Showing posts with label perception. Show all posts
Showing posts with label perception. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 19

Word Of Mouth Doesn't Distinguish Between Online And Off

The decade-long era of marketers attempting to distinguish between online and offline word of mouth is over. As consumers have adopted small screen mobile technology and social networking tools, few people make the distinction. Most don't even remember when or where the conversation occurred.

All they remember is that the recommendation came from a friend or family member. The details of its delivery (text or network, phone call or in person) is largely lost to them. All they remember is someone close to them (not an "influencer" based on popularity but an "influencer" based on proximity) had something to say about a particular product, service or solution.

Word of mouth directly accounts for about $6 trillion in consumer spending, online and off.

And it is these conversations, which are personal and person to person, that account for as much as 13 percent of all consumer sales and as much as 20 percent among higher price-point categories. And the division between online and offline conversations just isn't there. It's no longer relevant.

This finding and others were recently published in a study organized by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) in partnership with AT&T, Discovery Communications, Intuit, PepsiCo, and Weight Watchers. The study is based on the econometric modeling of sales and marketing data provided by participating brands (on a confidential basis) and conducted by Analytic Partners.

The results of the study may change the way some marketers think about paid and earned exposure, with about one-third of sales attributable to word-of-mouth conversations acting as an "amplifier" to paid media such as television. In sum, consumers spread advertised messages one-third of the time.

The rest of the impact is independent of advertising and tied to other influencers such as product or customer service experiences, public relations, owned and earned digital content, referral marketing, and related activities. These influencers work in tandem to shape overarching brand perceptions.

Other key findings from the study underpin the power of word-of-mouth marketing.

• Word-of-mouth impressions drive at least 5 times more sales than a paid advertising impression.

• Word-of-mouth impressions for higher price-point items are as much as 100 times more impactful.

• Word of mouth impacts tend to influence consumers closer to the time of purchase over media.

• Word of mouth amplifies the effect of paid media by as much as 15 percent.

"Intuitively, we know that a consumer recommendation is going to be a powerful contributor to brand sales, but this is the first time a rigorous study has quantified that impact across a range of product and service categories," said Suzanne Fanning, president of WOMMA. "We hope this research will lead marketers to elevate the role of word of mouth, both online and offline, in their marketing plans."

This study also reinforces the idea that marketers who are more inclined to communicate a clear contrast between their products and services will be more likely to have a message that consumers are not only able to remember, but can also readily share with friends and family members. And considering that the average consumer can only recall one to three messages about any paticular product or service (not all of which are written by marketers), it had better be something clear and compelling.

Wednesday, November 5

Yes Virgina, There Are Impassioned Objectivists

Anytime I mention "objective journalism," someone contests the concept. They consider it an idealistic pipe dream. They claim that all journalists are biased. And they say it lacks the passion of advocacy journalism. But more than all that, they say objective journalism is dead. Get over it.

Sure, there is some truth to the statement that objective journalism is dead, but we mustn't mistake its current condition as evidence that the idea is boorish, flawed, or impossible. As defined, objective is an individual or individual judgment that is not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts. And it's a quality that communicators ought not run from.

Objectivity comes with honesty and maturity. Grow up already.

The real problem it seems is that objective journalism allowed itself to be saddled with ideas that have nothing to do with objectivity — traits like fairness, indifference, and perfectness. Specifically, people expect that journalists (especially those who strive to be objective) must listen to both sides, transcend human frailty in hearing them, and then deadpan the facts for the public. But that's not it.

A working definition of objective journalism is more akin to how Iowa State journalism professor Michael Bugeja defined it: “Objectivity is seeing the world as it is, not how you wish it were.” The idea is that the communicator is willing to commit to the pursuit of truth, not what they hope is true.

People strive to be objective every day. A manager might like one employee better than another but promote the one with stronger skill sets. A coach might play the more talented player over their own child for the good of the team. A scientist might prove his theory wrong after reviewing empirical evidence. A judge might make a ruling that is right but weighs heavily on his or her heart.

So why would journalists somehow be incapable of striving to be objective (unless they don't want to be) where others have demonstrated the ability to succeed? It seems to me that all it would take is someone becoming impassioned to find the truth rather than promoting their own agenda or whatever agenda they have subscribed to believe. And it's in this passion for truth, rather than propping up fragile brands or frail ideologies, that deserves our respected admiration.

Forget balanced. A journalist might glean insight from different perspectives but truth doesn't take sides. Forget deadpan deliveries. Objectivity doesn't require anyone to feign disinterest in the face of outrage. Forget unconscious bias. The goal was never to transcend being human but merely to develop a consistent method of testing information, considering the evidence, and being self-aware of any personal and cultural bias. And all of these ideas were born out of a need for objectivity.

As as much as I have a fondness for Hunter S. Thompson, who had plenty to say about the objective journalism of his day, the lack of it enslaves us as the only "truth" that prevails is the one uttered with more frequency, more volume, and a more passionate will. And eventually, when the truth is no longer valued in favor of that "truth," it seems to me that we will finally find affirmation media to be an insult to our intellect and own sense of evidence.

Objective communication isn't limited to journalism. Stop saying yes. 

The Pew Research Journalism Project identified nine core principles of journalism, but I've always been partial to the idea that objectivity adheres to empirical standards, coherence standards, and rational debate. Empirical standards consider the evidence. Coherence standards consider how it fits within the greater context. Rational debate includes a diversity of views, but only gives merit to those views capable of meeting empirical and coherence standards.

In much the same way objective journalists strive to look out for the public interest, professional communications — marketers and public relations practitioners — better serve organizations (and the public) by applying objectivity to their situational analysis and measurements of outcomes. The stronger communicator is always the one who is objective as opposed to those who only aim to validate their actions or affirm a client/executive/decision maker's perceptions by saying yes.

