Monday, January 30

Thinking Big: Why Not The Moon?

Although many people laughed when presidential candidate Newt Gingrich suggested the pursuit of a permanent moon base by 2020, and a rival candidate said he would fire an employee who came to him with such proposal, there is another question to be asked. Politics aside, why not the moon?

For many years, NASA has struggled with a public relations problem. In 2006, even NASA administrator Mike Griffin made the point that the agency's scientists and engineers are not very good at explaining to the public why what they do is important.

Interestingly enough, journalist Taylor Dinerman almost pinpointed one of several problems for the space agency. It cannot control what its employees say about the agency's programs and goals.

The reason I inserted an "almost" into the sentence is because it's not so much that it "cannot" control what its employees say. The real problem is that the employees have no centralized vision to follow. A return to the moon would give them that. A return to the moon might even enamor Americans with NASA again. And a return to the moon might give the United States a leadership position that doesn't involve globetrotting and nation building all over this world.

Thinking Big Is What Makes People Great. 

I don't mean the person who proposed it, but rather the people who will do it. And I don't just mean a revived space program, but rather any organization that dares to recast entire industries. There are dozens of examples, modern and historic, but even keeping the moon in focus can illustrate the point.

What could the benefits of going to the moon really mean? Almost anything you can dream up, and I don't just mean the idea that humans need to find a way off planet or one day face oblivion (a true argument, but one that most people cannot fathom). There are benefits to shoot for the moon.

• Economic Shift. We have reached a crossroads in that it is difficult to employ Americans in manufacturing for what people want Americans to earn, which is compounded by the fact that the public will not spend more for products to support higher salaries and better benefits. The lone exception is highly-skilled manufacturing jobs. A space program could help change the negative perception of highly-skilled manufacturing because it transforms factory workers into robotic technicians or rocket builders, people who earn the higher salaries and benefits Americans crave.

• Education Shift. We cannot go a few days without hearing how dismal the eduction system has become in America. The problem is three-fold. Students are not being taught critical thinking skills, have a difficult time connecting the dots between the subject matter and their futures, and don't always think pursuing an education will lead to anything worthwhile. A viable space program with a defined mission could renew interest in math, science, and engineering.

• Energy Shift. Most people agree that the United States needs to place an emphasis on sustainable energy. Unfortunately, most debates get mired down in polarized issues like climate change and never produce intelligent solutions. The prospect of a moon colony kills the debate. There would be no choice but to pursue technological advances such as solar energy or other energy sources we haven't dreamed up yet because people stationed on the moon would need it while people on Earth would benefit too.

• Agricultural Shift. You cannot look around the world and not notice that a majority of people on this planet do not have enough fresh water or food supplies. Whatever innovations would have to be dreamed up to build a sustainable moon colony would no doubt benefit people right here on planet Earth. At the same time, nutritionists and medical professionals would have to work even harder to understand the physiology of people and place a greater emphasis on prevention and cures as opposed to symptom-control via prescription medication.

• Attitude Shift. Many Americans have grown sensitive to risk aversion. People are increasingly voting for security over opportunity. People want high-yield retirement accounts with zero risk. They want jobs to employ them indefinitely, with the flexibility to leave companies anytime they choose. They want bulletproof medical care that extends life indefinitely, but the freedom to eat junk food in wildly impressive quantities. They want space programs to be accident free, but are willing to hold daily transportation to a much lower standard, provided they can drive 10 or 20 miles over the speed limit. A space program, particularly one as aggressive as a moon colony, might reinvigorate our spirit.

• Who Knows? There is really no way to know what the future of space might hold. But there are plenty of possibilities. Mining could produce any number of new materials that could fundamentally improve life on earth without gobbling up our resources. Space tourism could finally become a viable industry, giving people a destination that is as brilliant as visiting another part of the world used to be in the 1900s. And much like previous space programs did for five decades, all of it comes with benefits that will outlast the initial return on investment.

Right now, the United States is not the only country on the planet setting its sights on the moon and beyond. In fact, we may be the only country that has shrugged off its own program without having a viable alternative beyond hitching a ride on the technological achievements of other nations.

