Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Out of This World PR

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How a Comedian Outwitted Some Rocket Scientists
I have been fascinated by our space program for as long as I can remember. Indeed, one of my earliest memories was watching John Glenn lift off in Friendship 7 in 1962 and seeing my mother cry. She said she didn't know if he would make it back.

Yes, spaceflight is serious business. But Stephen Colbert, the outstanding political satirist of Comedy Central, knows how to send us over the moon at NASA's expense.

You may have heard that NASA launched an on-line contest to help name a new module (now referred to as Node 3) for the International Space Station (ISS). Hoping to follow the tradition of naming past modules with lofty, cosmic names (Node 1 was named Unity, Node 2 was named Harmony), NASA opened up voting with Earthwise, Legacy, Serenity and Venture. They also allowed write-in votes.

Here's where Mr. Colbert comes in. This man is the Donald Trump of comedy. He has already managed to get a new species of spider named after him (Aptostichus stephencolberti) and a flavor of Ben and Jerry's ice cream (Stephen Colbert's AmeriCone Dream). In 2006, he asked viewers of his show to submit his name to Hungary's Ministry of Transport for their on-line effort to name a new bridge over the Danube River. It was reported that Colbert won the first round of voting with over 17 million votes. I should note that the population of Hungary is about 9.9 million. The Ministry then changed the rules.

For the NASA contest, a total of 1,190,437 votes were cast. Colbert scored 230,539 votes, outscoring Serenity by more than 40,000 votes. So, what does NASA do? Well, according to, agency personnel are floating the idea of naming the Station's new toilet in the module "Colbert." This is proof that NASA should stick to space and aeronautics and not venture into comedy. A Colbert space toilet isn't funny - I think it's demeaning.

Although the rules of the contest state that "the results are not binding on NASA" and "NASA reserves the right to modify these Contest Rules at any time," what happened to fair and square? But being an optimist, I'm wondering if there's a win-win in this somewhere.

NASA has abbreviations and acronyms for everything, so why not now? Here's my idea: For Stephen T. Colbert, let's come up with something space-like using his initials. Node 3 could become the STC - Serenity Transorbital Compartment. Or something like that. NASA gets to use the Serenity name and Colbert gets his initials immortalized (at least until the ISS burns up in the atmosphere after its service life is over).

NASA could embrace this situation. Why not invite Colbert to tour the STC mock-up or to the actual launch at the Cape? Why not have him on a video link with the orbiting crew during the taping of his show? Sure, he'll make fun and get some laughs but these would be sure fire ways for the agency to make science more accessible and gain a huge audience.

So, I've done my part to help solve this planetary crisis. Now it's time for NASA to learn a few communication tips:
  • Don't ask for something that you don't want to hear.
  • Changing the rules makes one look like a sore loser.
  • In the age of on-line vote stuffing, enforce the one person, one vote rule.
  • Plan strategically, and think through the intended and unintended consequences of any action.
  • Play to your strengths - science not satire.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Healthcare Journalism Needs a Recovery Plan

There’s More Evidence That the Profession is Suffering
I’ve spoken out before (Give Me an S, Give Me a C, Give Me an…, Personalized Promise, Heading in the Wrong Direction, NEJM Makes It Official) on the need for increased health and science literacy. This is crucial if we are to promote evidence-based decision making, increase productivity, enhance economic competitiveness and ensure the continuation of the democratic process. The Obama administration is sending the right signals but a survey of health care journalists conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Association of Health Care Journalists shows that the state of health and science media, like the economy, may not have turned the corner quite yet.

In response to the question of “what do you think is the biggest opportunity in the field of health care journalism?” the number one response was the “ability to educate and empower consumers.” Great. But overall they expressed concern about “staff cutbacks, less time for reporting, fewer resources for training, and more pressure to produce short, quick hit stories.” Almost all (94%) said bottom line pressure hurts the quality of health news. Sixty-five percent judged the quality of health coverage as fair or poor, and only one percent said it was excellent.

Even so, respondents had “a cautiously optimistic view of the direction in which health journalism is headed.” While 24% said journalism in general was heading in the right direction, the number jumped to 52% when asked specifically about health journalism. This didn’t give me much comfort, though. That still left 48% who thought health journalism was heading in the wrong direction.

It’s been noted that as the amount of health and science information has grown, the amount of time and space devoted to them has shrunk. This has created opportunities for non-journalists to jump in but I, for one, don’t want to see this gap filled by consumer-generated content alone.

