Wednesday, September 25

You Can Make The Internet Meaningful By Doing Stuff Offline.

I had never heard of neuralgia until a few days ago. It is pain in one or more nerves caused by a change in neurological structure of the nerves rather than by the excitation of healthy pain receptors. In other words, the nerves tell your brain to feel intense stimulus even when there isn't any.

It is painful. It is debilitating. And it afflicts someone I've come to know over the past few months. She has suffered with it for the better part of a decade but most people didn't even know it.

Most of the time, Tinu Abayomi-Paul's condition manifests itself as chronic back pain. This time is different. It is severe enough that she will be undergoing surgery and decommissioned for a month, maybe longer.

This is especially challenging for her because, like me, she has a small business. In her case, she has two micro-businesses with an emphasis on search engine optimization and social media. And because both businesses rely extensively on providing services, she will not generate any income while out.

What do small business owners do when there is no safety net? 

Sure, some business owners are like me. You set something aside to weather the storm and hope it's enough. This time around, I'm cutting it close after recovery. But that's a story for a different time.

I'm only mentioning it now because Abayomi-Paul is facing something similar but different. She didn't have the luxury of being ready to weather an unexpected surgery this time around. She needs help.

She isn't asking for charity. All she wants is to work through recovery. So Abayomi-Paul had the novel idea to run an Indiegogo campaign to raise the money she needs to make ends meet while she recovers. Here's her story, along with some discounted packages that she put together for her campaign.


This is a short 10-day run campaign. It ends next Tuesday and you can find out more information about  Abayomi-Paul on her website Free Traffic Tips. For campaign details and packages, visit Indiegogo.

Do keep in mind that I'm taking a leap of faith as this isn't a pure endorsement. I haven't worked with Abayomi-Paul before, but I do know plenty of people who have. Mostly, I've enjoyed some banter with her as part of a social network group. I've also read her content and watched a few instructional videos that she has produced. She knows her stuff without all the bull that other people like to spread.

Who knows? It might make a great case study or best practice as one of those stories for the other Internet — the one that people sometimes forget about in favor of big data, big numbers, and big distractions.

We can make a meaningful online experience by doing things offline.

Yes, there really is an Internet with deeper purpose. It's the one that many pros abandoned so they could write business card books about social. So you don't hear about this stuff as much anymore because it doesn't draw traffic. If you want visitors, you need to write about landing on this page instead.

But hey, that's mostly okay. I don't begrudge anyone an opportunity to enjoy a silly cat video or hawk some ROI (oddly) to companies that will never appreciate why Dawn Saves Animals without the benefit of coupon codes, junk mail, or mountains of content.

You see, it's all very simple really. They do something instead. And then what they did lands online. It's something I hope my kids learn. Legacies can be written about online, but we make them offline. I think Abayomi-Paul deserves that chance. Many people do. I'll write about a few more soon enough.

But today, given all the changes coming down on search engine optimization, maybe this will be a great opportunity to talk to someone who knows about it. And all she is really asking for in return is a little time offline so she can come back and deliver something meaningful online. So what do you think?

Is this a worthwhile case study for business practitioners who have the misfortune of a medical emergency? Or maybe you might like to hear from someone else about Abayomi-Paul? Kami Huyse, Anne Weiskopf, Jennifer Windrum, and Ann Handley were among the first funders. Or maybe you would like to talk about something else all together? I'm fine with that too. The comments are yours.

Wednesday, September 18

A Leadership Lesson From A Place Few Experts Tread

Last August, U.S. President Barack Obama compared Russian President Vladimir Putin to a tiresome schoolboy. But less than 30 days after he made the offhanded comment, it was President Putin who would school President Obama in foreign affairs. Russia is celebrating a diplomatic victory this week.

Somehow, President Obama and his administration allowed the Syria crisis to get away from them. Instead of the United States leading a coalition of countries to bring Syria to justice for using chemical weapons, Russia is being celebrated for stopping the escalation of aggression in the Middle East at the hands of unexceptional Americans. Syria will also surrender its chemical weapons, or so they say, and the world will be a better place.

The turnabout of this narrative was about as masterful as any propaganda since the end of the Cold War. One might even praise the audacity of the move, if not for the considerable consequences.

How recent events have changed the geo-political landscape for now.

Russia temporarily gains world prestige and more influence in the Middle East while protecting its Syrian allies, a country run by a leader who used chemical weapons against their own people. Syria also works lockstep with Iran, smuggling arms to the Hisbollah in Lebanon. And Iran has said all along that the U. S. was behind the uprising, a charge that may not have been initially accurate but has become accurate in the last two years. The arms sent into the conflict are limited, with the U.S. fearing these weapons could all too easily be turned on us as suppliers because some rebels are tied to the same terrorists the U.S. has fought for years. To say Syria is a mess is an understatement.

But most Americans don't even know that the U.S. has already picked a side. It wants to topple the government in Syria, but obviously less than Russia wants to keep Bashar al-Assad.

Those seem to be some of the facts (but not nearly all of them). Just don't mistake them as a call for action or involvement on my part. To me, Syria is another cumulation of events that convinces Americans to choose between two bad choices — act as the global police even when the world doesn't want you to while supporting rebels that may (or may not) include your enemies or do nothing, which is de facto support for a dictator who has long despised you and is happy to operate against your interests.

This is why so many advisors frame U.S. foreign policy in Syria up as a choice between which we like better: the enemy you know or the enemy you do not. It would take a fool to hazard a guess.

Lesson learned: Leadership does not talk big with a little stick. 

Many people seemed enamored by Teddy Roosevelt's foreign policy that is often summed up from his quip to "speak softy and carry a big stick." And yet, few seem to realize that this is akin to negotiating peacefully while simultaneously threatening people with a "big stick." It was coined at a time when the division between American isolationists and internationalists had boiled over, again.

This division is one of the more interesting ones in politics because it does not follow party lines. Although current public perception is that the Republicans are hawks and Democrats are doves, it's not really true. On the contrary, it was progressives who led the country into conflict and war more often than their counterparts who prefer to live and let live. Americans only think the opposite because neoconservatives joined progressives as being internationalists.

Sometimes this internationalist concept works. Sometimes it does not. And this time, it obviously has not worked for President Obama, partly because of his own words and actions for the better part of seven years. He has campaigned under the auspices of being against what the world saw as American imperialism, but has secretly and stealthily supported various programs that reinforce the idea anyway.

The primary difference between this administration and last mostly has to do with the size of the talk and the size of the stick. Bush favored speaking big and carrying a big stick. Obama favors speaking big and carrying a little stick. And, unfortunately, this has made Americans largely unsupportive of any action abroad while making their detractors much more emboldened to push new agendas.

Who cares? Well, that is a subject open for debate. There are those who believe the U.S. can exist without being a major player in the world and there are those who believe we have to lead the world. The thinnest majority of Republicans and Democrats believe we ought to lead because history has proven that trouble will knock on the door of the U.S. whether it goes looking or not.

Foreign policy isn't what this post is about. It's about leadership. 

There are plenty of people who have long criticized the foreign policy of the Obama administration, among other things. The reason it invites criticism is because it lacks coherency, primarily because the original vision that he brought to the presidency runs counter to the way the world works.

President Obama told the American people that retracting the reach of the United States while simultaneously making nice-nice with the world would place us in a potion where our diplomatic prowess alone could influence world affairs. It's not really true, but that was the vision he forwarded to the American people and the world (despite trying to keep a finger on specific interests anyway).

