Thursday, May 7

Making Coal Cool: With Ringtones!

If there was any doubt that the coal industry was overreaching when it reportedly produced Frosty The Coalman for the holidays, then the follow up will clinch it. The West Virginia Coal Association has come up with ringtones for our phones.

Take your pick among six mixes — male choir, male voice choir, New Orleans, mountain, gospel, and bluegrass. My personal favorite is the bluegrass mix, even though it's a little longer than the rest. Some people have been posting the lyrics, but you really need to hear some for yourself.

Coal is West Virginia - Bluegrass Mix

Coal is West Virginia - Mountain Mix

"Coal is West Virgina
Coal is me and you
Coal is West Virgina
We got a job to do.

However, after Think Progress (via Spinthicket) lamented that the coal industry is taking "incredible pains to make coal seem 'clean,' 'affordable,' and even 'adorable,'" we're not sure which is worse: the ringtone idea or push back that suggests these ringtones might be taken as serious and worrisome propaganda.

Polarized issues seldom make sense. The facts are facts. According to Joe Schuster, who wrote a roadmap to energy independence by 2040, the United States gets 86 percent of its energy from fossil fuels: coal (23.2 percent), natural gas (23.9 percent) and oil (39.4 percent). The rest comes from nuclear (8.2 percent), hydropower (2.6 percent) and biomass and various other sources (3.3 percent). I've seen other numbers, of course, including that coal-fired power plants generate nearly 50 percent of our electricity.

Almost everybody agrees we need to adjust our energy usage. Not everybody agrees on how to do it or how fast to do it. Not everybody agrees that there is such a thing as clean coal technology. Of course there is, because clean coal is a generic term that means reducing the environmental impact of coal energy generation.

Compared to what we are doing now, it's all good. Existing energy consumption needs to be cleaned up the best it can be. Alternative fuel choices need to be integrated into the mix, smartly so, in order to avoid additional problems like windmills killing wildlife. But more important than any of that, the communication needs to be cleaned up because right now — between the sillyfication and vilification — it seems to be the most dangerous of all.

Wednesday, May 6

Changing The Guard: The New Guard?

When Bruce Spotleson, group publisher at Greenspun Media Group, was a guest speaker in my class last March, he said something that I found a little bit haunting. Looking out over the class of almost 20 students and working professionals, he said that as newspapers scale back, looking out for public interest would increasingly fall to public relations professionals.

While I'm still confident journalism will evolve before it's abandoned, social media does provide consumers and representatives an opportunity to have public conversations like never before, with the primary difference between online communication and front line communication being the size of the audience. However, the question I often ask is "are they ready?"

When I read Erica O’Grady's post and others like it, I'm not so sure. Don't get me wrong, I think O’Grady is great. I read her often enough. My friend Geoff Livingston has written about a similar concept before, even co-writing a very funny bit with Beth Harte last year. The conversation is even older than that. And to some extent I agree with them. Emphasize "some."

"The King Is Dead. Long Live The King!"

A few years ago, well before communication professionals began to take social media seriously, back when the extent of social media (when it was almost always called new media, which seemed so silly to me) was a blog, we used to see other names along with Brian Solis' PR 2.0 and Chris Brogan's community and social media, Todd Defren's PR-Squared, and many, many others too.

And all those names, many of which have long stopped blogging and some of which have deleted their earliest work (we even tested a few in 2004), lent quite a bit to the formation of what is commonly called social media today. (Technically, my introduction to what wasn't called a "blog" then dates back to some early work with Nevada Power Company in 1993.) Some people might even remember Bulletin Board Systems and whatnot. A few might even remember Justin Hall.

So what's the point? Carpetbagging and opportunist are relative terms and we ought be careful how we use them. If for no other reason than to give a nod to the generosity of those true pioneers who were much more welcoming and always extremely gracious in allowing others to establish "rules" that they seemed so reluctant to create, we might consider that ALL OF US were once the carpet baggers and opportunists trampling into a turf once defined as a "personal online diary."

