Monday, January 30

Thinking Big: Why Not The Moon?

Although many people laughed when presidential candidate Newt Gingrich suggested the pursuit of a permanent moon base by 2020, and a rival candidate said he would fire an employee who came to him with such proposal, there is another question to be asked. Politics aside, why not the moon?

For many years, NASA has struggled with a public relations problem. In 2006, even NASA administrator Mike Griffin made the point that the agency's scientists and engineers are not very good at explaining to the public why what they do is important.

Interestingly enough, journalist Taylor Dinerman almost pinpointed one of several problems for the space agency. It cannot control what its employees say about the agency's programs and goals.

The reason I inserted an "almost" into the sentence is because it's not so much that it "cannot" control what its employees say. The real problem is that the employees have no centralized vision to follow. A return to the moon would give them that. A return to the moon might even enamor Americans with NASA again. And a return to the moon might give the United States a leadership position that doesn't involve globetrotting and nation building all over this world.

Thinking Big Is What Makes People Great. 

I don't mean the person who proposed it, but rather the people who will do it. And I don't just mean a revived space program, but rather any organization that dares to recast entire industries. There are dozens of examples, modern and historic, but even keeping the moon in focus can illustrate the point.

What could the benefits of going to the moon really mean? Almost anything you can dream up, and I don't just mean the idea that humans need to find a way off planet or one day face oblivion (a true argument, but one that most people cannot fathom). There are benefits to shoot for the moon.

• Economic Shift. We have reached a crossroads in that it is difficult to employ Americans in manufacturing for what people want Americans to earn, which is compounded by the fact that the public will not spend more for products to support higher salaries and better benefits. The lone exception is highly-skilled manufacturing jobs. A space program could help change the negative perception of highly-skilled manufacturing because it transforms factory workers into robotic technicians or rocket builders, people who earn the higher salaries and benefits Americans crave.

• Education Shift. We cannot go a few days without hearing how dismal the eduction system has become in America. The problem is three-fold. Students are not being taught critical thinking skills, have a difficult time connecting the dots between the subject matter and their futures, and don't always think pursuing an education will lead to anything worthwhile. A viable space program with a defined mission could renew interest in math, science, and engineering.

• Energy Shift. Most people agree that the United States needs to place an emphasis on sustainable energy. Unfortunately, most debates get mired down in polarized issues like climate change and never produce intelligent solutions. The prospect of a moon colony kills the debate. There would be no choice but to pursue technological advances such as solar energy or other energy sources we haven't dreamed up yet because people stationed on the moon would need it while people on Earth would benefit too.

• Agricultural Shift. You cannot look around the world and not notice that a majority of people on this planet do not have enough fresh water or food supplies. Whatever innovations would have to be dreamed up to build a sustainable moon colony would no doubt benefit people right here on planet Earth. At the same time, nutritionists and medical professionals would have to work even harder to understand the physiology of people and place a greater emphasis on prevention and cures as opposed to symptom-control via prescription medication.

• Attitude Shift. Many Americans have grown sensitive to risk aversion. People are increasingly voting for security over opportunity. People want high-yield retirement accounts with zero risk. They want jobs to employ them indefinitely, with the flexibility to leave companies anytime they choose. They want bulletproof medical care that extends life indefinitely, but the freedom to eat junk food in wildly impressive quantities. They want space programs to be accident free, but are willing to hold daily transportation to a much lower standard, provided they can drive 10 or 20 miles over the speed limit. A space program, particularly one as aggressive as a moon colony, might reinvigorate our spirit.

• Who Knows? There is really no way to know what the future of space might hold. But there are plenty of possibilities. Mining could produce any number of new materials that could fundamentally improve life on earth without gobbling up our resources. Space tourism could finally become a viable industry, giving people a destination that is as brilliant as visiting another part of the world used to be in the 1900s. And much like previous space programs did for five decades, all of it comes with benefits that will outlast the initial return on investment.

Right now, the United States is not the only country on the planet setting its sights on the moon and beyond. In fact, we may be the only country that has shrugged off its own program without having a viable alternative beyond hitching a ride on the technological achievements of other nations.

Such a course of retreat cannot last or else the nation will languish in its own abandoned destiny. The benefits and advancements of science, technology, engineering, and knowledge by pursing a space program that places us on the moon and then beyond the moon is by far the most important undertaking this country could revive, reinvent, and remain in the lead with peaceful intent and empowered purpose.

While I have no sense of what candidate (or incumbent) I will vote for in the coming elections, I do vote to go to the moon. I vote to go to the moon because throughout history, this world is made better by companies, organizations, and nations of people who dreamed, dared, and did as opposed to those who have rested, have retreated, and have long been forgotten.

It is the very pursuit of the improbable that makes things possible. It is a singular overarching purpose that could correct the decades-long lackluster public relations program at NASA. And it is pursuit of space exploration that could be the catalyst this country needs to push itself out its current stalemate.

Friday, January 27

Leading Without Labels: Transformative Action

At the age of 14, Manuel Scott dropped out of school and his English grammar was so poor that he was classified as an English as a Second Language student (ESL). By the age of 16, he had already lived in 26 different places. And he began using drugs and alcohol.

Looking at his biography, you would never know it today. He is a transformative speaker working on his Ph.D. He often speaks about education, encouraging people to renew their commitment despite any issues or challenges they have. He encourages them because he was once encouraged to turn his life around too.

We have something in common, he and I. Based on our labels, neither of us should have "made it."

The trouble with labels.

Since watching Scott's Martin Luther King Jr. Day keynote speech on the recommendation of a friend, I've viewed and listened to several videos by Scott. And almost all of them come back to a similar subject I've written and spoken about before. Most people are predisposed to believe in labels.

Rich and poor.  Healthy and ill. Educated and ignorant. Employed and unemployed. This party or that party. And even when any of those things are summarily equal or readily dismissed, people make up all sorts of new labels like titles or scores or ranks, usually touting the importance of one based on nothing more than their own placement, temporary conditions and meaningless anecdotes. None of it matters.

Whoever you are. Whatever your title. Whenever you graduated. However happy/unhappy your home.