There are dozens of places where that was never going to work. Syria is one of them. Instead, it is one of those places where you have to make the decision, announce the decision, and act on the decision.

The Obama administration didn't do that, mostly, because too much could go wrong. They also didn't want to be responsible if it did. So, in effect, they pushed it off for a few years and then attempted to assemble a middle-of-the-road approach that wouldn't make it look like Obama was rolling back on his posture to be a polite player in the world. When that didn't work, he punted to Congress for a vote while simultaneously withholding any accountability to that vote in case it didn't go his way.

On the domestic front, it all comes across as being considerate, depending largely on how well you like his administration. All the while, everyone forgot that the U.S doesn't exist in a vacuum. Other world leaders saw the vote-and-pony show as indecisiveness at best and weakness at worst. And no matter how you see it, other countries have since seized on the moment.

Contrast this with what Prime Minister David Cameron did. He said the United Kingdom ought to become involved and he made a very strong case to Parliament. When Parliament voted against intervention, he stated it was a mistake but would accept the will of the people. It was a done deal and he didn't look too passive, too pompous or too weak after the outcome.

What's the difference? The difference is that Cameron understands being a leader as opposed to being an expert politician. In this case, a leader transcends their appearance of authority in order to ensure any following is aligned to the organizational goals and not themselves as individuals.

Experts, on the other hand, tend to be different all together. They derive their appearance of authority from their reputation and are not willing to risk it by accepting responsibility. In this case (and possibly many others), President Obama is playing expert in Syria (without the right expertise, perhaps).

The expert fallacy can cost an organization its clarity. 

Right now, almost everyone in the U.S. is looking for experts to solve problems when what we really need are leaders. We see it in politics. We see it in business. But based on the number of people who have added "expert" to their labels (deserved or not), it's safe to say that we have a glut of those instead.

What's the difference? Leaders are those people who figure things out. They are people who have a vision, sometimes asking experts for their opinions on how to make that vision real, and then approve those opinions based on what he or she believes is most likely to make that vision real.

If they'e right, history remembers them with reverence. If they are wrong, not so much. The risk is part of the job. Leaders are held accountable. In government, they don't pin blame elsewhere. In business, they don't need golden parachutes. These are the people who make their own way.

Leaders don't cling to and attempt to manipulate the world they know; they look to shape the world into something no one had ever considered before. (Ergo, a push button phone design expert can't see a flat screen phone as being functional.) And this is why they continually find solutions that experts could never fathom. It's one thing to be studied in what is, and another thing to see what could be.

When it comes to world affairs, history has shown it that the world will praise whomever is steadfast in their vision and conviction to see it through, despite being wrong on some points. So how about you?

Are you are a leader or follower? Do you know your field or are you ready to re-imagine it? Or maybe you want to talk about something else? One of my friends has already suggested we abandon Syria and start focusing on some of the problems we have right here in this country, like homeless workers. What do you think ... about anything?

Wednesday, September 11

Any Fool Can Do What Another Fool Has Done

Miley Cyrus
When Miley Cyrus finally started talking about her performance on the MTV Video Music Awards, she hit every publicity misnomer in existence. According to the pop star, she and Robin Thicke weren't making fools of themselves. They were "making history."

"Madonna's done it. Britney's done it," she said. "Every VMA performance, that's what you're looking for; you're wanting to make history."

She said she doesn't pay any attention to the negative comments either. No matter what anyone thinks, Cyrus says that this has played out so many times in pop music that it doesn't even matter. She's claims to be amused by anyone still taking about it. She said they've thought about it more than she ever did.

Of course, few people are talking about twerking anymore. Her Wrecking Ball video has out-buzzed all that as the pop star stripped down to nothing in order to break video viewership records. Never mind that just as many people are tuning in to see her naked as they are to see her sing, she must be a winner.

So is fashion designer Kenneth Cole. He didn't even have to strip down to boots in order to get attention. He only had to make a joke about boots. "'Boots on the ground' or not, let's not forget about sandals, pumps and loafers," wrote the fashion designer in response to the possibility of the United States taking military action in Syria. Count up all the retweets and raves. He must be a winner too.

The public's fascination with spectacle is as cyclical as it is tired.

Kenneth ColeAmerica isn't becoming a society of spectacle. It has always been a society of spectacle, with the only difference from one decade to the next being our mainstream appetite for it. The 1960s, 1920s, 1880s, 1840s, 1790s all had racy, raunchy, and tasteless elements. The whole world has been part of it too.

It happens so often that one would think we would grow tired of it. But then we all suffer some odd form of public amnesia, forgetting the existence of such things as history tends to tidy itself up when the pendulum swings toward a more buttoned-down decade.

Even when we do remember, we tend to confine our memories to the 1960s because people were really in it for political commentary as opposed to quick profits. And perhaps that alone is why the modern spectacle feels as empty as it is tasteless.

Whereas people like Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, and Ken Kesey made history, people like Cyrus, Cole, and Ariana Grande will become footnotes of the eventually forgotten. If you don't believe it, take a look at the twerk fail hoax video masterminded by Jimmy Kimmel.

His hoax caught 10 million views, proving that you neither have to be famous nor talented to make a similar impact. But honey badger don't care. Cyrus was happy to up the ante. She not only strips off her clothes for 30 million views but her integrity too. The video isn't much different than the time-honored streak, except most people this desperate for attention aren't attempting to rebrand themselves.

Miley Cyrus nudePublicity is easy. Reputation is hard. 

Those six words were all I offered up about the subject prior to writing this article. They say it all.

Sure, one can easily subscribe to the notion that negative publicity has a positive impact on sales. When you compare Michael Jackson and his run-ins with the law as Jonah Berger, Alan Sorensen, and Scott Rasmussen did in their 2010 research paper on negative publicity, Jackson's album sales went up.

The crux of the research is not new but it is interesting. It is underpinned by the notion that purchases are tied to the quality of the product and what any publicity triggers you to think about.

Negative publicity for Jackson made people think about his great music. Negative publicity preceded cookbook sales for chef Paula Deen. Negative publicity spurred sales of Mel Gibson's films. And yet, you have to ask yourself about the after-controversy market for new material. In other words, negative publicity might drive short-term sales but cost someone's reputational legacy in the process.

In fact, it might be more accurate to say that negative publicity creates an illusion of positive sales because research cannot quantify the lost sales of material that will never be created or a lost legacy. History holds a different reverence for John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jackson.

But who cares? Some say millennials don't care.

According to some studies, the generation born between 1981-2000 places money, fame and image ahead of self-acceptance, affiliation, and community. And whether you believe it or not, Cyrus fits the short-term mindset as much as Cole is trying to reach them. They are less likely to ridicule the behavior of someone like Cyrus or Cole and more likely to praise it.

Earlier studies said pretty much the same. They don't care. And maybe they aren't alone. The phenomenon isn't confined to a single generation. Most people think that 15 minutes of fame (or infamy) is worth the reputational cost as long as they can capitalize on the short-term success.

CyrusThe Onion did a brilliant job in articulating this fact too. On the day after the Cyrus stunt started making waves, CNN didn't lead the news with world affairs, human achievement, or an attempt to be a positive force for change. The leading headline reinforced mainstream rubber necking.

