Thursday, September 30

Banning Books: Words Want To Be Free

In the last nine years, there were 4,312 challenges to books in libraries and classrooms. The American Library Association defines a challenge as a formal, written complaint filed with a library or school, and requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness. The association estimates five times as many complaints are submitted, but are never made formal.

Most the challenges are due to “sexually explicit” material and “offensive language.” Those challenges do not count material deemed “unsuited to age group,” which has its own subgroup. Violence finishes fourth; homosexuality a distant fifth.

Three Examples Of Censorship.

Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson.

In 2009, some parents complained about several novels containing foul language and cover topics — including sex, child abuse, suicide, and drug abuse — deemed unsuited for discussion in coed high school classes in Kentucky. The result was that several books were withdrawn from classroom use (but remained available in the library and student book club). One of these books was Twisted.

While none of the references in Twisted are graphic in nature, the book mentions erections, sexual fantasies, kissing, petting, and intercourse. None of which are described. There is drunkenness, and mentions of drugs (but no real usage), and the principal character considers suicide after he is jumped and beaten. He goes as far as putting a gun in his mouth. Some might consider this a point of awareness in the resolution to live or consequence of the actions we take against people. But others see it as something best left locked in a closet.

Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway.

Pulled from a Litchfield (N.H.) Campbell High School elective course classroom (2009) after parents voiced their concerns about several short stories in a unit called “Love/Gender/Family Unit” that dealt with subject matters including abortion, cannibalism, homosexuality, and drug use. The parents said the stories promoted bad behavior and a “political agenda.” The Campbell High School English curriculum advisor resigned.

The Hemingway story is about abortion and how an American, fearful of the impending responsibility, attempts to manipulate the principal character, Jig, into having an abortion. His goal is to present the operation as a simple procedure that is in her best interests, a panacea for all that is ailing her and troubling their relationship. The ambiguity leaves a good deal of room for interpretation, including that someone could easily use the story as a platform against abortion.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.

Ocean View School District middle school libraries in California now require parental permission for the book, which was simply considered "inappropriate for children.” It was also challenged in the Newman-Crows Landing, Calif. School District on a required reading list after a trustee questioned the qualifications of staff to teach a novel depicting African-American culture.

The book is the first of a six-part coming of age story that shows how strength of character and a love of literature can help overcome racism and trauma. In the course of Caged Bird, Maya transforms from a victim of racism with an inferiority complex into a self-possessed, dignified young woman capable of responding to prejudice. Most guidance sites consider it appropriate for ages 13 and above. The most concerning point of this story is that the trustee, someone well removed from children, was making the decision to remove the book.

The Interpretation Of Words Is Twice As Dangerous Than Words.

In some cases, challenges within schools and classes are sometimes the result of one parent asking for their child to be assigned different material. In such instances, parents are well within their rights. They need to take an interest in what their children are exposed to and when they are mature enough to consider the context.

Unfortunately, in making individual requests, some parents accidently convince teachers or administrators (or other parents) to misapply their concern. Some people honestly believe that what might be inappropriate for one child must be inappropriate for all children. And in extreme cases, they think questioned material is inappropriate for adults too.

And this why Banned Books Week is so important. Words and ideas want to be free, but not for the reasons most people believe. Sometimes the stories present ideas not to glorify their existence but rather to consider the human condition and help us make better choices.

It seems to me that self-assigned gatekeepers (especially those beyond parents) need to be less concerned with the content of any book and more concerned with what is being taught within the context but outside the content. Or, to be clear, more parents ought to read the books that their children are assigned to appreciate what positive discussions might come from them.

More importantly, they might be better prepared to refute or reinforce what children are being taught beyond the pages — in the classroom or by their peers. It is for this reason alone that dialogue, not diatribe, leads to enlightenment. Or, in the words of Henry Steele Commager ...

“The fact is that censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion.”

Wednesday, September 29

Creating Social Networks: Colonies Before Communities

With increasing regularity, companies that have adopted social media find themselves asking the next most logical question. How do I develop a sense of community? There are plenty of answers, but there is only one right answer. You don't.

Online communities aren't developments. They are evolutions of other social structures, much like corporate cultures.

