Showing posts with label critics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label critics. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 6

The Real Price Of Public Shaming On Social Media

Years ago, I worked with a film and television producer who brought me in as a senior copywriter for several dozen of his accounts, including American Greetings and McDonald's. It was fun and challenging work with considerable visibility. The scripts opened countless doors in my career.

One of the things that always struck me about his home office was a plaque that hung prominently by his front door. You couldn't leave the house without seeing it. Neither could he. That was the point.

The plaque unapologetically warned: "Be careful what you think for your thoughts become words, your words become actions, your actions become habits, and your habits become your destiny."

If you search for it, you'll undoubtedly find several variations. Most of them don't have any attributions, largely because the variations were built around Proverbs 4:23. It warns to be careful what you think because your thoughts run your life. It's an idea that was shared by Buddha too. 

Public thinking might be a worthwhile prerequisite for social media. 

More and more, people have been caught sharing any number of thoughts online with reckless abandon. But what they sometimes don't consider is that they aren't sharing their thoughts online. They're sharing words, some of which invite people to interpret them and predict future actions. 

That is what happened to a 27-year-old single mother who lost her job over a Facebook post. She posted that she was happy to start a new job at a day care, but added that she hated being around kids. 

The outrage that followed eventually landed in the laps of her new employers. They let her go. 

There are scores of other stories just like it. Victor Paul Alvarez was fired for making jokes about Congressman John Boehner. Adam Mark Smith had to sell his home after posting a YouTube video. Justine Sacco regretted her joke too. She was fired after a single tweet on Twitter. It goes on and on.

It goes on so often that people aren't always sure who is the real monster. Is it the person who made the offense, internationally or not? Or is it the mob that follows? And what about the people who relish jumping on the public shaming band wagon? Or bullies? Or those with thin skins?

The truth is that it is all of those things and none of those things at once, mostly because we haven't quite adapted to an environment that provides plenty of borders but very few barriers.

What I mean by that is that we build most social network platforms around our friends and colleagues much like we have always built social circles — based on proximity, similarity, ideology, special interests. The only difference is that the Internet removes all physicality and invites in the world. 

The whole world includes millions of people who have absolutely nothing in common with us. They have different dreams, needs, beliefs, backgrounds, feelings, experiences, prejudices, and tolerances — so much so that their entire reality is completely different. They don't even have to live half a world away. Living in an urban, suburban, or rural community is enough to create a polar opposite.

So when someone says something that would have otherwise been relegated to a coffee klatch with a few friends — people who have an entire context of who that someone is — to the entire world without any such context,  they can expect very bad things to happen. They're no longer thinking out loud or within the safety of a few friends who may either chuckle or politely correct their ignorance. Instead, you're making declarations (no matter your privacy setting ). So choose your words wisely.

If you don't, there is a better-than-average chance to find yourself in the crosshairs of public scorn. It's a weird place to be, especially because retaliation doesn't adhere to the same sensitivity it demands from those it persecutes. Read the comments after any public shaming session and see what I mean.

The comments are generally vile, often even more so than the initial infraction. Some of it is even penned by people who are bullies with a temporary permission slip to threaten, ridicule, and demean someone else. In fact, I would not be surprised if the majority of children who have been bullied online earned their bruises from being publicly shamed. Some of those kids go on to consider suicide.

How to manage a successful social network presence, semi-private or fully public.   

Proverbs 4:23 is even more right on the Internet than the era in which it was written. Your thoughts run your life and your public thoughts invite others to run it for you. Think before you post it and think twice before you pile on. What you contribute says more about you than anyone else anyway. 

Never build a network for numbers unless you're a professional, preferably one with some public relations training. Instead, build your network based on your level of tolerance. The more tolerant, patient, and forgiving you can be, the bigger your network can be. Sure, being thick skinned can help too, but mostly in connection with and not as a substitute for those other three traits I just mentioned. 

Of course, as much as we would like it to be, tolerance is not a two-way street. Appreciate it, but never expect it. Unless you pretend to be someone else, there will always be those who will dehumanize you and others over differences or disparage your ideas as a means to affirm their own. And no, I don't get it either.

Then again, after blogging for the better part of a decade, I no longer see the price of public shaming to be the corrosion of culture or even a threat to an individual's reputation as some might claim. The real price of public shaming is giving ourselves over to it by allowing the initial offensive remark or the public pile on to change our thoughts, words, and actions into something completely unrecognizable. 

Absolutely, criticism can be healthy but only when we remember to take on the behavior and not the person. Try to contribute something positive instead because, after all, your thoughts are words and actions online — actions and words that can determine your destiny. Good night and good luck.

Wednesday, August 27

Is The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Really A Win?

When marketers think about outcomes, it's hard to argue with numbers. The ALS Association has earned $88.5 million in donations (and counting) this year versus $2.5 million during the same period of time last year.

The nonprofit organization bumped up other numbers too. According to the only national nonprofit organization fighting Lou Gehrig's Disease, they've added 1.9 million in new donors. The reason this new donor count is important is it demonstrates that many of the people taking the ice bucket challenge are donating too. And even if they don't donate, it doesn't matter.

The truncated rules of the ice bucket challenge are pretty simple. If you accept the ice bucket challenge, then you donate $10 and nominate three more people versus donating $100 outright. Your decision has to be made in 24 hours. All nomination videos are shared on social networks.

In sum, this is a viral campaign built on a pyramid scheme that resurrects the campy but famous Faberge Organics tagline "and she told two friends ... and she told two friends" (plus one). So even if someone doesn't donate or refuses, there is a good chance someone else will accept and donate.

There is nothing wrong with that. So why all the pushback? 

As the ALS Association campaign continues to succeed exponentially, the ice bucket challenge has picked up its fair share of detractors. Most of the pushback revolves around seven complaints.

1. Whether or not these donations will cut into other charities.
2. Whether or not it is a giant waste of water and resources.
3. Whether or not animal testing is justified to benefit humans.
4. Whether or not clinical trials justify stem cell research.
5. Whether or not it reinforces slacktivism, which hurts activism.
6. Whether or not this cause is more important than another.
7. Whether or not the challenge has worn out its welcome.

All seven have varied degrees of merit, depending on personal perspective. But other people don't think so, with a few people coming out against those who are against the challenge. So mostly, ice bucket challenge haters beware. Or maybe not. Participation is always best with your eyes wide open.

Matt Damon, for example, tried to demonstrate this by using toilet water instead of drinking water. Doing so created an opportunity to promote clean drinking water in addition to the ALS Association. For other ethical or moral dilemmas, of course, there is no middle ground. Respect that, if nothing else.

Even with some people opting out and other people tired of the challenge, the campaign has reached a tipping point. Two days ago, the ice bucket challenge had only raised $70.2 million. Yesterday, it raised $79.7 million. The numbers suggest the campaign is holding steady at around $9 million a day.

So with all things considered, is the ALS ice bucket challenge a win?

Social media, and social networks in particular, has created a weird obsession with labeling something a win or fail. The ice bucket challenge isn't really either, even if it is a windfall.

On one hand, the organization has clearly raised a record that will likely stand for a long time. It also gained signification attention (and some awareness, which is different), more than it has in a long time. It's also likely that the organization will retain a percentage of those first time donors next year.

On the other hand, the vast majority of donors will not likely donate again. It's also unlikely (but not impossible) that this will become a sustainable action (or non-action as some people like to claim). It might even result in pullback next year, with people saying they did that last year. They did it and they're done, with some people still not sure why they participated in the challenge.

In short, the campaign wasn't brilliant as much as it was the right one at the right time. And as marketers, the real challenge will not be in celebrating the windfall, but in developing a bridge campaign that can transform flash-in-the-pan attention into educational awareness and sustainable action. If the ALS Association can do that, then this campaign (regardless of money raised) is a win.