The commentary is sharply satirical in the telling. The purported explanation from the managing editor of CNN is as simple as it gets. Although making Cyrus the top news story was admittedly a disservice, it ensured more web traffic than any bothersome news like chemical weapons in Syria, civil unrest in Egypt, or even the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech.

So no, it's not millennials who are guilty of placing the spotlight on one girl's narcissistic booty shaking. That honor belongs to the media serving its viewership. As long as they believe that popcorn means more advertising dollars than meat, then more generations will likely view the working world with disdain in favor of a few fleeting seconds of fame.

But so what? I don't personally care whether Cyrus' actions detract from her own talent. It's up to each of us to carve out our own path in this life. And if that includes selling out for temporary success, I hope it's worth it. Just don't pretend it's original or historic. It's not. History is littered with forgotten fools.

How about you? Do you subscribe to the notion that all publicity is good publicity or that 100,000 Twitter followers will somehow ensure your words will outlast the pyramids of Egypt? What do you think? And by that, I mean anything. There comments are yours. Let's talk.

Wednesday, September 4

Thinking Still Beats Searching When You Need Four Gallons.

Thinking
My wife had a question the other day, but it wasn't her question. The question belonged to my son and he didn't want to ask me. He thought he knew what I would say. He was wrong, but close enough.

The question was a puzzler of sorts. It was a problem from his math teacher. And any student who turns in the answer Tuesday (today) will receive extra credit. The reason my wife asked me wasn't a puzzler. She wanted him to receive the extra credit. (What parent wouldn't? Besides me, I mean.)

Maybe I should clarify that point. I don't want him to receive extra credit. I want him to learn it. And given that he had the whole weekend to figure it out and it was only the Friday before the long Labor Day weekend, there was no rush on my part. 

How can you make four gallons if you only have a three gallon bucket and a five gallon bucket?

I told him to wait until I had finished my part of the shopping list, groceries for the meals I would cook for the week ahead. Even then, I said, expect some help but not the answer. He didn't want that. 

A few minutes later, I looked over at him. He had moved on to another problem. Specifically, he was trying to figure out which route to take as he transported his stolen loot from a bank to an escape vehicle.  Right. He was playing PayDay 2 on the Xbox. 

"Why aren't you working on the problem?" I asked.

"I already spent 20 minutes working on it in class," he said.

"Well, obviously that isn't enough," I suggested. 

"It's all right," he said. "I already looked it up." 

"You did what?"

"I did what you were probably going to tell me to do," he said.

"You did what?" 

"I looked it up. Done."

"You looked it up, where?" 

"Google."

Ah, Google. If there has ever been a company of smart people responsible for the dumbing down of America, it has to be Google. All students have to do is drop in a few key words from their math problems and poof — they can find an answer while unceremoniously learning nothing in the process.

"I didn't tell you to look it up," I said. "I was going to give you a hint."

The reason I wanted to give him a hint was because the puzzler is not the real problem. Although the question suggests you need to measure four gallons of water using a three gallon bucket and a five gallon bucket, the real problem is something else. It's what stops most people after 20 minutes of class.

In order to solve the problem, you really need to establish what X might be. And in this case, X is really whatever it takes to make gallon of water. I wouldn't have told him that, but intended to point him in that direction by asking what stopped him from answering the question. Except, I couldn't anymore. 

Google beat me to it. And today, all across the country, Google is going to beat other teachers and parents too. It's not the company's fault, but it is creating a problem. Sometimes it pays to look something up. Other times, it is much more rewarding to figure it out. Figuring teaches you to think and rethink. 

The most creative (and possibly efficient solutions) aren't online. 

EducationOne of my favorite authors of all time never wrote any fiction. His name is Richard Feynman. He was a scientist and winner of a Nobel Prize in physics. The reason he won it is punctuated by his affliction for figuring things out as opposed to looking them up. By thinking, he often debunked popular theories. 

It had been that way all his life. Even when he was 11, Feynman started to think his way around radios. Eventually, he moved on to fixing burglar alarms, amplifiers and other gadgets too. It was in his nature. He seldom looked anything up. Reinventing the wheel, for him, often made the wheel better. 

There are dozens of stories that underscore his point in his books and books about him. He said it over and over and over again. Even when the New York Times wrote an article about his legacy in 1992, it recounted how Murray Gell-Mann described The Feynman Algorithm to solve everything. 

What is the algorithm? It's simple enough. You write down the problem. You think very hard. And then you write down an answer. For many years, this phenomenon called thinking is what set American students apart from students in the rest of the world despite those international tests that suggested otherwise.

Most students, he observed when teaching abroad, are taught to memorize the answers. But he preferred to teach students to think through problems rather than always assuming the experts were right. Not only did that inspire new ways to think about things, but it also gave students the ability to apply what they've learned to a completely new set of paradigms and problems. Right. They get good at it.

There are some days that I'm not sure Feynman would feel American students are set apart anymore. Many of our students have been taught to resist the urge to think nowadays. And they are not alone. 

People ask questions online all the time or turn to key word searches to ask things like "how do I get more traffic to my site?" or "how do I get more Twitter followers?" or "who are the influencers in this field and that field?" as if those people can think better than they. There is nothing wrong with that, but I wonder if any of them know that one set of solutions doesn't fit a different set of problems.

Sure, seeing how other people solve their problems can be useful at times. But almost every communication problem is patently unique. You have to think very hard. Besides, just as I told my son, you have to try thinking in order to become a great thinker. It requires practice, just like anything. 

How about you? What do you think? And by that, I mean about anything? The comments are yours. Let's talk.

Wednesday, August 28

Does Social Justice Fit Somewhere Between Silly Cat Videos?

Sometimes the hardest thing to reconcile about social networks is how serious they can be. You know what I mean. We've all seen friendships and family members splinter over political and social issues on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. People lose jobs. Companies get embarrassed. Bullies are outed.

Yes, social media can be serious. In fact, it was the seriousness of it that inspired one recent discussion about how labels can trap and condemn us if we aren't careful. They really do. Every day. 

In direct contrast, social networks don't always seem serious. It's the silliness and steady stream of absurdity that can prove bothersome. And this seems especially true when it detracts from social justice.

This is why Amy Tobin was inspired to write Social Justice: Have The Social Networks Failed Us, Or Have We Failed Them?, a column that captures how something silly like Ben Affleck as Batman can trump something serious like chemical weapons in Syria. The effect is always profound. Any time someone draws a contrast between soft news and hard news, someone else will feel petty for talking about superheroes while people die in the streets of Syria. It's us who fiddles while Rome burns.

If you want to change the world, don't blow against the wind. Fan the flame that's waiting.

I know how Amy feels. A few years ago, Tony Berkman, president of BlogCatalog, asked the same thing in a different way. He wanted to know what bloggers would talk about if they weren't talking about then headline stealers Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. So we all sat down and decided to find out. 

The question was especially relevant to me. A couple of years prior, celebrity was the cause for why one of our best practice short-term public relations campaigns became a best practice media kit. The kit was a winner but the campaign missed when we were scooped by celebrity.

Specifically, a celebrity trumped a media event that centered around education in Nevada. So there you go. When a "Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire?" contestant files for divorce, news stations don't stand by to cover the governor and a virtual who's who list in state education at the opening of a new private school. 

So naturally, when Berkman asked his question about bloggers, I was primed to participate as one of the founders of an initiative called BloggersUnite. It was the first series of social media awareness campaigns that coordinated bloggers (and later social network participants) to change the world by setting a conversational agenda online.