As for the type and placement of health and science stories, the trend of focusing on political or business angles will continue. And with the politicization of healthcare – be it Medicare, Medicaid, FDA, stem cells or pharmaceuticals – it was not surprising that the business/economics of health care, health care quality and performance, and health policy were all ranked higher than medical research and science as areas where more training was needed.

Healthcare journalists are hungry for ongoing opportunities to elevate their knowledge and skills yet 43% said training opportunities have declined. Twenty percent said opportunities increased. In a report to the Kaiser Family Foundation written by Gary Schwitzer of the University of Minnesota, a radio reporter said, “My biggest challenge is having enough background and training to cover health care. This is an incredibly complex and challenging beat. People are pitching stories left and right and if you don’t have a way to analyze their claims, you could be doing your listeners a big disservice.” To be sure, the proliferation of junk science continues to give me great concern.

This less than rosy picture comes to us despite the availability of some terrific training programs, workshops and “boot camps” underwritten by various foundations, government agencies and companies. I hope that even more can be done, and find ways to help journalists get the time and resources to attend. Indeed, 69% of the respondents reported that opportunities for travel declined in the past few years.

Maybe this will all turn around with time. I’m going to hope that we’ll see demand for health and science reporting increase as we continue to shake off some of the anti-intellectualism that has bogged us down. I’ll hope that we’ll see more public and private investment in training and continuing education. And I’ll hope that we’ll see some newsrooms staffing up as the economy recovers.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

New Bedside Manners

Tell Me – Not the Internet – How You Feel
I haven’t conducted a formal survey but I’d be willing to pull some money out from under my mattress and bet that two of the most often-used words these days in the worlds of business and politics are transparency and accountability. There’s been little choice, if you think about it. The collision between out-of-control companies and politicians with public outrage and instant communication tools has sparked unprecedented demands for truth and openness.

The push to expand transparency and accountability has given rise to numerous rating sites on the internet – everything from food to teachers to virtually any product. This long list includes about 40 web sites where one can rate their healthcare provider.

In an AP story last week, “Docs seek gag orders to stop patients' reviews,” Lindsey Tanner reported how some physicians are coping with anonymous, negative patient commentaries on sites like Intrigued, I went to the web site and saw that over 185,000 “doctors” were rated, but this includes acupuncturists, chiropractors, podiatrists, psychologists and dentists. I clicked on the most reviewed doctors and found that the top four are ob/gyns and number five is a cosmetic/plastic surgeon. (Number six, I must note, is the fictitious Dr. Gregory House.)

It’s not a big surprise that women, the most influential healthcare decision makers in the family unit, are the most vocal. Randomly scrolling through, I found some posts to be reverential and others to be scathing. These comments are a one-way street, however. The doctor’s name is used but not the patient’s and, because of rules protecting patient confidentiality, there’s no way for the doctor to respond.

Here’s where a company called Medical Justice comes in. For a fee, they offer physicians a service that monitors the internet for patient comments and a contract (“mutual privacy agreements”) for their patients to sign where they “agree not to post about their doctor on the Web without the doctor's permission.” In addressing First Amendment rights, the site states that “Patients are free to discuss their care with other doctors, family, friends, licensing boards, attorneys, and any number of institutions. Mutual privacy agreements do not create a choice between healthcare and one's right to free speech (as some have erroneously claimed).”

So, on one hand we have sites that allow unfettered forums for blasting (or praising) health care providers. On the other hand, we have an effort to limit where patients can express their views. Here are a few thoughts:

Health care providers need to accept the reality of our information society. Telling someone they can’t do something is a sure-fire way to promote the opposite of what is intended.

Entering into a contractual arrangement with a patient over issues of speech may raise questions about the doctor’s motives, potentially damage the relationship and erect a barrier that decreases communication.

If women are using this medium most frequently, then some special attention needs to be paid to their concerns and communication preferences. There should be an office environment where concerns can be aired before they hit the internet. And, if face-to-face commentary is uncomfortable, perhaps an anonymous mail-in survey should be made available.

While both sides have legitimate positions, I think we require a third hand. What’s needed is a forum where patients can post justifiable comments, where those who read them can have some assurance that no axes are being grinded. Health care providers need assurance that inaccurate, reputation-killing commentary is kept off the web, where it’s so difficult to excise.