Can we ever be certain? The answer is mostly no. While we can tear apart a baby's rattle and see what makes noise inside, we cannot see into the hearts of men and women to guess at their intent before there is any evidence of action. The best we can hope for is that those who have no intention of being objective wear the proclamation on their sleeves while others are given the benefit of the doubt until they prove otherwise. Let the truth lead for a while and see what happens.

Wednesday, October 22

What If The Only Hurdle Is What You Think?

A few nights ago at her practice, my daughter (age 8) and her softball team (8U, ages 8 and under) were challenged to a base-running relay race by their sister team (10U, ages 10 and under) in an older division. They readily accepted despite the odds.

Two years makes a big difference. Most of the girls on the 10U team had a 12- to 18-inch height advantage and the stride to go along with it. Even with a few 'accidental obstructions' by coaches to even out mismatched segments of the rely, it was pretty clear which girls would come out on top as victors.

Or maybe not. The race was relatively close in the end, with the team effort being only part of the story. While several 8U girls held their own, one of them gained ground during her segment without any coaching assistance or any easing off by the older girls. She was determined to win her heat.

And then she won it. The size difference didn't matter. The age difference didn't matter. The difference in life circumstances — having been born three months early and enduring juvenile rheumatoid arthritis for going on 6 years — didn't matter either. She won her heat from the inside out.

About 10,000 people a month Google the phrase "am I ugly."

Meaghan Ramsey of the Dove Self-Esteem Project wasn't the first to bring this disturbing trend to light, but she has been one of several voices who has helped raised awareness about self-esteem. Specifically, Ramsey has found a correlation between low body/image confidence and lower grade point averages/at-risk behaviors (drugs, alcohol, sex) and these correlations are heightened through the baked-in pressure of social networks to earn friends, likes and opinions via frequent feedback.

Ramsey contends that our increasingly obsessed culture is training our kids to spend more time and mental effort on their appearance at the expense of other values that make up one's self-concept. It's a good point, especially when you consider the depth and damage of crowd-sourced confidence beyond physical appearances.

Just as low body confidence is undermining academic achievement among students, low social confidence is undermining people well into adulthood. It's increasingly problematic because our society is adding layers of subjective superficial qualifiers that are determined by crowd-sourced opinions and visible connections. Specifically, superficial counts like "followers, likes, retweets, and shares" that have nothing to do with our value as human beings are being used as a means to validate their perception of others as well as their own concept of self.

The key to more meaningful outcomes transcends image. 

The overemphasis of imagepopularity and crowdsourcing in social media has a long history of undermining good ideas, worthwhile efforts, and individual actions. And the reason it undermines our potential as human beings is related to how we inexplicably convince ourselves that we are not pretty enough or smart enough or popular enough to be valued or liked or loved.

If appearances and opinions held true, then my daughter would be the least likely girl on the 8U team to become the fastest runner. But fortunately, no one ever told her that superficial appearances or history should somehow hold her back. So when I think about her, I always want her to be able to apply this same limitless attitude to her potential aptitude whether it is academics, athletics, or attractiveness (to the one and only partner who will ever really matter).

Wouldn't you if it were your daughter, sister, girlfriend, wife, or mother? Wouldn't you if it were your son, brother, boyfriend, husband, or father? Then maybe it's time we all took the effort to let potential not perception prove our realities, online or off. Good night and good luck.

Wednesday, September 24

The Elephant In The Room Of Banned Books Is Gray

banned books
The most common commercialized celebration of Banned Books Week is to create a display of the top ten banned book titles or top ten banned book classics (for sale), thereby making this week sometimes feel more promotional than purposeful. And while this celebration can prove useful in raising awareness or discussing ignorance, it's easy to forget these top ten lists come from a pool of more than 300 titles targeted for much bigger, broader and diverse reasons than we like to think.

This is one of the reasons I appreciated the article penned by Donald Parker that addressed some of the myths and realities of censorship. He cut to the heart of a bigger matter, reminding readers that not all banned books are challenged by conservatives, nor are they confined to school libraries and classrooms, nor are they classified as young adult fiction in an increasingly less tolerant world.

The truth is that censorship is a national problem without any real geographical, demographical, or socio-polictial preferences. People who seek to ban books are young and old, rich and poor, left and right, and live from one coast to the other. When you take a closer look at them, it's exactly as Ray Bradbury once called it in Fahrenheit 451 — whereby "minorities, each ripping a page or paragraph from a book, until one say the books were empty and the minds were shut and the libraries closed."

Eight Articles That Cut Past The Top Ten Lists And Aim At The Elephant.

1. Too Graphic? 2014 Banned Books Week Celebrates Challenged Comics by Lynn Neary. Neary catches up with Jeff Smith, author and illustrator of the popular series Bone, who was shocked to find out his series was named one of the top ten most frequently challenged books in America. Censors typically cite violence, racism, and a political viewpoint.

2. Costco Denies Political Motive For Pulling D'Souza's Book by Jerome R. Corsi. Corsi recaps the recent attempt by Costco to pull a book critical about Barack Obama from its stores. The big box store claimed the decision was made because of poor sales despite showing up on the New York Times bestseller list. Costco is a supporter of Obama and the Priorities USA super PAC.

3. Riverside: "Fault In Our Stars" Banned From Middle Schools by Suzanne Hurt. Hurt covers the best intentions of parent Karen Krueger to remove the book or only make it available for checkout with parental consent in a middle school library because it includes references to two teens having sex. When several members of the school committee agreed that the teen love story was inappropriate for that age group, it pulled the book and would not allow other schools to purchase it.

