Friday, August 31

Testing Contests Online: Jericho Fan Fiction

On July 29, we launched the Expanded Universe Short Story Competition with the dual purpose of expanding the Jericho universe and promoting the show where it could not otherwise be promoted. Did it work? Consider the mini work plan…

The Objective. Promote Jericho. Demonstrate the potential depth of a storyline beyond the show. Create a communication bridge between the buzz marketing efforts of fans and the start of the new season (which is still to be measured).

The Solution. Launch a Jericho-themed short story contest that asked writers, contest entrants, and Jericho fans to write about the world beyond the town, while encouraging others to learn about the show.

The Results. More than 50 sites, blogs, and social networks (the majority of them not related to the show) promoted the contest, driving more than 2,000 unique visitors to our blog last month.

Approximately 60 percent of these visitors did not originate from Jericho-related sites and sources; thousands more bypassed our blog all together and visited the CBS Jericho Web site direct or Wikipedia entries as suggested material for background information. We received about two dozen entries, which is a solid return given the specificity of the contest and fan-oriented prizes.

The cost per impression, employing only social media, was minimal. About one cent per impression. The promotion for the show doesn’t end here. After we announce the winners, we will run the first three finishers in the weeks ahead.

The Winners. We asked our judges (not all of them Jericho fans) to rate submissions based on originality, clarity, humanity, and vividness. No names were included on the printed versions, ensuring every story would stand on its own.

It was not easy. Suffice to say that we may be announcing winners today, but there were no losers. Toward the end of the selection, even the most finite details were considered, including whether the writers had met the contest criteria.

Looking back, I wish I would have included additional slots for honorable mentions as one theme was persistent across all judge comments: all of the entries had merit. While some stories were better crafted than others, the passion that most submitters had for the show was not only apparent, but admirable.

The vividness of the stories was exceptional. Every perspective was unique, ranging from foreign correspondents covering the crisis and preachers finding their purpose to the comfort found in family pets and being isolated at an archaeological dig on that day. So, even if not listed here, I strongly encourage all of the authors to share their stories as they deserve an audience. With that said, these are the three who will be sharing for the next three Sundays on our blog…

First Place. “Checkmate” by Nick Lysne (British Columbia, Canada)

Second Place. “Dear Journal” by Myles McNutt (Nova Scotia, Canada)

Third Place. “Letters To The Lost” by Ray Hayton (California, U.S.A.)

Congratulations to you all. We look forward to sharing your stories in the weeks ahead and will be contacting you this weekend. We will also be writing about Jericho consumer marketing efforts tomorrow, but please do not forget we will be running the first place story this Sunday. All our best!

Disclaimer: "Jericho” and its related characters are the property of CBS Paramount Television Network and Junction Entertainment. This contest is solely for entertainment purposes. Copywrite, Ink. is not affiliated with CBS or Junction Entertainment.


Thursday, August 30

Going For Backlash: Humane Society & PETA

As covered by The New York Times, The Humane Society and PETA have taken an interesting position on global warming: Hummers are good; hamburgers are bad.

"Environmentalists are still pointing their fingers at Hummers and S.U.V.’s when they should be pointing at the dinner plate,” said Matt A. Prescott, manager of vegan campaigns for PETA, who said PETA is outfitting a Hummer with a driver in a chicken suit and a vinyl banner proclaiming meat as the top cause of global warming.

While the Humane Society is placing its faith in a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report that claimed the livestock business generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined, we might point out one obvious flaw — it's not the eaten animals that are contributing to greenhouse gases.

There are others. Disrupting the habitats of animals to drill for oil might qualify as hypocrisy. Alienating increasingly environmentally-conscious consumers by stating they “cannot be a meat-eating environmentalist” seems counterproductive. And promoting the concept of choosing the lesser of two evils seems, well, off the ranch.

While the ad might work in achieving some media buzz for its B-grade shock value, it has no strategic merit. If anything, all it really does is reinforce what critics has been saying for years: they don't care about doing right as much as being right. (In the article, Prescott all but said they are counting on critics to make this ad an issue.)

And that's too bad. Given that 87 percent of those surveyed in one recent study said they are seriously concerned about the environment (though not necessarily ready to give up meat and SUVs), the timing couldn't be worse. Why? Because crackpot creative might get some publicity, but it's often at the expense of credibility.


Playing Politics: Everyone Under The Sun

While most political coverage has shifted to the bathroom habits and hypocrisy of Sen. Larry Craig (reality check: no amount of spin can save this), there is a largely unreported political story taking place that may be more concerning to some and much more far reaching in considering topics such as transparency.

In May, director Oliver Stone, filmmaker behind “JFK” and “Born on the Fourth of July” has produced a television spot ad for, which featured Iraq war veteran John Bruhns calling on the government to bring U.S. troops home. You can see the spot, along with how the Democrats, Republicans, and Independents responded to the ad in real time at Slate.

ABC News reported on the advertisement throughout the production. It also covered a rebuttal advertisement produced by Freedom Watch. When you compare the two stories, the coverage seems as polar opposite as the advertisements.

Similar to the Stone-produced ads, Freedom Watch produced testimonials of Iraq war veteran John Kriesel, who lost both of his legs but still supports the actions abroad. You can view this advertisement here. CNBC and MSNBC have refused to air the ads outright, which seems contrary to their decision to run a poignant Associated Press story on the indifference to the First Amendment.

You know, there always seems to be ample pressure placed on social media and bloggers to practice full disclosure, but the reality is full disclosure is not a prerequisite to objectivity in the world in which we live. Perhaps Copyblogger is right (which is good, because I've said the same before). We don’t really want it and even if we had it, we most certainly wouldn’t like it. The best we can do is attempt to guide it from time to time.

So, when you look at advertisements like those produced by MoveOn and FreedomWatch, there are a few truths to be found: military personnel are as conflicted about Iraq as the country; the media is only obligated to run and protect the stories it wants to protect and run; tragedy and conflict sell better in the news than charity and camaraderie; and regardless of how we feel about Iraq, our troops deserve better than being paraded around for the purposes of political gain.

Every year, I tell public relations students the same thing: when it comes to existing in the public eye as an individual, as a company, or as a community, perception is reality. And while that might be, please try to remember that it isn’t.


Wednesday, August 29

Mining For Communication: Crandall Canyon Mine

It has been weeks. Six men remain missing, likely dead. Three rescue workers have lost their lives. Several have been seriously injured. Many more have suffered.

Yet, the media continues to report in microscopic detail. Everyone from the man on the street to Utah Gov. Jon M. Huntsman has offered opinion. And mine owner Robert Murray continues to miscommunicate at every turn, including his insistence that a seismic shock was responsible for the collapse despite evidence that suggests otherwise. The mine is unsafe.

"Not all seismic activity is what it looks like," said Jim Pechmann, who has been a seismologist for more than 20 years. "The reported activity was undoubtedly related to the mine collapse."

A few weeks ago, someone had asked that perhaps the Crandall Canyon Mine would make for a case study so public relations students might learn how to better plan for and handle crisis communication; perhaps after our hearts have healed.

With as many communication mistakes as have been made during this tragedy, I’m unconvinced our hearts will ever heal. So, my comment today is with the hope that those involved might handle the conclusion better than they have the last few weeks.

First and foremost, while some principles remain true, crisis communication and disaster response or emergency communication are not the same. Had Murray been advised of this, perhaps some of the communication would have played out differently. You see, in the midst of a disaster, there is no room for speculation, presumption, guesswork, media conference teases, and emotional rally cries that more cause pain and suffering beyond the tragedy.

Without question, an entire book could be written on the many missteps of the Crandall Canyon Mine communication. For us, the best that can offered up are a few tenets in a series of well-spaced apart posts, starting with a few basic principles that were missed during this disaster (and why some communicators will still get it wrong next time).

