Friday, October 12

Seeing The Future: The Active Office Space

One of the more interesting research projects coming out of Australia is a pilot intervention study being conducted by the University of Queensland. The study, which employs Ergotron WorkFit Sit-Stand Workstations, is designed to reduce the amount of time employees sit.

Mostly, the study is confined to seeing how long employees choose to stand as opposed to sit at their work stations. The initial report found that when workers were given the choice, they would reduce on-the-job sitting time by more than 27 percent. The company that makes the stations links excessive sitting with an increased risk of certain cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and other health conditions. 

Highlights from the sit-stand workstation study. 

The researchers conducted the tests right, with two groups of office workers who were predominantly of the same demographic (women in their 30s). One group of 18 workers were given sit-stand workstations. The other, 14 workers, retained their non-adjustable desks.

In the sit-stand group, sitting time was reduced by more than two hours and standing time increased by more than two hours after both one week and three months of workstation use, compared with the group that did not receive the desks. Overall sitting time during a 16-hour weekday was reduced by about 80 minutes and standing time increased by up to 90 minutes in the sit-stand group, though no significant changes were found in walking time, researchers said.

"The pilot study provides evidence that a sit-stand workstation (approximate U.S. $399) can reduce sitting time in office workers," said Genevieve Healy, Ph.D., University of Queensland. "Furthermore, epidemiologic evidence suggests that the reductions in sitting at the workplace could potentially have considerable impact on cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes prevention."

What sit-stand workstations need to do next. 

While Dr. Healy and her team are currently extending this research into multiple workplaces to examine the most feasible and acceptable ways to reduce prolonged sitting, these studies need to be expanded to consider other areas that corporations and small businesses will notice.

For example, if the study were expanded to measure productivity, employee morale, customer service, or even space economy, businesses would be that much more likely to adopt the idea. In addition, the manufacturers wold probably benefit from stations that could be pre-programmed to match the sitting and standing height of employees without any effort on their part to adjust for ergonomics.

Currently, the the company has been mostly focused on the more apparent health-related aspects of sitting vs. standing. However, it does have an interesting set of calculators designed to guesstimate a return on investment that alludes to the 12 percent increase in productivity related to ergonomics and 20 percent increase in productivity with dual displays.

In such a scenario, the company claims that 100 employees could realize an estimated savings and productivity gain of $1.5 million, which is pretty substantial. This means the payback occurs in about 5 working days. But what interests me about the innovation is even broader.

By merging these simple low-tech solutions with modern technology, it would be that much more possible to increase the ability for people to present while standing at their workstation (e.g. Skype, Google Hangout, etc.), which always delivers better results than sitting in front of a desktop camera. Likewise, for companies that still use cubicles, planning for elevated workstations would give workers a greater sense of privacy instead of always feeling like they have to sit down to feel it.

Wednesday, October 10

Marketing Madness: How Stereotypes Hurt Campaigns

I've always believed companies need to be culturally sensitive, but I've never been a fan of most "cultural" marketing campaigns. A new study by Columbia Business School underscores the reason.

Columbia Business School's Michael Morris, the Chavkin-Chang professor of leadership, and Aurelia Mok, assistant professor, City University of Hong Kong (she received her Ph.D. from Columbia Business School in 2010) set out to better understand bicultural identities and how marketing cues might influence their response. It turns out that culturally-skewed campaigns may not resonate.

Cultural campaigns ignore the integration of cultural identities. 

The researchers do an excellent job setting up the myth. When a Japanese-American woman strolls through a food court at the mall, is she more likely to opt for sushi or a hamburger? It depends on the woman. It depends to which degree she has integrated her cultural identity.

Prior research found that bicultural individuals switch between their two sets of cultural habits in response to cues in their current setting. Morris and Mok show that these responses differ between two kinds of bicultural individuals: "integrated-self" individuals exhibit chameleon-like behavior, expressing Asian tastes after exposure to Asian symbols, while "divided-self" individuals behave like cultural contrarians, expressing American tastes even after exposure to Asian symbols.

