to surface that the 145-person company would announce significant layoffs.

Although a minor communication crisis was already brewing, Goldberg made it big with a post that asked people to "put down your pencils .... calm it down, relax a bit, and have a nice holiday. We've got no news to give ya before the new year."

From an internal communication perspective, posting this was paramount to the captain of the Titanic asking passengers to refrain from dropping lifeboats in the water until the ship's quartet finished his favorite song. To make matters worse, Goldberg added a post to justify Jobster's future decision to focus on profits in 2007. And again, he asked people to wait for answers.

"why would a young company like jobster care about profits? hmmm... vs. many of the dot com companies not too long ago who didn't? many answers to provide here ... will have to wait for now. but in the meantime I will point to a few big things ..." and goes on to list four of them.

No, there is nothing wrong with streamlining a company to become more profitable, but it is usually a good idea to let your employees know before the rest of the world. Not to mention, asking them to "have nice holidays" before facing major layoffs is almost too painful to post about.

Will there really be layoffs? According to an e-mail, again published by Cook, Goldberg writes: "What I can say is that the changes we will make are 100 percent voluntary and (management) proposed (versus) board dictated."

All this news and continuing updates from Cook has created a second wave of criticism about Goldberg and Jobster. It's unfortunate because this could have been handled better. One of the first golden rules of any crisis communication situation is to deal with the most urgent and critical matters as early as possible. In doing so, the spokesperson or CEO must be direct, decisive, and empathetic to anyone who could be negatively affected by the bad news.

Instead, Goldberg, apparently panicked and without the aid of a seasoned communication professional, wrote from his Blackberry: "I made a personal pledge to be a very public and open CEO, knowing that it could come back to bite me sometimes. I promised to speak my mind and provoke and prod the industry a bit, again knowing that it could open me up to greater criticism and sometimes backfire."

He went on to encourage his readers to read all about the "beating" he received from comments made by anonymous posters on Cook's blog. "Rather than run from it, I encourage folks to go read it."

Um, Mr. Goldberg, please, please stop throwing kerosene on the deck of your sinking ship and you just might save it yet. You see, there is a difference between being a very public and open CEO and one who is empathetic to his employees, investors, and fans.

Lesson for today: Don't tease with bad news, lead with it. It's not fun, but at least it's manageable.

Wednesday, December 27

Striking A Visual Chord

The Fifth Column is a group of bloggers who pride themselves on attempting to "whittle away at the dominant culture, the status quo, and the accepted and the norm."

I mention them today — as Islamic fighters and Ethiopian-backed government soldiers begin to clash in Somalia, potentially sparking a civil war and dragging in the entire Horn of Africa — because one of them effectively demonstrated the power of a single image. The photo, showing white doves of peace growing darker as they fly upward past a tank, is a bold social commentary on current events in Africa and, unfortunately, most of the world.

The LA Times has an excellent write up on this growing conflict at a time when most men and women are wishing for peace on earth.

In sum, Islamic leaders, who recently seized control of Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia, are calling for a "holy war" against Christian-dominated Ethiopia unless the neighboring nation withdraws its troops, which were sent across the border to prop up Somalia's weak transitional government. Both sides have been massing weapons and troops in strategic points around southern Somalia in recent weeks.

Should this occur, Eritrea and Kenya will most likely be drawn into the fray. The United States could also become involved, given that our government has been funding some warlords as part of the greater war against terror. Other than funding select warlords, it has been hands off in Somalia after 18 American servicemen were killed in Mogadishu. The story, of course, was popularized by the book and film "Black Hawk Down." According to military sources, other players include Syria, Libya, Yemen, with Saudi Arabia and Egypt supplying funding and logistical assistance to Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys.

Moving back to the topic of striking a visual chord: this one works because it accurately presents a framework for their entire column, which is how photos work best. Despite the old adage that a picture paints 1,000 words, most cognitive studies have found considerable evidence that effective working memory is increased by using dual media rather than a single medium to communicate.

In fact, one theory, called cognitive load, suggests that the best form of communication is one that is limited to two representations of the same material at one time: aural/pictorial or written/pictorial. You can give readers the third option, but two remains the best option (which explains why users hit the mute button on "musical" blogs).

Regardless, images, particularly photographs, are thought to be easier to assimilate and to be more universal than words. When combined with words however, they create a compelling message.

For example, The Fifth Column appropriately gave this photo the caption: this is what it sounds like when doves cry. Imagine what a different impact the photo might have with the caption: world peace at last.

Maybe it's my profession, but I have always been fascinated with the psychology of communication as much as the execution of it. Now if only those leaders vying for power on the Horn of Africa could consider that most differences, regardless of distance, can be bridged with communication. Or, at minimum, they could at least begin to understand each other, even if they cannot agree.