Situation Analysis. While some public relations practitioners suggest rapid-fire response and up-to-the-minute detail, nothing outweighs accuracy. All too often throughout this crisis, the pressure to educate not only overshadowed proper fact-gathering, but also infused itself into the decision-making process that quite possibly led to increasing the risk to rescue workers. There seems to have been little regard for assessment, which has frequently led to the release of erroneous information and overreaching conclusions.

Identify Crisis Team. Many public relations practitioners conclude that a principal such as Murray should be made spokesman. This is not true. With exception to the biggest news breaks in the story, Murray was not a suitable spokesperson and would have been better served focusing all of his attention on the rescue efforts. A different spokesperson could have kept reporters up to date and stories focused on facts with occasional input from reputable specialists as needed.

Prioritize Publics. In this case, the first people to receive any updates should have always been the families of those affected. Affected families should never have to learn new or conflicting information from the news. The second priority are other team members: rescue workers, and response partners (including medical personnel), ensuring that if they do answer media inquiries, miscommunication is minimized. The third priority is government officials; people to whom the media are likely to turn for additional comment. And then, and only then, can the media receive updates that are centered on major news items and not miniscule detail.

Narrow The Message. In today’s world, communication happens at the speed of light. All publics receive it quickly and react very differently. While all information will eventually be released (it pays to be truthful), a spokesperson must keep the issues manageable and the focus narrow. Wild claims without evidence are fraught with peril: it is always best to remain hopeful for the best outcome, but prepare people for the worst.

Accept Responsibility. Murray’s inconsistent and often emotionally charged communication over the last three weeks has demonstrated one simple truth: all mishandled communication happens from the inside out. Even if Murray was right, that an earthquake caused the collapse, there was never time to angrily defend his company's safety record and its efforts to reach the trapped miners. Doing so only demonstrated a lack of empathy to the families, eroded reputation, and worse, positioned Murray as someone who cared more about his company than the men who lost their lives.

Although most people can understand the pressure Murray must feel, someone needs to tell him that it doesn’t matter who or what is to blame. Sometimes, no matter what the cause, you have to accept responsibility (if not accountability) all the same.

Our hearts and prayers go out to the families. If you would like to lend assistance, read today’s story in The Salt Lake Tribune that includes a variety of funds that have been established. If there is anything good to be found in this story, it is in the generosity and sympathy extended by people from across the country. Well done.


Tuesday, August 28

Answering Dumb Questions: Miss South Carolina

Almost anyone can sympathize with the notion that even the most polished presenters can experience stage fright at the worst possible time. Without question, that seems to be what happened to Miss South Carolina during Miss Teen USA.

When asked why she thinks “one-fifth of Americans cannot find the United States on a map, “ Miss South Carolina offered up one of the most perplexing answers and solutions in the history of all pageants.

“I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because some people out there in our nation don’t have maps.” — Lauren Caitlin Upton

Upton then went on to offer a solution that included, um, better education in third world countries. Despite the flub, she still finished third, which further demonstrates just how important the question and answer segment was to the pageant.

To redeem herself, Upton agreed to appear as a guest on NBC’s “Today” show where she was given a do-over. “I believe that there should be more emphasis on geography in our education so people will learn how to read maps better. Yay!”

Hmmm… I don’t know if that is any better given the do-over drove 1.5 million more people to see the original flub on YouTube (4.5 million and counting). Maybe someone should have advised Upton to say something completely different.

“The question took me aback because I personally don’t believe that one-fifth of Americans cannot find the United States on a map. I’d like to see the methodology of that study because I doubt its objectivity.” Or maybe …

“What kind of propaganda is Miss Teen USA trying to spread about our country anyway? That’s what I’d like to know.” Or maybe …

“Hey, what difference does it make? I was the third runner-up. Yay!”

Instead, Upton has become the pageant’s patsy despite her third runner-up position, which may or may not have softened the blow, and the Miss Teen USA pageant has succeeded in deflecting all accountability in asking a question that would have made most people ask: “What the heck are you talking about?”

Worse, as many excuses as she gave for not being able to answer the question (including one that was coached to her by a sympathetic host), one wonders if Upton’s appearance helped at all. Here is the do-over, courtesy of the Gawker, who preferred the first answer.

Granted, Upton had to answer the question because it was part of a pageant. However, we can’t help but to provide some hard-learned lessons for up-and-coming semi-public and public figures: don’t answer dumb questions because it will increase your propensity to provide a dumb answer; if you do answer, make sure you prepare one solid response that addresses the mistake before going on the “Today” show; and, most importantly, never take the “do-over” because while it’s cute for the show, it doesn’t do anything for you.


Monday, August 27

Driving Ads: FreeCar Media

FreeCar Media, which is a nontraditional marketing company with offices in Los Angeles and New York, seems to have stumbled upon the right guerilla marketing mix by leveraging prime advertising real estate — consumer-owned vehicles.

According to a recent The New York Times story, thousands of motorists are already signing up to have their cars and trucks wrapped in advertisements. While the story said the mentions a stipend of up to $800 a month, FreeCar Media only includes for up to $400 per month on its Web site, which covers some car payments.

In some cases however, drivers may not have to think about payments at all. Some receive a new car to use for about two years in lieu of a cash stipend (insurance and gas is still the responsibility of the driver). As an interesting side note, applicants seem strongly encouraged to consider changing their policy to Progressive, creating a guerilla marketing campaign of sorts within a guerilla marketing campaign.

This might trump the old saying “never look a gift horse in the mouth,” but perhaps just a bit. Pause long enough to know what you are filling out as wrapping the vehicle might not be the only criteria. Those chosen are also asked to refrain from smoking, littering, or swearing in their vehicle (easy); attend a monthly “influencer event” where they hand out samples or coupons (moderate); and send reports and frequency updates that include photos of where the cars have been (hard).

Applicants are not always selected because it is the advertisers who choose the drivers they want. This decision, according to the company, is largely based on how much information the applicant is willing to provide. However, whether the company uses this information for other marketing purposes is also not clear.

What is clear is that it has worked for some products and companies: Pringles, HBO, International House of Pancakes, and Tang are all among them. In the Pringles case study from 2001, a fleet of 25 consumer-owned vehicles were wrapped in Atlanta.

At the inception of that campaign, all 25 vehicles lined up in front of Turner Stadium for a Braves vs. Mets game. All the drivers and their families (which consisted primarily of soccer moms/dads), sat in the back of their vehicles passing out free Pringles samples to 52,000 baseball fans. It was not clear whether the families received additional compensation for their time at the game or if the wraps were removed at the end of the 3-month campaign.

What is starting to interest me is how far consumers will allow advertising to permeate their lives and what are the long-term consequences to the dilution of the message. Already, some studies suggest it takes well over 200 impressions to have the same impact 80 impressions did just a few years ago. (And this doesn’t include any opt-in mobile phone advertising programs that are likely to be introduced in the future.)

Still, mobile billboards (if not consumer cars) does make sense for some advertisers. Although FreeCar Media estimates almost 70,000 other motorists and pedestrians will see the advertisement daily, most mobile billboards offer better reach along planned routes (and use much more conservative numbers). We’ve arranged some in the past; they are exceptionally well suited to targeted location/route advertising.

So how do you top this? If you want some ideas, visit Las Vegas where advertising wraps have reached new heights. EliteMedia, which specializes in outdoor advertising, has placed huge advertisements on several iconic hotels, including Mandalay Bay and the Luxor. You can see some of the recent wraps on their blog.

Seeing an ad cover an entire building seems fun, or in some cases, um, interesting. It also makes you wonder. If your niche blog doesn’t excite people, maybe you can consider how much the average residential garage door might be worth, a yard sign during peak political season, or perhaps spiffy ad wraps for frequent fliers.


