28 August 2017

Finding my voice

I lost my voice.

For more than two years I tried to avoid saying anything controversial - for a number of (mostly stupid) reasons.  So even if no one reads this but me - and that's the most likely scenario anyway - I will use this space to get back into the swing of thinking and writing again.

I wrote this on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, but I plan to use the blog more.  If I really want people to see what I write, I have had some practice promoting things.

I hope and expect I won't be all politics all the time.  There are far better things to think about.  But in these times it seems important to speak out on any number of issues.  Here's one.
Can we finally stop trying to "understand" the aggrieved white dude who thinks "his country" has been taken away? And while we're at it, can we stop the false equivalence "from many sides" fantasies? A bunch of neo-nazis just converged to support a symbol of treason in defense of slavery. That is evil. That is domestic terrorism. It has no place in a society based on the ideals of freedom and liberty. Full stop.
Can we finally put to rest the idea that hateful ideology is just another idea we should listen to in the name of "free speech?" Reasonable people do not have to "tolerate" views of warmed-over eugenics and fever-dream conspiracy theories. The first amendment keeps racists and bigots out of jail, it doesn't require everyone else to listen to their garbage.
"Free speech" doesn't force an employer to keep idiots who think some of their colleagues are biologically inferior or genetically predisposed to substandard levels of performance. That's like requiring the folks at NASA to stop and listen to the guy who thinks the moon landing was faked.
Enough is enough. If you're an "aggrieved" white dude who needs someone to blame for keeping you down, look in the mirror. You're an asshole. Nobody wants to work with you, listen to you, or understand your "pain." It's time to put your big boy pants on, realize the world is actually better now that people with non-white-male perspectives have a say in things, and make a meaningful contribution.
That's not "political correctness." That's just truth.

20 September 2016

New Beginnings

Anyone looking at this blog can see it hasn't been updated in quite some time.  This may be the last entry - at least the last of this iteration.

Next week I will begin my tenure as director of marketing and communications for UNC Children's Hospital.  I am thrilled to join a team whose primary mission is caring for the children and families of North Carolina, regardless of ability to pay.  The Department of Pediatrics at UNC School of Medicine boasts some of the best researchers and clinicians in the country, and it will be my job to help craft and share their amazing stories.

It's sort of a homecoming for me.  I began my career working for a Senate Committee on children's policy and then in the pediatrics department of a public hospital.  I learned so much in those positions and I'm very exited to continue learning.

Wescott Strategic Communications will still exist as an entity, but in a much smaller, quieter capacity.  The company has surpassed my wildest expectations, thanks to some outstanding clients.  I can't name them all but I will say I am especially grateful to Cynthia French and the team at Western Dairy Association, Ruth Borger and Ann Christiano at the University of Florida, and Linda Weiner at NCCC.  You all took a chance on an unknown startup and placed your faith in me.  I never truly understood how meaningful that is until I started my own business. That feeling is something I will carry for the rest of my career.

I'm also grateful to the people who worked with me from time to time - Ilina Ewen, Dr. Melanie Tannebaum, Lisa Frame, Julie Marsh, Kelly Wickham Hurst, and Jenna Zaloom.  Your professionalism, creativity, and smarts are top-notch.  I learned more from all of you than you did from me.  I'm sure our paths will cross again.

Of course I'm grateful for my family.  Most people don't know this, but Wescott Strategic Communications wasn't actually my original idea.  Leigh Ann Simmons thought of it first.  She remains the most brilliant, driven, and creative person I've ever met, and I love her very much.  Our son was a loyal "junior associate" who always took an interest in the work and loved to help - even if his little sister happened to be "sitting in" on more conference calls.  Leigh Ann's mom, Ginny Simmons, jumped right in to help me build systems and organization to start up smoothly and not drown in details.  They have all been steadfast in their support and I wouldn't be nearly as successful without them.

I'm not sure what I'll be doing with social media in the near future, but I am sure my online presence will come with the requisite disclaimers about opinions not necessarily reflecting those of UNC.  There won't be much in terms of politics or controversy - not that I do much of that publicly anymore anyway - but I hope what I do online will help parents get information they need to make the best possible healthcare decisions for themselves and their families.

I'm excited for what's next.

15 May 2015

Radical transparency, revisited

It's been too long since I wrote here, and there is a lot to say.  I'm heading back to Kentucky next week to talk about social media and the agriculture industry, and I think we have to get to the root of the issue that social media tends to amplify - the non-negotiable nature of transparency.

I just returned from the Animal Agriculture Alliance stakeholders meeting in Kansas City, and I learned a great deal and gained even more respect for the people who grow and make our food.