In the months and years that followed, I developed and executed campaigns for DonorsChoose.org, Amnesty International, AIDS.gov, Heifer International, and March Of Dimes (among others). All of my work was contributed as an in-kind effort to change the world. All of the campaigns were successful, with the most visitable delivering 1.2 million posts on one day, reaching 250 million. 

The volume of the campaign was so loud that it was covered by several dozen media outlets, including CNN. And despite some pushback from social media enthusiasts who prematurely concluded that it was all buzz and no bite, this early awareness campaign eventually changed American policy in Darfur. Right. We changed the world. And we didn't change it once. We changed it a few dozen times.

The prospect that people were willing step up was especially inspiring for Berkman. So he eventually spun the initiative into a standalone, do-it-yourself platform called BloggersUnite. It still exists, but as a silent giant.

Why? It's silent for the same reason I warned him against crowd-sourced solutions, hoping that social would be its own steward for good. Most people don't know how to plan campaigns and most people are too easily distracted to lead. At the same time, if there was ever a time I wanted to be wrong, it was about this observation. 

The spontaneity of social media and social networks is unpredictable at best and overrated at worst. In other words, it takes more than people to drive meaningful conversations like the campaigns we managed before the platform. It takes someone to give it shape and fan the flame once it gets started.

Even then, it takes considerable patience and planning to get anything off the ground, no matter how good the cause might be. You also have to be empathic, not only for the people you are trying to help, but also for those who offer up no sign of support. Why? Because you don't know them.

The hardest lesson in the world is finding empathy for those who laugh while we cry.

Developing these campaigns was hard work. But what is even harder was knowing when not to launch one. As Berkman eventually learned, you can only ask a community to promote worthwhile causes a few times year. Ask too much and you'll burn them out. Ask them to plan it too and most will pass.

And it's on this point that I want to come full circle. When we see society as opposed to people, we all tend to think that all these people — the person sitting across the table, reading our post, passing us on the street — is somehow isolated or inoculated or apathetic against the world. They're not.

Not only are most of them active with their own causes, but they also have their own private battles to fight too. This one just survived cancer. That one just lost their wife to it. This one isn't sure how they'll pay the rent next month. That one found out their spouse is having an affair. This one is wondering where their education took a wrong turn. That one is in need of the services someone else is promoting. And the list goes on. And on. And on.

So if any of those people want to laugh at the prospect of Ben Affleck being Batman, it's okay. They've earned it. Maybe tomorrow they can fret over the international crisis in Syria instead. Or maybe they won't.

As I mentioned to one of my friends while discussing this subject, something needs to be done in Syria but when you attempt to prioritize it against something like a cure for cancer, then there is no contest. But even without prioritizing an endless list of heartbreak in the world, we might remember that even Shakespeare saw a need to insert comedy into his tragedies. Life is heavy enough. It takes considerable effort to lighten it.

Applied to causes, the concept comes from the man who inspired the last BloggersUnite campaign that I was able to step up for and play a major role in developing as a last minute campaign. Patch Adams was among the first in the medical community to defy the dourness of cause marketing and shaping public opinion. He epitomizes the life lesson that angels have wings because they take themselves lightly.

At least that's the way I see it. What do you think? What does Tony Berkman, Simon Mainwaring, or Kate Olsen think? What does anything think? Are social networks too serious, too silly, or does that old rule apply — social is whatever you make of it?

The comments are yours. Feel free to fiddle with this subject or suggest something else. I would love nothing better than every topic to come from you. Let's talk for a change.

Wednesday, August 21

Will Automation Steal The Soul From Social?

There have been several interesting side discussions sparked by my Bob Fass post about his largely unrecognized precursor contributions to social media. Some of them are still simmering, with the most common thread related to where marketing and public relations intend to take social.

Right. If you work in the field, they are talking about you.

And what they have to say might not be taken kindly. There are a growing number of people who are weary of social networks not because they don't like to connect but because conversations are being recorded, even jacked. Some marketers feel they must. Numbers are the measure counted.

"Why spend time counting tweets and retweets when I could actually, you know, connect with other people?" asked David Flores, reflecting on the internal struggle he and other marketers and communicators feel.

Why count indeed? For all the talk about social freeing people from the trappings of unearned authority, some of the liberators have worked diligently to erect new ones. Never mind that the scoring is stacked.

As the New York Times recently cited, some researchers think that only 35 percent of Twitter followers are real people. The balance is made up of bots and semi-automated accounts. That means an account boasting 10,000 might only reach 3,500. But if you ask me, I think it is generous in some cases. Bots attract bots, giving accounts the aura of popularity while never reaching a real human being.

Geoff Livingston recently touched on this too, writing Pop Created The Twitter Link Farm. He focused in on the increasing number of links, with one of the most interesting comments chalking it up to a platform shift. While that might make sense because Twitter never considered itself a social network, the platform shift from conversation to broadcast is a symptom of what marketers measure.

They measure actions (tweets, retweets, link clicks), which discourages dialogue. It discourages it because conversations are not valued on the action scale. It discourages it because the more organic conversations take place, the more marketers have to drown them out with frequency. And it discourages it because scalable actions require automation, which means the marketer isn't participating.

The crux of it reminds me of an Internet infancy story. 

Once upon a time there was a company called America Online (now Aol). No, it wasn't the oddly popular but not so relevant multinational mass media giant we know today. It was a pay-based online service that was the precursor to some of the services people rave about today.

It was also, for many people, the only real option to access the Internet. Sure, there were other choices like the defunct Prodigy or eWorld but not really. Much like they do now, people (and companies) tended to gravitate to where the most people were and that was America Online.

In more ways than one, Twitter is almost akin to the America Online chat room, except it hosts unlimited people as opposed to 23 people at a time. And, in more ways than one, Facebook is akin to America Online communities (with the advent of streaming over threading), right down to its aspiration to be your total and complete online experience. Sure, other networks have borrowed ideas too. Most aren't so new.

For the era, this service worked remarkably well. Most people couldn't even conceive of an Internet without it. It felt like America Online was relatively immortal. And perhaps that is why in addition to charging people $2.95 per hour for usage, the company decided to allow marketers to post links and program bots to run some conversations.

That generated some extra revenue for the company until something unexpected happened. Since marketers knew that the only way to increase their exposure was to increase their frequency, they literally drowned out all human conversations until no one was left except chat rooms of bots, churning away at their pre-programmed content.

How long before marketers reach critical mass again? It's anybody's guess. 

There are only two outcomes for abused message delivery systems. En masse, marketers will either push messages to the point where they become irrelevant (direct mail and pitch lists) or the platform will eventually elevate the rates until it is inaccessible (television) to anyone except those with deep pockets (television and radio). When that happens, people will migrate away to other networks instead.

From my perspective, longevity will favor those marketers that avoid the temptation of the short-term gain because people drive networks, not numbers. After all, as soon as you start thinking about people in terms of numbers, whether how many followers they have or some secret sauce social score, there is a good chance you have already lost them (unless you gamed social to get them in the first place).

At least, that is what I think. What does Brian Solis or Guy Kawasaki or Scott Stratten think? What do you think? Will automation steal the soul from social? Is there something on the horizon that might replace it? Or maybe you would like to strike up some other conversation? The choice belongs to you. The comments are yours. I'll read them too.