There is no entitlement in social media. There are no rules. People will do things differently, and never as so-called early adopters thought to do (which is virtually nobody who is popular today). Sure, there are plenty of hucksters attempting to stake a claim in social media nowadays (the point O’Grady, Harte, and Livingston all rightfully aim to make), but we can all remember that "huckster" status is best defined by what some people do and not when they started to do it, just because they might do it differently.

Looking at the continued evolution of social media any other way is simply repeating what helped push it along in the first place. Some people in social media wanted to tear down the old guard of establishment (considering media to be the gatekeepers of information). But, you know, I don't think any of those folks ever envisioned that they were doing so simply to replace the space with a "new guard." And if they did, then its safe to say history is destined to repeat. There is no empire that lasts forever.

Tuesday, May 5

Advertising Annoyance: Food For Thought

“It takes a lot of your prefrontal brain power to force yourself not to process a strong input like a television commercial. If you’re trying to read a book at the same time, you may not have the resources left to focus on the words.” — Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at M.I.T.

That's according to one of the experts in “Rapt,” a guide by Winifred Gallagher to the science of paying attention, as featured in The New York Times today. It's also a book I'll be adding to my reading list, but perhaps not for the reasons Gallagher intended.

The article shares some interesting insights about how our thoughts dictate our world views — we can obsess about problems, drive ourselves crazy by multitasking on e-mail and Twitter, or give the brain a bit of time to focus on and accentuate the positive — and lead to differing realities. While there is ample truth to that, our interest today is a bit more pragmatic in that it reveals some science behind "that guy" as described by Chris Brogan.

The concept was also the cornerstone of Seth Godin's argument that we need to reconsider the interruption model of advertising. He advocated permission marketing, which he defines as the consumer granting permission to be marketed to if they know what's in it for them.

"The interruption model is extremely effective when there's not an overflow of interruptions," Godin told Fast Company. "But there's too much going on in our lives for us to enjoy being interrupted anymore."

Godin is half right in that an overflow of interruptions leads to no one interruption being able to stand out. Where he is half wrong is that permission marketing doesn't necessarily require asking permission to market to people, especially if that permission might lead to future interruptions.

What companies might consider doing is listening. Consumers are very savvy in asking for what they want online. And, if your company is listening, you can provide them the answers that may introduce them to your product or service. You may even send them an e-mail from time to time, provided it has value.

Where companies often go wrong is in their own assessment of what's important. Even in a permission based model, especially those that bombard with e-mail, doesn't account for that moment that the company might have lost permission, or, in other words, lost permission or nurture nothing more than annoyance or aversion.

The tricky part for marketers is that no two people or products or services will ever be the same. Some products and services can support daily news and updates and some cannot. Some will capture public interest for a few days; others for month and years. Everything has a duration.

It doesn't require as much guess work as some might think. The public will often tell you when they've had enough or not. Listening to them and knowing when that might be is the difference between being "this guy" or "that guy," permission or not.

The only difference between being an annoying interruption, pleasant surprise, and invited engagement is much more dependent on an exchange, a dialogue, than we might have ever realized. After all, most companies would prefer to be a focus for awhile rather than an interruption, eventually shuffled off to spam whether you subscribed or not.

Monday, May 4

Changing Times: From Print To Push

As a foreshadow toward a possible yet uncertain future, two newspapers — The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times — carried stories that mark the sign of the times.

The Washington Post featured an article highlighting the public struggles of the Boston Globe, which many expect could close in as little as 60 days. Meanwhile, The New York Times asked its readership if big-screen e-readers might save newspapers. Some of the new models, which are expected to be released by the end of the year, are coming much closer to electronic paper as imagined more than 35 years ago (and imagined in the fictional world of Harry Potter).

Newspapers And Other Content At The Edge Of A Chasm

For several years, the most pragmatic viewpoint about newspapers has been that they might be dying but news is thriving. Indeed, the problems faced by newspapers have been confined to one of distribution and economics.