4. Confronting My Temptation To Ban Books by Paul Brandeis Raushenbush. Raushenbush raises an interesting point in asking people to skip past the top ten mot banned books in America, which he says pose no discernible threat, and challenge any anti-ban convictions by stocking library shelves with "recruitment propaganda from ISIS, or books and essays that perpetuate systemic racism, or sexist literature that denigrates women..."

5. America's First Banned Book And The Battle For The Soul Of The Country by Jim Miller. Miller takes a fresh look at banned book week not by being current but by looking backward. His article touches on the sensitive content of the New English Canaan by Thomas Morton, published in 1637. The book itself was put in the midst of two colonies clashing over ideas — specifically between Puritans and those "other" untamed colonists.

6. School Accused Of 'Purging' Christian Books by Todd Starnes. Starnes runs down the true account of a public charter school in Temecula, California, that stripped its libraries of any book with a Christian theme or by a Christian author. This included The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, which is a survivor story about a Christian family that helped Jews escape the Holocaust.

7. How Does Banning A Book Work? by Cristen Conger. Conger takes deep dive into the process of banning a book, including the legal precedence that dates back to the furthest reaches of literary history, which includes the work of Socrates in 399 B.C. Today, despite the U.S. Supreme Court already ruling that a book or periodical must be "pervasively vulgar" to constitute adequate ground for banning, people continue to challenge books for one reason or another.

8. America's Most Surprising Banned Books by Theunis Bates and Lauren Hansen. Bates and Hansen put together a list last year unlike most of the lists you will see this week. They told the story of thirteen titles and why someone sought to ban them. One of the more dubious mentions includes Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See because someone mistook author Bill Martin Jr. for an obscure Marxist theorist who had the same name.

Why The Elephant Is Gray And Books Will Continued To Challenged. 

It's mostly easy for readers and authors and libraries and booksellers to point at the most commonly challenged books in America last year and laugh at the reasons. But when you look beyond the list and consider the bigger picture, you can pinpoint a portrait of what Americans are wrestling with today. Look even deeper and find bigger questions being asked every time books are challenged.

Should books with religious viewpoints be allowed in schools (and is it a religious viewpoint not to have them)? Do parents have the right of oversight by minimizing the accessibility of some books? Is there an appropriate age limit for certain content (and if so, then who decides)? Are depictions of racism part of the problem or part of the solution?

Does expressing sexuality breed tolerance or temptation? Should booksellers be forced to sell all books or only those they agree with and support? Are history books beginning to exploit the power of complaint and using emotional bribery to invent ever increasing levels of social guilt? And what about those other books — the ones specifically written to incite, recruit, or defame?

These questions aren't always as easy for everyone as people tend to rally to protect their own beliefs and convictions but generally struggle to protect those they consider in opposition to their own. How about you? Is there a line you won't cross in defense against censorship? Maybe there are many lines.

Wednesday, March 5

The Influence Of Nobody Strikes Again. Who's Next?

Diana Mekota is a "nobody." Well, I don't think so but apparently Kelly Blazek did. She would know. Blazek operated a successful LinkedIn jobs board. She published a newsletter with about 7,300 subscribers. She was often asked to speak about resumes and LinkedIn profiles. She won the 2013 Communicator of the Year award from the Cleveland chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC).

And Mekota? She was a Northwest Ohio native who was in the process of moving back to the area who attempted to join Blazek's job board and followed it up with LinkedIn invite. The response she received in return aimed to shatter her.

"Your invite to connect is inappropriate, beneficial to only you, and tacky. ... You're welcome for your humility lesson for the year, " she wrote. "Don't ever write me again."

Mekota didn't write her again. She decided to share her lesson instead, saving hundreds of other "entitled" members of her generation instead. And in doing so, the story of a "nobody" went viral.

As Buzzfeed, Reddit, and other viral hotspots picked it up, the story grew in size and scope until eventually landing on major media outlets like CNN. As the story gained more attention, dozens of people came forward to share similar experiences. Meanwhile others recognized her frustration.

The publicity and public push back was so severe that Blazek shut down her job board. She later returned her Communicator of the Year award. The Cleveland chapter of IABC reported it was "mutually agreed." Some people are wondering whether she will even be able to rebuild her career despite her apology. Others wonder if she wants to, given she has erased most of her online presence.

The Blazek story is a symptom of a bigger problem. Sociopathic media.

Call it inflated influence. Call it cyber bullying. Call it sociopathic media. Call it whatever you want but know there is plenty of it. Professionals who would otherwise help others in person become convinced that they are superior to those they see as outside their circles online. And why not?

This is the message many communicators are advising professionals and businesses to carry forward. I've met many social pros who profess that responses be limited based upon online influence, social scores, and other such nonsense. Most of them have favorites: subscription rates, page views, retweets, followers, friends, comments, or any number that currently favors them is the one to watch.

Never mind the truth. This year's favored measurement tool will be deemed irrelevant tomorrow. Most people who make this year's "must follow list" will be unseated by others next year. And as I've told various classes for better than a decade, today's inexperienced intern is tomorrow's client.

Blazek forgot all that. Many people do. Sooner or later almost everyone is tempted to chase one metric or another because they see it as some elusive but reachable objective. And for some who are bold enough to reach it, they will eventually discover that there is considerably more air at the summit than they could have ever predicted during the climb. Most is hot.

Social media is overdue for a makeover. Expect more stories ahead.

This is what happened to Blazek. As a side effect to own sense of success, she became afflicted with her own sense of self-induced entitlement. She was a "have." Mekota, quite clearly, was a "have not."

If you really want to serve yourself or your organization online, there are three things to remember. 1. Stop paying attention to "influencers" and start paying attention to the "nobodies" who are primed to depose them, for better or worse. 2. Online influence has a propensity to evaporate at a rate one hundred times faster than it takes to acquire it, which makes its value much more diluted than anyone likes to admit. 3. Some of the loudest voices chastising Blazek for her ill-advised email do the same thing, albeit more subtly and sometimes publicly, day in and day out. Good night and good luck.

