Wednesday, October 31

Frighteningly Good: Neil Gaiman

Rather than find some superficial tie-in for Halloween, I'd like to give a nod to an authentic one being promoted by author Neil Gaiman. It was an idea he had back in 2010. It was simple, straightforward.

Instead of filling sacks with sweets and other treats (although you can do that too), why not be part of All Hallow's Read and give someone or everyone a spooky book for Halloween. It doesn't have to be today. Make it sometime this week. Not only would such a gift be memorable, but it's a hit for literacy.

If you think a book might be too much to give, there are always comics instead. The point is that a book is safer than candy and it lasts that much longer. Who knows? Maybe it will last an entire lifetime.

The pitch for All Hallow's Read by Neil Gaiman. 

Let me be clear. This brilliant idea wasn't my own. It belongs to Gaiman and I was fortunate enough to learn about it as a fringe benefit to publishing an alternative review site call Liquid [Hip]. We do more than review the occasional author or artist. We listen to them long after they make the list.

Not only has Gaiman put together a website to promote the idea, but he also published this video to explain.



In keeping with the spirit of this exceptional idea, I've put together a quick list of books with a spooky slant. Some of them have been reviewed on Liquid [Hip] and others are part of a short list for any week when we haven't had a chance to find something new. (A couple just mean something special to me.)

Five titles that are great fun for Halloween.

Hobgoblin by John Coyne. Although meant for young readers, it is also one of Coyne's best before joining the Peace Corps. It's about prep school student Scott Gardiner whose love of fantasy role playing begins to blur with the real world. Despite some story problems, it's well worth the read.

It mostly holds a special place for me because I stumbled upon the book as a young teen while traveling alone. My flight was late on arrival, stranding me without any cash in Dallas. I couldn't convince the store clerk to give it to me on loan so I read as much as I could in the airport bookstore. It took months to track it down again because I had forgotten the author's name and Hobgoblin was so ubiquitous.

The Stand by Stephen King. The Stand is easily one of the heaviest horror books ever written. There are plenty of people who love it and hate it. But as far as end-of-the-world scenarios go, it's hard not to appreciate a mutating flu virus that paves the way for an apocalyptic confrontation.

As King was one of my favorite authors for many years, I had to include him. The Stand is my favorite, even if King had written other stories that were more frightening (It) and sometimes more disturbing (Survivor Type in Skeleton Crew). Ironically, I've only reviewed one of his books on Liquid [Hip]; a collection of short stories called Just After Sunset.

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. Although I have yet to read Horns, Heart-Shaped Box was an amazing debut about an aging death-metal frontman who decides to buy a ghost on the Internet. Mostly, he bought it because he wanted to believe he didn't believe in the supernatural or his former persona.

Besides being a great book that I had the privilege to review, I had no idea that Hill was also Stephen King's son until I finished the book (although it was obvious there were King influences). While it gets a little wonky at the end, it was great to find someone focused more on the supernatural and less on hack-and-slash horror.

Summer of Night by Dan Simmons. Although many people know Simmons for his science fiction and fantasy, he wrote one of the most riveting horror stories I've ever read. It's about five 12-year-old boys who would have been content to come of age riding bikes in their small town of Elm Haven, Illinois. Unfortunately for them, there is an old evil that is coming to life again under their quiet town.

Although I don't know if it would hold true today, I remember this book as the scariest I had ever read. In fact, it was the only book that once kept me up at night because the idea of going to sleep with the story still in my head was too much. It didn't help that the same night I was reading it, my apartment door (which I believed to be locked) blew open with such force that I thought someone was breaking in. While it does resemble an outline, it might be the better book.

Midnight by Dean Koontz. While Odd Thomas is probably his most memorable character, Midnight was one of his most memorable books. The transformation of the people who live in Moonlight Cove, Calif. — whether surrendering to their wildest urges or becoming affiliated with computer-enhanced intellectualism — is frequently nerve-wrenching with its frenzied pace and genre-bending bite.

While Koontz is likely too popular for review on my alternative site, Midnight will remain one of my favorites from this well-known author. The idea of chemically induced evolution is perhaps even more relevant today as what was once science fiction now resembles science fact.

There are countless more I could list. Several of them can be found on my growing online bookshelf, including one by Gaiman with co-writer Terry Pratchett. (One for now, I am certain). If you want to grab up something short, look for Roald Dahl or Rudyard Kipling. All of these gems can be considered lovely stuff. So I hope you will consider Gaiman's idea seriously. If not this year, the maybe next.

Special note to Neil Gaiman: Anytime you want to talk about creating an online campaign to support All Hallow's Read, do not hesitate to drop me a "note". While it already has strong grassroots support, a little push in the right direction would give a groundswell to make it permanent.

Monday, October 29

Building Brands: The Social Media Connection

There are three takeaways from a new report on social media and brand building by Forrester Research. Marketers might find them familiar. Some social media practitioners might not. But suffice to say that social might be more of a brand reinforcer than a builder, something we've said all along.

• Social media is part of brand building, but not a standalone solution.
• Social media provides the story, leveraging emotional elements.
• Social media improves the relationship with engagement and loyalty.

All three takeaways point to the same assumptions, however. Organizations have to employ social media as an effective tool or tactic and not as a magical strategy simply designed to give awareness a lift. Too many companies view social that way today. They count likes and followers instead of brand reinforcement, repeat business, and customer engagement.

One of the best lines in the report is right up front. Principal author Tracy Stokes points out that many organizations are asking the wrong question. They are asking "what is the social strategy?" instead of "how does social media change the brand strategy?" Personally, I might even ask a different one all together.

Are we living up to our brand across every connection and contact?

Among marketing leaders, most of them get part of it. Ninety-two percent believe that social media has fundamentally changed how consumers engage with brands. But what doesn't add up is that only half of all marketing professionals see their social media efforts as strategically integrated into brand plans.

Part of the challenge is simply because social media is still in its infancy. Sure, social has come into its own as a tool, with almost every marketer (B2C and B2B) seeing it as a relevant marketing tool. But what I mean when I say it is in its infancy is that the tail still wags the dog or, in other words, social media and social networks control the brand.

It's not all that different from television when it first burst onto the scene. Advertisers would walk onto the show set with a product easel and talk about the product. These advertiser cameos were often stiff and unconvincing, but consumers didn't care because nobody had done anything different.

That slowly began to change, with one of the first examples being a 10-second spot that aired before a baseball game. The commercial, without any interference (a spokesperson and easels), was pretty shabby (even for $9), but what Bulova attempted to do was establish a brand message on its terms.

It took some time for most brands to catch on. Years after Bulova, even McDonald's struggled to break away from the idea that people wanted brands to have pretend dialogue with them. McDonald's did much better when it started advertising skits in the vein of Sid and Marty Krofft.

