Monday, May 14

Making Bottle Rockets: Plan, Test, Execute

The unceremonious flight of my son's science project took place on the night before the project was due. The bottle rocket that his teacher intended to jettison 20 to 50 feet in the air using water and compressed air sailed through the air on its own, not outside like it was intended, but inside after it was hurled across room in frustration.

"What the heck?!?" 

"It's not working. Humfph,"was all my son said.

He had an ambitious idea to bring more than a neon green 2-liter bottle to school for his experiment, which is a good thing. But he also had the idea to mount the thin edge of his air foil fins to the outside of the bottle, which wasn't such a good thing. There simply wasn't enough surface area on the fin to attach it to the curvature of the bottle. 

That in itself wouldn't have been a big deal. What was a big deal was that it was already 9 p.m. and the project was due the next day. He needed a redesign, which also required me to keep some of my parental angst about procrastination from adding too much insult to injury (although I might have mentioned an X-box vacation; meaning for the X-box, not him). 

Three little words that could save most small business social media programs. 

Plan. Test. Execute. Those three little words that could have saved my son's bottle rocket from suffering the same fate as the Vanguard TV3, which was the first attempt of the United States to launch a rocket into outer space and crashed onto the liftoff pad after flying four feet. It could also save most small business social media programs. 

What my son did to his science project is what most people do in social media. Whatever they see being done looks so easy and effortless that they rush toward completion. But the rub of this kind of thinking is always the same. If it looks so easy that anybody could do it, it's anything but easy. 

This is why social media programs are launched every day without any foresight. Many small businesses (and big businesses too) take the advice of enthusiasts to jump right in for success. But much like the thin edges of a foil fin, they never plan their with enough surface area to stick. 

What surface area am I talking about? Content that connects. If you haven't planned out the kind of content you are offering — articles, videos, white papers, bon mots — and why that content might be important to the people you want to attract, who's going to care about what you share? (Certainly somebody will care, just not the millions that seem to make up most social media success stories.) 

Plan. What topical spheres make sense for your customers? How often will you be able to produce it? What do you intend to do when you don't have anything to produce? How does it contrast against what everybody else is already offering? And what's going to make it stick with your select group?

Test. Just because you can think it, doesn't mean it will work. I still remember one of my marketing teachers (a former engineer) who lamented having built one of the first working hovercrafts in the 1970s. They built and sold a few, just not enough to keep the doors opens. 

Execute. Once you are reasonably sure the idea will work, then you can execute, measure, and adjust. And, if you have enough foresight, it might not be a bad idea to have a contingency plan too. The web's virtual landfills already have too many abandoned blogs and social network accounts. 

For my son, the solution was easy enough. While I feigned disinterest to see what he was going to do, I sketched out three possible solutions. He could glue pre-slotted cardboard panels to the bottle, with the fins sliding into the slots. He could cut the fins, splaying the bottom inch or so to create more surface area. Or he could find clear packing tape that would provide support on both sides of the fin. 

The testing phase ruled out the first two ideas. There was no more cardboard and cutting the fins carried too much risk. Using the clear packaging tape was perfect, maybe even better than anyone hoped. It held the fins in place without obstructing the paint job. For additional stability, he added drops of glue at the top and bottom of all three fins, where they connected to the bottle. Done.

Sure, had he invested more time into the planning, the fins might have even been shaped to be more aerodynamic in order to give his bottle rocket more lift. But considering the quick fix became the contingency plan, he settled for cosmetics. Some social media plans do too, but never as well as they could have if someone had sketched out a plan before they hit 'join.'

Friday, May 11

Changing Media: PR Pros Need To Follow

While more public relations pros (those that aren't too niche) know the scope of their work exceeds media relations, it's still important to keep up with some of the changes journalists are making every day. Recently, Ragan's PR Daily highlighted one change. Phone interviews are becoming past tense.

Ragan Daily cites a number of reasons that this is becoming true, including the relative ease of finding sources on social networks. But even more than that, most people (reporters and sources) agree that email interviews can sometimes be more efficient.

Every question is laid out. Every question is answered. The margin of error in misquoting someone is almost eliminated. And there are no wasted minutes trying to navigate the chain of command to sync something as a schedule to make the call.

The trend can easily be debated. There are plenty of reasons reporters would want to conduct a phone interview or possibly conduct one in person (especially if they want to sniff out a better story). There are also plenty of reasons a client might want one too (it creates a better opportunity to establish a rapport).

Journalists are evolving beyond email interviews too; public relations pros take note. 

