Monday, November 14

Applying Ethics: Penn State Is Not A PR Story

Bill Sledzik is right. The Penn State scandal is not really a public relations case study. It can't be "fixed." The only thing left to do is continue to cooperate with transparency and suggest remedies to minimize such atrocities from happening again.

Attorney General Linda Kelly described it precisely: "This is a case about a sexual predator who used his position within the university and community to repeatedly prey on young boys. It is also a case of high-ranking university officials who allegedly failed to report the sexual assault of a young boy after the information was brought to their attention, and later made false statements to a grand jury that was investigating a series of assaults on young boys."

Any potential for this case to remain within the sphere of public relations ended in 2002. And even then, the only thing that could be done would have been to advise that the incident be immediately brought to the attention of the police regardless of potential public relations fallout. That was almost 10 years ago.

There are two worthwhile discussion points: understanding ethics and bystander psychology. 

Neither Mike McQuery, who witnessed the child rape firsthand, nor head football coach Joe Paterno should have been satisfied with the decisions reportedly made by then athletic director Tim Curley or senior vice president for finance and business Gary Schulz (who also oversaw campus police).

The ethical course for McQuery is clear. He should have intervened. Or if he felt the intervention put his life at risk, he should have immediately called the police. Instead, he reportedly turned to an authority figure, his father, and subsequently Paterno. While the behavior is understandable from a psychological viewpoint, it doesn't make it right. Personal, moral, and ethical responsibility cannot be so simply surrendered by a bystander to higher authorities, even at the risk of an early career.

Likewise, the same applies to Paterno. Once it was brought to his attention, there ought to have been no question of how to proceed. While notifying Curley and indirectly Schulz of the situation would have been acceptable, the only personal, moral, and ethical course would be to report the incident to police or insist that Curley and Schulz do so.

They did not. Instead, Curley and Schulz made the wrong decision when it was brought to their attention, apparently to keep the incident from going public while trying to distance the school from future liability in the event Arthur "Jerry" Sandusky was caught again. Eventually, when the incident surfaced during testimony, concern for public exposure quickly turned to protecting themselves from criminal liability, as it often does.

If the crime did not involve the public safety of a victim (such as lying to the media about something more trivial), then the appropriate course of action could have been to confront the wrongdoer and give them an opportunity to come forward and correct their mistake (and reporting it only if they are unwilling to do so). But any time there is an immediate threat to the public safety of one or more people, there is no obligation to grant the wrongdoer any such courtesy. You stop it. You report it.

What public relations professionals need to know about the Penn State scandal.

It is not uncommon for public relations professionals, especially those in the early stages of their careers, to be asked to lie, spin, or exaggerate on behalf of companies. And, more commonly, some will attempt to exempt themselves from responsibility after passing information to an authority figure. Don't do it.

If this case can teach students anything, it is that attempting to cover up an atrocity (regardless of size) doesn't protect anyone. It only makes everyone who knows liable for a lifetime and anyone who doesn't know another potential victim. And yes, once you know, the suffering of those victims falls squarely on your shoulders, as rightly conveyed by Attorney General Kelly.

"The failure of top university officials to act on reports of Sandusky's alleged sexual misconduct, even after it was reported to them in graphic detail by an eyewitness, allowed the predator to walk free for years - continuing to target new victims," Kelly said. "Equally disturbing is the lack of action and apparent lack of concern among those same officials, and others who received information about this case, who either avoided asking difficult questions or chose to look the other way."

Partial source: grand jury presentment, Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General.

Friday, November 11

Honoring Veterans: Veterans Day

Every year, the United States honors all of the men and women who have served in the Armed Forces. And every year, me and my team have had the honor of participating in unique and memorable ways.

This year will be a bit different, more personal. But the importance of the day is no less significant on a larger scale. And in thinking of what to share to convey the point, I came across a letter written by Sergeant Joseph Morrissey in 1969.

His words, I think, best convey the sentiment of the average Joe or Jane who serves at home or far away countries, in peace and war. It reminds me, and I hope you too, that in service and sacrifice, we are often compelled to do what is best for our country even when what needs to be done runs opposite of our beliefs.

Hello Brother, 
How are you treating life these days? Have you gotten a grip on those Merrimack students yet?

