Monday, March 10

Pitching Fits: Why News Releases Might Die

If the news release is dying, it’s because public relations is killing it.

The vast majority of news releases being sent out today are nothing more than mass blast marketing-laced one sheets that attempt to decorate non-news as news, much in the same way someone might put silly hats and rubber noses on grumpy salespeople and call them the life of the party. It doesn’t really work. If anything, silly hats and rubber noses might just make them grumpier.

At least that seems to be the underlying consensus of reporters, journalists, editors, and even public relations professionals who are discouraged by the growing spam factor associated with public relations today. After speaking with dozens of professionals online and off, it all points to one thing — it doesn’t matter what they are — releases, pitch calls, e-mail teasers, blast faxes, etc. — there is no silver bullet, except one.

News that can be easily identified in the first sentence.

If you have real news, it hardly matters how you send it — by fax, e-mail, carrier pigeon, or on a roll of toilet paper. Why? Because, um, it’s news. Unfortunately, most companies do not release news at all. They tell their public relations firm to send out sales information, and the public relations firm sends it out. Once upon a time, a lead sentence sold the story. Now, the lead sentence sells nothing.

Here’s a sampling of lead lines bouncing around out there today:

Lead: “Ask police officers why they chose law enforcement as a profession, and very few would likely say they got into it for all the paperwork.”

Translated: “We have a new product and we hope all law enforcement will buy it.”

Lead: “Cruise West, a leading innovator of small-ship itineraries, has unveiled a new California Wine Country Spa Package to be paired with its California cruises for 2008.”

Translated: “We want to leverage journalists for advertorial space.”

Lead: “K-Swiss has announced the opening of its first US retail endeavor, which will take form as a branded "Pop-Up" store.”

Translated: “If you’ve never heard of a “Pop-Up” store, it must be news, maybe.” (I'm still stuck on opening an endeavor.)

Maybe it's not “news releases.” Maybe it's the people writing them.

It just might be. And that's not the worst of it. Ever since I asked how public relations gets the word out, I've been hearing some pretty tall tales.

I’ve been told public relations is anything and everything from leveraging relationships with reporters to having a super huge data base (and that it is a function of marketing). I’ve been told to never send releases and always send releases. I’ve been told that pitches work best by phone, by e-mail, and, my personal favorite, by casually dropping by the reporter’s desk after purchasing an advertisement.

Egad! Has the profession gone batty? What do these people do?

The seven deadly sins of the modern public relations professional as told to me by public relations professionals.

Lust — Relationship Pandering If you’re leveraging relationships with journalists to pick up more accounts or trying to convince reporters to run non-news like it is news, then it's not a relationship. It’s manipulation.

Greed — Client leveraging. If you’re leveraging one big client brand in order to secure smaller clients and then dovetail small client non-news onto big client real news, that’s not public relations. It’s greed, paid for by your big client.

Gluttony — Pitching Stories. Spam is not the answer. Journalists are directing people to pitch stories to whatever communication stream seems less inundated. But mostly, journalists just want news that focuses on what they write about. If you don’t know what they write about, then don’t spam them.

Sloth — Traditional Releases. Journalists are starting to prefer pitches over releases, but only because it’s easier to read two butchered sentences than several butchered paragraphs. Skip the fluff, stick to the facts, and if you're not willing to find news about your client or write something worth reading, then don’t write anything.

Wrath — Social Media Releases. They have their place, but they are not the end all to “modern” public relations. Using them as some sort of revenge mechanism against mainstream media for not running all the non-news stories is inappropriate. The simple truth is that most social media releases are truncated traditional releases with links and even more marketing puff.

Pride — Renaming Games. Everyone is renaming everything for the sake of sounding intelligent and it needs to stop. Seriously, just stop it. Renaming social media is out of control — social computing, new media, digital media, social networking, life streaming, buzz marketing, viral marketing, virtual branding, alternative media, Internet marketing, etc. — especially if the reason is to one up everyone with a new definition. Nobody cares who coined the term.

Envy — Insatiable Illusions. If you are promising clients that a certain amount of releases will run every month, that column inches or hits mean anything, that news embargoes work long term, that mix and matching headlines can turn entertainment news into business news and vice versa, or that your client putting his pants on one leg at a time deserves a press conference because their competitor got lucky last week, you are no longer in public relations. You’re a trickster selling envy.

What happened to performing work instead of working the performance?

First and foremost, none of this seems related to public relations as much as media relations. Second, media relations, much like public relations, does not fit in tidy little boxes with check lists, no matter what accidental successes imply. Third, like most communication, simple is better than complex.

Find some real news within a company (it’s not always obvious) and communicate that news to journalists who would have a real interest. Let them know by whatever means they prefer: phone, e-mail, release, toilet paper, whatever. You may want to write a factual well-written release in case they need a backgrounder (which you can also distribute via the wire or on a Web site). If you want to claim it’s a social media release with links, etc., oh boy, knock yourself out.

Do this a few times without wasting anyone’s time and you will likely develop some great relationships with the media built around trust and mutual respect. All that, without name-dropping who you had lunch with.

Digg!

Friday, March 7

Playing The Numbers: Endoscopy Center Forgets People


Since the beginning, the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada, which is responsible for the largest hepatitis C scare in the history of the country, has communicated a message much like it ran its practice — by the numbers.

Its message is clear. The risk is minimal to 40,000 patients who must be tested for hepatitis C as well as hepatitis B and HIV. Only six patients have been proven to be diagnosed with acute hepatitis C. Except… Except…

We’re not really talking about numbers. We’re talking about people.

Numbers don’t tell stories; people do.

My longtime friend and colleague Keith Sheldon, for example, is not a number. He’s a person. He’s also one of the many who never learned he needed to be tested because of a letter. He learned, like thousands of other patients, through the media.

“I was sitting in bed with my wife reading the Saturday paper,” Sheldon said. “At first, I didn’t think the crisis applied to me.”

It wasn’t until his wife started crying that his initial reaction, things like this happen to other people, didn’t apply. Sheldon was not only at risk, but had unknowingly put his wife at risk. And learning the center was notifying patients by letter and setting up a foundation was little consolation.

“As soon as I learned my health was at risk, I immediately made an appointment with my doctor,” he said. “He saw me the same morning … when it comes to your health, you don’t wait for red tape.”

It didn’t matter to Sheldon that he had to pay out of pocket for the test, despite promises that the center had already made arrangements with various health insurance providers. He needed answers … answers that still haven’t arrived. Because of the number of people being tested, most results will not be made readily available for seven to 10 days, which is next Monday or Tuesday at best.

“I hold the clinic’s management responsible for this disaster,” Sheldon said. “Specifically those individuals who had the day-to-day responsibility and oversight for how business was conducted.”

Recently, one doctor, who was employed at the center and asked the Las Vegas Review-Journal for anonymity because he fears "retaliation" from Dr. Desai (majority owner of the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada), said he left the clinic in 2000 — which places the start of the unsafe practices back to more than a decade — because he "was so depressed." He was reprimanded several times, the article says, because he was allegedly pressured to perform unnecessary biopsies, coupled with fabricated lengthy patient examinations, that could add more than $300 to a bill.

"It was so unethical," he said. "I couldn't live with myself."

As more stories surface, it seems to be that the entire practice was built on the concept of placing profits before people. By the account, it was always about playing the numbers: Reusing a single dose vial or the same syringe here and an extra biopsy there, well, it could help the clinic pay the bills.

Sheldon, who also teaches public relations and assists companies in crisis communication situations, is also mortified by the lack of empathy or apology by the center. From a business, ethical, and public relations perspective, the clinic is doing a dismal job of handling this crisis, he said.