Saturday, August 25

Paint By Numbers: Network Ratings

It’s odd to read Susan Whiting, president and CEO of Nielsen Media Research, write about “Anytime Anywhere Media Measurement,” and not just because it closely mirrors the “Anytime, anywhere, from any device” positioning statement that we developed for the National Emergency Number Association’s Next Generation 911 System several years ago.

No, it’s mostly odd because the new Nielsen “everyone counts” concept doesn’t resonate with people who will watch Jericho Season 2, who once watched The Black Donnellys, or who once watched a half dozen other programs that have since been slashed for poor ratings.

“We’re not on the same channel. Isn’t that great! Well, maybe, if you’re particularly fond of revolutions. Remember when were all over the “dial?” Well, there is no dial. Digital took care of that. So we’re surfing with the remote. Not always. Sometimes we timeshift by watching what we want when we want.” — Susan Whiting

Sound familiar? The language reads like the scores of testimonials from Jericho fans ever since we noted Nielsen was feeling some fallout months ago (except the fans wrote better). Back then, it was these fans who learned for the first time that their show was going to be cancelled because the Nielsen system fails the most important criteria of a sample: it is not random in the statistical sense.

Simply put, the ratings game is a crapshoot. The sliver of a difference between keeping a show on the air today or not is so statically insignificant, sliced all the more thinly by targeting select demographics, and completely negating any audience that might watch shows in a group setting (bars, college dorms, etc.). And yet, the rating system is why we watch the Super Bowl in February (during sweeps, when the most viewers are surveyed), dictates advertising rates, and is the fuel for most entertainment columns.

Not to worry, Nielsen says, it’ll have a whole new system by 2011. How well that will work is anybody’s guess. Sure, Nielsen has some good ideas, including its social network buzz network monitoring device “Hey! Nielsen,” which is currently being beta tested by employees.

But at some point, somebody still has to ask what do these numbers mean anyway? Some might live by them, but others are becoming less certain. For a long time, HBO completely ignored the numbers and produced award-winning heavily watched shows, and its message “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” really stuck.

Nowadays, it doesn't seem that way, which is why HBO might find its roots again. Increasingly, HBO is measuring its success both by how many viewers a show accumulates over multiple plays and by how well a show performs with its on-demand service, where viewers order specific episodes. We hope others follow suit with new measure methods, because while we maintain Nielsen does have some relevance, shifting the decision-making process might save us from more paint-by-number programming and nuttier Nielsen concepts.

For example, Nielsen recently released that local people readers (non-sweeps tracking) were employed in the top 10 television markets, which supposedly accounts for 30 percent of all television households. (What’s missed is the tiny number of households tracked in those markets). In other words, Atlanta,
Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. have a little more weight than the rest of the country.

This is especially significant to Jericho fans because looking back over our own analytics during the peak of the cancellation protest, Jericho fans seem grossly underrepresented in these markets when compared to the greater United States (to say nothing of Canada and other countries). When you think about the show, it almost makes sense. It doesn’t seem like an urban powerhouse as much as it captures the rest of the nation’s imagination.

But what does that mean? It means what it has always meant. Attempting to paint by numbers to give shows a leg up in the ratings (or even critical review) is fraught with peril. In the months and years ahead, especially as broadcast-Internet convergence moves forward, networks will be better served by creating and marketing the content that they believe in, which is how some cable players like HBO and even some network shows have succeeded.

If you create a great show and support it, the numbers will follow — with viewers, DVD sales, and Internet engagement. Anything else is just guesswork. Just to illustrate the point, someone looking at Southwest Airlines on Alexa might notice it is down 11 percent in reach over the last three months. Do those numbers mean anything? Not if I count $150 million in ticket sales attributed to the widget that is part of its social media marketing program. Go figure.


Friday, August 24

Needing Redemption: Glenn Renwick, Progressive

“At Progressive, we have a stated set of Core Values that we use to guide our decision making and actions,” says Glenn Renwick, president and CEO of Progressive. “One of these Values is the Golden Rule — treat others as you would like to be treated.”

Given this quote is pulled directly from an ill-advised statement after the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke a story about how private investigators working for Progressive tape recorded church sessions, it's hard to believe.

Why were investigators recording church members who confessed about abortions, sexual orientation issues, drug addictions and other dark secrets? It seems the company was hoping to discredit a couple who were in an ongoing lawsuit over a traffic accident. The couple has now filed a lawsuit that charges invasion of privacy, breach of confidentiality, emotional distress, fraud, and other issues.

“For the past 70 years, we've built our business by building trust,” Renwick continues. “Trust that we will do the right thing on behalf of our customers — every day, every time.”

Coincidentally, trust seems be the buzzword behind Progressive’s TripSense, which allows Minnesota drivers to get discounts if they can “prove” that they drive less. Given that simply asking for an odometer reading might work just as effectively, one has to wonder just how "progressive" the definition of trust has become.

“We make sure we always fall well within the law," said James Purgason Jr. and Paige Weeks of Merlin Investigations, the investigators who were contracted by Wisconson-based Progressive Northern Insurance Co. "How it's interpreted from there isn't up to us."

But not all private investigators feel that way. When reporter D.L. Bennett asked Glenn Christian of Coastal Investigations in Savannah, who serves as president of the Georgia Association of Private Investigators, what he thought, Christian said that some companies would never do that. He said there is a fine line between what might be legal and what is moral.

To be fair, it seems Renwick was personally unaware of what Wisconson-based Progressive Northern Insurance Co. was attempting to do to win its case and there seems little to be little doubt that he is appalled. However, he was clearly aware of the statement that now decorates the Progressive Web site. And frankly, he should be appalled that he signed off on it.

There is only one statement that may have not turned into what Collateral Damage calls one of the more obvious definitions of a public relations nightmare. It would have been the one that skips the messages about trust and company history and cuts right to the chase. Something like this...

Upon learning that Progressive Northern Insurance Co. and contracted investigators, Merlin Investigations, breached our company’s values two years ago, Progressive will be settling this case as quickly as possible. (Um, insert a line about restitution for the couple, the church, AND all those other people who were there). As a company, we are appalled and apologize to all those impacted.

To ensure this never happens again and to send a clear message to all of our divisions, we will be releasing all parties who were aware that this investigation was grossly overreaching for evidence. I only wish that the incident would have been brought to my attention two years ago so we could have acted promptly then and protected this couple from tactics that clearly cross the line of ethical and moral decency.

The end. No gratuitous 3-paragraph company cut line required.

Sure, it isn’t perfect, but even this 3-second solution reads as more genuine than the original. Or, in other words, one can only hope Progressive covers “communication ignorance” because this statement reads like a pileup. Once again, it's never the incident as much as the aftermath that gets companies in trouble.


Thursday, August 23

Ending Fairytales: Judge Denise Langford Morris

According to the Associated Press, Judge Denise Langford Morris has temporarily ended the reverse Cinderella story that took misguided advertising star and self-proclaimed change agent Julie Roehm to the brink of mayhem marketing celebrity. Right, the pumpkin coach she was riding in could not find the right home at midnight and the court unceremoniously dismissed it because Roehm's case against Wal-Mart should have been filed in Arkansas and not Michigan.

In sum, for all that nine months of vicious spin, counterspin, and missteps, the original case seems to have accomplished nothing more than personal brand damage: forever branding Roehm as the former Wal-Mart marketing executive who allowed her judgment to lapse as she leveraged her position for fun and profit. Worse, along the way, she has played virtually every part to create one of the most inconsistent personal images ever, from a heartbroken head of household to a relentless and scrappy street fighter.

As if all this wasn't enough, according to Advertising Age, a spokesman for Roehm said she and her lawyers hadn't yet decided whether to file in Arkansas. No offense intended, but when your best hope is to slowly reverse an impaired image on Facebook, it's probably long past time to focus on the book deal rather than the glass slipper.

