Wednesday, February 2

Sizing Us And Them: A Lesson In Transparency

In 1972, prolific British dramatist David Campton wrote a seemingly simple one act play called Us And Them. If you've never heard of Campton, think of him as a playwright much like Arthur Miller, except leaning more toward the absurd.

His play, Us And Them, begins innocently enough with two groups of wanderers looking for a place to settle. And once they each find a plot of land stage left and stage right, both groups agree to mark a line between their two territories. Over time, the line becomes a fence and a fence becomes a wall and the wall grows in size until neither side knows what the other is doing.

Eventually, both sides begin to wonder what the other side might be doing. They wonder long enough that their thoughts turn to suspicion and suspicion to mistrust and mistrust to fear, with each side believing that the other is plotting against them. As fear takes hold, both sides unknowingly make preparations for ensuing conflict until eventually it explodes. In the end, two survivors, looking at the waste they have inflicted on one other, come to the conclusion that the wall was to blame.

The lesson about walls was never about walls.

Edleman TrustThe irony about the play is that the lesson left by Campton was never about walls despite the interpretation of some high school theater teachers. The lack of transparency did nothing; only people and their obsession with the wall and fear of the unknown were to blame for mutual paranoid destruction.

If the recent publishing of the annual Edelman Trust Barometer is any indication of direction, the tone of U.S. politics with its incessant finger pointing at itself and other institutions has become a wall for the modern era. In fact, the U.S. was the only country in which trust in all institutions has declined.

As trust has declined overall, with growing frequency, the public has demanded more transparency. They demand it from businesses and business owners, politicians and government, executives and corporations, reporters and the media, themselves and each other. Tear down the walls, they exclaim with increased regularity.

It isn't only about institutions either. As Valeria Maltoni pointed out, trust in our own peers seems to have fallen in comparison to teachers, analysts, individual executives, and certain experts, where it has risen. While there are many theories as to why, it seems clear enough. Those capturing increased trust are perceived to have less power and cause for agenda or, in the case of individual executives, have already been forced to exhibit more transparency.

Forced transparency is a function of mistrust.

There is a reason the writers of the Constitution built in checks, balances, and transparency. Looking back in history, the founding fathers could find no evidence of a trustworthy government. Right. They mistrusted government or, more exactly, the agenda of men who might abuse its power.

"There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty." — John Adams.

wallsEven James Madison warned that any nation which reposed too much on the pillow of political confidence would sooner or later see the end of its existence. Plainly speaking, we weren't supposed to trust our government or, more exactly, any men who might abuse its power. Even Patrick Henry pointed out that the Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government. And Adams himself later lamented some moments where he overreached as President.

But what about each other? For the age, the founding fathers placed more trust in citizens to self-govern. Their only fear was that the public might fall prey to believing in promises of "necessity," aptly described as the plea for every infringement of human freedom. But other than that, they placed their trust in individuals and upheld the individual's right to be considered innocent (trustworthy) until evidence proved that they were not.

My primary point is that Americans are supposed to be suspicious not of government or hammers, but of those who are entrusted to manage its power. Our suspicions of everything else, with exception to those who have broken trust, are often made up. In other words, we obsess too much about the other side of the wall.

Authenticity is the measure by which we all benefit.

Although Maltoni cautioned me against using the term authenticity, favoring honesty, I still prefer it. Authenticity means being trustworthy, honest, and genuine. Contrary, transparency is a remedy of mistrust.

To help appreciate the difference, consider the micro view. A spouse who trusts their partner may never need ask any details if the partner has to meet someone for dinner. The trust is based on the authenticity their partner, specifically their resolve to never have an affair. It is only when the partner breaks that trust by having an affair that a trusting spouse might require transparency.

Please don't misunderstand me. Transparency can be considered an admirable quality, given that when we choose to share our thoughts, beliefs, lives, and stories, it can be considered a gift. But like all gifts, when it is demanded, it loses value.

Of course, someone offering up too much transparency (especially if they demand it of others), can also confound. The magician, for example, makes it a point to prove there is nothing up his or her sleeve before performing magic. The criminal might be the first to ask everyone to empty their pockets (especially if they passed the stolen item or hid it away). The agenda-driven professional may promise transparency but then never deliver after the contract is secure.

Most walls are only illusions and made by people.