It will change, for better or worse. There isn't even anything you can do about it, except to be continually doing something about it. The act of doing tends to offer up its own remedy of sorts.

Elsewhere on the net today, I reviewed the book The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. You can read the review if you like. I wanted to mention it here because the teenage protagonist shuffles along as a terminally ill cancer patient until someone enters her life and has a transformative affect on her.

How to lead without labels. 

The person who transforms her life isn't a parent. He isn't a teacher. He isn't a politician, statesman, or community activist. He isn't a businessperson, journalist, or social media superstar. He's just a boy.

Although there are a great many other things to take away from the book, the fact that this boy can have a profound and lasting affect on the protagonist, no matter how long she lives, seems to be an important one that the author never intended. Anyone can be the spark in another's life. Anyone can be a leader.

It requires two things. The leader has to believe that someone can overcome whatever temporary condition afflicts them, probably because they themselves have already learned the lesson. And then, the person being transformed has to believe they can overcome it too.

There is no other requirement, which leads me to believe that leadership doesn't come from the measure of temporary conditions, but rather the character of the person making the effort. We learned as much last year in Egypt. Nobodies become somebodies, and the rest is just scale.

In the book, Augustus Waters transforms three people. In real life, Scott transforms thousands.
If we want to transform education or even the economy, it seems to me we could start the same way.

Wednesday, January 25

Loving It Too Much: The McDonald's Campaign Backfire

In recent years, McDonald's has been making a real effort to change itself from being the flagship of unhealthy fast food to the pinnacle of quick service with healthy choices. The change has been mostly prompted by continuous assaults: Some are are fair. Some are not fair. And some are ridiculous.

The net sum of these varied stories is that the corporate giant is trying to make an admirable change, even if the totality of it continues to be trial and error. Sometimes, they get it right, like adding fruit to choices to the Happy Meal. And sometimes, they get it wrong, like the #McStories campaign.

Why McStories is a beautiful campaign with insidious results.

When I first saw the series of YouTube videos, I almost wrote a post about them. They are beautiful slices of Americana, featuring farmers who take great care in the produce they provide. I love the commercials. But I also hate the commercials.

I don't hate them because of their message or the personalized stories from the farmers. We could use more stories like these, given our country's bout with self-loathing. In fact, that was the reason I decided to pass on critiquing the campaign. The farmers certainly didn't deserve it.

Unfortunately, it was just a matter of time before someone else did. Yesterday, someone did in a tremendously coordinated and catchy fashion. It was only a matter of time before the whole thing went semi-viral. McDonald's has lost Twitter for awhile. It might even lose the entire campaign.

The social media crisis could have been simple enough to spot. The hashtag #McStories, which was meant to support the campaign, was more or less jacked. It was first jacked by PETA and then everyone started piling on with one rancid story about McDonald's after another. #McStories isn't about farmers anymore, at least not for the short term and maybe never.

The attack is no longer confined to Twitter either. It will migrate to other assets. The media coverage of the crisis only attracts more of the same, usually three-fold: people with agendas (like PETA), people with real gripes (like some of the tweet authors), and people who see an easy way to get attention (the attention-starved majority).

McStories is mostly true, but it comes across as a classic overreach. 

If there is one thing advertisers and marketers might take away from the McStories backlash, it's that forcing the marketing message, especially when it is supported by social media, will eventually backfire.

And that's why I hated the campaign. Anybody on the strategy side (because it's too much to ask the creatives to see it) could have seen the backlash coming miles away. Despite many successes, McDonald's house is too dirty to rest its laurels on a handful of true but spectacularly crisp stories.

On McDonald's side, Snopes investigated such beef claims years ago and found them to be mostly true. McDonald's also made progress to be more environmentally friendly, but it tends to miss some goals every year. And then there is always the question about nutrition, especially in terms of carbs, fat, and sodium. All in all, it's one giant hit and miss machine. That's not good enough for a McStories message.

Besides, the problem isn't so much where McDonald's gets its stuff. It's what McDonald's does to this stuff once it leaves the hands of conscientious farmers. It's the processing, recipes, additives, production, freezing, unfreezing, distribution, and in-store preparation that makes you wonder.

Those beautiful cows, lettuce heads, and potatoes are all destined to become something that ages at an impossibly slow pace. And until McDonald's begins to address that fact its operational systems have reached their carrying capacity to deliver the quality I once associated with them, it will continue to face stiff criticism as the the biggest quick service chain.

Personally, I think it's all too bad. McDonald's has plenty to take pride in, ranging from being a massive employer for first-time employees and iconic marketing successes to being a sound investment and a corporation that has blemishes but is trying to do something to clean them up instead of sweeping them aside. However, to make the case that the hamburger joint represents the backbone of family-owned American agriculture in order to deliver near farm-fresh ingredients to consumers ... sigh.

Monday, January 23

Reducing Reach: Advertising And Public Relations

Although a recent comScore study was tied to a product launch of Validated Campaign Essentials (vCE), advertiser and public relations professionals can still take note. As many as 31 percent of all online advertising impressions are delivered but never seen by a consumer.

While the study itself was confined to digital advertising, the same holds true for print. Much like site visitors may never process an advertisement that appears on a site or social network page (whether a digital news site or Facebook page), circulation often dictates the number of impressions even if consumers don't pore over every printed page (whether advertisements or stories).

Digital advertising highlights from the comScore study

• Across all study campaigns measured, 69 percent of the ad impressions were classified as being ‘in-view.’* The remaining 31 percent were delivered but never seen by a consumer, a likely result of a consumer scrolling past the ad before it loaded or a consumer never scrolling the ad into view. In-view percentages varied by site and ranged from 7 percent to 91 percent.

• An average of 4 percent of ad impressions were delivered outside the desired geography, but individual campaigns ran as high as 15 percent. In many cases, ads were served in markets where the advertised product is not sold, meaning wasted ad spending and sub-optimal effectiveness results.

• 72 percent of all study campaigns had at least some ads running next to content deemed “not brand safe” by the advertiser, meaning that the content is deemed objectionable by the brand. This type of unsafe delivery has the potential to damage the brand, creating a difficult situation for all members of the digital advertising ecosystem.

