Thursday, January 8

Accepting Temporary: Complacency Is Circular


Last night, I noticed something unusual at my gym. Typically, Gold's Gym is packed with "resolution members," people who made fitness resolutions for the New Year. After two weeks, most of them conclude that it isn't working and slowly fade away into whatever daily routines seem more comfortable. Not this year.

When I shared the observation that my gym was void of resolution members this year, PJ Perez suggested "overweight Americans have accepted their designations."

He's right, but I'm not so sure we're talking about fitness. Eighty-five percent of people voting on a news poll believe that the economy will get worse before it gets better, and only 33 percent have faith that President-elect Barack Obama's administration will be able to turn the economy around.

When the question had been asked during the election cycle, those numbers were considerably higher. It's one of the reasons he won. So what changed? People aren't certain the Obama administration can turn the economy around because Obama has yet to change campaign criticism into a confident challenge. Consider the following …

"I don't believe it's too late to change course, but it will be if we don't take dramatic action as soon as possible," Obama said in a speech set to be delivered at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., outside Washington.

Most speechwriters know that "but" cancels out everything that precedes it. Then again, I'm not talking about politics. I'm talking about the acceptance of what seems to be and complacency as opposed to acknowledging what is and moving forward.

You see, complacency is circular in that it occurs in companies, countries, and people at two ends of the spectrum — when things are too good or when things are too bad. In either case, complacency is the general acceptance of a temporary situation or state of being as if it is permanent (or who we are). So if you haven't already, right now might be a good time to kick around the concept of complacency as a conversation in your office.

Are you making decisions based on (or complaining about) temporary situations? And if so, what happens if and when those temporary situations change? Will those decisions put you in a position to win or ensure you remain in the same place — at the bottom of the complacency circle (which might be where your company started anyway)?

Or in other words, if your company is waiting it out, you might rethink that. After all, times will change. They always do. It's the only certainty.

Wednesday, January 7

Surfing For Survival: The Fourth Estate


"But what if the old media dies much more quickly? What if a hurricane comes along and obliterates the dunes entirely? Specifically, what if The New York Times goes out of business—like, this May?" — Michael Hirschorn, The Atlantic

When The New York Times released an October earnings report that revealed drastic measures must be taken or the paper would be forced to default on $400 million debt, some people, including journalists like Hirschorn, woke up wondering what if what once seemed like a slow a painful death for print might be hastened before they could develop a viable online business migration model. And what would that mean for journalism? And what would that mean for public relations?

The New York Times is not alone. Any time I spoke about social media last year, I carried some disappointing circulation statistics with me — most papers were down double digits: Boston Globe, down 10.1 percent; Philadelphia Inquirer, down 11.0 percent; the Miami Herald, down 11.8 percent; the Detroit News, down 10 percent; the Houston Chronicle, down 11.6 percent. And that says nothing about the Tribune Co. bankruptcy.

A few weeks ago, Thomas Mitchell, editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, noted "Information wants to be free, reporters want to be paid" in a column that reminds readers that newspapers survive to provide substance. He's right. Anyone can offer up opinion. Anyone can cater to the masses for link love and pats on the back. But not everyone will "sit through the council meeting and sift through the volumes of bureaucratic paperwork" or be able to disassemble and reassemble it in order to objectively educate the public as to what it means to them.

True enough, as that was the same point Paul Mulshine, opinion columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger, made in the The Wall Street Journal. And I heard similar comments while sitting on a panel with Bruce Spotleson, group publisher at Greenspun Media; Jon Ralston, columnist and commentator on state politics, and Flo Rogers, general manager of Southern Nevada's KNPR. Increasingly, the public seems more interested in news that supports their worldview than the last remnants of objective journalism.

Sure, the old model must change. But what newspapers need to remember is they can't wait for someone else to invent it. Most models will be different. Some might shrink print content while driving more readers online for additional content. Some might create online communities for the strongest sections. Some might place a greater emphasis on another medium like video. Some will attempt to give up the one-way new stream and encourage journalists to engage the public, something BusinessWeek seems to be experimenting with, but with mixed reception. And some, well, some will surely just lay down and die. But what if they all did?

Ethics & The Fourth Estate

It's a question I ask myself every year while I prepare to teach public relations skill sets that seem a little less valued today than they were last year or the year before that. Do they even know that the burden of business ethics might fall all the more on their shoulders? That's one question Bill Sledzik, associate professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Kent State University, has on his mind as well.

"I worry that too many PR types will place client interest ahead of public interest, expediency ahead of ethics," he writes. "They have in the past, and social media makes it that much easier today."