But unlike corporate cultures, you do not "control" the participants. There is no tangible contract. They don't owe you anything on the promise of a paycheck. They aren't likely to invest eight or more hours a day in your organization. And, as virtual nomads (or tribes if they are connected), they aren't likely to identify with fledgling ideas beyond recognizing common interest.

Colonies Before Communities.

Companies don't create communities. At best, they create colonies on new continents such as Facebook or those of their own design. And very much like the American colonies, they are founded for very different reasons and will have very different outcomes.

In 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh had received a charter to establish a settlement in North America within ten years. The intent, much like many companies that want communities, wasn't much more than to exploit the riches of the new world. How they would do this, beyond raiding Spanish treasure fleets, was unclear in some cases. This colony, Roanoke, disappeared without a trace.

Subsequent colonies were established for different reasons. Virginia was established for trade and profits. Plymouth for religious freedom. New York for trade and profits. New Hampshire for looser economic rules. South Carolina to produce rice. And so on and so forth.

The earliest colonists didn't identify with their location as much as their homeland, but they all recognized they generally shared one or two common interests. One colony, Plymouth, did establish a Mayflower Compact, loosely based on the idea that the colonists would agree to certain rules for mutual benefit beyond their understanding of English law. The point of interest here is that the colonists, not England, wrote and signed the compact.

The Risk Of Colonization.

Some colonies take shape much like the visionaries intend. Others do not. And the reasons are as varied as the American colonies. Sometimes colonies are abandoned for greener pastures. Sometimes neighboring tribes invade and take over. Sometimes charismatic leaders emerge and have more influence than the appointed governance of a community manager.

But more important than any of that is to always remember surviving colonies will eventually not be managed by the people who fund the charter, but rather by the people who populate it. In less than 200 years, even early American colonies would eventually develop a sense of identity so strong, they would rebuff the crown and claim sovereignty in the face of change.

Thus, companies and organizations hoping to build communities, especially those designed for trade and profit, may have a few surprises in store for them. Whatever design they have in mind may not work.

South Carolina, for example, was founded for rice production but the cash crop eventually became tobacco. New York, which was originally a Dutch settlement, was taken over by the English. When puritan leaders became too hard in New Hampshire, the colonists began to spread north and inland. In Connecticut, founder Thomas Hooker was asked to leave. And so on.

You can match any of these stories with various company community efforts or fledgling social networks. Some disappear. Some are taken over. Some have member revolutions. And so on. It's amazing, when you think about it, that some do develop into loyalist communities at all.

The Reward Of A Loyalist Community.

When you think about it, the goal of many companies eventually becomes to own a loyalist community. They want people to participate, buy, and encourage their friends to participate and buy as well. It's possible, but not probable, with rare exception.

• Are you confident that the colony will receive as much support at it needs during bleak seasons?
• Are you prepared to hire a community manager or managers with more experience than an intern?
• Are you certain this representative will reinforce the community vision and not a rock star image?
• Are you up for guiding behaviors that reinforce the vision of the community being created?
• Are you flexible enough to know when the vision won't mesh with the participants you attract?
• Are you resigned to the idea that you may own the technology, but not the culture that develops?
• Are you ready to defend against invaders that disrupt the safety and sense of security people expect?
• Are you restrained enough to avoid sweeping changes that shock the community in the morning?

Then you might be ready to fund a colony, with the hope it will return a loyal community. But if you think a social network (even if it is on Facebook) is a campaign or a technology, then your expectations will not likely be met for any sustainable amount of time. The net is littered with more Roanokes than Facebooks and more New Hampshires than Reddits.

Tuesday, September 28

Faking Fans: The Flawed Netflix Apology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 27

Confusing People: When Creative Is Too Much

A brand new advertising poll conducted for Adweek Media by Harris Interactive puts some agencies on notice. For all the cleverness that some agencies try to jam pack into television, three-quarters of Americans find them confusing.

Highlights From The Harris Interactive Poll.

• 75 percent say that they have found at least one commercial confusing.
• 21 percent say that they often find television commercials confusing.
• 14 percent say they never find television commercials confusing.
• 11 percent say they never watch television commercials anyway (they lie).