Tuesday, December 26

Stacking Online Votes

On Christmas Day, Seth Godin did something nice for a few dozen blogs. He posted them on his blog, Seth Godin, and encouraged people to visit.

By creating a plexo at Squidoo, he enabled others to include their own blog (or blogs they liked) and vote for any they felt seemed interesting. "There is no A list, so there can't be a Z list. There's just good blogs," he wrote.

Unfortunately, one blogger felt otherwise, turning the true spirit of Godin's post into a case study that is similar to the challenges Reddit experienced a few months ago when overzealous marketing types voted their articles up and other articles down. However, unlike the Reddit stacking, Kim Klaver and a handful of her readers were less than anonymous. On her blog, which I won't link to, she wrote: "If we push it to #1, I'll take a screenshot pronto and post it here. We'll be 'Queen for a day.'"

Her marketing tactic worked, driving several readers to vote and then report her blog's progress. In fact, they voted hers up and other blogs down, enough so, that one commenter on her blog finally wrote: “You know, sending an email out in order to ask for votes is really quite lame. ... Deceptive if you ask me. Isn't this the very thing you preach against?” Obviously not.

"I don't mind asking for votes though, since people can do it or not. I might even send out another email, so be forewarned...hehehe,” Klaver replied. "If the blog writers didn't tell their readers about the popularity contest, how would they know and how could they help their favorite writers?"

Klaver seems to have missed the point of the post entirely. It was never meant to be a popularity contest, especially because Squidoo doesn't track IP numbers, only e-mail addresses. This means that anyone with multiple e-mail addresses can vote for whatever blog they like as many times as they like. With Klaver's encouragement, that is exactly what her readers seemed to do.

The most basic Internet tracking reveals the story behind her empty victory; many blogs were voted down despite never being visited. It is a shame, because I visited many of those blogs today and several were worthwhile despite being voted down.

But then again, I suppose that is the difference between Klaver's "new school of marketing" and communicators like me. I subscribe to a code of ethics that includes credible communicators "engage in truthful, accurate and fair communication that facilitates respect and mutual understanding."

Sunday, December 24

Sharing Happy Holidays

Their lives are beautiful,
sparkling like stars.

Their moments are fleeting,
ending in a second.

Holiday Card Front Cover

Let their imprint be an avalanche,
these fragile snowflakes of all seasons,
our family and friends.

Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 22

Stocking Stuffers For Public Figures

While most people are heading home for the holidays, Judicial Watch, a public interest group that investigates and prosecutes government corruption, decided to release some unwanted stocking stuffers for a few politicians. Here is the 2006 “Ten Most Wanted Corrupt Politicians” list:

1. Jack Abramoff, former lobbyist
Abramoff is at the center of a massive public corruption investigation by the Department of Justice

2. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY)
In January 2006, Hillary Clinton’s fundraising operation was fined $35,000 by the Federal Election Commission for failing to accurately report more than $700,000 in contributions to Clinton’s Senate 2000 campaign.

3. Former Representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA)
In November 2005, Cunningham pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud, wire fraud, and tax evasion.

4. Former Representative Tom Delay (R-TX)
Tom DeLay, who was forced to step down from his position as House Majority Leader and then resign from Congress, decided in 2006 not to run for re-election.

5. Former Representative Mark Foley (R-FL)
Foley left the House in disgrace after news broke that he had been sending predatory homosexual emails to a House page.

6. Representative Denny Hastert (R-IL)
In addition to mishandling the Foley scandal, outgoing House Speaker Dennis Hastert allowed House ethics process to ground to a halt on his watch.

7. Representative Alcee Hastings (D-FL)
Hastings is one of only six federal judges to be removed from office through impeachment and has accumulated staggering liabilities ranging from $2,130,006 to $7,350,000.

8. Representative William “Dollar Bill” Jefferson (D-LA)
Jefferson is alleged to have accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to help broker high-tech business deals in Nigeria.

9. Former Representative Bob Ney (R-OH)
Ohio Republican Congressman Bob Ney resigned in early November 2006, three weeks after pleading guilty for accepting bribes from an Indian casino in exchange for legislative favors.

10. Senator Harry Reid (D-NV)
Senator Reid came under fire in 2006 for failing to properly report to Congress a $700,000 land deal.

Judicial Watch has long maintained that public corruption is endemic to our nation’s capitol. To some degree, it is right. Many representatives arrive in Washington D.C. as average citizens and leave with the keys to newfound wealth.

For some, it stands to reason that serving in Congress will open doors of opportunity. After all, many companies look for skill sets that politicians acquire while in Washington. Others hope that partnering with or adding a sitting/former congressman will increase their company's credibility.