“Rather than waste thousands of dollars on a poorly written, ill-conceived and
disingenuous full-page ad in the Review-Journal, the Endoscopy Center should have offered to pay for people to have their blood tested immediately,” he said. “ You just cannot put profit over people.”

When asked how the clinic might have responded, Sheldon offered…

“We demonstrated dismal judgment. We lost track of our mission of taking care of our patients to the best of our ability. We put profits over patients. For these transgressions, we are sorry. We pledge to make full restitution to the degree determined by the courts.”

I wholeheartedly agree. Anytime a company has surrendered all measure of professional efforts, there is nothing left to be done other than offer full disclosure, pledge full restitution, and permanently resign from the medical profession. These are not numbers; they are people — 40,000 people who are slowly learning through the media that they and their families — wives, husbands, sons, daughters — are at risk, one person at a time.

And, worse, it seems more and more clear every day that the numbers like six people infected and 40,000 at minimal risk, are designed to diminish the impact of real people, are growing every day. Dr. Desai ran six number-crunching clinics in southern Nevada. And, it has already become clear that the first clinic only offered a truncated list with 40,000 patients. Many more patients need testing.

For all of them, restitution seems obvious.

• Direct and full compensation for all testing without any fees being passed on to insurance companies.
• Free counseling for patients who are having challenges coping with the situation.
• Compensation for the pain, suffering, and anguish caused to the thousands of people put in harm’s way.
• The maximum amount paid out in medical malpractice to anyone who has to endure a shortened lifespan and risk of infecting loved ones as well as compensation to their families.
• The pledge that none of the management team will ever work in the medical profession again.

These are the only numbers we’re interested in reading about. As for the rest, it’s all about people. People you know and people who may never know if they are infected.

When handling a crisis, always put people first.

Sheldon offers up some hard but true advice for companies that abuse public or employee trust: “Would you have treated members of your family like this?”

The answer, more than likely, would be no. But we can only assume that. Other than the one-page advertisement that claimed patients should still have trust in the clinic, Dr. Desai isn’t talking.

Digg!

Thursday, March 6

Dangling Cookies: Alaska Airlines & Everybody


According to The New York Times, Alaska Airlines is introducing a system on the Internet to create unique advertisements for people as they surf the Web. Called retargeting by the industry, the ads will consider combined data (demographics and psychographics) from several sources to adjust the ads and ticket offers. The trade off, as always, is online privacy.

“I come from the direct marketing world,” Judy Gern, the chief executive of DesignBlox told the New York Times, referring to ads that are mailed to consumers’ homes. “And consumers should really worry about what direct marketers know, not what online marketers know.”

What Direct Mail Has Always Known.

Gern has a point. When as much as half of my time was dedicated to writing direct mail years ago, some companies would provide pretty pointed data about the people we were writing to — from the cars they drove to the magazines they read to where they preferred to take their summer vacations. With direct mail, it was not all that uncommon to present a second and third offer, increasing the opportunities for those who did not respond to the first, much like retargeting ads hope to do.

Generally, all the information was complied by magazine publishers, past direct marketing campaigns, and other survey mechanisms, with participants agreeing to answer questions upon request or for an incentive. What tends to spook people about Internet data collection is that it is comprehensive, constant, and not always clear who sees the information (or what threat that information might pose).

Privacy For Perks Is Today’s Bargaining Chip.

But marketers and network developers have noticed something else. As Marston Gould, director of customer relationship management and online marketing for Alaska Airlines, alluded to in the article: When people know that they might see an advertisement promising a $200 ticket to Hawaii, the priority for privacy quickly drops. And it takes much less than an offer that good.

In fact, for every story about consumer groups considering online privacy, there are an equal number of stories about consumers who are ready to make the trade.

What seems to be is that as long as a marketer provides a clearly defined opt-in and opt-out feature (which is where Facebook faltered on the front end), people are ready to share anything and everything about themselves. Many of them already do. The basic concept behind many personal blogs, vlogs, and even network programming like Big Brother is sharing everything with everybody.

In fact, tomorrow's consumers who are teens today, do not hesitate to share information about themselves. According to PEW/Internet study last year, they are surprisingly open.

• 82 percent of teens already use their real first names online
• 79 percent include a real photo of themselves online
• 55 percent of teens already have profiles online
• 66 percent of these profiles are limited to “online” friends
• 49 percent of them use online networks to make new friends
• 46 percent say some of their profile information is false

Teens are not alone. Their parents are happy to share information too. Most need a tiny incentive. I learned this last year after questioning tying GPS tracking to advertisements. Several people said GPS advertising went to far, until they learned it could help them find a little black dress, on sale, in their size.

Data Accuracy Remains A Question Mark.

While sometimes I consider some of the advances in consumer profiling a bit spooky, it does seem to me we are trending toward total transparency, with relatively few question marks as a marketer ...

• The randomness of “discovery” Web surfing, popularized by networks like StumbleUpon and Digg.
• The potential for savvy Web techs to game any retargeting ad structure, driving offers down so they might land the $200 Hawaii price.
• The fact that people sometimes lie on surveys and contest entry forms.

”I usually check the first box on every question because it saves me time,” one contest entrant told me. “Otherwise, entering them would take forever.”

In fact, even when consumers tell the truth, it doesn’t always mean much. One visit to a “recommended for you” list on Amazon or iTunes might demonstrate how close or, er, far away online profiling really is. And, since that is the case, one might wonder the trading privacy for perks is really as effective as we pretend it might be.

Digg!

Wednesday, March 5

Adding Data Portability: BlogCatalog


Just days after beating MyBlogLog out of the gate with its Social Dashboard feature, BlogCatalog has moved forward to launch SocialStream, an RSS feed enabled widget that makes “lifestreaming” data portable. The widget makes it possible for BlogCatalog members to share their activity on BlogCatalog and 12 other social networks anywhere they want.

“Any network we add to our Dashboard feature can be added to the SocialStream widget,” says Antony Berkman, president of BlogCatalog.com. “It’s the next step toward putting people in more control of their data.”

Data portability is considered by many to be the next step in the evolution of social networks. While social networks have largely succeeded in helping bring people together based upon shared interests, each requires additional time to manage and update. Jimmy Guterman, editorial director of O’Reilly’s Radar Group, recently made note of this in his Social Graph Foo Report.

“So much about social networks and the next generation has been enveloped in hype … that overpromising in the short term on the data portability front could have severe public relations ramifications,” he wrote. “Data portability has to be real, not merely allowing someone to access information from social network B while inside social network A.”

The BlogCatalog widget is a step in true data portability because it takes a concept some people, like me, have been experimenting with on platforms like Tumblr and allowing bloggers to customize the content of the widget and place it virtually anywhere they want —on a Web site, blog, or even another social network that allows the addition of widgets.

Practicalities In Portable Data.

One of the tangible benefits of a social network RSS feed is that activities across social networks can now add content value to the blog. With the widget, bloggers can share discussions on other social networks; their readers can also subscribe to the widget.

At the same time, it answers some of the questions being asked by people like Lewis Green, who recently noted how much time he invests in social networks rather then his or other blogs, and David Recordon, who recently wrote about the growing challenge of social network fatigue.

By installing the widget, assuming you want to share some or all of your social network activities, people who read your blog receive updates from Amazon Wishlists, BlogCatalog, Delicious, Digg, Facebook, Flickr, Last.fm, Multiply, MySpace, Sphinn, StumbleUpon, Twitter, and YouTube.

Berkman says they will continue to add more social networks. Originally, the BlogCatalog Dashboard started with connections to nine social networks. It now includes 12. Berkman said what is most exciting for him and his development team is to assist bloggers in helping their material become viral.

“It will help friends and blog readers find out if you Digg an article so they can Digg it too,” says Berkman. “This makes it easier to navigate the Web and increases the likelihood that something will go viral because it appears wherever people share their widget.”