In the play Us And Them, the wall was never to blame. Whether the wall was there or not wasn't even relevant. Most mistrust is created from within our imaginations.

securityJust as we've seen in plenty of other stories and in history itself, if we lived without any walls (truly transparent, with cameras in our homes), the level of mistrust would increase exponentially as someone would be charged with deciphering our every motivation. Or, equally correct, one could say there is no trust in a world where people aren't given the freedom to exhibit it.

It seems the solution is not attempting to bind individuals to greater degrees of public scrutiny as some people propose by policy or regulation or declaration, but rather binding people to cooperate in environments built on mutual trust, based on nothing more than "what is" as opposed to "what might be." That is what gave us the strength throughout history to accomplish micro tasks like rock climbing or macro tasks like landing on the moon.

When you think about it, this direction even holds in the earlier micro example that explores jealous spouses. The are four common breakdowns of trust in marriages, with one being functional and three being dysfunctional. Maybe more.

Functional mistrust is an outcome of evidence, which is the only one that warrants transparency as a foothold for restoration. Dysfunctional mistrust, on the other hand, is caused by our own insecurities, misinterpretations, and/or misapplying past experiences with people who don't deserve it. In those instances, we might take a harder look at ourselves more than others.

Three related articles about trust and power.

Distrust in leaders: dimensions, patterns, and emotional intensity.

Poverty is more likely cause of mistrust than race, says study.

Messaging trust and the decline of peers.

Monday, January 31

Publishing Content: How Much Is Too Little Or Too Much?

not everyone looks good in a derby
Chris Brogan says the more you post, the more traffic you get. Julien Smith sees it differently. He says writing fewer posts can drive more traffic.

Considering they co-authored the book Trust Agents together, some people might assume they'd be on the same page about this topic. But they aren't. They're both a little bit right, and both a whole lot wrong. They're writing about what works for them.

How often should you post on a blog to get more traffic?

It's the wrong question because it depends. It depends on you. It depends on the subject. It depends on the audience. It depends on the field.

It's almost like buying a hat. It depends on you. It depends on the hat. It depends on where you want to wear it. And while you can try on other people's hats as much as you like, none of them will fit until you find one that fits you. Even then, it still won't fit for every occasion or forever. And sometimes, somebody might already be wearing the hat you fancy.

In tracking about 250 blogs, daily, for almost a year, our team had all sorts of reactions sifting through the reader every day. Some daily authors kept our interest. Some daily authors bored us to tears. And some daily authors made us hate social media.

Conversely, some occasional authors made us wish for more. Some we forgot about completely. And others, well, let's just say we wondered what they would write about if they didn't write about what other people had already written about.

Three truths about frequency and blog authors.

blogs1. Consistency. No matter what you decide — daily or weekly or in between — consistency matters. Not only does it matter in terms of frequency, but for quality as well. Daily authors do have an advantage in that readers might forgive a few flat posts as long as they nail at least one a week or every other week. However, consistently posting on the topic du jour or self-promoting drivel becomes maddening to read. Inconsistent bloggers also have it harder; they practically start from square one with every post. Nobody knows them well enough to know whether they wear a hat or not.

2. Clarity. Not all that different than a batting streak in baseball, authors ebb and flow. In looking at the ten authors who made the top five in at least quarter, all of them had short, sustained bursts of high quality content — two or three superior posts within days of each other. After each burst, quality waned as they caught their breath or took a break. The lesson is one of humanity. Nobody is such a genius that they can write a riveting post two or three times a day. Einstein couldn't even fit into a hat like that.

3. Comments. Most social media measures that include comment counts are baloney. Sure, comments give authors insight, but there is context to consider. Asking the same audience to leave insightful, conversational comments day in and day out just isn't going to happen. It would be just like expecting people to compliment your hat every day. Besides, we found even the sloppiest controversial posts consistently outperform high-quality educational posts in comments, especially if they are published daily. We also found popular blogs draw more comments because people want the author's attention or the attention of the author's readers. People who say "best post ever" rarely ever mean it.

A quick look at the top of the scale.

Fresh Content Top ThreeThe top three most picked authors included Valeria Maltoni (red), Geoff Livingston (purple), and Ike Pigott (green). All three have different publishing styles, ranging from daily to semi-consistently, to inconsistently. They also have different writing styles, ranging from strategically educational to timely provocative to wildly well crafted. About the only thing in common outside of a few shared ideas is that they all know what fits them as an author.

