Speculation Defeats Journalism: In Race to First, Truth Loses

Harry TrumanHarry Truman got a good laugh from the infamous and inaccurate Chicago Tribune headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” in 1948, but journalistic jumps to conclusions in the Digital Age are no laughing matter.

Twitter, Facebook and blogs have become useful breaking news and giving issues in-depth attention. The first image of the “Miracle on the Hudson” appeared on Twitter with a ferry passenger’s photo. Bloggers forced CBS to admit “substantial questions regarding the authenticity” of the 60 Minutes story questioning President George W. Bush’s Air National Guard service, ultimately ousting ending veteran newsman Dan Rather.

While the International News Service slogan used to be “Get It First, But First Get It Right”, several recent high-profile examples of sloppy reporting show this has gone by the wayside, showing that social media also has a downside:


These mistakes should have been a wakeup call, but the tragedy in Boston proves otherwise.

Rumors spread on Twitter and Reddit that a missing Brown University student was a suspect, further spread by Politico and Newsweek reporters. CNET’s Molly Wood cites many more examples of how the rush to be first outpaced the prudence of being right. While “circulating official ‘have you seen this person’ images…online is orders of magnitude more effective than the old days”, Wood asserts that currently social media is “making news worse”.

We all share responsibility during breaking news to prevent the spread of bad information as well as an opportunity to help.

Take a break. Turn off scheduled Facebook posts and tweets, and restrain yourself from posting during a developing story. Emotions can make it hard to be an observer, but by doing nothing you’re actually doing something by preventing the spread of unverified information.

Screen Shot 2013-04-24 at 2.02.36 AM“Just the facts ma’am”. Let those directly involved such as official feeds or actual eyewitnesses do the talking by sharing and retweeting. In the aftermath of the attack, Boston Police Department issued public safety warnings and details about the suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with thousands of retweets. When Hurricane Sandy made landfall, FEMA reached more than 300,000 people on Facebook (25 times their daily average) and 6 million with a single tweet thanks to retweets. More than 500,000 people visited Ready.gov and following the storm social media drove visitors to a Sandy-specific Facebook page, Twitter handle and landing page became a clearinghouse for recovery information.

Image Source: Photo by W. Eugene Smith, Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Posted in Blogging, Facebook, Reddit, Social Media, Twitter | Leave a comment

A Great Power Imposes Great Responsibility: Using Communication for Good

A few months ago, something curious caught my attention at our vet’s office. A small Holland lop rabbit named Arwen laid on a table. Her limp hind legs were spread out as two people who appeared to be volunteers attempted to fit a contraption to her.

Arwen broke her back while being spayed and was paralyzed. Two veterinarians recommended she be euthanized, that could be done for her and she was starting to experience complications.

Arwen's CartA local charity Friends of Rabbits refused to accept this advice and decided to fit Arwen with a cart to give her mobility again.

A few months later, my company announced its “Holiday Giving Program“: a $250 donation to a nonprofit organization specified by each employee and match any personal donations up to $250. Our rabbit recently passed away, so we made the sentimental choice of making our gift to the rescue group I saw in the vet’s office that day.

Arwen 11-7-12I recently got to see Arwen and was amazed at her progress. Several months in the cart, acupuncture and other treatments which would have cost thousands of dollars later, she had fully regained mobility.

Once faced with a death sentence, this rabbit is running around and darting through tunnels. This was only possible through the dedication of a nonprofit organization, vets who give of their time and experience and the charity of others.

We constantly sell our clients on the power of communication to drive sales or produce change. Voltaire (not Uncle Ben in Spiderman) first said “A great power imposes great responsibility.” We have amazing power as communicators to leverage our talents for the common good.

In the case of Arwen, my employer’s generosity of multiplied my donation to sustain the rescue organization which saved her. Volunteering our time can have just as powerful an impact, if not more.

