• 23May

    Maybe you have to be a writer or editor to get excited about the latest release of the AP Stylebook. The AP Stylebook is the bible for professional writers, providing standardized usage and definitions for common terms. It provides a standard for things like comma usage, hyphenation, capitalization, datelines for cities, and other commonly used terms. It also helps me settle a lot of arguments with clients about how to write press releases and where to put the punctuation marks.

    ap-320piI am particularly excited about the 2011 release of the AP Stylebook because, for the first time, they have provided standardized usage for a variety of technical terms. Now I now no longer have to argue with clients about the proper spelling of email versus e-mail or Web site versus website. According to Mashable, there are at least 42 new terms that have been included to define common technological terms, social media terms, and TLAs (three-letter acronyms).

    Now we know that, according to the Associated Press, proper usage is email and website as one word, smart phone is two words, and e-reader is hyphenated. And now we can use “fan,” “friend,” and “follow” as both nouns and verbs. (I can’t wait to see if they have decided that other changes are acceptable, like using “grow” as an active verb – “to grow a business” – which is one of my pet peeves.) They have also added unfollow, unfriend, and retweet to the lexicon. According to a preview offered by MarketingProfs, some of the terms that are now standardized include:

    •  
      • check in (v.), check-in (n. and adj.)
      • download
      • end user (n.), end-user (adj.)
      • Foursquare
      • geolocation
      • Gowalla
      • Internet-connected TV
      • iPad
      • Link shortener
      • social media optimization
      • stream
      • tag
      • tablet computer
      • Tumblr
      • WAP

    AP has also tackled the alphabet soup of technology acronyms, including those used in texting (another new verb) and instant messages. They define ROFL, BRB, G2G, and even POS, which I thought meant point-of-sale but apparently means “parent over shoulder”; a term younger IMers and texters use to indicate that parents are approaching.

    I have already pre-ordered my print copy of the 2011 AP Stylebook, and I am sure it will be more comprehensive than its forebears. For some time I was using Wired Style published by Wired magazine a number of years ago as my guide, but I found it to be extremely poorly organized and incomplete. Like most writers, I suspect I searched publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal looking for common usage – their editors are very diligent about maintaining consistent editorial usage and standards. AP needs to get their guidance from somewhere.

    E.B. White (co-author of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, which is still the “must have” book for any writer who cares about his or her craft) noted that English is an evolving language, “The language is perpetually in flux; it is a living stream, shifting, changing, receiving new strength from a thousand tributaries, losing old forms in the backwaters of time.” As the language evolves and technology changes usage and brings new terms into use, someone needs to find a way to codify these terms so the rest of us can make sense of them. Like the OED, the AP Stylebook provides a lifeline for the rest of us who are trying to maintain standards of usage in the face of change. Everyone needs standards. Just as the IETF relies on standards like TCP/IP, SMTP, and HTML to form the common language of the Internet, we need similar standards for English usage to promote clearer understanding.

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  • 14May

    Once again, it seems we are getting flacks for being flacks, and rightfully so. You have no doubt seen this week’s news that two PR executives at Burson-Marsteller were engaged in a whisper campaign to undermine Google over privacy issues. The so-called “Googlegate” scandal has given one of the biggest PR firms in the business a real black eye, and it doesn’t reflect well on client Facebook either. The media pundits are once again pointing at the PR profession as a whole, noting that we engage in questionable practices in pursuit of the billable hour. While misdeeds and questionable ethics plague most professions, this one baffles me on a number of levels so I want to see if we can break this down to see how one of the biggest names in PR venture so far off the ethical reservation.

    Mercurio and Goldman of Burson-MarstellerFirst, let’s look at the two instigators of the smear campaign, former CNBC reporter Jim Goldman and political reporter John Mercurio. Both of these guys are seasoned journalists who know the ropes, and understand the rules. They have been pitched by other PR professionals over the years and they should understand the ethics of both the journalism and PR professions. Just because you have gone “to the Dark Side” by switching from journalism to PR doesn’t mean your ethics should change, and they both must of known that. I suspect that they were under some pressure from their Burson bosses to take on this assignment and make it shine for high-profile client Facebook. What’s astonishing is that they lied and distorted the facts to achieve their objectives. It’s too easy to check up on the truth in the age of the Internet and that conduct is inexcusable.