Wednesday, October 16

Do Hardships Make Us Human Or Is The Air Of Success Better?

The first time I saw the crowd funding video for Yorganic Chef, I was pleased with the finished product. The run time felt long, but Nick Diakanonis made up for it with his authenticity. He's telling his own story. It only made sense that he would drift off script and elaborate.

I noticed something else the second time I watched the video. There was one segment missing and it left me wondering whether it made a difference. The script, along with the campaign page, left out a story segment. It's the hardship part. 

Another side to the Yorganic Chef crowd funding story. 

There is a good chance that you won't see this segment of the story elsewhere. It was one of the elements left behind after several team members thought the hardship part was a negative. They want to be upbeat and bright. And maybe they're right. Or maybe they're not.

So yesterday, after receiving permission from my friend Nick, I considered the contrast. You see, Yorganic Chef was scheduled to open last year and Nick had already achieved his dream.

That is, he had achieved his dream until something unexpected happened. Two weeks before opening in Los Angeles, the person who owned the facility and packaging equipment gave him an ultimatum. Either Nick would sign over the business and become an employee or there would be no launch. 

Imagine. For the better part of three years, you invest your entire life in one solitary idea — to create a line of non-frozen, ready-made gourmet meals from the ground up, including a direct-to-customer delivery system that required the invention of a patented state-of-the-art thermal bag. You're two weeks from opening. Your dream is about to come true. And then, suddenly, everything is swept away.

What do you do? Do you sell out and become the manager of your own concept (and leave everyone who has supported you behind)? Or, do you undo the last six months of progress and try to start all over? Many people would have been tempted to sell out, but Nick isn't like that. 

As I mentioned before, the video doesn't include anything about the crisis that Nick had to weather. And there is a good chance most of the stories about the campaign won't ever touch upon it. 

But it makes me wonder. Do we have to be perfect to succeed?

Perhaps more than any other kind of person, business professionals and politicians tend to be most concerned about their image. They want to convey an image of perpetual success. They never lose. 

My life has never been like that. Most people have a mixed bag. Sometimes there are great runs when everything seems easy. Sometimes it feels like standing in sludge, with every inch of forward motion requiring the greatest amount of effort possible. It's a given. Some of us share it. Some of us don't.

Sure, some hardships can become victim stories, saddling some people with excuses to never succeed again. But I'm not talking about those. I'm talking about the hardships people face and find a way to overcome, much like Nick is trying to do. He isn't just a successful culinary entrepreneur. He's a culinary entrepreneur who is hoping to rebound from a rotten turn after doing everything right. 

Does that little bit of detail make a difference? Some people seem to think so, believing that the story is more upbeat without mentioning the hardship. Others might disagree, not seeing anything negative in the full story. If anything, they see it as the clarifying detail in starting the Yorganic Chef crowd funding campaign.

The money being raised by Yorganic Chef has a purpose. It's Nick's chance to replace what was lost — the facility and equipment — when someone he trusted revealed a different agenda. If that hadn't happened, Yorganic Chef would already be serving Los Angeles and looking to open in a second market.

So how about you? When you see crowd funding stories like the one launched by Tinu Abayomi-Paul, does it make a difference that she has a need? Or do you prefer a different kind of back story, one that scrubs away the blemishes no matter how relevant they might be? Or maybe it all ties back into those topics we've explored before — perception matters (but not really). Either way, I'd love to know what you think. The comments are yours. 

Wednesday, February 13

Communicating Big: The Art Of Nonverbal Power

When colleague Kelli Matthews, instructor at the University of Oregon, shared a recent talk by American social psychologist Amy Cuddy, I was immediately curious and excited to see it. Cuddy's TED talk rubs up against some of my individual work related image development, with mine approaching it from different disciplines. I had seen her study two years ago, but not the talk.

I also thought this would be useful for one of my upcoming classes. Several former students have encouraged me to include a larger spokesperson session as part of Writing For Public Relations. In this case, the topic stems from Cuddy's work in nonverbal communication with Dana Carney and Andy Yap.

The crux of the research is simple enough. They note that humans and other animals express power through open, expansive postures, and they express powerlessness through closed, contractive postures. And then the researchers ask a riveting question. Can posing in these open postures create power?

The power of nonverbal communication is remarkable, even potent. 

What was so fascinating about the study was that it confirmed that posting in high-power nonverbal displays (as opposed to low-power nonverbal displays) would cause neuroendocrine and behavioral changes for both male and female participants. Let me be clear here, because it's especially cool.

What they found was that the high-power poses could elevate testosterone and decrease cortisol, which was accompanied by increased feelings of power and tolerance for risk. Meanwhile, low-power poses exhibited the opposite. Any person, they suggest, could instantly make themselves more powerful by assuming simple one-minute poses.

While I find the subject fascinating, it is not the end of the story for me. While the research is spot on in terms of being interesting, Cuddy overreaches with her anectodal application. Specifically, like many personal branders have suggested, you can fake it until you make it.

Her own story suggests this is possible because she used to "fake it until you make it" in order to feel comfortable teaching at Princeton. In other words, if you pretend to be powerful, you will actually act more powerful (and be more powerful). There is some truth to this, but "faking it" is still flawed.

You don't have to fake it to increase your sense of power.

While the body can shape the mind, just as Cuddy suggests, it's more important to change reality rather the perception. In other words, you don't have to fake it to make it. You can simply make it by putting yourself in related experiences that will help you adopt and learn new leadership skills.

Why is that important? Because in one of the studies conducted by the researchers, they had the mock interviewers convey no emotional response. They had good reasons to do it, but what was missed was that setting might not account for real-life scenarios where one or more of the interviewers may be dominant.