Battle of Green Spring Press ConferenceI’m a history buff, so a few years I became involved with The Trust for Public Land‘s effort to preserve 202 acres of historically and ecologically significant land near Jamestown in Virginia, organizing a press conference and Revolutionary War re-enactment to highlight the Battle of Green Spring fought on part of this land in 1781.

Thousands of dollars were donated, hundreds of spectators learned the importance of the battlefield, and a video was produced further highlighting the cause, ultimately resulting with the purchase and preservation of the land.

My personal contribution was a drop in the bucket, but I can’t drive through Jamestown without feeling a slight amount of satisfaction knowing I had a hand in preserving that land.

Bottom Line

Whatever cause speaks to you personally, helping raise its voice can literally save a life or preserve something for generations to come.

In his book EntreLeadership, author Dave Ramsey says “Being generous is the hallmark of people who live successful lives and who operate business with soul…Some of the greatest joys of becoming successful are associated with acts of generosity to your team, your customers, and your community.”

Here are some easy “acts of generosity” you can use to support a cause:

  • Create a meme: How many Willy Wonka or Grumpy Cat memes have you seen? Memes can be extremely effective and online generators make them easy to create.
  • Write a blog post: A well written blog post can get a lot of traction and double as cause marketing. Advocates and volunteers will become evangelists with retweets and Facebook shares. The story of a rabbit-owning chocolate company owner inspired a blog post on the considerations behind Easter adoptions of rabbits, which went viral with animal rescue groups.
  • Make giving part of your culture: It can be as formal as a charitable matching program or taking on pro bono accounts, or as simple as allowing hours to volunteer or donating furniture or office supplies you don’t need.

Can you think of others?

Posted in Blogging, Cause Marketing, Facebook, Memes, Twitter | 2 Comments

Jack Be Quick: Authority, Speed and Planning Keys to Successful Newsjacking

Ever since the Coca-Cola’s Mean Joe Green and Apple’s 1984 ads of the 1980s, the Super Bowl has become just as much about the commercials as the game itself. More recently, it has become the best practices equivalent of What Not to Wear for communicators given Groupon’s sloppy response to their confusing ads in 2011 or the political debate around Chrysler’s “Halftime in America” in 2012. Super Bowl XLVII however provided us with a shining example of smart, timely communications in action.

When the power went out for 35 minutes in the third quarter, Twitter and Facebook exploded. Savvy communicators successfully newsjacked the blackout with impressive results.

Oreo-TweetMost notable was Oreo, which tweeted out “Power out? No problem.” with a photo of an Oreo with the tagline “You can still dunk in the dark”. According to Digiday, as of Sunday night it was retweeted over 12,600 times, favorited nearly 4,000 times and on Facebook the photo received over 19,000 likes and 6,500 shares. Though true success requires Oreo to translate this into a hard business objective like increased sales or brand affinity, the return on investment of a hastily produced graphic has to be staggering compared to the $4 millon cost of a 30 second ad plus production costs.

While this happened because of a proactive and responsive communications team, they were only able to respond so quickly because management had empowered them to do so. All too often, process and bureaucracy prevent timely reaction to breaking opportunities. While process is important, it needs to be flexible enough to adapt. Here are some keys to successful newsjacking:

  1. Empower: Executive management need to give their communicators both responsibility and authority to act. Put the right people in place, trust them and they will constantly re-earn that trust with success.
  2. Watch: Constantly look for opportunities. Monitor news and trends. Follow reporters, news outlets and blogs that cover what’s important to you. Set up Google Alerts. Most importantly, be aware of what’s going on in the world in general. You can’t react to something if you don’t know it’s going on.
  3. Plan: While process shouldn’t hamper responsiveness, you can’t throw it to the wind either. Have a plan in place so that your team knows how to respond to opportunities. Management is more likely to trust you if they know you’re not just shooting from the hip. Oreo went as far to have their agency creative and strategy teams watch the game together with executives in the room, allowing for quick and decisive action.Assess whether you can respond quickly, if you should respond, and whether your audiences will care if you respond. If you answer no to any of these, don’t. You’ll only look bad. Gap’s tweet during Hurricane Sandy or tasteless tweets by Cooking Channel following bin Laden’s death or Kenneth Cole’s tweets about the Cairo uprisings are examples.
Posted in Facebook, Marketing, Social Media, Strategy, Twitter | Leave a comment

