Showing posts with label misconceptions. Show all posts
Showing posts with label misconceptions. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 7

Finding Spin: Bob Conrad Cuts Through The Spin!

Misinformation is a conversation that frequently comes up in my public relations courses, with no single source of information exempt from bias, fabrication, and blatant slant. One could easily argue that it makes up the majority of the information we are exposed to every day and the trend — driven by popularity and shareability — is increasing exponentially, with the media being especially suspect.

Where did all the objective reporting go anyway?

In his book, Spin! How The News Media Misinform And Why Consumers Misunderstand, Bob Conrad captures some of the story, leaning more toward current events than the short history of objective journalism and why it is changing (regressing) today. And missing the history of it all is probably the greatest flaw in an otherwise well-presented thesis book.

After all, one cannot fully discuss objective journalism without discussing Walter Lippman, who set the standard for it. Prior, journalism wasn't even considered a real profession. And why would it be? For all of the good people like Lippman were trying to do, other publishers like William Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer used sensationalized news to drive circulation much like media outlets do today. They did it enough so that both are readily linked to helping start the Spanish-American War.

How ironic that 100 years later, with new media on the rise and mainstream trying to drive circulation, we find ourselves relearning the same circular lesson. Unless, of course, you look at it all differently. Although yellow journalism did not get its name until the turn of the late 1800s, it was alive and well in the United States, both preceding the American Revolution (to prime independence) and immediately following it (to mutually ridicule emerging political parties after the writing of the Constitution).

But other than this omission, Spin! tells some of the modern story. 

Based on the assumption that journalists still pine away for objective journalism (they don't), Conrad captures several concerning stories in less than 90 pages. In the telling, he also catches more than one journalist tripping on his own logic.

"Our job is to tell stories, to make facts relevant, but never skew them." — David Baker, State News

Conrad takes the logic to task because he rightfully points out that interpreting and shaping the information is how it becomes biased. And, in fact, it is worse than the front end suggests. Many journalists who put pen to paper in 1960s and 1970s discovered new styles for writing the news — with the aim to set agenda or sometimes entertain with one.

From there, Conrad moves into other stories to demonstrate some of the real challenges that face journalism today: reporter bias, anointed elitism, and defensive posturing. Most of them fall into one of the six divisions of modern media, but a few go further in describing a blatant disregard for the truth, something a few journalists have used to gain attention and awards (e.g., those who make it up).

All of it makes for good reading. And yet, if the real measure of Conrad's book can be found in solutions, then it doesn't seem promising for us in this brave new world of media manipulation from outside and within. His seven solutions, some new and some old, include: creating space for more citizen journalism, reestablishing the barriers between news and opinion, adopting principles from public relations, holding journalists accountable, and raising the bar in expert selection.

Will any of these solutions work to curb misinformation? 

Not one of them is necessarily a bad idea and all of them can be starting points for consideration. But unfortunately, none of them can reach the ultimate goal. They cannot bring back objective journalism.

If we really want credible and objective news, then citizens have to support it while learning to suppress their growing appetite for affirmation news. And right now, feeling freed of inconvenient facts that run contrary to their own individual ideologies, it's virtually impossible for a major media outlet to survive and maintain objectivism.

If I had to guess, I would say that today's media needs a wide-reaching and catastrophic miss that results in massive public outcry. And if we are to avoid such a costly blunder, then we need an emerging voice within journalism like Lippman in his era.

Ergo, someone needs to shame the media into making the truth their ultimate goal once again. And if someone doesn't soon, then it will take something bigger than any of the examples cited in Conrad's book, which is a frightening thought.

I used to think, much like Conrad, that a collective voice might emerge from the ranks of citizen journalists to get the job done. But I don't see this happening anytime soon. As long as popularity and perceived influence are more cherished than the truth, then we will continue to be buffeted back and forth by polarized opinion, popularizing misinformation, and selective facts.

Where Spin! wins despite some shortcomings in research.

While it might not sound like it at times, I would recommend Spin! to anyone hoping to gain a better grasp of where the media are today. Not only does Spin! make a great catch-up primer and indispensable resource, it also sets an agenda for a conversation that needs to happen. Given you can consume it all in a few hours (and then spend weeks chasing down conclusions), all the better.

However, that doesn't mean you can afford to dismiss your own due diligence after reading it. Conrad brings in much of his arguments from what he is exposed to, which sometimes skews his own perspective. While he disclaims some of this in the preface, it's still bothersome to see someone attributed as if they coined "he said/she said" journalism  when they didn't, the omission of a historical context, and his own personal bias (which I have to point out despite agreeing with much of it).

In other words, it's a must-read book for anyone with an interest in media and citizen journalism, but only as a primer for a much bigger pool of knowledge that is out there and waiting to be assembled. Still, I will recommending it to my class. I regularly recommend his blog for good reading too.

I received a complimentary copy of Spin! How The News Media Misinform And Why Consumers Misunderstand by Bob Conrad with the understanding that the book would be reviewed.

Wednesday, August 24

Thinking Divergent: Divergent Education

ShovelsWe've all been there. (Agency people more than most.) You enter a meeting with a brilliant idea and, inexplicably, some people can't see it. In fact, if the thinking is divergent enough, most of them won't be able to see it. They've been programed not to.

In advertising, it's where all those little rules come from — complete nonsense that calls for the company name to always be in the headline, five bullet points to accompany every ad, or never starting a sentence with "And." Of course they can't see a creative concept beyond the rules they've added to their road map of success.

Most of them have had divergent thinking trained out of them years ago. And that's a problem not only for them, but for our children. Right. The same symptom that prevents some clients from buying a campaign or an investor failing to find the next Apple, is the same challenge being faced in education. Most students are being taught reactive regurgitation.

Reactive regurgitation, better known as rote memorization, still has mainstream appeal in a world that requires more and more divergent thinking for success. For evidence, you only need to look at some of the most successful companies created in the last 20 years. Almost all of them were created with divergent thinking — user interfaces for computers, touch screen phones, search engines, digital newspapers, expensive coffee, social networks, shoes you can't even try on before you buy them.


There are hundreds of them. And we celebrate most of them. We celebrate them because they are the most unlikely success stories, even if we still apply the same rote rules to dismiss others who have something equally unique all over again.

The model of success is programmed to fail.

Sometimes we can't help it. Most of us have been programmed to approach life much like our education was laid out for us — reactive regurgitation, which is best described as a singular unified reaction to something on sight.

For example, much like the video suggests, baby boomers were educated to believe that a college degree ensured employment. Most of us know it helps, especially with organizations that require them in order to minimize the number of applicants. But degrees are not guarantees. Nothing is guaranteed, even if the political climate sometimes suggests citizens might expect this or that. Besides, given the right circumstances, anyone can pursue a degree. Equally true, anyone can come up with an original idea.

But we don't want to believe that, do we? From the way most people buy and sell stocks (with the rise and fall of the market) and the expectations placed on instructors at a university (kids want bullet lists to memorize) to the way politics is boiled down into two equally unpalatable choices (vote on this or that) and even people's own sense of self-worth as it is attached to various labels (smart or dumb and big company or little company and startup or blue chip) — all of it can be destructed into rote theories that imprison people to constructs from the 1800s.

And for whatever reason, we want to believe them even if history continually proves that the opposite is true. We were programmed, and most of us want to pass this programming on to our kids.

A model for success might is just as likely to be no model.