When Bruce Spotleson, publisher of Greenspun Media, spoke to my Writing For Public Relations class a few months ago, he was very clear about changes that are occurring in journalism. And much of it doesn't sound like journalism as most public relations pros were introduced to it.

Nowadays, journalists are asked to consider the tone of a story for the web as well as print. All of them take cameras wherever they go. Most of them are armed with video cameras (or smart phones too).

Understanding social media is an absolute must. Not only do they use social networks for sources, but they listen intently — looking for potential stories, trends, and the occasional dust up. The idea that journalism is somehow separate from the Internet anymore just doesn't ring true.

Along with a more visible presence online, many are being asked to be more presentable offline. I'm not talking about suits and ties like journalists wore before becoming an acknowledged profession. But I am talking about being presentable enough to appear on camera or, on occasion, bring eyewitness testimony to bear on specific events. Even if the paper never runs the video, all of it makes for great archives.

All in all, the future journalist is going to be much more malleable with the times, virtually fusing the distinctions that people used to see between print reporters and television news teams. In the very near future, they will be one and the same with some emphasis on web trends.

Right, newspapers are tracking web trends with IT departments making suggestions based on which stories are read, how long they are read, and how much they are shared. While this doesn't necessarily mean reporters won't use old-school strategies for investigative pieces, it does impact the general fodder that is published every day — and might even impact which sources are chosen long term.

Where public relations professionals ought to take note if they haven't already. 

Ten years ago, it was relatively easy to distinguish strategic communicators (e.g., corporate communications) with public relations. Strategic communicators were most commonly generalists in their practice. Public relations professionals were generally specific, with an emphasis on external communication to specific publics (of which the media were one).

Anymore, it's not so easy to tell the difference. Public relations professionals and corporate communication professionals pass tasks back and forth all the time. And who is responsible for what is more dependent on the employer than the field.

Still, I don't think corporate communicators will be the driver to change public relations. I am starting to believe media will be the driver. If journalists become multifaceted professionals who are social media/social network savvy, video proficient, and occasionally offer on-air commentary, then it stands to reason public relations professionals will have to match those skill sets and then some.

Wednesday, May 9

Appreciating Education: Lessons From Five Teachers

"The most decisive factors in education are the student's hunger for knowledge and willingness to learn, coupled with the teacher's passion in their material and faith that the student is capable of learning anything." — Rich Becker

After teaching as an adjunct instructor for continuing education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, for more than 12 years, I don't believe anything else matters in education. It's one of the things I learned this year from my gang of six (the smallest class size since I started teaching).

After I racked my head trying to determine why this group broke all previous records and vetted every other possibility, there wasn't anything left. These students delivered 100 percent attendance, 100 percent assignment completion, 100 percent rewrite completion, and did extra credit (even if they didn't need to).

Every student showed marked improvement, approximately two letter grades, with four of the six either earning or having the potential to earn better than 90 percent. In other words, the equivalent of an "A" in a professional field that I frequently tell students consistently produces "C" level work, with few standouts.

In previous years, only one student typically scored better than 90. Last year, not even one of them did.

My original thought was that their performance was the by-product of class size, the general evolution of my presentation material, or because I literally read the five things writers need to teach themselves out loud. But it really wasn't any of those things. At the end of the day, this class was hungry for knowledge and had a willingness to learn. It made my job easy because I am passionate about communication (especially written and visual communication) and believe anyone can learn it better than the industry's low standard.

Teacher Appreciation Week Is May 7-11, 2012. 

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week. And even though teaching is something that I can only afford to do part time, I thought it would be fitting to thank five teachers who probably had the most influence on how I teach today, along with what they taught me beyond their subject material.

Richard Pyle (7th grade, junior high school). He taught me to always work outside comfort zones because it is outside our comfort zone that we are most likely to find something that will change our lives.

Ms. Duffy (9th grade, high school). She taught me that we're not doomed to repeat history as long as we're smart enough to study it and understand it without putting our own bias into it.

Betty Sabo (9-12th grade, high school). She taught me that we alone ultimately make our own choices and, in doing so, determine whatever outcomes come our way.

Warren Lerude (sophomore/senior year, college). He taught me how perception makes most of us only one or two questions away from changing our minds despite our strongest convictions.

Ron Cooney (junior year, college). He taught me the most clever idea in the world isn't worth beans unless it can be executed and then presented in such a way that it delivers results.