It isn't much different than how many social media practitioners act today. They jump on a network and then adopt the platform, sometimes trying to jump into trending conversations. Brands ought to work harder establishing what consumers can expect from their presence, making sure it reinforces the brand and not just coupons and gimmicks for the favor of a connection (unless it the brand is price-point driven).

And even then, it cannot neglect that brands are established by an integrated communication strategy. The Forrester white paper delivers a few good ideas. They range from humanizing a company and creating groundswell for riskier ideas to correcting a negative image and working toward common causes. You might notice that all four of these ideas are measurable beyond awareness and attention.

What will the future look like for social media?

The topic deserves a post on its own, but some ideas are already moving full steam ahead. Forrester is looking at the unification of corporate and brand identity, connection planning (not channel planning), and tent pole events that give brands a lift as opposed to trying to deliver 24-7 messaging.

All three are good ideas. Our own research shows that offline communication is critical for most organizations. It gives the company an opportunity to talk about events before, during, and after the fact. Because these conversations directly relate to consumers on their terms, it creates more touch points — from curiosity about the event to real-time reporting to post-event conversations, which give people who didn't attend an idea of what they missed and those who did attend some fond memories.

But all of it, regardless of what is done, will share a commonality. It will all tie back to the brand. And the brand identity, although some people argue otherwise, will be established and managed by the company (not by social media). Specifically, brand managers will be charged with making sure that everything done at every level of the company keeps the brand in mind. And if it doesn't, then the organization will adjust or adopt a new brand that they can live up to.

If you are interested in the white paper, you can find it online here. One word of caution. Like many white papers, it is being offered in exchange for including your name on a lead generation list.

Friday, October 26

Influencing And Being Influential: They Are Different

influencer
In 1917, Woodrow Wilson established the Committee on Public Information, which was headed by George Creel and staffed by several notable figures (and somewhat notorious) like Edward Bernays, who went on to become credited as the father of modern public relations. They were largely responsible for creating anti-German hysteria in the United States to promote war efforts during World War I.

Some of what they told the public was true. Some of what they told the public was made up. All of it was by design. And yet, despite exerting one of the most influential campaigns in history, one wonders whether the men themselves could be considered influential as the ghosts behind the propaganda.

Why influence cannot be measured by actions. 

Most people include actions as a measure of influence, online and off. While there is some truth to the notion, it is becoming one of most misunderstood and misleading measures employed by marketers, public relations professionals and social media advocates. Any communication, after all, can produce a response, a.k.a. action. But not all actions represent a compelling force on an individual or group.

For example, if Subway drops the price of its foot long to $5 and I happen to buy one, it would be difficult to argue that Subway influenced me or had influence over me. Sure, some might say the price point did (and many marketers do). But the truth is that nobody really knows why I bought it (or if I would have bought it without the social media coupon). 

• Maybe I was already inclined to order a sandwich and stumbled upon the coupon after the fact. 
• Maybe I intentionally follow Subway on Twitter because it offers coupons from time to time. 
• Maybe I know someone who likes Subway and I'm increasing my so-called influence over them. 
• Maybe I ran out of salami and the lack of salami and proximity of Subway influenced me to go. 
• Maybe there really is something to the Mayan calendar and I'm stocking up.

You don't really know. Even when we measure using benchmarks and look for upticks along the social graph, we don't really know much more than what seems to be. But more important than that, even if I execute an action, it doesn't mean Subway has any influence on me whatsoever.

I will give Subway some credit in terms of marketing. It has successfully positioned itself as a healthier alternative to fast food. However, even that doesn't necessarily mean that it influences people to eat healthier. All it means is that it has positioned itself to meet the needs of people who are already influenced to eat healthier. Ergo, the action could be a result and not a persuasion.

Being influential is different from influencing. 

The same case can be applied when people click a link, share a tweet, or post story. Sometimes it might be the individual who shares it because of their reputation or popularity (not because they have direct or indirect influence over me), but sometimes it is the headline or topic. And then? Once I read the story, it could have any degree of an outcome — ranging from reading a sentence to subscribing to ... name it.

Online, most measures are tracked at the click or the share. The irony is that most compelling forces do not occur at the click or the share. They only occur at the compelling force (content), assuming the thoughts and opinions exert any influence. Not all of them do. And that is different from an influencer. 

Influencers, on the other hand, are something different all together. They are people who exert influence for any number of reasons. 

oprah
Oprah, for example, can consistently put a book on a best sellers list by merely recommending it (regardless of the author or subject matter) because she earned influence. Sometimes someone in a position of authority has influence regardless of awareness or the number of interactions they have with someone (and sometimes people with authority have no influence). Sometimes someone who has dedicated a lifetime in the pursuit of knowledge is influential. Sometimes nobody is influential until fate requires it. It all depends. 

What is missing from marketing and social media from being able to accurately and authentically account for influence is the immeasurability of the "compelling force" required to be influential, which is largely based on the charisma and possibly reputation of a person combined with their ability to deliver the right message within the right sphere, at the right time, in the right environment, to the right environment. 

What is happening all too often in communication today is that individuals are too worried about taking actions in order to give themselves the appearance of being influential rather than taking actions that elevate themselves to positions where people are known to become influential. And this simple fact is why I lead with Creel and Bernays. The pursuit of an influential appearance isn't communication or influence as much as it is manipulation and propaganda, which is the exact opposite of being influential.

Wednesday, October 24

Making News: Pizza Hut Tries Presidential Publicity

Pizza Wars
Author and public relations professional Gini Dietrich wrote a great article about the publicity stunt gone sort of wrong for Pizza Hut last week. The pizza chain promised one person a lifetime of pizza if he or she asked President Obama or Mitt Romney whether they liked sausage or pepperoni.

When Pizza Hut received some push back, it decided to skip the publicity stunt and came up with something else instead. Inexplicably, this decision divided some public relations professionals and journalists. Some thought that stunt was brilliant. Some thought the stunt was stupid.

What surprisingly few people did was distinguish public relations from publicity.

Sure, publicity sometimes works as a public relations function. And sometimes it operates under the umbrella of marketing. Either way, the idea is basically the same. If you don't have news, make some.

The idea is lock step with some of the many stunts done by Edward Bernays, the man who is most often credited as the father of modern public relations. He advocated publicity stunts for all sorts of reasons (including making it less taboo for women to smoke in public), believing the news to be the very best carrier for any message.

Of course, public relations as a field (and many but not all practitioners) have grown up since the shift from propaganda to public relations. Specifically, it grew up when several professionals began to realize that public relations didn't have to rely on manipulation. It was much more effective when practiced with the organization and its publics in mind.

This, more than anything else, is the reason there was an insider kerfuffle over the stunt. Some praise it as creativity-minded public relations while others look as such cute or stupid stunts as diminishing the evolution of public relations as a management function. Honestly, the whole discussion is kind of silly. Except one thing.