“The display advertising market today is characterized by an overabundance of inventory, often residing on parts of a web page that are never viewed by the user. This dilutes the impact of campaigns for advertisers and represents a drag on prices to publishers,” said Dr. Magid Abraham, president and CEO of comScore. “Conversely, some ads below the fold are quite visible and deserve more credit."

*The study included 12 national brands, 3,000 placements, 381 site domains, and 1.7 billion ad impressions.

The dilution of impressions is higher than the study suggests.

Looking over the study and the numbers, it seems that vCE is taking a step in the right direction. However, even with vCE campaign delivery notifications, advertisers, marketers, and public relations professionals ought to be establishing better outcome measurement systems instead of attempting to calculate expected outcomes based on a percentage of impressions.

This is especially true because digital and print are generally judged by two completely different systems. So is television, which is based largely on cost-per-thousand and cost-per-point, which begins with the ratings system. Smart phones and tablets are developing slightly different measures too (especially because many ads are 'hard' screen views).

While counting impression measures can be useful to make apples to apples comparisons, marketers and small business owners will see better results if they pay more attention to two other ingredients: focusing efforts on finding outlets to reach consumers who have an expressed interest in their product or related topic and investing more time on advertising that isn't 'noticed' more (e.g., flashy and splashy) but rather can deliver a value proposition that entices those consumers to take the next step (or at least remember the company). When combined with benchmarking, the outcomes will become apparent.

Ergo, it's not the number of throws you get. It's the number of times you hit the target.

Friday, January 20

Feeling Invulnerable: Clients With Messages

A few weeks ago, we had a discussion with a prospective client. And we decided not to take the account.

It really wasn't a big deal, and not anything to write about. But then I read Roger Dooley's article about Solving The "Invulnerable Customer" Problem and realized that there was a teaching opportunity.

His article touches on why consumers don't always buy products — even when risk exists — because they think they are invulnerable. The example he uses is classic: frequent hand washing (or lack thereof) among people in the medical profession.

There are plenty of other examples too. Invulnerability is why people talk on cell phones while driving, eat too many snacks, and smoke cigarettes. It's why teenagers want to stay up too late, shortchange their study time, and dismiss wearing a jacket when it is cold. It's why clients want to talk about themselves, not address customer grievances, and think spam can be a good thing.

That is not to say some sense of invulnerability is all bad or that worry is better (it's not). But we can still appreciate that overindulgent invulnerability can be as entrenched and irrational as the polar opposite of victimhood. There are, after all, an equal number of people who know their children will always catch a cold and believe every ride to the store will include at least one close call. They may even be more likely to be overinsured and underinvested.

These two opposites make for some fascinating research. However, there was something even more striking about Dooley's article. He offered a solution, one that is as easy as changing the pronoun emphasis in a message.

Considering Pronouns As Part Of The Message. 

The hand washing message solution was right on target. While posting signs that said "Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases" had no effect, an alternate sign that read "Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases" increased hand washing by 10 percent and soap usage by 33 percent.

That is amazing. It's also only one example of how powerful pronoun choices can be, especially if the marketers or copywriters have insight into the environment where the message will be delivered and the current mood of the audience.

It's also why we knew the prospect wasn't a good fit with our firm. He wanted to concentrate on a message that talked about "I" and "you." However, we recognized the current climate suggests people want to hear more about "us" and "them." (Specifically, people want to know what are we going to do as a country, and what can be done to help people who need it.)

Pronoun choices might seem tiny. The impact they can have is huge. Doubly so because there are generally four choices — I, you, we, them. And depending upon the context, product, service, audience, and general attitude, choosing the wrong one can make or break a message.

While picking the right pronoun is reliant on existing circumstances, there are some commonalities that can help make the right choice. Leadership and innovation are more often tied to "I" messages. Transformation and empowerment are often tied to "you" messages. Engagement and empathy are often tied to "we" messages. And perspective and compassion are often tied to "them" messages.

Case in point. The difference between "You Can Change The World" and "We Can Change The World" are miles apart. So are "We Are Helping Them" (an "I" message in plural form) and "They Need Our Help" (an "I" message, structured to place more weight on "Them"). Picking the right one has everything to do with understanding the motivation and mood of the intended audience. In fact, you can even attract certain types of people based on how the messages are framed with which pronouns.

For example, people who gravitate toward "10 Ways To Improve Your Blog" are looking for empowerment whereas people who gravitate toward "10 Secrets I Know About Blogging" are looking for leadership. They are very different propositions. They can attract very different people.

Just for fun, consider pronoun usage while you browse the Web today. Or, if you want to have more fun, take a look at your last ten blog posts or the last ten messages (advertisements, etc.) put out by your organization. Is there any pattern? Have the messages been effective? And if not, could different pronouns be all that separates you from success?

While you look around, always keep in mind that what we communicate is never really about us. It's almost always about them, the people we want to reach. Which, when I really think about it, is why we ultimately passed on the account. It's impossible to win with people who think they're invulnerable, especially if they don't care about the people they want to help.

Wednesday, January 18

Playing With Fire: Ron Paul And Public Relations

Part of the art of public relations is always appreciating that you are communicating to more than one public at a time. Some candidates participating in the South Carolina debate forgot that on Monday.

Much like mainstream candidates mistakenly did during the 2008 Republican primary, they largely ignored Ron Paul. When they did acknowledge him, it sometimes included backhanded comments designed to label Paul as a little bit kooky. That is a mistake, much bigger than most people realize.

Note: This is not an endorsement of any candidate nor political analysis beyond the often unseen impact of public relations in the field. For companies, it is a worthwhile observation on brand loyalist reaction, especially as it relates to aggressive jabs at the competition and dares people to take sides. 

The Potential For A Ron Paul Public Relations Backlash. 

Although many mainstream campaign strategists (national and state) dismiss and distance themselves from unflappable Paul supporters, many of them need Paul supporters to win, whether it be the primary or general election. They don't like to admit it. But they do.

So when candidates such as Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum attack Ron Paul with characterizations that allude to the idea that Paul is from another planet or perhaps irrational, they are playing with fire. Paul supporters are not like any other base in the bid for president. 