Measurements at a glance overwhelmingly favor Maltoni, with Livingston drawing more comments and shares, and Pigott having the smallest bounce rate and longest time on site. However, on any given week, each of them can out "traffic" the other. The same can be said about the quality of the content they provide.

While Maltoni might appear to deliver more quality, the graph doesn't account for the ratio of picks to published. For example, Pigott published significantly less and Livingston took several breaks during the year. More important than trying to decide which offers more quality posts is to note that higher peaks are followed by deeper valleys across all three.

For methodology, the scale awarded five points for each fresh pick post, diminishing them at a rate of one for each week following. In other words, one post would be scored a "5" and then drop to a "4" on the following week. The diminishing number would be added to any fresh pick that it overlapped.

A quick look at another section of the scale.

four bloggers from fresh contentThe next grouping is more indicative of most quality-oriented bloggers. It includes Lee Odden (purple), Jason Falls (blue), Adam Singer (green), and Ian Lurie (red). It uses the same methodology as above.

Basically, whether authors published daily or not, the best authors tended to deliver about one outstanding post every four to five weeks regardless of how often they publish. That doesn't mean the rest of the content is fluff. It simply means that their best content — most original, engaging, and inspired — comes at a pace of once a month. In comparison, about half of the fresh pick authors deliver one exceptional post every three months. The greater majority, including those that weren't tracked by the experiment, only do so once or twice a year.

As an additional point of interest, we began covering Lurie in the second quarter. Odden seemed to publish more in the beginning of the year than at the end of the year. Also, while it was too complicated to show three more bloggers on the graph, these patterns fit the other three as well: Danny Brown, Maria Reyes McDavis, and Bob Conrad.

So what should we consider in deciding content frequency?

hatsIt depends on your ability to deliver consistent high quality content within whatever schedule you set. It depends on the audience, and how much about your area of specialty they can digest. It depends on the subject matter because the more specialized it becomes, there are naturally fewer topics to write about. It may even depend on the saturation of the field.

Conversely, Brogan and Seth Godin are very general in their writing. While that means their groundbreaking posts are even further and fewer between in favor of a high frequency fortune cookie styling, it's the derby that fits for them. What's more important is to determine what hat might be a fit for you.

This is the first lesson from the Fresh Content experiment, which tracked 250 blogs for almost a year. The experiment focused on the quality of the content and not the perceived popularity of the authors.

Friday, January 28

Considering Fan Campaigns: Days Of Our Lives

As the concept of "anything, anytime, any device" has taken hold, not all television programming has fared very well. Daytime soap operas were among the hardest hit.

The average ratings have fallen from a 6.2 million viewer average in 1990 to about 2 million in 2010. In fact, not a single new soap opera has been created since 1999 and the six that remained at the end of last year consistently live on the bubble. Even Disney, which owned the decade-old cable channel SOAPnet, will be discontinuing reruns in 2012.

However, in recent months, soap operas have been a surprise. The six remaining shows are up among women ages 18-49 despite most networks cutting back on the concept of the daily dramatic serial. If their numbers continue to grow, some executives might find themselves asking a question that they haven't asked lately.

What's the value of an audience?

According to some fans of the daily soap opera Days Of Our Lives, which ranks third in the ratings, they want the audience to be worth more than most producers and networks believe. The fans don't want to write the show, but they would like to help set a direction.

Specifically, this group, called Ejami (a mashup of character names), primarily tunes in to see a single storyline revolving around the relationship of Elvis J. (“EJ”) Dimera (formerly Wells) and Samantha Gene (“Sami”) Brady. And, according to one fan, Ruthie, they are not keen on what seems to be ahead.

Following a plot mechanism relatively consistent with soaps, it seems the show introduced an improbable romantic story where the dashing male character EJ (James Scott) accepts the unlucky Sami (Alison Sweeney) for who she is. Then, as a matter of practicality, the two unlikely lovers get their wish. Ever since, the writers have been destructing the relationship and characters. The fans aren't having it anymore.

A snapshot of Ejami fans' vested interest in Days Of Our Lives.

My understanding is that for fans, the initial relationship was hot enough that an entire forum dedicated to the "Forbidden Love" was created the same year the romance was introduced in 2006. It has approximately 5,600 registered members who promote the show as much as they talk about the "Ejami" storyline. They average 25,000 to 42,000 conversations a month.

Many of the conversations are about the show, but there is also a considerable investment in fan fiction, artwork, video montages, and — as fan forums sometimes develop — personal accounts and milestones. They are a community and they want an enduring Ejami love story.