In such scenarios, when people feel uncomfortable because there is no room to capture an "alpha position," they tend to respond using subconscious cues. And what happens? People who are prone to low-power postures surrender and those prone to inappropriate high-power poses can be agitated.

It is much more effective to give people empowering experiences. In fact, this is why so many motivational trainers ask students to climb poles, walk over coals, break boards, or any number of tasks that they have never done (but can do with some instruction). Doing something that one would ordinarily assume is extraordinary creates a mental impression that anything is possible while delivering the same chemical reaction that Cubby mentioned in her speech. And the more you do it, the more you believe it.

In fact, it's not all that different than what I teach interns and students. I encourage them to become involved with at least one nonprofit and one professional association because both types of organizations will open leadership opportunities for them. In addition, it will not only teach them that leadership isn't reliant on dominance like animals, but also emotional intelligence to adapt to a group.

The proverbial wise man on a mountain doesn't need a dominant posture to convey power. His perceptive size is the mountain. Or, if you prefer a different example, search for images of Mahatma Gandhi. Most of them convey low-power and even submissive postures despite his depth of power.

Wednesday, January 30

Catching Catfish: Always Vet The Data

Some people never feel the need to be anonymous, online or off. But other people do, with their intent ranging from noble to malignant or their reasons ranging from convenience to pre-existing community standards (e.g., most people use creative avatars and punchy screen names). It's increasingly accepted.

So, it seems, is lying. As many as 25 percent of people admit they lie online (um, it's higher), citing security as the primary reason (um, it's not), and that doesn't account for the growing number of social network accounts that are partly or completely fabricated.

The phenomenon has grown up enough that it carries a better moniker than when Mackey or Chapel stole the show. Some people refer to fictitious and semi-fictitious accounts as catfish, named after the film-turned-television series. The series premiered on MTV in November 2012. It happens all the time.

The consequence of catfish in communication. 

Catfish are the bane of big data, enough so that some social networks are starting to do the unthinkable while ignoring the more obvious breaches like the one recently shared by Amy Vernon. In creating what is assumed to be a fictional account, someone hijacked Vernon's photos and started using them as his or her own under the name 'Melissa Dugan.'

And much like the new television series, Vernon's recent story sheds some light on the impact of catfish. There are personal and professional consequences. Fortunately, she is reasonably able to cope with it so far. But one can only imagine how long (if ever) Manti Te'o will need to fully reconcile the impact of having an online girlfriend — who died and was later resurrected — who was fabricated.

Much like the documentary Catfish, some people go so far as building an entire network of fabricated profiles to support their primary fabricated account, often grabbing up other people's pictures to do it. In the documentary, for example, an entire network of fake friends validated the fictitious account.

It's one step further than what married people who want an affair do on dating sites. Instead of making up one persona, catfish make up entire communities. What they do isn't limited to individual events.

Beyond individual masquerades and into public opinion. 

While some social media experts are quick to think about how fake accounts game popularity, some catfish are specifically set up to skew public opinion. Sometimes these efforts are harmless (such as casting a few extra votes for a favorite band on a survey). But others might not be harmless, given they are used to literally mask agendas by "washing" content through five or six profiles.

Three years ago, I tracked an unsupported news release that eventually became 'validated' by news. Public opinion catfish operate in much the same way, sharing volatile content across less-volatile social network accounts to create the illusion that whatever news is being shared is credible, sometimes rewritten to appear palatable. Or, in other cases, "washing" away geographical data is sometimes done to affect the perception of public policy (e.g., online politics frequently infuses outside interests).

Organizations are equally susceptible to such campaigns. It's not all that uncommon for some angry consumers to repost singular complaints across dozens of networks and review sites (and sometimes with more than one account) in order to disparage a product or service for whatever reason (justly or unjustly). There have even been cases where black hat competitors have driven up negatives, directly (fake reviews) and indirectly (propping up real negative reviews).

While there is a need to retain anonymity online (much like there is a need to preserve social satire), the rest of it — fraud and identity theft — is the leading unaddressed challenge within digital communication. And the best course of action today, although not foolproof, is to slow down, vet the data, and then vet the data again (even if you recognize the avatar, photo or logo as a trusted source).

Friday, January 11

Developing A Professional Image: Experimental Class Ahead

A few months ago, I found myself in a semi-heated discussion with an image consultant (a.k.a. personal branding guru). There isn't any transcript of the conversation because it didn't happen online. It happened offline, where many conversations about what I write here sometimes occur.

The catalyst for the call was a post — Branding: Why I Stopped Worrying About Being Batman — and why I did such a great disservice the emergent field of image consulting and personal branding. The entire post, she said, was borderline hypocritical given that I had once hired an image consultant.

Out of context, she had a point. Within context, not so much.

I hired an image consultant a few years ago because I knew there is some truth to Color Seasons. Different skin colors and complexions look better with different colors and horrendous with others. And while I know a few things about design and fashion, I had no clue what colors worked for me.

So, I found someone better at this stuff than me to help figure it out. And for several hours, she held up a hundred colors in order to give me a palette to test against the next time I went shopping, which is pretty rare (and half the time I forget the palette anyway). But I drew the line on everything else.

The reason is simple enough. I have a difficult time reconciling the dress for success concept of personal branding, especially as it has permeated social networks with some personal branding folks telling people that their social network pics provide the first impression of who you are to the world.

This worry over first impressions doesn't end with fashion. It seems to encompass everything: what we write, like, share, read, see, comment about, respond to, how we respond, when we respond, and a long list of more indicators online and offline. It's not much different than those "tells" people warn you about — offline tips like shining your shoes or only salting food after you taste it.