Paul supporters are better organized than any other base (especially on the Internet), regardless of any direct involvement by their candidate. Paul supporters remember every rub, rib, and rude comment aimed at their candidate or their ideas. And Paul supporters are unafraid to make it their mission to make someone lose, even if it means tossing the election to someone who they politically disagree with on every level and even if someone eventually earned a Paul endorsement.

I know. I listened to Paul supporters take delight in damaging campaign signs (among other things) in several state races four years ago. Never mind that the candidates they attacked were ideologically closer to their views than the opponents who won. They were out to teach lessons. Even after accepting apologies, it didn't matter. They are quick to forgive, never forget, and always extract retribution.

In fact, it doesn't even matter that Paul was booed at various points during the debate by the audience, which no doubt fueled a few of the more brazen comments from his rivals. His supporters still took note of how each candidate reacted to and responded to Paul in turn. And that's why Paul won Twitter, even if Gingrich won the debate (according to most analysts). 

Always Pull Publics Toward You; Never Push Them Away. 

There seems to be little doubt that Paul has the ear of the nation when it comes to many domestic policy points. He tends to attract and empower younger voters and, according to a recent poll, older voters.

Analysts can pinpoint any number of specific issues that rally people around Paul (they especially like to draw out his stance on drugs, leanings toward isolationism, and abolishment of income tax), but the overarching message that resonates more than any other is that Paul sees things differently and will not back down from what many say is the hopeless cause to restore a Constitutional government.

This platform raises two questions. Can he really deliver a Constitutional government and are Americans ready for one? The answers are why many people wonder about his electability.

However, even if some of his ideas are so surprisingly foreign to most Americans that mainstream voters cannot even grasp the basic tenets of his platform and Paul cannot always articulate those tenets in a way that makes sense to the mainstream, whoever wins the nomination cannot afford to push Paul supporters away (about 20-25 percent of primary voters). Already, some of those who used to say anyone but Obama are now saying Ron Paul or no one.

The same holds true for companies and organizations. For example, consider what AT&T did when it started targeting heavy data users by penalizing them. They have turned people who used to be AT&T loyalists into people who may choose anyone but AT&T on their next contract.

In both cases, the decisions being made have short-term solutions. But over the long term, both strategies could backfire. Not everyone who is pushed away for short-term gains will come back.

Monday, January 16

Striving For Leadership: Martin Luther King, Jr.

Although the civil rights movement of the 1960s was a struggle for many — both black and white, side by side — Martin Luther King, Jr. has come to epitomize it. There's a reason. And this reason is more subtle than obvious.

Martin Luther King, Jr. didn't just speak to and for African Americans as some people like to think. He spoke for all Americans, regardless of color. And it's one of the reasons even King was often criticized by African Americans who wanted revolution over reformation. But it's how he built a broader base that didn't pit more people against each other and instead rallied people together.

The consensus builder and conscientious speaker. 

Behind the scenes, King was notoriously quiet. He listened while others argued. And it often wasn't until everyone had finished that he'd quietly sum up everyone's feelings and then find a way forward. What he did, which is often overlooked today, is find the overarching objective of many people and focus the attention on the core as opposed to fractured special interests with specific needs.

As a speaker, he often succeeded at focusing this attention on the possibility of racial or socio-economic catastrophe while simultaneously holding out the promise of racial and socio-economic peace. He understood what people wanted, which was an equal opportunity. And he understood that they could obtain it, provided they had access to housing assistance, improved education, and income assistance.

But King saw something different while looking at these often cited three pillars toward reformation. Housing fluctuates on the whims on legislative bodies, educational reforms are entangled by bureaucratic stalls, and most income assistance proceeds with coordinated bias.

Not much has changed in his assessment, with most legislative solutions geared toward stymieing symptoms at great cost and lackluster results. And the one change that has occurred, would have no doubt prompted King to revisit his assessment. A guaranteed income, especially in a more competitive global environment where higher skilled workers compete for the same jobs, is no longer a cure for poverty.

But no matter what solution he might think up today, he hit on a tangible gain to solving the socio-economic challenges of his time by pointing to importance of lifting up the dignity of the individual. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that when the decisions concerning an individual's life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that income is relatively stable, and when he has the means to seek self-improvement, then personal conflicts — both domestic and communal — diminish.

What does that mean? It means that in regard to the strife caused by a plodding economy that has placed more people closer to poverty in the last four years, the psychological goals of the current administration are off the mark because they neither nurture individual choice, economic stability, nor the means to seek self-improvement. What is needed is a leader who can appeal to the psychological needs of people, delivering them not the bureaucracy of life management but the freedom to make choices that eventually lead them in an upward trajectory that mirrors their personal goals.

A gifted leader meets the less tangible needs of people. 

It seems unlikely there will be a national reformation that recognizes the less tangible needs of people immediately, given one side feels a need to hand out temporary rewards stolen from those struggling to preserve their own labors and the other side is poised to stop them. Still, there are principles that organizational leaders can embed into their corporate cultures that will deliver a competitive advantage.

• The recognition that the newest employee and the oldest have equal value, just as the janitor is equally as indispensable as the executive officer.
• The understanding that economic stability doesn't come from national economic policy but rather an individual's regard to their contributions within an organization.
• The wisdom that more autonomy, along with greater responsibilities, is often viewed by people as a greater reward than monetary bonuses (especially irregular ones).
• The educational support needed to excel not because an association offers training but because the training is needed and can be immediately implemented (or at least tied to where it may be needed later).
• The merit in developing a culture that appreciates all experiences somehow have meaning beyond the monotony of meeting deadlines, regurgitating policy, or ticking off to-do lists.

I am sometimes perplexed that the simplest solutions are frequently overlooked by many organizations and equally at the stalled impetus of a nation. If you want to be a better leader or understand why Martin Luther King, Jr. had the wherewithal to appeal to a broad base of people, I suggest looking at how he listened not to their wants or needs but to their underlying desire to better themselves now while leaving a greater legacy to their children than they themselves inherited.