What I like best from the presentation of Sir Ken Robinson, world-renowned education and creativity expert and recipient of the RSA's Benjamin Franklin Award, is that he suggests we reverse the assembly line mentality of the current system and begin to pay attention to nurturing individual potentials. Maybe, he suggests, instead of teaching kids to see one possible answer, we teach them to see many possible answers — the same kind of thinking that has driven us forward as civilizations.

Ergo, Einstein could have never conceived the theory of relativity by simply following the groundwork laid down before him. Van Gogh would have never become a celebrated artist had he only colored inside the lines. Apple would have never turned a corner if it had believed that the touch screen was an unobtainable dream.

But even more importantly for children, such divergent thinking is vital for future success. Why? Because such thinking provides an opportunity to excel in not only the thing you have learned or done, but anything we happen to approach. It removes the answer "I can't" from our vocabulary.

Where I might add on to Robinson's thinking is that it is not just our education system that abandons divergent thinking. Entertainment choices do much the same. Gamers are rewarded for mastering rote memorization, with success related to perfecting what worked last time. Cable programming might appear to be more diverse with 1,000 channels, but children are equally likely to settle on fewer shows than their predecessors because they can record every episode and watch them all over again and again. The sameness is almost startling; and they are rewarded for it.

If we want to break away from our current trajectory, both teachers and parents might start rethinking education. Rather than pushing children down the path of sameness, we might be better off pulling them up the path they've already chosen (and away from entertainment designed to hypnotize them). But then again, that in itself is probably too divergent for most people. Maybe.

Monday, August 8

Recharging: How Self-Engagement Helps

Don't WorryWorry Is Like Interest Paid In Advance On A Debt That Never Comes Due. — The Spanish Prisoner

While also attributed to Will Rogers, the quote was reintroduced in the 1997 suspense film The Spanish Prisoner. We might even go one step further by saying it is interest paid on money you never borrowed. And even so, it's also an increasingly common prognosis for Americans.

The only thing bigger than the American debt is the amount of worry that has been levied on its people by politicians, news media, propaganda shills, and everyone else who wants to attract attention. Fear marketing has become the singular biggest influencer of all time.

Looking at the most popular stories parlayed into major news headlines — child abductions, governmental collapse, pandemics, debt default, stock shocks, climate change, health care crisis, economic ruin — it's a wonder more people aren't depressed. By comparison, the children of the 1950s and 1960s felt safer clamoring under desks in preparation for a nuclear war.

That's not to say all these other issues aren't important. Remaining vigilant against such threats can be prudent. But being paralyzed by them is not. Most of the worries people embrace are issues they can do nothing about on the grand scale.

Sure, they can take steps on a small scale: safeguarding children, living within their means, encouraging companies to be green in practice and not public relations, and so on. But beyond what can be done on the small scale, none of these issues are worth the worry. Most are well beyond our control, with the zombie apocalypse outstripping Y2K in eventual likeness.

One small study that reaches further than its intent.

Last week David H. Rosmarin of the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital released a study that suggested people who trust in a benevolent God tend to worry less and are more tolerant than those who mistrust an indifferent or punishing God.

At a glance the sampling sizes seemed rather small, but there is something to take away from it regardless. While Rosmarin suggests several applications for his findings, it might be worthwhile to consider something else too. Those people who are more tolerant and less prone to worry are also more comfortable letting the world run and then adapting the best they can.

Whether you accomplish that by placing faith in God or a god or simply recognizing that as individuals we are pretty small specks on a planet hurling itself around a sun that is hurling itself around a galaxy that is hurling itself around a universe, it works out the same. Don't take on worries that you have no control over. Stick to what you can do. Take action, not worrisome non-action.

"What would you do if you weren't afraid?"

For all the emphasis by the media and other interested parties peddling fear, take some time to turn it off and do something you can do. Or, to illustrate with an old proverb Chinese farmers used to say — forget about the emperor and get down to milking cows. You might be surprised to discover how much cooking a challenging dinner, painting miniature figures, working out, or choosing some other engaging activity can do for your head.

For even that brief period of time, as long as you can focus on whatever task you've picked up without distractions from social networks or the outside world, chances are that all those worries — most of which you can only do a little about — will slip away. And, even better, there is no risk of a hangover (although I understand some people pour on to supplant this intent too).

It's especially critical for creative types to unplug or become otherwise self-engaged for a few hours a day. If you allow too many voices and worries and calls for alarm in your head, you won't hear those sparks of inspiration. So let those who took on the debt worry about how to pay it back for awhile. It's their job for as long as we let them keep it.

The comments are yours. If you have any tips and tricks you use to tune out and then tune back into things closer to home, I'd love to know. They might make a worthwhile post all on their own.

Tuesday, September 28

Faking Fans: The Flawed Netflix Apology


In 2007, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) learned that staging fake news conferences, complete with fake reports, was a bad idea. While the tactic defied common sense, spin remains alive and well in some public relations circles.

Netflix Inc. hired actors to pose as fans in Toronto, including stereotypical roles such as "mothers, film buffs, tech geeks, couch potatoes." The gimmick, according to Netflix, was to use the actors to gin up enthusiasm and attract a crowd.

Misleading the public was bad enough, but the Netflix actors began to offer up even more excitement by accepting media interviews. The gimmick was undone after reporters noticed the actors even had instruction sheets on how to act and how to give a good interview.

"We are embarrassed," spokesperson Steve Swasey said. "We regret that this put a blemish on what should have been a perfect day for Netflix."

While Netflix claims embarrassment, it continued to place spin on the situation. Swasey said they are not sure who decided the actors should give media interviews under false pretenses. However, the deception is in the details. It didn't accidently happen if the actors had media interview scripts to work from.

In fact, as Swasey says it was never the company's attempt to mislead the public or the media, the Globe and Mail published the instructions given to actors. It says very clearly that "EXTRAS are to look really excited, particularly if asked by MEDIA to do any interviews about the prospect of Netflix in Canada."

All of which begs the question whether Netflix is embarrassed because of the actors or simply embarrassed that they were caught. The latter seems obvious, especially for a company in the U.S. where the FTC recently accepted a settlement from Reverb Communications for boasting about fake app reviews.

Faking fans, reporters, and reviews is not public relations.

While the allure of being the star is always tempting for some, public relations professionals are always tasked to do more than represent their clients. The profession asks them to serve both organizational and public interest. This is doubly important, even in marketing, when you consider how much hinges on a company's ability to make a realistic promise.

In this case, Netflix had always accurately conveyed a brand promise and delivered on that promise. It seems to defy logic that the company should attempt to prove it delivers on promises by risking its reputation with a lie and then persisting to lie by attempting to downplay the bad decision.

The takeaway here is pretty obvious. Faking a splash is less effective than not making a splash. And, equally important, companies caught in the act might as well confess it up front before someone releases the script and undermines the sincerity of any apology. At least, I think so.

Tuesday, July 13

Considering Influence: Honest Conversations


Most people agree. There won't be anything worthwhile to come out of Fast Company's Influence Project. Except, perhaps, one thing.

‎"It is not the facts which guide conduct, but opinions about facts; which may be entirely wrong. We can only make them right by discussion." — Sir Norman Angell

It might have been the wrong execution, but the topic seems prime for discussion. What is influence anyway? I've written about influence plenty. Most people in social media have. And, I expect they will continue to do so.

Three Observations About Online Influence.

1. More Followers. More Influence. The general concept borrows from the old world of media measurement. Some people believe more followers equals more influence much like circulation implied more readers. It's the easiest illusion to maintain. There are even marketing and public relations companies that actively look for people who will "Like" anything or follow anyone who will follow them.