Sure, I suppose I could argue that some personal branding concepts work to some degree, but one has to be careful. Not all, but many personal branding consultants forget that real "branding" is not about style. It's about substance. It's about self-awareness. It's about authenticity. And it's about you.

I believe this so strongly that when the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, asked if I could teach an experimental seminar that could help people with their professional development in order to gain a competitive advantage in the job market (or as account executives and salespeople), I said absolutely.

Projecting A Professional Image at the University Of Nevada, Las Vegas. 

The 3-hour class will be held from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Jan. 31. The focus is on developing an authentic professional image for a competitive job market and economic marketplace, including the challenge that many people have with reconciling their so-called personal and professional separations, online, offline, wherever. Anyone attending can expect something different than the standard fare.

You see, it seems to me that you can wrap up any product in fancy packaging, but that doesn't make it effective in the environment where it will be used. This is the cornerstone of my Fragile Brand Theory, which suggests that brand failures or reputation crashes do not happen because of the nature of people, places, or things. They happen because persons, places, or things pretend to be something else.

This is why some executives give speeches wearing nothing more than pajamas and others put on expensive suits for the most casual of meetings. The notion that we must dress for success is somewhat of a misnomer. It's the substance, not the style, that drives reputation. Style merely helps convey it.

The class will help sort it out, including that style doesn't just say something about an individual. It says something about how we hope to connect with the anticipated audience. Ergo, construction workers tend to clam up on a construction site if you try to interview them in a suit and wedding guests would find someone wearing pajamas a bit too disruptive for an event celebrating someone else.

Right. Canned packaging disrupts as much as looking unkept. So this class starts where it counts.

• How an authentic professional image differs from personal branding
• How to develop messages that can set yourself apart from competitors
• How to maintain authenticity and empathy in differing environments
• How to reconcile who you are on social networks, without faking it
• How to feel good about who you are and add substance to the offering

Registration for the experimental class can be found here. I call it experimental because this one-time session will be used to gauge interest in a future 3-part workshop, with take home assignments and exercises. After the class concludes, at least one presentation deck will be published within a post.

Friday, October 26

Influencing And Being Influential: They Are Different

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

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

Why influence cannot be measured by actions. 

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

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

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

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

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

Being influential is different from influencing. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 3

Managing Misinformation: Bringing Clarity To Bear

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

The psychology perspective on managing misinformation. 

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

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

The crisis communication perspective on managing misinformation. 

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

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

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

A deeper look into understanding misinformation management. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 27

Telling Lies: Ryan Holiday, PR, And Media Today

This isn't a book review, and I don't intend to write one. I have another book I'd rather review next week.

Even so, the topic surrounding Ryan Holiday as he promotes his new book is sending shivers across the public relations industry. Why? Because Holiday embraced what are known as the dark arts of publicity and is now being mislabeled as a public relations celebrity. He's a media manipulator.

In sum, he accomplished his objectives with lies. And now he intends to wear it all like a badge of honor, kind of like someone might take pride in a shiner after a bar fight they started. I beat you, he might smile. Other people might go to jail.

Anyway, some respected public relations professionals are rightly concerned. But they ought not be concerned with how this paints the industry. They ought to be concerned about what it could do to public relations.

The worst thing about Holiday's book is some people will treat it like permission. 

There are many companies who would like nothing better than having a propaganda agent on board. Who cares, they say, as long as it spreads. When the game is attention, they think it means gain. But really, it doesn't.

Part of Holiday's credentials include working on the first film with Tucker Max. The movie made $1.4 million and Tucker blamed the failure on the movie's marketing, despite all the pre-buzz controversy. How bad did it fail? It cost $7 million to make.

Another brand Holiday leverages is American Apparel, which also has a pretense for controversy. It is struggling to keep the doors open. The company lost $39.3 million last year; it lost $86.3 million in 2010.

It might not even matter that Holiday claims that being a media manipulator left him morally bankrupt. Some will skip over the lesson and get to work. And there may be reason to doubt that Holiday is done with the so-called skill set. His book could be easily construed as his latest game. The PR/blogging community is primed to stoke the flames and feed the beast.

Holiday's book as continuation after the confession and the joke's on you. 

As people in public relations and media continue to react, Holiday could be sitting back with a smile as he beats the same dead horse he wrote about. He laid out the foundation for controversy and everyone is lining up to ratchet it up and do all the leg work. They write about it. People buy it.

Isn't that ultimately what the book is about? The general idea is that more spin equals more attention and more attention means more money. This hypothesis has been around since the circus, even if the old adage that all publicity is good publicity is merely a hat trick. All publicity is good publicity, but only if you happen to be in a circus and nobody gets physically hurt (most of the time).

That said, Holiday isn't the first to sound the alarm on media manipulation and he won't be the last. He is the latest to be a bit cavalier about it, but that is a sign of the times. The real lesson here is that objective journalism is mostly dead and probably will be until we suffer a disaster for our lack of it.

That was pretty much the conclusion I had after reviewing Bob Conrad's book on the same topic. What a shame more PR pros didn't cover that one. Conrad's case studies hit harder and he didn't need to lie.

Suffice to say that sooner or later, people will have to realize on their own that the art of online influence is idiocy and the news you read isn't worth beans if it is driven by popular opinion.

As for Holiday, it is not my place to judge him. The only apparent tell in his actions is that he has done a fine job employing the apology clause tucked inside most pat crisis communication plans. But ultimately, he still proves himself a bit of a novice because he omits the critical component of restitution.

If he was sincere, he would donate all his book proceeds to fix it. I don't think that is going to happen.

Wednesday, July 18

Finding Creativity: The Path Of One, Some, And Many

Author Geoff Livingston published an interesting conversation starter yesterday. It weighs individual creativity against groupthink merit. He cites collaborative cultures repeal creativity as part of it.