Such a course of retreat cannot last or else the nation will languish in its own abandoned destiny. The benefits and advancements of science, technology, engineering, and knowledge by pursing a space program that places us on the moon and then beyond the moon is by far the most important undertaking this country could revive, reinvent, and remain in the lead with peaceful intent and empowered purpose.

While I have no sense of what candidate (or incumbent) I will vote for in the coming elections, I do vote to go to the moon. I vote to go to the moon because throughout history, this world is made better by companies, organizations, and nations of people who dreamed, dared, and did as opposed to those who have rested, have retreated, and have long been forgotten.

It is the very pursuit of the improbable that makes things possible. It is a singular overarching purpose that could correct the decades-long lackluster public relations program at NASA. And it is pursuit of space exploration that could be the catalyst this country needs to push itself out its current stalemate.

Friday, January 27

Leading Without Labels: Transformative Action

At the age of 14, Manuel Scott dropped out of school and his English grammar was so poor that he was classified as an English as a Second Language student (ESL). By the age of 16, he had already lived in 26 different places. And he began using drugs and alcohol.

Looking at his biography, you would never know it today. He is a transformative speaker working on his Ph.D. He often speaks about education, encouraging people to renew their commitment despite any issues or challenges they have. He encourages them because he was once encouraged to turn his life around too.

We have something in common, he and I. Based on our labels, neither of us should have "made it."

The trouble with labels.

Since watching Scott's Martin Luther King Jr. Day keynote speech on the recommendation of a friend, I've viewed and listened to several videos by Scott. And almost all of them come back to a similar subject I've written and spoken about before. Most people are predisposed to believe in labels.

Rich and poor.  Healthy and ill. Educated and ignorant. Employed and unemployed. This party or that party. And even when any of those things are summarily equal or readily dismissed, people make up all sorts of new labels like titles or scores or ranks, usually touting the importance of one based on nothing more than their own placement, temporary conditions and meaningless anecdotes. None of it matters.

Whoever you are. Whatever your title. Whenever you graduated. However happy/unhappy your home.

It will change, for better or worse. There isn't even anything you can do about it, except to be continually doing something about it. The act of doing tends to offer up its own remedy of sorts.

Elsewhere on the net today, I reviewed the book The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. You can read the review if you like. I wanted to mention it here because the teenage protagonist shuffles along as a terminally ill cancer patient until someone enters her life and has a transformative affect on her.

How to lead without labels. 

The person who transforms her life isn't a parent. He isn't a teacher. He isn't a politician, statesman, or community activist. He isn't a businessperson, journalist, or social media superstar. He's just a boy.

Although there are a great many other things to take away from the book, the fact that this boy can have a profound and lasting affect on the protagonist, no matter how long she lives, seems to be an important one that the author never intended. Anyone can be the spark in another's life. Anyone can be a leader.

It requires two things. The leader has to believe that someone can overcome whatever temporary condition afflicts them, probably because they themselves have already learned the lesson. And then, the person being transformed has to believe they can overcome it too.

There is no other requirement, which leads me to believe that leadership doesn't come from the measure of temporary conditions, but rather the character of the person making the effort. We learned as much last year in Egypt. Nobodies become somebodies, and the rest is just scale.

In the book, Augustus Waters transforms three people. In real life, Scott transforms thousands.
If we want to transform education or even the economy, it seems to me we could start the same way.

Wednesday, January 25

Loving It Too Much: The McDonald's Campaign Backfire

In recent years, McDonald's has been making a real effort to change itself from being the flagship of unhealthy fast food to the pinnacle of quick service with healthy choices. The change has been mostly prompted by continuous assaults: Some are are fair. Some are not fair. And some are ridiculous.

The net sum of these varied stories is that the corporate giant is trying to make an admirable change, even if the totality of it continues to be trial and error. Sometimes, they get it right, like adding fruit to choices to the Happy Meal. And sometimes, they get it wrong, like the #McStories campaign.

Why McStories is a beautiful campaign with insidious results.

When I first saw the series of YouTube videos, I almost wrote a post about them. They are beautiful slices of Americana, featuring farmers who take great care in the produce they provide. I love the commercials. But I also hate the commercials.