Still, what makes some, if not all, of these ten politicians a bit different is that they didn't wait for retirement to cash in or demonstrate any restraint or remorse when abusing public trust. Then again, sometimes the public gets what it asks for: Hillary Clinton still polls strong as a presidential hopeful and Senator Harry Reid will likely retain his seat in Nevada as long as he wants it.

That is the state of political affairs today, with Katie Rees, former Miss Nevada, being placed under more scrutiny for what she did five years ago than most folks, who are running the nation, might be doing right now. No, I am not saying all politicians are bad people or corrupt. Having worked in the political arena for about ten years, I can attest to the fact that there are some politicians who rise above the rest in terms of ethics. Thank goodness for them.

For those few honest politicians and anyone who reads this blog ... Merry Christmas ... Happy Holidays. Until our next.

Thursday, December 21

Losing Fame In 19 Frames

It seems some people have an easier time forgiving the present than they do the past. Miss Nevada, from my home state, will not get a second chance.

Just days after Donald Trump refused to fire embattled Miss USA Tara Conner, Paula M. Shugart, president of the Miss Universe Organization, had no problem firing Katie Rees for photos that are five years old.

In a statement to the TV show "EXTRA," an attorney for Rees says, "Katie wants the public to know she was 17 and had a lapse in judgment. This was an isolated incident that occurred more than five years ago when she was a minor."

While I will not publish them here, the full set of photos has been published at TMZ. Despite block-out stars, several are explicit.

Ultimately, the decision to fire Rees raises an eyebrow over the ethical standards Miss USA is attempting to set. While impossible to defend the behavior in these photos, considering Miss Nevada is meant to be role model, one wonders about the arbitrary state of the pageant, given that press time played a role in the decision.

A week earlier, Rees might have been the one receiving a second chance. She seemed more deserving of one, given the photos are years old and she apologized more sincerely than Miss USA.

Yet, as I've often noted as a public relations instructor: it's always better to err on the side of caution in case you might one day be in the public eye. If not, your greatest embarrassment might be featured in the Wall Street Journal, er, on TMZ.

First runner-up Helen Salas will assume the Miss Nevada title and compete at the 2007 Miss USA Pageant on March 23 in Los Angeles. She was a second runner-up at Miss Teen USA.

Wednesday, December 20

Teasing Tara Conner

Tara Conner
According to the Associated Press, Donald Trump refused to fire embattled Miss USA Tara Conner, despite widespread speculation that she would be stripped of her tiara. The rumors surfaced after allegations that the beauty queen, despite being underage, was a big drinker.

"I've always been a believer in second chances," said Trump, who owns the Miss Universe Organization, with a tearful and surprised Conner at his side.

"In no way did I think it would be possible for a second chance to be given to me," said the choked up beauty queen.

So why a second chance? Simple. Her bad behavior has garnered more attention for Miss USA than the pageant could garner on its own. The finals, broadcast by NBC, only attracted 7.75 million viewers, the second-lowest viewership since the pageant began in 1952.

In contrast, since the New York Daily News reported Conner had tested positive for cocaine, had lustily kissed Miss Teen USA Katie Blair in public, and had sneaked men into their Trump Place apartment, she has become a household name who suddenly made the title Miss USA relevant for a scandal-loving public.

Congrats to Trump for proving once again that he is a master at publicity by teasing Conner with the statement, made days ago, that he would be "evaluating her behavioral and personal issues and would make an announcement within the week."

Of course she got a second chance. Conner has single-handedly saved what an army of marketers could not save on their best day.

Tuesday, December 19

Branding Wars Ahead

What's in a name?

Last July, BusinessWeek reported that Apple's global brand value was up almost 14 percent over 2005, placing it 39th among all globally recognized brands. The publication also estimated Apple's total brand value at almost $9,130 million, fueled largely by stylized iPod, iTunes, and iMac product lines. With that in mind, it was no surprise that Apple was rumored to be releasing an "iPhone" sometime in 2007.

What is a surprise: Linksys (a division of Cisco Systems, Inc.) launched an "iPhone" family of products for the holidays. But, despite boasting Internet services that use Skype and Yahoo! Messenger, most reviews have been less than stellar and include the added pressure of Cisco being accused of "stealing" an Apple brand identifier.

Russell Shaw over at ZDNet has a comprehensive overview of the proceedings (which does not include Apple) along with various filing reports. What he did not note, however, was that Cisco filed its "iPhone" trademark 10 years ago, with the mark published for opposition as early as Dec. 1998. That seems to predate most Apple "i" products, with exception to the iMac.

Still, it's a safe bet that Apple is hoping the Linksys phone might eventually get an unfriendly call from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which is currently sorting through four "live" trademark assignments that include "iPhone" or derivative terms. It seems to me that Apple's wish would have less to do with the name of its future phone and more to do with any brand damage caused by a Linksys "i" product that is less phone (as the original application suggested) and more VoIP.