Otherwise, it can best be described as a happy accident, one that other organizations ought to be wary about trying to duplicate (unless they are prepared to take a shot in the dark). But more than that, the real tell is what happens next. The ALS Association has a tremendous opportunity to create an endowment that will sustain a higher level of research for years to come (unless it believes it is close enough to a cure to push it across the finish line) and nurture support beyond the confines of this lucky long shot (while weathering the strain that comes with it).

Sure, everyone can expect more complaints about the challenge. Some are symptoms of success. Some open up dialogue for other social needs. And some provide a suitable level of transparency because there is nothing worse than someone who regrets their donation because they didn't know this or that. None of these complaints, however, will diminish what the organization has accomplished in terms of fundraising.

So maybe the question that needs to be asked isn't whether the campaign won or lost but whether the campaign achieved its mission to become the most trusted source of information for Lou Gehrig's Disease while demonstrating compassion. And beyond that, like every marketer ought to know, the best question to ask is not whether this is a win but what could the ALS Association have done better, what can it do better next time, and what its obligation is to all those people who supported it.

Friday, November 30

Boring People: I Tend Not To See Them

It might sound cynical, but many of conversations about communication are cyclular. They reincarnate themselves again and again.

Danny Brown knows it too. He recently noted the reincarnation of Kumbaya communication culture best described as the chronic urge to be nice-nice and non-critical.

Skip on having an opinion and play it all safe. As he points out in his piece on the subject, everybody is afraid that having an opinion that will drive away readers (and even advertisers) from their blogs or extended networks. Fear is a powerful motivator for most people, especially when they think they have something.

He takes a different tact. Boring isn't in ... it's invisible.

Brown makes a good point. There are around 200 million blogs being published (and I'm not sure this counts online newspapers and magazines). All of them are competing for some scrap of attention.

This isn't 2005 when there were only half that amount. Back then, publishing a blog felt like enough, especially in neglected niches (like communication was then). Everyone was pretty even back then, with everyone scrutinizing each other for giving bad advice (or good advice). There were even foils in the crowd, hellbent on criticizing everything. Some people hated it. I thought the industry needed it.

But then things took a turn. The various communication industries (public relations, advertising, emerging social media, etc.) developed a healthy dose of fear. The people who staked a claim were worried about image, stuff I used to liken to the borg or, better yet, pirates. I wasn't the only one.

Ironically, the people who promoted the idea of landing somewhere between neutral and nice had the most to gain. When all things are equal, people tend to gravitate to the most popular people and not the most popular content.

It's no surprise. This is the same phenomenon that occurs in media circles. Big brands can do almost nothing and get media attention. If a little brand does that same thing, nobody cares. Ergo, when Gen. Petraeus has an affair, expect headlines. When it is your neighbor, nobody cares — not even you (unless your spouse is involved).

It's the way the world works. If you only write to rubrics and rules, you're boring.

To compensate for the rebirth of vanilla, Brown suggests more bloggers play the part of a contrarian. And, for the most part, he's right. If you see something wrong, don't be afraid to point it out.

It doesn't matter who the author is or how big their following or how many times it's been shared. If someone doesn't vet the industry now and again, all sorts of oddball standards begin to take hold.

While you might earn some pushback or an occasional mob-like reaction from their loyalists, it won't stick. Any rub ups over opinions usually last no more than a few days or a week a worst. In a month or so, you'll barely remember it happened (whether it pops up in Google searches or not).

Well, some people might remember. But that requires a different tack all together. You have to be able to accept criticism before you offer some of your own. For example, I received all sorts of flack for criticizing and calling the demise of Utterz. But that all ended in a few months, after it folded.

Wednesday, June 22

Considering Civility: Does It Matter?

customersWeber Shandwick and Powell Tate, in partnership with KRC Research, recently released the results of their second annual "Civility in America" poll, which asked 1,000 American adults to assess attitudes towards civility online, in the workforce, in the classroom, and in politics.

According to the survey, Americans are trending away from uncivil behavior and rude treatment, especially among companies and politicians. Even more compelling, consumers are increasingly likely to share uncivil behavior with an expressed intent to sway others away from the offender.

How Civility Affects Buying, Behavior, And Other Choices.

• 69 percent decided not to purchase from a company after an uncivil experience (up from 56 percent).

• 69 percent re-evaluated their opinion of a company because the tone was uncivil (up from 55 percent).

• 67 percent said that they would not vote for a candidate who they believe is uncivil (new question).

• 58 percent advised friends, etc. not to buy products after a rep was rude or uncivil (up from 49 percent).

• 49 percent have defriended someone on Facebook because their behavior was uncivil (up from 45 percent).

• 38 percent have stopped going to a site after they concluded that the tone was uncivil (no change).

• 27 percent have dropped a community or forum after the tone became less civil (up from 25 percent).

• 20 percent have quit a job because the workplace was uncivil (new question).

• 11 percent have transferred their children to a new school because of uncivility (new question).

The survey also found that more than one-half of Americans believe that civility in America is getting worse (up from 39 percent last year). Workplace leadership is blamed for a decline in civility (65 percent) in the workplace, with most respondents believing their bosses set the wrong tone during the recession. Fellow coworkers aren't far behind, with 59 percent of respondents blaming coworkers for the increase in bad behavior.

Workplace competitiveness and the economy were significantly lower, perhaps signaling that people recognize that uncivil behavior is a personal choice. As a consequence, respondents said that there is a greater need for civility training in the workplace.

civilty"Asked about the civility of social networks, nearly one in two (49 percent) say that they are uncivil, an increase from 2010 (43 percent)," the report states. "However, Americans are much more inclined to name other sources besides social media and the Internet as uncivil — political campaigns, pop culture, media, government, the music industry, and the American public [for example]."

Chris Perry, president of Weber Shandwick Digital Communications, suggested that digital conversations are meant to engage and foster multi-dimensional dialogue rather than demean others or be hurtful. However, the survey indicated that nearly 7 in 10 Americans believe that cyber bullying is getting worse, especially among teens.

Along with growing uncivility in schools, online, and workplaces, a previous study conducted by the firm indicates that politics has become significantly less civil, increasing from 59 percent to 74 percent since 2008.

Discourse over diatribe.

I've always maintained that there is a healthy difference between criticism and cynicism, discourse and diatribe. With either word combination, the difference is that one tends to try to make things better while sticking to the topic; the other tries to tear things down, including the topic, subject, and anything nearby.

Over the last few years, the public (at least in this survey) seems to be recognizing that the difference between the two has all but evaporated. Nowadays, it's not only about winning but also making the other side lose and lose badly. Where some people might improve is taking a more objective view in that both sides (not just the other side) are driving the uncivil attacks.

Personally, I sometimes theorize that politics tends to set the tone of the country. Beyond politics, these same people also set the tone for government, which spills into business leadership and the greater workforce with un-customer-centic leaders creating hostility between employees and the consumers they need to keep the doors open.

But that's only a theory. It's equally true that each of us has a choice of what we engage in, criticism or cynicism, regardless of tone. Communicators are best advised to find the middle ground, listening carefully and thoughtfully to criticism (as opposed to ignoring disagreement as some social media experts have recently adopted) while not falling prey to cynics that will never be satisfied.

Sometimes it's best to let those people vent publicly, because they say more about themselves than your company as long as you remain civil. Because more than any other issue, civility obviously matters.

Wednesday, December 22

Amplifying: Social Media Is Not For Timid Executives

Aristotle
Shel Holtz, principal of Holtz Communication + Technology, recently wrote a thoughtful commentary about why he believes communication consultants (public relations professionals with blogs, for instance) ought to think twice before piling on companies that make mistakes. He alludes to the idea that it turns otherwise savvy professionals into PR ambulance chasers.