He might be right to worry. Even where there aren't ethical lapses, the slips seem more frequent (even among those who profess transparency). There are a few who already seem all too comfortable walking right up to the ethical line (if not crossing it) or redefining it to fit their needs. Even more don't really understand ethics all that well. When I share ethical challenges in a class, for example, the informal fail rate has been as high as 90 percent.

It may get worse before it gets better. A survey recently conducted by the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE) and the Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA) reveals that the declining economy might increase the risk of legal and ethics violations in business. In fact, more than 85 percent of 600 compliance and business ethics professionals felt that the current economy greatly or somewhat increases the risk of compliance and ethics failures with only one percent offering a contrarian opinion. (The complete survey results can be downloaded here).

"There's good and bad news here," observed Roy Snell, the CEO of SCCE and HCCA. "We're finding that companies are increasingly seeing compliance and ethics as an integral part of their business and not a luxury to be discarded during an economic downturn. But, at the same time, we're seeing stagnant budgets or potential declines in resources at a time of increased risk for failures. That's creating a gap that could prove to be a dangerous chasm for business to cross."

And what if they do cross it? Without a viable Fourth Estate, there may be less risk and consequence. Yesterday, it used to be a suitable ethical review sum up to end with a single quip — unless you would be proud to see what you say or do on the front page of The Wall Street Journal or New York Times, then don't say or do it. Today, you can buy space on the front page instead. And tomorrow, there might not be one to care.

Tuesday, January 6

Saving Sony: Social Media?


In June 2008, Sony presented several initiatives designed to build on its previous three-year revitalization plan. Six months later, reaching even some of these goals seems further way than ever.

• Expand PC, Blu-ray-related products and component/semiconductor businesses while joining the LCD TVs, digital imaging, and mobile phone markets; which all seems contrary to rumors that Sony will abolish "several major divisions."
• Ensure 90 percent of its electronics product categories are network-enabled and wireless-capable by the fiscal year ending March 2011, which seems to be born out of necessity over innovation.
• Roll out video services across key Sony products by 2010-11, which started with the launch of the PlayStation Network despite some obvious trouble.
• Double annual revenue from BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries by 2010-11, which is another goal that seems dampened by Microsoft.

Since, Sony cut 16,000 permanent and temporary jobs worldwide, simultaneously expecting profits to be down 50 percent compared to last year. And even while Sony announced it did not plan to introduce additional restructuring measures, the writing keeps popping up on the digital wall.

Can Social Media Help Save Sony?

In an effort to directly connect and converse the public (and perhaps regain control over its apparently errant communication), Sony Electronics is placing its faith in social media. Today, it launched a new social site — housing the company's blog, videos, photos, polls, and consumer profiles. The rushed launch coincides with the Consumer Electronics Show.

"The Sony blog has enabled us to speak frankly and directly with our customer base and the public at large, not only in the U.S. but around the world," said blog host Rick Clancy, senior vice president of corporate communications, Sony Electronics Inc., before the site was truly live. "Now we're looking to make the blog the cornerstone of a more interactive community site that provides people with the opportunity to talk to us and to each other about their opinions, experiences and observations with respect to Sony, our products, the industry and even our competitors."

But does it really? While it looks great, there is just something missing from a pre-launch post written by "Sony Admin," who purchased DSC-W130 in pink to tame his precocious daughter. Transparency, which probably isn't needed at Sony as much as authenticity, is only believable when it comes from a person with a real name.

Sure, sure, Sony is still in beta. But it really is difficult to relate to an ambiguous "Admin" handle who shares personal stories. "Admin" posts are better left to generic content whereas, if the author really is Clancy, he might as well use his real name. After that, he can get his company to pitch in on products so he doesn't have to "buy" them for those future cameo posts.

Much sharper than the blog is the community hub section. Backstage 101 is dedicated to helping people learn how to use products; The Digital Darkroom is a photo gallery site to share photos with others; Frontline is an online research community where you can provide feedback to Sony through online surveys, panels, polls and focus groups; and Voice your Opinion promises to allow consumers to do exactly that about Sony products.

Yes, the categories are a bit awkward, but I expect they'll shift quite a bit while the site remains in beta. Eventually, I imagine that the company's classifications will be replaced by the way consumers think, which will place product sections — eg. I have a camera — front and center. Frontline and Voice Your Opinion can be consolidated to make room for such a move.

In addition to its on-site efforts, Sony is also promoting itself with several other social media accounts, including: a push PR Twitter account, Facebook page, Flickr account, and YouTube.

The Flickr and YouTube accounts appear to be the most promising of the bunch. They deliver the best of what you might expect from Sony whereas the Twitter account reinforces that the company behind this social media move has never been known for being upfront in its communication. That fact alone might even make a few mistakes along the way forgivable.