Patient advocates and organized medicine should collaborate on setting standards and policies – a code – for responsible, ethical rating sites. Both patients and their doctors need to get on the same side of the fence on this issue. When it comes to your health and wellness, I can’t think of an issue where it’s more important for all the parties to act as a team.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Knowledge Base

Perspectives on the State of Research Readiness in Public Relations
The following was published in the March 2009 issue of PRSA’s Tactics:

I recently finished teaching the Research Process & Methodology course at NYU’s master’s program in Public Relations and Corporate Communications. Serving as an adjunct professor is a great outlet for the coaching and mentoring that I’ve missed since becoming a communications and business development consultant in 2006. But this particular experience left me a bit unsettled. It drove home the fact that research remains a weak link in the development, execution and evaluation of PR programs.

Becoming Involved
I was invited by my friend and the academic director of the NYU program, John Doorley, to guest lecture within the program and later teach the Strategic Communication course. Then came a request to teach Research Process & Methodology.

Here, however, I had some reservations. Like Strategic Communication, RP&M was mandatory, but this was a subject that most students dreaded. We were to cover qualitative research, including interviews and focus groups, and quantitative methods such as sample selection, questionnaire design and data collection and analysis. The objections were along the lines of, “We’re the creative people, not number crunchers. We’re supposed to be intuitive — that’s why people hire us!”

Even though I had the feeling of being dropped behind enemy lines, I was energized by the opportunity to convey the need for more rigor in PR programming. Now, more than ever, it is necessary to identify competitive, political and social issues; understand key audiences, their preferences and perceptions; differentiate companies and products, and demonstrate the value of communications on business objectives and measure outcomes.

Clients crave creativity but they don’t want guesswork. To be effective, we need information to drive insight. If PR professionals want to be strategic, then research is required to help make the best possible predictions about the potential intended and unintended outcomes in PR programming.

Getting Down to Business
Most of the students’ anxiety was assuaged soon after starting the first class. Setting unambiguous expectations and goals were key. I made it clear that I did not intend to transform them into statisticians or programmers. Instead, they would become more informed users and evaluators of research. To reach this endpoint, and to keep the students engaged for the six hours per week that we met, we worked to strike a balance between theory and application — a mix of book learning with in-class exercises.

In one class, we reviewed and evaluated a variety of award-winning PR case studies including corporate rebranding, the launch of new products and national events. They were eye-opening — even for me. If these were chosen to represent the best work of the industry, the pinnacle of public relations, then we — the profession — had some work to do. Why did those objectives look like a bunch of tactics? What did “we achieved a high level of buzz,” mean? Was the result at all meaningful to the business? One hundred million impressions is a big number, but did the message reach the intended audience?

This analysis helped make the research process more real, more accessible. By the end of the course, the role of research in public relations was duly elevated in the minds of the students. They didn’t leave with a list of formulas memorized, but they did leave knowing how to ask good questions and take their place at the table of strategic PR planning.

Taking the Next Step
While feeling rewarded by the response of the students and the opportunity to connect with some terrific guest experts, I was left with some concerns. After I reviewed the final projects — detailed proposals for their Capstone papers — and posted the grades, I wondered about the state of research training in PR agencies. How do these firms really value research? What expectations do they have of the staff? How is research taught in other programs outside NYU?

I decided to send a three-question survey to the top 25 agencies. I inquired if they had an in-house training program, which courses they offered and if any were mandatory. Only eight of 25 surveys were returned — perhaps these were the firms that were most proud of their programs.

However, the results were still revealing. As one would hope and expect, 100 percent of the respondents offered a variety of courses and workshops. All of the agencies had programs in the traditional areas of public relations: writing skills, presentation skills and media relations. Some offered training in issues/risk/crisis management, advocacy/third-party relations, conflict resolution and digital media.

On the other hand, only three of eight said some or all classes were mandatory. I found this to be both surprising and disturbing. Competitiveness, differentiation and excellence are all based on learning.

When it came to metrics and numbers, the story did not improve. Only half of those responding reported that they offered training in research methods and/or measurement. Respondents at 50 percent of these agencies offered courses on budgeting and/or forecasting. I wasn’t hugely surprised by these answers, as I’ve known for a long time that numbers and words don’t mix for many PR practitioners.

But it’s time to push old habits aside. Indeed, these tough economic times reinforce the importance of numbers. “Good enough” is out. Precision is in. Of course, creativity and fresh ideas are essential. But we need balance: The same urgency that is placed on learning, thinking and executing the soft side of public relations must also be placed on the hard.