Simply put, Apple might not want to be associated with it. Even more ironic, Cisco's decision to rightfully use a trademark it has owned for 10 years might backfire anyway, forcing the company to spend millions in repackaging. You see, while the "iPhone" might be their trademark, Apple's brand mastery over "i" products has grown exponentially in 10 years.

In the end, Cisco, right or wrong, knowingly or unknowingly, has started a brand war. And, like all wars, there is hardly ever a clear winner when the smoke settles and investors wonder what they got for it. It seems to me that Apple would be wise to sit this one out, letting the others fight it out for the right to use a trademark that Apple might not own, but clearly dominates. Besides, Apple may have never intended to call its product an "iPhone" anyway.

Monday, December 18

Leveraging Blog Space is asking bloggers to create a post on their blogs, paying attention to the "opportunity requirements" that specific advertisers have set forth. Then, the blogger must submit the direct link to Payperpost, who will review the content and approve or deny the post (unless they get busy). If it is denied, they give the blogger a chance to revise and resubmit. (In sum, you can turn your blog into an advertorial as opposed to an editorial.)

It's an interesting idea that has been around for some time. What's a little fresher as a concept is that also launched Rockstartup, which is either a very clever or very deceptive step in Web advertising because it takes on the guise of a Web 2.0 reality TV show (dedicated exclusively to one young entrepreneur "building the next monster company"). Of course, they aren't alone in taking bloggers seriously.

A less hyped approach to finding bloggers is being offered by Umbria Inc., which is self-defined as a market intelligence company that specializes in blog research and consumer-generated media (CGM) for market insight, today released Umbria Connect, a service that provides URL source lists to companies hoping to connect with individual bloggers. Basically, the company gathers publicly available CGM sources to locate individual bloggers writing about topics or themes of interest to marketers and then sells the blog URLs to help marketers engage bloggers. (Telemarketing and junk mail at its core, minus the telephone.)

Umbria Connect defines itself as a way to connect people who care deeply about specific topics in order to help companies take advantage of product/feature attitudes, word-of-mouth campaigns, marketing and advertising tests, custom marketing panels, and competitive perception insight. Business Week defines it as “a system to sift through millions of blogs in real time, looking for market intelligence. Umbria breaks down English messages into the smallest components—words, phrases, grammar, even emotions—and turns them into math." You can define it for yourself at Umbria.

While these are just a few examples to dispel any notion that blogging is already dead in its tracks (as some ignorant communications specialists claim), such maneuvering in the marketplace could actually cause the demise of many bloggers, if they are too eager to be taken in under someone else's agenda. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it's always nice to know if the blog source is on the product payroll.

Thursday, December 14

Blurring Blog News

Someone was bound to get it wrong sooner or later and unfortunately for Michael Arrington at TechCrunch, it was him. Maybe.

Arrington is the editor of TechCrunch US, a weblog which is dedicated to "obsessively" profiling and reviewing new Internet products and companies. Founded in 2005, the weblog reviews those that are making an impact (commercial and/or cultural) on the new Web space. In addition to TechCrunch US, Arrington oversees TechCrunch UK, which was edited and published by Sam Sethi.

As the story goes, Sethi did his job. He wrote two honest, but critical reviews of this week's social media conference Le Web that mirrored the feedback that most delegates and attendees shared, with Loic Le Meur receiving the brunt. According to most reports, Sethi's critical review of Le Web drove a wedge between him and Le Meur, which escalated to Le Meur writing on Sethi's blog: "You are just an asshole."

The next day, Sethi was fired. The offending posts were removed. All comments were removed. And Arrington announced that TechCrunch UK was being put on hold. According to blogger Drew B, more posts were deleted beyond TechCrunch, including an EirePreneur post titled "Arrington falls out with Sam Sethi, surprise victim of Le Web3."

Arrington, by his own hand, will be the next victim on a much grander scale as the Web media is chastising him and calling his ethics into question since he fired someone for, in essence, doing their job. He should have expected as much, given that his blog is defined as "obsessively profiling and reviewing new Internet products and companies." The definition alludes to the idea that he was creating a non-biased technology-focused Web news organization.

Now it seems that this is not the case as Le Meur obviously held more weight over Arrington than his UK counterpart. Unfortunately for TechCrunch, two years of hard work is about to go up in smoke after a few minutes of poor judgement. Sure, TechCrunch is a commercial entity. All media outlets are.

What Arrington did not consider however, is that honest reviewers do not buckle from outside corporate pressure, no matter how big and influential they seem or if advertising dollars are at stake. (This is the stuff you learn working for print publications, and I've worked at and managed several). Even if he disagreed with Sethi, it should not have resulted in termination, especially since it was painfully obvious Sethi had sided with the vast majority of delegates that attended. Simply put, it seems if he would have written a pro Le Web commentary, it would have been a lie.

