Thursday, July 30, 2009

Observations on the Social Media Landscape

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Web 2.0 is Like Being at Square 2.0
We can see some of the benefits of new media every day. Companies, associations and organizations are reaching out to engage, educate and sell to their publics. Information is finding new ways to bore through the firewalls of intolerant regimes. The lonely and the shut-ins have virtual life lines to the outside world. People are reconnecting, catching up and sharing news.

I’ve had some good experiences with new media, reaching "influencers" and gaining news placements. On the personal side, it’s been nice to reconnect with old friends and colleagues. Not long ago, I received a LinkedIn invitation from a friend who was in Cub Scout Pack 92 with me back in the fourth grade. Twitter is a different story, though. I'm still churning through sites in the hope that they can give me at least a 10 percent chance of reading something of actual interest.

That aside, it’s exciting to see new ideas and experimentation taking place. Yet, with the deluge of offers I receive for webinars, courses and books, you would think the self-proclaimed gurus have Web 2.0 all figured out. Every time I turn around, my e-mail in box fills with “must attend” events like Social Media Crash Course, New Media Boot Camp, Social Media and New Media Boot Camp, New Media PR Master Class, Writing for Social Media, Social Media Best Practices, Social Media PR Power Guide, Social Media for Disaster Response and Recovery, and Social Media Strategies. (Note to gurus: it is not a strategy – it’s a tactic.)

While there are people who have better technical skills and know more than others about these media, we’re a long way from fully grasping its potential and its potential consequences. Along the evolutionary continuum of social media, we’ve just left knuckle walking to stand upright. Like the Neanderthals, we’re bound to see lots of offshoots that dead end into oblivion.

Oblivion is where many in and around the media business say newspapers (and books and magazines) are headed. They may be right… eventually. I do read a lot of material electronically but I don’t want to give up the ability to turn the page of my hard copy. (I take some comfort knowing that the crystal ball keepers who manage the Star Trek franchise have, on several occasions, made books the perfect gift in the 23rd and 24th centuries.) Indeed, when it comes to media consumption (according to Ketchum’s Media Myths & Realities Survey, 2008), social networking sites, blogs, videocasts and podcasts combined don’t come close to local newspapers (or network or local or cable TV news).

As social and electronic media gain ground, however, it seems to be pushing other forms of communication to the rear. A growing number of people -- practically everyone I know in generations Y and Z -- will use Facebook, AIM or send a text message before they’d ever make a telephone call. This leads me to question the actual use of the term “social” in social media. Certainly, it’s safer to write a message than to use one’s voice. Words can be chosen and rewritten before sending. Direct confrontation is avoided. But this is the opposite of social interaction. It’s remote, it’s disembodied. From the Random House dictionary (the 10 pounder on my bookshelf), social “pertains to, devoted to, or characterized by friendly companionship or relations.” Merriam-Webster (on-line) defines social as “marked by or passed in pleasant companionship with one's friends or associates.”

Like friends, music and art, a mix of the old and the new can make the picture complete.
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Monday, July 20, 2009

A Message to Reach the Stars

Communicating Our Way to Space
Forty years ago today. I can remember that evening so clearly, sitting at the edge of my parent's bed to get the best view of the TV as Neil Armstrong descended the ladder of the Lunar Excursion Module. Then, with Walter Cronkite's narration, we all witnessed the triumph of the first step on the moon. No VCRs or DVRs, kids. My father put his Bolex camera on a tripod and took 16mm movies of the television tube.

I'm sorry that Cronkite won't see this or any other anniversary of the moon landing. The legendary/iconic/most trusted/uncle-to-all news man will be missed. For other fans of the space program, when it comes to walking on the surface of other worlds, all we'll have is anniversaries for a while.

For the surviving septa and octogenarians who were part of those groundbreaking Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, this is another milestone to lament the long absence of people breaking away from earth orbit. There have been some tremendous milestones in space, of course -- weather and communications satellites, the International Space Station, space telescopes and other astronomical instruments, deep space probes, the Martian rovers. But robotic tracks on Mars are no substitute for human footprints.

What first put us into space, however, was far from these lofty visions. It was the Cold War and the strategic "missile gap" with the USSR. In an opinion piece in Saturday's The New York Times (One Giant Leap to Nowhere), Tom Wolfe wrote that we were successful in winning the space race because we had a clear purpose, a clear rallying cry, a clear message.

He may have a point. We've gone from regaining a military advantage and saving the "American way of life" to... what exactly? We've heard a number messages from NASA, its contractors, space enthusiasts and Congress, including: we need to ensure our global competitiveness, we must continue to map and explore the heavens, some science can be conducted only outside of our atmosphere, it's a moral imperative for the U.S to lead in space, it will sustain thousands of skilled jobs, it will spawn new businesses and products, we need new inspiration to drive us forward and revive our spirit.

Wolfe said that "What NASA needs is the power of the Word" and a "philosopher" to help articulate the rationale for an ongoing commitment to space. The one and only, he said, was Werner von Braun but "NASA couldn’t present as its spokesman and great philosopher a former high-ranking member of the Nazi Wehrmacht with a heavy German accent." The message von Braun wanted to convey was that we need to find a way to get off the planet -- all of us. He knew that, in its death throws (a few billion years from now), our star will expand and envelope Earth. We would have to get away one day, and not just to potentially habitable Mars. We would have to leave the solar system.

The survival of humanity. This is clearly the most important message one could ever hear but also the least urgent. Maybe in the year 100,002,009 Congress will start appropriating some funds with a few hundred million years to spare! Of course, we might want to act faster. Von Braun, as far as I know, didn't mention the possibility of nuclear war, a collision with an asteroid or comet, or the impact of unchecked climate change.

We need more than messages, of course. Any communicator knows that a message requires proof points -- evidence to support the statement. They must have relevance and be compelling, and instill support if not positive action. They must be coherent, and in a language the public and other stakeholders can understand. And, they must have immediacy. The question of why now must be answered.

Whatever the message and whoever the spokesperson, I hope we get back on a trajectory to the stars.
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Thursday, July 16, 2009

What's in a Name?

A Story of Discrimination
The Senate hearings for Associate Justice-designate Sonia Sotomayor have been full of talk about discrimination -- her "wise Latina" comment and the case involving white New Haven firefighters, for example. It reminded me about a piece I wrote on gender discrimination several years back but never published. I'm sharing it with you now:

I can remember when, a few years ago, an acquaintance heard that my wife and I were expecting a baby girl. It was information I was delighted to have circulated but I learned quickly that he didn’t see the news in the same light. “You must be disappointed,” he said. I felt a viceral jolt with those four words. I couldn’t believe what just came out of his mouth and into my ears. So, I asked him to repeat it. He attempted to clarify by saying, “You know, with this one you’ll have four daughters. Are you OK with it?”

Yes, my wife and I have four kids -- one shy of an all female basketball team. (No, we don't plan to fill the Center position.) Each of my children have their own unique gifts but share savvy, humor and compassion. I get comments all the time about their beauty and good manners. Unfortunately, people also feel quite uninhibited in sharing and spreading their prejudice.

Whether on a city street or a suburban sidewalk, in an airplane, at a mall, in a museum or while eating at a restaurant, people have felt free to approach me and my children (yes, with the kids surrounding me) and ask, “Are you still trying for the boy?” or “Did you get someone upstairs angry at you? Ha, ha!” Someone at an elementary school event asked, “Do you feel less of a man, not having a son to pass things down to?” Even some not-to-be-named relatives wondered out loud "How can you handle all of those girls?”

Years ago, as a younger father not wanting to offend anyone, I laughed off the insults by chuckling an inoffensive reply about how lucky I was to have such a wonderful family. Over the years, though, my standard retort got less tolerant and more admonishing. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” “What century are you living in?" "We’ve taught our daughters that they can learn, do and accomplish anything.” “I can tell you honestly that I never hoped for a boy… just a healthy human!”

I can't answer why strangers feel compelled to offer up their misguided attempts at conversation and social commentary, but there’s a larger issue here. People don’t think about how their words can hurt children – and not just the girls. There’s a clear message being sent to the boys, too. These are exactly the kind of ignorant, damaging messages that support an environment of ongoing discrimination and bias. On a different scale, societal or religious indifference to – or acceptance of – unequal gender valuation has translated into female infanticide and genital mutilation.

When I read that an Egyptian father stabbed his seven children, murdering four, because he had no sons, my heart sank and my blood boiled. Where do we start? How do we get people to gain some insight and change behavior? In the schools? When one of my daughters was asked to draw a scientist, she was the only one in the class who thought to draw a female. In the entertainment media? Not with reality shows and shock jocks objectifying women. At the doctor’s office? When another daughter -- about eight years old at the time -- was being examined by a pediatrician, he said to her that “your daddy told me he wanted four boys instead.” She responded confidently, "No he didn't." We never went back.

For any chance at breaking the cycle, the best first course, I believe, is to start at home. Home needs to be a safe harbor. It must be a place where our children can expect best behaviors from us. We need to be more active commentators about discrimination, and strategize with our kids on how to advocate for themselves and others.

Home for one person, though, was where he received a badge of discrimination to wear for the rest of his life. I met a man while on a business trip who would most certainly have another name if prevailing attitudes were different. He introduced himself as Bingo. I thought he was making a joke until he said it was truly his legal name. He told me that his father desperately wanted a son and after five daughters… Bingo! His wish had come true.

Perhaps one day I’ll meet a woman named Bingo.
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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Keeping Them Guessing

A Sometimes Risky Strategy
Politicians aren't products (exactly) but how would a marketing person dissect the surprise resignation of Governor Sarah Palin? Some take her at her word and others are convinced of hidden agendas. Why this sharp divide?

Some insights might be gained by examining the success factors that allow Apple to use mystery to drive interest and anticipation. Under the leadership of Steve Jobs, they have been brought back from the edge of oblivion to become the hallmark of that intersection between tech innovation and design. Feeding the cachet of the Apple brand has been their clever use of silence and, sometimes, misdirection. (Not so clever was the decision to keep Jobs' liver transplant a secret. True, they probably avoided some potential shareholder panic but disclosure would have been the appropriate path.)

How does Apple pull this off? How can they keep their plans quiet without infuriating their customers, the news media or investors? Sure, there have been glitches but mostly:

They deliver. Their products have been deemed to be worth much more than any of angst or frustration caused by the purposeful stealthiness. And, once a breakthrough device is delivered, they follow through with incremental improvements and extensions.

It's become a sport. With a successful track record and an established method of rolling out "must have" products, they've created something of a game -- a bit of cat-and-mouse. Their publics fill cyberspace with speculation and discussion in attempts to figure out the products' specifications and when they will be delivered.

Their appeal is broad. Frequently representing the leading edge, there is wide interest in Apple's exploits. Sure, there are people who don't care or refuse to get caught up in the Apple aura. But a key to the success of their strategy is that there are few who are engaged in any active dislike of the company or its products.

As for Sarah Palin, the now soon-to-be ex-Governor of Alaska did not directly address her plans during her press conference the other week. In follow up interviews, she repeated that she can be more effective as a private citizen. Also, fighting ethics complaints and the media have taken a financial toll on the state and her family and, because she already decided not to seek re-election, leaving now would be in everyone's best interest.

So, was this about spending more time with and shielding her family, digging out of a financial hole with book deals and speaking engagements, gaining a national platform by becoming a conservative TV commentator, gearing up for a Presidential run in 2012, all of the above or something completely different? While most of us were left to wonder, Republican political consultant Mary Matalin was convinced that Gov. Palin's move was "brilliant." Not so sure were other key Republican figures. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said her mid-term move "simply doesn't make sense" and Karl Rove, former President George W. Bush's counselor, said it was a "risky strategy" if she had any designs on elected office.

Michael Carey took a harder line in his commentary in the Anchorage Daily News: "We are left to guess. The only thing we can be absolutely sure of is this: Palin did not tell the truth when she said she is leaving for the good of Alaskans. She is leaving for her own good."

In response to all of the criticism, Gov. Palin said, "You know why they're confused? I guess they cannot take something nowadays at face value."

So, why isn't she getting the benefit of the doubt? Why is she in a defensive posture and repeating the words "I'm not a quitter, I'm a fighter" over and over? Why is the web overflowing with references to her "epic fail"?

I submit that we can use Apple's success as a guide to help us judge if "keeping them guessing" was a wise strategy:

Has she delivered? She made a stunning entrance onto the national scene with her selection as John McCain's running mate but, it was a bit like a Super Bowl ad with no marketing campaign to follow. While she can take credit for some accomplishments as Governor, there is some consensus that perhaps the most important work in Alaska is left unfinished.

Has Palin speculation become a sport? The Governor has, indeed, generated discussion around the world. However, the substance and tone are not entirely sporting -- not with polls asking whether or not she should run for President or "disappear."

Does she have broad appeal? Most political pundits agree that her support lies only at one end of the political spectrum. This polarization may ensure that an active set of detractors will always be second-guessing her intentions. And, questions will remain about the ethics of asking Alaskans to elect her Governor and then leave in a relative rush just a year and a half later.

The bottom line is that Apple can keep us guessing. They have cultivated their publics and grew from one success to the next. For Sarah Palin, one never knows but, without the time to fully bank political capital or build her reputation and public trust, she may have made one guess too many.