This place is sort of getting to me. I've been seeing too many guys get messed up, and I still can't understand it. It's not that I can't understand this war. It's just that I can't understand war period. 

If you do not get to go to that big peace demonstration in October, I hope you do protest against the war or sing for peace — I would. I just can't believe half the shit I've seen over here so far. 

Do you know if there's anything wrong at home? I haven't heard from anyone in about two weeks, and normally I get 10 letters a week. you mentioned in your letters that you haven't heard from them for a while either. I couldn't take sitting over in this place if I thought there was anything wrong at home.

Well, brother, I hope you can get to your students and start them thinking about life. Have you tried any marijuana lectures lately? I know they dig that current stuff.

I gotta go now. Stay loose, Paul, and sing a simple song of freedom and I'll be seeing you come summer.

Joe, October 1969

The most recognized Veterans Day national ceremony is held each year on Nov. 11 at Arlington National Cemetery. This ceremony commences at 11 a.m. with a wreath laying at the Tomb of the Unknowns. It then continues in the Memorial Amphitheater with a parse of colors presented by veterans' organizations and remarks from dignitaries.

In addition to the Veterans Day services held at Arlington, there are several sites that host regional services. These services may be found on a page maintained by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. For states that do not have a regional event listed, please check with your local government.

For the rest of the world, many countries will celebrate Nov. 11 as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day, a date that commemorates the armistice that ended World War I. Good night and good luck.

Wednesday, November 9

Talking About Brands: It Happens Offline

As much as social media has become a powerful component of information and marketing, it still represents only a fraction of word-of-mouth marketing. According to a new study in the United Kingdom, as many as 94 percent of conversations about various brands take place offline, face to face.

The new study, released by Keller Fay's TalkTrack Britain study, an ongoing research program that tracks word of mouth in the UK on a continual basis, found that face-to-face conversations outstrip social media media conversations by a wide margin.

In fact, the study found that the largest conversation motivator is what many social media professionals claim doesn't work anymore — advertising. Right. Almost half of all offline conversations reference media and marketing, with one in five of those conversations referencing traditional advertising.

Business is not as unusual as people think. 

The study isn't exclusive to the United Kingdom. The Keller Group conducts a similar study in the U.S.

Even some of the largest brands know social media is powerful but tends to over inflate its own importance. For example, when Keller Fay looked closer at a list of the most engaging brands on Facebook, it found that the numbers behind the numbers tell the real story in the United States.

Of Coca-Cola's 34 million fans, only 56,000 are active (0.2 percent of the total). Disney's engagement is .03 percent; Starbucks, often lauded as a social media leader, is 1.3 percent; and McDonald's doesn't register (only about 3,900 fans can be considered active). Compared to offline engagement, these numbers represent a relatively small percentage of active consumers.

For example, Keller Fay Group notes that Coca-Cola enjoys 880 million offline conversations during an average month, including 442 million active recommendations to buy or try Coke. Disney enjoys 125 million offline conversations. And Starbucks, approximately 119 million conversations.

Compare these numbers to actively engaged fans on social networks, and offline word of mouth outweighs online conversations by a large margin. And the concept that one-to-many broadcasting is ineffective in today's marketplace is one of the largest overreaching statements that can be made.

And programmers that attempt to measure online influence, engagement, and sentiment are often missing the point and misleading companies. Social media doesn't exist in a vacuum, but is better described as one or several touch points as part of a much bigger integrated communication plan.

Social media has several possible functions, all of which reinforce bigger campaigns. 

The Keller Fay Group has consistently positioned itself against the grain by claiming that all media is social. It's an unpopular position that we shared almost four years ago, underscored by the idea that all great advertising is a direct conversation with the consumer.

Modified, we might even suggest that all great communication — media, marketing, advertising, or original online content — not only talks to the consumer but can also spark of conversations between consumers. Apple is one of the most pre-eminent marketers in this arena.

It manages to be the second most talked about brand in the United States and third most talked about brand in the United Kingdom. And it captures this position without a formal social media program.

But all this is not to say social media is a dead end. On the contrary, many companies are relatively dysfunctional in their approaches to social media, attempting to prompt people to artificially have conversations about a brand and considering such forced conversations some semblance of success.