Can you do that for yourself? Your organization? Your country? If you can, then you may be moving in the direction of being a great leader, not someone who simply delivers the countable objective but someone that fulfills the less tangible outcomes that create a corporate or even national culture of excellence.

In observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Good night and good luck.

Friday, January 13

Being Temporal: Communication Trend For 2012

If there is one trend to watch that consumers want and candidates, consumers, and companies do not, it can be found in the art of being temporal. It may be the biggest communication shift this year. And I'm not convinced everyone is going to survive it.

Last year, I sat through many meetings listening to voices of dissent at the very mention of the idea. Most people want to stand up on a singular specific statement and ride it for as long as it will carry them (or try to operate with no message at all). In most cases, it can be the biggest mistake that can be made or just as big of a mistake as not having any message.

Don't misunderstand me. I've been a proponent of well-defined messages for some time. Within the confines of a single advertisement or blog post or television spot, one point sticks better than 20, especially if everyone talking about you has a different or conflicting story.

The average person consumes an entire novel worth of content every day. So we can't expect people to remember every detail. In fact, the more details they are exposed to, the more likely they are going to remember the least preferred message. And if there are any contradictions, they will be remembered.

Messages that are too rigid don't hold up either. In communication and especially politics, singular messages make people look scripted, inflexible, and disingenuous. The same holds true for companies. There were dozens of companies that said the same thing over and over last year, and the only message that stuck was they weren't to be trusted or, worse, they were complete idiots.

The Art Of Temporal Communication.

Temporal communication could be defined as the art of crafting ever-present value-based messages that are reinforced by clusters of as-needed supporting messages, which allow for flexible communication in a variety of circumstances and demonstrate a contrast between them and their competitors.

Or, in using the illustration above, (a.) an overarching, ever-present value-based message with temporary circumstance-specific (b.) messages and actions that reinforce (a.). Some companies already do it. And they do it well.

• Apple is an example, with innovation being its overarching message. Everything — its products, services, storefronts, customer service, delivery systems — reinforces innovation. You don't have to be an Apple fan to agree that it often leads the charge toward innovation.

• Zappos is an example, with personalized customer care being its overarching message. Everything — product choices, shopping cart, customer service, delivery policies — reinforces customer care. Even if you have never ordered a single product from Zappos, you might have heard about a mountain of great experiences.

• Dreamworks is an example, with free-spirited creativity being its overarching message. Everything — its movies, creative process, employee perks (like on-campus art classes) — reinforces free-spirited creativity. Even if some movies are better than others, the brand Dreamworks conjures up fun.

None of these messages limit employee communication nor do they require memorized definitions. On the contrary, it empowers communication by delivering the overarching message wherever and whenever possible to customers and non-customers alike, and in as many ways as possible. These companies do it so well, their messages are the primary contrast point between them and everybody else.

The Oversimplified Example Of Temporal Communication.

When people decide to go on a diet, they often tell people they are on a diet or dieting. The statement conveys a very narrow message. The message might even be accurate, but it isn't really a good one.

Besides reinforcing a negative stereotype (being overweight) and concentrating on scarcity (giving something up), dieting places the dieter in one compromising position after another.

If someone bakes homemade cookies, the dieter is forced to break their diet or reinforce that they are too overweight to make an excpetion. If someone doesn't gradually lose weight, they see it as a failure (and sometimes other people). If they do start to gradually lose weight, it's not uncommon for other people to derail them by telling them that they no longer need to diet.

What if they had a different message? What if they decided to be health conscious or fitness focused instead? What if that was their overarching core message instead of being on a diet?

A health conscious or fitness-focused person can more freely adapt to a rapidly changing environment. They can eat one cookie. No one is going to argue for them to stop. They aren't going to over do it. And it doesn't even matter what their temporary weight might be. As long as they are doing, they are succeeding.

It also opens up new messages that reinforce the primary message. For example, if someone says they are on a diet, only not eating proves it. If someone says they are health conscious, any number of actions or messages can reinforce that message: hygiene, exercise, food choices, etc.

Did you see so-and-so today? They ran a mile. Did you see so-and-so today? They ate an apple. Did you see so-and-so today? They're looking great! Well, of course. They're always health conscious.

Wednesday, January 11

Educating: And The Future Of Public Relations

While every class of Writing for Public Relations students is different, there is an unsettling trend that has accelerated in recent years. Students, some of whom are working professionals, are more inclined to feel that they haven't received enough direction before receiving their first news release writing assignment.

Before their first news release assignment (but not their first assignment), they are given instruction on identifying news leads and better writing in general; base information to be included in the release (who, what, when, where, why); format instruction, including a two-page example featuring a closely related topic; an organizational website to source additional information (as well as additional hints at where to find background information); and general instruction on usage of the Associated Press Stylebook.

Last year, for better than half the class, I was told this wasn't enough information. 

The last client who asked me to write a news release gave me a general topic. "I want a new release about 'blank.'" That was it. And looking back 20 some years ago, the first client who asked me to write a news release said exactly the same thing. Most of the time, however, I'm not even given a topic.

It wasn't any different as a journalist, I recall. I received my first assignment from a heavily circulated entertainment magazine because I happened to be at a press conference. The editor of the magazine was sitting at my table and after we started talking, he said "write something about this mess ... 700 words. It's due Tuesday." So I did.

Early freelance assignments were even more challenging. You had to send a pitch letter, which means you were solely responsible for every stitch of the article, from concept to the finished piece (which ought to match the general tone of the magazine). But that's what you did. Many writers still do.

It's worth mentioning because it demonstrates the contrast between the need of the field and the expectation of students in the educational system. The need is problem solving. The expectation is direction for the directionless.

Standardized testing is an incredible waste of time because it measures short-term memory.

As America rushes toward standardized testing, Asia is moving away from standardized testing. They are moving away from it for the same reason Finland is emerging as one of the most educated countries in the world despite children waiting until they are 7 years old to enter school. Standardized testing isn't an adequate measure of knowledge and, more importantly, it isn't a measure of applied knowledge.