Sony Social Promises To Mix Slick And Silly

Mistakes? Yep. Expect them. For instance, in an effort to initiate engagement, Sony is asking for help in naming the new community site and encouraging consumers to submit their ideas. According to Clancy, his favorite name so far is "Sony No Baloney." Um, right.

If authenticity is going to be part of any social media arrangement, you cannot force it. Most would agree that this blog has a better chance of being renamed "The Sausage House" than Sony would picking "Sony No Baloney" for the banner of its new social media effort. Then again, it's the silly stuff like this that makes Sony our first living case study of 2009.

While there is plenty of potential, it's also painfully apparent Sony intends to struggle through social media all in beta. And considering we had the new release in hand several hours before "Sony Admin" had a "Sony's New Community Site Goes Live" post up, we anticipate some oddness now and again in the year ahead. Let's just hope in what seems to be a sincere effort to adopt some of the so-called "new rules of social media" that Sony doesn't break its own brand in the process.

Monday, January 5

Beginning 2009: The Year Of Communication


Happy New Year! Yes, again.

It's the second time I've written it because it seems to be worth writing again. It's a happy New Year because about half of Americans polled by NBC News/Wall Street Journal believe 2008 was the worst year in American history. As Rich Lowery, writing for The Washington Times pointed out, it wasn't.

But nonetheless, it's a happy New Year because Americans seem to need one. Consumer confidence has a nasty habit of following what the leaders communicate. And for the good part of two years, very few leaders can say they stood up to be counted among those who had a positive message to deliver. This is what must change.

Politics aside, in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt demonstrated he understood this by delivering one of the most remembered inaugural addresses of the 20th century. His speech led the way by changing the candor of communication and calling for a time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. And in doing so, he reminded the American people (and people all over the world) that the "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

"Nothing changes and yet everything is completely different." — Aldous Huxley

Last year, we rang in the New Year by calling 2008 The Year of New Media. In many ways, it was exactly that, with more companies recognizing that social media was viable. They rushed to embrace it.

This year, companies that rushed headlong into social media will begin to adjust, recognizing that social media is a tactic and, as a tactic, only one portion of a well-thought strategic communication plan. Some will understand and appreciate that although there is merit in the prevailing thought of joining the conversation, there is also a need for people to lead those conversations with hope, innovation, and a focus on being able to meet the needs of the people they want to reach.

For all our talk about ROI, companies will do well to remember that the mere possession of a healthy profit margin is less paramount to the long-term bottom line than are achievements gained through innovation and the shared outcomes that come from the creative efforts by consumers and companies. This year, I'll infuse the concept into classes and speaking engagements because it seems to be needed out of necessity.

The way I see it, if there is one question to be asked in 2009, it will be whether or not your companies are ready to improve, innovate, and then communicate those improvements and innovations without motivating people by fear for short-term gains. The focus needs to be positive. The contract with consumers needs to be long term.

Speaking Schedule & UNLV Classes — Richard Becker

Writing For Public Relations — 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., Jan. 15 – March 12

Writing For Public Relations is a skills development class that focuses on the application of strategic communication into public relations with an emphasis on practical writing skills. Students learn a variety of writing styles and how to best apply them to: news releases, fact sheets, biographical sketches, feature stories, media kits, and social media/new media. (CEUs: 1.80)

Breakfast of Champions: Build Public Opinion Online — 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., Feb. 6

Presented by Community Service Consultants at Regis University, Build Public Opinion Online will focus on how non-profit organizations and business community relations managers can develop effective public outreach programs online, employing social media tools such as blogging, social networks, and other resources.

Social Media For Communication Strategy — 9 a.m. to noon, Feb. 28

Social Media for Communication Strategy focuses on increasing the use of online technologies to share content, opinion, insight, and experience. Collectively, these technologies shape more opinion than all other media combined and have dramatically changed the communication landscape. (CEUs: .3)

Editing and Proofreading Your Work — 9 a.m. to noon, April 4

Editing And Proofreading Your Work is half-day day session that focuses on improving clarity, consistency, and correct usage in personal and business correspondence. It includes essentials such as language, mechanics of style, spelling, and punctuation.

Of course, you'll find some information shared here from time to time, as this blog was initially created as a supplement for classes and speaking engagements. Copywrite, Ink. also provides an analysis for the potential of new media in our proposals, backed by experience on more than 1,000 accounts across all industries.