The ethical dilemma of whether or not to cater to corporations is not new for print or electronic media. It happens every day. Both views are right with respective consequences.

As publisher and top editor, Arrington certainly has the final say about the stance his blog will take on any subject. There are plenty of publishers out there willing to cater to certain corporate interests. The consequence is credibility. It will be hard for his readership to consider his opinion unbiased anymore. Of course, being little more than ''public relations'' publications can mean big bucks.

However, if he really wanted to do what he set out to do — write honest reviews and allow his partners to do likewise — well then, reporting the truth is the ultimate ethical guideline. And, even if he disagreed, he would have stood by Sethi every step of way. Certainly it might have meant being blacklisted by Le Meur, but better Le Meur than the entire world.

When I managed a publication a few years ago, I often found myself in a position between being a publisher who had to bring home the bacon and the editor who had to report the truth. The decision was easy for me. If I couldn't be honest, I'd rather not write about it no matter what the consequences. The result was a publication that was respected with plenty of advertisers happy to make up for any that fell by the wayside because of editorial/advertiser disputes.

But that was me as a publisher. Arrington obviously sees the world differently, given he went even further than most pay-for-print publishers and deleted a published opinion because he found it objectionable for reasons only he would know. A second commentary refuting Sethi would have been the wiser decision.

Wednesday, December 13

Fixing User-Driven Content

The Reddit outage seems to be posing an interesting problem for future online media. What happens when the lights go out?

Like any company, online or off, contingency and/or crisis communication plans have to be in place if you want to preserve your market share in the morning. Since Reddit, which allows users to post links to content on the Web and other users to vote those links up or down, didn't have any semblance of a plan B in place (and cut off its own communication to spite those pesky spambots driving up irrelevant stories), its rival, Digg, is being given another chance to fend off a rival and capture Reddit's social content posters.

While it's unclear if Digg will be able to capitalize on this on not, it does remind content providers that Web companies are not exempt from the principles of strategic communication. This is especially true if your tech savvy homepage subscribers retain that ever present and unpleasant feeling that your platform is unreliable.

Sure, problems abound on the Internet. Sites sometimes go down and service providers go dark. It's par for the course. And once again, we see the measure of reliability generally resting with the ability to communicate a message. For example, our service provider has dropped our site and e-mail ability once or twice during hurricanes and upgrades, but is reasonably reliant on informing clients on the status of the situation. Blogger can sometimes be a bit buggy too, but it seems adept at confining problems to functions without major content crashes. Its customer service reporting is surprisingly fair for a free service.

Reddit, on the other hand, has made the mistake of going dark, effectively cutting off its own ability to communicate at the same time. Too bad. It seems like just yesterday it was all the buzz because PC World magazine gave it the nod over Digg, citing Reddit's user comments and the site's ability to make recommendations to other users based on past story selections. It's hard to tell whether PC World will be reversing that decision, given that Reddit was, at least temporarily, dead.

California-based Digg ranks No. 78 on the Web according to Alexia. Reddit has made a strong showing, climbing to 804. Unfortunately for fans, it demonstrated why sometimes relying on a site that was operated by three full-time workers and a part-time graduate student in a three-bedroom apartment in Davis Square just six months ago, might not be the best bet.

Or maybe it will be, assuming Reddit's team learns the hard way that a crisis communication plan (and a medium to communicate) isn't really optional. And, once you're back up (it has been up and down all day), it's always good to explain what happened, up front rather than buried away somewhere, who knows where, on its site. We wish them luck.

Tuesday, December 12

Using Web Tools

In case you have not noticed, there is a communication revolution occurring on the Internet that will eventually threaten anyone in advertising who forgets that it is a strategic and creative idea (and the ability to communicate that idea) — not technology —  that makes all the difference. An arsenal of design programs and commercial printer discounts are no longer enough to keep accounts happy.

Our last minute holiday greeting cards provide the perfect example. Five years ago, we made a substantial investment to produce Addy award-winning cards, using the traditional process. Provide creative direction and copy to a selected local designer, print them at one of our local printers, and assemble the rest in the office (the cards included a silver dollar and hand-stamped wax seals). The cost was around $10 per card. The turnaround time was nearly three months. The quantity was 500, about 380 more than we needed at the time.

Don't get me wrong; they were worth it. We still have several clients refer to them, and they were part of a bigger strategic plan for our company. I would do it all over again given the same circumstances.

Last year, those circumstances did not exist. We were too busy in October or November to get the ball rolling. After all, the standard rule of thumb is 2-3 weeks for the designer (even more on elaborate jobs) and 10 business days for printing.