Wednesday, August 14

Lions And Labels And Agendas, Oh My. They Made Me Blind.

Agendas
"How we can get people to actually solve problems instead of pushing agendas?" — Amy Vernon 

This is a question that has been rolling around in my head since Amy Vernon asked it in response to an open call for conversation last week. My short answer coached the problem in politics, but the problem is much more hardwired into human beings than we might think. If it wasn't political labels that drive the diatribe and prevent problem solving, it would be something else.

It might be religious labels. It might be ethnic labels. It might be occupational labels. Or it might be the books we read. The music we like. The clothes we wear. The activities we pursue. The experiences we've had. The places we live. The places where we were born. The people we know.

We wake up every day with several thousand labels around our necks. We let them shape us and allow them to shape our perception of other people. We make ourselves slaves to them. And there is no end to how many we might make up. It's why we have nice things. And it's why we can't have nice things.

We've been indoctrinated into addiction. It took our entire childhood.

The truth is we spend most of our childhoods being indoctrinated into labels that make life easier and harder because every label carries an agenda. That's the point. Someone invented them to give life directions, expectations, and excuses. And then our parents and guardians conspire to pass them along just as most of us will when we have children too.

They aren't the only ones. Every peer and role model you ever had did the same thing, for better and worse. Many labels are moving targets, falling in and out of popularity with minorities and majorities.

It doesn't really matter what those labels might be. They blind us by casting bigger shadows than the people who wear them, they bind us to limitations and opportunities, and they consciously and subconsciously tint the lens that we wear when we try to solve problems as individuals and groups.

The only people not overtaken by them have to make a conscious effort to recognize them for what they are, strive to be objective even when it feels impossible, and struggle to retain their sense of self-esteem while not subscribing to stereotypes that the greater society values. It's one of the most difficult things anyone can do in life because people are genuinely afraid that all they can be are their labels.

Who would you be if labels didn't define you? Besides happy, I mean. 

Motherhood
I once had a friend who was struggling with motherhood. She insisted that she wasn't a good mother. The idea was pretty absurd to me because my perception of her abilities vastly eclipsed her own self-perception. So I gave it my best shot. She needed to free herself from the shackles of a "good mom."

After I asked her to write down the definition of everything she considered to be a "good mother," we both took a breath to admire the sheer weight of expectations. Without going into too much detail, suffice to say that the label she had placed on a pedestal was unreachable and unachievable.

Mostly, her list included everything she thought her mom did right, the opposite of everything her mom did wrong, several dozen expectations that are currently popular in society, several dozens values dedicated by faith (even though she was agnostic at the time), and so on and so forth. Once she took it all in and could laugh at how grandiose her job description was, I offered an alternative concept.

"Just like your husband married you and not the idea of a 'good wife,' your son wants to be raised by you and not the idea of a 'good mother,'" I said. "If you are you and do everything from a perspective of unconditional love, then you will be better than a 'good mother' because no one can be you better."

You would be surprised how great people can be when they aren't paralyzed by labels. She did fine.

So what does that have to do with solving problems? Almost everything. 

Have you ever noticed that some of the most explosive companies in history have come out of nowhere? There is a reason for that. They are generally started by entrepreneurs solving a specific problem or changing the status quo.

Why can't big companies do the same? Some of them can, but the advantage belongs to the startup in that they haven't saddled themselves with labels, policies and office politics. People focus on the objective at hand, without any other distractions. Their teams aren't always proven as much as they are ready to prove themselves. And whatever idea they've been turning over is all that really matters.

So let's say the problem is more altruistic, like thirsty children. How do we solve it? Charity: Water says the best way to solve it is to build water projects that put clean, drinkable water closer to the source.

All that stands in their way to deliver it is labels. Some people don't like their business model. Some people don't like that the founder is Christian. Some people don't like their partner organizations. Some people don't like that the program helps people abroad as opposed to at home. Some people worry about project sustainability. Some people want to support another charity. And the list goes on.

Water
We add in additional angst if we make a political issue, where political labels complicate the process. Instead of dealing with the problem. Suddenly, who solves how much of the problem under what criteria and conditions as well as how do they go about it all become subject to the agenda purview of this party or that party and all those special interests, with little concern for actual outcome. The net result becomes a thousand-fold document that costs one hundred times more to accomplish significantly less than what is required.

Nobody is exempt and the test is self-evident. Think of an agency that solves our water problem. Now impart different labels on it, one at a time inserting the label ahead of the word agency. Like this: "_______" agency for water.

Christian. Islamic. Jewish. Satanic. Democrat. Republican. Libertarian. Jeffersonian. Secretive. Communist. Domestic. Conservative. Liberal. International. African. Jamaican. Japanese. Home-Based. Government. And so on and so forth. Which one would you give to?

If you're being honest, certain descriptions might have elicited a positive or negative emotional reaction. It might have been slight, but your prejudices exist, possibly based on your proximity or positive and negative experiences with people who have claimed to represent those things or what you have been told to expect from such people. In swapping the labels, you may even forget the problem.

How do you overcome prejudices and agendas to solve problems?

My oversimplified definition of public relations applies here. While I have more academic definitions, I often say that public relations is the art and science of making "we" out of "us and them." If you want to solve problems without being plagued by agendas, the only possibility is to ask people to temporarily check their labels (not their values) at the door.

It's a tall order to be sure, especially because most people don't even know they exist. They do. They exist on a grand scale, such as those who judge us by the color of our skin. And they exist on a small scale such as how much we might weigh or the shine of our shoes. So if you find someone to set those things aside, even for a little while, then hold onto them tight. They are rare individuals.

At least, that is what I think. I would love to know what you think. I'd also love to know what Dr. Steve Nguyen thinks, and Roger Dooley, and Sandeep Gauntam, or anyone who makes psychology a primary interest as opposed to me, about two classes short of that degree (it was my minor).

Of course, we need not stop with psychologists or people with a bent for the human condition. Anyone can chime in, especially Amy Vernon, who opened the box on this relevant topic. And if this topic is too far removed, that's fine too. What would you like to talk about? The comments are open. Let's talk.

Wednesday, August 7

Bob Fass Beats Everyone In Social Media. Good Morning, 1963.

Ask any social media expert what he or she knows about Bob Fass and most will stare at you blankly, head bobbing but without recognition. They never heard the name before. He isn't "known" in social. He doesn't have a klout score.

And yet, he ought to be known in social media. His ground-breaking work in social media using radio as his medium started long before many social media experts were born. And frankly, he did it better than most people do today.

"But wait," you say. "Radio doesn't count. It's broadcast."

While that might be true for some shows and stations, it was never the case for Fass. Beginning in 1963, he became a pioneer of free form radio. Anyone who called in was given an opportunity to speak about any subject under the sun. There was no plan. There was no format. There was no automation. He didn't fake it.

He didn't even concern himself with a niche. He never worried about his identity. He never once thought of himself as an influencer. He never did anything to chase down listenership. He was merely human, looking to elevate the unsung heroes of New York City from midnight until the break of dawn.

As a result, anybody and everybody was allowed on his show, especially counterculture figures like Paul Krassner, Bob Dylan, Abbie Hoffman, Arlo Guthrie, Timothy Leary, and Allen Ginsberg (to name a few). Listeners were allowed to call in and talk to any of them. One even suggested Dylan sing better, a comment that gave everyone a good laugh. Nobody was hurt by it or needed counseling.