The widget also solves a challenge for bloggers with multiple blogs. Many of them would invest hours of time writing about their social activities on several blogs. The widget can be installed on all of their blogs, which would allow them to write a post on one blog, include the link on a social network like Twitter, and then seed their post across all of their blogs via the widget.

What’s next? It’s hard to say. Speed to market has never been an issue for a fast-moving social network like BlogCatalog. To give just one small example: Despite working with BlogCatalog as a communication consultant, I found out the BlogCatalog team was launching the SocialStream widget just a few hours prior to the announcement.

It didn’t even have a name when I received the call. That is an amazing contrast to something that many companies would have discussed for months. Fortunately, several years of political experience has made rapid response a second nature skill set. Only political campaign teams move as fast.

Digg!

Tuesday, March 4

Repeating Milgram: Endoscopy Staff Behavior


In 1963, Stanley Milgram gave the world a glimpse into obedience by publishing the results of his experiment in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. I learned about the study in college.

The experiment, conducted at Yale University, tested how much pain one participant would inflict on another, provided the participant inflicting the pain would relinquish responsibility to the person they perceived as an authority.

Although the experiment was staged (the person enduring the pain was a actor) and no one was injured, Milgram found that 65 percent of participants would administer an electric shock of what they believed to be 450 volts. Even more surprising, not one participant refused to administer shocks before the 300-volt level, despite several switches clearly marked “danger: severe shock” and the actor complaining of chest pain, banging on the wall, or dropping silent.

With light to moderate prodding, an authority figure in the experiment was able to convince the participant to deliver electric shocks. Some would protest, but continue to “shock” the actor nevertheless.

Understanding Obedient Staff Behavior.

Understanding Milgram’s experiment was followed by strip search prank call several years ago. It was not an experiment. It involved a caller claiming to be the police and instructing fast food managers to strip search employees. In more than 70 reported cases, managers surrendered personal responsibility to an authority figure, becoming like a puppet, and demanded employees remove their clothes.

By comparison, the notion that staff at the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada would blindly follow the instruction of administrators to reuse vials of single-dose medicine would likely take less surrendering of responsibility to a higher authority, especially one who had served on the board of the Nevada Board of Medical Examiners.

Why? Proximity to the authority figure. Perceived level of authority. Assurances of a minimal risk. Other nurses already practicing the procedure. And on. And on.

It the only answer for people still wonder why they didn’t stop the practice at the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada. Objectivity was sacrificed in favor of perceived acceptance. As one CDC officer reported it: the center’s practices to be so obviously dangerous that it was like “driving the wrong way down the freeway.”

I feel the same way about the center's crisis communication plan. It's like watching a horror show of a horror show, where you watch the next victim stumble up stairs with a flashlight.

The latest update: The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and county prosecutors opened a preliminary criminal investigation. These investigations join inquiries by the FBI and the Nevada attorney general’s office.

Add to all this news an endless stream of sources being tapped by the media, including a very telling and almost incoherent interview with the center’s recently hired third-party crisis expert. Somebody forgot to tell her she wasn't a spokesperson.

Employees Need To Learn To Say No.

Comedian George Carlin includes it in his bit. He says people are too fat and happy to question authority. He's right. It happens all the time.

Even on social networks, it's obvious people blindly follow perceived authority figures, sometimes even participating in a “pile ons” just to be accepted. There is no concern for facts. Most online diatribe can be traced back to obedience and acceptance. It happens everywhere in places all over the world, places just like the Endoscopy Center.

There is only one lesson, and more employees could learn it:

• Th nurses could have complained to the administration that the practices were unsafe, refused to perform them, and demanded correction.
• Upon administrative insistence, the nurses could have told the center to correct its practices or report the incident to county health officials.
• Upon insistence or further inaction, the nurses could have resigned and immediately reported the infractions to county health officials.

Three simple steps could have protected thousands of people from being at risk of hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV. Unfortunately, no one was up to the task. In all the world, only a mere 10-25 percent of people would have been willing to step up to the plate, depending on the country where they were raised.

Digg!

Monday, March 3

Skirting Apologies: Endoscopy Center Not So Sorry

On Friday, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that the city of Las Vegas shut down the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada. After waiting until six patients had completed treatment, all employees were asked to leave the building and the doors were locked.

As mentioned last week, the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada was using single dose vials of medication, some of which had become infected with hepatitis C, a potentially fatal blood-borne virus, more than once. Hepatitis C is not the only potential infection that could have been spread; some fear hepatitis B and HIV could have also infected patients, some as far back as 2004 or earlier.

In what appears to be an effort to "control communication," the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada, which has declined to comment to any media outlet, did not seem short on words this Sunday. They ran a full-page advertisement in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The advertisement, designed to mimic an "open letter to the public" with the headline “Open Letter to Our Patients and the People of Southern Nevada,” smacks as a near-exact carbon copy of an ill-advised communication disaster attempted by Jack in the Box several years ago. Somebody must have missed that case study. It did not work then. It will not work today.

Dr. Dipak Desai offers sympathy but no apology.

“Recent events at the Endoscopy Center of Nevada of Southern Nevada are causing great concern to our patients and the community at large.”

This opening line says it all. It is so obviously written to mask where the responsibility might reside. This was not an accident. The responsibility lands squarely on the medical director and presumed "letter writer" of the advertisement.

In fact, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal story referenced above, clinic staff has already told health investigators that they knew this technique fell well below accepted medical practices and was dangerous. However, they say they were ordered by administrators to engage in the practice anyway. So they did. The ad continues…

”First, I want to express my deepest sympathy to all our patients and their families for the fear and uncertainly that naturally arises from this situation. The trust we have spent for years building in this community has been challenged by the discovery that some of our patients may have been exposed to blood-borne diseases at our facility. In cooperation with the Southern Nevada Health District and other health agencies and officials, we have carefully reviewed our procedures and implemented the changes they recommended.”

Despite the near admission in the third sentence, there is no direct admission (despite mounting testimony) or any apology whatsoever. Clearly, the aim is an ill-advised attempt to position the crisis as an accident while once again attempting to leverage "trust" that patients placed in the clinic while they were "unknowingly" placed at risk by what seems to be a very "knowing" staff. The ad continues…

“We are also working with third party payers to be sure all our patients who need to be tested are, and that the costs are completely covered.

For those who are uninsured, a foundation is being set up to cover the cost associated with their tests. You will learn more about this in the days to come.”


It amazes me that any company or organization would attempt to promote the argument of denial, despite the fact that the clinic is already proven responsible for the infection of several patients. In addition, the attempt to portray itself as a good public citizen by setting up a foundation reminds me of post-crisis measures employed by Jack In The Box, which they only implemented after sustaining a loss of $20 to $30 million.

The ad continues with another paragraph, first thanking the health district for bringing the problem to the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada’s attention and continued clarification that the clinic did not spread the disease to patients one way as has been reported, but another erroneous way all together. As if that matters. The ad closes…

"At the same time and without making excuses, I think it’s important for the public to know that the chances of contracting an infection at our center from 2004 though June 2007 were extremely low. Of the six cases reported, it appears one exposure took place in July 2007 and five on Sept. 21, 2007. Regardless, if you were a patient at our facility, I encourage you to get tested.

Thank you for allowing me to share these thoughts with you.”


The six cases mentioned were those that prompted health officials to conduct an investigation, and not the results of 40,000 tested. Worse, this closure attempts to use the number of confirmed infections as a tool toward exoneration, as if six patients who have been confirmed infected are less significant when compared to the 40,000 that have yet to be tested.

What it also neglects to mention is that health officials are also concerned, however, that even more patients could have been infected prior to 2004 when the clinic operated under a different name. Not everyone is taken by these controlled statements. As expected, one local law firm, Craig P. Kenny & Associates, ran a full-page advertisement in the same section. Its advertisement encourages patients to contact the firm to discuss legal action.