Instead of testing the child in a clever ruse to find potential, they assume all children have potential. Instead of asking children to memorize facts for multiple guess tests, they are intent on finding out what it takes to educate each child because they do not believe socio-economic-ethic differences and the ability to be educated are inherently linked. And most important, they want to teach students how to think as opposed to what to think.

I want to teach public relations and communication students to think too. And every year, they are resisting it with greater vigor. (One of my colleagues even told me that he had a student ask whether or not some material was going to be on a test because if not, he'd better move on instead of wasting time.)

The entire field of public relations and communicaton can be summed up as problem solving.

While it could be said of any field, I am starting to believe that the next wave of students who consider communication as a viable field will struggle compared to those who entered the field ten years ago. Not all of them, mind you. But a large enough percentage to turn the field inside out as these students are more reliant on rote memorization and tip sheets than ever before.

And, along with those tip sheets comes something else. When the crisis communication steps or the sentence-by-sentence boilerplate release shell doesn't produce results (because all crisis is different and journalists aren't keen on boilerplate releases), they don't have to take personal responsibility.

After all, it's not their fault. Either they will be perplexed because the tip sheet failed, not them. Or they will be affable because the boilerplate shell failed, not them. Or maybe it was the instructor or blogging tipster who failed, not them. Or maybe it was the vendor who failed them, despite relying on the same tips.

How to write a news release is too simple for many to grasp, because the simplicity is complex.

If you want to write a news release that wins, all you have to do is find the news value (with an emphasis on what is unique if the announcement is commonplace). Write in such a way that it is easy for journalists to put their own spin on it. Make it sound fresh without the hype, because if the news release sounds boring then the news you have is probably boring (or maybe it's your writing). Make sure you consider the audience beyond the journalists and the brand too. And send it to the right journalists (those who have an interest in whatever you are pitching).

That is all there is to it. Five steps that I'll reframe next week to make it more palatable. But don't let those steps mislead you. If you are going to do it right, these will be some of the most challenging steps you could ever hope to follow.

And therein lies why so many public relations professionals are struggling. They want to be told what the news is, told what words to use, told how to write, told what journalists want, told what people will respond to, and told where the list with the right journalists is located.

But that's not public relations. It's regurgitation. It's the by-product of 12 years of standardized multiplication tests. And it's starting to impact every field from web design to technological innovation. Unless, of course, we can reverse the instruction and inspire people to become problem solvers again.

Monday, January 9

Crunching Numbers: Why CNN Couldn't Predict Iowa

The CNN article comparing the Republican presidential primary candidate online scorecards just prior to the Iowa caucus last Tuesday (hat tip: Geoff Livingston), demonstrates just how little the network understands social media.

While the lead line — a strong Web presence must be part of every political hopeful's strategy — is right, CNN doesn't really understand what it all means. The online scorecard, as they called it, doesn't mean anything, especially with the number they cherry picked from a handful of social networks.

Sure, CNN qualified it, saying "these numbers may have no bearing on how the candidates actually fare with Iowa caucus goers." May? Show some backbone. They have no bearing on the outcome and they won't in any other state either.

Why online scorecards mean virtually nothing to political campaigns, especially primaries. 

A quick recap of the presidential nominee hopefuls showed Ron Paul winning Twitter, Rick Perry winning Facebook, Ron Paul winning YouTube, and Newt Gingrich in a dead heat with Mitt Romney on Klout.

(Klout? You've got to be kidding me, CNN. Here's the scoop on Klout. Quit pimping it for a score.)

In the end, the Iowa caucus goers returned a decidedly different verdict, placing Mitt Romney (who was dead last on YouTube) and Rick Santorum (who was dead last on Twitter and has the worst possible top Google search result) in first and second (or second and first or perhaps tied, depending on how you see the caucus counting snafu). So what happened?

The social media numbers CNN chose to report don't consider proximity (there was no analysis of how many lived in Iowa), candidate preferences (some people likely follow more than one or all), degree of influence (which way they leaned), the sentiment of the interest (sometimes people follow candidates for comic relief), or the greater body of communication (offline) that bombard people on a daily basis (likely 100 to 1). And about a hundred or a thousand other things.

Heck, those numbers didn't even consider the most rudimentary question — who is registered to vote and for which party, if any. And there was no way to count the closeness of the communication (e.g., one visit by a candidate at your home carries more weight than a gazillion tweets). 

And there is the rub. Not even the silly mention machine that the Washington Post runs on the bottom of its website can account for anything. It counts "tweet" mentions in the last week, with Gingrich capturing 56,000 and Huntsman picking up 23,000. (Huntsman is worth following for the entertainment value lent to his campaign by his daughters, but that's about it.) And yet, more and more media outlets reward candidates for capturing buzz ups by placing their faces on the page, like online advertisements.

The real social media numbers that matter aren't the social media numbers you can find.

None of this is to suggest that an online presence doesn't count. It counts. But no one can really measure what you need to know to have a semblance of an accurate prediction.

The bottom line is some percentage of all their followers, friends, subscribers, and viewers do count. They are registered loyalists who either have influence over caucus goers or are caucus goers — people who will actually share the messages with other people who will listen or, more importantly, vote. In other words ... each candidate had about three peeps in Iowa who fit this description except Santorum and Romney who obviously had four and five, er, five and four, er, four-and-a-half and four-and-a-half each.

In realizing this, it might even one day make us pity any politician who actually takes online advice, never appreciating that it was started by a few hundred people from a foreign country. Oh wait, this already happened. Never mind.

The best online analysis on political campaigns has nothing to do with politics.

Seriously. Because politics tends to be overtly pronounced — bigger success and bigger blunders — this is an excellent opportunity to watch the ebb and flow of the net, immediate reactions that buffet the candidates around like Ping-Pong balls. And while you watch it, don't be overly amused (even if it is amusing) because the same thing can happen to a business any time.

Decent social media people can understand the numbers of any social media program. Good social media people can understand the marketing and public relations ramifications. And great social media people can feel whether or not something is sticky or slippery. There is an art to it, specifically one that appreciates the human behavior of individuals, groups, and the masses.