Days Of Our LivesTo do it, they have been emailing and sending postcards to the studio, executives, writers, actors, and soap magazines. They also raise money and send holiday and birthday gifts to actors Sweeney and Scott. And they've even reached out to companies, thanking them for product placements. All together, there are approximately 35 separate and distinct campaigns.

More recently, they have added Twitter campaigns and charity fundraisers ($15,000 raised for 26 nonprofit organizations). Suffice to say, they have developed a community not dissimilar to what most communicators hope to create online, every day.

For all their efforts, however, many of them were disheartened to learn that executive producer Ken Corday is steadfast that Ejami is not the path. Another person will be thrust into the mix to disrupt an already complicated affair of four characters. The primary two characters of concern have already suffered a laundry list of tragedies. Only Job, from the Bible, beats them.

Who really owns a soap opera?

In an age where even books, for better or worse, have become the subject of social interjection, there might be something here that is more than meets the eye.

Unlike some creative works that have author ownership, it sometimes feels as if the script writers, actors, actresses, executives, characters, and audiences tend to change after 46 years. Certainly, Days Of Our Lives is not the same show it was when it started. However, when you trace the original concept, Ken Corday, son of the late Ted and Betty Corday (co-creators of Days Of Our Lives) is clearly the owner. It's his story to guide, along with Gary Tomlin, who joined him as executive producer in 2008.

Ken CordayThis simple fact makes the preservation of a singular story line an interesting twist despite how fans might feel, different from show cancellation protests like Jericho or Veronica Mars. Personally, I tend to lean toward leaving creative calls to the authors/owners, with the exception of those stories that begin as a socially infused storyline. There is no obligation to fulfill the expectation of the audience for an outcome. In fact, it is the anticipation of not knowing that makes us appreciate any story all the more.

However, I also see that I'm in a shrinking minority and Corday might be too. When the creative expression no longer holds the interest of an audience, an artist has to ask themselves which is more valuable — ownership, fans, or the chance to hit 50 years. It's Corday's call to make as long as he has a contract with NBC.

Friendly campaigns are not enough to sway networks, let alone producers.

It almost seems a shame to say, but after watching the aforementioned television cancellation (Jericho, Veronica Mars) protests, niceness doesn't often make for a compelling campaign. Jericho fought a war. Veronica Mars fans kept it cool.

Jericho earned a truncated second season. Veronica Mars did not. Both sets of fans were teased with the promise of a potential movie. Both were disappointed.

Nowadays, a smaller group of Jericho fans still promotes comic books (a very messy affair) and reruns. But Veronica Mars fans are mostly on their own, with only Kristen Bell actively campaigning for a Veronica Mars movie. Based on results, even though it is not be what fans of EJami want to hear, bold campaigns sometimes disrupt friendly communities and generate attention.

Five elements for a "chance" to change a producer's mind.

1. Numbers. Ejami fans already have a central forum where they can coordinate ideas and activities online. Based on the various campaigns and media mentions, it seems proof positive that the group is practiced. What it lacks are numbers. Five thousand might seem like a lot, but something closer to one percent of the viewership would have a bigger impact.

2. Symbols. Fan-based campaigns need a clear message and easily identifiable symbols that can be recognized by people other than fans. For Jericho, it was peanuts and then the historic Don't Tread On Me flag. Veronica Mars never really took off with the Mars bars idea. It cannot be too myopic or generic; something in the middle like heart-shaped soap might do.

3. Headline Grabs. Getting attention in soap-releated blogs and publications is a great start, but fan-based campaigns have to build into movements that capture mainstream media attention. While they can be civil, they still have to meet the full measure of what makes news. The more bullet points you hit, the better your chances. Make it bold and original.

4. Cash. Earned media (as some public relations professionals call it, but I don't much like the term) aside, paid placement can be compelling. Jericho fans bought advertisements. Veronica Mars fans rented airplane ads. Both had social media campaigns as well. Whatever the campaign might be, the message has to be consistent and placed nationally as well as where Corday might see it. Make no mistake, it's his show.

Ejami5. Ultimatum. At the end of the day, you have to ask "so what?" Jericho fans cancelled Showtime, boycotted CBS, flooded CBS phone lines and emails, made the public relations team stamp out many media fires, and countless other efforts. So, fans have to ask themselves if they are willing to boycott Days Of Our Lives, NBC, and the show's advertisers (assuming it will make an impact). If they are not, there isn't any incentive for a producer to listen (unless they are viewer-centric).