There is some truth to this idea. He says there are companies that have been frightened away from social media because of the put-downs and jibes they receive from a growing world of "experts." On that point, Holtz is very right. And yet, I have mixed feelings about the conclusion.

Intent is a powerful ally in the art and science of communication.

Holtz is right in that it is rather unbecoming to create a persona of someone sitting behind a computer screen salivating for companies to get into trouble and then piling on them with links to half a dozen equally verbose colleagues, all hoping to build a mountain of evidence out of cheap shots or colorful prose or campy satire. Do it too much, and it will hurt your business.

Writing about crisis communication to serve up a collection of lessons for students takes much more than a series of fleeting sentences. Even then, there is some risk.

"Did you ever wonder..." asked one of my students at lunch. "...if what you sometimes write about scares away people who might otherwise hire your company?"

I chuckled, telling her that I used to think about it every day. However, despite having the company brand on the banner above, I had to make a decision whether this blog was about attracting business or educating students and discussing concepts and constructs with colleagues. I chose the latter, even if this blog has helped win and lose a few clients (who I never write up).

But not everyone has the same educational intent. I think that is what Holtz is alluding to. If you're thinking about a communication blog, consider the intent. Even then, never leave your readers with a story that ends on some double negative snarky beat down — you have to be thoughtful and do your homework. At some point, you have to provide solutions to the problems. A little bit of empathy doesn't hurt either.

Social media is no place for a company with unmanageable blemishes.

So, why do I have mixed feelings about Holtz's post? Simply stated, I don't have much sympathy for companies that are "afraid" to enter social media. Executives who think every glimmer will be celebrated and every blemish overlooked have unrealistic expectations not only in social media, but life in general.

I had this conversation almost four years ago. And as I roughly wrote then, if companies seek "attention" then the executives and team leaders have to appreciate that they do not get to choose what others find newsworthy or interesting. And, once you invite bloggers and members of the media to take an interest in the company, you cannot "uninvite" them.

It's one of the lessons a group publisher tells my public relations classes every year. If you invite reporters to give their opinions on "X," they might not agree with you. Equally possible, they might decide to write about "Y," especially if "Y" seems more interesting.

It's the one thing that social media has in common with traditional media. Both communication channels have an equal propensity to amplify organizational vices and virtues. It has always been this way, and always will be this way. If you want your company to be something, you have to accept the risks. Or, if you prefer someone much wiser than me, consider what Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) said more than two thousand years ago.

“Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” — Aristotle

Tuesday, July 20

Warring Tribes: When Playground Fights Go Public

another blog drama
Ike Pigott had the best analysis of a recent online spat between two consultants. What's not to love about any post that resurrects Spike the Bulldog and Chester the Terrier?

I won't be so graceful. The brush-up between Kami Huyse and Peter Shankman is intriguing because it ends with two kids meeting up after school in the playground, encircled by their pre-pubescent friends, stomping their feet, clapping their hands, and chanting "fight, fight, fight!" It didn't start that way, mind you. Confrontation never does.

One tweet. One post. One response.

If you don't want to follow the links, it sums up in two or three graphs. Once upon a time, the most popular kid in school, Chris Brogan, bought shiny suspenders. So that made it fashionable for other kids to talk about their suspenders, belts, and fancy elastic bands too. Shankman included.

So, one day, Shankman shared the news about his shiny suspenders at PE class. After reflecting on this, Huyse went into the music room and said talking about what holds your pants up, on its face, is pretty silly. Then some kid, who probably doesn't have anything to hold his pants up, told Shankman that Huyse was talking smack about him. Shankman called her out and pushed her down. Dazed, Huyse said she wasn't talking about him, only suspenders (but what if she was, so what)?

Whack. Slap. Poke. Push.

And then, wow, everyone jumped in: Joe Ciarallo, Geoff Livingston, Aliza Sherman, Doug Haslam, Warren Whitlock, and a few others, not counting the comments, tweets, updates, and whatnot. It also doesn't count the dozen or so other posts that didn't make the first few pages of Google. It doesn't matter that Shankman later said he was being sarcastic.

That's how these spats are measured. Not in physical blows, but rather Google juice and search returns. The end result? Well, once Ciarallo threw in a third-party punch, all the positive ties between Shankman and Huyse (and there were a lot) shrank in importance. And that's why, these little spats, which on their face are pretty silly, were taken so seriously.

When Playground Fights Transcend Into Tribal Warfare.

Most playground spats never get all that much attention, but a few spiral out of control, including some that ended with the threat of legal litigation and the promise of physical violence (one of which we turned over to authorities). In such cases, perhaps the epic moniker might fit, with retellings of how Sparta dragged in the whole of Greece to defeat Troy.

The interesting thing about real tribal wars, however, is that most soldiers on the field don't know the circumstances. They simply raise their home banner and press forward with erroneous conjecture. And yet others jump in for any number of reasons much like Agamemnon did. He didn't care about the petty dispute as much as the excuse to gain more power.

If you are new to social media, you might as well know there is no way to avoid disagreement. Sooner or later, there will be a flare up. And with that in mind, here are a six friendly reminders that may help you keep playground antics in perspective.

1. Never write anything without the explicit understanding that you are inviting comment.
2. Never assume omitting a name will exempt you from a reaction by those who own the action.
3. Never respond to feedback when you are emotionally charged by the unexpected critique.
4. Always remember that the Internet isn't a private call. It's a party line and people take sides.
5. Always expect disagreements to eventually become a headline where you never imagined.
6. Always remember that, in time, most people regret what happened prior to the resolution.

Keep these tips in check and most discussions, even heated ones, will remain discussions. It's generally only the overreactions that attract the most attention to move friendly banter into something more akin to kennel noise or all-out tribal warfare.

Case in point, I can blame Brogan for everything that happened between Shankman and Huyse because it's funny to do so. I also know that Brogan can take a joke (if he even sees it). There won't be a flare up, let alone a tribal war. And even if he did comment (which is rare), it would probably be light.

Now, if only those who envy his suspenders would learn that lesson too. Then civility, even with debate, might be plausible. Yeah, right.

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Friday, November 20

Frustrating Employees: American Airlines


It only took an hour for American Airlines to find and terminate Mr. X, a UX user experience architect working for the company, after he responded to a Web site critique offered up by Dustin Curtis, a designer who creates user interfaces and experiences.

"The problem with the design of AA.com, however, lies less in our competency (or lack thereof, as you pointed out in your post) and more with the culture and processes employed here at American Airlines." — Mr. X

In reading through more than 150 comments left on Curtis' post, I couldn't help but wonder about the confusion. Some people said the firing was warranted. Others said it was another example of the company's incompetence. Some said that it was somehow Curtis' fault. Very few seemed to find the truth. What's that?

Two wrongs don't make a right, they make a mess.

1. We can remove Curtis from the equation. He didn't do anything wrong in offering a public pitch. In a world where many people with experience and expertise can become a content publisher, companies and their employees have to expect and accept both praise and criticism. The only question: How will the company choose to respond or react to the communication?

If any company operating in the 21st century hasn't answered this question by now, they are inviting, even encouraging, crisis.

2. It is always unfortunate when someone is terminated over carelessness because they care. However, Mr. X clearly violated one of the most basic ethical tenants. Aside from American Airlines' non-disclosure agreement, it is generally understood that communicators protect confidential information and, at the same time, comply with all legal requirements for the disclosure of information affecting the welfare of others.

If Mr. X truly cared about the company, his response to Curtis would have been better sent to his supervisor to affect change.

3. Appreciating that there may be other grounds for termination that we may be not aware of, American Airlines demonstrates they clearly have an international communication problem. When employees feel more comfortable confiding about their experience to external sources of information over internal channels because they feel powerless to be the catalyst for positive change, then that is a problem. And now, it's a public problem with a greater consequence than any breach of non-disclosure.