Fans, Followers and Klout Don’t Matter

Socialbakers founder and CEO Jan Rezab estimated in his remarks at a recent conference that 70% of all fan questions posted on social media channels are not responded to. He went on to say that 80%-90% of companies are in social media, only 30% are using it properly.

Given the questions I see on PR forums about how to increase the number of Facebook fans, Twitter followers or one’s personal Klout score, this is not surprising.

People like the illusion of quantitative success in social media. Numbers are meaningless though without engagement. Without interaction with your audience that moves them to action, so what?

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Before Facebook and Twitter, PR flacks often pointed to ad values based on column inches or circulation numbers of potential readers or viewers. The shift to online content provides more exact determination of how many people were exposed to content such as page views, but that still isn’t what matters.

Communication has always been and continues to ultimately be about action. Whether it convinces someone to purchase a product, influences them in a voting booth, or changes their behavior, communication is about the number of people it causes to act.

What are the penalties of not engaging?

Social media is simply a new form of word of mouth advertising that is quicker and more pervasive. According to TARP Worldwide, the average upset customer tells nine people, one in five tells more than 20 people. On social media, the reach can be exponential.

When United Airlines broke Dave Carroll’s $3,500 guitar, he turned to YouTube and his video had over 500,000 views in three days and he was the guest on many news programs. The Times newspaper reported that United Airline’s stock price fell 10%, costing stockholders about $180 million in value, though that has been questioned.

The rewards of responding

Chick-fil-A has been dogged by negative press following a New York Times article which called into question a Pennsylvania franchisee’s support by way of a food donation of a marriage seminar hosted by a outspoken group against homosexuality. Chick-fil-A responded with a video on Facebook by the company’s president Dan Cathy and press release to say that they “serve and value all people and treat everyone with honor, dignity and respect.”

Over a year later, the issue still plagues the company. When a new franchise was set to open in northern Virginia, “Mikey” let them know he was not a “fan” of the Chick-fil-A on their Facebook page.

The resulting exchange demonstrates perfectly the low expectations from customers and the power of engagement all in one: “Wow did not expect a reply. Thanks, I would be very interested in this…Would be nice to be able to go again and eat some good chicken”. Two quick responses — which only took moments to write — potentially turned a critic into a customer.

The bottom line

While clients and executives love the quantitative numbers, social media is about about the quality of engagement rather than the quantity of of fans and followers.

To encourage and sustain engagement, Rezab recommended the following:

  1. Open yourself up to your audience; have an open wall and profile, and give fans an opportunity to post questions or queries.
  2. Respond to fan questions and, as a benchmark, try to respond to at least 75% of all fan questions posted on your wall. Try not to leave fans waiting for a response.
  3. Make the responses personal. Don’t use automated responses when answering questions.

To this I would add:

  1. Know when to walk away. Interact a few times online, then take it offline if it’s still not resolved.
  2. Ignore the trolls. Not every post warrants a response.
  3. If they’re right, be contrite and fix it
Posted in Crisis Communications, Facebook, Social Media, Twitter, YouTube | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Social Media Explained Through Donuts

Swiped this from Facebook and added some of my own. Enjoy!