There is something else. Always be careful what you wish for. It seems to me the appeal of Ejami is, at least a little bit, based on the notion of something that cannot be. If long-term romance was a sure thing, it might not have as much appeal. Fans of the show The Office know it. While the show is still fun, the forbidden romance of Jim and Pam was priceless.

Special thanks to Ruthie for her in-depth analysis of what the Ejami fan group has accomplished. Keep up the great work. The information you provided is an excellent backgrounder, better than what some pros I know provide.

Wednesday, January 26

Marketing And Innovation: 10 Names To Rethink Marketing

open ideasI'm going to let you in on an ugly truth about business communication. Every time a social media expert claims marketing is dead or a public relations professional says PR should never answer to marketing, another colony of honey bees dies.

That's right. It isn't a mere coincidence that the honey bee problem started sometime in 2004. That was the same year people started making a mess out of communication by sharing their ignorance about marketing, public relations, and advertising.

Some of the worst misfires? Social media "humanizes" business. Marketers don't have to innovate to be influential. Public relations is better than advertising (or vice versa). One. Two. Three. Just like that, some farmer is short on pollen this year. And we probably lose five of them every time a "modern thought leader" spins a yarn about innovating communication.

It has to stop. So, I dusted off an old Phillip Kotler text and picked ten names from his list of great marketers from another era. And perhaps learning a little about these guys might clue a few people in to the idea that marketing has little to do with how much people yap on networks or place articles (even those things might be important). Although some of their companies have ebbed and flowed over the years, there is no mistaking that how they defined marketing is different from how some define it.

Ten marketers who changed the planet, for better or worse.

WexnerLeslie Wexner. In 1963, Wexner borrowed $5,000 from his aunt to start a niche clothing store. Perhaps you've heard of it. It's called The Limited, which originally began as a store focused on clothing for younger women. He understood that there was a growing need to create stores that served a distinct demographic of customers.

Charles Lazarus. In 1948, Lazarus initially started a baby furniture store in Washington D.C. It didn't take long before his customers began asking for him to add baby toys. After he added baby toys, loyal customers asked for him to add mature toys. In ten years, Toys "R" Us became one of the biggest toy retailers in history.

Frank Perdue. Frank Perdue dropped out of college to join his family's farm in 1939. Years later, in 1971, he helped Perdue Farm embark on its first major advertising campaign. But there is a lot more to the story than advertising. Perdue was the first to take an unbranded class of products, chickens, and turn it into a premium brand associated with consistent quality.

Edwin Land. While attending college, Land would sneak into into a laboratory at Columbia University late at night to work on an invention. The result was innovating the first inexpensive filters capable of polarizing light. In 1932, he established Land-Wheelwright Laboratories with his Harvard physics instructor to commercialize his polarizing technology and receive financing from Wall Street. The company's name was changed to the Polaroid Corporation.

SchwabCharles Schwab. Shortly after starting an investment newsletter with two partners in 1963, he open a traditional investment firm. But Schwab later decided that wasn't enough so he applied the principles of high volume/low margin to buying and selling stock. In 1981, he became a member of the NYSE with 222,000 client accounts.

Ray Kroc. After taking over a small-scale burger franchise in 1954, Kroc began to implement a food service standardization that he expected all franchisees to follow. His vision was to ensure that McDonald's would be known worldwide as a quick service restaurant focused on quality, cleanliness, service, and value.

Calvin Klein. In 1968, Klein founded a coat shop in the York Hotel in New York City that sold other lines, along with one he designed on his own. In the decades that followed, he had several hits and misses until finally creating a licensing program. The licensing program generated $24,000 in 1974. Ten years later, his royalty income grew to $7.3 million.

August Busch III. Sometimes referred to as "Auggie" or "Three Sticks" by employees, Busch focused on innovating new products and ensuring consistency before becoming company president in 1974. He also helped make changes to improve advertising and distribution efficiency that ensured Anheuser-Busch would remain a global volume brewing leader since 1957.

MarriottJohn Willard Marriott. He started a small root beer stand in Washington D.C., which he grew into a chain of family restaurants and later into hospitality services. His vision was to create a company that would treat both employees and guests with a total dedication to satisfy their needs. By 1985, the Marriott Corporation earned $4.5 billion per year.