Publicity that aims only for attention is a wasted effort. 

When employed by public relations, there is such a thing as good publicity and bad publicity. Most people, including myself on occasion, have a bad habit of evaluating stunts based on the measure of their creativity. The truth is that we ought to evaluate it based on its strategic substance.

What would Pizza Hut have gained had the stunt worked? Would it make you more inclined to buy their pizza or any pizza? Would have it have reinforced their brand or mission statement? Probably not.

Of all the pizza chains out there, Pizza Hut is the one that best exemplifies the shotgun approach to marketing and public relations. They mostly promote cheap pizza, big servings, limited time pizzas, exclusive sides, gimmick campaigns, crossover product offerings, world hunger, literacy, etc., etc. — more messages than toppings.

Pizza Hut doesn't always have marketing madness. Its communication tends to expand and contract. Two years ago, for example, it was winning with a tighter message. Right now, it has a loose message. The result? Domino's profit was up 18 percent in the third quarter. Pizza Hut sales grew too, by 6 percent.

Sure, there is no question it's still the leader, but it still struggles (as all big pizza brands do) against independents that continue to gain ground. Pizza Hut used to have an 18 percent market share. Nowadays, it's down to 15 percent in the United States as big chains continue to compete against each other based mostly on the price of their pies and gimmicks (while always hoping to shore up profits with side orders). Meanwhile, the independents have managed to capture 70 percent of the market.

All this information is just another way of saying that Pizza Hut (which I prefer in comparing the big three except when I have time for a tastier independent) wasted the effort on this publicity stunt because it didn't even reinforce the price point it actually competes on (despite all the noise). If they wanted a worthwhile campaign, maybe they ought to have "cut pizza pie deficit" instead of trying to make sausage and pepperoni a partisan issue. Or, if they wanted to serve themselves and the public, they could start talking about how gas prices must be killing their drivers and hurting pizza delivery.

Monday, October 22

Changing Conversations: Can We End Partisanship?

Because of the presidential race and recent debates, there has been plenty of conversation about the role of government. And frankly, it seems to me the national discussion often causes more confusion than clarity for anyone attempting to follow it.

Part of the problem is that there doesn't seem to be any real authority in reconciling the federal budget. If you want to give it a go, start with Wikipedia. Otherwise, you will find different sets of numbers that categorize how the government spends its money. Almost all Americans know is that the federal government spends more than it collects.

They also know that we can't keep doing that. It's a lose-lose proposition because not only do we continually lose every month, but the interest rates on debt erodes purchasing power. Ergo, if you have $100 and spend $110, borrow $10 to cover the difference, and then pay back $10 plus $5 in interest, you'll only have $85 the following month. So to maintain $110 of spending, you'll have to borrow $25 next time. And so on.

Except, in the case of the U.S. government, it's worse. It is more likely to ask for $115 the following month, thereby increasing the rate of the debt and its inability to catch up. We all know it has to stop.

Why what should be simple math becomes partisan and complicated.

The simple math problem illustrated above becomes complicated because in order to solve the debt spiral, the conversation centers around the question "how does the government find more money?" In other words, both parties want to find a way to collect the $110 it needs (maybe $112.50 to pay for past debt) so it doesn't have to borrow any more money.

Two partisan positions eventually surface: raise taxes (and who to raise them on) or increase the number of the employed people who pay taxes while decreasing the number of people who need help (via economic growth). Both have risks.

The risks associated with the first is that if you try collect $112.50 instead of $100, then the number of contributors might diminish revenue to $98. The risks associated with the latter are related to the speed of recovery. For every month more contributors aren't added to the labor pool, the debt spiral continues (perhaps at a faster rate if you temporarily reduce taxes to $98 in order to stimulate growth).

What is even more difficult is attempting to talk about the other side of the coin. Maybe you don't have to collect $110. Maybe you can collect $100. Most politicians don't like to talk about it because cutting $10 means that somebody will lose something. For example, some people think if $450 million is cut from PBS, then there might not be PBS. (The federal funds represent 15 percent of its budget.)

Although PBS would likely weather such a cut, the outcry is generally emotional. There are dozens (maybe hundreds) of expenditures just like PBS. All together, some estimates place federal, state and local governments near $1 trillion in welfare and social programs (more than $700 from the federal level and $210 billion on the state level). Depending on where you look, some consider it to be significantly higher and others significantly lower. Regardless, it's a big number and there is outcry with each program cut.

We need to change the conversation and evolve our culture.

I am not sure that we can change the conversation. In the last decade, politics has become overwhelming partisan — enough so that I avoid most political conversations unless I can tie it to a teaching opportunity for communication. (Political mistakes tend to make for pronounced examples on both sides.)

And yet, the conversation needs to change. We need to find ways to move more welfare and social programs away from government and make corporate and individual giving part of our culture.

This isn't partisan. It's math and morality. The return on investment for government-funded social and welfare programs is paltry compared to direct giving to fiscally responsible nonprofit organizations.

When people give $1 direct to a nonprofit, 80-90 percent of that dollar directly benefits the person in need (assuming the nonprofit is fiscally prudent). When we pay taxes, the value of that same dollar is diminished by bureaucracy and oversight on the federal side and nonprofit expenditures related to pursuing grants, lobbying efforts, and administration costs.

I'm not sure if there has been a study, but I wouldn't be surprised if the value of that $1 drops to 50 cents before reaching the program (and then another 10-30 cents is deducted by the nonprofit), leaving 20 to 40 cents for the people who need it. If we found out a nonprofit was delivering 30 cents for every dollar raised, it would be a scandal. When it's government, we expect someone else to pay more — even if government further erodes the benefit by borrowing to cover the loss of value.

It's also not uncommon for many government-reliant programs to think differently about government funding. They don't think of it as taxpayer money. They look at it as earned money. Earned money doesn't inspire the same frugality as charitable donations. It tends to be spent in the least efficient areas.

At the same time, for every tax dollar increased, people have less to give. It's not a coincidence that tax increases tend to reduce charitable donations, thereby driving more people to government programs.

Still, we won't see it during this election cycle, and maybe not ever. But it would make a lot more sense if the so-called millionaires for higher taxes started writing checks for social and welfare programs instead of insisting other people write checks to the government for a lower return on social investment.

If you can afford more taxes, then you aren't giving enough to charity.

If they and others started to donate more, maybe we really could reduce spending to a hypothetical monthly budget of government to $95 or $85 instead of $110, with $10 borrowed. And maybe, if other people follow by example, we could start to make charitable giving such a strong presence in our culture it would lower the need and demand on government.