Subscription-based content on a more portable e-reader might be the answer, provided newspapers learn to segment their free online vs. subscription-based publications. Content duplication has clearly hastened the demise of print.

The analogy is simple enough. Journalism will survive and leap forward to the other side. So the real question is what will we find once we get there. That is a toss up. While most people focus on the short term, asking whether newspapers will shift toward more localized reporting with an influx of citizen journalists or more relaxed professionals, the real challenge remains content oversight.

In 2007, we asked that question with the advent of the Kindle, already recognizing that the Internet solution-providers were starting to ask questions as to how much content control they wanted as distribution platforms. At the time, people laughed to think Amazon or anyone would attempt to control content. It's not in their nature, proponents said.

Not everyone is laughing now. Apple rejected an update of the Nine Inch Nails iPhone update, saying that it contains “objectionable content.” YouTube, as if in defiance of What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis, is hoping to police product placement, thereby collecting a cut from certain content creators.

The Leap Is Simple Provided People Keep Their Senses

To be fair, it's new territory for everybody. And sometimes, future solutions are easier to come by than the vision of the people shaping it today.

What Could Google Do? Simple. Stick to what it knows best — developing great distribution platforms. And rather than worry about product placement, it might consider a tiered approach to bandwidth with premium video being streamed for a monthly content creator rate. For everyone else, free as always.

What Could Apple Do? Rather than reject material based upon questionable content, it might consider opening a separate section for adults. And no, we don't mean an electronic version of the original local video store. Rather, something like NIN can stick to creating content.

What Could Newspapers Do? Really, if the problem is distribution because printed products are too expensive, then it's well past time to partner with electronic paper makers. Some people might be willing to pay a modest rate for subscription service to some papers for delivery by application or e-reader. Just keep the price models in check. Almost everyone knows that subscription fees never really paid for print (so split the subscription with the distributor or whatever); advertising did.

Saturday, May 2

Living With Arthritis: 300,000 Kids

There are approximately 300,000 children in the United States that have some form of arthritis, which is diagnosed almost anytime between the ages of 2 and 16. The are several types of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA) ranging from systemic JRA, which affects the whole body, to oligoarticular JRA, which affects four or fewer joints.

My daughter was diagnosed last year. She has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis in both ankles, one hand, and some limited range of motion in other joints. Still, we're grateful she was diagnosed, as Nevada is only one of nine states in the U.S. that doesn’t have a pediatric rheumatologist.

Arthritis and

When you consider all of the causes, ranging from AIDS to World Hunger, arthritis doesn't really register on a large scale. But social media, unlike SEO, is not all about the numbers. It's about engagement, connecting people with common interests whether those interests are altruistic or something as simple as a celebrity. It's about how information and action spreads.

For example, it helped one blogger find a greater forum for reporting on Arthritis Walk Atlanta, which was held today, or a few more bloggers interested in writing about Juvenile Arthritis and Kelly Rouba's new book, in which she shares her own story and the stories of various kids, teens and young adults who suffer from arthritis.

Awareness is extremely important for kids and parents because the earliest symptoms are so easily dismissed or misdiagnosed. Very often, the symptoms only include a light rash and swelling around a single joint, not all that dissimilar from a common sprain or suspected bug bite. In fact, last year, even Jennie Garth, a former "Beverly Hills, 90210" actress, shared how a "mysterious illness" afflicted her 2-year-old daughter. Eventually, after significant emotional distress, they learned it was JRA.

I learned about Jennie Garth's story and Kelly Rouba's book through BloggersUnite, which reaffirms some of the decisions we recently made for our own daughter. And perhaps, some parent with a child who has a mysterious illness will learn about JRA here too.

JRA and Treatment

Given that our daughter was born three months premature, the sudden diagnosis of JRA was a surprise. After all those months in the hospital and regiment of medications once she was home, the last thing any parent wants to learn is that the light of the tunnel (when all things seem normal and the medications phased away) is that there is another tunnel at the end of the light.