The problem is people are not miniature broadcast stations. They don't talk in marketing messages. They don't categorize conversations under brand names. They don't consider how algorithms might read sentiment. Do you know what they do? We do. But we'll save all that for next week.

Monday, November 7

Targeting Attitude: Trends In Marketing

While most online attention has been skewed toward "influence," offline attention is beginning to consider attitude as a much more significant measure. It makes sense. Attitude, more than many demographic data and certainly more than online activity, can make or break a potential client.

Affinity AMS/Experian Simmons recently conducted a study that found most consumer opinions about the U.S. economy are mixed. Almost 32 percent expect economic conditions to get worse over the next 12 months and 38 percent foresee no significant change in the economic health of the country over the same period.

The suggested theory by AMS/Experian Simmons is that the smaller group — those who are optimistic about the economy — is more likely to be in the market to make certain purchases. Those who are pessimistic are not.

There is some truth to the thinking. Anyone who works for B2B businesses knows that their best clients tend to be more optimistic about the future (regardless of the economy). It's the reason they make purchases ahead of their growth curves, stock greater amounts of inventory, and ramp up marketing campaigns. Those who are pessimistic are more inclined to be overly cautious, even adversarial.

Some interesting findings from the AMS/Experian Simmons study. 

AMS/Experian Simmons researchers went deeper into the data, organizing print and digital magazine subscribers by publications and they found that the readers of certain magazines tend to be more optimistic than others.

Specifically, among website readers, Bridal Guide (55 percent), Harvard Business Reviews (49 percent), Dwell (48 percent), Outside (46 percent), Bicycling (46 percent), and Parenting (46 percent) all scored higher in optimism. Among print, Essence (50 percent), Ebony (46 percent), Jet (44 percent), Elle Decor (43 percent), New York Magazine (39 percent), and Men's Journal (39 percent) all scored higher.

To be clear, with the exception of Bridal Guide, optimism is generally not a majority. However, in comparing this data to the greater population, readers of these magazines (online or off) are beating the national average. And that may very well be significant.

The AMS/Experian Simmons study also broke out magazine subscribers in other ways too. For example, when they asked respondents whether they feel financially secure, Barron's (print), Bicycling (web), Wine Spectator (mobile), and Conde Nast Traveler (social networks) rose to the top of the list. When asked if they teach their children to be safe with money, Parenting (print), The Family Handyman (web), Country Light (mobile), and Cooking Light (social networks) rose to the top. And finally, when asked if they are good at managing money, Architectural Digest (print), Dwell (web), Kiplinger's (mobile), and Conde Nast Traveler (social networks) ranked higher than others.

Human traits and attitudes are becoming more important to marketers. 

Currently, most social media measures are designed to measure volume and mass as the two more important qualifiers of success. However, volume and mass may be the least important measures if marketers are reaching people who feel insecure about their own positions.

For example, with exception of those who have an expressed need, a car manufacturer whose message reaches an economic pessimist might as well be a wasted impression. After all, people who are pessimistic about the economy are less likely to purchase a car, especially a new one.

That doesn't necessarily mean that all of those impressions are lost, depending on the message. Car dealers convincing people that they would save money by exchanging for a lower lease, trading in a car for a lower interest rate, or stressing gas pump savings might win over some pessimists.

The point here isn't to ignore pessimistic consumers, but to get back to the businesses of matching better messages that communicate to the needs of specific consumers. Doing so removes the random mass approach and realigns sales to niche — specifically qualifying leads as opposed to assuming everyone is qualified. More importantly, it distinguishes qualified leads because even those with the same household income may have very different conclusions about any purchase based on their attitudes.

While I did not see the study published on its site, AMS has several interesting studies available. It tracks about 175 magazine brands that garner the dominant share of the marketplace.

Friday, November 4

Grabbing Attention: Spontaneous Combustion

Social media is having a dramatic impact on advertising. And sometimes its influence we could all do without. The newest online video for global climate change is the perfect example. The advertisement was created as a pro bono spot by a New York advertising agency.

The commercial has a lot going for it. It has attention-grabbing special effects. It has a reasonably clever tagline. And, on creative merit alone, it kind of works.

But it doesn't work. 