American Airlines has to know it has flaws in its communication strategy given that everyone else does. A warning might have been enough.

Companies need to develop clear and concise response guidelines.

Without a more comprehensive understanding of American Airlines internal communication components, there isn't much we can do. However, it does seem clear that they need to develop clear and concise online response guidelines. Here are a few:

• Define who will respond and under what circumstances.
• Respond in a timely manner when the topic is still hot.
• Read the greater body of ongoing work to ensure you understand it.
• Recognize who the person, people, or media might be before you respond.
• Remain positive, reasoned, and focus on clarifications (unless your brand is satirical).
• Stay focused on the topic if you hope to maintain credibility, authenticity, and transparency.
• Recognize that engagement is a limited commitment, which may require a follow-up response.

Imagine how even a handful of points might have made a difference at American Airlines. Mr. X would have been allowed to respond as himself or known to forward any notes along to a supervisor. The authorized representative could have responded, possibly generating goodwill for American Airlines. Or maybe not, since the original post was obviously a public pitch.

The psychology of criticism and the art of the pause.

There isn't a tremendous body of worthwhile research revolving around the study of criticism and how people respond to it. Most people simply respond to it badly. Generally, it is because they tend to react as opposed to respond, which is why media relations training has a tendency to focus on the trappings of pointed questions.

Professionally, I try to teach people to accept criticism, provided it isn't cynicism. As I've proposed before, critics strive to be open, objective, and offer suggestions for improvement or make an effort to understand various points of view. Cynics are generally closed, biased, and reject that any merit exists or tend to promote their point of view while dismissing the validity of any other.

As a general rule of thumb, people are almost always better served by pausing anytime they feel an immediate emotional response to any particular comment. The pause allows us to process the information and ascertain intent.

Teachers, for example, are paid to provide constructive criticism. Managers are charged with evaluating performance. And the best reporters always ask tough questions to find the truth. Some bloggers too, employ criticism as a means of driving conversations forward.

In all of these cases, the intent is grounded in compassion for education, employee, public welfare, or special interest. We ought not to shy away from it, but embrace it. You don't have to accept every idea as valid, but critics often lend a few gems.

Thursday, October 22

Failing At Public Relations: Obama Administration


You know your public relations efforts are failing when you talk to more people (reach) more often (frequency) about an issue (message) and it produces a negative outcome despite having a powerful brand. When that happens, the most prudent course of action is to shut up and listen to people. But not the Obama administration.

Their strategy seems crystal clear. If you don't like a plan, they will talk you to death. And if you still don't like a plan, they will talk about you to death. And if you still don't agree, then they'll declare war. Shudder the thought.

Why the war on Fox News will backfire.

Before pointing out the obvious, I might offer up that this post has less to do with politics than it does communication. Simply put, politics doesn't have to be part of the equation to plainly see that the Obama administration is not only failing at public relations, but they also seem to be their own worst enemy (even more so than the previous administration, which one would have thought to be impossible).

There has always been plenty of evidence to support the idea that Fox News leans right. There has always been plenty of evidence that MSNBC leans left. In general, there is ample evidence to support most media leans left and talk radio leans right (but not as much as some people think).

Indeed. The vision of Walter Lippman is dead. Objective journalism is at the end of its brief, but worthwhile run. And the public has lost its appetite for true news in favor of flavored coverage.

Any questions?

And if you work for any White House administration, you have a choice. You live with it or you resort to diatribe. The current administration has chosen diatribe based on the mistaken notion that if you cannot win the debate, you beat the debater.

Of course, that tried-and-true political tactic doesn't work with the media. It only compounds the problem.

When you take media "opposition" seriously, it means you risk increasing its credibility. And in the case with the White House war against Fox News, that is precisely what is happening.

Ratings for Fox News is up, easily beating CNN and MSNBC. In fact, Fox News averaged 2.25 million total viewers in prime time for the third quarter, up 2 percent over the previous year, according to left leaning The Huffington Post.

Meanwhile, White House poll numbers are dropping. Why? As President Obama and his team obsess over criticism, anyone who is uncertain or critical of unpopular policies are added to a list of undesirables. Take your pick: health care reform policies or the struggling economic climate or the troop buildup in Afghanistan or the abandonment of a promise for open communication or the failure to deliver a tax break for seniors making less than $50,000 a year. And the list goes on, with dozens of more reasons why people are interested in hearing other ideas. And, according to the administration, you'll find them on Fox News.

Wait a minute. That's not an attack ... that's advertising. At the current rate of decline, Fox News stands to gain a majority while other media outlets play ball with the President. Even the President is speaking out against Fox News, but his position makes a play for another tactic — good-natured belittling. (Sorry, David. That will not work either.)

The real criticism, where the American public ought to be concerned (contrary to President Obama's opinion), is from the First Amendment Center at the University of Kentucky

"The White House has basically said that they don’t believe in the marketplace of ideas, they’re not willing to engage in debate, and they are going to be associated with John Adams and the Sedition Act and Richard Nixon and his ‘enemies’ list — is that the company they want to be in?” says Mike Farrell, director.

It sure seems that way. Anytime political communicators choose a clash of personalities over opinions, it means their opinion might be weak. And, based on a 10-point drop in polling, it seems to me that people are tuning to Fox News because they do not agree with the President; they are not changing their opinions because Fox News is influencing them.

The lesson is simple really. Obama won an election because the public has been rallying around those who affirm their ideas. And right now, what the Obama administration seems to be missing is they have yet to be a source or affirmation because while Americans might want some of the ideas presented on the campaign trail, they are less than thrilled with the proposed execution of those ideas.

Mostly, the bills don't deliver on promises. They might make things worse.

Saturday, May 30

Reviewing Reviewers: What Goes Up


It’s been interesting to watch the mix of reviews popping up for the indie film that we’ve helped release during the last few weeks. And, I might underscore interesting because I have better than a decade in as a professional entertainment reviewer and editor.

The very worst of them mixed up Olivia Thirlby and Molly Shannon, but the rest claiming this film was "seeking some raw truth" weren’t all that either. It made me think for a moment, after missing a few posts in favor of doing work on the premiere in Los Angeles, that it might be fun to review some of these reviewers, while correcting the most glaring inaccuracies along the way…

For example, New York-based film critic Ethan Alter, writing for the Hollywood Reporter, complains about a student caught by his mother while having anal sex with a crippled classmate. Except, we can’t be sure what fantasy he was having during the film. There is no sodomy to speak of. The best guess around the office is that he doesn’t know more positions than missionary, which means his claim that he spends “way too much time in movie theaters” might be right. Add to the misfortune that he only sees the movie being played out in one formulaic way or another, and we think it's probably best that he take a break from living through the lens of others. Reviewer Grade: F

Next time around, we suggest Alter look over the shoulder of Janelle Tipton with Back Stage. She said the same scene Alter loathes is the one she found a little bit of sweetness in, writing that the “development of these two characters and their relationship turns out to be something we wish had been the whole point of this otherwise frustrating film.” She may not have liked the film, but at least she paid attention for her readers. Reviewer Grade: B-

Brian Lowery, writing for Variety, on the other hand, skews more to Alter's angle as he never seems to recover from bemoaning that somehow this was a film that makes a statement against journalists, opening with “As if journalism hasn't suffered enough of late…” Have they suffered? Then there seems to be plenty of suffering to go around as Lowery pens a review that won’t help him ever make the leap from a small screen reviewer to a big screen stringer. Better luck next time. Reviewer Grade C

Ken Miller, writing for Las Vegas Weekly, criticized the film for “the 11th-hour suggestion that the teacher was murdered.” He calls that ludicrous, which can also be said about his claim. There is no suggestion of murder beyond a not-to-be-taken-literally drawing by teenagers that places the blame on the self-righteousness of a flawed small-minded teacher. If accuracy matters, then Miller is destined to stay with the local weeklies. Reviewer grade: D