David Packard. In 1939, Packard and a partner used $538 to start a company in their garage. Their first sale was a sound oscillator for Walt Disney Studios. Known to shun traditional business hierarchy and formality, Packard was one of the first technology companies to use marketing research to innovate new products.

These marketers didn't waste too much time getting people to like them.

People liked them because the innovations they implemented led to revolutionary ideas and actions to meet the needs of their customers, even when their customers didn't necessarily know they had a need. More importantly, when you read down the list, it becomes even more apparent that these marketers did everything "new marketers" do with the technology of their day.

beesMarriott humanized business. Klein created a prototype for affiliate marketing. Perdue made the CEO visible. Lazarus listened to customers. Wexner understood niche positioning. Packard used marketing research to shape his company. Land innovated technology that crowd sourcing could not uncover. Kroc delivered authenticity. Schwab published the equivalent of a blog.

This doesn't mean there isn't room for others to join the list or create the next billion dollar company (several have already). But what is unique about these individuals is that they understood marketing and innovation go hand in hand.

They worked hard and demonstrated marketing works not as a theory, but by actively implementing their ideas at their own companies. If they hadn't, then there would have been no products or positioning for advertising, public relations, and social media (had it existed then) to wrap their respective innovations around. There would only be a hook or two, like mentioning honey bees, a point that really goes nowhere but, at least, makes you more aware about a real problem while reminding you that buzz isn't marketing.

Monday, January 24

Incentivizing Behavior: How Algorithms Kill Good Ideas

The newest bright and shiny object at the center of social network news is undoubtedly Quora, which is a question and answer network that reached 164,00 unique visitors in December (and likely doubled in January). But all that might be for naught.

According to TechCrunch, Quora wants to develop an algorithm to measure online rank and user quality. Good luck with that. It's a mistake.

While algorithms can be useful, they also diminish the overall quality and value of any network where they are applied. Google understands this about human interaction. It's one of the reasons the popular search engine recently announced a harder look at search engine spam, beyond the changes that took place last May.

Much like photons and electrons in quantum mechanics, people behave differently when they are measured.

If you are familiar with quantum mechanics or wave-particle duality or the uncertainty principle, you already know they behave differently when they are observed and/or measured. People behave differently when they are observed and/or measured too.

And, the more people know about how they are measured, the more likely they will be influenced by the measurement. Even one of the first scoring systems widely adopted by marketers influenced their behavior as participants. As soon as Todd And's Power 150 was adopted, participants focused on improving the measures. Back then, it included things like Google Page Rank, Bloglines, and Technorati.

Since the so-called Power 150 move over to Advertising Age in 2007, it has undergone several overhauls, some good and some not so good. The new measures now include PostRank, Yahoo InLinks, Alexa Points, and Collective Intellect.

hamsterThroughout all those changes, an interesting phenomenon occurred with every addition and deletion: The usual list leaders would tumble down, sometimes as many as 30 places, before rising back up to their relative places. It's no secret why this occurred. It demonstrates a tactical shift in which measurements the list leaders concentrated tactical efforts.

The same phenomenon is occurring on Twitter. As Klout is adopted, participants adjust to accommodate the new measure of incentivized frequency because more tweets equal more Klout.

It also equals more spam, more auto messaging systems, more paid and fake followers, more conformity to popular opinion, and more time on the platform. Mike Judge already predicted the outcome of this path.

Why adding algorithms to networks changes the nature of the networks.

Quora originally started as a network where people ask and answer questions. The primary objective was to create a database of information. As such, the participants mostly attempted to provide the best possible answer to the specific questions being asked.

QuoraAs Quora adopts a ranking system, the objective will fundamentally change. Instead of answering a few questions by providing the best possible answers, many will be predisposed to answer more questions with whatever information is likely to generate the highest number of up votes. These lead to a fundamentally different answer.

As David Armano, senior vice president at Edelman Digital, pointed out after I questioned his post that placed even more qualitative merit on up votes: Quora isn't a database of information. He defines Quora as a marketplace of opinions.

Coincidentally, the supply of opinions outpaced the demand for the action some years ago. Mostly because, as a commodity, opinions are the only limitless product in a world searching for something increasingly rare. One good idea that works.

Friday, January 21

Haunting Professionals: Public Relations Vs. Propaganda

PropagandaA little less than two weeks remain before I begin teaching Writing For Public Relations at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. I've served as an instructor for just over a decade, and I've found that every year brings a new set of challenges for working public relations professionals as well as those intending to enter the field.