Sure, I know more than one person has extended their sympathies to Roehm, but all along I've been miffed by this misadventure. Why? One of my colleagues summed it up nicely. "We were part of a Wal-Mart pitch once and they told us up front, before anything else, 'Wal-Mart is only interested is delivering the lowest possible price to its customers. If you send us a gift, we will send it back and kindly ask that you deduct the amount from our bill.'" It doesn't get much clearer than that.


Bridging The Gap: Where Social Media Can Miss

Only one question keeps coming to mind when I read about the anti-critic sentiment expressed by the MyRagan team, the lack of communication and customer service that underpins Facebook, and (in contrast) the sending of flowers and the power of forgiveness. Is there any room for ‘high touch’ customer service in the rapid-fire world of the Internet or social media?

A few years ago, when I asked Curtis Nelson, president and CEO of Carlson Hospitality Worldwide, he certainly hoped so. He saw technology as a way to enhance guest expectations and the high touch service provided by hospitality employees.

“Information is an advantage, but informed decisions will depend on how much you know about your customers and how strong of a ‘high touch’ relationship they can establish,” Nelson said. “People make decisions (including purchases) based on emotion,” which is why customer service plays an increasing important role in terms of value and the profit of repeat customers.

In the hospitality industry, he wasn’t the only one who thought so. Virtually every executive I spoke to had the same message and similar warnings despite the fact that the hospitality industry was investing as much as 3.4 percent of its total annual revenue in technology at the time.

“Always remember, no amount of technology can provide guests an informed opinion,” offered Nicholas Mutton, then senior vice president of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts.

Consistently, they all pointed to simultaneously increasing guest services and technology because they viewed such investments as a critical part of their and strategy of the operation. Now, a mere five years later, is it any wonder why hospitality continues to be one of the fastest-growing industries in the world.

Not only did hospitality have an ideal environment—one where more governments assist their tourism industries by consolidating efforts and collecting vertical and geographic buying patterns, trip motivations, and psychographic profiles (information made increasingly available because of technology)—but the best of them always remembered what so few seem to remember in the world of social media.

“Some things must remain very, very human,” said James Brown, then president of Rosewood Hotel & Resorts. “The last thing I would ever want to see at a concierge desk (for example) is a guest asking for a good Italian restaurant and someone looking it up on a computer. A concierge should know it — serving as the buffer between the technology.”

Given the advent of technology with social networks and various social media platforms, I can only imagine that those who remain vigilant in bridging the gap between high tech and high touch will be those left standing two or three years from now. In other words, once the excitement of something new erodes, the rush of new members begins to flatten, and the initial purchase based on emotion gives way to logical review, all that remains is the collective impressions created by the individual, firm, or company.

In the lead above, only one seemed to get it. For the other two, they might remember that as big as some companies or social networks might get, none is exempt from losing ground as fast as they gained it.


Wednesday, August 22

Advertising Conundrum: America Online

If you are still wondering why content is king on the Internet, even beyond blogs, consider that American Online (AOL) continues to lose ground after reducing its reliance on subscriptions and shifting to an ad revenue model despite having what once was the largest place to connect on the Internet.

So what happened? As made all too apparent by Miguel Helt in The New York Times on Monday, ad revenue alone cannot replace the splendor AOL once enjoyed as the darling of online subscription services. The Internet has changed and AOL changed too late.

What is not clear in the article is the true culprit behind the AOL slip. Its slow transition from subscription to ad revenue hastened the pace of member defection. Basically, its members left because it didn’t make sense to pay for advertising-infused services that they could get elsewhere. Then, as its members left, AOL had fewer numbers to pull down ad deals.

It has been a long time since I visited AOL (not counting yesterday), but I did two years ago. What I found made me realize my decision to leave was a good one. Chat rooms, once a core service offered by AOL, were overwhelmed with little lines of advertising and bothersome bots, leaving people to wonder if anyone was real. (Probably not. Real people were using Instant Messenger.) Hardly something worth using let alone paying for.

And that brings us to today. According to the article, the newest idea to save AOL is to re-engineer the site so its customers can choose various channels and services they like and then include them in their blogs, personalized home pages, or favorite social networking sites. (In other words, they still do not get it.)

“We are not trying to build yesterday’s portal,” said Ron Grant, president of AOL told The New York Times. “We are trying to build a network of sites that users can combine or do whatever they are most comfortable with.”

Where is the added value? When you consider our shiny new object syndrome that tends to sweep the Web every few months (or is it weeks?), our apparent desire to customize as opposed to accept package deals, our disdain for intrusive advertising (which AOL has built right into its new page layout), and our thirst for fresh content, AOL really is only offering yesterday’s portal today.

Look, the Internet is not hard to decipher. There are three distinct offerings that attract customers to any platform and portal (or even blog): exclusive content, exclusive products, or exclusive services. Google: exclusive services. eBay: exclusive products. The New York Times: exclusive content. Sure, there are other examples that can be plugged in and other ways to make an impact. For example, Southwest Airlines attributes $150 million in ticket sales generated by a widget.

Once you have exclusive content, products, or services, a growing number of members, subscribers, and consumers will follow. In time, this following will be more likely to pay for a product, service, or submit to some mysterious amount of advertising (assuming you have the right audience). Even AOL, once upon a time, had all three ingredients, which justified the subscription fee. For many of us, at least for a short while, it was also the only connection game in town.

But as the world grew up around the company, AOL's once exclusive services began to erode, its content became more generic, and its products were improved upon by others. Worse, its branding all but imploded under the weight of aggressive control and generic content, increasingly sophisticated customers, poor “user” service and cancellation policies, and an inability to leapfrog the competition.

Ho hum, if AOL wants to remain relevant today, it seems to me that it might forget trying to build a better mousetrap to be all things to all people. A better strategy would be to focus on the next bright shiny object. And, given the amount of space it has available, who knows? Maybe this shiny object could be solving the broadband limitation ratio of “many to 1,” which is the last known hurdle in true convergence between traditional media and the Internet.


Tuesday, August 21

Redefining Reporter Finesse: Steve Friess

The last time I saw Jerry Lewis, it was years ago and in passing at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. Most people didn’t recognize him because he’s an unassuming traveler. There was no entourage. There was no fanfare. He was in a wheelchair; the medication he was on at the time was less than kind.

He is good to his fans; it is not impossible to write him a nice letter and receive an autographed picture on request. He personally donates funds to the MDA and as most people know, he is the MDA national chairman and will be leading the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon.

But credentialed local freelance writer Steve Friess wanted to write about something different. So Lewis’ publicist Rick Saphire passed, mentioning that Lewis had a sizable fee unless the interview was related exclusively to MDA. Friess, in turn, wrote about his experience on his blog, which has since landed over at The Huffington Post.

Yesterday, Saphire was fired. Lewis agreed to the interview. His team noted that the fee was never intended for mainstream U.S. media, but merely an attempt to cut down on the number of international interview requests. Some celebrities, as you might imagine, could make a full-time job of doing nothing but interviews.

Most people seem to be celebrating Friess securing the interview out of the misunderstanding. In truth, it seems to me only Lewis handled this right. Saphire might have known the facts, which makes me wonder why he was on the payroll. Yet, Saphire wasn’t the only one mistaken.

As seasoned as Friess is, with by-lines appearing in USA Today and Newsweek (among others), he knows well enough that interviews are almost never so restricted. Our credits include the Los Angeles Times and The Denver Post, and we know it: a little finesse during an interview can go a long way.

So where does all this drama lead social media? When freelance writers cannot get the interview they want, is the appropriate action to publicize the rejection? I hope not. It seems brutish to me. Not to mention, the rejection seems to be getting a lot more mileage for Friess than the update. And, unfortunately, that comes at Lewis’ expense.

Simply put, Friess could have contacted the MDA publicity team, arranged the interview, and had a different experience all together with no harm done. Instead, it seems to me that he set out to teach the publicist a public lesson, and mirroring yesterday’s story, that seems to say a lot about his reporting style. It also seems to demonstrate once again that news creation is alive and well in Las Vegas.