When that doesn't work, they'll buy them up in an attempt to create the illusion of popularity. Anyone looking closely can tell which accounts are which (dead accounts on autofollow, automated feed promoters, etc.), but the reality is, at a glance, most people don't know the difference. People have trained themselves to believe someone with 10,000 is better than 100.

2. More Clicks. More Influence. The second most popular prevailing thought leads right up to the Fast Company flop. More clicks, shares, retweets, etc. somehow provide a better measure of influence. Ironically, it's the second most easiest illusion to create and the cornerstone of most "influence" algorithms.

Again, some marketing firms and social media experts have taken to having a staff of 20 retweet client events, giving them an automatic boast in perception. Not surprisingly, you can buy clicks and retweets too, spreading it out among an infinite supply of unmanned accounts.

Reciprocity isn't much better. At its worst, it is a collection of people who retweet each other ad nauseum or do so because it gives them a sense of belonging to a "tribe" centered around someone else who has more reach.

3. Real Ideas. Real Influence. And then, of course, there is the least popular but most honest construct of the bunch. Ideas have more influence than people. It explains so much.

It explains Danny Brown's and my discussion after it seems I was unintentionally rough on him regarding his initial Fast Company buy in (seems he was misled, like most people). As I mentioned then, had I only read his or Amber Nusland's post, I wouldn't have given it a second thought. It was reading two posts with conflicting ideas that piqued my interest.

And so that is how it goes with influence. If one friend, even a trusted friend, suggests you read a specific book, you may or may not. But if 20 trusted friends tell you the same thing, you'll be much more inclined to read it. Unless, of course, it's a romance book and you don't read them. Why?

The ratio is pretty simple. Take any idea, plus the collective exposure and recommendations, and you might take action if you are already predisposed toward it. It's why Obama was elected president, but people are now dissatisfied. It's why people rallied behind Bush after 9-11 despite how many people didn't like him. It's why people turned out to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak in Washington D.C. or why JFK was such a revered figure in American history.

How Great Leaders Inspire Action.

One of my friends, Krystal Hosmer, shared a Simon Sinek video from TED after reading my Differentiate Or Die post. I think Sinek's video fits even better with this conversation. After all, what is "influence" if not "inspired action?"


What really struck me from Sinek's presentation is that it demonstrates that my unpopular position (ideas, not people, have influence) isn't exclusive to social media. It has always been that way. People tend to gravitate toward ideas. Sure, they can't gravitate to an idea unless it crosses their path.

But then again, that's the easy part of social media, assuming you have the patience to build a community without pretending to look popular or pretending to share personal interests or pimping other people's ideas in exchange for them pimping yours. Sure, all that stuff works a little bit today. But personally, I'd rather keep my subscribers smaller and streams more manageable and search for the truth in communication uninfluenced by opinions that might be wrong.

Is there a downside to this? Yes. It means there are many companies from Edelman down that cannot "influence" the game nearly as much as they think. It also means we aren't trust agents, but merely messengers of trust. At least, I like to think so. Need a little more on this subject? Read Ike Piggot's post on A Cupful of Wisdom.

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Friday, July 9

Marketing Pain: Should And Consequence


"Thinking about marketing causes me pressure, and the joy goes away." — Susan, Artist

The quote comes from an article I stumbled across in the Steveport Times. The cause is traceable. Too many marketing professionals (and other people too) overload their sales pitches and advice with "should or consequence."

Take the recent advice from an Internet marketing and management consultant. He provides people a choice: The Pain of Discipline or the Pain of Regret.

He says if you don't invest 10-20 percent of your annual revenue into marketing, you'll regret it when the paychecks aren't pouring in the door. Interestingly enough, this conversation comes from the same industry he is targeting with his advice.

The principle is based upon psychology. If you don't get an education, you'll regret it later. If you don't control your drinking, you'll regret being addicted. If you don't eat your meat, you'll regret not having any pudding.

Of course, the post missed one or two things in the writing. First, the nine steps to "immediate results in addiction marketing" aren't likely to cost 10-20 percent of an annual revenue. And second, if we are writing an analogy that likens marketing avoidance to addiction, we ought to consider that abrupt change carries with it a certain element of risk.

There is no should and consequence in marketing. Period.

There are dozens of questions businesses ought to ask before setting a marketing budget. Here are a few...

What business are you in? How location based is the business? What is the size of your potential audience (immediately and realistically)? What are you investing now and what can you afford? What does future growth really look like? What are your competitors doing? And what are your needs to keep the doors open?

If we use the addictive analogy, let's consider someone with a weight problem. I can tell someone with a weight problem that they "should" exercise. The consequences are a whole long list of health problems. Who knows? It might even resonate.

Based on averages, they'll be good for eight weeks before they crash and give up. The same thing can happen with "should and consequence" marketing.

Small businesses, many of them desperate in a tightening economy, ramp up their marketing budgets from 5 to 20 percent based on the advice of someone who's best interest is based on them doing so. The budget is then planned, executed, and spent, sometimes without any allotment for contingency. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. But that's not marketing, it's gambling.

When it doesn't work out, the small business is in a position worse than when they started. And, chances are, they have less revenue (which impacts the marketing budget) and a greater disdain for marketing. We see it here from time to time. Prospects who decided to spend an inflated budget based on the advice of a big firm, only to come back without anything left and a greater need for help. Sometimes we help them anyway. Sometimes we don't.

Generally speaking, marketing is much like exercise. Sure, it's always more fun helping companies that are already fit and running circles around the competition. However, most companies aren't like that. They tend to be somewhere between a little flabby to on life support. And so, they need a fitness program that considers their goals, needs, and current situation.

For marketing firms, specifically, try to refrain from "should or consequence" pitches, especially since there is an alternative. Outline what they "could" do, measure the progress, and then adjust as necessary. Not only will it earn their trust, chances are you'll earn an ever-increasing marketing budget too.

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Thursday, July 8

Pimping URLs: The Fast Company Influence Flop


Shirley Polykoff, the first woman copywriter for Foote Cone & Belding, increased hair color sales by 413 percent in six years and expanded the market from 7 percent to 50 percent of all women. No one really knew her name, but her headlines can still be attributed to a Clairol campaign that some people remember despite not even being born yet. That is influence.

Fast Company: The Influence Project measures idiocy.

It was first brought to my attention by Amber Nusland on Brass Tack Thinking. She's one of several hundred blogs I subscribe too, many of which are in my reader as part of the Fresh Content Project. She said Fast Company confused ego with influence. (Close.)

Then, scrolling down the Fresh Content reader list, Danny Brown plugged the project as potentially valid, complete with an embedded link to add influence though he added a "non" add influence link too. He said it might reveal whether community trumps popularity. (Upsidedown.)

Those two post "influenced" me, I suppose, to find out more. This is the kind of thing that some of my clients ask about and I write about, so I don't have much choice. I joined, I pushed the links, and then something caught my eye: How We Measure.

So how do they measure?

1. The number of people who directly click on your unique link. This is the primary measure of your influence pure and simple.

2. You will receive partial "credit" for subsequent clicks generated by those who register as the result of your URL. In other words, anyone who comes to the site through your link and registers for their own account will be spreading influence while they spread theirs. That way, you get some benefit from influencing people who are influential themselves. We will give a diminishing fractional credit (1/2, 1/4, 1/8 etc.) for clicks generated up to six degrees away from your original link.


Seriously? Fast Company convinced some folks to fluff up a URL pimping contest with the structure of a pyramid scheme? There is nothing worthwhile that can be gleaned from the project other than what we already know.