This holds true even when cues are presented subliminally, suggesting that unconscious motives are at work. It's these unconscious responses that can add the most weight, but it's also the hardest to measure.

So the researchers devised a subliminal priming technique in which participants were repeatedly flashed "Asian" or "American" while reading words in a word recognition test. The cues could not be seen, but were flashed long enough to be caught by their subconscious minds. The subjects were then shown different products that they could click on for more information.

These Asian-Americans did not skew toward Asian presets. Instead, subjects responded based on their degree of bicultural integration. In some cases, integrated individuals experienced a self-defense response that caused them to respond with less interest to marketing messages that skewed Asian because they felt (consciously or subconsciously) the ads were exclusionary and even caused them anxiety in losing their self-identity versus a cultural one.

The brilliance in understanding people and not stereotypes.

Modern marketers place considerable effort on lacing campaigns with cultural markers in the hopes of reaching a specific segment of the population. The idea might show cultural awareness, but it is equally likely to prey on stereotypes and cause some members of that segment to become disinterested or even disassociated with the brand, depending on how integrated the individual's identity might be.

It is especially prevalent in Hispanic marketing efforts, which often attempt to reach a Hispanic public based on the pre-conceived belief that they fit certain stereotypes. They do not.

Not only does Hispanic marketing run the risk of alienating diversity within a broad definition (e.g., Cuban vs. Mexican vs. Dominican Republican, etc.) but each generation removed from their cultural identity becomes less motivated by Hispanic messaging and more likely to identify with being American. In such cases, much like Asian groups, they may even have an aversion to the message.

Likewise, although not part of the study, there are other differences as well. Hispanic and Latino publics in California, Florida and Texas are all very likely to have different regional identities unique to their geographical region. But despite this, marketers frequently insist on developing campaigns to the broader base.

Certainly, some cultures seem to be more resistant to assimilation than others. But at the same time, given cultural identity is strongly associated with individual preferences and not groups, marketers need to start asking themselves if attempting to capitalize on cultural identity is worth the long-term risk of alienation. And, perhaps even more importantly, if attempting to base marketing campaigns on stereotypes is the exact opposite of what they are trying to accomplish.

People are more likely bound and identifiable based on specific interests and experiences. Marketers need to give more cadence to those identifiers than cultural bias, especially in a country like the U.S.

Monday, October 8

Mixing Messages: KitchenAid Misfire Still Burns The Brand

It happens so often that it can hardly be considered news. KitchenAid was the latest company to send an errant tweet. This time it occurred during the presidential debate. The employee, apparently exuberant over President Obama's poor performance, decided to put out a tweet.

Tweet: "Obamas gma even knew it was going 2 b bad! 'She died 3 days b4 he became president."

The only problem was this tweet didn't reach the employee's personal followers, but rather the 26,000 people who follow KitchenAid. The company quickly pulled the tweet and issued an apology. The company added another response too, alluding to the idea that the employee will be fired or, at least, locked out of the brand's social media accounts.

KitchenAid: "It was carelessly sent in error by a member of our Twitter team who, needless to say, won't be tweeting for us anymore."

Lately, any time a reporter mentions it, the KitchenAid account responds with a direct request. The general idea is the cookie cutter approach designed to move the conversation out of the public.

KitchenAid: "My name is Cynthia Soledad, and I'm the head of KitchenAid. I'd like to talk on record about what happened. Pls DM me. Thx."

I've always had mixed feelings about the shift-to-DM approach. Maybe it works here. Maybe not. It seems KitchenAid might cover more ground if it just tweeted publicly about it or put up a direct link to a statement on its site. I mention this because despite apologies, it's still being shared around.