While heroes are seldom found during a crisis, there is one clear hero in Las Vegas. Quest Diagnostics, which is completely unaffiliated with the Endoscopy Center, is the first business to offer to test patients for free. The offer from Quest Diagnostics to provide this community service came after the Endoscopy Center was slow to offer the same and after another health care provider, one that sent overflow patients to the Endoscopy Center, shrugged off any responsibility.

As shocking as it seems, the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada has not made any mention of how it intends to compensate those patients who have been infected nor has there been any comment that seems to demonstrate remorse or empathy. So far, it seems they are content to play the numbers and control an uncontrollable message.

Digg!

Friday, February 29

Causing Crisis: Health Clinic Spreads Virus


Sometimes a crisis communication checklist is not enough. The Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada is attempting to apply some practices, but the message is failing to resonate. I’m not surprised.

This is the largest hepatitis C scare in the history of the country.

The Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada was reportedly using single dose vials of medication, which had become infected with hepatitis C, a potentially fatal blood-borne virus, through their initial use and were used again. Hepatitis C is not the only potential infection that could have been spread.

The Southern Nevada Health District is asking some 40,000 patients who had procedures requiring injected anesthesia at the clinic between March 2004 and January 11, 2008, to contact their primary care physicians or health care providers to get tested for hepatitis C as well as hepatitis B and HIV. Given the transient nature of Las Vegas, it is nearly impossible to tell how many of these patients have moved out of the area or have been living with an infection for years.

The reality and gravity of the situation is severe enough that the statement released to the media by the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada fails to exhibit even a basic understanding of crisis communication, considering the severity of the issue.

“On behalf of the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada, we want to express our deep concern about this incident to the many patients who have put their trust in us over the years. As always, our patients remain our primary responsibility and we have already corrected the situation.”

Obviously not. If patients were the primary responsibility, this would have never happened. How could anyone even think such a statement was appropriate to include as a patient care message during a press conference that addressed wrongdoing of the worst kind — reusing single dose vials is widely known to pass infection.

The statement goes on to say things like “In addition to our corrective actions, we are on a mission to maintain the trust our patients have had in us during our years of service to southern Nevada.” They must be joking. And, unbelievably, they attempted to play the legal counsel card — pending class action suits already being organized and a criminal investigation — to limit their comments and refuse to take reporters’ questions. Unbelievable.

If you break off communication with the media during a severe crisis, they will have no alternative but to seek other sources. Every media outlet covering the story is doing exactly that.

According to the Las Vegas Sun today, several doctors unaffiliated with the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada have surmised that the clinic appeared to put profits ahead of patient care, directing staff to cut corners in order to accommodate the high volume of patients. The procedures were performed by certified nurse-anesthetists, with apparently no one at the practice willing to step up and say what they were doing was wrong.

These practices continued until the Southern Nevada Health District identified six cases of hepatitis C, five of which stemmed from the Endoscopy Center of Nevada. While the center continues to stress that the actual risk of anyone being affected by this is extremely low, it seems to be little consolation for the individuals. Elected officials are already calling for the removal of the clinic’s license.

This crisis has already been mishandled to the point of no return.

In such extreme cases, one might ask if the clinic is worth saving. While this could be debated endlessly, I’d rather focus on what they did wrong from a communication standpoint, which made this unrecoverable.

They are attempting to apply a truncated crisis communication formula frequently employed by public relations professionals who have little real world experience. Worse, they are being selective in which ones they are using — the statement doesn’t even include an apology, possibly for fear of admitting criminal negligence.

Look, crisis communication is a process and not a formula. You can come forward, apologize, explain the incident, address corrective measures, seek outside consult, promise it will never happen again, and perhaps demonstrate some measure of empathy (I was told the owner appeared empathetic at the press conference) all you want. But it won’t change gross negligence.

What the crisis communication team needed to consider.

• The clinic needed to come forward sooner and explain precisely what occurred and why it occurred, regardless of potential civil and criminal cases. If the crisis was caused by placing profits before patients as some speculate, an admission is appropriate.

• The clinic needed to apologize, at minimum, to the five people likely infected with hepatitis C by its procedures and offer immediate restitution. It further needed to voluntarily pay for a proactive location and testing of all 40,000 patients as well as family members that may have been affected as a result.

• The clinic needed to maintain an open door policy to address all concerns and questions from the media and other stakeholders, regardless of personal jeopardy, as personal and public safety remain at risk.

• The clinic needs to verbalize empathy, sympathy, and embarrassment over its procedural practices without any trite statements revolving around preserving patient trust and promises that it will never happen again. It would seem more logical for the clinic to voluntarily dedicate 100 percent of its resources to the crisis.

• Dipak Desai, medical director and majority shareholder in the practice, needs to step forward as his own spokesperson and promise to step down immediately after overseeing restitution to the victims. Desai also needs to fully cooperate with all investigations and help determine which doctors and nurses were engaged in these procedures or knew about the procedures but neglected to speak up.

All this should have already happened. However, it did not. Given the severity of the crisis and the initial handing, it’s likely this will be unrecoverable. And frankly, despite placing it in the living case study slot, maybe that is for the best if it does not recover.

Digg!

Thursday, February 28

Bridging Online And Physical Space: The Recruiting Roadshow


As is often the case, I came away from speaking at John Sumser’s Recruiting Roadshow with more knowledge than I could ever hope to present yesterday.

For starters, it truly gave me an understanding just how far behind communication-related fields — advertising, marketing, public relations, communication, etc. — are from other industries. Yes, I pay attention when various colleagues on the marketing speaking circuits consistently report how few communication professionals are active — only 10-20 percent of their audience is engaged in social media, they often report.

Engaged communicators are ahead, but the industry is behind.

My experience was amazingly different. When I asked an audience of hundreds, primarily consisting of recruiters and human resource directors, how many were engaged in social media, the answer was amazingly different.

• 90 percent of the audience participate online
• 75 percent are members of at least one social network
• 50 percent are active members of one or more social networks
• 15 percent of the audience lead a social network or maintain a blog

Interesting. There doesn’t seem to be an online social media bubble for others, as communicators insist while they continue to argue about the validity of social media. As I’ve said before, social media exists. And therefore, it cannot be ignored, especially by communication-related fields.

Is it any wonder why more companies implemented internal communication programs in 2007, programs managed by human resources departments as opposed to corporate communication? According to Watson Wyatt’s 2007-2008 Communication ROI study, 53 percent of employers used communication to increase enrollment in benefits programs, up from 25 percent in 2003. As other departments continue to expand their roles and actively participate in social media, communicators may find themselves asking the same questions over and over again — how do we get a seat at the table?

Ridiculous. This reoccurring question is only asked by people who missed their opportunity to set the table in the first place.

We must erase the notion that online - offline networks are different.

After taking the spontaneous room survey, I pointed out that 100 percent of the people in attendance were members of a social network — the room, for a few hours — was a social network, indistinguishable from any online community.

Several hundred people registered to attend, filled a space, and then randomly met each other based on nothing more than a nametag and proximity of their seat. Funny. For all the discussions about whether to “friend” strangers online, not one person in attendance refused to shake hands with a stranger when a hand was extended. Online, people present much more than a nametag. Many of us present complete resumes, profiles, and years of thought on blogs.

We might as well be walking around with sandwich boards outlining who we are and what we do. So why do communicators remain skeptical?

Sometimes network exercises reveal more than intended.

One of the first exercises presented by Sumser and his team was an ingenious one designed to simulate an organic search. They had passed out little pieces of paper, each with one word written on them.

Then, he instructed the room to find five other people with the same word and introduce themselves to simulate an organic search. As chaos broke out in the room with people converging toward the middle, one person created a sign with his word and held it above his head. Others quickly followed suit, each holding signs above their heads.