• Most people will never read the rules of this game.
• Many people will pimp their URLs to create the illusion of "influence."
• Some people will be disgusted, delete any links, and look for the opt out. There is none.
• Fast Company has less credibility today than it did before it rolled out its pimping contest.
• Emails from Fast Company land in my spam box. Oh, right, you probably didn't know that.

So no, Mark Borden, this is not a good weird. It's a bad weird. And with the exception of a November punchline for a joke that has already been told before, nothing remotely like research will come out of this "experiment" except perhaps a new social media superstar. And that poor soul may likely be embarrassed.

Real influence is a function of authority, credibility, and ideas. And real influence cannot be measured exclusively online.

“I'm sick of just liking people. I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect.” — J.D. Salinger

Of course, you can discount that and accept the new explanation. It isn't an influence project. It's an editorial investigation. Ironically, all the lead up to the explanation is supposedly tied to an experiment I ran months ago.

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Thursday, January 14

Sharing Content: How Releases Impact Perception


Earlier today, I came across a press release posted on PR Newswire that questioned the validity of widely believed scientific data. And if the accusations in the release were true, it might have made an interesting case study in crisis communication.

However, I decided to pass on the topic after discovering that the originating source was biased. Instead, I decided to track the "success" of the release. The results weren't surprising, but they may be disturbing.

After CNBC ran the release as an automated PR Newswire pickup, the "story" was rewritten and embellished by a few bloggers and a few other mainstream media outlets. In turn, more mainstream media outlets and bloggers (along with some social network discussion groups) picked up on and discussed variations of the topic as well.

With each new wave of interest, some of them dropped the initial source all together, either accepting varied degrees of pro-con bias as "fact" without the need for attribution or preferring to attribute the content to a more credible news source or wherever they first learned about the story (their most immediate source). And some, apparently unaware of anything more than their interest in the topic, wrote new stories with new sources, either supporting or detracting from the original premise.

Ten Findings From Following A Single Release

1. The greater the popularity of a topic, more than the merit of the content, drives increased exposure.
2. The further content travels away from the source, the less likely the source will be mentioned.
3. The further content travels away from the source, the less accurate or tied to the source it will be.
4. Regardless of how accurate or tied to the source the content might be, people believe the content.
5. In some cases, negative sentiment toward an outlet generates a negative impression of the topic.
6. Many bloggers and media outlets cover topics with no knowledge of why the topic might be popular.
7. Communication, in this case a press release, shapes opinion well beyond measurable means of monitoring.
8. Over time, there is no means of communication management as the public shapes its opinion.
9. Most people have no knowledge of the public sentiment en masse; they only see their immediate contacts.
10. Some media outlets are lending credibility to biased sources, without vetting a single fact or original source.

It might make you wonder about the "news" we read today. Or, it might make some of us wonder how we, as communication professionals or public relations practitioners, are directly or indirectly shaping the world. Maybe.

Friday, January 8

Conducting Research: When Matters As Much As What


In 2008, the big story for air travel was that strict airport security caused more than 41 million trips to be avoided because of airport and airline security delays. The estimated cost to the U.S. economy was $26 billion.

Today, all that has temporarily changed. According to Rasmussen Reports, 63 percent of those surveyed said increased airline security was not more of a hassle than it is worth. And another survey, released today by Destination Analysts, found that almost half of all travelers believe airport screening techniques are not sufficient.

The change in public sentiment stems from the Christmas Day incident involving Abdulmutallab, who ignited his pants leg and a wall of a plane while allegedly trying to detonate a mixture of explosives he smuggled aboard. A few days after, President Obama called for changes to "close gaps in the U.S. intelligence system."

The renewed focus on airport security has resulted in the hastening of more controversial full-body scanners despite shortcomings. (Plans to add more imaging devices were already in place, but not widely reported after a bill barred the use of body imagers as primary scanners.) Equally interesting is the speculation over the next wave of security devices, which are said to be akin to "mind reading" technology.

Reactionary Psychology, Polls, And Public Relations

The topic of airport security aside, the chain of events seems to demonstrate how wildly unpredictable crowd-sourcing can be.

Twenty-four months ago, the public had grown weary over increased airport security. Today, the majority seem to be in favor of technologies that were considered an abuse against civil liberties less than 24 weeks ago. And most analysts see the sudden interest spike in national security to be short term, forgotten in less than 24 days.

And yet, the polls gathered up as evidence to support a direction along with the decisions made during such a time will last much longer. How about your company's market research? Do you consider existing events and trends when reviewing research and making decisions? Or do you assume data captured six months ago is accurate without the greater context?

Thursday, January 7

Dissing Lists: Heavy Handed PR Pitchers


Cathy Brooks, former director of business development for Seesmic and current president of Other Than That Consulting, had the best intention. Rather than scrap dozens of pitches seeking to schedule meetings at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, she responded with a note pinpointing precisely what types of topics in which she has an interest.

You can read a copy of her response here. Not one of the pitchers who received her response refined their pitch. Most of them, according to Brooks, responded with notes that ranged from snarky to downright rude. And a few of them blamed the list.

Do pitch lists still work in public relations?

The timing of Brooks' post couldn't be better for me, with only a few weeks remaining before I take to the classroom. Having another bad pitch story is always helpful for practicing and future public relations professionals. It takes some effort before most of them appreciate what public relations could be as opposed to what some people try to make it.

Sure, there is a time and place for mass distributed releases. That is the reason PR Web, PR Newswire, Businesswire, Web site media centers, and a host of other distribution vehicles exist. Some lists are fine too, assuming the public relations professional limits the content to legitimate news and narrows the distribution to specific interests, noting that travel writers might not be interested in stock performance.

Anything else is a waste of time and money because one extra hit on an obscure blog is almost never worth the 3,000 plus journalists and bloggers you damage a potential relationship with or lose all together (if you are lucky).

Imagine ... some pitchmen and women were paid top dollar to create a negative impression for themselves and the companies they represent. Worse, the impression they created will survive long after CES. Other bloggers and journalists on the list with similar experiences might mention the pitchers in a conversation to colleagues, pass on the company's next pitch (even if it's targeted), or even become biased against the companies.

This year, like every year, someone in my class will likely tell me that pitch lists are part of the business — their clients demand pitch counts, column inch measurements, and the specific reason some publications decided to pass. I am sure some of them do, but considering most would fire an employee off the line for speaking rudely to a single customer, some honest consultation might be in order.

Truth be told, Brooks not only tipped pitchers as to what she was looking for, she saved them time and money. Considering public relations firm charge between $100 and $500 per hour, Brooks saved every company she rejected somewhere between $300 to $1,500 (assuming there were lunch offers and promotional samples in the mix) by not wasting their time at CES (so they could perhaps meet with someone else) and some untold amount if they apply what she taught them for free.

Lists, leads, qualified contacts, associations, and relationships.

1. Lists. Mass distribution like wire services aside, lists work best when they are vetted for specific interests. Journalists tend to ignore them, but the right well-written news story from the right company might be worth it. Bloggers tend to be less accepting of the practice, unless they consider it a big break for their blog. In terms of new business, it includes people within a specific industry.

2. Leads. Lead lists tend to do exactly that. Instead of a generic list including everyone in attendance, they are vetted by special interest. For example, if someone writes about or has an interest in smart phones, reaching out to them because you have a smart phone topic might be worthwhile.