His post struck a chord with me for two reasons. The most obvious reason: because I've invested the last 26 years of my career playing in the "one, some, many" field of communication despite being one of those quiet, introverted people he talks about. The least obvious reason: I'm struggling with the creative-collaborative dilemma on one of many projects I'm involved in right now. And it's a killer.

Before I share the dilemma, let's define the terms. What is "one, some, many" creativity anyway?

The Creativity Of One. 

This is the genesis that Livingston is talking about in his post. It's an individual who, regardless of what other people are doing, quietly and deliberately dreams something up. You know ones/individuals who do it too.

They are every creative person for whom history has preserved a place. Authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac. Photographers like W. Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus. Artists like Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Musicians like John Lennon, Gustav Mahler, Poly Styrene. Business people like Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson.

Sure, some could argue that they weren't alone. Several of these creatives were inspired, influenced, or received input from other people too. So what? Individual creativity doesn't necessitate isolation from the world. It means you capture a unique perspective and are the master of how you present back.

Individual creativity is where I feel most at home, even if I rarely have time to explore it. It was how I wrote The Everyday Hound, produced Ten Rules Every Writer Needs To Know, and created The Last To Know (scroll down for the mention), an interactive literary piece for an art exhibition in 2000.

It's a very scary place to be until you learn to be fearless. Once you're done, people accept it or reject it. But even if they reject it, you have to remember that you are the only person who can validate it. Art doesn't need popularity to be art. It doesn't even need popularity to be "good" art. Art is art.

The Creativity Of Some. 

This is where I spend most of my time and it's a mixed bag. Mostly, creative people spend time when they cannot do (or don't have time to do) everything that needs to be done alone.

When we interview bands at Liquid [Hip], we often ask how they compose and collaborate. And while their answers are as varied as the music, most of them work just like people do in the commercial field. Somebody on the team comes in with a concept. Everyone else builds onto it, but anything that strays too far from the vision is abandoned.

When the work comes together brilliantly, it is one of the most rewarding experiences in the field. It's sometimes more rewarding than going solo because the enthusiasm for the outcome is shared. Teamwork rocks when you have the right marriage.

But that is the rub. The marriage isn't always one of your choosing. It's arranged. And as an arranged marriage, you don't always know who you will marry or how long it will last. The relationship could last a lifetime or it could be over in a few short and painful hours. It depends on the people and sometimes quantum physics. People carry a lot of baggage around, from apathy to egotism in any creative field.

All the while, someone else — whether it's a publisher or client or label — is busy taking notes and is ready to move in ideas. And that's when things become even more dicey; novices with big concepts.

The Creativity Of Many.

If you ever want to expedite the path toward groupthink, be successful without balls or be talentless with the need for a built-in excuse. While some of the most visible global social campaigns I've worked on were orchestrated on the creativity of many scale, the trumpet of togetherness hits many bad notes.

While Livingston is right, creativity needs circulation or else the artist will be missed, it doesn't mean the master is the masses. Classic works are often unpopular before they become timeless. And popular works are frequently elevated to their own eradication. Crowds are fickle beasts until they know better.

As much as many social networks and program developers have been waving around the "creativity of many" mantra as the new Kool-aid, I can't help but notice that the most successful social platforms listen the least. They have become so standard that people use them even when the networks abuse them.

Meanwhile, the graveyards of dead, buried, and long-forgotten networks that used to populate the net are attracting a steady stream of ghouls on their last breaths. The most common cause of these catastrophic illnesses is adding an abundance of crowd-sourced features someone could not live without.

It's not always the masses who do the deed either. By committee creativity is often an oxymoron when the marriage is made up of more than one partner or no definitive head of household. In a strategic setting, we might illustrate a big arrow pointing one direction with thousands of little arrows pulling in whatever direction suits them.

Trust me here. Great platforms are not crowd-sourced. They are either the work of one or the healthy marriage of a team much like a band. The audience might be invited to make requests, but the real talents know which songs not to cover. That kind of crowd participation only works in karaoke bars.

All Three Are Manageable, But Not Simultaneously.

It might seem like I'm down on the whole crowd-sourced creation thing, but that's not true. The secret is that whatever creativity path you've set out on has to have a purpose, with everyone in agreeance.

Then people have to be honest and to stick to it. You can tell who doesn't. Bands break up all the time, which has no reflection on their individual talents. Many go off to launch better solo careers or develop new relationships that elevate them to the next level. The same holds true in the commercial field.

My project dilemma is exactly that, it changes creative paths like Bartholomew Cubbins changed hats. The first three marriages were golden, but the fourth was rather rocky because the programmer was a solo artist despite saying the opposite. It tipped the entire job in an odd direction of crowd-sourcing.

And that's fine, I suppose, if you like pop karaoke with hard rock drums, and the manager taking country song requests from whatever audience happens to be in the room. It does make me wonder though. Where are the programmers who enjoy playing in a band (besides their own) without the new accountability crutch of crowd-sourcing? We need more Warhol and Basquiat collaborations.

Wednesday, July 4

Hanging Shingles: Public Relations As A Practice

You can define it, but it doesn't mean you can regulate the practice. That is what the public relations industry is learning the hard way. The industry doubts its credibility, but the problem is credulity.

Anybody can start a public relations firm tomorrow. There is no license. There is no mandatory accreditation. There is no oversight. In my city, some politicians have adopted the title in the past (a few who later served jail time) in order to make it all the more murky on why exactly someone paid them consultation fees. And when bad things like that happen, most will quickly turn a blind eye.

In fact, even when firms attempt to police their own, other public relations vets will fret that negative public relations stories hurt the industry as a whole. They say the bad apples don't change, but everyone remembers the industry stories. And then beyond that, there are some bad apples that the industry exempts because of their size, contracts, or connections.