Just as I did a couple of years ago, I brought a pair of bloggers with me.  This time we had something very specific and special to discuss.  Ilina Ewen and Lisa Frame, two of the participants of the #farmtopork project, shared their experiences and thoughts on how the agriculture industry can do more to help people understand where their food comes from. The passion and sincerity they displayed was the hit of the conference.

On its face, #farmtopork was simple.  All we did was tell the story typically called "farm to fork."  We assembled a group of people that resembles the customer base of the industry.  We visited some farms, toured a processing plant, talked with some experts about food, and ate some of the best cuisine North Carolina has to offer.  Everything we did has been done before.   

But here's the thing: we did it all in one telling, in its proper order and context, with complete transparency, for a group of intelligent and thoughtful people without an agenda or axe to grind. We didn't do it for a group of reporters who are trained to focus on and report controversy.  We didn't do it for people who want to see the industry fail.  In short, we did it for a group of the industry's end customers.

We treated them with dignity and respect and shared our common values. We told the truth, even if it was uncomfortable.  And the bloggers responded in kind.

Because that's what thoughtful, decent people do.

Lisa and Ilina were very well received. They got invitations to visit even more farms - they've both visited other farms since #farmtopork - and they were generally embraced as "agvocates" and essentially honorary members of this community.  It was wonderful to see.

There were other examples of opening the barn doors, and they were all informative and valuable. I even learned about a place in Indiana I can only describe as a kind of agriculture theme park/museum/restaurant hybrid.

And yet at this conference, it was easy for one to conclude the industry focuses on the comments of its most strident critics more than the needs of its most demanding customers. I saw an industry on the defensive, one that doesn't do enough to build relationships with influential consumers or others who shape its image.

The proactive or assertive projects I learned about were targeted at those who need no persuasion: farmers or future farmers. The communications strategies for consumers were largely passive or reactive - like "what happened when the producers of a reality television show called" or "how I handled an unfair story from the media." 

The farmers I met at his meeting will tell everyone their farms are run well and their animals are treated well.  I believe them.  And yet I also learned how hesitant farmers are to open their doors without some kind of assurance the results will be positive. They believe the media is out to get them, that new hires are potentially agri-terrorists (a new term for me), and that people shouldn't criticize them or tell them to change their practices because they don't know how farms work. These beliefs are often based on personal experience.

My response: too bad. Complaining about it will only make things worse. Start reclaiming the narrative with the audience that matters most - consumers. 

Radical transparency is the new expectation of the consumer, and that won't change anytime soon. If you don't trust mainstream media, then don't use them- work with influential bloggers instead. It's not enough to open your barn doors or wait for the phone to ring.  Start knocking on other doors and calling other people.

Radical transparency will get a lot harder before it gets easier. The bloggers the industry embraced last week have more questions. Tough questions. Uncomfortable questions.

They want to know how workers are treated. They want to know why some farmers still use antibiotics on entire herds of animals. They want to know why an industry that wants to be transparent also wants to make it illegal to shoot video on a farm.

They want to know why they can sit on a stage at an agriculture conference and look out at a room - and notice that the only people there who aren't white are the people clearing tables. They want to know how the people in that room can overcome the challenges it has faced to understand the perspectives of consumers in the most diverse nation on earth.

And remember, these are the people who actually like the industry.

Lisa, Ilina and the other bloggers will continue to share their stories and perspectives, and that will help the industry- but they're not interested in being mascots.  The industry must build many new, meaningful relationships with people outside its industry and leverage those relationships to further isolate and discredit its critics. It must focus relentlessly on the needs of its customers.  It must reach out to influential consumers before the critics do. It must set the tone and shape the story of farm to fork.

12 February 2015

New Beginnings

It's hard to describe how grateful and how fortunate and how excited I am.

I am so grateful for my family.  For my brilliant, passionate, and fiercely supportive wife.  For a new daughter who already reminds me who is really in charge of things.  For a compassionate, insightful, and sweet son.  For parents, siblings, in-laws, and extended family who share stories, support and love.

I am so fortunate to have a career that includes twelve years at an elite global communications consultancy.  APCO Worldwide has some of the sharpest minds in the business and I have learned so much from those who have passed through there and those who remain.  They will no doubt continue to grow and thrive.  I am very fond of my colleagues and proud of what we accomplished there.

I am so excited to launch Wescott Strategic Communications LLC because I care deeply about the work I do and the way it should be done.  We should measure success not only in the "placements" we get in media outlets but also in the relationships we build with stakeholders.  Bloggers are our strategic partners, not our targets for spammy pitches. We should be their advocates.  Our work should break barriers and build bridges between diverse communities.  We should give people the facts they need to make informed decisions. Most of all, we should work relentlessly and transparently and passionately for our clients.