3. Qualified Contacts. Even better than lead lists, qualified contacts are identified by specific interests within a special interest. Using the smart phone analogy, it means knowing who is most interested in the iPhone and Droid (and why). Basically, Brooks gave everyone who pitched her what it takes to make her a qualified contact.

4. Associations. These people, even if they are included on a list, are professionals who the public relations person has had past or regular contact with over a variety of subjects. They don't have to pitch them, per se, because they already know exactly what stories these journalists or bloggers have an interest in. It's likely a mutual arrangement.

5. Relationships. Surprisingly enough, some public relations firms claim to have them but don't really have them. These relationships border on friendship, which allows them to call or e-mail a handful of people just to brainstorm potential stories without fear of alienation. It's mutual too. The PR professional would never be put off by being told "no" or that the story idea borders on silly.

The question more business owners ought to ask is how much emphasis does their public relations firm place on each tier (based on performance not lip service). Ideally, the best models would look like a pyramid, with the weight stacked toward real relationships. In reality, most firms talk about themselves as having a diamond-shaped model, but they tend to operate like an inverted pyramid.

So how can a business person tell the difference? Instead of measuring column inches with "earned media" values, record each "hit" in the appropriate column: republished portions of "as is" news releases; rewritten news releases; inclusion in an original story; stories that required interviews; off-release topic stories. You might be surprised by what you find. They match the models almost exactly.

Wednesday, January 6

Beginning 2010: The Year Of Integration


One of the most common questions asked by communicators is who should own social media? And, there are all sorts of answers.

Advertising. CRM. Marketing. Public Relations. Social Media Experts. Human Resources. Yadda. Yadda.

Social Media Requires Thinking Different.

I've long held the view that nobody owns social media. Or, perhaps more accurately, everyone does. It requires integrated communication.

The reason is simple enough. Social media represents people and technologies that exist in an online environment. The actions and conversations that take place in this online environment are not limited to traditional communication silos (departmentalized communication functions such as advertising, marketing, etc.).

If it was limited to traditional silos, social media programs would be easy. We could assign social media to a single silo and call it a day.

That's all fine and good until you realize that your copywriter is fielding media inquiries or your public relations professional is producing a video or your employees are irritated because answering customer complaints interferes with playing Farmville on Facebook at home. Or any number of other problems people have asked us to fix over the last few years.

While the graphic above is only a sketch, it demonstrates how strategically driven thinking can help reshape a social media program away from the common view, allowing advertising to produce presentations (videos, advertisements, platform design, creative campaigns, etc.), public relations to manage outreach (groups, media relations, public sentiment, etc. ), and social media consultants to engage consumers (via networks, analytics, forums, blogs, etc.). And even if different elements are assigned to different skill sets, we can probably conclude that there will be some overlap.

The real problem seems to be that nobody can honestly answer "who should own social media?" before the organization has answered "how does social media fit into our communication strategy?"

For example, the question should never be "which department will manage Twitter" as much as it ought to be "does Twitter fit within our strategy, how does it fit and what do we want to accomplish, and who is best suited to accomplish it?" Ask that series of questions and you'll likely draw different conclusion.

Who knows? Maybe you'll find that you have several accounts, some operated by individuals, one staffed by customer service, and one developing relationships with analysts, journalists, and bloggers. Or maybe you'll find that you don't need a Twitter account at all.

Over the next few weeks, we'll share a few organizational models for social media. That doesn't mean any of those models will work for everyone. The reality is that most organizations have very different traditional communication models so it stands to reason any social media program would be handled differently anyway.

In the meantime, take a look at David Fleet's The 2010 Social Media Marketing Ecosystem. I'm not fond of technology-driven flowcharts supplanting communication models nor do I think corporate Web sites need to be placed front and center.

However, Fleet is one of the very few who is moving in the right direction as we've found his type of flowchart is among the easiest for decision makers to understand. It also helps shift the conversation away from ownership and toward strategic development.

Wednesday, December 30

Walling Up Content: Good, Bad, And Ugly


"We fundamentally believe that the readers should pay one price and get all or any of our content. If you don't pay, you don't get anything." — Neil Stiles, president of Variety Group.

And so it begins. Newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters have more or less collectively decided that the time for consumers to pay for news and entertainment is 2010.

The Good. When we covered the outcry for popular television shows like Veronica Mars and Jericho, fans of these shows overwhelmingly supported funding their favorite programs over leaving them to the fate of ratings or advertisers.

Would it have been possible? Maybe, except broadcasters are likely to want consumers to purchase all the duds along with a few gems and watch advertisements too. Unless the price point is right, consumers won't do it.

The Bad. That brings us to the bad. The average cable bill is about $85 per month, up 21 percent from two years ago, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Some people pay as much as $180 per month for the privilege of having access to more content than they can or want to consume.

With Fox and others asking for more fees, those rates will likely climb higher whether consumers watch those channels or not. As prices rise, more consumers may opt out entirely, increasing the burden on subscribers who remain while reducing the size of a marketable audience.

It seems likely that cable providers will eventually have to move to a pay-per-channel model rather than sacrifice their business. The same is happening with what used to be print. Consumers on tight budgets will narrow the number of content providers they are willing to pay for and that means plenty of content providers will disappear in 2010.

The Ugly. And that brings us to the ugly. Not all content providers produce content worth reading or watching and, given a choice, consumers will skip them all together.

Newsday, which was one of the first to move back to a paid subscription model, is steadily losing readers. At $5 per week, it's too much when other news sources are available.

When cable operators are eventually forced to move to a pay-per-channel model, imagine what would happen when a content provider like CNN loses more than 30 percent of its audience like it did this year. A reduction in subscribers will mean a reduction in revenue. A 30 percent cut in one year may not be survivable.

The Reality. I believe that content creators need to be compensated. They deserve to be.

However, the reality is that most of them were too slow to develop a working advertiser-supported online model five years ago only because they wanted the best of both worlds — two distinct revenue streams, online and offline. And now, because that did not work out, they want consumers (and advertisers) to pay for the mistake.

Meanwhile, there are an increasing number of free content providers — news, entertainment, analysis, advice, etc. — providing increasingly competitive content. And while they might not be multi-million dollar conglomerates, some will eventually give mainstream a run for their money, with a better value for advertisers as they reach more people with searchable content.

"Good programing is expensive. It can no longer be supported solely by advertising revenues." — Rupert Murdoch, News Corp.

Right on. Except nowadays, good programming is not enough. It has to be "better than" programming. Assuming consumers have a discretionary income of $100 per month for news and entertainment, that means they can afford approximately 10 to 20 channels/publishers at an average of $5 to $10 per piece in a tremendously competitive industry where local publishers/news outlets are competing with national publishers/news outlets as well as an abundance of free consumer-generated content, expert-generated content, and marketer-produced content. Hmmm ... good luck with that.

Tuesday, December 29

Having Conversations: Online/Offline Works Together


When John Moore, chief evangelist for The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), shared a slide from his presentation deck that places online conversations at 10 percent and offline conversations at 90 percent of all word of mouth conversations, some people mistook the statement as somehow diminishing online conversations. It doesn't.

Even Ed Keller has tempered his firm's research. The only reason word of mouth online is so small with 43 million brand impressions created through word of mouth conversation on blogs, in chat rooms, and on social networks is because the offline measure is so big, with more than three billion word of mouth conversations taking place offline.

However, even this temperance creates misunderstanding, especially when coupled with the Harris Poll (June 2009) cited by Keller. It's problematic because conversations that occur in social media do not happen in a vacuum.