Friday, January 2

Delivering Service: AmeriCorps Benefits Nevada


Given economic growth in the United States is still near an all-time low and given the current economic crisis in Nevada, it's not surprising to learn Nevada Volunteers (formerly the Nevada Commission For National & Community Service), will not be included in the governor's budget. The decision will require the commission to seek legislative funding for the next biennium, which is no easy task given that most state budgets are being cut.

This will require state legislators to look long term rather than short term. The cost of losing AmeriCorps in Nevada is far greater than the modest matching funds required to keep the commission operational for the next two years.

The return on investment is $19 in funding for every $1 the state invests.

With a $19 to $1 rate of return and a President-Elect looking to expand AmeriCorps, common sense suggests that the state legislature needs to consider Nevada Volunteers a priority program.

Nevada Volunteers administers AmeriCorps programs in Nevada and works to link community-building organizations with the public and private resources they need. Specifically, with the modest state funding investment of $365,000 over the biennium, the state receives $4.4 million in AmeriCorps programming and $1 million in additional volunteer services.

During the last biennium, Nevada Volunteers administered critical funding for the Great Basin Institute, U.S. Veterans Initiative, Parasol Tahoe Community Foundation, Family Resource Centers of Northeastern Nevada, and the United Way of Southern Nevada, among others. In addition, after successful completion of service, AmeriCorps members earn an education award that can be used to pay for college or graduate school or repay qualified student loans.

The return in service outcomes far exceeds the monetary gain.

As impressive as the return of investment is for the State of Nevada, the direct outcome from 156,518 hours of service from 139 AmeriCorps members and 27,178 hours of community service from more than 4,100 AmeriCorps volunteers delivers badly needed services across the state of Nevada. A few highlights across AmeriCorps funded programs include:

• Collected and distributed more than 59,000 pounds of food and clothing to 21,000 Nevadans.
• Provided domestic violence prevention and intervention to 154 Nevada women and children.
• Provided outreach to 1,300 homeless persons, including veterans (with an 88 percent transition success rate).
• Provided direct educational assistance to approximately 200 at-risk children across the state.
• Built, restored, and maintained more than 96 miles of wilderness trails and 38 miles of natural habitats.
• Removed hazardous fuels from more than 386 acres, creating firebreaks, and planted 7,800 trees.
• Conducted 411 Red Cross first aid/CPR classes for more than 4,800 Nevadans.

It doesn't take someone like me, who has served as a governor-appointed state commissioner for seven years, including executive positions on the board for five years, to see that preserving AmeriCorps is vital to the State of Nevada. To do it, however, the commission will need more than a proclamation. It needs several state legislators to step forward and champion the required state administrative match during the 2009 legislative session.

The only question that remains is which legislators it will be and how long it will take. During the last legislative session when no line item programs were to be funded, last-minute legislation for AmeriCorps passed almost unanimously (42-0 in the assembly and 19-1-1 in the senate, with only a single dissenting vote by then State Senator Ann O’Connell) just before midnight as part of one of the last bills presented.

State legislators learned then how important AmeriCorps is to Nevada after realizing that our state will lose millions in federal and private support. One can only hope our new legislators are wise enough to see that cutting AmeriCorps doesn't save $182,500 per year. On the contrary, it will cost the state almost $4 million per year in lost funding and services.

Thursday, January 1

Measuring Popular: Social Media Meets Gilligan's Island


Long-time industry analyst Barbara French once wrote (link below) that "we've got some very bright people on both sides of the debate — those advocating that we equate influence with popularity/connectedness, those advising against it. Neither side is ready to blink." Well, for those advocating for it, I suggest they study the work of Sherwood Schwartz and blink.

That's right. You'll find all you need to know about how influence, authority, and popularity interact by watching Gilligan's Island.

Influence

Influence is the capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behavior, and opinions of others.

The Professor, AKA Roy Hinkley Jr., Ph.D., had individual influence, even though group think had more. (So did Eunice "Lovey" Wentworth Howell, mostly over her husband but occasionally the younger female castaways.)

In 1958, social psychologist Solomon Asch devised an experiment to examine the extent to which pressure from other people could affect one's perception. Almost 37 of the 50 subjects conformed to the majority at least once, even when the majority had chosen a clearly erroneous answer. (Hat tip for the reminder: HireCentrix).

It didn't require any sense of authority or popularity; only a simple majority. However, perceived authority or popularity can potentially compound the allure of conformity. And sometimes, in the wrong hands, the results can be disastrous.

Authority

Authority is the power to enforce laws, exact obedience, command, determine, judge, or influence by proven knowledge or experience in a field.

The Skipper, AKA Jonas Grumby, had authority. (So did Thurston Howell, III, but his authority did not translate into an admired quality given the situational parameters of the island.)