The commercial is simple enough, showing a man in a business suit, screaming into his cell phone about how he doesn't care about the environment. And slowly, as the spot evolves, he begins to smoke and catch fire until he suffers a fate right out of the paranormal playbook — spontaneous combustion.

Okay, most people will get it. The point of the spot is to target and vilify people who have doubts about global warming and climate change, playing off the pun of "liar, liar, pants on fire."

When considering how to create real positive change in the world, clever doesn't always get the job done. Sure, from a social media perspective, it has some ingredients people chase after. But let's think about what it doesn't have.

• It's a shout down, aiming to vilify as opposed to providing tangible solutions.
• It's political, designed to separate people on a specific point instead of working together.
• It's sharable, but only among people who already believe in climate change.
• It's the wrong message, because climate change doesn't only impact people who don't believe in it.
• It's very much a sleight-of-hand game, driving people to something other than an environmental group.

The spot detracts from environmental groups.

The benefactor of this spot is the William J. Clinton Foundation. The goal of the foundation is to develop sustainable businesses in Rwanda, provide meals to children in Colombia, and spread a unique model of philanthropy around the world. None of those things is bad. They are admirable. And the foundation has made progress in several areas around the world.

Climate change is a very small part of what the organization does, with its emphasis on creating initiatives that lower carbon emissions in some cities. It does not link to the Global Climate Change Initiative, as some have reported. It links to a foundation that links specific businesses to government municipalities. It helps find funding for business partners entering green energy. It provides MRV and project development to deforestation.

There is nothing wrong with any of that per se (with some exceptions that I won't address today). The foundation has done some solid work. And I expect it will continue to do so. At the same time, I cannot help but wonder whether there are better places to support and help fund climate change organizations.

The social impact on advertising detracts. 

The most powerful spot ever created with an environmental message was, without question, the crying Indian for Keep America Beautiful. (And the best non-advertisement was The Lorax.)

When you compare the crying Indian to the combustible spot, it provides a powerful contrast between advertising yesterday and advertising today. The reason the crying Indian spot worked was because it didn't vilify anyone, but showed us something about ourselves that we were ignoring and reminded us that we had a choice. It brought people together. And it didn't even need cleverness to be powerful.

Making a better climate change commercial. 

Politicizing advertising for the benefit of social media sharing sucks. Imagine how much more powerful the advertisement would have been showing us a future world where global warming had an impact, like a kid looking at a Judge Dredd city from across a barren wasteland.

The spot could then circle around from his point of view, center on his eyes, and tap into his collective memory with a collage of ancestral choices that eventually lead to his great-great grandfather (present day) making an environmental choice. With the present day character making a different choice, we can end on a very different world for the boy who appears in the opening of the spot.

The message would be something that brings people together, that neither climate change advocates nor detractors can argue. That message would have to be centered on the idea that climate change — whether mostly natural or manmade — is an invalid argument.

We all know humans contribute to climate change, and we ought not to waste time arguing about the degree to which we are responsible. If we can cut carbon emissions, be more environmentally aware, and take small actions that add up over millions and billions of people, the world would be a better place for us to live regardless.

Now that's a message more people might agree upon, much like they did when they first saw the crying Indian. Quickly clever special effects laden advertising will possibly get more attention. But there comes a point when you have to ask yourself — what good does exposure to the wrong message really do? Exactly.

Wednesday, November 2

Organizing Stories: Writing The Mushy Middle

There are hundreds of articles and blog posts that tell people how to write better. Most of them are pretty good, even if they make the work sound easier than it might be, and are overly reliant on a formula.

I poked around yesterday and found several decent ones (and most of the decent tips aren't in the top ten on search engines, but that's a different story). Here's one for blog posts. Here's one on news releases. Here's one on articles. None of them are wrong; not really. But they are all so very boring, which is probably why writers and would-be writers who apply them never seem to reach their full potential.

Maybe we can look at organizational structure differently.

All in all, stories (which includes all writing) are pretty simple animals. They have a beginning, middle, and end. And many writers, myself included, tend to tell people to think about the lead paragraph (the beginning) and the conclusion (call to action or concluding point) because they are so very important.

Well, we're right. They are so very important. But that is not to say the middle isn't important. And the more I think about it, the middle might be more important than most writers give it credit for, because it can influence the lead paragraph and often dictates if anyone will ever make it to the end.