As much as I like PBS, that might even be a good place to start. The $450 million in tax dollars it received is nothing compared to the $1.5 trillion or more that was spent on political campaigns this cycle. Maybe the government could ask the private sector (that already donates 60 percent of the PBS budget) to cover it. Or maybe consumers can just buy an extra Elmo. There is some very big money in Sesame Street merchandising. I've been an avid contributor over the years.

The more programs we could take off the government books with affluent individuals and corporations agreeing to adopt in lieu of tax increases makes much more sense. It would also empower people to prioritize their own giving instead of entrusting a third party to take some and spread it around.

Friday, October 19

Managing Messages: Repetition Works Enough To Fool Us

A few years ago, there was an interesting study conducted on the power of repetition. Specifically, the work done by Kimberlee Weaver (Virginia Polytechnic Institute), Stephen Garcia and Norbert Schwarz (University of Michigan), and Dale Miller (Stanford University) demonstrated that repetition from a single source infers the popularity of an opinion across an entire group.

It's our brains. They tend to trick us. And in this case, they tend to trick us consistently, given that the researchers constructed six different experiments to show it. The opening nails down the research.

"From college students gauging their peers’ views on alcohol, to stockbrokers speculating about consumers’ confidence in the market, to everyday Americans wondering how scared others are about terrorism, our estimates of group opinion affect not only the decisions we make on behalf of groups but also our perceptions of reality." ... However, "perceivers integrate information about the number of times they have heard a sentiment expressed [without] information about the number of people who have expressed it."

The same idea applies to the credibility of the sources. It hardly matters. The more familiar the opinion seems, the more perceivers think that they have heard the opinion from multiple sources — even if it comes from one source or less credible sources. The opinion itself feels familiar through repetition.

How did the researchers test their theory?

1. Participants reading opinions in favor of open space preservation were more likely to support open space preservation when they read similar opinions from three different sources and one opinion from a single source, three times.

2. Participants believing they were helping a company make a decision about whether to hire a CEO from outside the company were swayed by three employees suggesting it and one employee suggesting it multiple times (saying the same thing in different ways).

3. Participants in another test estimated more widespread support for a moderate stance on a reproductive rights issue after reading one opinion statement advocating that position three times than those participants who only read the opinion once. (It didn't matter that it was the same statement.)

4. After being exposed to a string of words related to open spaces (a similar scenario as in number 1) or neutral words, participants were more likely to support open space preservation if they had been exposed to a string of words related to open spaces.

5. In another study, researchers tested repeated opinions that were contrary to what participants knew to a specific group's preference to be. This was the only time that repeated opinions had no affect on the outcomes.

6. In the final study, the researchers provided one statement of opinion to a group, one statement repeated three times, and three similar statements from three different people to test their theory against time delays. They were then asked how they perceived the opinion as it was representative of a group immediately after the presentation and after a time delay. Interestingly enough, agreement with one opinion waned whereas agreement with the repeated or reinforced opinion increased over time.

What does this have to do with marketing and public relations?

In connection with earlier research on how misinformation spreads, repetition seems to have significant weight in shaping our perceptions, provided a pre-existing opinion doesn't already exist. (In which case, people tend to have a defense mechanism against changing their opinion, even if it is wrong.) It doesn't matter whether or not we receive the information from multiple sources as much as the information is repeated by the same source.

This is a pretty significant study when coupled with the more recent study on misinformation. It sheds some light on why children, for example, tend to adopt the opinions of their parents, even when those opinions represent inaccurate bias. It also shows how difficult developing objectivity as a skill set can be if the communicator doesn't vary their sources of information.

Ergo, one biased media source will eventually be able to frame the narrative of policy, position or candidate merely by repeating similar statements over and over. Without any countering opinion, the study suggests people will be that much more likely to adopt that opinion and even feel that the opinion is somehow reflective of the population (whether it is or not). On the flip side, it also shows how marketers are better positioned by focusing on a few clear messages than attempting to sell everything.

Wednesday, October 17

Sticking With Tactics: Do Marketers Know Strategy?

A recent study by Econsultancy tells the story. Marketers believe in content marketing. Ninety percent of those surveyed say that content marketing will become more important in the next 12 months.

It's not a surprise for anyone working in social media. But what is even more telling about the survey is something else. Only 38 percent have defined a content strategy. It's also likely most don't know how.

What happens when you work without a content strategy? 

The entire communication process becomes tactical, relying on the tips of the trade but never really reaching business objectives, campaign goals or even brand reinforcement. Remember Bud TV?

But perhaps even more disturbing, even those that are in the process of planning a strategy demonstrate thin objectives. The top three goals: increase engagement, increase site traffic, and raise brand awareness.

Seriously? While some of these might be considered outcomes, none of them are well-defined objectives on their. Rewritten, marketers might consider increasing brand loyalty, positioning themselves as source experts, or improving positive brand recall (e.g., not only increasing awareness but also ensuring people get it right and have a positive impression of it).

Even some of the lower scoring answers — improving SEO links, generating leads, influencing stakeholders — represent a tendency to focus on tasks that lead to something but seldom define what those tasks are likely to lead to. Ergo, marketers are becoming too reliant on "doing" something but many of them don't know to what end while others plug in "increase sales," which ought to be a given. (Businesses are in business to sell things, hopefully in such a way that they actually benefit people.)

Establishing objectives always starts with a situation analysis.

Many companies do not start their planning process with an understanding of organizational purpose (preferably one underserved in the market), their long-term achievable position in that market, or a handle on their most pressing issues within the company that are holding them back. If they did, it would likely change the fundamental nature of their organization and establish different objectives.

To give you an example, I worked with a company that developed an environmental solution for the construction industry to meet certain environmental protection regulations. They could have picked any path to do it, but the shortest path made the most sense — prove to the construction industry that they have the most cost-effective solution (lower cost and fewer fines) and prove to the environmental policy makers that they had the best available technology (in order to be recommended or even mandated).

The communication plan was built around this understanding because if the company could prove its value to general contractors and necessity to policy enforcers — everything else would fall into place. Sales would increase. Brand awareness would increase. Their reputation as innovators would increase.

There were many ways to accomplish this, including partnering with regulators, cooperating with environmental organizations (shifting them from aggressors to educators), and targeted educational communication to companies that would purchase their technology among them. I'm not going to list all the details today.

I mention it merely to illustrate the point. Without a strategy, they would be chasing likes, follows, SEO links, web traffic, and lead generation like many marketers. So the question becomes ... to what end?

This is why a communication strategy is the most important part of a campaign. If it isn't, then your company can waste money chasing the wrong numbers for very little results beyond a short-term spike. At the end of the day, especially in this economic climate, you most assuredly can't afford it.

Monday, October 15

Going Social: From Hunger To Hope

The facts speak for themselves. One in four children in the developing world is underweight. One in six people don't have enough food to lead a healthy life. About 25,000 people will die of hunger-related causes today. And that means 18 people will die of hunger by the time you finish reading this post.