The public relations industry is at the heart of its own calamities. 

The root of the problem is simple. The practice calls for generalists, but fills itself with specialists.

Right. In attempting to own media relations, social media, strategic communication, publicity campaigns (an offshoot of advertising), event planing, and so on, the industry has forced itself to gobble up tactical work instead of promoting more strategic tenets.

Never mind that it is easy to tell who is who. It's all the objectives they set. Ergo, how many column inches or blog posts that a company earns in a month is a publicity measure. What is the public perception of the company in relation to its competition among specific publics, on the other hand, is strategic.

Recognize the difference? One might impact sales like direct marketing (maybe). The other acts as a bolster or booster for anything else done. It's also significantly harder to measure, which is a thorn in the side of specialists who act like generalists in order to grab up more of the monthly marketing budget.

No wonder so many firms are focused on pushing stories. It's tactical. It's immediate. It's sort of measurable, even if most measures seldom consider the path to fulfillment. And since social media is frequently treated the same way, many will say it fits right in with likes, comments, and whatnots.

How public relations could heal itself if it were up to the challenge. 

I'm not very big on the idea of government intervention or regulation or degrees or mandatory accreditations. Those have to remain elective. Besides, government involvement would brush up against the First Amendment in the United States and comparable government contracts elsewhere.

So that means it is up to the industry, which must go beyond whatever short and punchy definition it is peddling. It has to outline precisely how any adopted definition applies to the practice. And then it has to have a majority of firms agree to it all.

If that can be done, and I doubt it can, it has to pressure all those who don't adopt the practice to stop stealing the public relations moniker and start embracing the endless number of specializations like social media, publicity, media relations, guru, etc.

If they don't on their own, then the remedy is publicity designed to shake off the pretenders. There is no other way around it. The industry has to out the bad and elevate the good (even if good examples of public relations are often invisible).

And for those who fear too many posts, articles, and finger points might damage the industry? They miss the point. After all, call outs ought not be public relations, but rather those firms that aren't in public relations. Get it? It's not about good public relations vs. bad public relations. It's about public relations vs. something other than public relations, including bad behavior or ignorance.

It would have to happen. Somebody would need to tell those firms (and maybe their clients) that while they might think what they do is public relations, what they really do is practice media relations and publicity or irresponsible and criminal behavior (however the shoe may fit).

Do you think that will ever happen? Probably not in my lifetime or yours, if ever. Public relations doesn't want it. There isn't even enough rope; but I do think we're due for more enlightenment.

Friday, June 29

Breaking News: Dewey Still Beats Truman

The famously inaccurate banner, Dewey Defeats Truman, lives again as CNN is the first to break the news on the Supreme Court health care story. It was the first outlet to have a story at the ready.

Unfortunately for CNN, it was the wrong news. It was corrected only after 5-10 minutes of commentary on its television programming and thousands of people were prompted to read the headline: "Mandate struck down." Some even received news prompts on their mobile devices, feeling a pang of elation or disgust depending on where they stood on the issue.

But whatever they felt was replaced by a momentary lapse of reason and confusion. Whether they believed the headline or not, they were about to discover it was wrong. And in the weeks that follow, they might consider the broader ramifications of what this means beyond a chuckle.

Accuracy is the first rule of journalism and it just doesn't exist.

Eyeballs matter more, even when the news is reported wrong. In fact, it seems very unlikely the person responsible will be fired. They are likely to get a raise. The traffic, links, and mentions drove more traffic and attention to CNN, not less. And most people will forget about it, much like most don't even know who Dewey might have been.

In fact, technically, the media is calling the Supreme Court decision upheld. However, it wasn't upheld on the grounds the government had argued for. The government cannot may you buy a product you do not want or need. It can, however, tax you for not buying that product or service. Go figure.

This isn't the only time CNN or news organizations have been wrong about their interpretations. Jeffrey Toobin, CNN senior legal analyst, originally surmised it would be a 8-1 decision in favor of the bill. Linda Greenhouse with the New York Times aggressively argued the position that the mandate did not exceed Congressional powers.

It seems pretty clear now that both were wrong. The decision was 5-4 and the the Supreme Court was pointed in saying that the mandate could not be tied to the commerce clause. While the decision still expands the power of government, especially the power held by the Internal Revenue Service (the bureau charged with collecting the fees) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (the bureau that eventually decides what health care you will get).

The problem with the reporting, of course, was the result of reading the first few pages of the decision rather than reading the entire opinion before reporting it. The reporting of speculation, on the other hand, was simply a case of people using the news to support a particular position or idea a.k.a. affirmation media that delivers exactly what people want to hear while swaying others too.

The media has to get a handle on what it wants to be. 

Nowadays, business owners and executives would be better off reading social media sentiment analysis than relying on the news to make decisions. The reason is simple enough. Without objective reporting, you can never be sure of the facts or how people will react to the various biased stories.

I don't mean the single error by CNN and other news outlets. I mean everything leading up to it and everything that will follow. The mistaken headline and knee jerk reaction is just a symptom of a greater problem. When the media can no longer be trusted to tell the truth or get it right, it fails to be relevant.

What this country needs now, perhaps more than ever, is a media outlet that restores objective journalism as its central idea. It might even be the right time, given the existing media outlets people turn to the most are failing to separate what constitutes news and what constitutes political opinion or two sets of talking heads.

Or, borrowing from a different example I shared several years ago, we need reporters who will do the hard work. Instead of talking to two people to get their opinions on whether or not a flag flapping in the wind is loud, we need a reporter to go to the location and report on the truth of it. It's loud. It's not loud.

Who knows? Maybe objective reporting could gain a foothold again once people become wary of sensitized stories and hearing what they want to hear at the expense of the truth. Or maybe not.

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