Online And Offline Conversations Are Interdependent

Misinterpreting data has become all too commonplace in regard to social media. And the most common misunderstandings always seem to hinge on someone isolating data in support of or in order to distract from social media. It makes no sense, but it happens nonetheless.

What marketers need to know is that online conversations spill into offline word of mouth conversations and offline conversations have a tendency to become word of mouth conversations online. In some cases, online conversations provide marketers with a reflection of what is being said about their brand offline, e.g., if nobody mentions your product or service online, chances are nobody is talking about your product or service offline.

For some companies, that might be fine, I suppose. There are plenty of businesses that succeed on a small stable of customers or can confine their marketing to a specific proximity around a brick and mortar shop. (My company did for years and years.)

But for most companies, word of mouth means something. And while the reflective nature of social media is sometimes distorted, making something appear more important online than it is offline (or less important for that matter), it's interdependent nonetheless.

Even social media consultants know this to be true. There are several paths to boost awareness online and offline, and not all of them are exclusively online.

• Attending conferences attracts blog readers and social network connections.
• Being involved in associations and organizations attracts blog readers and social network connections.
• Speaking engagements attract blog readers and social network connections.
• Appearing on news programs, being interviewed by the media, and writing guest columns increases awareness.
• Publishing a book, even those that are nothing more than big business cards, drive online readership.
• And so on and so forth.

Conversely, the opposite is true too. A well-read blog or reasonably well-connected social network can elevate the awareness of someone (or a company) so they are more likely to be invited to speak, be quoted, etc.

I've talked with enough very visible social media consultants to know. While many of them credit social media as driving their success, social media represents a surprisingly low percentage of their daily activities (maybe even as low as 10 percent).

Ironically, this conversation isn't new. It has been going on for years and years with different players — direct mail vs. television, public relations vs. advertising, and so on and so forth. None of it is really accurate. Marketing and public relations work best when integrated, reaching people across multiple communication channels online, offline, et al.

Thursday, December 17

Influencing Nothing: Social Media Influencers


There is seldom a week that goes by without at least one early social media adopter advising companies to target "influencers."

And every time I read such advice, I cannot help thinking that for the best intentions, some of them are missing the point. In attempting to transplant the media influence concept onto social media, they drift further and further away from the truth.

Individuals as "influencers?" Not really. It seems much more likely that real influence is a function of authority, credibility, and ideas than anyone who happens to enjoy some temporary position of popularity based on comment counts, follower counts, or any other algorithmic measure.

Authority. Whether they are "popular" or not, people in authority have influence. The owner of a social network, for example, can order the change of any number features, leaving members to weigh any changes against the value of their connections on the network. Sure, some people might gripe, but their "influence" is confined to the length of membership.

Or, if you prefer an offline example, the President's approval rating has dipped below 50 percent but he still has significant influence in this country and a somewhat diminished influence in the world. His predecessors have much less influence after leaving office, naturally. The same can be said for authors, who tend to be as good as their last book once the buzz dies.

Credibility. The primary reason the media became influential is because they remained objective and largely unbiased, which is a fundamental criteria in being credible. Journalists pursued the truth, with their influence only waning in the last decade in favor of affirmation-slanted journalism, advertiser pandering, and tabloid sensationalism.

With social media, credibility might be established with authority, but credibility will dictate whether or not they will retain any influence once they leave a group. Pander too much to "friends" or tactical "followers" or attempt to profit off those relationships and the crowd that followed certain people at the last expo will be gathered around someone else. (We've all seen it.)

Ideas. Establishing credibility is long-term investment in new ideas or the ability to draw new perspectives on old ideas. While there is always healthy discussion on whether or not content is king, it certainly is a commodity that separates real influence from perceived popularity or a temporary association. Ideas build credibility.

For example, some people are followed because they are popular or were recommended by someone else. Other people are followed by smaller crowds because they consistently add value. But on any given day, someone with great ideas related to a specific subject will surge ahead for a variable amount of time.

Where does this leave the influence brokers?

Considering that none of the above is trackable beyond maintaining real time insight, it leaves them on a path to nowhere. In some cases, in terms of social media, several influential adopters have already fallen by the wayside as their authority drifted away with the loss of a position, their credibility was crushed by making some questionable choices, or their ideas didn't measure up beyond a flash in the pan.

The real takeaway here is that individuals aren't influencers at all, but rather the actions that some individuals take have influence within very specific spheres that do not necessarily cross over into other spheres. And not surprisingly, the most credible communicators know it.

David Armano frequently reminds people that a surge in popularity doesn't always mean quality. Jay Ehret has enough insight to know people and companies ought not bend to consumers and keywords for want of traffic. Geoff Livingston took time out from his travels to include a line about people who are "legends in their mind." Shel Hotlz recently cautioned companies that catering to consumers can fragment a brand much like a "Yes Man" eventually destroys his own credibility. And Valeria Maltoni purposely made it a point to avoid sensationalized topics that help boost popularity. The list goes on.

The other list, those who preach influence as the key to the equation, goes on too. I thought of including links to them as well, but don't want anyone to mistake one bad idea as indicative of them being bad people. They're not. They are instead stuck much closer to the middle of their social media thought process.

Suffice to say that the best of them know they don't influence me or anyone else, but sometimes they have an idea that might influence me and everyone else. And the most mistaken think they and others have influence over people indefinitely and across almost any subject.

Tuesday, November 10

Advertising Sales: Razorfish Jumps A Conclusion


"What we're finding is that with Facebook and Twitter, marketers are assuming some deeper dialogue, but what's really going on is -- people want deals." — Garrick Schmitt, group vice president of experience planning for Razorfish

Really? We don't think so. Not exactly.

Schmitt is basing his conclusion on a study he edited, where 44 percent of consumers surveyed said that they follow brands online for deals as the main reason. This, of course, is partly true.

But where Schmitt might be making a mistake is in not understanding that there is a significant difference between the immediacy of a discount campaign and the sustainability of an engagement campaign. More likely, the relationship between the two is symbiotic. They work together.

Real World Experience Shows Engagement And Sales Are Symbiotic

• Case Study Snippet: Car Dealerships. In working with two car dealerships offering vehicle maintenance, one with a frequent direct sales approach and another with limited discounts but high engagement, we found that former dealership diminished returns on sales over the course of six months. Why? Consumers learned to wait for discount offers before making purchases, and demanded deeper discounts over the long term when the original discounts didn't seem so special anymore. The latter dealership increased sales over time as consumers identified them with quality first.

• Case Study Snippet: Resort Openings. In working with two casino resorts, one with frequent cash rewards and another with a bundled opening package, we found the former delivered a high return on the front end (first 30 days of opening) but then the campaign eroded as consumers demanded higher and higher cash incentives. The latter resort never offered a direct sale or cash incentive, but relied on heavy branding and anticipation that led to a 100 percent occupancy rate for the first 18months of operation.

• Case Study Snippet: Educational Value. In working to open a private elementary school in Las Vegas, the initial reaction was that the school would not do well because its tuition structure was three times higher than the next leading competitor. Not only did the campaign meet enrollment projections, but it also exceeded them by 21 percent. While we're certain every parent would have appreciated a discount on the $14,000 annual tuition rate, they didn't need one knowing that price point provided their child the best education in the area.

• Advertising Rule 6: People Lie. The real rub with looking at a study like the one presented by Razorfish is that people lie. In virtually every study we've seen, people indicate discounts, coupons, and cash back offers will entice them to buy a product or service. However, the reason people choose this answer is because everyone wants a discount from something they might buy. Yet, this is the very reason that Apple doesn't have to enter a price point war to drive sales.