Naturally, since then, there have been a hundred stories about the subject: Los Angeles Times,  CBS, TIME, yadda yadda. It's all pretty boring and largely overinflated coverage. Along with them, many social media folks and communicators have already offered up the pat advice: always triple check which account you are on or don't run commercial and private accounts on the same app.

I held off writing about this last week for a different reason. 

The real lesson for corporations and small businesses is that this isn't a social media issue. The real lesson is to stop putting people who have no business being the company's spokesperson in a spokesperson position. The real lesson is that it wasn't an individual failing, but a management failing.

Long before social media, the press used to run stories about what they overheard from public figures and company spokespeople in physical settings too. Nowadays, social media just makes it that much more pronounced, permanent (screen shots), and public than what journalists used to share.

So why is it that companies continually place unseasoned communicators or even interns in a position that they would not dream of if it were a press conference, interview or public event? Sure, I know people like to understate social media and some even believe youth and exuberance to be an asset online.

But let's face the facts. Social media can be more damaging and longer lasting than most in-person slips, gaffes, and personal-turned-public quips. You need a spokesperson on the social brand, not a buffoon (unless your brand is all about buffoonery). KitchenAid proves the point perfectly.

Anyone who would have made such a crass and unfunny comment in public, whether it was intended for their personal account or the brand account, doesn't need to be in a spokesperson position. It doesn't even matter which political party with which they are affiliated, the comment shows a lack of compassion, empathy and character. If it were to be said (and I'm not saying it ought to be), those kind of comments are best reserved for the closest of circles in a private setting, like your house as opposed to a social network, which is a public venue. This one, in particular, isn't even fit for water cooler commentary.

Seriously. Social media is challenging enough without making it the cornerstone for your next crisis. Pick people who exhibit the skill sets of a spokesperson, not the least experienced or loosest lipped network jockey on the planet. And even then, remind those folks that once they are a spokesperson, errant tweets on personal accounts are just as likely to be traced back to the company too. So don't do it.

Friday, October 5

Listening To Publishers: PR Practitioners

It doesn't happen often, but sometimes it does. A public relations firm starts filling the inbox with random pitches, pictures, and press releases. It's not so bad because some of them are close to what you publish. It's not so bad until they start sending the follow-up emails. So you delete some, unread.

Then you delete a few more. And then you delete a few more. It's nothing personal, but you have 20-some emails you do want to read and that deserve a response — public relations professionals who have taken the time to get to know what you publish. But the sheer volume from one gets in the way.

Sure, you want to look at them. There is always that little part of you that wonders if you are passing up on something that fits. You know other publishers and bloggers on the blind bulk list feel the same way because the view counts on the landing pages always have more than two people. So maybe they don't.

Then one day it happens. You find your finger hovering over the spam button. Something makes you hesitate. You never signed on to be that publisher. You want to give this public relations firm a chance.

So you send an email...

Hey [protected],

We really appreciate all the pitches you send over for consideration and I am sure we will cover some of the artists you represent sooner or later. However, I have to ask. Is there any way we can stay on your pitch list but be taken off your blind follow-up list?

All the best, 

And then they respond...

Follow up is key! I'm just trying to figure out if you're going to post or not! We'd love to work with your blog on syndicating our content, and we can affiliate as well and syndicate yours as well!

I already know how this might have turned out with Jennifer Lawson. I've already covered the bit by Chris Anderson. I even shared a pitch gone bad story before, although it was a bit more tempered.

I did kick around ideas for a follow-up response with a few colleagues. It would have easily made for an interesting if not insensitive post with high marks in entertainment value, especially because I just recently reviewed a band that insisted their public relations firm "fix or pull" an email because I made the mistake of, egad, quoting the front man who later regretted what he said after his band wasn't happy.

There is something to be said about the scorched earth approach, but I didn't start another publication for that reason. No, I think (but could always change my mind) I'll say nothing whatsoever and let those pitches fall into the void. Can you imagine? How many heavily touted pitch lists are sent nowhere with pride?