It has been a crazy couple of months - starting a new business and securing clients while welcoming an addition to the family - but there are so many people who have helped me realize this possibility and deserve my thanks.  They'll be hearing from me directly.

It's time to get to work.

20 January 2015

Science communication in 2015: adapt or die, part 2

"Clarity" is the mantra for many science communicators.  Science must be made clear to the masses.

Clarity is also the greatest challenge for the field as a whole - not clarity of content, but clarity of goals and metrics.  In other words, we know what science communication is, but we can't clearly articulate why we do it - and we have absolutely no idea if we're doing it right.  This is the source of so much frustration among many science communicators.

First, let's be clear about something: if your primary interest is simply writing great science articles, you already know your audience.  It's you.  There's clearly nothing wrong with this, but this blog post isn't about you.  Here, go read about radio waves in space or something.

If your goal is to communicate science for a reason beyond enjoyment there are some things to keep in mind:

1. Know your audience.  This is the first rule of communication. Identify who you want to reach, and be as specific as possible about it.  The more specifically you define your audience, the more likely you are to know how to influence it.  Too many science communicators think "the public" is an audience.   It's usually not.  Maybe your real audience is state legislators in North Carolina who criminalized sea level rise, or moms who have questions about GMO's, or farmers who see antibiotics as the difference between a profit and a loss.

2. If you have a reason, you should have a goal.  The easiest way to know if you've influenced an audience is to ask it to do something - and this is where goals and metrics become real.   If your goal is "soft," such as general awareness or information, ask your readers to share your article, and count the number of social shares.  If your goal is policy oriented, put a link in your piece to the email address of a policy maker and count the number of outclicks.  If your goal is giving parents the information they need to make smart decisions for feeding their families, put together an infographic or a .pdf fact sheet and count the number of times it is downloaded.

3. Replicate the results.  Keep track of how many times your audience did what you asked of it, and the approach you took.  Learn from it.  Try different methods.  If this sounds familiar to scientists... well, that's kind of the point.

30 December 2014

Science communication in 2015: adapt or die, Part 1

Scientific American recently made some changes to its blog network that many people saw coming.  A number of blogs were removed and some added. While some cancellations raised some eyebrows, many of the discontinued blogs were either dormant or not drawing enough traffic to justify the spot.  What struck me most, however, was this statement from the editors:
people expect a higher level of accuracy, integrity, transparency and quality from media organizations...
Actually, no.  The way people consume information - and the way people view credibility - has evolved, and the number of credible experts moving to blogs and social media has increased dramatically over the past few years.  SCOTUSblog has consistently operated at a higher level than any "brand name" media outlet covering the Supreme Court.  If the topic is sports, it's easier to question the motives of the reporter whose salary is drawn almost directly from the sports league he covers than it is the kid who reports trades on Twitter before they're announced.

It has become fashionable for many in the science communication ecosphere to criticize Scientific American (and their parent company, Nature Publishing Group) as stodgy and out of touch.  So when Scientific American applies the rules of "Branding 101" and removes those blogs that don't align closest to their core offering, some rightly suggest they also risk limiting their reach.

This doesn't mean, however, that SciAm has written off growing its readership.  In fact, the blog network still offers a great opportunity to do just that - if they take the right actions.

For example, they can provide meaningful financial incentives to their bloggers to grow and diversify their audience - and bring those readers in from their blogs to the main site. They can actively market their bloggers as thought leaders to other outlets. They can provide media and outreach training to their bloggers.  They can forge partnerships with unlikely allies that would love targeted content - online portals dedicated to other topics.  My guess is they're already considering a lot of this.  

If Scientific American (or another major name in science writing) demonstrates leadership with this, they can help address a desperate need.

Science communication is critically linked to support for science itself.  Right now support for "science" is soft.  People generally like it, but not enough to push back when it contradicts someone's ideology or business interests.  This makes it easier to cut public funding for science, build marketing plans based on ignorance, or deny science altogether.

If science is to win the day on policy and business decisions, scientists and science communicators must resist looking inward so much and start exploring and getting to know other audiences. They must stop complaining about what isn't possible and start doing what is. 

In short, they must embrace a new sense of entrepreneurship, a willingness to work with new partners under new (yet fair) rules, and a passion for growing and knowing an audience as much as possible.

In the coming days and weeks I will be discussing these ideas in more detail, and I welcome input of all kinds.

