21 November 2013

#ManicureMonday and guerilla science outreach: a case study

"Salamanicure" photo courtesy of John McCormack
Hearst Communications owns 29 television stations and 2 radio stations.   They own studios and syndication services. They own several newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle and the Houston Chronicle. They have an ownership stake in networks like ESPN and A+E Networks. They also publish a lot of magazines, including Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Elle, Esquire, Redbook, and Popular Mechanics.

They also publish Seventeen. This is where you go to learn 5 ways celebrities like to wear pale pink, 8 ways to rock red lipstick, or if that special guy stinks at kissing. It's not important to me, but it is to their target demographic of American girls. It's also reasonably profitable stuff, because at its core Seventeen is a marketing and advertising vehicle to sell things like makeup and clothing, and those are the bits that attract customers to the ads.

The editors and staff of Seventeen don't wake up in the morning and ask themselves, "What can I do today to impose an unrealistic standard of beauty and culture upon girls, and grind away at their self esteem?"  They try to think of things that would be interesting to their audience, and would make their publication more attractive to their advertisers. That's it.

So they come up with fairly clever ideas like #ManicureMonday, a weekly conversation on Twitter, Pinterest and other social platforms that encourages readers to share pictures of their coolest nail designs.  The girls who participate like it - it gives them an opportunity to express their own creativity in a fun and relatively safe environment.  The advertisers like it - it helps them identify potential influential customers and know more about how to target their marketing.  The publication likes it because it demonstrates its online reach and its value to advertisers. It's a win-win-win.

Or at least it was until Dr. Hope Jahren caught wind of it. Dr. Jahren runs a geobiology lab at the University of Hawaii Manoa. Innocently enough, she was going to write a tweet about how she nearly ripped off a fingernail in her lab, and on a whim thought to use a hashtag - "#Manicure." Twitter autofilled "#ManicureMonday" for her, and suddenly Dr. Jahren found herself peering into a different online community, looking at things that nobody ever intended to show her.

To Dr. Jahren, this somewhat foreign community celebrated things like pretty nails, and not the things she thought were important. Where were the articles in girls' magazines that talked about science? Aren't there other ways to celebrate creativity? Don't we owe it to our daughters to tell them that sure, manicures are fine, but you can do other things too?  Are girls shying away from fulfilling careers in STEM because we're telling them to spend more time on their nails?

So Dr. Jahren decided to do something about it. "Screw you, Seventeen," she thought to herself as she submitted her own picture of her fingernails covered with the ink from a light blue highlighter pen.

Not much happened in public.  But the PR team at Seventeen may have noticed. They may have read through her blog, looked at her Twitter account.  If Seventeen were my client and had me running their social media campaigns, I would have.

Since that first tweet of the picture wasn't followed by much, they may have figured it was just a "single ping" of a snarky so-and-so who wanted to make a point.  No real harm, no real threat to the campaign or to the Seventeen brand.  So they may have missed the tweet she sent that Friday:

That Monday, Seventeen and its PR team probably learned that Dr. Jahren has a pretty powerful and creative online community too.  Dozens of Dr. Jahren's online friends (and many others she didn't know) submitted pictures of their nails - in labs, in the field, under UV lights, basically anywhere you could find science in progress.

And the pictures were amazing.

Seventeen's PR team probably raised an eyebrow at all of this.  They probably get their share of criticism and trolling from a random, pubescently-challenged boy or maybe from feminist groups.  They probably know how to deal with that.  But this was a little different.  This was off-message for Seventeen, but it was relatively nice.  It certainly could have been a lot worse.

With very few exceptions, the pictures from scientists represented a relentlessly positive celebration of science in action - directed squarely at an audience that was completely unprepared for it.  And the leader of it all was someone who sending snarky signals she was hostile, yet also had a valid point and the ability to garner sympathy from "opinion elites" that may read some of Hearst's other publications.

Ultimately, Seventeen's PR and editorial team chose the safest course of action - do nothing.  The "hijackers" were not directly attacking the brand or arguing much with the people who were participating in the "official" conversation. If anything, they were bumping up traffic for the hashtag and for Seventeen.

Of course, they could have seized an opportunity and been the "white hat" in all of this - they could have engaged Dr. Jahren and had a discussion about the best way to encourage STEM careers for girls.  But from a purely PR perspective, that's too risky.  Dr. Jahren had expressed hostile intent, and had been commenting on recent developments in her own field from the perspective of a principled feminist. Furthermore, Seventeen probably doesn't have a lot of data that says their readers want this information. Seventeen has a formula and an editorial strategy that turns a profit. Do you know what you call a business that strays from its strategy? "Closed."

The calculated silence on Seventeen's part led to some mildly sensationalist media - but it was in places that its target demographic doesn't read and in which its advertisers don't invest - places like Slate, Media Bistro, Huffington Post. From Seventeen's perspective, this is not a crisis.

It remains, however, a wonderful opportunity.  Dr. Jahren has provided an audacious, even inspirational example of guerilla science outreach - thanks in no small part to the contributions from her community of scientists and science advocates.  She has expressed regret for using terms that imply a hostile intent. She's clearly an exceptionally skillful writer, and she has an approachable, self-deprecating style of humor.  She has also expressed an intention to keep sharing pictures on Mondays.

So if Dr. Jahren wants to continue to make her point, she has some choices to make.  Does she want to reach the readers of Slate and Media Bistro, or does she want to reach the readers of Seventeen?  Does she want to impress her friends and colleagues who love what she did and need no persuading, or does she want to open up a constructive dialogue with powerful interests who may now pay attention?

Or can she do all of it?

The leaders at Seventeen (and perhaps Hearst Communications) have some choices to make too.  Do they want to see if they can keep their readership (and their advertisers) happy by exploring this topic further in the pages of Seventeen or their other publications?  Can they leverage the attention Dr. Jahen gave them to gain positive coverage in other places, driving traffic their way?  Can they prove that doing the right thing - promoting STEM careers to girls - is also profitable, earning goodwill from potential critics and strengthening their reputation?

Dr. Jahren's creative and ultimately positive idea seemed to live somewhere between the impulsive and the tactical.  I, for one, would love to see it evolve, become more strategic, and ultimately more impactful.

I hope others do too.

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