It was a scene where the freedom to think and hash things out made sense. And most of the time, people just called in because they wanted to have a good time. For a few hours every night, they weren't alone.


The scene mostly played out much the same beyond the station too. The so-called virtual community that Fass had created eventually spilled into the streets. He hosted a Fly-In at JFK airport. He organized a Sweep In to clean up city streets. He had a hand in Yip In at Grand Central Station. His listeners marched on the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, 1968. His measured results made history.

But even as they did, Fass never let it go to his head. He wanted to connect with real people. He invited two-way communication. He wanted people to experience life in real time. And he still broke convention at every opportunity. If he liked a song, he might play it once or all night long. His call.

Social media wants to be Radio Unnameable but can't reconcile the business side. 

There is a certain level of inauthenticity in most social media programs because, well, they are programs. At the end of the day, most want you to do something because they are commercial enterprises. There is nothing wrong with that, but sometimes people seen as leaders forget that.

What makes almost all of them fundamentally different from pre-social media mavericks like Fass is that Fass didn't necessarily have an agenda (certainly not a commercial agenda). Social media experts, whether purists or public relations practitioners, don't have the luxury anymore. Most can only pretend to be authentic as they are serving an agenda to capture more leads, listeners, exposure.

This isn't a criticism. It's an observation. Many social media enthusiasts that started five or ten years ago had to abandon their hands-on approaches in favor of scalability. So, almost without fail (there are exceptions), the solutions they turned to came from the same media they had once ridiculed — a mass media model built on number of messages, listeners, clicks, and shares — while rewriting history just to say they thought it up first.

So what is the alternative? And if there is an alternative, just short of open mic night, does encouraging it make any sense from a professional or commercial standpoint? My guess is probably not because the answer lies somewhere in the balance of those two opposing ideas. But what do you think? And by that, what you do you think about anything?

If this space was more like Radio Unnameable, what would we talk about? What you would like to talk about? I'm curious so feel free to suggest anything at all. I'm listening and I'm not alone. The comments are yours.

Wednesday, July 31

Digital Advertising Will Become An Added-Value Function

If you want to succeed in advertising and marketing, the first best practice to learn is how to stop following leaders and learn to leap frog over them. Right. Innovation is the fundamental ingredient to market disruption, especially for marketers who track industry trends. Their play books look different.

Right now, what some of these marketers and advertisers are telling me is that added-value content will always have a place but developing added-value functions can turn a customer's head. Why? These marketers know that it pays to be so good they can't ignore you (Steve Martin) instead of paying to win someone else over (SAP) to get some attention. Don't talk about something. Do it.

Advertisers and marketers can look at three critical trends to make it happen — technological advancement, physical-virtual convergence, and marketing functionality (innovations in operations and customer ease using technology, especially what we call mobile advertising today) for inspiration. All three point to marketing and advertising models that engage people beyond a click and start to consider every aspect of the customer experience.

• One device will eclipse the "any device" concept. When Google first announced Google Glass, I was surprised by the design (and perhaps a little disappointed). What surprised me was that despite Google knowing that 90 percent of device owners switch screens to complete tasks (Google | Think Insights), it opted to make Google Glass a standalone device (although it can run on an Android) and not merely a screen extension, which would prolong the battery life, potentially increase user storage, and reduce the number of components needed.

After all, almost every design and development trend suggests that we are moving toward an era where every smart phone has the power of a personal computer, making every screen and keyboard a potential extension of that device. The only reason you might want two devices would relate to privacy.

Otherwise, one smart phone with a hard or wireless connection will seamlessly transition from the phone screen (or some other device) to a tablet, to a desktop, to a television display, to a presentation projector with the speed and efficiency of all those tools as they exist today. One of the most interesting things is the very real concept of turning an entire room into a halo suite gaming experience. Outside of gaming, this is one step away from halo suite classrooms where students and teachers are projected into physical spaces in real time, with how they appear dependent on the perspective of the person in the space.

• The dual environment concept will cease to exist. For the better part of a decade, I've been helping communication-related professionals to stop thinking about "social media" as a medium unto itself with online friends as opposed to offline friends and more like another environment, where different mediums and duplicate media can be discovered (everything from newspapers to broadcast networks to seminars and classrooms). And yet, I know that the days of this effective analogy are numbered.

When you consider that 84 percent of shoppers are using their phones in a physical store (Google | Think Insights) or that up to 85 percent of the population use devices while watching television (The Guardian), it becomes readily apparent that what used to be viewed as two environments is converging into an augmented environment. Ergo, online and offline are becoming increasingly dependent on each other, with no distinction between brick and mortar or online stores.

You can see it at work everywhere. The breakthrough of Airbnb isn't a collaborative economy as much as it organizes the physical world in order to create new opportunities. The same can be said for Uber, which organizes personal transportation in select cities around the world. And, in the near future, proximity tools will help you find the shirt you see online inside the store you're in (or vice versa), right down to the shelf. And perhaps, with membership, make visiting the cash register optional by either automatically checking you out or allowing you to check yourself out.

• Digital advertising is poised to become a functional utility. Within the next year, more marketers will begin to retool how they view mobile and digital marketing by looking beyond promotional pushes and toward a deeper understanding of digital-to-physical engagement. McDonald's is already taking the first step.

While some elements of its new Monopoly iAds campaign are clunky, others are well ahead of other marketers in that McDonald's is trying to get people in the store whereas most marketers are trying to get them to like a Facebook page. Expect McDonald's to move the ball further down the field by making an optional digital game board next year (as opposed to a downloaded game board) and offering real time mobile rewards during in-store visits.

The underlying push here is not all about promotion, but rather developing digital advertising that becomes part of an organization's operation by offering a functional benefit to the consumer. The concept will manifest in different ways. Stores could migrate inventory lists into an interactive proximity app or chains could include citywide searches; a mobile app that can tell you what needs to be serviced on your car; games, tools, and utilities that deliver value-added mobile functions as opposed to value-added content alone; and physical events that include live social coverage, enticing people to attend right now.

Another thought about the future of marketing. Everyone always likes to talk about eyeballs, but sometimes the best marketing advice for any business is much more hands on and increasingly simple.

Even the woman who cuts my hair knows it. She doesn't market herself using Twitter, but she does take advantage of technology. At the end of every session, she schedules my next appointment. The application she uses automatically sends me a reminder the day before. If I have an unexpected conflict, I can change it.

Some people might consider this good customer service. Others might consider it good marketing. And therein lies the sweet spot. When your customer service and marketing efforts become so seamless that they are virtually indistinguishable from each other, then it becomes difficult for anyone to ignore.

Wednesday, July 24

Networks Drive Discussions. People Drive Networks.

Everything you think you know about social media today will be obsolete in the next five years. This assumes you are lucky. It's equally likely that everything you know will be upended in the next six months.

This concept of temporal acceptance, perhaps more than any other, is a critical component of any discussion I lead or give about social media. There is a risk in introducing the idea, even if it is the most honest observation someone can make about social media. Most people don't like change.

Instead, most people want to hear about new technologies because the tools tend to drive most discussions. They want to know what these new tools are, how to use them, and if there are any emerging techniques that will give their organization an edge. Those kinds of discussions are useful, sure.