There is no question it will happen. There is no question that something can be done about it. The only question is what do we want to do about it? Nothing? Something? Anything? Here's one idea.

From Hunger To Hope Starts October 16. 

From midnight (ET) on Oct. 16 to 11:59 p.m. (PT) on
Oct. 17, Yum! brands and several thousand people all over the world will be raising funds for the World Food Programme, which already provides 460 million meals to millions of people. It can provide more too, but they need help.

For $10, 40 more children will receive a meal. For $25, one child in school will be fed for six months. For $100, a child under 2 years of age can receive supplementary food for 18 months. But really, this campaign will benefit the program even more than that because Yum! brands will match $10,000.

You can donate direct via the World Hunger Relief 2012 page developed by Razoo. It makes giving simple, even if you only contribute $10. (Your $10 will become $20 with the matching grant.)

You can do a little bit more than that. Razzo put together a social media/social network kit to help. I'm not going to lie and tell you it's perfect. It's not. You might even feel lost when you visit it.

Having worked on dozens of these global campaigns, including one that was recognized as one of the first social advocacy campaigns on the Web, there is a sequence of steps that can maximize your contribution. Many of them were employed in For Hunger And Hope, a program we developed with Heifer International. That campaign worked, as many Bloggers Unite campaigns did before BlogCatalog had to temporarily move it to the back burner. But that's another story. Let's talk about now.

Six Steps To Help Alleviate World Hunger On Oct. 16. 

Step 1: Commit. There isn't any time to waste. Tell people you are committing to the cause today
(Oct. 15) and ask them to join you for From Hunger To Hope (Oct. 16). Share the link. You can also add a Twibbon for Twitter or Facebook, which helps promote this event. (Twibbons are little banners that frame your profile picture, expressing your support of a worthwhile event.)

Step 2: Connect. Join the campaign at Twitter and Facebook. And any time you tweet it, post it, or share it, try to remember to include a hashtag. The official campaign hashtag is #hungertohope and although the campaign says to include it on Twitter, use it on Facebook and Google+ too. Let people know you joined/liked/followed and ask them to do the same.

Step 3: Promote. If you have a blog or any other content creation account (YouTube, etc.), visit the blogger resource page for pictures, logos and facts. The resources will make it easier for you contribute content to the campaign and make connections with other people who care about world hunger. Set your content to be published on or around 8:30-9:30 a.m. (ET) on Oct. 16, which will help kick off the campaign.

Step 4: Donate. Once it runs, please remember to keep your commitment to donate at least $10, which will be matched by Yum! brands. It might not seem like a lot, but if 10,000 people make similar donations than four million meals will be served. That is the power of compounded generosity.

Step 5: Take The Lead. Having worked with nonprofit organizations all over the world throughout my career, I know that giving is a very personal thing for most people. Not everyone likes to tell people they gave a few dollars here or there for fear of looking like they're bragging. While I respect those who prefer to be more anonymous, you are wrong. When people know you are giving to a cause, they are that much more likely to give to the same cause. Talk about your contribution and let it inspire people. If you are still uncomfortable sharing your own contributions, recognize and promote those who do.

Step 6: Track The Results. Stay up to date with the campaign, at least through Oct. 18. Once the tallies are made, let anyone who saw your messages, notifications, posts, or other content know that it really did make a difference. They will appreciate it, but none of them as much as that child who will go to sleep with something in their belly, maybe for the first time.

All six steps might seem like a lot, but they don't have to be. Giving works best when people do what they can within their comfort zone. If all you feel inspired to do is make a small donation, then do that. If you want to do more or simply give kudos to others who step up, then that works too. It all counts.

While I am not part of the campaign team and merely a contributor, it reminds me how many great causes there are out there and how much I have missed organizing social media campaigns for causes since promoting Patch Adams. Maybe that will change. We'll have to see what happens in 2013. But for now, I'm thrilled to have found some comfort here and elsewhere. I hope that you will too.

Friday, October 12

Seeing The Future: The Active Office Space

One of the more interesting research projects coming out of Australia is a pilot intervention study being conducted by the University of Queensland. The study, which employs Ergotron WorkFit Sit-Stand Workstations, is designed to reduce the amount of time employees sit.

Mostly, the study is confined to seeing how long employees choose to stand as opposed to sit at their work stations. The initial report found that when workers were given the choice, they would reduce on-the-job sitting time by more than 27 percent. The company that makes the stations links excessive sitting with an increased risk of certain cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and other health conditions. 

Highlights from the sit-stand workstation study. 

The researchers conducted the tests right, with two groups of office workers who were predominantly of the same demographic (women in their 30s). One group of 18 workers were given sit-stand workstations. The other, 14 workers, retained their non-adjustable desks.

In the sit-stand group, sitting time was reduced by more than two hours and standing time increased by more than two hours after both one week and three months of workstation use, compared with the group that did not receive the desks. Overall sitting time during a 16-hour weekday was reduced by about 80 minutes and standing time increased by up to 90 minutes in the sit-stand group, though no significant changes were found in walking time, researchers said.

"The pilot study provides evidence that a sit-stand workstation (approximate U.S. $399) can reduce sitting time in office workers," said Genevieve Healy, Ph.D., University of Queensland. "Furthermore, epidemiologic evidence suggests that the reductions in sitting at the workplace could potentially have considerable impact on cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes prevention."

What sit-stand workstations need to do next. 

While Dr. Healy and her team are currently extending this research into multiple workplaces to examine the most feasible and acceptable ways to reduce prolonged sitting, these studies need to be expanded to consider other areas that corporations and small businesses will notice.

For example, if the study were expanded to measure productivity, employee morale, customer service, or even space economy, businesses would be that much more likely to adopt the idea. In addition, the manufacturers wold probably benefit from stations that could be pre-programmed to match the sitting and standing height of employees without any effort on their part to adjust for ergonomics.

Currently, the the company has been mostly focused on the more apparent health-related aspects of sitting vs. standing. However, it does have an interesting set of calculators designed to guesstimate a return on investment that alludes to the 12 percent increase in productivity related to ergonomics and 20 percent increase in productivity with dual displays.

In such a scenario, the company claims that 100 employees could realize an estimated savings and productivity gain of $1.5 million, which is pretty substantial. This means the payback occurs in about 5 working days. But what interests me about the innovation is even broader.

By merging these simple low-tech solutions with modern technology, it would be that much more possible to increase the ability for people to present while standing at their workstation (e.g. Skype, Google Hangout, etc.), which always delivers better results than sitting in front of a desktop camera. Likewise, for companies that still use cubicles, planning for elevated workstations would give workers a greater sense of privacy instead of always feeling like they have to sit down to feel it.