These lessons had an impact on how I teach because I include them in my own lessosn: the importance of research, the ability to be empathetic, the character to be accountable, the courage to challenge ourselves, and the fearlessness to pursue our dreams.

It might not be what one expects from people who taught subjects like reading, history, forensics, media law, or copywriting. But one has to have an open mind for those teachers who have the audacity to believe in you. I'm grateful. And I hope that you have teachers who have touched your lives too.

Monday, May 7

Learning From Rock Stars: Mike Posner On Brands

Ever since I can remember, people have likened being in social media to being a rock star. But is it really?

After watching the Vans Warped Tour: No Room For Rockstars this weekend, there is little doubt in my mind. There really isn't a parallel between social media and the music industry — unless, of course, you really do have an act.

"At the end of the day, I'm a brand, you know. Well, me as a person is not a brand," says Mike Posner. "But me as an act, Mike Posner, is a brand."

At 24, Mike Posner gets it. He is signed with RCA. As a pop/hip hop artist, he is as good or better than anyone in his genre. He also has 1.7 million Facebook likes, better than most "social media rock stars."

Although I admit that his music isn't my thing, Posner is the real deal. And the reason I admire him is that he understands the difference between brands (acts or companies) and individuals (people). At the same time, he also understands the value of the brand and why it's important not to blow it.

"Every piece of music that I put out is part of that brand," says Mike. "Every partnership that I enter into has to make sense to my brand. Or, I don't do it."

A few days ago, I wrote about why a brand is not a person and how to be a person without worrying about your brand. But like most posts that touch on personal branding, the only people who really read them already understand the difference between brands and people. The ones who don't understand the difference are more inclined to read something else like, you know, how to improve your online brand.

This is also one of reasons that I liked Posner's insights so much. There doesn't have to be a distinction between your so-called personal brand and professional brand (unless your professional brand is an act) because the context defines the difference. Posner can be a bit different on stage than he is off stage.

In fact, another artist on the Vans Warped Tour: No Room For Rockstars lamented that sometimes he struggles with who people want him to be. Another talked about how much they appreciate every fan (without asking for influence scores and online credentials). And yet another said that the music and business are different, enough so that it often pays to keep them separate.

But unlike rock stars, most professionals aren't supposed to be different on stage and off because, unless they are speakers/teachers on a stage, there is no stage. Online, people want professionals to be authentic much like they want rock stars to be authentic. And, for the most part, they are some of the most authentic, down-to-earth people I know. Why? Most of them save the acting for their performances. Right. The better the performances, the less you need to worry about the brand.

Friday, May 4

Finding Empathy: Can Anybody Do It?

Journalist, author, and screenwriter John Buchanan might have touched a nerve with his recent article, Anger Management, for the Conference Review Board. The article uses three high profile crisis communication scenarios of their own making in 2011: Netflix, Bank Of America, and Verizon.

Two of the three are still included on the "10 most hated companies in America." And then he points out why the three companies failed so miserably. They didn't make bad decisions, he wrote, they lacked empathy. I'm glad to read it. Empathy seems to be in short supply in business and communication

Maybe if business students studied empathy, ethics would be easier too. 

Empathy is the capacity to recognize and share feelings that are being experienced by another sentient or semi-sentient being. (Or, if you prefer, it's the ability to identify the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.) Most people don't apply it very often because the problem isn't limited to businesses.

Last year, Scientific American covered a study that found almost 75 percent of students today rate themselves as less empathic than the average student 30 years ago. What makes this especially frightening is that even though empathy is innate (even primates have it), social context overwrites it.

People are more inclined to make decisions based on their needs, exclusive of others. And when you look at the three case studies offered up by Buchanan, that is exactly what you will find. All three had to improve their bottom lines. And all three considered their options, exclusive of their customers.

It wasn't until all three received customer pushback via social media that they reversed their decisions. But even those reversals aren't really social media triumphs as much as temporary surrenders. Chances are that no one learned to be more empathetic. Their reversals were a means to quell the backlash.

Empathy isn't about picking sides, which is why people misunderstand it. 

Two of the assignments that students who take my Writing For Public Relations class receive are also lessons in empathy. One involves delivering bad news for a company forced to lay off workers. Another involves an employee who is hurt on the job (possibly because of a safety violation).

Inevitably, there are two common directions students take in handling the assignments. Either students ignore empathy all together and get on with what they perceive as the job or they exhibit empathy toward whomever they see as the underdog. But neither solution is truly empathetic and here's why.

Empathy isn't about understanding how underdogs feel. It's about understanding how everyone feels.