If you work in public relations, it might make you wonder about tactics too. Lawson and Anderson (and myself on occasion) did you a favor to improve your practice whether you realize it or not. It's much easier, although not as entertaining, to say nothing whatsoever. Follow up is the key, indeed.

Wednesday, October 3

Managing Misinformation: Bringing Clarity To Bear

When psychologists from the University of Western Australia, University of Michigan, and University of Queensland released their abstract on misinformation, I was especially interested in reading their conclusions and solutions. They didn't have many solutions. The ones they did have sounded like entry level public relations. It isn't enough.

The psychology perspective on managing misinformation. 

• Provide people a narrative to fill the gap left by misinformation.
• Focus on the facts you want to highlight, rather than the lies.
• Keep new information simple and brief in its telling.
• Consider your audience and their pre-existing beliefs.
• Strengthen your message through repetition.

None of it is wrong, per se. But all of it can make any misinformation about you, your department, or your company worse. Managing misinformation requires much more than casual interpretation of multiple studies. For comparison, consider five tenets from crisis communication.

The crisis communication perspective on managing misinformation. 

• Talk about it as soon as possible.
• Tell the whole truth, even if it means bad news, negligence, or wrongdoing.
• Be clear and concise, addressing details without obscuring the situation.
• Offer full disclosure of all relevant facts, history and related information.
• Demonstrate empathy or remorse as appropriate to the situation.

These tenets are a step up, but even these aren't perfect. Any crisis caused by misinformation requires a delicate hand, much like managing bad news. While you can use almost any model from public relations or crisis communication as a guide, professionals have to develop plans unique to the situation.

Specifically, the abstract misses the finer points, as do the tenets. A temporary narrative is fine while an investigation takes place, but most publics will assume it's a cover up unless you have a definitive deadline to get to the truth. Focusing on the facts is always a good idea, but sometimes a correction creates the impression that there is some validity to the misinformation. Considering the audience is smart, but information cannot be contained — everything has the potential to go global. Strengthening a message through repetition sounds good, but it can make the crisis live longer than needed.

A deeper look into understanding misinformation management. 

Establish the truth before misinformation. Far too many companies don't see a "tangible" return on investment for critical communication components like branding, public relations, and social media because the ROI is relatively soft compared to direct response that delivers concrete numbers. Unfortunately, those concrete numbers dissipate like quicksand compared to long-term reputation.

The narrative that psychologists suggest ought not be a reactionary measure, but a preventative one. Businesses with well-established brands are not exempt from misinformation being spread about them, but they are given a longer timeframe to investigate and prepare a defense as needed. Once you have a strong brand, do not deviate from it. You reinforce it with words and actions. Brands are fragile.

• Choose A Suitable Level Of Response. One of the most challenging aspects of any potential misinformation crisis, real or imagined, is to determine whether it needs to be left alone or if it needs to be addressed straight away before it spreads. One negative review left by a competitor under an assumed name requires very little action against the weight of 50 positive reviews.

However, if it needs to be addressed, attempt to address it with those exposed as quickly as possible while preparing for a possible escalation. For example, if the questionable review is on Yelp, address it there not on YouTube. The point is that any time someone addresses misinformation, it is an acknowledgement that there might be some truth to it or that the organization can be damaged by it. The weight of any counter measure determines the importance of the misinformation.

Prioritize the facts and keep it simple. One of the areas where the abstract shined was in illustrating how misinformation has an advantage because it is simple. A simple message almost always sticks better than a complex message. If someone needs 12 paragraphs to explain why five words are a lie, it's an uphill battle. Likewise, a one-point sound bite sticks better than 12.

And yet, sometimes the best solution is to have three or four related and reinforceable points that can be changed out depending on the audience without alienating the larger global audience. Years ago, when helping facilitate the first flood control detention basins in the area, we developed several points to appeal not only to specific audiences but also to different people within the same audience. Resident concern was based on losing views, property value loss, and construction hassles. Our primary points were safety, aesthetics, public participation, and long-term property values (floods kill property values, not detention basins). We didn't have to negate or agitate detractors. We developed a partnership of trust.