And yet, change has always been the driver of all communication-related fields. We all know it. Marketing, advertising, public relations, and corporate communication have always been in a constant state of change. What social media has done is move them forward at a faster pace, primarily because social media has attached itself to the rapidly accelerating pace of technological advancement as opposed to a singular technology like a radio or television set. This is a space that changes in a blink.

I don't even lump technologies together anymore. I tend to define them as tools (hardware), applications (software), and networks (platforms) with each of these overlaying sectors capable of disrupting the other. In fact, there are so many that no one person can possibly keep track of them all. There are thousands upon thousands of them; ideas that could be the next disruption force in communication.

How do you reconcile this as a communicator today? You don't necessarily have to think about tools.

When people talk about social media, they mostly get it backwards.

When I spoke with the Council Of School Board Association Communicators a few days ago, I anticipated one of the first questions asked in relation to my presentation. How do you, as a communicator, prioritize which technologies to use to reach your audience? They could answer the question themselves. It was easy.

I handed out sticky notes and asked the attendees to write down two of their favorite social media networks, the ones where they spent the most time. Then, while I shared my background, one of the attendees volunteered to sort and stick their responses to the wall in clusters.

There wasn't any surprise, Facebook and Twitter were the most popular. Pinterest was a distant third, but still a noticeably pronounced cluster compared to the rest. There were several dozen others selected by one or two people, ranging from Tumblr and Goodreads to intranets and association forums.

"There is the answer," I said, pointing to the wall. "If I wanted to communicate to this group, then I would prioritize my communication presence much in the same way. Social media is driven by people, not technologies."

Assuming I already had a space to introduce new content and make announcements (blog, website, etc.), my social network assessment priorities would begin with Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest (but not necessarily exclusively). As long as I had a plan and the right assets for each priority network, these are the ones I would tap first (e.g., if I did not have enough visual content, Pinterest would not work).

After establishing planned communication on these networks, I would learn more about the other networks on the radar, even if only one or two people selected them. Each one would be considered based upon their ability to help me effectively communicate about common objectives that the organization and specific audiences share.

Tumblr might make an excellent place for a school board association to reach students. Goodreads might be an excellent network to develop a list of books reviewed by teachers and administrators. A network like Meetup could effectively be used by administrators or unions. There are many more examples in the presentation, specific to school board associations.

Even if only a few members of an audience are already members of these niche networks, the organization may be able attract more people over time. People will mostly be willing to join any network where an organization they know or trust has developed particularly strong assets.

For example, many grandparents joined Facebook not because they liked it but because they wanted to see pictures of their grandchildren. Most people join Kickstarter and other niche networks for the same reason. They are not attracted to the platform as much as the content someone has place there (like a crowd-funding campaign).

The same holds true for all new networks and platforms that are introduced over time. Communication professionals have to assess each potential network on how effectively it can communicate common objectives. Popularity can also be assessed, but mostly as it only relates to sustainability. Networks have to reach some critical mass to survive. Not all of them do.

Building social media into communication plans and measurement. 

Once communicators appreciate that social media does not exist in a vacuum, it becomes significantly more manageable. Rather than break out the entirety of social media into a separate section within a communication plan, each social media asset becomes a contact point along with any traditional communication.

In other words, if a school board association wanted to work with school administrators to establish a stronger academic foundation, social media tools like LinkedIn or Meetup would be included alongside any newsletters or grassroots outreach. Doing so also makes measurement much more effective. Using the principles behind Return On Communication, the measure of success would be based on successfully changing the academic foundation (with a secondary objective that it improves student performance).

Wednesday, July 17

How A Little Love For Learning Can Jumpstart A Reader

Summer can be a mixed blessing for most children. While it gives them a little more freedom to play, explore extracurricular activities, and enjoy more free time, it also separates them from their natural love of learning.

The break leaves many of them at a loss after the summer, which is why most teachers set their startup lessons to be either refreshers or benchmarks. They want to know what these children retain over the summer.

Theoretically it works, unless these the children were already slipping in proficiency. Many children are. My daughter is among them.

Despite private school, she ended first grade with an F reading letter level on an A-Z scale, which represents an early reader at the start of first grade (not the end). She landed somewhere in the middle of her peers, which was better than my son did at that age in public school (and he had outperformed most other students there). But it really wasn't good enough.

If we assume that most children drop two reading letters over the summer — because they gravitate to books below their levels, if at at all — then we might also assume students like my daughter would automatically face challenges in second grade. Ergo, even if her new teacher started teaching the class at an H reading level, my daughter would have been critically behind as a student reading at a D level.

You can see the potential problem here, especially because many parents are unfamiliar with the various reading level benchmarks. They simply see their children reading and smile, thinking it's good enough. It's not. My daughter would have been lost after the first few weeks of school.

How parents can develop an accelerated reading program for young students.

Awareness is always the first step. Take some time to become aware of reading level benchmarks and find out where your child finished at the end of the school year. It doesn't matter which benchmarks the school uses — letter, numeric, or Lexille (a.k.a. Lexi). All benchmarks correspond to a grade level.

Some parents just don't know. While I knew my daughter's level this year, we never knew my son's reading level when he was that age. If you don't know, don't panic. Look up the books he or she has read or looked at since the end of the school year. A search with the book title and words "reading level" will usually produce a landing page that corresponds to one or all benchmarks.

Discover books to move them forward. Assume that the books are at their reading level (or a little less) because children (like adults) tend to gravitate toward what they can read easily and not what will improve their reading. Have them read whatever is on hand (or that they have been reading) out loud to demonstrate their strength at that level. You'll immediately get a sense of their proficiency.

Depending on how well the student reads, choose books that are at their level (if they are struggling) and slightly higher. Make sure you double check the approximate level too as all book publishers use different measurements. For example, Penguin Level 2 books are generally first grade books; some "I Can Read" Level 2 books are second grade books; and some Scholastic Level 3 books are second grade books.

Encourage kids to read the books out loud. It doesn't take much time. Between 15 minutes and one half hour of reading time every day is enough to propel them forward. Just remember that from their perspective, natural story breaks make more sense than random page counts or hard time quotas. They'll enjoy reading to a preset goal.

It's also best for parents to pick the books. Sure, children can provide input, but parents need to be aware that young readers pick books based on topics and characters they know. From experience, these better known characters tend to have clunkier writing and thinner story lines. Too many weak stories will cause young readers to become discouraged. So try to pick books with strong stories while paying attention to the language lessons.

Learning words by sight is a tiered process. Any time a student comes across a word that he or she doesn't know, block out everything except the first syllable (or block out everything except the root word) with your fingers. Most of the time, doing so will give them just enough confidence to get it right. And if they struggle, explain any rules that might help: e.g., sometimes "gh" sounds like "f" and sometimes it's silent.

The point is that you always want to help them solve a problem as opposed to reading the words for them (and letting them parrot you). Only when all else fails do you read the word and tell how why they missed it. Then ask them to reread the sentence and pay attention to whether they've mastered the word on the next occurrence. If they haven't, add it to an index card.

Flash card drills help create intangible rewards. Every morning after breakfast and/or after lunch or dinner, my daughter and I now work through flash cards that are mostly made up of missed words. There are only about eight or ten cards to go through one time. (It's important to only go through the pile one time per session to ensure long-term retention.) The only other words I include are instructional words; words that may appear in second grade instructions like "complete," "correct," "length," etc.