The better conclusion from the Razorfish study would have been that engagement and discounts are often symbiotic.

In other words, once consumers are engaged and trust is established, they tend to respond favorably to purposeful discounts, assuming sales are not the only message used to produce an outcome or keep them engaged. So while Schmitt is right in that outcomes — not impressions — are the real goal of companies engaged in social media, he is wrong to think that discounts or sales are a primary communication solution.

The balance of the Razorfish study is useful intelligence. But again, we would caution anyone against applying the interpretation of that data, especially if it leads to the overindulgence of discounts and sales. After all, the other word for such marketing tactics tends to be familiar. It's called SPAM. Please don't do that.

Wednesday, August 19

Confusing Companies: Social Media


Perhaps it's because social media "feels" so old that it's easy to forget it is in a state of infancy. It's new enough that even the people who are still attempting to shape it accidently drive it in two different directions at the same time.

The conversations creep into play often enough, and sometimes lead to some healthy debates and disagreements. They are almost always the result of someone asking the wrong question.

Five Favorite Social Media Contradictions

1. Who Should Own Social Media: PR or Advertising?

This was one of my favorite debates. It's still fresh and a few social media proponents are trying to flush it out. What makes it amusing is that the question is loaded. It dares communicators to pick one or the other. And yet, I keep asking myself how anyone can make a case for ownership while telling companies to give up control.

Nobody can own it. It requires thinking beyond silos.

2. Should employees promote the company online?

While the concept is well intended, it creates a contradiction. Considering most employees join social networks for personal reasons, they don't want to promote their employers (unless they feel like it). I don't blame them. Not everyone signed on to work as a public relations specialist or, worse, a message broadcaster despite the fact that their individual online endeavors impact public relations (which is why Dominos fired two employees for a YouTube video).

This debate was settled before social media. Let employees speak for themselves; spokespeople for the company.

3. Dive In or Develop A Plan?

You may as well ask "What came first, the chicken or the egg?" On one hand, less experienced public relations firms are advising their clients to dive in and try it. On the other, those clients are damaging their brands by adopting some very bad habits that tend to push people away. In one extreme case, we've been tracking a public relations firm that is creating accounts for its clients, connecting them all together, and then having their clients push market to each other. (No, I'm not making this up.)

Individual participation does not equal a community development experience. Find a guide.

4. Be Yourself or Be Edited?

In all honesty, this discussion is nothing more than the repackaged "Should a CEO blog? question" In sum, the question is whether or not executives need editing and vetting before someone pushes "post." And, if that answer is "yes, they do," then how much is too much before someone might classify it as ghostwriting?

Like so much of social media, most answers without specifics can be summed up in two words: "It depends."

5. Outsource or In-house?

All too often, companies are placing inexperienced communicators in charge of their social media programs. Considering social media requires more engagement and leaves a longer lasting imprint on the consumers they touch, it might not be a very good idea. So the bottom line becomes more the same — there are too many variables to hazard a guess. Not every company will come up with the same conclusion. And most companies don't even know how to arrive at an answer.

Case in point: I know several companies that are attempting to go the in-house route. Some are doing an excellent job. Some are doing okay, but could use some out-of-house boosts. And some are damaging their reputations. The difference between the degrees is not always apparent, except for the analogy I'm leaving with clients after any social media presentation.

You can buy a violin almost anywhere. It doesn't mean people will want to hear you, even if you practice every day.

"I really did play the violin when I was 13," Antony Berkman, president of BlogCatalog, told me recently. "You're right. Nobody wanted to hear me."

Five Fun Posts About Social Media Experts

8 Questions to Ask Your "Social Media Expert" by Dave Fleet

What I Want a Social Media Expert to Know by Chris Brogan

10 Questions to Evaluate a Social Media 'Expert' by Ian Lurie

Is Your Social Media Really An Expert? by Peter Shankman

You're Not A Social Media Expert, You Idiot by Joel Mackey

Thursday, August 13

Misspeaking Costs Credibility: Health Care


With more than $263 million already spent on lobbying for health care, surpassing spending on all other issues this year without including what AARP reports as $1 million per day on advertising (with the health care bill outspending opponents 2-to-1), there are plenty of problems that might already be solved in the United States. Add to this the untold costs of the President and other proponents traveling across the United States to push the plan, and sometimes with disastrous results.

"AARP would not be endorsing a bill if it was undermining Medicare, okay?" — President Barack Obama

Except, AARP is not endorsing any bill. AARP is disgusted by all of it. And the misstatement of fact by the President, not once but several times, forced the silent observer to issue a correction to that statement.

"Indications that we have endorsed any of the major health care reform bills currently under consideration in Congress are inaccurate," Chief Operating Officer Tom Nelson said in a statement.

Polls also indicate that senior citizens largely disapprove of health care reform ideas so far. In fact, only 20 percent of seniors (and falling) believe any legislation currently proposed will improve their situation, and they represent the largest consumer of health care products in the United States with, in some cases, the most to lose. This is the worst news for the authors of the over-bloated legislation that touches areas that far exceed the intent of the sound bite almost all Americans agree on, especially the President who didn't misspeak once, but several times, in relation to health care.

"And that's one of the reasons that AARP is so supportive, because they see this as a way of potentially saving seniors a lot of money on prescription drugs. Okay? — President Barack Obama

No, not okay. Because AARP does not endorse any bill.

At the same time, that does not mean senior groups are thrilled with the overstatement of what part of one bill — "an explanation by the practitioner of the continuum of end-of-life services and supports available, including palliative care and hospice, and benefits for such services and supports that are available under this title.” — might mean. Again, sound bites are winning out over real solutions despite the fact that euthanasia and death panels are not specifically included in the bill.

But this blog isn't about health care. It's about communication. And the most recent example of miscommunication by the President, followed by the twisted remedy offered up by the White House press secretary.

"Well, the president said -- well, AARP has said they are certainly supportive and have been for years on comprehensive health reform. I don't think the president meant to imply anything untoward. I think he discussed the notion that AARP is supportive of -- or, I'm sorry, an agreement that would fund filling the doughnut hole for seniors as part of Medicare Part D, as well as additional savings for comprehensive health care reform." — Robert Gibbs

It's easy to see the spin in the sound bite as Gibbs reinforces the misstatement more than he offers up any clarification or correction such as either the President was unaware AARP isn't so supportive of a bill or he knowingly overreached. Gibbs then goes to add that "if you ask AARP this -- they have been supportive of comprehensive health care reform for a long time."

Not so right. The truth is most poll data reveals that 95 percent of Americans believe we need health care reform. What we don't agree on is how to do it. And what the majority of Americans are saying is that ANY existing bills being debated don't measure up. So while Gibbs can make that statement, it flies in the face of accuracy within the context.

Expect more of the same. As time wears on and these bills are bulldogged into some sort of misrepresentative statement such as "you're either for reform (and supporting this bill) or you are against it," we will see rhetoric become even thicker. Already, after the President, um, misspoke several times, the White House has decided to launch an e-mail campaign, supposedly to combat the increasingly "fishy" e-mails being pushed by people they describe as an angry mob.

Unfortunately, it seems, the so-called "angry mob" is also an overstatement in that it seems to consist of seniors, which leads many to believe that the political communication in this country is continuing its regression to a time when the rule of thumb: the message "must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” Even, and/or especially, if it is not true.

The net result is not always the same as it used to be, however. Misspeak too many times, out of ignorance or intention, and erosion will set in sooner or later. And that seems to be the case with health care propaganda, er, public relations.