I don't hate them because of their message or the personalized stories from the farmers. We could use more stories like these, given our country's bout with self-loathing. In fact, that was the reason I decided to pass on critiquing the campaign. The farmers certainly didn't deserve it.

Unfortunately, it was just a matter of time before someone else did. Yesterday, someone did in a tremendously coordinated and catchy fashion. It was only a matter of time before the whole thing went semi-viral. McDonald's has lost Twitter for awhile. It might even lose the entire campaign.

The social media crisis could have been simple enough to spot. The hashtag #McStories, which was meant to support the campaign, was more or less jacked. It was first jacked by PETA and then everyone started piling on with one rancid story about McDonald's after another. #McStories isn't about farmers anymore, at least not for the short term and maybe never.

The attack is no longer confined to Twitter either. It will migrate to other assets. The media coverage of the crisis only attracts more of the same, usually three-fold: people with agendas (like PETA), people with real gripes (like some of the tweet authors), and people who see an easy way to get attention (the attention-starved majority).

McStories is mostly true, but it comes across as a classic overreach. 

If there is one thing advertisers and marketers might take away from the McStories backlash, it's that forcing the marketing message, especially when it is supported by social media, will eventually backfire.

And that's why I hated the campaign. Anybody on the strategy side (because it's too much to ask the creatives to see it) could have seen the backlash coming miles away. Despite many successes, McDonald's house is too dirty to rest its laurels on a handful of true but spectacularly crisp stories.

On McDonald's side, Snopes investigated such beef claims years ago and found them to be mostly true. McDonald's also made progress to be more environmentally friendly, but it tends to miss some goals every year. And then there is always the question about nutrition, especially in terms of carbs, fat, and sodium. All in all, it's one giant hit and miss machine. That's not good enough for a McStories message.

Besides, the problem isn't so much where McDonald's gets its stuff. It's what McDonald's does to this stuff once it leaves the hands of conscientious farmers. It's the processing, recipes, additives, production, freezing, unfreezing, distribution, and in-store preparation that makes you wonder.

Those beautiful cows, lettuce heads, and potatoes are all destined to become something that ages at an impossibly slow pace. And until McDonald's begins to address that fact its operational systems have reached their carrying capacity to deliver the quality I once associated with them, it will continue to face stiff criticism as the the biggest quick service chain.

Personally, I think it's all too bad. McDonald's has plenty to take pride in, ranging from being a massive employer for first-time employees and iconic marketing successes to being a sound investment and a corporation that has blemishes but is trying to do something to clean them up instead of sweeping them aside. However, to make the case that the hamburger joint represents the backbone of family-owned American agriculture in order to deliver near farm-fresh ingredients to consumers ... sigh.

Monday, January 23

Reducing Reach: Advertising And Public Relations

Although a recent comScore study was tied to a product launch of Validated Campaign Essentials (vCE), advertiser and public relations professionals can still take note. As many as 31 percent of all online advertising impressions are delivered but never seen by a consumer.

While the study itself was confined to digital advertising, the same holds true for print. Much like site visitors may never process an advertisement that appears on a site or social network page (whether a digital news site or Facebook page), circulation often dictates the number of impressions even if consumers don't pore over every printed page (whether advertisements or stories).

Digital advertising highlights from the comScore study

• Across all study campaigns measured, 69 percent of the ad impressions were classified as being ‘in-view.’* The remaining 31 percent were delivered but never seen by a consumer, a likely result of a consumer scrolling past the ad before it loaded or a consumer never scrolling the ad into view. In-view percentages varied by site and ranged from 7 percent to 91 percent.

• An average of 4 percent of ad impressions were delivered outside the desired geography, but individual campaigns ran as high as 15 percent. In many cases, ads were served in markets where the advertised product is not sold, meaning wasted ad spending and sub-optimal effectiveness results.

• 72 percent of all study campaigns had at least some ads running next to content deemed “not brand safe” by the advertiser, meaning that the content is deemed objectionable by the brand. This type of unsafe delivery has the potential to damage the brand, creating a difficult situation for all members of the digital advertising ecosystem.