In 1963, Stanley Milgram gave the world a glimpse into obedience by publishing the results of his experiment, which proved the authority figure in the experiment could convince participants to deliver electric shocks past safety limits, even when the recipient of the shocks protested and expressed life-threatening danger.

It didn't require any popularity, only a blind belief that someone seemed in charge. A simple majority can compound the allure of obedience. And sometimes, when given to the wrong people, it can be disastrous.

Popularity

Popularity is most simply defined as being commonly liked or approved of, but there's a bit more to it.

Ginger Grant was popular. (But among viewers, people liked Mary Ann more).

In 2008, behavioral geneticist S. Alexandra Burt at Michigan State University found that genes elicit not only specific behaviors but also the social consequences of those behaviors, which means your genes may drive your social experiences and predispose you to popularity in certain social settings. But there is more to it than that. In this study, the 200 male college students were in a unique campus environment where "rule-breaking behaviors" are generally admired. In another social setting, they may not be popular.

In 1993, the Administrative Science Quarterly published "Power, social influence, and sense making: effects of network centrality and proximity on employee perceptions," which explored the relative contributions of individual attributes, formal organizational positions, network centrality, and network proximity in explaining individual variation in perceptions of work-related conditions in an advertising firm. Simply stated, like many studies have found — social settings, structural centrality, perceived leadership, situational timing, and role satisfaction all play a part in making someone popular. And sometimes, when the wrong people become popular, it can be disastrous.

Ergo, exhibiting qualities considered admirable within a specific social network can help someone become popular.

It's also why Gilligan may have been the least popular person on the island, but he was easily the most popular comedic icon among viewers who found the comedy and sometimes accidental genius of the character to be admired qualities.

Influence, Authority, and Popularity Online

Michael Litman, who is equally fascinated by the concept of online authority, touched on part of the equation (and provided a sum up of definitions from people with perceived authority online) by simply stating that authority cannot be measured online. He's mostly right.

When you consider various social psychological studies and what we know about cognitive psychology, everyone started as equal as Litman suggests. But since human beings are human beings, we are generally predisposed to create systems of hierarchy and authority. So, it only stands to reason that people quickly went to work attempting to build such a structure in this new social setting.

Fortunately or unfortunately, much of this hierarchy has been built mostly around popularity measurements or largely "reach" as I mentioned on Tuesday, which is easily summed up by how many links, readers, followers, friends, etc. someone has earned. However, it's always important to consider that these measures might be gamed, blatantly, through mutually reciprocal agreements or, covertly, through sycophant behavior (hit tip for the perfect word: Chapel).

The reason reach has been incorporated into the equation is because it's borrowed from the advertising industry and mainstream media's obsession with eyeballs. But in the end, social media gravitation to reach doesn't mean anything because real influence requires offline measures such as changing behavior or tangible outcomes and real authority comes from something other than popularity (even though all three are sometimes interconnected).

“Popularity is the one insult I have never suffered.” — Oscar Wilde

For anyone who knows anything about Oscar Wilde, there is an irony in his comment that makes it all the more colorful. While he may have never penned a blog or joined a social network, he was one of the greatest celebrities of his day, frequently wearing his hair long and decorating his room with peacock feathers and lilies. And even though his situational timing was perfect (because that is what his world needed at the time), he always backed it up with his biting wit and the pledge not to beg forgiveness for what he thought. And what did he think?

"All that I desire to point out is the general principle that life imitates art far more than art imitates life." - Oscar Wilde

For all the mentions of people drinking the Kool-Aid in regard to social media (backed up by studies from Milgram and Asch), we ought to know by now that Wilde was as right today as he was one hundred years ago. If you're not careful, social media has a greater chance to change individuals than individuals ever do to change social media. And if there is any wisdom to be taken away, perhaps it is that participants would be better off searching for truth rather than the cult of personality.

Why? Read some of the work by Walter Lippman, who believed distorted information is inherent in the human mind and only by seeing through stereotypes can we find partial truths. Or ...

Simply recognize that for all the importance placed on influence, authority, and popularity on Gilligan's Island, they never got off the island (er, special episodes aside).

In other words, even if you could measure all the nuances of influence, authority, and popularity, why would you want to? It seems to me, throughout history, we've proven that chasing after the shadow of perception often leads us away from reality.

Related posts pertaining to influence, authority, and popularity online:

Does Influence Equal Online Popularity by Barbara French
Measuring Influence vs. Popularity by Shel Israel
Influence and Popularity in Social Media by Servant of Chaos
Ego Trap: Influencer Lists by Peter Kim
Twitter Popularity Does Not Equal Business Acumen by Jennifer Leggio
 

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