And, at the same time, if you are interested in this political cycle as it pertains to some future outcome, keep in mind that the Internet has undergone some dramatic changes since the last presidential campaign. The mass adoption that has taken place, along with less scrupulous non-voting outsiders masquerading as concerned voters, will make predictability impossible. And that is the only thing you can count on in all future elections.

Friday, January 6

Changing Social Networks: Five Big Changes In Progress

Sometimes social network developers feel like they're in a foot race. If they aren't moving forward and making big changes, the general thinking is that they are somehow falling behind. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they aren't.

But social networks are compelled to make changes whether they need them or not, and I've been told as much by people who own them. The only hold out among bigger networks is Reddit. It relishes its own roughness and the people love them for it.

Personally, I like change. It's why I do what I do. 

But not all change is good. So why is it almost every social network is undergoing change, with Linkedin and Google+ being the least obvious? They think they have to, with the latter network not as obvious because it's currently implementing changes around its network instead.

For example, not everyone noticed that Google+ gave Blogger users the option to replace their Blogger profile with a Google+ profile. I work with several platforms, including Blogger, so I noticed. I made the change too, which came with some unintended consequences like changing my Blogger post signature from Rich to Richard Becker. The cost is a certain casualness, but I can live with it.

The rest are undergoing more obvious changes. Some are good. Most aren't. Let's look at five.

The five most significant social network changes taking place right now.

1. Facebook. Facebook wants people to migrate to Timeline. On the surface, it's not a big deal. It's a new graphically-intensive look for the largest social network on the block. Under the hood, Timeline is not a small deal. It will change the way you think about Facebook.

Pros. For professionals, especially those in communication, the personal marketing potential is right on target. The branding opportunities are apparent; so much so that some people have changed their tone. There isn't much they can do about the past. That quip in 2009 is alive and well on the front page.

Cons. For most people, Timeline makes Facebook feel more formal. For the exact same reason personal marketers like Timeline, most people do not. They did not sign up for Facebook to tell their story. They signed up to connect and have fun. Timeline also places privacy in the forefront once again, but that is an entirely different conversation.

Outcome. Mostly neutral. The best thing about Timeline is the look and that it is optional, for now. Over time, Timeline is the direction Facebook wants to go. While this scrapbook concept is okay, it redefines the intent, which leads people to wonder if maybe they ought to share only their choicest moments in life, which means all our casual connections, shares, and banter are best left ... where?

Best use. Whether for business or pleasure, it's still the best network connector out there today. So let's hope they don't blow it for the sake of Timeline.

2. Twitter. Twitter, which was the only social network that initially refused to be called a social network and still does, has been rolling out changes in big broad strokes. While not everyone has the new interface, those who do are struggling to get used to it.

Pros. The aesthetic is more pleasing at a glance because it reopens more of the background image, giving marketers more room for branding and contact information.

Cons. The new interface is counterintuitive, including where you compose a new tweet. Instead of above the feed, it forces you to move up to the top of the page or sweep left. It also places things you don't need to see (who to follow) directly in your field of vision. And ironically, things you do what to see (like a website link and mini bio) on a completely different page.

Outcome. It sucks. Every day I sign in to Twitter, I dread the day my account will suddenly look like one of the ones I manage. If it wasn't so heavily adopted, this change would convince me to leave it. Thank goodness for third-party interfaces.

Best use: While its ability has been hindered with marketing messages and link sharing, it manages to retain its status as a real-time communication tool. But it might not if it imposes a new layout.

3. Digg. Digg hasn't really known what to do with itself since it cut off its mutual sharing services (Digg me and I'll Digg you pacts) nose to spite its mutually spammy community (no one else was left) face just before it turned commercial. Recently, Digg was hoping to revive itself by encouraging people to share their Diggs on Facebook.

Pros. Other than showing how many tweets and likes something has (which is surprisingly inaccurate), you tell me.

Cons. Noted changes to Facebook aside, I don't think I could ever bring myself to share a link from Digg, which would require people to pass through Digg to get to what I am sharing. Some people do, but I don't get it.

Outcome. I want to like Digg, but Digg makes it hard to like Digg. The core problem is that it killed its sense of community and hasn't done anything to get it back.

Best use: It's a remnant news aggregator without enough topic categories, mostly used by people who want to share tabloid news, tech, science, and politics. Well, sort of.

4. Delicious. The bookmarking service that Google wanted to kill before fans pushed back has undergone big changes since it was sold. The initial changes were designed to make it more graphically oriented and better organized, which was a good call.

Pros. It does look better and is better organized. Even the "stacks" was a solid concept, which allows you to group similar posts together, regardless of how they are tagged.

Cons. Unfortunately, the network tied its front page content to popularity as opposed to freshness. As soon as it did, the front page started looking static and participants discovered less new content, with the exception of those gaming the system.

Outcome. At the current drop-off rate, Delicious won't be saved. It might even be dead by the end of the year, and I don't think anyone will care unless it gets fixed.

Best use. If you want to collect content and you want to send people to it, Delicious is a fine place to do it. Unfortunately, discovery trumps bookmarks and networks without people are useless.

5. For the last few weeks, I've been reading posts about written by people who claim to know social networks. They say that the bright and shiny object syndrome days are over because nobody is piling into the new They are wrong because isn't really new. It's a completely re-imagined Mixx and it has a foothold (but not with marketers).

Pros. Mixx needed to be remixed, and has done a great job at it. It's graphically smart, easy to navigate, and organized by a tagging system that allows you to follow tags or people. It also staffs visible human editors who share outstanding content.

Cons. It may never have mass appeal, preferring to serve a hard core notch. Sometimes that's better.

Outcome. There is definitely a renewed interest in, especially in the arts, which is where I spend most of my time there. It is hands down the best change of the bunch because the developers were clearly thinking about people first. Even better, there is no incentive to be the biggest "chimer" on the block.

Best use. It's one of the better organized topical playgrounds and feels intuitive to discover new things within a topic or people who share the same interests.

I probably could have included SlideShare and StumbleUpon too (especially because it took a few days to find a direct submit link button on StumbleUpon), but I'm still walking through what's really new. I also could have included a few that recently shuttered. Suffice to say no one really noticed (which is why they were shuttered.) Only one really surprised me. It's only flaw was it wasn't being marketed.