“Did you notice how quickly others adopt innovation?” Sumser asked. “This is exactly the way innovation is adopted online.”

But there was something else, I noticed. The people who held signs above their heads may have expedited the exercise, but in doing so, met fewer people. And once people had found the word they were looking for, they felt gratified, forgetting to fully engage themselves in the sub-group they had created.

It reminded me of many online social networks. Sometimes the speed in which tasks are performed — such as attempting to increase the quantity of connections or increase traffic — undermines our own ability to truly engage people in any meaningful relationship. It’s quality of engagement, not quantity of engagement, that counts, online or off.

I worked some observations of the exercise into my presentation, remembering some great advice I had gleaned from Chris Brogan and Jeremiah Owyang. When you’re engaging in social networking activities, you don’t want to be the person with a sign on their head and megaphone as much as you want to be the person who joins the party and engages people on their terms.

This also presents a challenge in teaching people how to engage in social networks. I know many people who keep putting together bullet points for advice, but relatively few who remind people to ask the right question on the front end. What do you hope to accomplish?

For recruiters, I suggested they abandon the notion that social networks are technologies. It makes more sense to think about social networks as physical spaces much like the room where we had all assembled, with an emphasis on meeting people that may deliver mutually beneficial relationships.

• If you want to know more about the recruiting industry, join a recruiting network like RecruitingBlogs.com.
• If you want to engage prospective clients, invest more time in social networks around niche industries you specialize in, whether it’s health care, education, or whatever.
• If you want to engage job candidates, find social networks that consist of people within those specific industries or develop your own network within a larger network, much like people do every day on Twitter.

Above all, never discount online relationships as less than those you make physically. It’s the number of engagements with people, sometimes across many social networks, that deepens a relationship, much like life. Except online, you often have a greater chance to know about someone well beyond the nametags that decorated everyone’s apparel around the room.

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Tuesday, February 26

Canceling Campaigns: Pfizer Says It’s Your Fault


After more than $258 million spent in advertising, the long-running advertising campaign that primarily employed Dr. Robert Jarvik as spokesperson for Lipitor, according to The New York Times today.

Pfizer announced yesterday that it would cancel the advertisements featuring Dr. Jarvick. Pfizer offered up a release that primarily focuses on a 3-paragraph statement from Ian Read, president of worldwide pharmaceutical operations. Here are two...

“Nevertheless, the way in which we presented Dr. Jarvik in these ads has, unfortunately, led to misimpressions and distractions from our primary goal of encouraging patient and physician dialogue on the leading cause of death in the world — cardiovascular disease. We regret this. Going forward, we commit to ensuring there is greater clarity in our advertising regarding the presentation of spokespeople.

“Raising awareness of the dangers of cardiovascular disease in the U.S. remains an urgent public health priority. Only half of all Americans who have high LDL cholesterol are even diagnosed, and just half of those are being treated. Future Lipitor campaigns, to be launched in several weeks, will continue to stress the critical importance of patients talking to their doctors so they can make informed choices about their treatment options.”


In other words, Pfizer regrets that the “misimpressions and distractions” led to the cancellation of the advertisement as opposed the misrepresentation of the spokesperson as an avid rower. Dr. Jarvick does not row and a body double appeared in advertisements.

The release goes on to reinforce the benefits of statins such as Lipitor in treating heart disease are validated in clinical guidelines. Lipitor represents $12.7 billion in sales for Pfizer.

According to The New York Times, the decision to withdraw the advertisements will have no bearing on the investigation led by U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce. The committee is still collecting documents from several sources and plans to meet with Dr. Jarvik.

One of the other complaints about the advertisement came from three former colleagues of Dr. Jarvik. They said the ads erroneously identified Dr. Jarvik as “inventor of the artificial heart” as opposed to the inventor of the “Jarvik artificial heart.” Other medical professionals also complained that Dr. Jarvik does not hold a license to practice any type of medicine.

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Monday, February 25

Communicating To Employees: Obvious But Overlooked


Last Thursday, Joanna Blockey, ABC, communication analyst for Southwest Gas Corporation, help put the crossover impact of external and internal communication into perspective as a guest speaker in my Writing For Public Relations class at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

While Southwest Gas Corporation has a well-defined program, she pointed out that many companies do not. Some employers still believe that "providing a paycheck" is the company’s only obligation to employees.

“We communicate to approximately 3,200 employees and retirees at Southwest Gas Corporation,” said Blockey. “It would be a mistake to discount them because they are one of our most important publics. Every day, employees go home with a message about the company.”

And then what happens? They talk to friends and family.

Considering some studies place the average person’s number of friends somewhere between 25 and 35, one internal impression about a company can travel considerable distance. At Southwest Gas Corporation for instance, 3,200 employees and retirees could deliver 96,000 impressions about the company. If these friends pass that impression on to even half of their friends, the impression count suddenly reaches 1.5 million people. It doesn’t end there nor does it consider the number of employees who communicate online.

It didn’t seem like it in January, but Yahoo has learned this lesson the hard way. More than one employee has made their layoff public. This communication, which started with 87 connections on Twitter, has since circled the globe and been picked up by the media. That's just one person.

It's something we alluded to back in Jaunary. Employees don’t like the uncertainty created at Yahoo, a message reinforced by Jerry Yang, chief executive, when he botched the balance between being empathetic for the 1,000 employees to be laid off, which started last week, and being bullish on streamlining the company for non-internal shareholders.

Add up employee impressions alone and you'll discover Yahoo is struggling against the weight of more than 3 million low morale impressions per day, which doesn’t even count that some employees have hundreds or thousands of connections online. Suddenly, this seems to make the recently added "padded" severance packages, for employees and top executives in the event of an acquisition, not all that comforting. In fact, the idea of a Yahoo buyout doesn’t even seem very comforting to Microsoft employees either.

All communication overlaps, inside and out.

Seattle Times reporter Benjamin Romano recently published part of one Microsoft internal communication sent by Kevin Johnson, president of the platform and services division at Microsoft.

"While some overlap is expected in any combination of this size," it said, "we should remember that Microsoft is a growth company that has hired over 20,000 people since 2005, and we would look to place talented employees throughout the company as a whole."

It then when on to shed light on just how important advertising has become to Microsoft executives: "Respect for both the creative and analytical aspects of advertising is core to both companies, along with recognition that advertising is an industry that represents opportunity and growth."

The full communication seemed to have several purposes. In addition to fending off growing concerns that a Yahoo acquisition could lead to Microsoft layoffs, it’s a message to internal Microsoft shareholders (meaning employees). It’s also a message to Yahoo employees (who are also Yahoo shareholders). And, it's carefully written in case it might land someplace else like, um, the Seattle Times.

Communication doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Watson Wyatt, a global consulting firm, released some key findings to consider about employee communication in its 2007/2008 report: Communication ROI Study
Secrets of Top Performers: How Companies With Highly Effective Employee Communication Differentiate Themselves.

• Effective employee communication is a leading indicator of financial performance.
• Effective employee communication translates into a 15.7 percent increase in the market value of a company.
• Effective employee communication increases employee engagement, which translates into better relationships.

The reasons are simple. There has never been a barrier between internal communication and external communication, except for the delusional beliefs of some executives. Simply put, if you cannot get the employees to buy into the company, then how you can expect customers to buy into its products and services?

People, like some companies, make the same mistakes.

The mistake in attempting to apply spatial barriers onto non-spatial ideas, as if things don't overlap, is not limited to business communication. It's an idea that keeps being transposed onto social media and social networks over and over again.

People attempt to define themselves like companies define themselves. They talk in terms that make the company-individual seem like it is the center of the universe with various social networks hovering around them like little planets, not at all different from the geocentric system debunked by Galileo.