A much better Las Vegas-based review comes from Carol Cling with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and then picked up by the California Chronicle. Cling is critical that the movie doesn’t provide filmgoers with any answers (despite other reviewers who claim it pretentiously does), but goes on to share that “there's also something endearing -- and, occasionally, achingly poignant -- about "What Goes Up" and its gallery of valiant misfits.” Her review runs straight down the middle. And even though it’s not glowing, it’s everything you expect a review to be. Reviewer Grade: A

Tom O’Neil, writing for a Los Angeles Times blog (not the paper, mind you) shows us everything a review ought not be. He strikes up predetermined chatter by claiming Hilary Duff could land a Razzie for this performance, which is untrue. And then, for fear of standing up for his opinion, he goes on to find the harshest quotes in three of the harder reviews to prove his position. While some didn’t care for Duff in the film, others like Lowery did. No matter. We couldn’t read his review in full because a Kentucky Grilled Chicken ad kept popping up in front of his skewed prose. As much as I hate pop-up ads with dancing people, I realize now that the ad that earned an F was a step up from what he wrote. Heck, O’Neil didn’t even get the DVD release date right. Reviewer Grade: F-

The contrast is made even more clear when you compare O’Neil’s review to another on the opposite coast. Manohla Dargis, writing for The New York Times, was critical, but rightly so. She points out that director Glatzer “seems to be trying to say something critical about America and heroism (the cartoonish musical suggests as much); at other times he appears to be embracing the very values he previously lampooned.” Is it any wonder Dargis is writing for The New York Times and some others are not? And I'm not just saying that over Dargis' lead line that starts ... “There’s some nice filmmaking tucked inside “What Goes Up” a muddle of moods and intentions.” Reviewer grade: B+

All in all, the reviews for What Goes Up have been mixed, which ought to be a sign how bad algorithm sites like Metacritic lack. While it attempts to consolidate reviews, its point system is more of a mess than Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips' pointlessness and writing style. Metacritic gave The Onion review 30 points despite a fair lead line that starts “Jonathan Glatzer’s directorial debut What Goes Up is a quirky-small-town dramedy that just barely avoids the “overly cutesy” and “self-indulgently melancholy” traps that snare so many indies.” Seems more like a 60 or better to me.

ONTD does much of the same. Not only was it the only other site to rip O’Neil (go figure), but it also trumped up all the negative reviews while bypassing any positive ones found on Gordon and the Whale, Salon, and UGO.

Speaking of UGO.com, Alex Dorn nails my thoughts about this film perfectly as he concludes — “If … you like your comedies pitch black, as I do, you will enjoy this dark little jewel.”

Add it all up and What Goes Up gets a healthy mix of good, bad, and in the middle. That’s not bad for a film that was destined for a DVD release only a few months ago. But even more important than what the reviewers said or didn’t say is the obvious — the only reviews that count are from patrons. So far, most people that we’ve talked to either liked it or loved it.

Suffice to say that my take is simple. If you want a different film than the usual done-to-death releases, What Goes Up is it. If you prefer pretty, perfect, or packaged films, then you probably won’t enjoy it. It’s not that kind of film, which is why I did like the theatrical release and wish more people could see it because the DVD release will be different by a few critical minutes.

In closing, I have one final thought for critics who continually attack studio films for being formula and then attack the indies for not being formula: you're not a critic at all. Somewhere along the way, you've given in to becoming a cynic taken in by your own cleverness. And maybe, just maybe, more folks ought to review your reviews more often.

Tuesday, January 27

Balancing Acts: Real-Time Communication


An interesting, spontaneous, and live debate occurred between Shel Israel, co-author of Naked Conversations, and Scott Monty, a new media communications executive at Ford Motor Company, on Twitter, the popular real-time short messaging service, today.

The discussion began shortly after Israel pointed to a New York Times article. It provides an engaging look at real-time social media in action.

Here is a portion of it, minus background noise and side discussions.

Monty: Shel, the issue is a little more complex than you're making it.
Israel: Issues are always complicated until a solution simply emerges.
Monty: A single, nationalized standard is what's needed, not state-specific standards.
Israel: Ca welcomes other states to join our standard. The Ca standards 1st offered 12 yrs ago. What progress has Detroit made towae=rd compliance during that time? During that time what has Detroit spent to block or delay the standards during that time?
Monty: The entire auto industry - not just *Detroit* - is behind a single, national standard. You should familiarize yourself with what Ford is already doing (and plans to do) to meet fuel econ & emissions standards.
Israel: So then, you should have no problem with selling Fords everywhere that comply with the new Calif, emissions standard, right? Now ask that question of your customers.
Monty: This is just me speaking (not Ford): I think a single, high standard would be preferable to multiple standards. We're raising the fuel economy standard across every single vehicle we make - to best-in-class or among best-in-class.
Israel: How much $$ was spent by Detroit to oppose tougher emission standards. What would have happened if you had invested in R&D.
Monty: It's not just R&D Shel. It's the associated $ to retool entire plants.
Israel: You know, I've been sympathetic to Detroit, but if given a choice between sustaining Earth & Sustaining Ford Motors--sayonara.
Monty: Just goes to show me that you know next to nothing about our sustainability efforts. You should research before you tweet. (To others: Please check out some of our efforts in the green area. There's lots here http://bit.ly/1KtP73)
Israel: Golly, Scott. You don't sound like that when I take Ford's side. Why is it that I'm considered knowledgeable then & stupid now?
Monty: Because you did your research then.
Israel: My position requires little research Calif chooses strict emission standards. Ford can choose to comply or not. I do not argue that Ford is working on sustainability. But you are unwise to say that the Feds should prevent CAlif. standards.
Monty: I don't think the CA should be denied (again, Scott talking). If we use that as the single standard, great. Not multiple states
Israel: When Calif acted out of frustration, Detroit went to DC to stop us. There's been a recent change in policy.
Monty: If CA wants to spend its money to fight global warming, good luck. There are other important priorities at stake in the economy.
Israel (hours later): [Scott Monty] wants to point out the good efforts Ford has made and in fact, I believe that's true. But Detroit doesn't get to set the pace.
Monty: You're absolutely right. There's a new pace being set - but at the same time we need to operate within what's realistic now.
Israel: With all due respect, that's precisely what Detroit said to CA in 1997, when hearing were held in this state. CA is throwing down a Green Gauntlet. It's an easier challenge than Kennedy saying man would walk on the moon in 8 yrs. It's time to take the issue seriously for the sake of your kids & my grand children.
Monty: With all due respect, Shel - when did you become an automotive analyst? We've got no problem taking it seriously. We're moving faster than you know. ... But real business decisions need to be made for today as well as for tomorrow. It's a balance.
Israel (hours later): With all due respect, no expert on automotive but I do see an entrepreneurial opportunity when I see one. I'll be happy with any company that complies w/standards. I'll be at the Ford showroom the day you meet that standard. I'll even tweet your virtues.

What wasn't communicated that could have added value to the conversation?

California took the lead in setting the strictest auto emissions because it began taking steps to regulate emissions well before federal standards were set. In fact, California has been at this much longer than Israel gives the state credit. The California Legislature passed the Mulford-Carrell Act, which combined two Department of Health bureaus — the Bureau of Air Sanitation and the Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board — to establish the Air Resources Board (ARB) in 1967. The ARB wasn't even California's first emission reduction effort.

However, California is also the leading polluter in the United States. In 2008, the American Lung Association's 2008 State of Air Report, California metropolitan areas account for five of the top ten most long-term particle polluted metros (with seven cities received a failing grade) and five of the top ten most ozone polluted metros (with twelve cities receiving a failing grade) in the U.S. The cause isn't automotive as much as it is lifestyle.