  • Twitter: I am eating a donut.
  • Facebook: I like donuts.
  • Foursquare: This is where I eat donuts.
  • Flickr: This is a picture of my donut.
  • Instagram: This is a retro picture of my donut.
  • YouTube: Watch me eat my donut.
  • LinkedIn: My skills include eating donuts.
  • Pinterest: Here’s a recipe for donuts.
  • Yelp: This is how I rate my donut.
  • Blog: Let me tell you about my donut eating experience.
  • Google+: I am a Google employee who eats donuts.
Posted in Blogging, Facebook, Flickr, Foursquare, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Social Media, Twitter, Yelp, YouTube | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Celebrity Has to Know Their Limitations: Pros and Cons of Using Celebs in Communications

Another Super Bowl, another round of controversy. While past hubbubs were over Groupon ads and Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction”, this year’s honors go to Chrysler’s “Halftime in America” and M.I.A’s middle finger.

While AdAge says the spot is popular with viewers, critics question whether it was thinly veiled politics. Within days it inspired parody, and spokesman Clint Eastwood felt it necessary to clear the air about his intentions.

Studies have shown that using celebrities works, but as Gatorade and TAG Heuer learned, it can be like holding a Tiger (Woods) by its tail. Using celebrities have pros and cons to both the communicator and the celebrity.

When it Doesn’t Work

  1. Hypocrisy. Paula Deen never claimed to be the shining example of healthy cooking, so it wasn’t a surprise when she announced she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Deen went on to say she has no plans to change the way she eats. That is her choice, like someone who is diagnosed with COPD, but continues to smoke. Critics called her a hypocrite though when she announced she’d be the spokesperson for a campaign that promotes the diabetes drug Victoza. As a result, her publicist of six years resigned and she gave Anthony Bourdain fodder for continued criticism when he tweeted: “Thinking of getting into the leg-breaking business, so I can profitably sell crutches later.”
  2. Embarrassment. Prior to the 1992 Summer Olympics, Reebok launch a campaign (starting with Super Bowl ads)  starring decathletes Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson asking “Who will be the world’s greatest athlete – Dan or Dave?” The campaign went bust when O’Brien failed to qualify for the Olympics by missing the pole vault during trials. Reebok modified the spots to feature Dan cheering Dave on, and Johnson won a bronze medal in Barcelona.
  3. Personal problems. There are so many examples of a celebrity’s personal life either undermining their credibility or making them an embarrassment to the brand. Eric Clapton admitted to battling alcoholism at the time he did a Michelob ad, James Garner underwent quadruple bypass surgery after doing ads for the The Beef Council, and of course there are athletes from Kobe Bryant to Michael Vick who lost endorsements for their behavior off the field.

When it Does Work

  1. Muhammad Ali and actor Michael J. Fox pretend to spar before giving their testimony before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

    The celebrity sincerely cares. Tom Hanks is well known for Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. He’s also a member of the National Space Society, was awarded the Douglas S. Morrow Public Outreach Award by the Space Foundation, was the national spokesperson for the World War II Memorial Campaign and the honorary chairperson of the D-Day Museum Capital Campaign.

  2. The celebrity has skin in the game. Regardless of your position on stem cell research, you can’t question Michael J. Fox for being an advocate for Parkinson’s disease research as someone who suffers from it through his foundation.

The Bottom Line

Celebrities can be effective messengers for causes and consumerism, if they and the communicators who use them know their limitations.

Jessica Simpson didn’t look like the brightest bulb in the bunch on her MTV show Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica when she asked Nick “Is this chicken, what I have, or is this fish? I know it’s tuna, but it says ‘Chicken…by the Sea’.”

When Chicken of the Sea invited Simpson to the company’s sales conference (for an undisclosed amount), the story was picked up by close to 750 prime time affiliates, 10 national television shows, and 22 cable shows.

Brillant “win-win”. Simpson showed she could make fun of herself and the company’s PR firm estimated the event reached an audience of more than 38 million television viewers.

The Videos

Posted in Advertising, Branding, Marketing, Twitter | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf When You Have Social Media?

There is a local story that is such a classic case of hubris meets social media, that it is impossible for me to ignore.

The Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts — a venue near Washington DC that boasting such upcoming acts as Riverdance, Marvin Hamlisch, and the Steve Miller Band — has recently filed suit against The Barns of Rose Hill in Berryville, Virginia (population 2,963 in 2000), which hosts acts such as the Shenandoah Conservatory and the Clarke County High School Chamber Choir.

According to a statement, the Wolf Trap Foundation claims the suit: “…is strictly about trademarks, and the need to prevent consumer confusion in the marketplace. For over thirty years, Wolf Trap has operated a theater in Vienna, Virginia under the name ‘THE BARNS AT WOLF TRAP’ (which is also known simply as ‘THE BARNS’). As a matter of trademark law, if other performing arts theaters in northern Virginia use the name ‘THE BARNS,’ this presents a risk of consumer confusion.”

I really hope that the Wolf Trap Foundation’s public relations team wrote that under duress because they were trumped by the lawyers and management, as this story has all the elements for the Barns of Rose Hill supporters to fight back with:

  1. The Barns at Wolf Trap and The Barns of Rose Hill only share the words “The Barns” in their title.
  2. The venues are separated by 50 miles, the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River, making it highly unlikely that anyone would confuse the two.
  3. The Wolf Trap Foundation filed their trademark for “The Barns” after the Barns at Rose Hill opened.
  4. Berryville’s barns have stood in the same spot for over 100 years, Wolf Trap’s barns were imported from New York in 1981.
  5. The choice of cliches to demonize the Wolf Trap Foundation are numerous: Big Bad Wolf, David versus Goliath, bully, etc.

Years ago, the Wolf Trap Foundation filed a similar law suit against the The Barns at Franklin Park in nearby Purcellville, Virginia (population 3,584 in 2000). They gave in and changed their name to the Franklin Park Arts Center, so they probably thought The Barns of Rose Hill would do the same. Key difference is social media wasn’t a tool back then.

Outrage by the residents of the area around Berryville using social media spilled over to the traditional media of Washington in The Washington Post and television news. A Facebook page called “The Big Bad Wolf Trap Bully” had over 600 fans in two days and as an editorial in the local Clarke Daily News states: “The Wolf Trap Foundation’s Facebook page looks like a war zone…Supporters have started posting comments with performers who are scheduled to perform at the Wolf Trap venue.”

The Bottom Line

  1. Just because you think you can (or think you’re right) doesn’t mean you should. As much as The Wolf Trap Foundation wants to spin it that they gave The Barns of Rose Hill a chance to see it their way and change to avoid litigation, just because they have an opinion doesn’t make it right. They were probably emboldened by having bullied another small town arts center before, but were caught unprepared for locals who wouldn’t give up without a fight and have social media on their side. As of this writing, Wolf Trap has backed off its “do what we say or we’ll sue” stance and have scheduled a meeting with The Barns of Rose Hill on January 23. Hopefully this situation will be resolved as it should have in the first place: without lawyers.
  2. Consider the cost. There are definitely times when you need to protect your brand, but before going on the offensive you have to count the cost. Asking a trademark attorney if you need to protect your brand is like asking a dog if they’re hungry. They are risk adverse when it comes to brands and will likely tell you to pursue action, which is their job. Overzealous litigation can be equally detrimental to your brand in the court of public opinion. Was going after The Barns of Rose Hill worth the risk of bad press, potentially lost donations and ticket sales for Wolf Trap? It doesn’t seem anyone did a SWOT analysis of the situation before going this.
  3. Only make believable press statements. Wolf Trap’s assertion that “the risk of consumer confusion is particularly strong” is a candidate for Saturday Night Live Weekend Update’s “Really…” segment. As a northern Virginia resident, I can tell you people call the collective venues at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts simply “Wolf Trap” and no one would mistakenly end up in Berryville by mistake unless they had a really bad sense of direction.
Posted in Branding, Crisis Communications, Facebook, Social Media | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments