Thursday, December 21, 2006

Television Test Patterns


Television test patterns? — more on that in a moment….

 

User generated content is once again prominently in the news.  This time, it’s Time Magazine’s Person of the Year – You.  

I am not sure what to make of Time Magazine’s selection.  As usual, their pick has generated much buzz, but it raises some questions for me.  

Does Time Magazine now validate the web 2.0 phenomenon for the rest of us?  Or does this pick by a media property begun in a bygone era demonstrate that user generated content has jumped the proverbial shark Is it time for those in the know – the technorati –to find the next big thing to hype? 

My conclusion: Of course not. I don’t think a piece of reflective foil on the cover of  a national weekly indicates we have exhausted web 2.0.  There is still too much hype to be had.   But still, I can’t help but think that its coolness factor diminishes every time mainstream media sings its praises.  

And loudly it sings.  Everywhere you look, there is another story about web 2.0’s expanding influence — even as mainstream media’s influence is challenged.

Putting aside Time Magazine, a recent New York Times front page featured a story on companies like Charmin (a apt metaphor perhaps) staging events in Time Square with the full hope that passersby will snap pictures on their cell phones or shoot video on digital cameras and post it on their MySpace pages and YouTube.  It’s clever; it works, but are we supposed to be impressed by how old media gets it?

At what point does the process stop reflecting on itself?  When does the Internet cease being THE Internet and start being the air we breathe, the electricity that powers our appliances or the water that runs from our faucets?  In other words, just part of the background.

In another time – the early dawn of television’s golden age – when the TV set was new and possessed by few, I have heard that people would marvel at test patterns when pre-24/7 stations with limited content would sign off for the night. 

Will future generations mock our fascination with user generated content as we today smile amusedly at those quaint pioneers who braved late nights in front of television screens fascinated by static test patterns and a persistent audio tone?

Let me get back to you.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Bloggers Pick the Most Notable Developments for 2006

As 2006 comes to close, it’s a good time to reflect on the impact of social media (aka peer media, new media) on the marketing and PR professions.  So much happened during the year that will significantly change how we will do our jobs in the future.  A highlight reel (in no particular order) would include such notable developments as:

PR 2.0, Social media press releases, Second Life, Wal-Mart and Edelman, the Dell corporate
blog, YouTube, Amanda Congdon and Rocketboom, Robert Scoble leaving Microsoft, Ambushed AOL/Comcast call center reps, Social Media Club, GM’s Response to NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman, viral videos (Coke and Mentos), user generated content, customer engagement, Chevy Tahoe ads.

SIDEBAR:  What do you think is the most notable development in 2006?  

Collectively, these news events and trends reflect shifts in who controls the message and how and the message is delivered.  To gain some perspective on the year (and demonstrate the growing relevance of bloggers), a group of us bloggers
 including Todd Defren Kami Huyse, Eric Kintz, John Wagner, and Grayson Daughters agreed to share our perspectives on the following question: 

What was (were) the most notable PR/marketing social media trend(s) or event(s) in 2006 and why?  

My vote: The op-ed and email exchange between General Motors and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman

I wrote about this in July.  If you recall, Mr. Friedman wrote a piece rebuking General Motors for its SUV marketing strategy — likening the auto giant to a drug dealer.  General Motors called the characterization “rubbish,” but the Times wouldn’t print GM’s rebuttal unless it cleaned up its language.  GM refused and used its corporate blog FastLane Blog  to state its case and post their back and forth emails with the New York Times as the two parties hashed out a compromise.  In the media circus that engulfed this event, The Times felt compelled to respond to GM’s blog (which may have been a first).  In fact, it was GM’s unilateral decision to “publish” the behind the scenes correspondences with the NY Times that helped drive the public’s and the media’s interest in this incident.

What makes this significant is threefold.

1)       It elevates the importance of corporate blogs as a communications platform for PR departments.
2)       It demonstrates that corporations are no longer beholden to mainstream media to convey their message. 
3)       Subsequently, it redefines the power relationship between the media and corporate communications departments. 

Clearly, the rules of engagement between public and private and “on-the-record” and “off-the-record” have profoundly changed for the PR profession.  PR can put the media on notice.  It can state its case more forcefully and publicly when it disagrees with a story and take interactions out of “context.”  In the age of blogs, cell phones and digital cameras, every private conversation and moment become fair game – which may explain why we are seeing a lot more public apologies these days.