The answer seems to correlate with the age. Participants who were over the age of 55 tended to be more confused by commercials than their younger counterparts.

This is indicative of two possibilities. First, the television commercials could be targeting younger and younger viewers. Second, younger viewers have learned not to expect much from television commercials. Either way, the confusion factor is a challenge.

Given that the survey also revealed that the confusion increases with level of education, I'm leaning toward the latter explanation. Educated people are anticipating there is a point. Less educated people are assuming commercials entertain.

Overly Creative Commercials Have No Point.

I touched on this last week in an expose on how companies undermine their own brands. And, I cannot resist picking on the most creative and painfully pointless ad out there.

I've shown the advertisement to countless people. Most of them laugh out loud. What always isn't apparent is whether they are laughing because it's funny or because it's a travesty (on the entertainment side, I think it's funny). What is apparent is they don't get it.

Diesel wants to make the case that it makes street shoes, cool. But having your foot up someone's rump isn't necessarily a point of affection. The real problem here is Diesel, for all its cleverness, doesn't make a brand promise other than these shoes aren't meant for running. They aren't meant for dishwashing either, which could have made an equally funny spot.

Coming up with attention-grabbing creative is the easiest thing in the world. Coming up with attention-grabbing creative that delivers a promise a company can keep, on the other hand, is why some copywriters make a living.

It's also why consumers, despite being excited by an advertisement now and again, have gravitated to social media. It's not that they don't like clever, it's that they prefer clever that celebrates the product (with which they have a relationship) as opposed to those that celebrate the creative director or copywriter. That doesn't mean you can't have fun in the field. It's just means you have to think harder than the first thought that comes into your mind.

Sunday, September 26

Showing Stories: Fresh Content Project

When I pull together stories for the fresh content project, I never have a theme in mind. However, week after week, it seems to me that they share a common theme more often than not. This week happens to hold one of my favorite themes.

In every writing class I teach, I am constantly banging my hand on the table, attempting to teach would-be writers and public relations professionals the merit of "showing" and not "telling." All of these posts have this important ingredient going for them, even though they rely heavily on images over storytelling. Still, the lesson rings true enough. Most could have told these stories without pictures too.

Best Fresh Content In Review, Week of September 13

The Stories Pictures Will Tell (If You Just Listen).
Ike Pigott shares an experimental post with one of the leading rules for great writing: show me, don't tell me. Except, in this case, he uses pictures to share a tribute to a remarkable teen who isn't with us now. It's a compelling treatment of a life that had a precious impact on others. The treatment, which spans series with several pages that reveal small details of the subject one at a time, tells a story. The lesson, is less than the greater sum of its parts, is that sometimes people can see the truth on their own.

Quickstart Guide to Social Media for Business
In an illustration of another kind, we see a different kind of truth from Marta Majewska. While the formula is oversimplified, her infographic on how to start a social media program is the stuff that provides a mountain of information in about the size of a molehill hole. The infographic paints 14 critical steps for social media, from establishing your goals (even better if you establish a strategy) to measuring effectiveness. The infographic, by the way, is from B2Bento.

The New And Improved Twitter.
Brian Solis offers up a little more of what he does best, painting a picture of the "new and improved" Twitter after being asked to take a test drive. Plenty of screenshots make it work. The biggest change borrows embedded video and photo elements much like the upstart Fried Eggs, except Twitter is going with a two fat column approach. There is already some fallout over the anticipated changes, which will be fodder for a fresh pick we'll pull out next week. Personally, I haven't made up my mind. Sometimes more is less than less.

• The ROI of Rotary.
In his first guest post on the Social Media Explorer, Ike Pigott tackles the history of social media ROI by using a Rotary analogy and reminding professionals that not every measurement needs to be marked off with a click, like, follow, or even sale. Social media tends to be more fluid, with an understanding that not all measurements are quantifiable. Often, it's the benefits we don't measure that have the most value.

• Social Media And The Multiplier Effect.
Ian Lurie has been on a roll lately, including this post which shows how the value of an individual actually falls as an individual network (or platform) grows. And he asks: "why is it that someone tweeting to 50,000 people gets me 3 clicks, and someone tweeting to 5,000 gets me 10,000 clicks?" He then places an emphasis on what he calls the multiplier effect, whereas more really is better because the quality of each relationship (and the content) becomes even more important. In his model, the network begins to take the likeness of a community.