Sure, we could have done what we sometimes do for clients who want design along with great copy: tap an out-of-market designer from our international talent pool, which reduces the cost by 50 percent and the turnaround to a few days. But even then, we didn't have 10 days for the printer.

So last year, we settled for 250 Hallmark cards with our name inscribed inside for around $3.50 per piece. It's the thought that counts, right? So this year, on Dec. 1, we started thinking differently.

Despite the same time constraints, we were able to produce and print a custom card, at about $2 apiece with no minimum, in three days. And, we also posted a public version that could (and can) be purchased by anyone before our order was filled. If you want to see the public version (without our logo inside), visit Think! Copywrite, Ink. store.

Sure, this year's card will not be featured in Communication Arts, but next year's might be. You see, the main point of this post is that our industry might consider thinking differently because the definition of 'value' is shifting.

Program reliant production artists, template web designers, low-grade video producers, mid-grade photographers, and 10-day print jobs with minimum quantity orders are all endangered species. Technology is no longer enough to sustain them as commercial communication is finally getting back to where it is most effective: communication ideas over tech suaveness.

Monday, December 11

Killing Christmas Trees

All the Christmas trees at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport were taken down overnight after one complaint. It was made by a rabbi (along with the Central Organization for Jewish Learning) who threatened a lawsuit unless the airport agreed to put up "an eight-foot menorah to balance the message of the Christmas trees."

The airport decided it would be easier to remove the trees that some identify as a Christian symbol than fight a lawsuit or build the menorah. It will be the first time the airport will abandon its 25-year tradition of placing a tree at each of the 15 airport entrances.

The Seattle story is the polar opposite of another in Michigan, where a bipartisan capitol committee recently voted unanimously to rename the capitol's 61-foot blue spruce a “Christmas tree” as opposed to calling it a "holiday tree." The same committee rejected the state house's urging to create a joint display — a Christmas tree and a Hanukkah menorah — after a Jewish group said it's a religious symbol that would violate the separation of church and state. This Jewish group has no problem with the tree.

While not attempting to appear unsympathetic to the plight of the Seattle rabbi, there seems to be too much emphasis on the perceived power of symbols in the United States with little regard to the First Amendment or any understanding that symbols might mean different things to different people, including Christmas trees.

Depending on the source, the symbol of a Christmas tree is ripe with interpretation despite its close association with Christianity. One source places its origins 1,000 years ago when St. Boniface, who converted German people to Christianity, came across a group of pagans worshipping an oak tree. He cut down the oak tree, but to his amazement, a young fir tree sprung up from its roots. St. Boniface took this as a sign of the Christian faith.

Another source credits Martin Luther, who is said to have attached lighted candles to a small evergreen tree, trying to simulate the reflections of the starlit heavens as they appeared over Bethlehem on the first Christmas Eve. The Christmas tree star topper (or angels) are said to represent the Star of Bethlehem.

Others look further back to the Egyptians who celebrated winter solstice by bringing in green date palms, the Romans who raised an evergreen bough during the feast of Saturn, the early Scandinavians who paid homage to the fir tree, the Druids who considered the springs of an evergreen to be holy, and the Norsemen who felt they symbolized the revival of the sun god Balder. Take your pick.

Trees are not exclusive to one faith. In fact, the very idea of celebrating Christmas on December 25 was less than exclusive. It was originated by the Catholic Church to eclipse the festivities of rival pagan religions in the 4th century. (Jesus was believed to have been born in the spring.)

Anyway, what is more certain about Christmas trees is that they traveled across Europe to England after Queen Victoria visited relatives in Coburg, Germany, and fell in love with Prince Albert. After they were married and returned to England, Prince Albert decorated a tree with the finest of hand-blown glass ornaments. It was so admired by common citizens, they copied the tree and the couple's customs, partly, in recognition of their love. In France, it was introduced for a similar reason: Princess Hélène de Mecklembourg brought a tree to Paris after her marriage to the Duke of Orleans.

In the United States today, almost 80 percent of non–Christian citizens celebrate Christmas and 96 percent of the total population celebrates it (including some Jewish families), which raises some question of whether or not a Christmas tree is exclusive to Christianity (even the church has banned them on occasion).

Perhaps, like all symbols, the meaning remains in the eye of the beholder. For Christians, the Christmas tree means something. For non-Christians, it means something different.

But for all of us, the move to ban any holiday symbol in fear that other symbols might be excluded is wrought with ignorance and intolerance. It is also contrary to spirit of the First Amendment, which is meant to protect all voices. It is not meant to censor others out of fear that not everyone will be equally represented.