And it’s not merely the collapse of traditional boundaries.  Like the long gone “martini lunch” where PR and reporters hashed out stories, the days when PR practitioners are beholden to reporters to spread the word are growing shorter.  We need to adapt to new methods and technologies. The online world has created an environment where we are not restricted to a few column inches in a publication and or a minute or two in a nightly news broadcast. Even the notion of an op-ed “page” may be out of date in the limitless world of cyberspace.

2006 saw a further increase in the first wave of this sea change – companies bypassing the media to reach their audience which in turn forced the media to cover them.  The second wave which I suspect will become more prominent in 2007 is the growing reliance on the public to drive the message in conversations with itself and corporations.

 

Let me get back to you.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

A Year End Assessment with EarthLink’s Blogmaster

It’s been a little over a year since we relaunched the
EarthLink corporate blog Earthling with blogmaster Dave Coustan at the helm.  As many of us roll out corporate blogs or manage existing ones, we must be prepared to assess what is working and what isn’t.  We should also ask if our blogs
live up to their original missions or whether they need to be modified.

Dave and I sat down as good bloggers and PR people should do for a yearly check-up.

Greenfield:  It’s been a year.  Any surprises?

Dave Coustan: There have been lots of small surprises all along. Each new email, comment, and link reference is its own surprise in a way. Sometimes I’m surprised at what stirs someone’s passion when they find it months later via search, like a recent comment I got on an older entry about the video game Cyberball. I guess it’s also been surprising how busy I can get when I’m researching multiple stories and trying to help out various departments with lots of things at once. Sometimes I feel like I’m making one of those Dagwood sandwiches from the Blondie comic. It’s easy to forget you put the mustard jar on your head.

Greenfield:  Any desire for do-overs?

Coustan: Nah, when you write just about every day, you always feel like you could have done something better but no single boneheaded mistake sticks with you all that long. Early on I had trouble resisting the urge to revise things that were already published. Not really substance, just stylistic choices. It’s tough to overcome the writer/tinkerer’s instinct to constantly refine.

Greenfield:  What is your most typical blogging moment? Non-typical?

Coustan: Most typical moment is finding myself saying to someone “Hi, I write Earthling, EarthLink’s blog. I’m trying to track down x about y, and z referred me to you. ”
Most non-typical moment is pausing to organize my notes, or having time to breathe.

Greenfield:  What was Earthling’s original mandate?  Any changes in the works?

Coustan: Earthling’s original mandate was to serve as a human interface between the company and the public. I remember Chris Holland, a former EarthLink engineer and friend-of-Earthling, framing it for me as I prepared to be interviewed by Om Malik at CES last year.  He said, “You’re the translator between the geeks, marketers and managers etc. on one side, and the public on the other side.”  I’ve enjoyed being that human interface for lots of people including regular readers, EarthLink customers, bloggers, members of the press, company partners, and even employees themselves.

Are there changes in the works? Always. My hopes for 2007 include possibly bringing more focus to Earthling, helping the company as a whole adopt a more open and conversational communication model, and helping us to develop some social- and community-focused tools on the product side.

Greenfield:  How do you decide what you write?  How do other departments factor into your decision making?

Coustan: Story ideas come from all over. Mostly they come from conversations, from reader emails and comments, from what I read and think about, and from what I see going on around me. But I also get story ideas pitched directly to me by corporate communications, marketing, product, engineering, you name it. It’s up to me to pick the stories and decide on the best angles for Earthling. I try to stay in sync with product launch and marketing cycles, and make sure I know when something interesting is in the works and when would be the best time to start talking about it. When it comes to EarthLink matters, I try to consider what a current or potential user of our stuff would care about, and what parts of it they’d care about most. I depend on corporate communications to help me stay on top of developments in some of the larger initiatives like municipal Wi-Fi and voice.  They also help draw the lines around what’s proprietary information and what’s shareable when I’m in doubt.

Greenfield:  What has been the reaction from rank and file EarthLinkers, management and the outside world? 