How To Use A Writing Frame.
This post by Chris Brogan almost got me in "trouble." In terms of showing his story, Brogan tossed up a basic blog post outline that will inevitably help some people. Personally, I think it might help people visualize how some posts will go. It will help many novice and medium-level writers because the outline is ready mix. However, as anybody who cooks Italian knows, homemade noodles just taste better. And that is why I almost got into trouble with a homemade noodle crowd or, in this case, some of best writers out there. So, while I still think the Brogan post holds value, temper the rules with my qualifier.

Friday, September 24

Keeping Promises: How Companies Disrupt Branding Efforts

In many quarters, branding has almost become synonymous with advertising, marketing, and/or public relations. But as presented a few days ago, branding is a cross-departmental or disciplinary communication and operational function.

Specifically, it relies on the ability to effectively communicate a promise, deliver on that promise, and prove the promise was delivered. This is how companies develop relationships with customers and consumers.

Communicating A Promise.

A brand promise can be easily summed up as a unique position or unique product statement (or contrast point), with advertising usually charged with making sure that promise earns attention, especially when it is placed in front of the intended audience (or a maximum amount of people, which seems to be the general focus nowadays).

The challenge for advertising agencies is to make that promise as clear as possible, as interesting as possible to intended audience, and as confined as possible without overreaching on the company's ability to deliver. When there is no strategic thought behind a campaign, these three points aren't always in alignment.

• Some agencies produce ads that promise nothing. Diesel Shoes.
• Some agencies produce ads that bore us. Infotapes.
• Some agencies produce ads that promise too much. United.

Delivering On A Promise.

Not all companies mean to break their promises. Some of them do. A few even lie so often that we accept lies but do not elevate our expectations (e.g., fast food product shots, airline on-time arrival boasts, up front car salesmen). But for these purposes, it makes more sense to focus on those that are more clear cut.

Simply put, companies destroy their own brands when they don't measure up to the brand promise. Nobody gets upset when their phone camera doesn't measure up to a dedicated camera. But most people get upset when they are asked how they would like a burger cooked, and it comes out rare instead of medium (they don't say as much if they are never asked). And then, of course, there are other ways to undermine a brand promise.

• Promises that are lies. BP.
• Promises that overreach. Sprint.
• Promises that change. American.
• Promises that aren't scalable. Toyota.

As a side note, it might be interesting to consider that with every "improvement" a social network makes, it is changing its original promises. Is it any wonder why every change gets questioned? Or that there have been consequences since Digg launched its makeover? Or that most discounts are bribes, because people who receive them tend to complain less? Or that sometimes people become upset when they find out there are hidden costs (such as damage to the environment)?

Proving That The Promise Is Delivered.

For some companies, delivering proof can be the hardest task of all. Some companies struggle because they attempt to hide or stomp out any evidence of broken promises. They can accomplish this any number of ways.

• They can attempt to appease distractors.
• They can attempt to discredit distractors.
• They can attempt to drown out distractors.

This function used to rest squarely on the shoulders of public relations. The original idea was that public relations could be company cheerleaders who targeted influential people within certain publics (including the media). But now, of course, part of this tactic has fallen over into social media with some companies trying to leverage the number of followers as validation that they can deliver on a promise (even if they cannot).

What concerns me about social media sometimes is that the entire intent becomes to build an army of minions who talk louder, more frequently, and to more people than any number of other distractors. This isn't much different than the model employed in the 1980s. Except, instead of topical boundaries, there used to be geographical ones. It seems more worthwhile to keep promises.

The point here is twofold. For good companies, it's not enough to make good on the right promises. Other people have to find out. And second, the post-sale communication can be just as important as the presale communication, especially when you consider that a happy customer relationship can quickly turn bad if another consumer shows them something of better value.

A Quick Summation.

Every piece of the communication counts. And when companies begin to understand that social media is an online environment, they'll begin to understand that every communication component belongs online, not just one or two of three.

Blog Archive

by Richard R Becker Copyright and Trademark, Copywrite, Ink. © 2021; Theme designed by Bie Blogger Template