Of course, much like California, the automotive industry has a mixed record on environmental issues too. You can find an extensive, and reasonably brand neutral, account of the automobile and the environment by Martin V. Melosi right here. It doesn't take an automotive industry expert to deduce that fuel prices more than any other factor dictate what consumers will purchase.

When gas prices are high, like they were in the 1970s, consumers buy fuel-efficient cars. When gas prices are low, they buy SUVs. The American automotive industry tends to compete better in the latter market, although Ford does have 13 U.S. models that achieve 30 miles per gallon or better. The Ford Focus was named one of the top ten greenest cars in 2008.

The American automotive industry has made significant contributions in the development of green vehicles, sometimes at the expense of their own viability (and sometimes for the benefit of competitors). And sure, they've made mistakes too. But blaming the automotive industry for attempting one of the trickiest balancing acts in history seems disingenuous.

You see, I drove one of the earliest electric cars in the 1990s. The public didn't want them. The infrastructure wasn't in place to support them. They were creepy quiet to drive. And, while researching them, nobody could tell me what they planned to do with all the spent batteries. In fact, almost 20 years later, there is no real indication that any of this has changed en masse.

The bottom line is that we need solutions. However, considering we all contribute to the problem every day, those solutions will only come from shared accountability and consensus building. We need discussion over diatribe, the kind that has helped us realize substantial reductions since the 1960s.

Do real-time online conversations add value to communication or cause confusion?

It depends on the conversation and the participants. This one today, despite praise from observers, doesn't add much value.

To his credit, Monty delivered more communication than non-communication during the discussion, better than 2-to-1. In comparison, Israel delivered more non-communication than communication, almost 3-to-1. But this wasn't a boxing match.

Nobody wins, especially those who were listening.

Even with what little truth was alluded to, it's difficult to walk away with a real appreciation of this complex issue beyond polarized content. Simply put, Twitter was not a suitable platform for this discussion. Beyond that, maybe you can tell me.

Friday, January 23

Moving Forward: How To Manage Criticism


Lauren Vargas, principal of 12Comm Public Relations, calls them killer bees or "jackals feeding off the blood and weakness of others." Valeria Maltoni, who writes the Conversation Agent (among other things), calls them seagulls — those who fly in, make a mess, and fly out again. And Umesh Sharma, clinical psychologist, includes not being a critic among his secrets for a stress-free life. Critics are like needles in a balloon factory, he said.

There is certainly some wisdom in their words. Seagulls and bees or needles and jackals don't make the most pleasant company. However, as Vargas points out and Maltoni has too, constructive criticism is not only welcomed, it's needed.

That leaves some communicators in a quandary. How do you tell the bees from butterflies and seagulls from eagles?

After all, very few people really like criticism, but everyone offers it from time to time. In fact, our aversion to it tends to be a prominent social media discussion point any time I speak with business people. "What if someone says something bad about us?" they ask.

I generally muse that people probably are already saying something bad about them, they just don't know it.

After all, the most common question after a dinner, show, movie, book, product, new car, etc. is "How did (or do) you like it?" or "What did you think?" One of the benefits — or setbacks — of social media is that it amplifies these criticisms from private conversations to public discourse. In some cases, it can even cause a crisis.

Personally, I consider it a benefit, but not all people do. So regardless of how you feel, what's a communicator to do?

1. Recognize the difference between critics and cynics. Critics strive to be open, objective, and offer suggestions for improvement or make an effort to understand various points of view. Cynics generally are closed, biased, and reject that any merit exists or tend to promote their point of view while dismissing the validity of any other. They deserve different approaches.

2. Distinguish criticism about something and criticism about someone. Valid criticism, even if you do not agree with it, tends to focus on the situation, work, or action. The worst criticism presents judgements about specific people. Care what people think, but don't care so much about what they think about you.

3. Consider the intent of constructive criticism and negative feedback. The intent of negative feedback, even if it appears offensive, or constructive criticism, which is generally non-confrontational, is to provide guidance. Even when comments seem inappropriate, focus more on the message and not the delivery.

4. Distinguish the difference between communication and diatribe. Someone opening up a conversation that makes us feel uncomfortable might even be an asset. Diatribe, on the other hand, does not promote conversation or communication. It aims to shout the other person down (sometimes by encouraging others to do it).

5. Recognize that cynicism communicates more about them than you. While criticism can sting if it is well presented, cynicism says more about them than it does you. Even when real time situations seem to favor emotional aggressors, post- event analysis tends to favor a steady hand. How you respond will always overshadow what is being critiqued.

If you don't manage the message, the message will manage you.

Communicators have to accept that we cannot control what other people say or do. We can only manage what we say or do, even when we are responding to what others have said. Planned action is always better than unplanned reaction. In fact, in preparing for such instances, the first person we need to consider is ourself. Are we oversensitive to criticism?

While I'm not a fan of psychological self-tests, I did vet one at Psychology Today for this post. It asks: Are you sensitive to criticism? Can you handle negative feedback or do you find you have to resist the urge to bite your critic's head off? Try it out. (The summary is free; the full analysis, which didn't seem necessary, carries a fee.) The exercise itself might be eye-opening.

Once you do, then consider the closing quote from author William Arthur Ward. Because if he were alive today, he might artfully remind people that how one receives and interprets criticism or cynicism is the key to being an effective communicator. He might also note that even the most practiced communicators, when confronted with criticism, tend to respond (or encourage others to respond on their behalf) much like the critics they profess to dislike.

"In the face of unjust criticism, we can become bitter or better; upset or understanding; hostile or humble; furious or forgiving." — William Arthur Ward

Tuesday, October 28

Killing Blogs: Wired Likes Linkbait


Ever since Wired magazine saw some success by declaring newspapers dead, it seems to have developed an appetite for declaring everything dead. The latest victims? Blogs. Yep, Paul Boutin says blogs are dead.

"The blogosphere, once a freshwater oasis of folksy self-expression and clever thought, has been flooded by a tsunami of paid bilge," wrote Boutin, who also writes for Valleywag. "Cut-rate journalists and underground marketing campaigns now drown out the authentic voices of amateur wordsmiths. It's almost impossible to get noticed, except by hecklers."

Hecklers like, um, Paul Boutin? (Joke.) Come on, the linkbait has never been so obvious. So here's one study Wired didn't consider:

Blog influence on consumer purchases eclipses social networks

BuzzLogic, a social media analysis company, recently released a study that suggests frequent blog readers (defined as consumers who read blogs more than once per month) use blogs as the top online navigation tool to discover other blog content, ranking higher than general searches on search engines. Here are some other findings after surveying 2,000 online consumers in the United States:

• 38 percent said blog links were the top tool for discovering new blog content, edging out 34 percent who said search engines.
• 39 percent said blog links appear to have similar impact as a trusted recommendation from a person.
• 40 percent of blog readers have taken action as a result of viewing an ad on a blog (50 percent for frequent readers).
• 50 percent said blogs influence purchases and that they find blogs useful for purchase information.
• 56 percent said blogs with a niche focus and topical expertise were key sources, making consumer useful.

"For a portion of Web users, blogs rival search as a navigation tool, which has really interesting implications for advertisers," said Rob Crumpler, CEO of BuzzLogic. "Blogs are becoming trusted guides, steering users who are seeking very specific information to places of interest online."

Crumpler is right, of course. But what makes the difference? Boutin seems to have fallen for the buzz of blog generalization. As I continue to tell my friends in the media, blog credibility doesn't come from the tool; it comes from the individuals who share insights, experiences, and knowledge. How they share information is of little consequence.

Each "blogger" has an opportunity to establish themselves as a trusted source among their readers. And, one way to damage that credibility is to rely too heavily on linkbait that declares things dead too much (like blogs from a blog, no less). Oh well, at least it's not as scary as what they put out last Halloween. Boo hoo.