Ergo, social networking is better represented by people orbiting an unknown center. On the Internet, they don't orbit a network but rather pass through networks much like they pass through networks in life. Their orbit takes them through this industry, that industry, work, home, friends, etc. Along the way, they leave little bits of communication.

Sure, I know this may seem terribly philosophical to some, but it’s the truth. Human nature is not all that different than nature, which is why employers need to ask themselves what they are communicating and where that communication will be left as their employees go about their daily lives. And then, where will that communication go from there?

Had Yahoo asked these questions months ago, I bet they would have considered a different communication strategy all together. You think?

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Sunday, February 24

Counting Beans: Journeyman vs. Friday Night Lights


With E! Online giving hope to Friday Night Lights, a show given every advantage to build an audience over two seasons, and Michael Hinman reinforcing the decision to axe Journeyman, a show given a half season in what has become NBC’s dead zone timeslot (as fans of The Black Donnellys know), some people are wondering if Nielsen ratings really mean anything.

After all, these two shows, on the same network, rack up about the same ratings. Unless, of course, you only count select beans.

The decision to cancel Journeyman had less to do with ratings and whether or not people watched the show and more to do with the financials of a hurting network, according to an unexpected source close to the show.

Unfortunately for the fans, this means all the Rice-A-Roni on the planet is unlikely to change any minds at the network. In fact, the only reason ratings have been factored into the conversation is because that is how critics guess at network decisions. And sometimes, networks use these numbers to justify their decisions.

Why are Nielsen numbers only sometimes important? According to Nielsen: There are 5,000 households in the national People Meter sample, approximately 20,000 households in the local metered market samples, approximately 1,000 metered homes for our national and local Hispanic measurement, and nearly 1.6 million diaries are edited each year.

In other words, on Nielsen’s best day, we can expect less than 2 percent of all television households to be sampled, which doesn’t even consider how many people lie (if you were a Jericho fan, chances are you would say you watched it, even if you did not). Or, in yet other words, Nielsen only sounds good when someone like Hinman writes it up like this. Ho hum.

Don’t get me wrong, Hinman is a great guy and he presents a sound argument for the validity of Nielsen as critics want you to believe because they use these numbers to predict the fate of television. However, as someone with a foot in advertising, I do make media buy recommendations from time to time. There are a number of factors well beyond audience reach to consider.

Sometimes these other factors are simple. It makes sense to buy news for political candidates because people who watch the news tend to vote. Sometimes these other factors are about who else buys it. That’s why I recommended a water purifier company NOT buy 20 some radio spots on a station dominated by his competitor, complete with host endorsements. And sometimes these other factors might be about product placement, which is why Ford bought Knight Rider sight unseen.

And sometimes, it has to do with experience. Experience is why, years ago, I heavily recommended a local Ham Supreme retailer to place a good portion of its media buy on an unproven pilot program. The agency I was working for balked at the idea, insisting we buy a high frequency cable rotate instead. The result: Ham Supreme ran heavily at 3 a.m. in the morning instead of on a show that eventually climbed to number one. Why did I want the pilot? Psychographics suggested Home Improvement viewers might like big ham sandwiches.

My point is that the rating system has become little more than a tool to push perception instead of reality. How far from reality? Far enough from reality that when a show like Jericho, for example, is placed in a setting where every viewer is tracked, like TiVo viewers or iTunes downloads, it comes close to the top and looks more viable.

I could have made the same iTunes comparison for Journeyman or Friday Night Lights, but for all of NBC’s smart moves toward digital media, it nixed selling shows on iTunes last Sept. in favor of a platform that doesn’t work on the market's dominant smart phone. When Journeyman was there; it did okay.

No matter, the networks and studios know all this, which is why Warner Bros. is testing emerging technology; advertisers are looking to the net; and networks have any number of initiatives that are not connected to the rating system. (Hat tip: Jane Sweat.) Add all this up and ...

Nielsen isn’t nearly as relevant today as it once was and everybody knows it, but few will admit it. While that doesn’t mean it won’t be relevant in the future, it certainly means its primary relevance is a matter of convenience. It’s easy to blame the ratings or bypass them on any given Sunday, like today.

So why was Journeyman cancelled? Look at the ratings and it seems to make sense, but the truth seems to be about budget. Why might Friday Night Lights be saved? The lower-budget show has critics who love to write about it and advertisers who like the psychographics.

Ho hum. Ratings smateings. Let's shoot for the truth.

As more entertainment becomes available on the net, more people will be turning to the net more often. Advertisers tend to want to be where people might learn about and buy their products. And networks tend to want to be where the advertisers want to be. Businesses that already have a Web presence in, um, social media, will be able to engage more people as opposed to simply slicing up their budgets across multiple media streams.

Networks and publishers will eventually win in this world too. For example, more people read The New York Times today than ever before. They made their decision after counting all the beans, not just the red ones. Advertising hasn't caught up, but it will. Bank on it.

So maybe what needs to be asked is this: in a world where analytics are pure, where's the need for Nielsen? Hinman says they'll measure everything in about five years. Five years? That's too late, considering I know how many people visit this blog without them.

Yeah, I know, media convergence seems so silly to so many people. But then again, these folks used the same arguments before: companies do not need Web sites; people will never use electronic mail; and Apple will never break into the phone market, let alone allow someone like me to connect my phone to my television and watch Supernatural. Right, none of those things will happen either.

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Friday, February 22

Blogging For Kindness: My Den


Sometimes the old saying that “children are a reflection of their parents” holds some truth. At least that seems to be the case for Dan, a hobby blogger who writes My Den.

After learning about the Bloggers Unite social awareness campaign Acts of Kindness, which asked bloggers from around the world to perform an act of kindness and share a post, picture, or video about it, Dan turned to his daughter. They set out to do something together.

“One of the first considerations when I got involved in Bloggers Unite: Acts of Kindness, was to involve my daughter in the campaign,” says Dan. “I wanted to inculcate a sense of compassion for the less fortunate, especially important, to me anyway, in a society almost obsessed with materialistic wealth.”

Dan, who says he is innately thrifty, had an idea. Why not find something that could benefit the environment and the less fortunate. Together, that’s what they did. After borrowing a van from a friend, they visited 100 to 120 households over a three-day period, asking neighbors for their recyclables.

Once collected, the recyclables raised almost $200; enough money to buy rice, canned food, beverages, and milk powder (and one Barbie doll, a Christmas gift for a 9-year-old girl). Although Dan posted about what they did, like many bloggers, their gift remains anonymous.

“Our donations, like many others, were anonymous and were left at the collection boxes located at a major supermarket chain,” says Dan. “I was at a loss as to who to donate the money to until my daughter saw a television commercial about The Boys’ Brigade Sharity Gift Box project.”

The Boys’ Brigade’s mission is to bring cheer to the less fortunate by collecting food items and fulfilling Christmas wishes through The Boys’ Brigade Sharity Gift Box. The gift items reach out to more than 3,000 individuals at 180 organizations in Singapore.

But more than that, Dan and his daughter have since committed to do at least one social project together every month. In January, they visited a seniors facility for a day, bringing food along with their kindness. All of it began with social media. Dan began participating in Bloggers Unite shortly after getting involved with Blog Action Day, another program inspired by previous BlogCatalog campaigns.

“Participation in the last Blog Action Day as a platform for change impressed me tremendously,” said Dan. “Bloggers Unite: Acts of Kindness was my first with BlogCatalog, and I am more than willing to participate in future campaigns, having seen the benefits and ability to do some good.”

Dan joined BlogCatalog approximately six months ago, but has been blogging for almost two years. My Den, which focuses on his love for literature, was his first hobby blog. He also publishes Third Rock From The Sun, which is an environmental awareness blog, and Freebies & Stuff, which reviews free software, desktop utilities, and Web services.