The bottom line, from a communication standpoint, is that symbols are funny things. They only have power when they are given power by the perception of people. For one rabbi, a Christmas tree represents the prevalent spirit of giving among many faiths in America. For another in Seattle, it seems to mean the exclusion of his faith in America. Ironically, for the latter, his apparent fear of exclusion gives the symbol much more power than the first, but with a twisted meaning.

Now that's something to think about in a country that has defined the Confederate flag as politically intolerant and the Mexican flag (over the United States flag) as a beacon of tolerance. Neither was meant to signify the meaning they have recently been assigned, except by those promoting their own fear and intolerance.

For me, at the end of the day, when I see a Christmas tree or a crucifix or a kinara or a menorah, all I see is the United States, a country that allows people to celebrate and share their holiday rituals openly, without fear of persecution. Let's try to keep it that way.

Friday, December 8

Taking The Bottom Position

Two days ago, we alluded to the idea that Julie Roehm was only the first casualty of a Wal-Mart insider marketing war. Yesterday, the fine folks at Draft FCB found out they were the next to go, just weeks after they crowed about being in the 'top position,' partly because they won the account. I guess it's back to the bottom position for them, making their ill-advised ad the ultimate case study for irony in advertising.

The not-so-surprising news yesterday was that Wal-Mart quickly overturned Roehm's Draft FCB choice, putting $580 million worth of advertising purchase power back on the table. Several major agencies are already pulling together their marketing plans for the nation’s largest retailer.

Ms. Roehm maintains that she did not accept gifts from agencies vying to become Wal-Mart advertising superstars or that her relationship with subordinate Sean Womack violated company policies. Instead, she told The New York Times: “I think part of my persona is that I am an envelope pusher,” she said last night. “The idea of change in general can be uncomfortable for many people, and my persona as an agent of change can prompt that feeling.”

This seems to be a spin contrary to her attendance at a September dinner given by Draft FCB at the Manhattan hot spot Nobu, where she allegedly explained her presence as one of those cases where “if you don’t ask, you don’t get.” Unfortunately for Roehm, sometimes you do get what you don't ask for, since Wal-Mart has ruled the search process was "tainted by the pair’s behavior and should be reopened."

Draft FCB's (part of the Interpublic Group of Companies) stock fell 6.4 percent on the news it had lost the account. As I often advise clients in Roehm's position and higher, behavior is easily managed. Unless you'll be proud to see the story appear in the Wall Street Journal, er, The New York Times, don't do it!

All cloak and dagger courtships aside, Draft FCB was not ready for the holiday season and neither was Roehm, based on a USA Today story that weak Wal-Mart sales are dampening holiday season hopes.

What USA Today seems to miss is that the 'dampener' might be all Wal-Mart and not all retailers. Given that the agency review was concluded dangerously close to the holidays (not bright), that choosing an ROI (Return On Ideas) agency delivered a dismal negative .01 percent in sales for Nov. (assuming they got anything off the ground), and that Wal-Mart is in desperate need of some top-down strategic communication development to prevent it from further losing its way; I'd say it is not the best national holiday sales indicator at the moment.

You see, it used to be that Wal-Mart was unbeatable because it had a solid message that other retailers could not compete against. Today, Wal-Mart has voluntarily given up this message in order to pursue what it perceived as greener pastures (higher-end retail). Unfortunately, it did this without developing a core message with complete consensus among board members and executives.

In fact, that is why I don't give Roehm "I'm a change agent" as much kudos as some. Her "follow-me-on-faith" approach left the world's largest retail giant without a message, at best, and with a message unsupported by its core consumer, at worst. Gee, I thought we already covered this lesson back when Miller beer alienated its blue collar consumer with ads aimed at a micro-brew generation. Ah, history, let's repeat it. Ah, history, let's repeat it.

Wednesday, December 6

Advertising The Lack Of …

Every day, the sudden departure of Wal-Mart marketing boss Julie Roehm is attracting more attention and is increasingly linked to her connection with Draft FCB, which she pushed to become Wal-Mart's agency of record in October.

Speculation suggests Roehm flouted Wal-Mart's strict corporate gratuities policy, which states no one who works for the company can accept any sort of gratuities from suppliers (even a cup of coffee). But the real damage was done when Draft FCB ran an ill-advised, tasteless, and remarkably uncreative Lion Awards advertisement featuring a real male and female lion having sex above a copy line that read "It's Good to Be on Top."

I won't post it here, but you can find a copy of the ad on ADFREAK. The ad is so poorly done and uninspired that one poster accused Adfreak's Tim Nudd of posting a fake. No doubt, Draft FCB wishes it was a fake, as one of its spokespeople has already said the ad was "a terrible mistake."

It's a terrible mistake because some inside Wal-Mart, those who were dissastified with the decision to hire Draft FCB, suddenly had good reason to second guess Roehm's big push. Not good for Draft FCB because Wal-Mart insiders are not the only ones looking to poke holes in Howard Draft's rise to the top of the industry after merging with Foote Cone & Belding (which was already struggling) last June.