A few other posts on the topic of blogs being dead, including the blog that Boutin also writes for:

mathewingram.com/work
Valleywag
Pulse 2.0

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Tuesday, April 29

Stirring Media Revolutions: Citizen Journalism

Citizen Journalism
"You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." — William Randolph Hearst

With the financial support of his mother, William Randolph Hearst bought the failing New York Journal in 1885. And, within a few short years, his name, along with that of Joseph Pulitzer, who purchased his way into the publishing business (he originally bought the Post for $3,000 and other papers before the New York World), became forever associated with yellow journalism.

Hearst, in particular, was ridiculed and criticized by Upton Sinclair for having newspaper employees who were "willing by deliberate and shameful lies, made out of whole cloth, to stir nations to enmity and drive them to murderous war."

The assertion is linked to the idea that if it had not been for the publishings of Hearst and Pulitzer, there may have never been popular support for U.S. military adventurism in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines in 1898. But neither Hearst nor Pulitzer were alone in their endeavors to shape the news.

Earlier in American history, it was Alexander Hamilton (1801) who pooled together $10,000 from investors to start the New York Evening Post, specifically to take aim at Thomas Jefferson and the rise in popularity of the Democratic-Republican Party. And, before that, it was newspapers that helped spur on the American Revolution by taking creative license when publishing images such as the famed Boston Massacre. The image, of course, did not represent the facts. The British soldiers were later acquitted for acting in self-defense.

The formalization of objective journalism is a relatively new idea.

These are just some of the historic footnotes I consider every time I hear the term “citizen journalists,” which is generally defined as citizens playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information. Most notably, the moniker seems to be assigned to bloggers to suggest that they are somehow they are less than journalists (assuming they even want to be journalists).

Yet, with relative ease it seems, all of those mentioned above — Pulitzer and Hearst and Hamilton and Jefferson — and many others not named — Sam Adams and Benjamin Franklin among them — certainly fit the definition as very actively engaged citizens, without rules, who pursued printing the news as they felt fit.

In fact, Reese Cleghorn, former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland, helped put some of this in perspective in 1995. In his article, he leads with how Walter Lippmann commented on "the new objective journalism" and what it might mean for journalism schools in 1931. An excerpt:

"I do not know much about the schools of journalism," Lippman said, "and I cannot say, therefore, whether they are vocational courses designed to teach the unteachable art of the old romantic journalism or professional schools aiming somehow to prepare men for the new objective journalism.

"I suspect, therefore, that schools of journalism in the professional sense will not exist generally until journalism has been practiced for some time as a profession. It has never yet been a profession. It has been at times a dignified calling, at others a romantic adventure, and then again a servile trade.

"But a profession it could not begin to be until modern objective journalism was successfully created, and with it the need of men who consider themselves devoted, as all the professions ideally are, to the service of truth alone."


Think of it for a moment. According to Cleghorn, professional, objective journalism was a mere 64 years old when he wrote his article. And, even then, he was not sure journalism was a profession.

Journalism has always been the art of participating citizens to report.

So it is often with this understanding, I am amused by debates between Michael Tomansky, Guardian America, who suggests that “Journalists relinquish rights frequently in the course of doing their work responsibly, as you well know.” and Jeff Jarvis, BuzzMachine, who counters that “We journalists have long traded in the currencies of access and exclusivity with the powerful. But the price we pay is complicity in a system of secrecy.”

Gentleman, please pause a moment to consider that you are debating a concept that has yet to survive a complete century against another that is less than five years old. So-called professional journalists, those who evolved out of objective journalism, were never meant to be bound by rules, except one, also penned by Lippman.

“There is no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil.”

As one of my journalism professors, Jake Highton, reiterated again in 1978: “Although it has codes of ethics and credos, journalism really has no laws. Yet what Lippman said in the 1920s remains true today: Telling the truth is the highest law of journalism.”

So as unfortunate as it sounds, Jarvis stands correct on those grounds. For a journalist to adhere to a promise of omission for the privilege of inclusion ... well, that strikes me as a promise to not tell the truth.

The division of citizen from journalist ought to be struck from our tongues.

Throughout history, journalists were simply citizens who hoped to make change, with the concept of reporting the truth a secondary consideration in the early 1900s. The only criteria for admission into the field was the cost of a printing press or the ability to knit prose with enough efficiency to be paid by someone who could afford it.

Certainly, social media has lowered the entrance fee considerably, but I propose it has not lowered the bar by any other measure. You see, there have always been journalists who have adhered to and/or relinquished their sense of ethics. But never has there been a code that has withstood the test of time or shackled the profession beyond individual reputation.

Let's face it. Even today, the largest publishers in the world remain tabloids that are willing to publish unsubstantiated fact and fiction at their leisure, sometimes with startling accuracy and other times without a sliver of truth. Should we impose more rules on bloggers than we would the largest publishers in the world? I think not.

And to that end I guess, as important as the conversation might be, what right would any group have to propose such unspoken governance over anyone? Truly, if there are any laws that bloggers might consider, I believe those laws might already be on the books with no other rules necessary.

As professionals continue to discuss the merits of somehow distinguishing the citizen journalist from the professional journalist, I suggest we not tread so heavily to put self-imposed etiquette over free expression. As wiser folks remind us…

“Better a thousandfold abuse of free speech than denial of free speech. The abuse dies in a day, but the denial slays the life of the people, and entombs the hope of the race." — Charles Bradlaugh

Tuesday, October 2

Paying For Politics: You And Me


“Thousands of active troops and veterans were subjected to Mr. Limbaugh’s unpatriotic and indefensible comments on your broadcast,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in his letter to Clear Channel Chief Executive Mark Mays, which mirrors his statements on the Senate floor.The Hill.

Yet, as far as I know, the only people subjected to Rush Limbaugh are people who listen to his show. But, nonetheless, so it begins. Tax dollars, yours and mine, are being spent this week on letters and speeches delivered in Congress to denounce, discredit, and censor. We might as well enjoy the circus, provided the price is nothing more than tax dollars and not free speech or the right to address grievances with our government.

“Well, I don’t know. Maybe he [Rush] was just high on his drugs again,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, (D-Iowa) as reported by Michelle Malkin. “I don’t know whether he was or not. If so, he ought to let us know. But that shouldn’t be an excuse.”

Taking time to record that comment into our Congressional records is so much more important than “providing assistance for poor and elderly families to afford to heat and cool their homes, and the need to continue our commitment to improve education for our nation's children."

This week is banned booked week. It’s sponsored by the American Library Association, American Booksellers Association, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the National Association of College Stores.

Hundreds of books are challenged every year. And those who aim to strike them from the shelf often use statements that sound dangerously similar to those of Sen. Reid’s … “This comment was so beyond the pale of decency that it cannot be left alone."

Indecent. Immoral. Impudent.

What are these books? You know the ones: The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, “The Chocolate War” by Robert Cormier, the Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds, “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck, and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou.

All of them round out the top five most challenged books since 2000, but Judy Blume is still the most challenged author. In fact, there were more than 3,000 attempts to remove books between 2000-2005.

You might note that these challenges are not ancient history. On the contrary, they are alive and well today. Challenges to our civil liberties that unnoticed would silence our people. Challenges that aim at radio talk show hosts for talking about what other people already knew. Challenges that convinced me to lend some of my Sunday to The Gylon Jackson Show to discuss a few free speech concepts:

• Don’t allow the ignorance of others to have power over you
• The abuse dies in a day, but the rule of law lasts forever
• We have to protect free speech, even speech we find offensive
• The remedy for the abuse of free speech is more free speech
• Most people want free speech for “them,” but not other people
• Critical speech gives you an opportunity to gauge issue temperature
• Specific words that offend people tend to change over time

Today, given the controversy surrounding Limbaugh, we might remember those points. Or perhaps, maybe it would be best to remember the words of Dwight David Eisenhower …

”And we have got to fight it with something better, not try to conceal the thinking of our own people. They are part of America. And even if they think ideas that are contrary to ours, their right to say them, their right to record them, and their right to have them at places where they're accessible to others is unquestioned, or it's not America.” — Eisenhower

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Tuesday, June 12

Saving Jobster: Joel Cheesman


In December 2006, Jason Goldberg, CEO of Jobster (one of the first employee recruitment search engines and “somewhat, sometimes” transparent CEO blogs), embarked on a perilous crisis communication adventure when he asked his employees to ignore rumors of a mass layoffs. "Put down your pencils .... calm it down, relax a bit, and have a nice holiday,” he said. “We’ve got big news to give ya before the new year."