This year, more than any other, there is one challenge in particular that haunts me. Bruce Spotleson, group publisher for Greenspun Media, brought it up three years ago and has reinforced the notion every year since. When he joins the class as a guest speaker, he unapologetically considers that today's public relations professionals may be the stewards of tomorrow's truth.

He's touching on, of course, the unintended consequences of social media and social networks. As news continues to decline and people become more reliant on the Internet, they will increasingly lean on public relations professionals for their news.

It is imperative public relations professionals learn the difference between public relations and propaganda.

content flowLong before social media and social networks became a preferred means to disseminate online information, the future of the Internet was already considered a double-edged sword. On one side, it could be the answer to corporate dominance and media concentration by stimulating the free flow of information. On the other, as a medium, it also allowed for an abundance of misinformation to be spread intentionally (by people with agendas) and unintentionally (by sloppy research and source reporting).

There have been dozens of compelling examples in the last decade, ranging from George Bush's IQ hoax (which some people still believe) to Kennedy's press secretary, Pierre Salinger, once claiming that a U.S. Navy missile had shot down a commercial flight based on a report by an extreme propagandist. Last year, I also tracked the impact of a single biased release.

Collectively, people do not discriminate for content accuracy as much as they do for content affirmation. So for some bright people, including Randal Martin, who wrote Propaganda & The Ethics Of Persuasion, counting on the fifth estate might not be enough.

The gatekeepers of content and information (public relations professionals) may have to develop a dual allegiance. They must consider the best interest of both the organization and the public. And, they must remember that while effective communication may be designed to change behavior, it does so by providing information and not manipulation.

"That is to say, [manipulation] involves some sort of misleading communication, emotional pressure, appeals to the subconscious, and suchlike," Martin suggested. Or when it aims to infringes on the autonomy of any person.

For example, on the micro level, a blogger may request someone to promote or weigh in with an opinion on a particular post, which represents a fair exchange. But when a blogger attempts to leverage association or favors as a means to coerce promotion or a like opinion, it drifts into propaganda. On the macro level, communicating the disadvantages of a lifestyle choice is fair, but skewing statistical information or capitalizing on an emotional incident to set policy or discredit an unrelated opinion is not.

If you set some recent political exchanges under such a review, you may discover the system is riddled with propaganda. Likewise, some social media participants lean toward accepting propaganda tactics as an accepted, even admired, practice.

Jürgen HabermasPerhaps public relations might consider the definition of German sociologist Jürgen Habermas. He suggested that ethical communication might be subject to being meaningful (understandable), truthful (accurate), sincere (pure intent), and appropriate (valuable given the context). The only dilemma that arises, according to Martin, may be those occasions when the public prefers to surrender its autonomy, placing their trust in representatives. (I might offer up, however, the desire for a simpler life with fewer decisions does not warrant infringing on the autonomy of others.)

What this means for public relations professionals, in particular, is accepting the responsibility to verify sources. Liz Scherer, Jeff Esposito, and Doug Haslam all concur that truth and accuracy are fundamental to the profession.

"Public relations — good public relations — is about getting the message out," reminds Haslam. "Yes, it's advocacy. But the good public relations professionals don't lie."

Esposito adds that public relations professionals can learn from history. He says that major media institutions aren't critical provided professionals are willing to do their homework. It's an important distinction because sometimes even the pros themselves are being subjected to internal propaganda.

It's increasingly important for the public to identify propaganda too.

Spotting propaganda isn't necessarily an easy process. It requires substantial effort to track down originating sources, the ability to decipher primary messages and subtext, an assessment of who might stand to gain, the context of the presentation, the techniques used to share the message, and the infusion of bias (e.g., favoring the well-spoken or ill-spoken spokesperson).

truthOne local example that came to my attention is the reinforcement that Spanish is the "most spoken language in the world." It's not. Mandarin Chinese has more native speakers. Both Mandarin Chinese and English also lead as a first, second, and foreign languages (combined). English is the most learned language in the world, followed by French. Hindu is also widely spoken as are others.

Yet, two area teachers and one television program recently made the claim for Spanish, encouraging children to learn Spanish as a second language without attribution. Interestingly, Virginia Tech recommends French as a more global second language (for English speakers).

I certainly wouldn't want to dissuade someone from learning Spanish. It's especially useful in the southwestern United States and South America. But it does strike me as strange that teachers would spread misinformation, knowingly or not. One even required it as a test answer.

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