Coustan: I used to be able to sneak around the halls, but now EarthLinkers know who I am and send me story ideas and links. Over the course of the year I think more and more people have come to understand what a corporate blog is and what it is I do exactly, which is a good thing. Management has been very supportive, and I’ve had whatever access I need to the executives. And the welcome from the outside world has been very warm. I’ve been impressed with how friendly and welcoming industry and professional bloggers, thinkers, analysts, and journalists have been throughout my travels.

Greenfield:  How do you measure success?

Coustan: To quote Ty Webb, “By height.” It’s tough to say what should be the primary measure – audience metrics, interactivity metrics, the daily human interactions (via e-mail, phone, IM, comments), customer issues, and/or information I’m able to share with the public.  

Greenfield:  Thanks Dave.


——————–

Dave and I have regularly debated word choice, tone and subject matter, but that is ok.  We each have the company’s interest and our own professional integrity at heart.

Working with a blogmaster has been a learning experience for yours truly and has allowed me to explore a new way of communicating.  Part of my education is releasing control and recognizing that the blog, not a press release, should drive our online outreach.  That was the case when we used the blog to announce that we had been selected as the finalist in our municipal Wi-Fi bid in San Francisco.  It is also where we addressed customer concerns about DNS and where we discussed myReader, EarthLink’s RSS aggregator, and myFavorites, our social bookmarking tool.  I think we are still working on the interplay of press releases and blog postings.  I often ask whether a blog posting before a product goes live undermines the news value of a press release or enhances it.  Ultimately, picking the right vehicle is less important than engaging the customer. 

Overall, I would say that at year’s end, Earthling is a success. From a numbers perspective, page views, comments and our Technorati ranking are up.  No big blow ups. Complaints from readers are minimal, and management has been supportive.  We adhere to our blogging policy, abide by the rules of the blogosphere and respect the intelligence of our audience.  The key is that Earthling’s influence is extending both internally and externally. 

Oddly, I would be comfortable with more transparency and would encourage our management to post more. In 2007, we will need to explore how we can better incorporate product blogs into the mix. I am hoping that the success of Earthling will result in more EarthLink employees writing about EarthLink matters and personal ones. 

Let me get back to you. 

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Dan Greenfield: What’s in a Name?


  Online images of Dan Greenfields

“What is in a name?”  Shakespeare once asked. 

My name is
Dan Greenfield.  Not a particularly common name, but apparently, not unusual either.

Recently, I did a Google search that produced a few sites that identified dozens and dozens of Dan Greenfields whose specific information could be obtained for a “modest” fee.  Seeking a less costly alternative (read free), I did another search and found a handful of sites with pictures of Dan Greenfields (yours truly included).  Now, to be honest, I did not include my middle name, which granted, would have severely limited my results.  

Why did I do this?  For one, I have for the longest time been interested in issues relating to identity, image and privacy — including my own.  Through the years, I have grown accustomed to my name.  Along with my social security number, DNA, and personal chronology, my name is intrinsic to who I am.  But as the Internet so ably demonstrates, my name is intrinsic to others as well.  This discovery is a bit unsettling.  The presence of other Dan Greenfields chips away at my own sense of self.

To be sure, we really don’t have much control over our naming.  At birth, our parents or guardians give us our names.  But what we do with those names and our lives is up to us.

What is the point of all this?  This exercise highlights the relationship between individuality and online identity.  With the Internet we can extend and distribute ourselves in countless ways unimaginable to previous generations.  MySpace, match.com, blogs and other social media sites allow you to share personal information with both friends and complete strangers. Often that information is part of a permanent record.  In the case of job interviews, we may even come to regret what we choose to post.

And speaking of job interviews, Time Magazine recently ran a story about personal marketing consultants helping you stand out in the crowd.  Like products, companies and celebrities, ordinary folks can have unique brand propositions.  

According to Time reporter Jeninne Lee-St. John, there are a growing number of “personal branders” who use your online identity (links on Google, sites like MySpace) and proprietary tools “to determine which core attributes will sell your brand more effectively.”  With some many online forums to present ourselves, we are losing control of who we are and how others see us.  And let’s not forget the ability of others to post our private moments for public consumption. Personal branders are supposed to help us reclaim some of this control.

As the Internet demonstrates, we are not alone.  Our lives are a click away.  For those seeking anonymity, this is not reassuring.  For advocates of user generated content, personal brand extensions and greater connection with the global community, the web 2.0 platform is a tremendous vehicle for sharing.  After all, I may not be the only Dan Greenfield out there, but at least I can now share my namesake with others.