01 December 2014

Ferguson: communication and credibility

2011 Stanley Cup Finals
Sometimes it's important to listen before jumping to conclusions about important issues - to let things play out a little bit, get some facts, and share some insights that maybe haven't been shared.  That's what I've tried to do with what has happened in Ferguson.

I've built a career in politics and communications, and I understand crisis management.  I know how political systems are set up and how some people can leverage that system to evade or deflect accountability, especially in a crisis.  I understand what builds and what destroys credibility with an audience.
As far as the system is concerned, we can all see the obvious.  Darren Wilson was Michael Brown's judge, jury and executioner. As far as the system is concerned, the only thing that truly matters is if Darren Wilson was "reasonably" scared, and it's his word against a corpse.  This is true because Darren Wilson's allies removed the remaining safeguards in the system that could have challenged the notion he was scared.

Darren Wilson's co-workers on the police force allowed him to handle evidence before it was processed.  They let him wash his hands twice before testing them for anything such as another person's blood or gunshot residue.   They didn't take the required pictures at the crime scene, despite letting Michael Brown's dead body lay uncovered in the street for four and a half hours.

Prosecutors let Wilson's statements to a grand jury go unchallenged, while eyewitness accounts received repeated scrutiny.  They even misinformed the grand jury on applicable law.  The people who specialize in collecting evidence and grilling suspects instead chose to destroy evidence and grill witnesses. They gave Darren Wilson the benefit of every doubt, even if it meant breaking their own rules to do so.

I can understand the desire to protect one of your own.  But these seem to me like the actions of people who feel no accountability to the people they're sworn to serve.
2014 World Series

The prosecutor's statement - given at night for some ridiculous and irresponsible reason - was beyond tone deaf.  It was the culmination of a cynical, even spiteful exercise in political cover. Any PR flack or political hack can see this.

The mayor's press conference the next day - ostensibly to announce an update in Darren Wilson's employment status - was instead an opportunity for the mayor to complain the Governor hadn't acted quickly enough to bring in more resources from the National Guard.  When it came to addressing the concerns of residents, the mayor quickly faded to the background and brought in a parade of African-American clergy.  The mayor offered no updates on Wilson.

This follows the sustained cowardice and dishonesty from Ferguson's police chief, who cited non-existent FOIA requests to conduct a character assassination, let his officers arrest and detain journalists in violation of the law, and seemed to confuse a St. Louis suburb with a war zone.

2014 Keene NH Pumpkin Festival
As rubber bullets and tear gas canisters were fired into crowds of unarmed demonstrators and as reporters were taken away from the scene by force, Ferguson's leaders were nowhere to be found.

The mayor, police chief, and prosecutor act as though they are fully aware they have no credibility with residents, and they really don't care.

After all, the people of Ferguson do nothing to hold them accountable.  They don't vote. Sadly, many of the people who have spoken out loudest in support of Darren Wilson are also largely behind the efforts to pass "voter ID" laws that would make it harder for the people of Ferguson to vote.  These proposed laws are supposedly designed to fix a non-existent problem in the United States: voter fraud. (Other things that don't exist: Darren Wilson's broken eyesocket.)

Crisis communications professionals are trained to see the opportunity in every crisis and lay out a plan of action to improve an organization or person's standing with an audience.   If you consider the residents of Ferguson to be the key audience here, consider this an opportunity wasted.

As for whether the situation in Ferguson is about a larger issue of race in America, just listen to Jay Smooth.

24 November 2014

I'm thankful for these blog posts

Let's face it, blogging is dead.  The world is on social. Even I was excited about Ello for about 90 minutes. We're all too busy to consume text - now we need pictures and video  Even the text we DO consume has to be in the form of a list - like "6 things we're thankful for this year."  So that's what this post really is. 

  I've been too busy lately to do much of anything in social media.  And yet, there have been a number of posts that I've had a chance to read that have made me think about how important it is for communicators to know their audience and understand communities.  Here are a few of them.

Hope Jahren, What I learned from #ManicureMonday Dr. Jahren posted this just before Thanksgiving last year, and I've referred to it a number of times in work and in presentations.  To me this is a case study of what happens when communities clash over content.  I wasn't simply struck by Dr. Jahren's reaction - I was surprised that Seventeen Magazine chose not to engage at all.  I see it as an opportunity lost. 

Matt Shipman, Can Public Relations be Science Communication? Spoiler alert: yes.  Matt's just one of those guys who gets it.  He articulates a beef I've had with science communication from the day I got interested in it.  Science communicators want to expand their audience but do very little to know this "new" audience.  For the most part, they think tactically and not strategically.  This isn't hard: identify your audience, ask them what they want, and give it to them. 