If my daughter gets it right with no assistance, we put a mark on the card. When she gets five marks on the card, she keeps the card and rips it up. As she rips these cards up, new ones are added so there are always plenty of cards at various stages of completion.

She thinks of it as an achievement reward and each ripped up card is celebrated. And if she misses a flashcard word in a story, I give her a one-time prompt that she already ripped the word up and we don't want to add it back. She immediately remembers. As an aside, never offer candy or monetary awards because you'll risk teaching them to love the reward and not a love for learning — which I believe is the ultimate goal of any teacher.

When my daughter returns to school this year, she will be well beyond her peers. 

If you read through these accelerated reading steps, then you'll likely be left with one question. Does it work? Within four weeks, my daughter moved from F to K on an A-Z scale. At this pace, she might reach Q by the end of the summer. To put that into perspective, Q is the letter for a fourth grade reader.

A few days ago, I spoke to a group of educators about communication (and I'll be sharing the deck next week). It was during my presentation that I shared one of my observations about education: I have never met a kindergartener who wasn't enthusiastic about school. So if we want to solve the problems with education, then we have to look at what happens between kindergarten and the fourth grade.

I believe reading proficiency is one of the biggest things that happens or, perhaps, doesn't happen. Too many children have not met the reading level required for their grade level. Their parents don't know it.

At yet, reading is the core requirement for every other subject (including math, with its abundant word problems). It seems to me the problem is apparent. Unless the material is easy to read and the problem easily understood, how can they ever hope to understand it or solve it, let alone enjoy it? Exactly.

Literacy is the key to every other subject, along with a love of learning. It needs a little more attention. It needs a little more awareness. It needs more advocates. So how are you spending your summer?

Wednesday, July 10

Five Monkey Wrenches For The Future Of Public Relations

Public relations is in crisis and it is too drunk on marginal successes to see it. This isn't a criticism. It's a fact, part of an objective analysis conducted every few months to determine what students need to glean from my class, Writing For Public Relations, at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

More than any other year, this year has marked the most profound transformation and most of it isn't necessarily for the better. The entire industry seems distracted, attempting to decipher the same challenges that almost everyone in communication has to reconcile — with social media damaging a good chunk of marketing and advertising, stock photography damaging photographers, templates damaging graphic designers, and crowd-sourced content damaging commercial writers. It's the same all over.

The creative and commercial arts are continually being crushed under the weight of becoming cut rate commodities. Maybe Keen was partly right. The argument that social media belongs to the young is the same argument that makes social media a non-profession. And knowing that alone makes it all the more perplexing why public relations professionals continue to fight for ownership of everything.

The five hot topics for public relations that are monkey wrenches in disguise. 

Social Media. Public relations professionals keep making the case they deserve to own social media and maybe they already do in some circles. There aren't many firms left that shy away from listing it as a viable service. Some firms even secretly loathe it, but list it and assign the task to interns at cut rates.

The reason some practitioners said they deserve social is based on claims that they knew more about a peculiar combination of writing content, pop culture, and crisis management (which really means the most benign five-step crisis communication process). But what many of them deliver is paramount to publicity, with the measurement being publicity. That's not public relations. It's marketing.

And where that creates a quandary for public relations professionals in the future is that their field is being demoted from strategic thinking into commoditized task work that pays a lower rate. Ergo, public relations might "win" social media, but the cost won't be worth the expense as practitioners become online customer service representatives over the long term.

Content Management. Although not much different from social media, content marketing is the new buzz moniker for social media. It places more weight on writing and/or producing content (while avoiding old-school terminology like "blogs"), e.g., distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined target audience with the objective of driving (ideally profitable action) customer action.

Public relations wants to own content marketing for the same reasons they want to own social media. They believe that content marketing plays to the strengths of public relations because brand content produced by public relations firms understands "the news agenda as opposed to a direct sales hook."

But all too often, what is happening in the hands of public relations is that exposure becomes the only measurement and it causes companies to burn up money "marketing content" as opposed to the products they make or the services they offer. Expect it to get worse as everyone demands eyeballs.

Journalism Devolution. One of the primary drivers of public relations to become more like corporate-sponsored media outlets is the influx of journalists into public relations. Many of them make the move for two reasons: they want to make more money than they can as journalists or they were laid off by newspapers. 

At the same time, the remaining news outlets continue to struggle too. In order to capture eyeballs, they are increasingly interested in reporting what's short and popular as opposed to the old school objective "news agenda." The value of a reporter isn't reporting relevance anymore; it's more about online eyeballs too.

Fewer reporters means that public relations' previous ownership of "media relations" has taken a hit as more and more companies would rather have a viral video on YouTube than a story in the New York Times. And now the challenge public relations is trying to take on is that the same people who gave us the dry-as-toast or marketing-fluff-and-puff press releases want us to believe they write better.

Search Engine Optimization. When Forbes broke the article that called public relations the new search engine optimization, the same story appeared in an alternative universe but with a different headline all together. It declared that public relations had committed online suicide.

Instead of forging relationships with various publics to meet mutual goals and establish an unparalleled level of trust, the new public relations professional tool box contains an arsenal of tidbits like "how to come up with better link bait" and "how to crowdsource for content when all your ideas suck."

While there is nothing wrong with knowing the tactics, it's still hard to believe that a profession so fearful of being marginalized would jump on the bandwagon and marginalize themselves. Ergo, the last person invited to sit at the executive table is the one who will drone on and on about "keywords."

Measurement Forever. Public relations is closing on a 100-year history since adopting a new name for a professional that grew out of propaganda and public relations measurement is still all over the map. Years ago, I made the case that measurement was simply a matter of measuring the outcome to the intent but too many returned to the ever popular (and easily gamed) measurement of exposure.

Some will put a price tag on it. Some will count on klout. And some will make up their own formula, with various degrees of including outcomes as a viable measurement. In more cases, public relations is now adopting the cheapest direct marketing measurements as there own while claiming they are light years ahead of marketing.

Look, most of us know that measurement will never be an exact science unless everybody agrees to assign values to intangible measures. Nobody readily agrees on the monetary value of things like positive public sentiment, brand loyalty, or varied degrees of trust and reputation, etc. And they never will because those valuations are dependent on the individual organization. It's about that simple.

What is public relations anymore, anyway?

When you take a long, hard look at what are top-of-mind issues for pubic relations today, most of it doesn't resemble public relations at all. Instead, a good amount of it smacks of the worst elements of digital marketing, direct response, and social media.

To punctuate the point, consider the definition of public relations as adopted during the First World Assembly of Public Relations Associations and the First World Forum of Public Relations in 1978.

Public relations is the art and science of analyzing trends, predicting their consequences, counseling organization leaders, and implementing planned programs of action which will serve both the organization’s and the public interest.

Compare it to a new unwritten definition that seems to be permeating the field today. When attempting to infuse those five monkey wrenches into the industry, we're left with something that feels lacking.

Public relations is the art and science of tracking pop culture and capitalizing on that data by writing marginalized link bait that will be seen by as many eyes as possible to boost site traffic where organizations can capture email addresses in order to spam the shit of those people while nurturing an individual reputation as a professional in order to boost klout scores and get perks until the day you write a business card book bought by colleagues who owe you for buying their business card books.

While there is nothing wrong with this, I suppose, one might wonder if the current changes sweeping the field are more akin to regression as opposed to evolution. How about you? Do you feel comfortable with the direction of public relations? Or maybe someone can come up with a more exact definition.
 

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