“The display advertising market today is characterized by an overabundance of inventory, often residing on parts of a web page that are never viewed by the user. This dilutes the impact of campaigns for advertisers and represents a drag on prices to publishers,” said Dr. Magid Abraham, president and CEO of comScore. “Conversely, some ads below the fold are quite visible and deserve more credit."

*The study included 12 national brands, 3,000 placements, 381 site domains, and 1.7 billion ad impressions.

The dilution of impressions is higher than the study suggests.

Looking over the study and the numbers, it seems that vCE is taking a step in the right direction. However, even with vCE campaign delivery notifications, advertisers, marketers, and public relations professionals ought to be establishing better outcome measurement systems instead of attempting to calculate expected outcomes based on a percentage of impressions.

This is especially true because digital and print are generally judged by two completely different systems. So is television, which is based largely on cost-per-thousand and cost-per-point, which begins with the ratings system. Smart phones and tablets are developing slightly different measures too (especially because many ads are 'hard' screen views).

While counting impression measures can be useful to make apples to apples comparisons, marketers and small business owners will see better results if they pay more attention to two other ingredients: focusing efforts on finding outlets to reach consumers who have an expressed interest in their product or related topic and investing more time on advertising that isn't 'noticed' more (e.g., flashy and splashy) but rather can deliver a value proposition that entices those consumers to take the next step (or at least remember the company). When combined with benchmarking, the outcomes will become apparent.

Ergo, it's not the number of throws you get. It's the number of times you hit the target.

Friday, January 20

Feeling Invulnerable: Clients With Messages

A few weeks ago, we had a discussion with a prospective client. And we decided not to take the account.

It really wasn't a big deal, and not anything to write about. But then I read Roger Dooley's article about Solving The "Invulnerable Customer" Problem and realized that there was a teaching opportunity.

His article touches on why consumers don't always buy products — even when risk exists — because they think they are invulnerable. The example he uses is classic: frequent hand washing (or lack thereof) among people in the medical profession.

There are plenty of other examples too. Invulnerability is why people talk on cell phones while driving, eat too many snacks, and smoke cigarettes. It's why teenagers want to stay up too late, shortchange their study time, and dismiss wearing a jacket when it is cold. It's why clients want to talk about themselves, not address customer grievances, and think spam can be a good thing.

That is not to say some sense of invulnerability is all bad or that worry is better (it's not). But we can still appreciate that overindulgent invulnerability can be as entrenched and irrational as the polar opposite of victimhood. There are, after all, an equal number of people who know their children will always catch a cold and believe every ride to the store will include at least one close call. They may even be more likely to be overinsured and underinvested.

These two opposites make for some fascinating research. However, there was something even more striking about Dooley's article. He offered a solution, one that is as easy as changing the pronoun emphasis in a message.

Considering Pronouns As Part Of The Message. 

The hand washing message solution was right on target. While posting signs that said "Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases" had no effect, an alternate sign that read "Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases" increased hand washing by 10 percent and soap usage by 33 percent.

That is amazing. It's also only one example of how powerful pronoun choices can be, especially if the marketers or copywriters have insight into the environment where the message will be delivered and the current mood of the audience.

It's also why we knew the prospect wasn't a good fit with our firm. He wanted to concentrate on a message that talked about "I" and "you." However, we recognized the current climate suggests people want to hear more about "us" and "them." (Specifically, people want to know what are we going to do as a country, and what can be done to help people who need it.)

Pronoun choices might seem tiny. The impact they can have is huge. Doubly so because there are generally four choices — I, you, we, them. And depending upon the context, product, service, audience, and general attitude, choosing the wrong one can make or break a message.

While picking the right pronoun is reliant on existing circumstances, there are some commonalities that can help make the right choice. Leadership and innovation are more often tied to "I" messages. Transformation and empowerment are often tied to "you" messages. Engagement and empathy are often tied to "we" messages. And perspective and compassion are often tied to "them" messages.

Case in point. The difference between "You Can Change The World" and "We Can Change The World" are miles apart. So are "We Are Helping Them" (an "I" message in plural form) and "They Need Our Help" (an "I" message, structured to place more weight on "Them"). Picking the right one has everything to do with understanding the motivation and mood of the intended audience. In fact, you can even attract certain types of people based on how the messages are framed with which pronouns.