Wednesday, October 10

Marketing Madness: How Stereotypes Hurt Campaigns

I've always believed companies need to be culturally sensitive, but I've never been a fan of most "cultural" marketing campaigns. A new study by Columbia Business School underscores the reason.

Columbia Business School's Michael Morris, the Chavkin-Chang professor of leadership, and Aurelia Mok, assistant professor, City University of Hong Kong (she received her Ph.D. from Columbia Business School in 2010) set out to better understand bicultural identities and how marketing cues might influence their response. It turns out that culturally-skewed campaigns may not resonate.

Cultural campaigns ignore the integration of cultural identities. 

The researchers do an excellent job setting up the myth. When a Japanese-American woman strolls through a food court at the mall, is she more likely to opt for sushi or a hamburger? It depends on the woman. It depends to which degree she has integrated her cultural identity.

Prior research found that bicultural individuals switch between their two sets of cultural habits in response to cues in their current setting. Morris and Mok show that these responses differ between two kinds of bicultural individuals: "integrated-self" individuals exhibit chameleon-like behavior, expressing Asian tastes after exposure to Asian symbols, while "divided-self" individuals behave like cultural contrarians, expressing American tastes even after exposure to Asian symbols.

This holds true even when cues are presented subliminally, suggesting that unconscious motives are at work. It's these unconscious responses that can add the most weight, but it's also the hardest to measure.

So the researchers devised a subliminal priming technique in which participants were repeatedly flashed "Asian" or "American" while reading words in a word recognition test. The cues could not be seen, but were flashed long enough to be caught by their subconscious minds. The subjects were then shown different products that they could click on for more information.

These Asian-Americans did not skew toward Asian presets. Instead, subjects responded based on their degree of bicultural integration. In some cases, integrated individuals experienced a self-defense response that caused them to respond with less interest to marketing messages that skewed Asian because they felt (consciously or subconsciously) the ads were exclusionary and even caused them anxiety in losing their self-identity versus a cultural one.

The brilliance in understanding people and not stereotypes.

Modern marketers place considerable effort on lacing campaigns with cultural markers in the hopes of reaching a specific segment of the population. The idea might show cultural awareness, but it is equally likely to prey on stereotypes and cause some members of that segment to become disinterested or even disassociated with the brand, depending on how integrated the individual's identity might be.

It is especially prevalent in Hispanic marketing efforts, which often attempt to reach a Hispanic public based on the pre-conceived belief that they fit certain stereotypes. They do not.

Not only does Hispanic marketing run the risk of alienating diversity within a broad definition (e.g., Cuban vs. Mexican vs. Dominican Republican, etc.) but each generation removed from their cultural identity becomes less motivated by Hispanic messaging and more likely to identify with being American. In such cases, much like Asian groups, they may even have an aversion to the message.

Likewise, although not part of the study, there are other differences as well. Hispanic and Latino publics in California, Florida and Texas are all very likely to have different regional identities unique to their geographical region. But despite this, marketers frequently insist on developing campaigns to the broader base.

Certainly, some cultures seem to be more resistant to assimilation than others. But at the same time, given cultural identity is strongly associated with individual preferences and not groups, marketers need to start asking themselves if attempting to capitalize on cultural identity is worth the long-term risk of alienation. And, perhaps even more importantly, if attempting to base marketing campaigns on stereotypes is the exact opposite of what they are trying to accomplish.

People are more likely bound and identifiable based on specific interests and experiences. Marketers need to give more cadence to those identifiers than cultural bias, especially in a country like the U.S.

Monday, October 8

Mixing Messages: KitchenAid Misfire Still Burns The Brand

It happens so often that it can hardly be considered news. KitchenAid was the latest company to send an errant tweet. This time it occurred during the presidential debate. The employee, apparently exuberant over President Obama's poor performance, decided to put out a tweet.

Tweet: "Obamas gma even knew it was going 2 b bad! 'She died 3 days b4 he became president."

The only problem was this tweet didn't reach the employee's personal followers, but rather the 26,000 people who follow KitchenAid. The company quickly pulled the tweet and issued an apology. The company added another response too, alluding to the idea that the employee will be fired or, at least, locked out of the brand's social media accounts.

KitchenAid: "It was carelessly sent in error by a member of our Twitter team who, needless to say, won't be tweeting for us anymore."

Lately, any time a reporter mentions it, the KitchenAid account responds with a direct request. The general idea is the cookie cutter approach designed to move the conversation out of the public.

KitchenAid: "My name is Cynthia Soledad, and I'm the head of KitchenAid. I'd like to talk on record about what happened. Pls DM me. Thx."

I've always had mixed feelings about the shift-to-DM approach. Maybe it works here. Maybe not. It seems KitchenAid might cover more ground if it just tweeted publicly about it or put up a direct link to a statement on its site. I mention this because despite apologies, it's still being shared around.

Naturally, since then, there have been a hundred stories about the subject: Los Angeles Times,  CBS, TIME, yadda yadda. It's all pretty boring and largely overinflated coverage. Along with them, many social media folks and communicators have already offered up the pat advice: always triple check which account you are on or don't run commercial and private accounts on the same app.

I held off writing about this last week for a different reason. 

The real lesson for corporations and small businesses is that this isn't a social media issue. The real lesson is to stop putting people who have no business being the company's spokesperson in a spokesperson position. The real lesson is that it wasn't an individual failing, but a management failing.

Long before social media, the press used to run stories about what they overheard from public figures and company spokespeople in physical settings too. Nowadays, social media just makes it that much more pronounced, permanent (screen shots), and public than what journalists used to share.

So why is it that companies continually place unseasoned communicators or even interns in a position that they would not dream of if it were a press conference, interview or public event? Sure, I know people like to understate social media and some even believe youth and exuberance to be an asset online.

But let's face the facts. Social media can be more damaging and longer lasting than most in-person slips, gaffes, and personal-turned-public quips. You need a spokesperson on the social brand, not a buffoon (unless your brand is all about buffoonery). KitchenAid proves the point perfectly.

Anyone who would have made such a crass and unfunny comment in public, whether it was intended for their personal account or the brand account, doesn't need to be in a spokesperson position. It doesn't even matter which political party with which they are affiliated, the comment shows a lack of compassion, empathy and character. If it were to be said (and I'm not saying it ought to be), those kind of comments are best reserved for the closest of circles in a private setting, like your house as opposed to a social network, which is a public venue. This one, in particular, isn't even fit for water cooler commentary.

Seriously. Social media is challenging enough without making it the cornerstone for your next crisis. Pick people who exhibit the skill sets of a spokesperson, not the least experienced or loosest lipped network jockey on the planet. And even then, remind those folks that once they are a spokesperson, errant tweets on personal accounts are just as likely to be traced back to the company too. So don't do it.

Friday, October 5

Listening To Publishers: PR Practitioners

It doesn't happen often, but sometimes it does. A public relations firm starts filling the inbox with random pitches, pictures, and press releases. It's not so bad because some of them are close to what you publish. It's not so bad until they start sending the follow-up emails. So you delete some, unread.

Then you delete a few more. And then you delete a few more. It's nothing personal, but you have 20-some emails you do want to read and that deserve a response — public relations professionals who have taken the time to get to know what you publish. But the sheer volume from one gets in the way.

Sure, you want to look at them. There is always that little part of you that wonders if you are passing up on something that fits. You know other publishers and bloggers on the blind bulk list feel the same way because the view counts on the landing pages always have more than two people. So maybe they don't.

Then one day it happens. You find your finger hovering over the spam button. Something makes you hesitate. You never signed on to be that publisher. You want to give this public relations firm a chance.

So you send an email...

Hey [protected],

We really appreciate all the pitches you send over for consideration and I am sure we will cover some of the artists you represent sooner or later. However, I have to ask. Is there any way we can stay on your pitch list but be taken off your blind follow-up list?

All the best, 
Rich

And then they respond...

Follow up is key! I'm just trying to figure out if you're going to post or not! We'd love to work with your blog on syndicating our content, and we can affiliate as well and syndicate yours as well!

I already know how this might have turned out with Jennifer Lawson. I've already covered the bit by Chris Anderson. I even shared a pitch gone bad story before, although it was a bit more tempered.

I did kick around ideas for a follow-up response with a few colleagues. It would have easily made for an interesting if not insensitive post with high marks in entertainment value, especially because I just recently reviewed a band that insisted their public relations firm "fix or pull" an email because I made the mistake of, egad, quoting the front man who later regretted what he said after his band wasn't happy.

There is something to be said about the scorched earth approach, but I didn't start another publication for that reason. No, I think (but could always change my mind) I'll say nothing whatsoever and let those pitches fall into the void. Can you imagine? How many heavily touted pitch lists are sent nowhere with pride?

If you work in public relations, it might make you wonder about tactics too. Lawson and Anderson (and myself on occasion) did you a favor to improve your practice whether you realize it or not. It's much easier, although not as entertaining, to say nothing whatsoever. Follow up is the key, indeed.

Wednesday, October 3

Managing Misinformation: Bringing Clarity To Bear

When psychologists from the University of Western Australia, University of Michigan, and University of Queensland released their abstract on misinformation, I was especially interested in reading their conclusions and solutions. They didn't have many solutions. The ones they did have sounded like entry level public relations. It isn't enough.

The psychology perspective on managing misinformation. 

• Provide people a narrative to fill the gap left by misinformation.
• Focus on the facts you want to highlight, rather than the lies.
• Keep new information simple and brief in its telling.
• Consider your audience and their pre-existing beliefs.
• Strengthen your message through repetition.

None of it is wrong, per se. But all of it can make any misinformation about you, your department, or your company worse. Managing misinformation requires much more than casual interpretation of multiple studies. For comparison, consider five tenets from crisis communication.

The crisis communication perspective on managing misinformation. 

• Talk about it as soon as possible.
• Tell the whole truth, even if it means bad news, negligence, or wrongdoing.
• Be clear and concise, addressing details without obscuring the situation.
• Offer full disclosure of all relevant facts, history and related information.
• Demonstrate empathy or remorse as appropriate to the situation.

These tenets are a step up, but even these aren't perfect. Any crisis caused by misinformation requires a delicate hand, much like managing bad news. While you can use almost any model from public relations or crisis communication as a guide, professionals have to develop plans unique to the situation.

Specifically, the abstract misses the finer points, as do the tenets. A temporary narrative is fine while an investigation takes place, but most publics will assume it's a cover up unless you have a definitive deadline to get to the truth. Focusing on the facts is always a good idea, but sometimes a correction creates the impression that there is some validity to the misinformation. Considering the audience is smart, but information cannot be contained — everything has the potential to go global. Strengthening a message through repetition sounds good, but it can make the crisis live longer than needed.

A deeper look into understanding misinformation management. 

Establish the truth before misinformation. Far too many companies don't see a "tangible" return on investment for critical communication components like branding, public relations, and social media because the ROI is relatively soft compared to direct response that delivers concrete numbers. Unfortunately, those concrete numbers dissipate like quicksand compared to long-term reputation.

The narrative that psychologists suggest ought not be a reactionary measure, but a preventative one. Businesses with well-established brands are not exempt from misinformation being spread about them, but they are given a longer timeframe to investigate and prepare a defense as needed. Once you have a strong brand, do not deviate from it. You reinforce it with words and actions. Brands are fragile.

• Choose A Suitable Level Of Response. One of the most challenging aspects of any potential misinformation crisis, real or imagined, is to determine whether it needs to be left alone or if it needs to be addressed straight away before it spreads. One negative review left by a competitor under an assumed name requires very little action against the weight of 50 positive reviews.

However, if it needs to be addressed, attempt to address it with those exposed as quickly as possible while preparing for a possible escalation. For example, if the questionable review is on Yelp, address it there not on YouTube. The point is that any time someone addresses misinformation, it is an acknowledgement that there might be some truth to it or that the organization can be damaged by it. The weight of any counter measure determines the importance of the misinformation.

Prioritize the facts and keep it simple. One of the areas where the abstract shined was in illustrating how misinformation has an advantage because it is simple. A simple message almost always sticks better than a complex message. If someone needs 12 paragraphs to explain why five words are a lie, it's an uphill battle. Likewise, a one-point sound bite sticks better than 12.

And yet, sometimes the best solution is to have three or four related and reinforceable points that can be changed out depending on the audience without alienating the larger global audience. Years ago, when helping facilitate the first flood control detention basins in the area, we developed several points to appeal not only to specific audiences but also to different people within the same audience. Resident concern was based on losing views, property value loss, and construction hassles. Our primary points were safety, aesthetics, public participation, and long-term property values (floods kill property values, not detention basins). We didn't have to negate or agitate detractors. We developed a partnership of trust.

• Empathy is an emotional appeal. As the abstract correctly illustrated, misinformation tends to win because it elicits an emotional reaction as opposed logical argument. It doesn't have to be this way.

Sometimes facts naturally exhibit an emotional appeal. Sometimes they don't. When they don't, empathy carries an emotional appeal for a logical argument. Ergo, it is possible to acknowledge that some people might believe misinformation (without vilifying them) and move to the truth.

In the abstract, for example, they point to the "myth" about death panels being built into the national health care program. While the psychologists dismiss it outright, they neglected to note that the proponents of national health care resorted to diatribe rather than address the underlying questions about oversights, caps, and other controls. The truth was somewhere in the middle of misinformation and not many people were up to the challenge of pursuing it. An objective analysis was needed.