Although Goldberg dismissed outsider speculation, despite leaving hints on his own blog over the holidays, 60 of the company’s 148 employees were laid off, which was much worse than any one had guessed.

For my part, the entire story presented itself as a living case study in crisis communication (what not to do) with one question that remained unanswered for the better part of six months: could Jobster erase the reputation damage it endured externally and the employee morale flogging it weathered internally?

While I appreciate there are still plenty of people who say Jobster’s business model (or lack thereof, some claim) will one day be its undoing, I submit that the company has moved beyond the employee post-holiday massacre. Yet, perhaps even more ironic, some of the credit to ending the great Jobster layoff debate doesn’t even belong to Goldberg. It belongs to Cheezhead’s Joel Cheesman in April.

How did Cheesman help save Jobster from existing in a Groundhog Day-like movie, reliving the layoffs over and over again? Simple. After promising a public smack down between himself and Goldberg at a recruiting conference, Cheesman, in his own words, left people with “less rumble, more mumble and fumble.”

True. The worst of the four non-smack down questions was when Cheesman asked Goldberg “what does Jobster want to be when it grows up?” And then, after Goldberg appropriately addressed his understanding of the modern career market (you cannot intern with a master-class spokesperson like President Bill Clinton and not learn a few presentation skills), the Cheezhead summed up an even better answer for his so-called adversary, saying Jobster wants to be “a career center for the digital age.” Yep. That will work.

The better questions, perhaps the only questions that really needed to be asked, have never been answered: why did Goldberg hint, then deny, then confirm layoffs at Jobster? And, how can Goldberg think he was being transparent when all of his actions represented the exact opposite of transparency? But alas, asking those questions and two or three follow-ups is what makes for a great aggressive media session. (I’ve had clients reach over the table as if to hit me during mock media sessions before they are reminded that it’s only practice and my questions are nothing but “acting” the part.)

I don’t think Cheesman has had such training so it’s no surprise that he killed the great Jobster layoff debate by jumping the shark in a face-to-face venue that is remarkably well suited for Goldberg (as if we didn’t know that; he founded a company with about $40 million in venture capital). Of course, I am not saying that Cheesman “saved” Jobster single-handedly. Goldberg has done a fine job at improving Jobster’s communication, including the Jobster blog.

While you won’t often find the kind of entertaining hot talk and foodie reviews that used to drive traffic there, the blog does read better and includes a few more voices than it once used to. So while the traffic numbers are much lower than before, the blog seems to be better targeted in attracting the attention of people who might be interested in Jobster as a customer or investor.

Although Goldberg still likes to hint on occasion, and sometimes without a payoff on those promises, he still tosses out ideas that seem interesting to me. Can anyone really become a sourcer with some simple online technology? Will the pay-for-applicant model really revolutionize recruiting? Can Jobster really keep its communication tight, focusing more on its message than everyone else’s? Will the now Goldberg-employed John Sumser save Jobster-owned Recruiting.com or let it fade away into the abyss of forgotten blogs?

I don’t know. It is certainly something worth watching even though the living case study on Jobster’s layoff debacle has come to a close (I meant to wrap it weeks ago until Jericho fans pushed back the post for days and then weeks). That said, you’ll have to wait for a book that recaps the Jobster case study with some additional insights. Yep. For better or worse, Jobster earned its chapter.

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Tuesday, April 17

Censoring Farce: WorkFarce

Sometimes it's hard to distinguish the heroes and villains of social media. It is the person or persons who moves to censor supposed blog bullies? Or is it the anonymous blogger penning satirical prose? Or maybe, there never were any heroes or villains to begin with. Maybe there is only a whole bunch of people who could accidentally send us into the dark ages.

Sure, most people outside of the recruiting industry have never heard of WorkFarce, which was an anonymous satirical blogger who some might say crossed the line of professional decency while others might say made pointed observations of the absurdness of the industry, the world, and human nature in general. But for people who did know him, the surprise success of his blog seems well-grounded in its objective: give people a good laugh without revealing himself, his employer, or making apologies.

Most people will never hear of WorkFarce because one or several people tracked him down and contacted his employer, demanding that, he says, "I publicly reveal my identity, (who I am, what I do and who I work for) and then issue a public apology." Hoping to circumvent harm to himself, his family, and his employer, he elected self-censorship in the face of threat and ultimatum.

I'm all for calling a duck and duck, and in this case, the duck was blackmail. WorkFarce's only crime was naivete.

Yes, it is extremely naive to believe for one second, that as an anonymous blogger, you will remain anonymous forever, especially if you have taken to criticism, whether or not such criticisms are labeled satire. It is as naive as sending a critical e-mail without the assumption that someone might turn it in to the person you are criticizing. It is equally naive not to recognize that the closer your satire or criticisms touch the truth, the more likely someone will attempt to embarrass, malign, or censor you.

I see censorship as, once again, a growing trend in America and this trend is something that needs to be much more than watched. Censorship, misrepresentation of statements made within a context, and blackmail are beginning to win over "truthful, accurate and fair communication that facilitates respect and mutual understanding."

All around us, singular comments are taken out of context or turned into something they were never intended to be. Bryan Ferry, Don Imus, and a host of others are all being targeted by censors, blackmailers, and people who prey on the fears of others.

To be clear, while I do not endorse or condemn (though I may question their style, logic, and word choice) what any of the above public figures have said, we must be more careful not to confuse the cries of censorship as more valid than the speech they attempt to censor. The remedy for the abuse of free speech is always more free speech.

In an effort to keep this confined to a manageable topic, I was not a fan of WorkFarce and rarely read his material. Many people, however, did. We had an engagement once or twice, but nothing beyond that. On occasion, I freely admit there was something relevant in the writing and the wit could sometimes, er, once in a great while, be appreciated. No, I am not a fan of anonymous blogs, but far be it from me to judge what others feel they must do for the preservation of their jobs and livelihood. Being anonymous is their burden to bear, not mine or anyone else's.

I am also not a fan of blackmail. And in this case, the move to supposedly unmask, embarrass, and censor WorkFarce was pathetic at best, an exercise in malice at worst. Given WorkFarce has gone to great lengths to protect his employer (and hopefully did not attack others in the industry simply for the potential benefit of his employer), the only harm that could have been done to anyone was only what they chose to infer from his posts.

In fact, by most accounts, WorkFarce was not a potential shill, backed by people with political or business agendas. So given that the apparent unmaskers are hoping to conceal their own identities in doing so suggests to me the ultimate in hypocrisy.

Let me say it again: the remedy for the abuse of free speech is always more free speech, lest we forget the immortal words attributed to Pastor Martin Niemoller:

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I did not speak out;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.


Ergo, be careful with cries for censorship. For when the worst comments go largely unanswered except for censors, even the worst ideas are more likely to take root within the fabric of the people for all time. Yes, though I am disgusted by the notion, moving to censor hate speech will only lead to more hate speech.

Sure, some might say it seems I am contradicting my own advice on message management within the context of strategic communication. But for me, the difference is exceedingly clear: message management is about trust, honesty, and consensus not fear, force, and censorship. Good night and good luck.
 

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