For example, people who gravitate toward "10 Ways To Improve Your Blog" are looking for empowerment whereas people who gravitate toward "10 Secrets I Know About Blogging" are looking for leadership. They are very different propositions. They can attract very different people.

Just for fun, consider pronoun usage while you browse the Web today. Or, if you want to have more fun, take a look at your last ten blog posts or the last ten messages (advertisements, etc.) put out by your organization. Is there any pattern? Have the messages been effective? And if not, could different pronouns be all that separates you from success?

While you look around, always keep in mind that what we communicate is never really about us. It's almost always about them, the people we want to reach. Which, when I really think about it, is why we ultimately passed on the account. It's impossible to win with people who think they're invulnerable, especially if they don't care about the people they want to help.

Wednesday, January 18

Playing With Fire: Ron Paul And Public Relations

Part of the art of public relations is always appreciating that you are communicating to more than one public at a time. Some candidates participating in the South Carolina debate forgot that on Monday.

Much like mainstream candidates mistakenly did during the 2008 Republican primary, they largely ignored Ron Paul. When they did acknowledge him, it sometimes included backhanded comments designed to label Paul as a little bit kooky. That is a mistake, much bigger than most people realize.

Note: This is not an endorsement of any candidate nor political analysis beyond the often unseen impact of public relations in the field. For companies, it is a worthwhile observation on brand loyalist reaction, especially as it relates to aggressive jabs at the competition and dares people to take sides. 

The Potential For A Ron Paul Public Relations Backlash. 

Although many mainstream campaign strategists (national and state) dismiss and distance themselves from unflappable Paul supporters, many of them need Paul supporters to win, whether it be the primary or general election. They don't like to admit it. But they do.

So when candidates such as Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum attack Ron Paul with characterizations that allude to the idea that Paul is from another planet or perhaps irrational, they are playing with fire. Paul supporters are not like any other base in the bid for president. 

Paul supporters are better organized than any other base (especially on the Internet), regardless of any direct involvement by their candidate. Paul supporters remember every rub, rib, and rude comment aimed at their candidate or their ideas. And Paul supporters are unafraid to make it their mission to make someone lose, even if it means tossing the election to someone who they politically disagree with on every level and even if someone eventually earned a Paul endorsement.

I know. I listened to Paul supporters take delight in damaging campaign signs (among other things) in several state races four years ago. Never mind that the candidates they attacked were ideologically closer to their views than the opponents who won. They were out to teach lessons. Even after accepting apologies, it didn't matter. They are quick to forgive, never forget, and always extract retribution.

In fact, it doesn't even matter that Paul was booed at various points during the debate by the audience, which no doubt fueled a few of the more brazen comments from his rivals. His supporters still took note of how each candidate reacted to and responded to Paul in turn. And that's why Paul won Twitter, even if Gingrich won the debate (according to most analysts). 

Always Pull Publics Toward You; Never Push Them Away. 

There seems to be little doubt that Paul has the ear of the nation when it comes to many domestic policy points. He tends to attract and empower younger voters and, according to a recent poll, older voters.

Analysts can pinpoint any number of specific issues that rally people around Paul (they especially like to draw out his stance on drugs, leanings toward isolationism, and abolishment of income tax), but the overarching message that resonates more than any other is that Paul sees things differently and will not back down from what many say is the hopeless cause to restore a Constitutional government.

This platform raises two questions. Can he really deliver a Constitutional government and are Americans ready for one? The answers are why many people wonder about his electability.

However, even if some of his ideas are so surprisingly foreign to most Americans that mainstream voters cannot even grasp the basic tenets of his platform and Paul cannot always articulate those tenets in a way that makes sense to the mainstream, whoever wins the nomination cannot afford to push Paul supporters away (about 20-25 percent of primary voters). Already, some of those who used to say anyone but Obama are now saying Ron Paul or no one.

The same holds true for companies and organizations. For example, consider what AT&T did when it started targeting heavy data users by penalizing them. They have turned people who used to be AT&T loyalists into people who may choose anyone but AT&T on their next contract.

In both cases, the decisions being made have short-term solutions. But over the long term, both strategies could backfire. Not everyone who is pushed away for short-term gains will come back.

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