“My Den has definitely gone through many changes since I first started it,” says Dan. “It was a platform for my involvement in joining social campaigns and as my main blog to strike friendships with fellow bloggers. One of the posts that I’ve always derived tremendous satisfaction from was the first publication of a short story that I had written — A Live Unlive — which talks about the plight of the mentally ill.”

It’s an interesting story. One that touches on a subject easily overlooked, but so are a lot of things, like recycling, making a small donation, or sharing an act of kindness with your daughter. It’s nice to know some people don’t overlook these things. People like Dan. Congratulations again!

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Thursday, February 21

Taking Leaps: NBC Blinks, Sees The Future

The Bionic Woman will not be rebuilt, but NBC Universal wants to rebuild television. On Tuesday, the network announced it would move to a year-round schedule of staggered program introduction.

According to The New York Times, NBC will be committing to a new lineup of shows earlier than any of its competitors, while also inviting advertisers to build marketing plans around specific shows and perhaps to integrate brands and products into the plots of the shows themselves.

“We absolutely think this is going to change the industry,” said Michael Pilot, head of sales for NBC.

The departure places a real question mark on the viability and importance of the Nielsen rating system. Nielsen is not prepared to measure a 52-week season; the bulk of its measure is based on traditional sweeps. Tradition, it seems, is dead.

“The ultimate decision is going to be made by program executives who believe in the shows,” Marc Graboff, the co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, who said that they are looking to have a two-way conversation with advertisers.

That makes sense, given more advertisers want a two-way conversations with customers. And customers want to be heard.

Whether this decision plays well for the fans of recently cancelled shows, or those on the bubble, has yet to be seen. For NBC, the show is Journeyman. So far, despite the inventive Rice-A-Roni campaign, the best outcome for fans seems to be based on a rumor that a few more episodes of season one might see the light of day.

For CBS, everyone knows the show is Jericho. With season 2, episode 2 ratings being called a virtual disaster, even sympathetic critics seem to think there is little hope left.

It’s not because fans don’t watch the show (on TiVo, Jericho ranks as the 11th most recorded show on television). It was also the network's second most downloaded show after CSI. And leaked episodes were downloaded in droves. One hold up: Nielsen families don’t watch Jericho live.

And that might be enough. Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, warned fans early on that she wanted more live viewers before committing to a third season. It’s something I kept drawing attention to when some fans insisted CBS wanted them to hang out in the CBS forum instead of out and about recruiting new fans. No matter, it wasn’t the only mistake made by fans or CBS.

The best hope for fans is that this "live viewers" condition was made on a network-decision model that doesn’t exist anymore. Every show is being considered on a case-by-case basis. It’s a new era of network decision-making; the kind that shocks the system as cable shows like Dexter make the jump from cable to mainstream despite growing protest.

At the end of the day, the decision will all depend on how CBS decides to crunch the numbers. If the old model is applied to Jericho, it will die. If the new model is applied, there might be a chance.

The same can be said for other shows too. The future model will allow shows like Journeyman or even Veronica Mars to avoid current ratings system and time slot traps. But that does not mean the networks have to apply this thinking today.

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Wednesday, February 20

Making Friends: Social Networks, Much Like Life


Discussions about what constitutes online “friendship” abound about places like Twitter, Facebook, BlogCatalog, whatever.

Some people, it seems, are criticizing groups of friends that develop over time as if they are somehow an exclusive club, which Geoff Livingston rebutted yesterday. Ho hum. As if social media doesn’t somehow mirror real life. It’s mostly the same.

It’s much ado about nothing. Friends are what you make them.

At least that is what I’m going to say next week when I speak about social networks at the Recruiting Roadshow. Social networks are just like any face-to-face network, with two distinctions that don’t add up too much.

The two distinctions between online and offline friends.

The first is simple. Online friends are those people you happened to meet in a "public" online setting before you met them in person. That might seem like a fairly thin distinction, but it holds up.

You might notice that I add emphasis to “public. “ I did because I’ve been introduced to people through email long before I met them in person, and nobody would ever think to give them the “online friend” moniker.

Second, online friendships tend to “seem” more fragile than face-to-face friendships. But that’s not really true either. People follow the same social patterns in life that they do online.

They get a new job, make friends at work, leave the job, and never look back with the exception of staying in touch with one or two people, maybe. They join an association, become involved, make friends, drop out, and never look back with the exception of staying in touch with one or two people, maybe. Where's the difference?

There isn't one, but I do appreciate that fickle friendships are new for most people. It’s not so new to me. I live in a city with such a high transient rate that the chances my son will retain even one friend from kindergarten through the sixth grade is zero.

People move in and out and around Las Vegas at an extremely high rate. There are very, very few constants. So few that making new friends all the time is part of survival in this city. However, much like online, it also makes new friendships commonplace, and even replaceable to the growing number of people who live here.

There are degrees of friendships online, much like life.

Maybe you know the drill and maybe you do not. But if you attend a luncheon, especially as a speaker, people will ask for your business card. Giving them one is not all that different than “friending them back” on a social network.

The only thing that seems to stand in the way of connecting online for some people is the word “friend,” because that tends to be the term that many social networks employ as the connection designation. As a result, people really over think the term. Get over it.

“It’s annoying when total strangers ask to be your ‘friend’ on a network because they just want a lot of ‘friends’ in their network,” some bloggers have told me. But really, what’s the difference between these people and those that work a room at a conference with a fist full of business cards? Do you withhold your card? Probably not.

This really isn’t that hard to sort out. There are connections, associates, colleagues, friends, best friends, and any number of designations if you’re so inclined to put headers over the people you know. So what if Twitter calls it “followers” and BlogCatalog calls it “friends?” It doesn’t mean beans, except for what you bring to the table.

BlogCatalog adds a new layer of friends via the Social Dashboard.

Andy Beard and Charles McKeever were among the first bloggers to write about it, but BlogCatalog added a layer between “friends.” You see, while many social networks talk about convergence, BlogCatalog went ahead and did it.

"The Social Dashboard will help bloggers streamline networking and stay up to date with friends," said Antony Berkman, president of BlogCatalog. "Bloggers tell us they enjoy making friends on BlogCatalog and then connecting with those friends on other networks. Social Dashboard will make it easier while making member profile pages more dynamic."

The new tool allows friends to share activities with other friends across BlogCatalog and nine other social networks: Delicious, Digg, Facebook, Flickr, Last.fm, MySpace, StumbleUpon, Twitter, and YouTube. It’s easy to operate. All you have to do is subscribe to any friend's feed and all their activities appear on your Dashboard (unless they set change their privacy settings).

What's interesting about the Dashboard beyond the write ups I linked to is that from all your “friends” on BlogCatalog, you subscribe to some not all. Voila. A new layer of connection is created. Those you know; those you follow. That’s not the intent per se, but it does help keep the noise down.

The real deal about friends, online or off.

The real confusion about friendship, online and off, has nothing to do with any of this, of course. Anytime I read about people trying to figure out online friendships, they often start defining qualities that constitute friendship.

Are they nuts? Real friendships are mutually unconditional. There is no definition or expectation. And if you even have one friend like that, then you have more than most.

As for me, I treat online connections much like life. Sometimes it pays to take a chance on a stranger because you really never know whether they will become a real friend unless you give them a chance. Then again, maybe I’m biased because many of my “online friendships” have become “friendships” anyway.

The bottom line is that you can pretend online is somehow different than offline, but the reality is that it is no difference. It only “feels” different because the written word or being center stage has a different impact than casual face-to-face conversations.

It’s the very reason we sometimes feel connected to our favor authors, musicians, actors, whatever. We might feel connected, but they really don’t know us and we really don’t know them. Not really. Then again, we don’t really know the people we think we know anyway. Online, it’s just more obvious.