Last year, one of the better articles about empathy was written by Guy Winch for Psychology Today. He titled it "How to Test Your Empathy." I'm glad he titled it that because there are dozens of misleading empathy questionnaires and quizzes  online (e.g., feeling empathy during a movie doesn't mean beans). Instead of a questionnaire, he asks his readers to imagine one scenario. That's all it takes.

Believe it or not, I first learned about empathy because of my work in advertising. It was one of several great lessons written by David Ogilvy. "The consumer is not an idiot," he said. "She's your wife."

Wednesday, May 2

Fizzling Out: Kony 2012

While some people are calling Kony 2012 a resounding success to be emulated, others are pointing to what they called a paltry turnout to "cover the night" with Kony 2012 posters last April 20. The campaign failed to move people from the Internet to the streets beyond the gathering of a few people in select areas.

It's one of the failings of viral social media campaigns that fail to redirect interest and energy into a tangible outcome. People might have piled on the campaign online, but only the smallest of fractions took action. Even when April 20 rolled around as the first bellwether of the campaign, the majority of those who took an interest in the online film (or at least the popularity of it) lost interest or avoided it all together. In other words, most people heard the message and then shrugged their shoulders, some in disgust.

None of that means the campaign didn't have its noble moments or that Invisible Children didn't raise some additional dollars or enlist a few more activists that they didn't have before. But for nonprofits hoping to harness the Internet, emulating this so-called viral success story does more harm than good.

How Kony 2012 made people tune in and then tune out. 

While the case study isn't over per se (and Alexa isn't the most accurate measure), traffic spikes to  Invisible Children tell a different story than the one the organization insists happened. They flash a few singular poster shots, inferring that everyone woke up to cities blanketed in campaign material.

The real story shows that the campaign spiked in early March, spiked again when the filmmaker was arrested, and sustained only a fraction of interest on their first event day, April 20, before its awareness entered its final death throes. Invisible Children, in the interim, is attempting to salvage it all.

Having worked on several successful social cause campaigns with Amnesty International, March of Dimes, Acts Of Kindness, and, I immediately knew spikes are all wrong. In those four campaigns (and others), the event day traffic spikes are 100 times greater than the launch, which is indicative of an event that cumulates into a specific action. People participate, take action, and raise more awareness than the campaign launch.

For the Kony 2012 campaign, people were made aware but most didn't take action. Worse, the rationale to the campaign might be best summed up with a study by Relevation Research, which found people who dump a brand online are more likely to distance themselves from the brand after they dump it. Once that happens, it is much more difficult to get their attention again, no matter how important (even more important) the next set of messages might be.

It's not that dissimilar to telemarketing callers and overindulgent direct mail. Consumers are generally receptive to the first call if they have a natural interest in the product or service. But if the telemarketer calls back over and over again (whether the person expressed an interest or not) or the direct mail/email spam begins to pile up, the consumer slides from mildly interested to disinterested to despondent to annoyed to retaliatory.

When controversy is the campaign, it only creates more controversy. 

In studying Kony 2012 as a living case study, there were dozens of details that campaign organizers overlooked. But the most pressing for cause marketers to avoid is centering campaigns on controversy.

Sure, controversy is one proven method to capture media attention. But the problem with controversy is that is cannot be effectively channeled into positive action. Instead, it's like a car accident — people rubberneck to look, are immediately taken by what they see, and then they keep driving.

For Kony 2012, the controversy mostly revolved around the notion that you have to make villains or villainy "famous" before people will take action against it. It's not true, despite being a common premise. Statistically, when people are faced with a problem that is perceived to be insurmountable, they are less likely to take action. Instead, they exhibit signs of learned helplessness.

The people that Invisible Children ought to "make famous" are not Kony and his cronies, but rather everyone else — the individuals taking action to bring Kony to justice and the victims who have become strong enough to move past their often horrific injuries and speak out. Likewise, the organization could do better than talking about what "they" set out to do, what "they" did, and what "they" are asking you to do next.

They didn't do anything beyond making a film and some bracelets to peddle. Sure, that is something. But it's also nothing compared to what some of "you" did. And highlighting specific individual accomplishments around the world would have likely redirected the focus on the better goal — putting an end to the issue once and for all.

This might seem like a small thing, but it isn't. If you want people to do good, the point of empowerment is proven not by the organization but by the collective action of individual people who believe and then demonstrate that the power of one among many can make a difference. But that doesn't seem to be what the Kony 2012 campaign is really about, which is why it is fizzling out.

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