For us, it was the not-so-easy to make decision regarding Enbrel, a tumor necrosis factor (TNF) blocker that blocks the action of a substance your body's immune system makes. In other words, the trade off of taking Enbrel can make you more prone to getting infections. In other words, if your child even has a hint of a cold, you have to immediately stop treatment. (The alternative was methotrexate, which is primarily used for chemotherapy.)

Still, since Enbrel is a relatively new treatment for kids, we took a one-day trip to the Mattel Children's Hospital at UCLA to meet with Dr. Deborah McCurdy, who is the head of the pediatric rheumatology department there, for a second opinion. After the exam, she spent more than an hour with us, carefully and conscientiously weighing our options and noting that without treatment our daughter's overcompensation could lead to lifelong complications such as a curved spine.

Our daughter has been receiving injections for about three weeks now, and has already shown dramatic improvement. Normally, the expectation to see signs of improvement is six weeks. We're grateful, and hope sharing this might help another parent some time.

Is there any other takeaway? I think so. If there is a common theme with all these stories, it is that you don't have to be afraid. As fear is always related to something that hasn't happened, it only stands in the way of taking action. So for parents whose children face JRA, learn as much as you can, seek out second opinions, and never let fear immobilize you from taking the next step.

Friday, May 1

Doubling The Dilemma: National Pork Producers Council

What's in a name? Everything, according to the National Pork Producers Council.

For the last few days, the National Pork Producers Council has been issuing news releases to remind consumers that "swine flu" does not come from pigs. At the same time, it is lobbying legislators and the media to refer to the virus with its less common scientific name, the "H1N1" virus.

According to AdAge, the industry made the decision because it feared uninformed consumers would avoid buying pork. But were these consumers really avoiding pork?

Not according to NewsChannel 10 in Amarillo, Texas, which spoke to butchers at the local level and WalMart on the national level. Not according to The Herald Bulletin, which reported from Anderson, Indiana.

In fact, not according to anyone until the National Pork Producers Council began distributing releases.

As of April 22, pork bellies had rallied and stabilized. While people were concerned about the flu, few seemed concerned about pork. But that changed when the National Pork Producers Council sent out a release on April 26, which was followed the next day by a flurry of stories about the release despite the fact that the media had never made a verbal connection between "swine flu" and pigs before.

By the end of the day, Smithfield Foods Inc., the largest pork processor, saw a 12 percent tumble (but many non-pork stocks did too). Since, the public relations nightmare for the pork industry has only gotten worse.

In fact, the more that the National Pork Producers Council talks about what it calls a real problem (one that didn't exist until it said there was a problem), it only gets worse. How bad? Take a look at a recent Q&A session with Chris Novak, National Pork Board CEO, on the Cattle Network.

During the session, the interviewer asks several times "How did those two words get connected?" Novak goes into detail saying "swine flu dates back to a 1918 influenza outbreak that affected both humans and swine. This virus, however, has not been identified in swine and has been spread through human-to-human transmissions, so the label applied in the media earlier this week created unnecessary confusion in the minds of many consumers."

So how did the terms get connected? You just read it! The National Pork Producers Council linked them!

According to the session, Novak says "that one estimate showing an 8 percent drop in futures prices since last Friday [last Friday was before the council's near daily releases began] has pushed losses for the swine production industry up to $6.5 million per day. The losses are real and personal for thousands of pork producers who have struggled with market losses over the past 18-20 months."

Fear is a terrible thing. It makes regular, ordinary people behave irrationally. And here, it seems that this fear wasn't a reality until the National Pork Producers Council overreacted to a linkage that didn't seem to exist before their communication.

Worse, the media, legislators, and public are now faced with their own communication problem in having to rename and rebrand what was known as "swine flu" with the clunky "H1N1" moniker. How likely will that be successful? Given that CBS just ran a story using the "H1N1" name but sporting a picture of pigs, we might say when those little guys start to fly.

Case study ahead.

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