• Empathy is an emotional appeal. As the abstract correctly illustrated, misinformation tends to win because it elicits an emotional reaction as opposed logical argument. It doesn't have to be this way.

Sometimes facts naturally exhibit an emotional appeal. Sometimes they don't. When they don't, empathy carries an emotional appeal for a logical argument. Ergo, it is possible to acknowledge that some people might believe misinformation (without vilifying them) and move to the truth.

In the abstract, for example, they point to the "myth" about death panels being built into the national health care program. While the psychologists dismiss it outright, they neglected to note that the proponents of national health care resorted to diatribe rather than address the underlying questions about oversights, caps, and other controls. The truth was somewhere in the middle of misinformation and not many people were up to the challenge of pursuing it. An objective analysis was needed.

Reinforce, but be wary of repetition. No one can drive the truth home with a sledgehammer. Simply presenting the truth over and over will not make people believe it. On the contrary, overzealous repetition has an equal opportunity to entrench opponents or reinforce the myth. It almost goes along with a marketing adage. Those who oversell have nothing to sell.

Addressing misinformation and managing it effectively requires more than a reaction. It requires action. Once the misinformation is addressed, assuming the evidence is objective and accurate, stop addressing the myth and move on to accurate messages that ought to have been part of the brand before it was challenged.

For example, as Apple makes corrections to its Maps program, shoring up its brand will require new demonstrations that it is still about innovation and not slipping into a model of production that so many other companies subscribe to. The worst thing it could do is keep talking about it — long after a resolution or the fervor of one blatant jump-the-gun mistake.

Misinformation isn't always bad, assuming it didn't come from you. 

There are two things to think about misinformation. The first is to avoid being the source of it, which was the primary point of the previous article on this subject. People need to work harder at developing objectivity as a skill set, especially while the media has slipped in this arena.

Author Gore Vidal once addressed this topic, citing a student of Confucius who asked what would be the first thing Confucius would do as emperor. Vidal said Confucius was quick to answer.

"I would rectify the language. If people do not understand the emperor, there is no nation. Now that lying is the usual discourse of our rulers, we cannot grasp any reality from the true cause of hurricanes to the lies used to compel us into disastrous wars."

While Vidal was talking about blatant lies, not all misinformation is crafted out of blatant manipulations and fabrications. Most of it is derived from either an overall brand weakness, the lack of clear and accurate information, or arrogance in the belief that the public cannot be appealed to with logical discourse. But as such, this kind of misinformation need not be the cause of panic, but an opportunity.

Even within the psychologists' study, you can see it. If you ask yourself objectively why climate change, national health care, or even a birth certificate fiasco became fodder for what is called misinformation, you will inevitably find the contentions grew out of overreaching data, lack of details, or an initial unwillingness to provide evidence. The cause wasn't detractors. It was the proponents who provided cracks, hoping to appeal to emotional reactions over logical discourse, perhaps because the truth wasn't as patently accurate as they wanted people to believe.

Just as shadows cannot grow in brightly lit rooms, misinformation cannot rise out of truth alone. As communicators, we must continually strive to turn on lights to eliminate shadows rather than be tempted to turn them off and add more shadows of our own. No good ever comes from it. Only darkness.

Monday, October 1

Sharing Misinformation: Why Big Lies Stick

Psychologists from the University of Western Australia, University of Michigan, and University of Queensland recently published a new abstract that delves into the psychology of misinformation, and why people are more apt to believe falsehoods over accurate information. (Hat tip: Farron Cousins.)

The simple answer? Believing misinformation requires less brain power. But there is something else that is striking to consider, especially because people are resistant to correct misinformed beliefs.