Liz Gumbinner, 22 PR pitches that were too fun to send to spam. Talk about not knowing your audience.  Liz takes this with good humor, but I think it speaks to how the PR industry still doesn't treat bloggers - or blogger outreach - with the respect and professionalism it demands.  We've been talking about this for years. 

Karen Russell, Teaching PR. This isn't a specific post, but I think Dr. Russell is the best curator of PR content in the field.   This is the first place I go to find something topical and get up to speed on my profession.  I've pulled together Twitter lists of practitioners and specialists and refined them over three years, and I still can't put together the feed she has. 

Cristen Clark, #FarmtoPork Blogger Tour.  The #FarmToPork project was my most memorable work from 2014. Everything about it was fascinating.  A historically conservative industry committed an act of "radical transparency" directly with a priority audience.  I'm thankful for all the posts the bloggers wrote about this tour, but I chose Cristen's because she had a unique perspective.  As an online mom AND a farm blogger, she bridged the gap between the two communities.  The conversations she had with other bloggers behind the scenes were the most valuable and enlightening.  To me, this is what represents the essence of public relations and communications today: the nexus of transparency, credibility, accessibility, and emotion. 

Andy Herald, New More Relatable Superheroes. Sometimes my job also gives me the opportunity to meet new people and experience different ideas.  Fatherhood is filled with challenges and fathers react to challenges with a range of emotions.  And yet while I've seen some fathers react online with anger or spite, Andy reacts with humor.  I've never seen Andy use humor to "punch down."   I'm Andy's audience and he knows his audience.  This may seem goofy but he's where I go to find my fatherhood zen. 

17 November 2014

Scientists: know your audience!

Scientific organizations, for the most part, talk about important developments in science with other scientists.  These organizations can expect certain things from their audience: an exceptionally high level of science literacy, an inherent enthusiasm for the subject matter, and even a desire to contribute personally and professionally to the work. The burden is on this educated and emotionally invested audience to comprehend the dense, complex material.

Of course, every now and then scientists will predict exactly where a comet will be ten years into the future, design and launch a spaceship to meet it there, snare it with a grappling hook, conduct a bunch of experiments on it, and send the results back via a solar-powered radio.  In short, they will do the things that inspire millions of people to get more involved with science and understand why it's so important.

These opportunities are exceptionally rare.  Science is a methodical, incremental, conservative process.  But science - and scientific organizations - increasingly depend on the patronage and support from the rest of us. So when scientists pull off a "once-in-a-lifetime" achievement, they can't let anything get in the way of telling the story of science.

And this got in the way of telling the story.

This is Dr. Matt Taylor, one of the brilliant scientists who led the project, at the mission press conference.  And yes, he's wearing a shirt that looks like a perverted unicorn barfed on it. And yes, he called this project "the sexiest mission there's ever been" and joked about the comet, "she's sexy, but I never said she was easy."

So people who don't follow science closely expect to hear this amazing story, and instead they see a guy who looks and sounds like he went into astrophysics because he thought it would help him score with the ladies.  And that's what they remember, at least for now.

To get more professional perspective, I reached out to an old friend who is an expert in communications - and interestingly enough, men's fashion - Chris Hogan of Off the Cuff.  Chris lives and works in Washington DC and still remembers when President Obama wore a white tie to his inaugural ball when he shouldn't have.  He also remembers when the President wore a tan suit to a press conference to talk about a number of global crises and how the media ignored his comments on Syria because they were struck by how casual his clothes were.

"Anytime your message is really important, you don't want anything to distract from that," Chris said. "What you wear should be forgettable, in a good way."  If you want to inject some of your personality as a scientist in your dress, Chris likes Neil deGrasse Tyson's style with his cosmos-inspired ties or vests.   I asked him what he'd wear if giving this press conference, and he said "some kind of neutral blazer, an open-collar dress shirt - unless you're known for those ties like Neil deGrasse Tyson has.  Neutral, authoritative, not stuffy - look like a responsible person."

When the audience isn't the same 300 people you always talk with, the rules are different.  And here's the other thing - when Dr. Taylor made his faux pas, he wasn't just distracting the audience from the story scientists wanted to tell.  He was telling an all-too familiar story many scientists would rather not share.

Science, like many other fields, has a problem with sexism.  Sometimes it's people who make clueless wardrobe choices and make stupid remarks in unusual, uncomfortable situations - like Dr. Taylor, who publicly and tearfully apologized.   Sometimes it's much worse. Often, those problems are institutional.  And too often, women feel like have no place to turn.