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Tuesday, February 19

Pitching In The Dark: Click On, Click Off

If you ever wondered why journalists aren’t crazy for public relations, look no further than the misguided few. I was pitched by the outside public relations team for MyClick Media Limited (MyClick). It was a disaster, from start to non-finish.

The pitch came across like spam.

Headline: If you are working Monday, I would like to introduce you to this technology… Body: … and meet the MyClick team. Please let me know.

The release was loaded with marketing puff.

Release: MyClick is a ground breaking and unique photo recognition Mobile Marketing Platform that empowers all mobile users with the chance to enjoy exciting and exclusive infotainment and m-commerce information upon demand. Translation: MyClick employs photo recognition in promotional material, allowing mobile phone users to take pictures of promotional material to win coupons.

The technology was interesting.

The story is Pizza Hut using MyClick technology for a promotion in mainland China. So despite the pitch deficiencies and the release idiosyncrasies, I decided to follow up despite what appeared to be a one-day holiday offer. My mistake.

The responses were irritating.

“What pub do you work for I am sorry to ask you.”

Never mind they pitched me. Ho hum. Sure, I could have mentioned any number of publications that we string for from time to time, a number of accounts who might be interested in MyClick technology, or my position as an instructor. But that seems like disingenuous carrot dangling to me. So I simply mentioned this blog because they pitched this blog and my intent was to write about MyClick on this blog.

"do you want a face to face"

I’m based in Las Vegas. So considering the public relations firm has offices in California and New York and MyClick is based in China, this seemed a bit extreme for a Pizza Hut promotion. Maybe it’s me, but given the pitch, I assumed the public relations firm might have had something in mind for Monday, unless of course, the whole “Meet the MyClick team on Monday” thing was a ploy. You think?

I said it wasn’t necessary, but put the burden of a solution back on them. Other than answering my question whether the Pizza Hut promotion was exclusive to China, nothing. Yeesh. This was starting to feel like too much work so I alluded to pulling the plug.

I decided to pull the plug.

“Okay,” I wrote. “It's still an interesting concept, but I'm starting to sense you were not prepared for someone to respond to the pitch. So, you've really left me at a loss here. Maybe it would be best to skip it, other than to address the dangers of mass pitch emails.”

"fine"

My pleasure, sort of. I don’t really want to embarrass the firm completely so I’m omitting their name. Though, I must admit, I am tempted. Bad handling affects the entire industry. Lesson for today: if you aren’t interested in contact, then don’t send an invitation pitch.

Public relations professionals would be better off following the practices of the public relations team working with Loomia, who pitched us a week or so prior. Their pitch was timely, professional, personalized, and what started out as a singular post has now popped up around the Web. I’d work with them anytime they have news.

This post might pop up around the Web too. But I don’t think it’s the kind of coverage MyClick paid for. As for my take on their technology, it has become just another footnote in how bad public relations practices detract from otherwise interesting news.

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Monday, February 18

Missing The Real Deal: Presidents Day

Last year, President George W. Bush traveled to the Mount Vernon estate of George Washington in honor of Presidents Day, which was chosen as a date to honor the birthday of President Washington.

In truth, Washington’s birthday is Feb. 22 (Feb. 11 if you consider the Julian calendar used when he was alive). Along with Washington’s birthday, many consider it a celebration of President Lincoln’s birthday as well, which is Feb. 12. A few even consider it a celebration of all Presidents.

Of course, nowadays, today is best known for retail advertising campaigns and a growing number of newspapers that lament how Presidents Day lost its meaning.

You see, it was really intended to celebrate Washington’s birthday as the first President of the United States. President Lincoln had earned his own day. That is, until HR 15951 was passed in 1968 in an attempt to simplify federal holidays. But that’s the thing.

Representations don’t always have as much value as the real thing.

We learned it here in Nevada too. Ever since the state moved Nevada Day from Oct. 31 to the last Friday of the month, it too has lost some luster. Lighter events are now scattered throughout the long weekend, which is used by Nevadans to prepare for Halloween as much as anything. I guess it seems fitting that this year’s theme has something to do with aliens. The outer space kind.

This year, President George W. Bush is in Africa. And, when you look at the newspapers, there seems to be much less about a national celebration than some other topics, including political endorsements and recognizing new nations, which has drowned out most mentions, even the laments.

Not so much for me. It still rings true as George Washington’s birthday, honoring the first President of the United States. Even while writing about why Benjamin Franklin would have made a great blogger, it didn’t hit me to post it (maybe sometime in the weeks ahead).

Today belongs to Washington. Another founding father, who despite little formal education, would have likely participated in social media, writing what would one day be public letters to his colleagues from Mount Vernon. Oh right, he did do exactly that.

Maybe that’s why we should remember him today, and our founding fathers more often. These people weren’t trying to be “anything” like we sometimes see in politics today. They were trying to do something. But maybe that’s the point. Representations don’t always have as much value as the real thing.

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Friday, February 15

Blogging For Kindness: Original Me Tees

Not all blogs are cut from the same cloth. Original Me Tees is a good example.

Nathania Johnson, an online marketing consultant, uses the Original Me Tees blog as a promotional tool for her online T-shirt store. The idea originated as an extension of a Caf├ęPress store, which she recently switched to another online print on demand service called Printfection, where you can see her designs.

”The idea is that people dress to express themselves,” says Johnson. “And while we all have differences, we can connect through common threads.”

One common thread for bloggers last year was the Bloggers Unite social awareness campaign Acts of Kindness. It asked bloggers from around the world to perform an act of kindness and share a post, picture, or video about it. The campaign interested Johnson because it gave her a strong idea — wearing compassion.

“It was something I really wanted to put time into,” she said. “It’s a great way to contribute to the blogosphere and the world in general.”

Johnson’s post was one of several recognized by judges after she submitted it for contest consideration. Rather than perform an act of kindness specific to the campaign, she highlighted several charities that she frequently contributes to, suggesting that readers “try on one of these charities to see if it fits in with your personal wardrobe.”

“I felt like mentioning all of the non-profits because I was contributing to them,” Johnson said. “Otherwise, I tend not to talk about any specific monetary donations to charities. For me it’s a spiritual thing. It just feels a bit self-gratuitous.”

Johnson is not alone in feeling that way. Several bloggers said they struggled with the last campaign because they were writing about themselves as opposed to a subject. For many, it was only after people left comments or expressed that they were inspired to contribute an act of kindness that the bloggers understood how sharing kindness tends to spread.

In addition to mentioning several charities, Johnson highlighted several simple acts of kindness beyond supporting non-profits — everyday things you can do to “accessorize” giving. Just three examples include: allowing others to go first, giving up the better parking spot, and being generous and sincere with compliments. Providing options was extremely important to her.

“Everyone is different,” says Johnson. “While supporting Brad Pitt's project to rebuild the 9th Ward of New Orleans might appeal to one person, building wells for villages in the Central African Republic might resonate strongly with someone else.”

She says she views blogging the same way. Shee always considered BlogCatalog best for metabloggers — people who blog about blogging — but she sees Bloggers Unite as a great way to trend in new directions. Expanding niches would certainly benefit the blogger network, Johnson said.

“I've only participated in Bloggers Unite one time so far, but I would participate again if they keep it non-political,” she said. “I used to be quite active with my account for my classic movie blog. There are a lot of good conversations that happen on BlogCatalog.”

Johnson said she is a bit less active since losing her classic movie blog, after her hosting service had a server crash. And, until recently, she hadn’t even found the time to update her other two. In addition blogging for companies where she works, she is actively involved with photography and Improv, and spends as much time with her family as she can.

“I have a wonderful husband, two fantastic kids, and two cute cats,” She said. And a big heart. Congrats again Nathania!

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