There are really four lessons here, and you've heard them before. When you start trying to be all things to all people (e.g., Facebook, Google+), eventually you could become nothing to everyone.
When you forget to keep people in mind and simply expect people to like whatever is on your mind, they tend to wander (Digg, Delicious). When you embrace change for the sake of change, it's never a good idea (Twitter). But when change has a purpose for the people you serve, it's almost always great (

And, most importantly, never think for a second you've figured out a social network. The moment you do, the entire site will be remade. And when that happens, all of your so-called assets will be gone.

Wednesday, January 4

Flipping Forward: 2012 Ahead

I've never been a proponent of sharing firm news here unless it's relevant. But this year, it's relevant.

There are plenty of changes ahead for me and my firm, and some of them will inevitably land here (but not all at once). After writing and sharing more than 1,400 posts related to communication, this space is starting to feel overdue for more diversity, especially as it applies commentary, curiosity, and creativity.

I don't necessarily have a direction per se, but I did invest most of last year on projects leading up to this year. The direction fits right in with some of the advice I shared last year — less talking and more doing. Doing pays dividends.

Copywrite, Ink. will undoubtedly remain the hub of my business activity (and I don't mean this blog, but the company behind it). After building this company for more than 20 years, it makes good sense to keep evolving it. However, what we do and how we do it has been changing for some time.

Since the beginning, communication and writing services has been at the core of the company. And while much of that will remain, the company also increased its investments in several incubator projects, both proprietary and partnered. With some of these projects maturing this year, we're shifting toward an invitation-only structure: We will decline more prospective accounts than we accept.

While some people might think this is counterintuitive given the economy, I am confident the new model is a better fit with a new economy. It will be a better fit with a company vested in creation as much as communication. And, it will be a better fit for me, because too much of the communication industry is settling on client servitude — over-concentrating on things like reach, frequency, and clicks rather than the hard work that makes those things tick.

Don't fool yourself. If those are measures, you have the wrong objectives. Carry on without them.

Liquid [Hip] is one of our creation projects. What began as little more than a whim 18 months ago has grown steadily from a few hundred visitors a month to tens of thousands. I still consider it a hobby of sorts, but only because it's fun to be immersed in creative works. It also gives me a venue to experiment with social media without any of the constraints that are sometimes imposed by clients.

If you've never visited, Liquid [Hip] is an online review site, which only reviews things the reviewers actually like. There is a heavy emphasis on music and books, but our editorial rotation allows us to pick up apps, film, fashion, gadgets, games, and good will. It's not for everyone. We cover cool, not popular.

Currently, we're busy corralling all the reviews, but there are some other exciting prospects for Liquid [Hip] in the months ahead. I'll share some of these developments as they mature in actualities.

Celebrating Legacy. Last May, I had the good fortune to meet one of the most highly decorated police officers in the history of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. Retired law enforcement professional Randy Sutton envisioned an online legacy archival system after several deeply personal experiences made him reassess life and invest two years into developing something that could add value to other people's lives. Celebrating Legacy was the outcome.

While there are several other great people involved (to be introduced in the future), what originally started as a communication project quickly evolved into a creation project. Borrowing from years of behind-the-scenes experience with several social networks, I became a lead project architect.

Currently, Celebrating Legacy is pre-alpha with internal program testing slated for January. We'll immediately follow this up with an invitation alpha phase. There is still some dust on the site itself, but you are more than welcome to visit the front porch or submit an application to become an alpha tester. At its earliest stages, I anticipate alpha testers will have access to 80 percent of 'year one' services.

Yorganic Chef is a hybrid creation-communication project for our firm, which is also maturing this month. The site will sport a placeholder page until about mid to late January. Once launched, Yorganic Chef will provide people a place to order ready-made gourmet meals in the Los Angeles area. The meals will then be delivered to the customer's front door on a schedule convenient for them.

The venture is the brainstorm of Nick Diakantonis, who has 25 years of culinary and entrepreneurial experience. Years ago, he was one of the founders of Pasta Ditoni's (a wholesale pasta distribution company) as well as Piazza Market, which is located in Ohio.

Los Angeles will be the first of many markets where Yorganic Chef will open. Initially, Diakantonis planned to make Las Vegas his test market until an angel investor of sorts lobbied for his company to start in Los Angeles. Having seen the menu, this is the right project at the right time and in the right market.

Odds & Ends. The projects above represent the forefront. Personally, I have a book to finish this year (sigh, maybe), a children's book to illustrate, and two concepts for board games that were the direct result of hanging out too much on Kickstarter last year. This creates a nice array of options, and some of it has even prompted me to invest some holiday downtime into rekindling dusty skill sets in fine arts.

At the same time, I will stay on with UNLV and have accepted an invitation to speak at the Nevada Parks & Recreation Society conference in April. The topic will likely be social media, perhaps a parsed version of last year's social media class (the deck almost refined enough to share online).

And, although I am extremely reluctant to come out of retirement from politics, I have been asked to work on a Nevada State Senate race, two State Assembly races, and one Congressional race (as campaign manager on any of them, if I want it). We'll see. These aren't decisions to make lightly.

A Conclusion Or Perhaps An Opening...

I've had some wonderful opportunities to meet hundreds and thousands of people in the seven years since I started this blog. Not all of them are in communication, but it's the communicators who need to hear this the most. Unless your company is doing, social media is an exercise in spinning wheels.

Sure, there are a few communication blogs that become popular enough. But most of them eventually fade away. From my original 2005 blog list, not one remains. From my Fresh Content Project list last year, maybe 20 percent are viable today. And if I added all the communication blogs up, maybe one in 1,000 monetize social media into speaking, authoring, or consulting.

Keep that mind, especially when you ask yourself what you are going to write about this year. It's the wrong question to ask. Unless you teach social media, you really need to be doing something else. And then you can write about that. Care to join me? I know 2012 will be great year. I hope it is for you too.

The first social media story (Friday) this year runs down a few social networks you've forgotten about and whether or not their recent changes are enough. And then, on Monday, I'll follow it up on why politics cannot be measured by social media or media relations as much as grass roots.

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