Misinformation is simple, memorable, and emotional. 

The attacks on two U.S. embassies that resulted in the deaths of four Americans provide an example. The initial reports attributed the attacks to a spontaneous reaction to the inflammatory anti-Muslim film by Sam Bacile. The U.S. government initially cited the film as the primary cause.

However, it has now become clear that the attack on the consulate in Libya was not spontaneous. It was a planned act of terrorism believed to be led by militant Ansar al-Shariah and al Qaeda. Although the administration knew it was a terrorist attack within 24 hours after it occurred (and possibly before the attack), it continued to link the attack to the film for a week.

Focusing on the film has given it even more credence and escalated tensions in the Middle East. So why did the administration do it? Possibly, in part, because the misinformation was easier to report.

Misinformation tends to be grounded in an emotional appeal whereas the truth tends to be grounded in logical appeal. The truth requires more reason and deliberation. The cause-and-effect model applied to the film is easy to believe. It requires no thought. The act of terrorism, on the other hand, requires deliberate thinking because the administration has consistently suggested that al Qaeda has all but lost, the administration's foreign policy is sound, and that Americans are safer today.

In essence, because accurate information requires people to reassess other administration "truths," it is more difficult to believe that this was an emotional reaction caused by the film. Unfortunately, the unintended consequences of this misinformation have now fanned real protests across the Middle East. As a result, it has given rise anti-American sentiment once again.

If misinformation has the advantage, what can we do about it?

Misinformation isn't used exclusively by governments and politicians. It impacts communities, industries, companies, and individuals every day. Although the abstract suggests that the cause is linked to rumors, governments, vested interests, and media (including the Internet), their more compelling point is psychology. People have no real safeguards against it.

Specifically, the researchers say that most people look for information compatible with what they believe, how coherent the story might be, whether the source is credible, and how many other people believe it. These strategies do not guard against misinformation. In fact, they often compound it.

Having a presumably credible source deliver a well-crafted story to people who are likely to believe it (and the more the better) is the recipe for propaganda. When you look at several crisis communication studies, almost all of them include some of these criteria to spread misinformation, intentional and accidental, whether they are proponents or detractors.

In many of the case studies I've covered, there does tend to be a short-term lift associated with misinformation, which is then followed by long-term consequences. In most cases, credibility erodes until nobody believes the fraudulent source anymore (even when they do tell the truth).

This is one of several reasons I frequently teach public relations students that the truth is hard enough. There is never any good reason to compound a crisis with misinformation. It's hard enough to tell the truth because, as the abstract alludes, misinformation is difficult to retract and nearly impossible to erase.

In fact, it is so difficult to manage, the conclusions in the abstract represent the researchers' weakest points (along with a tendency to show other bias in their examples). I think a few communication tenets can do better than the abstract (and they will follow on Wednesday). But in the meantime, we need to appreciate that the first step is always the same.

We have to reduce our own susceptibility to misinformation. 

Much like journalists used to do (and some still do), objectivity needs to be considered a skill set. This means we have to develop the ability to put aside personal beliefs, seek out opposing points of view, ferret out facts regardless of how coherent the information might be, ignore the so-called credibility of sources until the evidence bares out, and never mistake "mass appeal" as an authority.

Some journalists I've met along the way have become bold in their belief that being objective is a myth. I disagree. So does reporter and correspondent Brit Hume, who recently noted that attorneys develop objectivity as a skill set in order to successfully understand both sides of a case. It's a reasoned analogy.

For public relations practitioners specifically, it's especially important to strive for objectivity because it helps us develop empathy for the publics beyond the organization. It's important because even if our opposition is wrong, we have to understand their point of view and find mutual ground if it exists.

Ergo, only once we've reduced our own susceptibility to misinformation can we ever hope to have a chance to manage it. If we don't, then we're equally likely to become the source of falsehood as opposed to the trusted source that most professionals hope to become. Start with that.

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