Monday, August 20

Acting Big, Looking Small: Anchor Kim Wagner

Morning anchor Kim Wagner at Las Vegas NBC-affiliate KVBC News 3 lost her cool a few days ago and the whole world is talking about it after the local clip made it on to YouTube. Wagner, on live television, degrades a camera operator.

“I have a big problem. Whenever I’m out in the community,” Wagner comments, after crossing in front of the shot to adjust the camera's angle. “People say I’m so small.”

The show quickly erodes into accusations that the camera crew is responsible for how "big" she looks on television. She then likens herself to looking like She-Ra, Princess of Power, a reference to a character that is part of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

Even when morning traffic and weatherman John Fredericks attempts to lighten the moment, offering “we have the best crew in the world,” Wagner cannot let it go. She chimes in again to say: “We love Tyra (the camera operator), she’s just a little pissed at us right now.” Fredericks even asks if that is the word for the day (meaning the last word).

As mentioned before, messages that leave lasting impressions usually come from one of four places: what we say about ourselves; what others say about themselves (newscasters in this case); what others say about us; and what we say about others. Although Wagner says plenty about herself, noting that she has a complex about her size, the most revealing segment of this program is what she says about others and what those comments reveal about her.

After watching the clip, Wagner seems to be miss this concept. What she says doesn't say anything about "Tyra" and everything about Wagner. No, Wagner does not come across or look like She-Ra, Princess of Power, as much as she becomes a dead ringer for Skeletor, the arch nemesis of He-Man.

Although coincidental, this fits perfectly within the context of a discussion about maintaining an expert image. I mention there that experts do not have to be overly cautious about what they say, but they do need to be accurate, consistent (in presenting their own image), and sensitive to the values of others.

Wagner not only fails in demonstrating that she cares about her team (crew or cast), but she also comes across as being vain, egotistical, and mean-spirited, a complete contrast to how she wants to be perceived in public.

Worse, what would have once amounted to being a completely forgettable local blooper is now making its way around the world. Lesson for today: don’t act too big on camera (or online for that matter) or you may look smaller than you ever intended.


Saturday, August 18

Changing Television: The Jericho Effect

“Thank you for your article from the set of Jericho. I was disappointed when I heard the show had been canceled. With well-developed characters and a compelling plot, it is not to be missed. Kudos to those involved in the peanut campaign for helping bring this addictive series back for season 2. Note to CBS: If you want to maintain viewership, stop killing story-line momentum by placing shows on hiatus for three months in the middle of their run.” — Natalie Payne (Mississauga, Ontario).

If Payne’s comment in the feedback section of Entertainment Weekly (Aug. 24) is any indication of the growing number of fans beyond the Internet, CBS might take notice. Not only do they exist, but their messages match those promoted by Jericho Rangers during the campaign.

It happens right here as well. We received about two dozen entries in our fan fiction contest after seeding it on dozens of contest sites. (Winners to be announced Aug. 31; and published every Sunday after.) But even more telling is that there isn’t a day that goes by when more Jericho fans seem to surface and find their way here, searching for the Jericho Season 2 schedule. And from here, they can easily find dozens of worthwhile Jericho links that line our posts. We are not alone.

The Hollywood Reporter has taken to calling it “the Jericho’ effect.” They say “TV bloggers came into their own as a force to be reckoned with this summer when their campaign to save CBS' canceled post apocalyptic drama* ‘Jericho’ became a triumphant success.” (*post-apocalyptic drama is not an appropriate description, but we know what might be.)

Just how much impact are TV bloggers and fans who have become disenchanted with the Nielsen rating system having? According to the article, they are influential enough that some television critics fear for their status if not their lives.

Seemingly overnight, networks now realize that fan engagement means better results than catering exclusively to the mixed reviews of entertainment writers. On this I can only offer that having been a reviewer for years, the industry needs to retool anyway. Sometimes, the remarks made are a bit sloppy, overly skewed toward personal preference, and often lifted right from the releases.

The Hollywood Reporter also notes that fans are attempting to lobby critics for favored comment (this is the price of semi-celebrity). And some fear fanatical fans and their ability to track them down (I hope that is not the case). Jericho is not the only show to see growing movements.

Teev Blogger reported last year that fans of Joss Whedon’s Firefly have been clamoring for more. Part of their wish is coming true. Multiverse Network has the rights to create a “massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG)” based on the TV show. Here is the latest news. Will it be enough? I don’t know.

Veronica Mars fans have a brand new site that says they want what Firefly got in lieu of a continued series — a full-length movie. Add to that a confirmation on the comic expected to be released by DC Comics in the late fall. Overall, the new movie campaign site seems be well thought out (though still under construction) with a nice summary of places to go for news.

Even Masi Oka (Hiro from Heroes) got into the act, reviving The Black Donnellys name when he made a quip about the show while giving critics a tour of an Irish pub: “This is where I go back in time and save The Black Donnellys.” While he meant to be playful, it does strike a chord. Although most people had never seen the show, everyone suddenly seems to know exactly what he is talking about.


Friday, August 17

Understanding Gumballs: From Trunk To Maltoni

If there is one secret to be learned after conducting hundreds and thousands of interviews, ranging from an emotionally exhausted mother staying at a Ronald McDonald House to billionaire Sheldon Adelson, it is that the success of any interview hinges on effective communication.

And, if there is any prerequisite to ensure effective communication, it is to see the interviewee as a person, regardless of any perceived labels — status, position, gender, whatever. The concept is simple. The execution is not.

For the past few months, one label that seems to have galvanized, if not polarized, online communities and bloggers is the most basic of all — gender. To this ongoing discussion in its numerous forms, I say gumballs.

Right, gumballs. You know what I mean. When we were all kids and could not care less about silly things like gender, most of us claimed certain gumballs were better than others — blue, red, yellow. We were all delusional. The gumballs all tasted the same.

The gender issue is much like that. It doesn't matter where it turns up. Last month it appeared on a post penned by the popular blogger Penelope Trunk when she abandoned career conversations in favor of sharing her perspective on her marriage, which quickly turned into a war of words about gender.

“So I’m going to tell you the truth about stay-at-home dads…” she wrote.

Not surprisingly, most of the discussion quickly descended into non-communication, with some claiming that any man commenter who disagreed was somehow invalid, if not sexist, because, well, they were men. Never mind that not all of them were men.

Ho hum. What most missed was that if there is a "truth" about stay-at-home dads … it is that there is no truth about stay-at-home dads. Just as there is no truth about stay-at-home moms. Just as there is no truth that accurately defines a good marriage, spouse, or parent. Just as there is no truth to any discussion that revolves around a label.

We saw the same descent into non-communication after Valeria Maltoni published her Top 20 PR PowerWomen list, which prompted Lewis Green to write his much discussed post, which questioned the validity of an all-woman list (he has since yielded and agreed to support it).

Before I continue, I might point out that I already commented at the The Buzz Bin and agreed with Geoff Livingston’s decision to support the Top 20 PR PowerWomen. However, I also understand what Green was asking, but think that he asked the wrong question.

In sum, it seems to me that Green asked whether any list segregated by gender, race, or ethnicity was valid. In other words, he may as well have asked if we group our gumballs by size or color, does that place the other gumballs at a disadvantage. Um no, they still taste the same.

But let's say he asked a slightly different question. Does the promotion of a label — status, position, gender, whatever — further erode the ability of people to interact as individuals without regard to labels (such as gender) or does it simply draw more attention to their differences as identified by such a label and breed resentment?

Well now, that depends solely on the gumballs who make up the group. In this case, there is no evidence that the Top 20 PR PowerWomen are promoting that pink gumballs somehow taste better than blue gumballs simply because they are pink, which basically means that the list is no more exclusionary than a Top 20 PR PowerPeople in the Washington D.C. Area list or a Top 20 Bloggers Who Own Red Socks list.