As Lewis Lazare wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times, the merger date will "go down as one of the darkest moments in the history of an increasingly troubled ad industry, which, with each passing day, shows new and disturbing signs it has lost its way.”

He called Draft FCB Group depressingly real proof the American ad industry has been totally and tragically upended.

“It's a shame to think that an agency like Draft that was once the lowly tail on a big, healthy, creatively inspired canine has finally emerged as the powerhouse wagging the mangy mutt that is now the general consumer ad business,” he said.

Little did Lazare know that the tail he was writing about would be morphed into a lion within six months. An agency showing its not-so-wild side, after Wal-Mart gave the agency its $580 million account, only added to Roehm's streak of bad luck since joining Wal-Mart.

Last month, she made a questionable call on a press release from Wal-Mart about how a staffer of John Edwards, the former senator and presidential hopeful, inquired about getting a Sony Playstation on the same day that Edwards was having a media event in which he talked about how bad Wal-Mart is to its workers.

Summed: never underestimate the brand damage you can do with a single gratuitous awards program advertisement. A dark day indeed.

Monday, December 4

Blogging To Jail

Josh Wolf, 24, self-described freelance journalist and independent videographer, remains in “custody” at the Federal Detention Facility in Dublin, California, after being charged with contempt because he refused to provide a federal grand jury with unedited video of a 2005 G-8 protest in San Francisco. The authorities wanted the unpublished portions as part of an investigation into crimes that may have occurred during the protest.

Wolf refused, claiming he is a journalist protected under the First Amendment, which is what makes for an interesting case study in the move ta o define a "journalist" in the United States. The primary reason some find it difficult to define Wolf as a journalist is because his experience is primarily as blogger. The secondary reason is that Wolf tends to move back and forth between activism and journalism.

“If I have any reservations about whether or not he is a journalist, it is whether he went there as an independent gatherer of news and information," Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told the Associated Press in an interview with reporter David Kravets. “We certainly hope that in the future if he goes to these events, he makes up his mind as to whether he is a journalist or a protester.”

On one hand, Wolf does have earned credentials as a journalist, including a 2006 Society of Professional Journalists award for Journalist of the Year. On the other, he has also participated as an activist and is generally seen as sympathetic to left-wing causes. Even journalists covering his incarceration, as well as those who have stepped up to help defend him, are unsure of whether or not he is best described as an activist or journalist.

Generally speaking, the question is easy enough to answer as a professional but difficult to answer as a person: am I an observer reporting the news or an active participant in making the news? And is there a point during some event when I might switch from observing into action? To save a life? To protect an officer? To prevent an abuse of power? In the strictest sense, the answer is no.

Journalists do not become active participants in the story, regardless of the circumstance, as unfortunate as this may seem. It is difficult to discern whether or not Wolf was indeed acting as a journalist, ironically, because the best evidence to determine this is precisely what he has refused to surrender.

I submit the real calamity here is not whether Wolf is a journalist or activist, publisher or blogger, but that when individuals abuse our civil liberties and rights guaranteed under the First Amendment (and I am not saying Wolf has done this), all sorts of crazy judicial opinions are rendered that could have long-term consequences such as the continuing erosion of the First Amendment. Case in point, presiding Judge Alsop offered up “This great country which has allowed you to be a journalist — sometimes your country asks for something back.'’

While his sentiment is sound, his statement is erroneous. There is only one person who ''allows'' another to be a journalist and it is not the government. A journalist is granted privilege by a publisher, even if they are one in the same. It is the publisher who is specifically guaranteed rights in this country as written: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

"The press" is not defined as a journalist in the First Amendment, but rather a publisher. Journalists are hired by publishers to execute these rights. And the only reason there is any confusion today is that the advent of blogging has made it possible for anyone to publish and reach a mass audience. In some ways, blogging has brought the press back to its roots of our forefathers, wherein anyone with enough money to afford a printing press could be a publisher.

Does that mean Wolf is protected? His edited video remains on his site today so there is no injustice there. So perhaps the real question is not whether he is a journalist, but whether or not he was a participant, observer, or acting member of the press. As a participant or observer, withholding the tape is an obstruction of justice. As an acting member of the press strictly covering the protest for publication (by a publisher), he is protected under the First Amendment. Case closed.

Now only if all these fine folks involved would stop working so hard to define 'journalistic rights,' perhaps they could tell the judge to review the tape and determine whether Wolf was a participant or not. If the judge determines Wolf was a participant, then it's a much easier case to decide and all of us will be free from seeing well-intentioned people continuing to muck up our First Amendment with definitions that do not belong there, including blogger, journalist, or whatever.

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