How to structure the mushy middle and tell a better story. 

Several years ago, I was working on various news releases, articles, and advertising copy for one of the largest art events in the region. So, I was exposed to dozens of artists with different artistic styles.

One of them made these amazing wooden sculptures, animals and people cut into crude wooden branches, stumps, and driftwood. And I remember asking him how he decided what he would make on what seemed like random bits of found wood. He laughed and told me I had it all wrong.

"The wood tells me," he said. "It already knows what it wants to look like."

I think written communication is very much like that. You have to look at the entire context and have some semblance of the organizational structure, especially the middle. Most stories already know the best way they could be told, but most writers don't listen — especially those who force every one of them into the formula. (I suppose it's better than no organizational structure at all, but not really.)

It's also why I decided to call the piece the mushy middle. It's mushy because, just like the wood, it can be carved in any number of different ways. The challenge, however, is to find the best way possible.

Nine common options for writers to experiment with to make the middle work. 

• Chronological. Some stories work better in chronological order. For example, personal narratives and imaginative stories that don't concern themselves with topical constraints. The telling is as important as the content and context. Information stories are sometimes written chronologically too, especially if the writer is asking someone to do something step by step.

• Reverse Chronological. Some stories, like biographies for example, frequently work better when they start with the position someone possesses right now, and then work backwards to reveal how the person arrived at that point. Depending on the person, it's not necessarily that cut and dried but reverse chronological is a pretty good start.

• Importance. Even though they don't have to be, most news stories are written using an inverted pyramid style, sharing the most important details up front and then drifting into the remaining details. It provides readers with a big picture before adding details that might be important to the story. It works, but many writers struggle with it because they sometimes pick the wrong details to keep people reading.

• Reverse Importance. Features articles sometimes do the opposite. They might lead off with a fine detail or event before breaking into another structure, including some of those that follow. It works best when one of those fine details is something that people can relate to or feel immediately empathetic about like the example of one homeless man before breaking into a story about homeless people.

• Topical/Classification. Stories that want to share large amounts of information, like a company website or children's book (all about dogs), are generally arranged in a topical format. And while this isn't always the case, most topical structures have a pattern that flows from one point to the next. The real challenge for most writers is that they have to choose topics that naturally fit together instead of simply trying to cover all the bases.

• Spatial. Although spatial is very similar to topical, the categories are generally thought out in advance and rely on specific characteristics. A very obvious example might include motor vehicles or even hotels. Generally, when we read anything about cars, the content is broken up into interior, exterior, and engine. Hotels generally talk about property amenities, room amenities, and nearby attractions.

• Comparison-Contrast. While there are several ways to approach a comparison-contrast story, the most common is to preset various points that the writer wants to highlight while comparing two objects. It's very similar to a topical structure, except the writer might shift back and forth among the two or more objects being compared. Analogies also tend to use comparison-contrast for great effect.

• Problem-Solution. Some writers lay the foundation of a story drawing in readers to something they can all relate to, usually something annoying or even tragic, and then offering a solution to avoid the problem. There are millions of classic advertising examples that use this model. Ergo, if you are tired of "this," then maybe it's time to try "this." Personally, I love problem-solution stories that diminish the problem or don't even bother to state the problem because the problem is already understood.

• Relationship. While this structure can be more challenging for some writers, it can be extremely effective in revealing how things might work, especially in areas that involve sociology. I used it the other day to work through a bigger picture on behavior during a down economy, specifically why people might believe home value appreciation delivers a high return despite their negative feelings about the economy. But this style can be more direct too, tying together ecosystems and ancestral trees.

Those are the most common nine, but there are more structures. 

It really doesn't matter what the purpose of the story might be (blogging, advertising, journalistic, fiction, informative). All good stories eventually develop a structure, and some of the best stories develop very complex structures that weave in several smaller ones.

This column might qualify. Obviously, the bigger structure of this piece is problem-solution based. But contained within the obvious structure, you can also find: chronological, importance, topical, and relationship. Its intention is two-fold: it creates a more conversational tone and helps break up the monotony of reading (and writing) the same inverted pyrimid day after day.

It's also one of the bigger picture concepts I'm integrating into Editing & Proofreading Your Work for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) this year. The session is scheduled for Friday afternoon.

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