However, Green's question also illustrates why labels are tricky things. On one hand, humans have great cognitive capabilities, which includes processing large amounts of information by categorizing it by labels. On the other hand, if we are not aware of this process, we can become enslaved by it — either by subconsciously taking on stereotyped behaviors that are identified with a specific label or assuming other people will likely act like the labels that they are assigned.

The simplest truth is there are no typical women and there are no typical men. And if you approach either with the preconceived notion that they will react or respond to you as their label suggests they might, you will likely be disappointed. Worse, you could greatly increase the likelihood of label-centric non-communication.

In a different context, freeing us from the trappings of gender: there are no typical mothers to be found at Ronald McDonald House. And there are no typical billionaires. They are all people and each of them deserve to be treated with respect as individuals. Treat them any differently and you may as well argue that one gumball is better than another gumball, when we all know that they taste the same.

Thursday, August 16

Telling Two Stories: John Mackey

"The District Court's ruling affirms our belief that a merger between Whole Foods and Wild Oats is a winning scenario for all stakeholders," said John Mackey, chairman, CEO, and co-founder of Whole Foods Market. "We believe the synergies gained from this combination will create long term value for customers, vendors, and shareholders as well as exciting opportunities for team members."

Yes, as predicted, U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman has declined to block Whole Foods Market Inc.'s $565 million purchase of Wild Oats Markets Inc. The judge ruled that it does not violate antitrust laws, leaving all speculation to whether or not the Securities and Exchange Commission will rule that Mackey's anonymous postings as the great masked “rahodeb” constitue a violation of securities laws or regulations.

While the reviews have been mixed, several media outlets gave Mackey a free pass despite some documents revealing that the deal could mean the closure of 30 or more Wild Oats stores as well as other details that seem contrary to the public image Mackey has portrayed over the years.

And therein lies the question. How far can Mackey go before he has completely eroded his concept of conscious capitalism? You see, before the controversy, Mackey was working on his book, The Whole Story, which he said would relate his business and life philosophies. And here is an excerpt from one essay that he requested comment on ...

In the early years of the 21st century, major ethical lapses on the part of big business came to light including scandals at Enron, Arthur Anderson, Tyco, the New York Stock Exchange, WorldCom, Mutual Funds, and AIG. These scandals have all contributed to a growing distrust of business and further eroded public trust in large corporations in the United States.

Mr. Mackey, as you so eloquently conclude in your essay ... When we are small children we are egocentric, concerned only about our own needs and desires. As we mature, we grow beyond this egocentrism and begin to care about others—our families, friends, communities, and countries ... I tend to agree. Yet, as much as these thoughts may have been welcomed, it will be exceedingly difficult to take them seriously as you add your own name to the list of scandals that have contributed to a growing distrust of businesses. And perhaps, therein lies the answer.

For while you have earned a pass from the media, forgiveness from the shareholders, beat the Federal Trade Commission, and may very likely survive the SEC investigation, it seems to me that you may have given up your opportunity to ascend to the rank of conscious business visionary. But hey, sometimes the price of winning costs as much, if not more than, losing. In this case, the price could very well be an entire legacy under the pressure of increasing scrutiny as the merger goes through. Indeed, brands are fragile things.


Turning Sweet 16: Copywrite, Ink.

“I don’t see the connection … it can’t be done … we don’t have time … we’ve tried that before … I can’t be bothered by those things … there is no value.”

And so goes the growing list of comments that some social media practitioners say they hear when they talk about social media. Are you surprised? I’m not. These communication killers have been around a long time. I don't expect they will be going away anytime soon either.

We’ve heard them often enough over the last 16 years, starting the day I founded our company with nothing more than a monochrome Mac Classic (yep, the one in the picture) and a fold-out card table set up in the kitchen of a one-bedroom apartment. It won’t work. It can’t be done. Nobody will take you seriously.

Sure, it wasn’t always easy. I’ve had some hits and misses along the way. But nonetheless, despite any naysayers, our company turned sweet 16 yesterday and I took time out to answer Eight Random Facts About Me after being tagged.

One random fact I didn’t share is that I have faith in underdog ideas: anything from social media as a viable tool to meet strategic objectives to the convergence of broadcast and the Internet. Everything from engaging consumers (like Jericho fans and Veronica Mars movie advocates) to encouraged consumer marketing.

Why? Because I believe well-grounded ideas that are backed by ample passion and persistence will work, provided they have the right message. In fact, in working with countless startups, the only good ideas that seem to fail are those where the "idea people" never perfect the message beyond the choir and/or give up before they do.

Social media is a great example. For the most part, practitioners have not proven its potential beyond themselves, possibly because they are too close to the source. This error was made apparent to me once again on Linkedin.

I asked “What is the one social media question that you feel has not been adequately answered by communication experts in this area?” Josh Weinberger, an independent writing and editing professional in New York City, was first out of the box.

”I'd like to see more coverage of how social media is enabling ‘regular’ businesses to conduct their traditional activities.”

His response strikes at the very core of where today’s social media advocates are going wrong. Web traffic? Page rank? Power lists? Social connections? SEO? Comment counts? Global exposure?

None of these hot topics resonate with 'average' businesses. So what we are seeing is that all too often, social media practitioners are providing second-tier and third-tier answers to a first-tier questions.

What can social media do for my business? It depends on the business. And here are a few examples:

• A professional practice (attorneys, accountants, medical practitioners, image consultants, etc.) can employ social media to expand and reinforce their expertise in the field. Blogs, in particular, move the conversations away from talking about ourselves and toward taking about what matters to our potential clients.

• A retail outlet can employ social media to communicate product reviews, shopping tips, and promotional events. If I were calling the shots for Wal-Mart, I would have already budgeted for an online home decorating show, which could help sell products as well as improve the company’s public image.

• An organization consisting of members can employ social media to reinforce online networking, promote upcoming events, and cover topics that are relevant to their membership without spamming their e-mail.

• A large corporation, such as a utility, can employ social media on an Intranet, encouraging departments to learn from each other and develop a consistent internal message prior to presenting rate cases.

• A recruiter could position themselves as an employment expert by not just talking about the industry, but by also developing a online publication that aims at providing tangible career advice to any industry in which they wish to specialize.

Social media may have changed the communication landscape, but it did not change the strategy behind it.

What is the situation? What is the objective? How will we achieve it? Who is the audience? What is the measurement for success? Unless we answer these questions, making sure social media programs are grounded in strategic communication, then all we are producing is entertainment.

Why is Copywrite, Ink. celebrating its sweet 16? Talk less. Ask more. Because if I have learned anything it is that when you ask the right questions, you can gain deeper insight and provide much more meaningful information.


Wednesday, August 15

Savoring Originality: Social Media Patrons

Kerry Simon is not as well known as Wolfgang Puck or Emeril Lagasse. His restaurant at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas, Simon Kitchen and Bar, will never boast a billion served like some fast food chains. And yet, you might find Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, George Clooney, or any number of other stars enjoying what he calls casual American.

Even more astounding, you don’t have to be a star to get great service and enjoy an atmosphere that is similar to the menu — causally gourmet with a twist of modern imagination.

On one visit, Simon even took my surprised son into the kitchen to make cotton candy (gratis). On another, after not visiting for months, one of the servers remembered our drinks.

The food is remarkable; the meatloaf (his mom’s recipe) is the best anywhere; and despite earning the title “celebrity chef,” Simon is as approachable as ever. Is it any wonder, after the restaurant My Way (yes, Paul Anka was a partner) closed years ago, that Simon Kitchen and Bar became my personal favorite in Las Vegas?

Social media, blogs specifically, are much the same way. They are like restaurants, an analogy that came about last week when Geoff Livingston (The Buzz Bin) and I were having an open weekly discussion at BlogStraightTalk about content vs. connections. He referenced Robert Scoble’s post that theorizes blogs are dying.

Scoble’s observation concludes that “my friends who blog are NOT A-Listers are seeing their traffic go down (although Scoble’s is down too) … I theorized that was due to social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Jaiku, and Pownce’s rise.”

Last week, I ran an unscientific poll based on the analogy between restaurants and social media. Fifty-one self-selected respondents (mostly bloggers) revealed enough to hypothesize a new theory.

Considering only 16 percent included Facebook, Twitter, Jaiku, and Pownce as places they go most often, it seems possible that Scoble infused his personal preferences into his theory.

Much more likely, it seems that competition from new and increasingly savvy bloggers as well as content shifts among some established B-List blogs are the reason that some of Scoble’s “B-List” friends are seeing diminished traffic. I’m not surprised.

Increased Competition. People can only keep track of so many blogs so as A-List and established B-List bloggers become more entitled or formulaic, readers find new favorites. There are more new blogs than ever before and some of them, despite being new, are better than the established.

Content Shifts. Once some established B-List bloggers are accepted by A-Listers, there seems to be a propensity to shift their content toward A- and B-List coverage as opposed to new ideas. This is where the term social media “echo chamber” came from and it is not likely to go away anytime soon.

Limited Conversational Service. As bloggers become more established, many have a tendency to hang out in the back room more often (or spend more time as quick service restaurants trying to promote pass through traffic). They become too busy to answer comments, other posts, or make new associates because the weather seems fair.

Given these three points, is it any wonder that the vast majority of bloggers and people who read blogs (but do not blog) seem to be looking for up-and-coming Niche Restaurants (B-Listers/67%) and Undiscovered Back Alley Bistros (C-Listers/57%). Is it any wonder that almost half visit places like, StumbleUpon, and YouTube (41%), all of which continue to see increased traffic, to find these non A-List establishments?

What does all this mean? It doesn’t mean blogs are dying. It means that it might take a little more magic than simply serving A-List leftovers or quick fixes in the form of 140 characters. Sure, Facebook, Twitter, Jaiku, and Pownce can be used to serve a purpose, but that doesn’t mean you should abandon your purpose.

If you want a great blog, make your own blog. Whereas companies and professionals are best served by using social media as the 5-in-1 tool to help meet specific strategic objectives (we can help too); independent bloggers might liken it to opening a new niche eatery as original as any chef opening a new restaurant. If people like what’s on the menu, they’ll be back. And if they don’t come back, maybe it’s not because quick service is in fashion. Maybe it's your menu.


Tuesday, August 14

Surviving US Airways: Social Connections

“…the surprising ease in which our brains interlock, spreading our emotions like a virus.” — Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships.

As a writer and creative director, especially in the fast-paced profession of advertising with always urgent deadlines, I've understood the general concept of what Goleman calls social intelligence for some time.

I sometimes use it to remind account executives and others that negative reinforcement might teach mice to press bars for cheese, but it never did anything for creativity or teamwork. The designers will beat the deadline, I tell them, provided you stop asking them if they’ll meet it.

Emotions are like viruses. And communication is the way it spreads.

Being keenly aware of this, long before reading the first page of Goleman’s book (I picked up at the airport, where I was stranded, the morning after), perhaps it was easier for me not to succumb to the plague of negativity — worry, fear, anger, rage — that swept through the terminal the day before.

Instead, I focused on making alliances with like-minded people who seemed unaffected by the social disease caused mostly by US Airways employees. While I could have tuned it out as an observer, I opted for an inoculation of sorts, creating positive social connections that can make all the difference when you are destined to perform a mini-repeat performance of Tom Hanks in the movie The Terminal.

“That’s based on a true story,” insisted Stephan (from Sweden), who was stranded on his way to Dallas. (I didn’t know it, but he was right).

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Christina (from Germany), who was on her way home after studying at Duke University. “I never saw the movie.”

While our group originally numbered five in line, it was the three of us who spent the most time together, passing the evening hours in an airport bar that was packed with marooned passengers. For a few hours, communication was effortless as we traded observations about our respective cultures, ranging from Christina’s choice to study law in America or Latin in Europe and how the Seventies-spun infamy of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders is ever-present abroad to the growing Swedish presence in American hockey and why some Europeans think Baywatch exemplifies the American experience.

I’m thankful for these spontaneous friendships. It proved helpful when we waited in line together and even more so before heading off to find our respective sleeping arrangements — some empty terminal benches (some passengers flipped them on end to make temporary beds). Sure, there are plenty of tips I could pass out to help people deal with such a crisis, but the best advice is to seek out positive people (not those who want to focus on the horror of it all).

Had the US Airways passenger service agents known this, they too may have been better equipped to face the long line of rightfully concerned passengers who heard that the airline would offer no redemption whatsoever. Hmmm ... imagine how different it could have been had US Airways personnel at least understood that their communication had a greater impact on the passengers than the cancellations. Or that even the simplest service plan could have helped.

Demonstrate Empathy. When you have a 40 percent delay rate and 4 percent cancellation rate like US Airways, it might seem easy to shrug it off as another “here we go again” situation. However, passenger service agents need to appreciate that cancellations are not ordinary to passengers.

Draft Consistent Messages. Even my partner, who attempted to connect with the 1-800 number from home, noted that after speaking with four people, each of them had conflicting messages and none of them were told what I was told on scene (which was different from what other airlines told passengers for that matter). A consistent message — we will get you to your destination and, more importantly, we care — would have went a long way.

Create A Crisis Team. Two or three people serving stranded customers in a bank line model does not work. US Airways could have used personnel who were obviously not checking people in on these flights to assist. Even a 4-person team could have provided a better structure: two on the counter; one to assist off counter (calling for updates, gathering hotel availability, etc.); and the one to handle special needs, eg. parents who needed their baggage, which contained their baby’s formula (baggage could have tracked the bags before the family went down to claim them).

Offer Pre-Counter Service. Rather than allow a passenger service agent to walk the line and discourage passengers; the employee could have told passengers what to expect, letting them know that they were being booked on the next available flight; that it might be late tonight or tomorrow morning; that if they want to change flight plans, need baggage, or have other needs, fill out a form so they can assist expediently; and for those spending the night, they would receive an updated list of hotels ready to accommodate them.

Provide Real Guidance. Given the frequency of cancellations due to, um, "weather" in Philadelphia, US Airways could have easily produced a working list of area hotels based on rates, proximity, and availability, making it easier for passengers (even if the airline refused to pay for them).

Expedite the Line. Four-and-a-half hours (some waiting even longer) is too long when the "return on wait" is negligible or negative. Studies prove long waits are more bearable only if customers can see superior service ahead of them. Since our plan already provides passengers information before they reach the counter, passenger service agents could have fine-tuned their communication, saying “we have booked you on this flight, which means you may want to stay at this hotel tonight at this rate. If you want to change your plans, need your bags for medical or other reasons, or if you have additional special needs, this agent will assist you over here.” Move them forward. Put them at ease.

Simple. Easy. Effective. Empathetic. At minimum, it would have been better than. Instead, the only communication besides a few discouraging employees was a fifth generation photocopy that began “The entire US Airways team sincerely apologizes for this disruption to your travel plans.” It was disingenuous at best and communicated the exact opposite at worst. Frankly, the letter US Airways passed out last week created more negativity than no letter at all.

If anything, it reinforced the only semblance of a consistent message that US Airways seemed to have for the passengers stranded in Philadelphia: “Ha ha! We’re blaming the weather for the cause of every cancellation tonight. You are on your own and I wish you would just deal with it on your own because I’m going home in an hour, and you're not. We just don't care.”


Monday, August 13

Stranding Passengers: US Airways

You can always tell the true quality of a company by how it handles a crisis, big or small. I learned a lot about US Airways, which became the fifth largest carrier in the United States after merging with America West this year, while I was stranded in Philadelphia on my way to New Haven, Conn. last Thursday.

At least 20 flights were cancelled for “weather” and US Airways in Philadelphia quickly buckled under the strain of wayward passengers. It didn’t help that the customer service line was staffed by only two or three people to assist a line that spanned several city blocks.

Adding to the confusion was one US Airways passenger service agent who, instead of assisting passengers, attempted to convince them to get out of line and rebook their own flights by calling a 1-800 number.

“I’m not telling you what to do,” he crowed, attempting to relieve himself of any and all accountability. “I’m telling you what I would do.”

But then he would return every few minutes, berating those passengers who took down the 1-800 number in desperation or politeness but were still unwilling to relinquish their position. (Some didn’t leave the line, simply because the agent lacked credibility.)

For me, there was only one reason to stay. While leaving Las Vegas, the Transportation Security Administration agents had mishandled the tray that contained all of my personal electronics. While my laptop and camera survived, my cell phone was less fortunate — split at the seam, with all audio functions rendered inoperable. Text messaging my way out of being stranded proved futile beyond notifying those expecting me that I might not make it.

As it turned out, staying in line for more than 4 and a half hours proved to be the wiser decision anyway. I was given a new boarding pass, allowing me to enter or leave the airport (other passengers were less fortunate the next morning). And, while waiting in line, the airlines had booked me on what they said was the next available flight to New Haven (about 9:30 a.m. the next morning), arranging for my baggage to be checked through on the same flight.

I also to learned that all the airport hotels were booked full, making it futile to do as the agent suggested. So rather than spending the night at the very accommodating Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale as planned, I would be semi-sleeping in Terminal F at the Philadelphia International Airport.

“If I were you, I would give up on alternative flights and make plans to stay in Philadelphia,” the customer service agent had said. “Get out of line, get your bags at baggage claim, and find a hotel. You’re not going anywhere tonight and there are no guarantees that you’ll be getting out tomorrow either.”

There was another benefit to not listening to him or several other customer service agents who may have had the fa├žade of knowing what to do, but proved just as confused as the passengers.

The 1-800 number they handed out was overloaded with calls and frequently disconnected. If you did get through, there was a possibility you would override your status on the next available flight. And, there was another 4-hour mass of people attempting to retrieve their bags in baggage claim, ranging from parents who ran out of formula to seniors who packed enough medication for a delay but not enough for what could be a day or two.

Even more perplexing was the sheer lack of empathy for passengers. Some service agents taunted them with looks of amusement, noting to each other that they would be headed home in an hour or thank goodness they had to check in departing flights that were apparently unhindered by “weather.”

Given that 34.14 percent of all America West dba US Airways flights were delayed and 2.29 percent were cancelled in 1997 (39.07 percent delayed and 3.08 percent in Philadelphia), weather is often the explanation for the airline, but seldom the cause. More likely, US Airways has adopted the America West approach to air travel, which means it lands and takes off at the airport as “space is available.”

In fact, the US Airways crew was so used to delays and cancelled flights, they handed a pre-written letter to passengers after the first three hours. While it might have read “Once again, we wish to extend you our sincere apology, and trust that you will consider the unforeseen nature of the cause of this travel interruption and understand our team will work as quickly as possible to assist you with your new travel plans,” the real message was the medium: it was a fifth generation photocopy with a 1-800 number written in by hand. It also said, though not in writing, don’t expect credit, hotel accommodations, or meal per diem tonight.

I did not, but what I did expect was some semblance of customer service. And since US Airways seems incapable of mapping out an appropriate plan of action when such instances occur almost 40 percent of the time, I’ll post what they could have done tomorrow as well as how I, as a passenger stranded overnight in an airport, managed to avoid succumbing to the chaos and growing negativity caused by not the passengers as much as US Airways personnel.

Yes, I managed to maintain a smile even when my luggage wasn't waiting at the New Haven baggage claim as promised. My cousin's wedding, the only reason to be in New Haven after everything other reason had to be cancelled, was now only six hours away.


Saturday, August 11

Mixing Messages: CBS To Jericho Fans

On one hand, CBS is doing everything right with Jericho (although seeing a corporation encourage what started as a hip fan-based “Jericho Digg-a-thon” is a bit out of the ordinary). On the other hand, CBS went with an exhibition game featuring the Bills vs. Saints last night.

While there is nothing wrong with that (football is big bucks, even in preseason), it rightfully raised the dander of some fans. The reason? Miscommunication or a lack of communication all together.

When you have several thousand fans promoting a show at a set time every Friday night, they feel kind of silly when their friends call them, e-mail them, or twit them back to ask “What show?” It’s not the first time this week someone noted CBS seems to have two messages…

“We want them to watch at 8 o'clock," Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, told The New York Times. “And we need them to recruit viewers who are going to watch the broadcast."

“So at the end of the day, as long as I'm getting paid for it, I don't care whether you are watching CSI on CBS at 9 p.m. on Thursday night, on your DVR, if you are getting it on, or,” said Les Moonves, CEO of CBS, Inc. to The New Yorker's Ken Auletta three days later. “So once again, the distinction, you are still watching CSI.”

Wow. If that’s true, then Jericho fans have a lot more leverage than I imagined. If that’s true, then Jericho fans are almost certain to have a third season. If that’s true, then “if” seems to be the operative word when it comes to Jericho.

Sometimes people seem unsure about my suggestion to develop consistent messages from a core message system that resonates throughout a company and then outward through various audiences, regardless of the company’s size. But the quotes above provide the reason. CBS cannot be dependent on the Nielsen ratings and free from it at the same time. Can they? And here I thought quantum physics was more likely to be found in Eureka.

There are six days left to enter Copywrite, Ink.'s contribution to consumer-generated Jericho buzz:. The free “Expanded Universe Short Story Competition” entry deadline is Aug. 17.


Friday, August 10

Targeting Jobs: Daniel Lyons

Originally, I was going to pass on The New York Times outing Daniel Lyons, a senior editor at Forbes magazine, as the infamous fake Steve Jobs blogger. It was already covered ad nauseum and, with John Mackey still in focus, I wondered how many anonymous blogger stories might be too many.

But then, The Buzz Bin highlighted Todd Vanhooser’s comments that cut right to the chase. They clip some of the very best quotes from Lyons during an interview with Sam Whitmore, circa 2005. Back then, Lyons had all but admitted to a bit of a jealousy over bloggers.

"[Bloggers] have a lot of power, and a lot of companies ... live in fear of these guys." Why? Because there are no rules of engagement like there are in the MSM, Vanhooser summed the Lyons interview.

Rules of engagement for mainstream media? If Lyons felt stifled as a reporter, he might have tried a different publication or professional designation (op-ed writers and columnists have more fun). But then again, his plight hints at where mainstream media sometimes goes off the beaten path and leaves the public looking for online content.

You know, originally, there were only supposed to be two rules of engagement for journalists: tell the truth and shame the devil.

Everything else is a much more recent invention, including the need for two sources on every occasion (even when hard evidence is in hand). In fact, most of the new rules — full disclosure, source verification, not really “off the record” solicitations, etc. — were largely overreactions to the few who damaged the reputation of the many, and the overzealous ridiculing of public figures who demanded that journalists abide by the same rules they prescribe.

Fortunately for Lyons, the media is in an anonymous poster joking mood. Hee hee. Ha ha. Mackey, Lyons, Jessica Carter (the anonymous Capitol Hill sex blogger). Aren’t they all cards?

Look, I don’t think Lyons had an agenda against Jobs (like some anonymous bloggers seem to have against their targets). It doesn’t appear he had any malicious intent. And it probably didn’t hurt Jobs or Apple at all. It’s not even really fair to draw a comparison between him and Mackey or Carter.

However, he raises an interesting question. When you can no longer trust the people who were once charged with protecting public interest by telling the truth (as opposed to two sides of the story), who can the public trust?

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