And of course, the public discourse has brought out the worst in some people. Mostly anonymous and all pathetic "men's rights activists" have engaged in their usual hypocrisy - women need to "lighten up" about a man's comments or insults or jokes, but a few tweets' worth of criticism from women constitutes a "lynch mob" of "feminist bullies" that deserve death threats and constant streams of abuse.  

I don't think anyone at ESA - Dr. Taylor included - ever wanted this.  But speaking to an audience beyond your peers requires a higher level of awareness and scrutiny.  It means the burden is on you to understand more about how your messages - verbal and otherwise - will be received.  

And when the stakes are high, it means you should hire a professional. It means you should know as much about your audience as possible - like if there are cultural cues or buzzwords that mean one thing to you and something different to them.  It means you should develop an actual strategy about how you will reach your audience.  It means you should build messages and test them to see if they resonate with a sample of your audience.  It means you should build relationships with the most influential members of your audience to make sure those messages are seen as credible and valid. It means you should test to see if your messages have changed people's opinions about you or your work.  

And yes, it probably means you should dress and speak like a grownup, even if the amazing work you do will make you feel like a kid again.

Because yeah, snagging a comet with a grappling hook is absolutely amazing.

08 October 2014

In which the PR guy calls BS on the science people

Welcome to the world of social media metrics
Everyone loves a good "top ten" list, and I'm not just talking about David Letterman.  We like top ten (or top 50, or top 100, or whatever) lists of people - mostly because it gives us an opportunity to judge other people and project our own personal issues and avoid things that really matter.

A few months back, a scientific journal published an article by genomicist Neil Hall about the "K-index," where K stands for "Kardashian." It was a measure of "unearned" popularity among scientists.  It compared a person's number of citations in scientific journals against their number of Twitter followers. 


Some noteworthy scientists  called out some of the article's nonsense. I had something to say about it too.  Science - the magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science - responded by publishing not one but two "top scientists on Twitter" lists. 

(By the way, I  note the irony of Neil Hall being better known for his snark on unearned publicity than for his actual work in genomics.)

But here's the thing - the AAAS pieces had some semblance of a "methodology" in developing their lists.  I put methodology in quotation marks because it is full of caveats - including a lack of consensus on the definition of "scientist."

You read that right - Science Magazine's list of "top 50 science stars on Twitter" consists of people who - according to Science Magazine - may or may not be actual scientists.

The thing that bugs me the most about the lists, however, is the reliance on Twitter followers as their anchor metric.   

Social media metrics are daunting as it is, but vanity metrics such as number of likes or followers or even friends don't equate to influence.   For example, more than 150 of my Twitter followers are actually fake.  When Newt Gingrich ran for President, only 8 percent of his million-plus followers were actual people.

If I want a lot of  Twitter followers or Instagram followers, or Facebook friends, or YouTube video views, or blog comments, or blog links, or even search-engine-friendly blog posts,  I can just buy some.

I care much more about the quality of people I engage with on twitter.  I care much more about the kind of information I can get on twitter by following very specific groups of people.  True influence is earned online through candid and effective stakeholder engagement.

So unless you're just publishing click-bait - and I wouldn't be surprised if that's all this was - Don't describe your Twitter list as the "top" anything.  Use these lists as an opportunity to position yourself as a competent curator - someone who recognizes good content and organizes it effectively.  Explain why someone is on it without resorting to numbers anyone can buy.

Saying "this is a list of people I like to follow" also helps people know a little about you. 

24 September 2014

The radical transparency of #farmtopork

There are some obvious "Don'ts" in Public Relations.

Don't tell a reporter you will throw him off a balcony. Don't "reply all."  Don't drop an f-bomb if you're the Pope. Don't be Joe Biden.

And of course, Don't take a dozen online moms on a tour of a "kill floor" at a pork processing plant.

But here's the thing about that last don't: you kind of have to do it if you want people to truly understand where their food comes from.  So that's exactly what the Animal Agriculture Alliance (my client) did.

The Alliance told the true, complete "farm to fork" story, using pork as the example. They invited twelve bloggers from across the country to see first-hand and learn about the entire process - from insemination on a sow farm, to a nursery, to a finishing farm, to processing.   The bloggers met with farmers, with veterinarians, with environmental engineers, with scientists and nutritionists.  No question was off the table.

And it was amazing.  These remarkable women viewed this process with open eyes and open minds.  They have said they found the experience to be educational, engaging, and entertaining. They shared their thoughts online using a hashtag, #farmtopork.

Each of the women have had their own unique perspective, but I noticed one opinion they all share - they all have a much deeper appreciation and respect for farmers and for all the people who bring food to our tables.  They saw first hand the passion and lifelong commitment that farmers bring to their work.  They saw how much sophistication and science is required in agriculture today.  They saw how safety - food safety as well as worker safety - is the top priority.  And they also saw just how nice everyone was.