Reinforce, but be wary of repetition. No one can drive the truth home with a sledgehammer. Simply presenting the truth over and over will not make people believe it. On the contrary, overzealous repetition has an equal opportunity to entrench opponents or reinforce the myth. It almost goes along with a marketing adage. Those who oversell have nothing to sell.

Addressing misinformation and managing it effectively requires more than a reaction. It requires action. Once the misinformation is addressed, assuming the evidence is objective and accurate, stop addressing the myth and move on to accurate messages that ought to have been part of the brand before it was challenged.

For example, as Apple makes corrections to its Maps program, shoring up its brand will require new demonstrations that it is still about innovation and not slipping into a model of production that so many other companies subscribe to. The worst thing it could do is keep talking about it — long after a resolution or the fervor of one blatant jump-the-gun mistake.

Misinformation isn't always bad, assuming it didn't come from you. 

There are two things to think about misinformation. The first is to avoid being the source of it, which was the primary point of the previous article on this subject. People need to work harder at developing objectivity as a skill set, especially while the media has slipped in this arena.

Author Gore Vidal once addressed this topic, citing a student of Confucius who asked what would be the first thing Confucius would do as emperor. Vidal said Confucius was quick to answer.

"I would rectify the language. If people do not understand the emperor, there is no nation. Now that lying is the usual discourse of our rulers, we cannot grasp any reality from the true cause of hurricanes to the lies used to compel us into disastrous wars."

While Vidal was talking about blatant lies, not all misinformation is crafted out of blatant manipulations and fabrications. Most of it is derived from either an overall brand weakness, the lack of clear and accurate information, or arrogance in the belief that the public cannot be appealed to with logical discourse. But as such, this kind of misinformation need not be the cause of panic, but an opportunity.

Even within the psychologists' study, you can see it. If you ask yourself objectively why climate change, national health care, or even a birth certificate fiasco became fodder for what is called misinformation, you will inevitably find the contentions grew out of overreaching data, lack of details, or an initial unwillingness to provide evidence. The cause wasn't detractors. It was the proponents who provided cracks, hoping to appeal to emotional reactions over logical discourse, perhaps because the truth wasn't as patently accurate as they wanted people to believe.

Just as shadows cannot grow in brightly lit rooms, misinformation cannot rise out of truth alone. As communicators, we must continually strive to turn on lights to eliminate shadows rather than be tempted to turn them off and add more shadows of our own. No good ever comes from it. Only darkness.

Monday, October 1

Sharing Misinformation: Why Big Lies Stick

Psychologists from the University of Western Australia, University of Michigan, and University of Queensland recently published a new abstract that delves into the psychology of misinformation, and why people are more apt to believe falsehoods over accurate information. (Hat tip: Farron Cousins.)

The simple answer? Believing misinformation requires less brain power. But there is something else that is striking to consider, especially because people are resistant to correct misinformed beliefs.

Misinformation is simple, memorable, and emotional. 

The attacks on two U.S. embassies that resulted in the deaths of four Americans provide an example. The initial reports attributed the attacks to a spontaneous reaction to the inflammatory anti-Muslim film by Sam Bacile. The U.S. government initially cited the film as the primary cause.

However, it has now become clear that the attack on the consulate in Libya was not spontaneous. It was a planned act of terrorism believed to be led by militant Ansar al-Shariah and al Qaeda. Although the administration knew it was a terrorist attack within 24 hours after it occurred (and possibly before the attack), it continued to link the attack to the film for a week.

Focusing on the film has given it even more credence and escalated tensions in the Middle East. So why did the administration do it? Possibly, in part, because the misinformation was easier to report.

Misinformation tends to be grounded in an emotional appeal whereas the truth tends to be grounded in logical appeal. The truth requires more reason and deliberation. The cause-and-effect model applied to the film is easy to believe. It requires no thought. The act of terrorism, on the other hand, requires deliberate thinking because the administration has consistently suggested that al Qaeda has all but lost, the administration's foreign policy is sound, and that Americans are safer today.

In essence, because accurate information requires people to reassess other administration "truths," it is more difficult to believe that this was an emotional reaction caused by the film. Unfortunately, the unintended consequences of this misinformation have now fanned real protests across the Middle East. As a result, it has given rise anti-American sentiment once again.

If misinformation has the advantage, what can we do about it?

Misinformation isn't used exclusively by governments and politicians. It impacts communities, industries, companies, and individuals every day. Although the abstract suggests that the cause is linked to rumors, governments, vested interests, and media (including the Internet), their more compelling point is psychology. People have no real safeguards against it.

Specifically, the researchers say that most people look for information compatible with what they believe, how coherent the story might be, whether the source is credible, and how many other people believe it. These strategies do not guard against misinformation. In fact, they often compound it.

Having a presumably credible source deliver a well-crafted story to people who are likely to believe it (and the more the better) is the recipe for propaganda. When you look at several crisis communication studies, almost all of them include some of these criteria to spread misinformation, intentional and accidental, whether they are proponents or detractors.

In many of the case studies I've covered, there does tend to be a short-term lift associated with misinformation, which is then followed by long-term consequences. In most cases, credibility erodes until nobody believes the fraudulent source anymore (even when they do tell the truth).

This is one of several reasons I frequently teach public relations students that the truth is hard enough. There is never any good reason to compound a crisis with misinformation. It's hard enough to tell the truth because, as the abstract alludes, misinformation is difficult to retract and nearly impossible to erase.

In fact, it is so difficult to manage, the conclusions in the abstract represent the researchers' weakest points (along with a tendency to show other bias in their examples). I think a few communication tenets can do better than the abstract (and they will follow on Wednesday). But in the meantime, we need to appreciate that the first step is always the same.

We have to reduce our own susceptibility to misinformation. 

Much like journalists used to do (and some still do), objectivity needs to be considered a skill set. This means we have to develop the ability to put aside personal beliefs, seek out opposing points of view, ferret out facts regardless of how coherent the information might be, ignore the so-called credibility of sources until the evidence bares out, and never mistake "mass appeal" as an authority.

Some journalists I've met along the way have become bold in their belief that being objective is a myth. I disagree. So does reporter and correspondent Brit Hume, who recently noted that attorneys develop objectivity as a skill set in order to successfully understand both sides of a case. It's a reasoned analogy.

For public relations practitioners specifically, it's especially important to strive for objectivity because it helps us develop empathy for the publics beyond the organization. It's important because even if our opposition is wrong, we have to understand their point of view and find mutual ground if it exists.

Ergo, only once we've reduced our own susceptibility to misinformation can we ever hope to have a chance to manage it. If we don't, then we're equally likely to become the source of falsehood as opposed to the trusted source that most professionals hope to become. Start with that.
 

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