Let me get back to you.

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Thursday, December 7, 2006

“Newsotainment:” An Interview with a Funny Man

Call it the JibJab effect or the Daily Show phenomenon.  Whether it is news or politics, humor is in.  And I don’t mean the political ditties of the Capitol Steps in
Washington or the monologues of Jay Leno.  I am talking humor of the “edgy” variety (not the entertainment publication), as in the blurring of the boundaries between news and entertainment.

And so I come to today’s topic, should news be entertaining or entertainment newsworthy?  Should politics be played for some laughs?  And more specifically, should PR follow suit and get into the funny business – especially in the age of new media?

For starters, I looked no further than funny man Jim Meskimen.  I worked with Jim on a video to launch HELIO, the wireless joint venture between EarthLink and SK-Telecom.  Among his many credits, Jim did the voice-overs in the now famous JibJab videos from the 2004 elections featuring President Bush and Senator Kerry.

Dan Greenfield: I hear you are a funny guy.  How funny are you?

Jim Meskimen: I’m so funny that my own crow’s feet beg me to stop.

Greenfield: You were the voices behind the JibJab videos in the 2004 election mocking both President Bush and Senator Kerry.  Have you no respect?

Meskimen:  Not really.  I can’t afford to.  I’m the Marni Nixon of the political world.  I also voiced Cheney, Edwards, Michael Moore, Al Gore, Rush Limbaugh, McGreevy, John McCain, Clinton, Schwarzenegger and Dan Rather.  And I can only assume that they make fun of me, too.

Greenfield: Do you think humor was a bigger factor in the 2006 elections because of videos like the one you did in 2004?  Did you see more instances of humor?

Meskimen: I saw a lot of JibJab wannabes.  The thing is that nobody can match Evan and Gregg’s (the Spiridellis brothers) dedication to making superb animations.  They make it look easy, then you see some of the copycats and go, “Oh, I understand.  This stuff ain’t easy.  In the words of our Commander in Chief, “It’s hard work!”  Now, the Daily Show, that’s something else.  Man, that stuff is funny.  And they get to use the actual footage, so they don’t need to make brilliant animations.  But is it art?

Greenfield: The Daily Show, Bill Mahrer…how is humor changing the tenor of political discourse?

Meskimen: Humor has always been a major language tool in political discourse, as far as I can tell.  I got my first taste of it with MAD magazine, which was, in the sixties, INTENSELY political.  They did what JibJab does, and skewered everybody, regardless of political affiliation.  The thing is, politics is always, always, ALWAYS slanted in some direction, and so it will always have a surplus of untruths, hypocrisies and falsehoods tagging along.  These are usually strung out behind any political figure and are exposed, just waiting for someone to come along and take a potshot or two at them.  It’s a bit like Hollywood that way; it’s almost like shooting fish in a barrel. 

Mark Twain was a brilliant political humorist, too.  I think humor gives us a socially acceptable way to discuss a very volatile subject, and anything that facilitates that is okay by my book. 

I actually don’t discuss politics much.  Any of the big social problems I am very confident will NEVER be solved by the political arena, but by caring and informed individuals.  If politicians can stay out of the way of these more noble sorts, then they will have done a great service.

Greenfield: Is the public expecting more humor in their news and from their candidates?

Meskimen: I have no idea.  For me, the humor is already there in many cases, if you can listen or watch with a discerning eye.  Unfortunately, the things that would be most hilarious and ironical in the world of politics do ACTUALLY have a negative impact on the lives of real people like you and me.  Then it’s not so funny.

Greenfield: How much do you love YouTube?  How is the Internet changing what you do and how you do it?

 

Meskimen:  I like it, but I don’t think it is organized very well.  I am a bit wary of it, because it is so uncontrolled; for instance, anything I do as an actor can wind up there to a massive audience.  That’s fine, if I’m proud of it and if anyone can actually find it.  I’m not getting paid, but it is free promotion… but what if my car gets hit by a train and anyone can watch me get splattered over and over again?  It’s kind of creepy to think that with all the cameras around, pretty much anything is available, even the things that human dignity would suggest be best treated with privacy.  Hey, what a funny interview, huh?  Man, cheerful stuff!

Greenfield: If the Internet were a joke, what would be its punch line?

Meskimen:  I don’t know.  But if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has an email address, is it mailto:Netanyahu@yahu.net? 

Greenfield:  Thanks Jim.

 

——-

 

To me, the likes of the Daily Show, E! News and YouTube are raising (or lowering) the stakes – turning news into “newsotainment.”  What does this mean for PR folks when an interview with Jon Stewart may be more impactful that one with Katie Couric?  And in a nod to ABC News, what does it mean that many Americans get more of their news from the Daily Show than from any other source?

Now I make a distinction between celebrity news (E! News) and parody (the Daily Show) whose “news” formats serve to blur the distinction between news and entertainment and YouTube where featured video clips make their way to mainstream news.  These clips are often entertaining even if the subjects of the videos were not intending to be (e.g.  the Comcast rep caught on video falling asleep on a service call).  YouTube’s popularity only guarantees that more embarrassingly funny true moments of real people (and possibly our clients) will find their way into the news cycle.  We now are all actors in our own lives.  Is news the new Hollywood?

We, the keepers of the PR tradition, have decisions to make.  Do we continue playing it straight or do we start infusing some humor into our press releases and pitches?  Do we start producing podcasts and YouTube videos with entertainment in mind?  My advice: tread carefully.  As Jim pointed out, humor is “hard work.”  Being unfunny, when trying to be funny, may be funny but not the way you intended.

Let me get back to you.

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Monday, December 4, 2006

Apologizing in the New Media Age


Is it my imagination or is everyone apologizing, (I mean it) sincerely apologizing?  Long ago the apology really meant something.  Plato was perhaps the first to make one famous in Socrates’ defense against charges of corrupting the young, rejecting traditional gods and creating new deities.  But where Plato intended it as a formal defense of a cause or one’s beliefs or actions (source: Wikipedia), the apology has become today an escape valve for celebrities and politicians in hot water.

An obscene gesture, a racial slur and a botched punch line are the latest reasons to say “I’m sorry.”  Just ask Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick, actor Michael “Cosmo Kramer” Richards or Senator John Kerry who have recently been brought before the court of public opinion for their actions.

Now I understand the importance of an apology.  Admission of guilt is the first step on the road to rehabilitation.  But it seems to me that the apology is becoming so overused as to be meaningless or cheapened.  

But the media looks for them as if apologies were part of some morality play.  And why do we, the public participate in this media circus?  Perhaps it is a need for restitution, a desire for a shared feeling of redemption, or maybe something else. The Germans have a word for it – schadenfreude — the pleasure we take in the misfortunes of others.

Personally, I take no pleasure in another’s pain, no satisfaction in hearing an excuse for inexcusable actions.  

Ironically, where media personalities seem to be in a rush to say I’m sorry for indiscretions, companies are not.  Whether it’s a concern about liability or a belief that a statement of contrition will feed the flames, corporate executives are often reluctant to issue formal apologies.  Their silence can be deafening especially in the age of 24/7 cable and YouTube where everything is recorded by cell phones and digital cameras and distributed for the world to see over and over again.

The fact is apologies are an important component of corporate communications and a critical part of managing a crisis.    With so many apologies flying around these days, they should not be made lightly.  There is a time and a place to issue them that is commensurate with the reason for making them in the first place.  As Dan Keeney has summarized eloquently:

  • Take responsibility as soon as possible. Apologize as soon after the offense as possible.
  • Describe what you did. Don’t be vague or use euphemisms that attempt to tidy up your mess. A short, direct statement is perfect followed by a brief explanation of the circumstances surrounding it to provide context.
  • Express remorse. Make your apology as heartfelt as you can without assuming liability. Tone is important here. The statement must reflect genuine remorse.
  • Shut up. Afterward, be quiet and listen while people tell you how angry they are. If it’s really bad, they’ll call for your head. Know that you’ve done the right thing and time is on your side.
  • Make it right. In such situations, what you DO always trumps what you SAY. Therefore, symbolic gestures matter. Your attempts to correct the problem and compensate those who have been wronged are essential. However, be careful not to promise more than you can deliver.

Of course in the end, apologies are only as strong as the reputation that precedes them and the actions that follow them.  While a word or action can undo years of good will, people will be more forgiving to those who demonstrate sincere remorse and who have consistently made the public’s interest their own.

Let me get back to you.

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