And so while we can take that last item I mentioned off the list of PR "don'ts", we can probably add one as well.

Don't ever underestimate the ability of online moms to listen, think critically, and make up their own minds - no matter what you have to show them.

10 September 2014

Real men know what accountability is

I am by no means an expert on domestic violence, or how to prevent it.  The pieces I read by Roxane Gay, Liz Gumbinner and Rebecca Wolf are better than anything I could ever write on the topic.

I do have some knowledge in crisis communications and how companies and leaders demonstrate accountability in the aftermath of big mistakes.  That's what this post is about.

The National Football League is one of the most prolific sources of entertainment in the United States. Its owners and leadership earn profits in large part thanks to a special set of rules and benefits few other businesses get - preferential tax treatment, public subsidies and infrastructure support, business-friendly hiring practices, and so on.  They are the yachts William Carlos Williams wrote about in my favorite poem.

So I'm not surprised when the league develops rules of conduct that seem arbitrary to the rest of us.  I'm not surprised when they employ circular logic to defend the indefensible. I'm not surprised by the league's reaction when they are suddenly held to the standards others face every day.

Here's the thing.  There's a difference between saying something and doing something.  There's a difference between apologizing to someone and making them whole again.  There's a difference between saying you have a new policy and actually implementing that policy.  There's a difference between saying you're accountable and actually being accountable.

Ray Rice hit his fiance in an elevator - knocking her unconscious - and then dragged her out of the elevator.  He admitted doing this. The NFL had all of the facts and gave him a 2-week suspension.

When the NFL got overwhelming criticism for this decision, the commissioner admitted "they got it wrong" and announced a new policy.  The first time you do something like this you get a 6-week suspension, the second time you're fired. Rice's suspension, however, remained at 2 games.

Three days later, two NFL employees were arrested on domestic violence charges.  To date, neither has been disciplined under the new policy.

Then a video emerged confirming the facts the NFL already had and confirming what Rice said he did.  No one has suggested, at least publicly, that Rice lied or misled the league.  The facts haven't changed.  However, Rice is now fired.  He has been held accountable.

The NFL commissioner insists that no one at the NFL saw this "new" video.  Others have suggested this is not the case. Either way, the video does not offer new facts.

The commissioner says "the buck stops with me" and when it comes to the NFL's errors in appropriately enforcing rules, "I'm accountable for that."

The NFL commissioner is embarrassed.  He's apologetic.

He hasn't been held accountable.

And that's why the NFL hasn't stopped the damage yet.

08 September 2014

I strongly oppose my recent behavior, part 8,411

UPDATE: The Baltimore Ravens just fired Ray Rice after the video of him hitting his fiance "surfaced." It will be interesting to learn their justification.  I don't know that Rice ever denied what he did - what has changed now that video has surfaced?

Get ready for #notallfootballplayers:
Just three days after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell created stronger sanctions for players involved in domestic violence, 49ers starting defensive end Ray McDonald was arrested early Sunday morning on suspicion of felony domestic violence charges involving his fiancée.
As we brace ourselves for the inevitable "I'm really a good person" talk from McDonald and the parade of character witnesses, I'm struck by how completely routine this has all become and how far we really have to go.

McDonald played football on Sunday.  So far at least, there have been no public sanctions placed on him by his employer. Think about what your boss might do with you if police found probable cause to file domestic violence charges filed against you.

What McDonald allegedly did to his pregnant fiance is certainly bad enough - but it's just the beginning.   How can we forget the Ray Rice fiasco - and how he's only suspended for two games while McDonald may be on the hook for six. Rice held a press conference with his wife sitting next to him - imagine that for a second - talking about how "her pain is my pain" and how he's "going to get through this" and "move forward," but not before he "helps himself."  How he was going to be "out there" speaking against domestic violence.

Because I'm sure that's what women need - the guy who was caught on tape dragging his unconscious fiance out of an elevator talking to them about domestic violence.  Nope, no trigger warnings needed there.

And it's interesting that the official website of the Baltimore Ravens published this:
In his first major appearance Monday night at M&T Bank Stadium as part of an open training camp practice, Rice got a standing ovation from the Ravens fans that have followed him for the past six years.
Standing ovations (and their official coverage from the team) give cover to people like that jock-sniffer Stephen Smith discussing Rice and saying - not for the first time - that women need to do a better job not provoking men into beating them senseless.