Tuesday, August 11

Being Generic: RadioShack Becomes The Shack


When most people talk about "The Shack," they are probably talking about the controversial book by Paul Young, except in Santa Monica.

In Santa Monica, "The Shack" probably means a place to party with wings, burgers, and other things, except basketball.

If you mention "The Shaq" within a context even close to sports, social networks, or down-to-earth celebrity, there can be only one.

And yet, for the strange oddball "rebranding" reason, RadioShack, an international chain of electronics retail stores, hopes to break into millions of brains and reshuffle their indexing system. When we hear "The Shack," they want us to think about them.

Ironically, the abrupt identity change last week has done more to reinforce the electronics chain as an out-of-touch brand.

Although the company's push claims to be a "legacy" brand trying to put a cool, hip spin on itself, "The Shack" is about as hip and cool as being called "Siffy" or forgetting that the orange juice you make is not from concentrate. Worse, the communication plan calls for the company to retain "RadioShack" signage on retail stores in an effort to "hold onto its brand heritage and attract more tech-savvy shoppers."

Brand heritage? They must be kidding.

Not only are the dual objectives in conflict, but one can easily argue that RadioShack's brand image is what earned it an "F" from the Better Business Bureau (BBB) last April. Since, it has made amends with the BBB to receive the much better grade of "C-."

If they really wanted to capture any semblance of brand heritage, they would have to go all the way back to the days when Isaac Assimov endorsed them or well before the near-bankruptcy that convinced the Tandy Corporation to buy them in 1962. Back then, "Realistic" meant exactly what it meant. It meant "generic," which is exactly why all the other brand names — Presidian, Accurian, Optimus, Enercell — that RadioShack has invented have never become household names when compared to any number of greats like Kenwood, Pioneer, JBL, Bose, and a host of others.

A campaign launch on Times Square has about enough chance to change that as passing out T-shirts to employees and calling it an internal rebranding effort designed to change corporate culture. A much more appropriate T-shirt would have read: "My employer spent $200 million on rebranding and all I got was this lousy T-shirt." And on the back: "And a travel mug. Oh boy."

The truth about names and branding is branding better come first.

It's really very simple. Branding makes a name. Naming does not make a brand.

RadioShack's half-hearted rebranding campaign "Our friends call us The Shack," complete with an ugly thumb, is not likely to recapture the $1 billion in lost revenue over the last four years. If anything, it's likely to accelerate the problem created by inflated pricing, lackluster customer service, and "it's stupid" being the most common consumer reaction to the new campaign. If RadioShack wants to save itself before it goes belly up like Circuit City, the most obvious first step is to retool the entire company starting with the people who thought "The Shack" was a good idea.

It seems clear enough that not everyone liked it. If they did, "The Shack" wouldn't be a campaign nickname. It would be the new name. But even if they did commit, it would still have a long way to go before advertising could reverse the mess they made of a once viable company. Nowadays, the only distinguishing feature for this defunct company seems to be that it is a defunct company.

After all, while Best Buy isn't everyone's favorite big box electronics retailer, it does have an image that beat The Shack on price and people some years ago. Meanwhile, Fry's Electronics seems to have the stronger position on staffing knowledgeable people and offering a diversified product. While those two are among the best known, there are more than two dozen other retailers looking to make the The Shack nothing more than a stepping stone for their success.

Want more about The Shack attack? It's not pretty.

"Radio Shack rebranding to 'The Shack'?" by Joshua Topolsky for engadget.

""Yeah, RadioShack is turning into the Shack" by John Biggs for CrunchGear.

"Bringing Down The Shack" by Blake Howard for Matchblog.

"RadioShack, er, the Shack makes its case for relevancy" by Dan Neil for The Los Angeles Times.

"Radio Shack rebranding: Why? Why!?" by John Biggs for CrunchGear.

Thursday, August 6

Smelling Fish: The White House


As an award-winning former campaign and political reporter with experience covering the Enron scandal in 2002 turned senior campaign advisor for the Obama campaign, Linda Douglas told Media Bistro that "my intention is that I won't spin … I absolutely vow that I will tell the truth.”

Unfortunately, it seems something happened on her way to the White House.

As communications director for the administration’s Health Reform Office, Douglas seems to be employing the White House's handicapped communication channel as a means for little more than pushing back against citizen dissent. In fact, her communication team suggests taking it one step further, asking everyday citizens to tattle on their friends, family, and neighbors to the government.

"There is a lot of disinformation about health insurance reform out there, spanning from control of personal finances to end of life care. These rumors often travel just below the surface via chain emails or through casual conversation. Since we can’t keep track of all of them here at the White House, we’re asking for your help. If you get an email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to flag@whitehouse.gov" — The White House

While the post was penned by Macon Phillips, the White House director of new media who oversees Whitehouse.gov, which nowadays is closely coordinated with Internet operations at the Democratic National Committee instead of the American people, Douglas' late response to Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn's appropriately scathing letter clearly places credit where credit is due.

"There is a lot of misinformation about health insurance reform circulating on the internet and elsewhere. Some of it is intentionally misleading,” Douglas responded in an e-mail. “We want to be sure people have the facts about health insurance reform that will lower costs, protect consumers from insurance regulations that deny them coverage and assure quality and affordable health care for all Americans. We are not compiling lists or sources of information. We may post fact checks from time to time to be sure Americans know the truth about health insurance reform.”

By fact checks, Douglas seems to be referring to sound bites like those she used in her video appearance, placing what President Obama has said over what may or may not be included in any legislation. Specifically, she cites speeches where Obama has said that "if you like your insurance plan, your doctor, or both, you will be able to keep them."

However, that bit of misinformation has already been vetted as inaccurate by media outlets like Investor's Business Daily because "Those who currently have private individual coverage won't be able to change it. Nor will those who leave a company to work for themselves be free to buy individual plans from private carriers." Given how often employees change jobs, the likelihood you won't automatically be enrolled at some point seems painfully obvious. And, worse, once you are in the grips of it, leaving seems likely to be reminiscent of the lyrics to "Hotel California."

But all that aside, the real communication debacle that Douglas will forever regret is allowing any mention of asking citizens to collect and report "fishy" communication, which takes us all the way back to McCarthy-era politics except without the benefit of Edward R. Murrow. Someone needs to share with Douglas the lessons learned from the past, taught by journalists who didn't trade their hats for political hocus pocus.

We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. [...] We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. — Edward R. Murrow, See It Now

Murrow might have been talking about a time when external threats struck fear into the hearts of the people, but they apply equally well when peddling fear seems to be quickly becoming a pastime for White House politics, a place that ought to represent its owners (the American people) over political agendas.

That's right. Elected officials merely borrow the space. They do not own it outright.

And if that idea sounds fishy to you, feel free to submit this post to be scrutinized and "fact checked" by government staffers who are paid with your tax money to support the plan you may not even want. Maybe they'll learn something, even if it is something as simple as how one heavy-handed post in social media tends to erode credibility at a faster pace.

Americans have a right to express themselves publicly and ought to retain the right to express themselves privately, without fear that mere opinions may be reported to the government. Truly, if Douglas didn't want to know the sources, she ought to have suggested people ask questions about sections they might be confused about rather than submitting "sources" so they could be corrected.

What's the difference? The difference is communication intent. One request may seek to clarify (even if that clarification is spun up by professionals) while the other smacks of collusion.

What's the cost to White House credibility? When I mentioned the White House post during a presentation in a room full of people with mixed political leanings, they all raised their hands with the hope that the government might add their names too.
 

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