The NFL took a step in the right direction when it strengthened its policy on domestic abuse and physical violence - a six game suspension for the first offense, a "lifetime" ban for the second.  This "test case" suggests they need to do a better job describing how this policy will work.

The NFL claims it hadn't seen footage released today of Rice actually striking his fiance in the elevator.  They claim they asked the police for everything "including the video from the elevator" and didn't get it.  This is either a poorly-crafted statement or a tacit admission that they at least knew the video existed.

I will say this - I'm confident the NFL was caught by surprise.

Regardless, I think the burden is on the rest of us to demonstrate that we won't tolerate the violence either.

Standing ovation?  WTF, Ravens fans?

19 August 2014

Trying to sort it all out

The past couple of weeks have been family-focused for me.  I was away and relatively (though not completely) unplugged.  I'm very grateful that I have the resources to do that, because I know most people don't.  From an extreme distance, in more ways than one, I watched the scene unfold in Ferguson.

I read the national media accounts - the ones that focus on sensationalism and conflict, and try to explain  "why it's important" or "the 5 things you need to know" or how what's happened is just a proxy for someone's real agenda or confirms someone's world view.  I read the local media - the ones that insist that "this isn't who we are" and focus on the leadership (or lack thereof) in the community.  I read the "niche" media that reflects perspectives I don't and can't truly have - conservative media, African-American media, foreign media, people who write about law enforcement.

I looked at all this and I asked myself "what if Michael Brown were my son?"

But then, none of this would ever happen to my son.

If a local cop found my son walking in the middle of the street, and by some miracle chose not to ignore it, he'd probably just threaten to tell me about it.  If he found my son hiding a box of cheap cigars under his arm, he'd probably tell him to give them back. If he smelled marijuana on him, he'd probably think fondly of the days when he'd sneak a joint. He might even crack a joke.

If my kid got into trouble with the law, people would be falling over themselves trying to figure out how a good kid could get caught up in this stuff.  They'd wonder if he has problems and they'd try to find him help.  My son would probably get a dozen second chances.  We would be telling prosecutors not to ruin this kid's future.

If a cop shot and killed my son in a situation like what happened in Ferguson - and by that I mean "jaywalking" - there would be no riots.  They wouldn't be necessary, because everyone knows accountability would be swift and sure.  I'd see suspensions, resignations, written apologies, and drafts of settlement agreements with big dollar amounts attached to them. I'd get a call from the mayor, maybe even a member of Congress. I'd probably watch the offending officer break down crying, wondering aloud how he could have possibly made such a tragic mistake, and beg my forgiveness.  Someone would set up a scholarship fund in my son's name, and the police union would make the first donation.

Less than a week after this "accident," I'd never have to worry about calculating, depraved, and cowardly character assassinations from a local police chief that demonstrates a level of incompetence and disregard for the rule of law I'd never think possible in modern America.

I'd never have to witness a surreal spectacle of police officers with more combat gear than a military special forces unit dehumanize the citizens they're sworn to serve and throw journalists in jail for trying to document it.

None of this would ever happen to my family. I cannot possibly comprehend the depths of pain the Brown family feels right now.

There is one thing, however, I can comprehend as a professional in crisis communications.  It's the level of deception, depravity, and hypocrisy coming from the Ferguson police chief in the guise of "public relations."

As his officers abuse the citizens they're supposed to protect, he also allows them to block, assault, detain, and tear gas journalists - all in obvious violation of the law. He's clearly condoned, and possibly even directed this behavior.  This prevents the documentation of abuse that would likely hold him accountable.

Just before he finally released the name of the officer who killed Michael Brown, he accused Brown of stealing a box of cheap cigars a few minutes before he was killed.  He acknowledged that this had nothing to do with the shooting, but said he had "no choice" because journalists had apparently filed "FOIA requests."   He also said he hadn't informed the Missouri Highway Patrol - the organization who had taken over for him due to his profound incompetence - of his decision because he was still "in the mode of the county being in charge."

I've done enough work with public entities and dealt with enough FOIA issues to know this is exquisite bullshit. Nothing in the law requires the police chief to do what he did.  This man has ignored the laws that would force him to act transparently, and he has deceptively invoked laws to obfuscate the facts.  We now know state and federal officials urged the local police chief to exercise appropriate restraint.  The chief effectively flipped them the bird.

He said all this at a press conference he called - one in which he asked the media to "exercise discretion" by not bringing members of the Ferguson community with them.  He wanted the media to know this and report it without the instant reaction of outrage.  He wanted the narrative of Michael Brown the robber to cut into the narrative of Darren Wilson the shooter for that first round of coverage.

And he stood there, in front of cameras, and claimed he was powerless to stop it.

That's a lie.