    (Note that I have some empathy here. During my days as a journalist I once was told to run a smear story for my publisher who had a grudge against one of his competitors. Although I argued that the story had no place in our magazine, served no real purpose, and could land us in hot water, I was told in no uncertain terms to run the story or look for another job. I ran the story, but I made damn sure it was airtight and my facts were sound. To this day I resent having been put in that position.)

    Now let’s look at how the media handled this. The USA Today reporter, Christopher Soghoian, who received the initial pitch knew that something wasn’t right so he decided to make the PR firm the story. When he asked who was paying for the project they said that they couldn’t reveal their client and that’s when he smelled a rat. Kudos to Soghoian for calling out these Burson boobs. He even posted the email exchange online. All Soghoian had to do was call the so-called PR pros on their request, reveal the communications thread, and he had his story. There was no need to skew the facts. This also highlights the power and value of the web – there is no need to wait for declassification of documents a la the Pentagon Papers, just post the material for all to see.

    Now what about Facebook’s involvement? Early on, speculation was that the mystery client was either Microsoft or Apple, but Facebook finally stepped forward and admitted it was their project, but that it had not commissioned a smear campaign, but rather had engaged Burson-Marsteller to highlighting a problem with using Facebook information for Google Social Circles. This from Forbes quoting a Facebook spokesperson:

    “Instead, we wanted third parties to verify that people did not approve of the collection and use of information from their accounts on Facebook and other services for inclusion in Google Social Circles—just as Facebook did not approve of use or collection for this purpose. We engaged Burson-Marsteller to focus attention on this issue, using publicly available information that could be independently verified by any media organization or analyst,” says the spokesperson. “The issues are serious and we should have presented them in a serious and transparent way.”

    So in the words of “All the President’s Men,” this is a “non-denial denial.” Facebook gave Burson-Marsteller the assignment but didn’t call it a smear campaign. I can imagine the meeting for this assignment where the client makes an unreasonable request and basically says, “I don’t care how you do it.” No culpability here, but Facebook doesn’t come out smelling too good, either.

    Now let’s look at the aftermath.This from the Atlantic Wire:

    The two Burson executives responsible for the much criticized campaign, former CNBC reporter Jim Goldman and former political reporter John Mercurio, will be reprimanded, a company representative told PRWeek today. The punishment? Not a punishment at all: more training on company guidelines. Evidently, the two one-time journalists who switched to the other side of the press release fairly recently believed it was a bit darker than it actually is.

    Facebook has yet to announce any major retributions or staff shuffles in the wake of the scandal. However, Burson confirmed that they will no longer work with Facebook on the smear campaign against Google. (Good idea!) It’s unclear how damaged the relationship between the PR giant and the tech giant might be, but this most certainly compromises Burson’s recent announcement of their new specialty in tech PR.

    So reading between the lines, I suspect what we are seeing here is a combination of the agency trying to keep a big-named client satisfied, being unwilling to say no to the client when that was clearly appropriate, and not providing enough adult supervision to two senior managers who clearly should know better.

    What lessons does this offer to us as a profession?

    • All PR professionals need to understand the ethical rules of engagement. As a profession, we need to make a stronger commitment to ethical training, and apply more common sense to PR work.
    • Transparency is important. You have to be forthright about the assignment and who hired you. I have always been a firm believer that our role is to help the reporter as much as we help our clients. Whenever I have a client ask me to do something stupid, unethical, or deceitful to media sources, I explain to them that my media contacts are my bread-and-butter and long after that client is gone, I will have to call on that reporter again so why would I risk that relationship?
    • More collaboration and watching each others’ backs is called for. One of the great things about working as a team is that you can draw from the experience and knowledge of the group. If someone suggests a questionable tactic for a campaign, it’s up to the others in the group to challenge it. All too often I see in agency settings where the junior team members blindly follows the wishes of the clients and their superiors, without question. We need to nurture more independent thinking and open dialogue to keep us all honest.
    • More adult supervision. Even the most senior PR professionals can make mistakes in judgment or tactical errors. If someone had been keeping tabs on Goldman and Mercurio, they might have been able to head off this disaster.
    • PR agencies need to be prepared to say “no” to the client. Just because they pay you doesn’t mean they are right. Sometimes you should say “no” to an assignment, especially if the task is unreasonable or unethical.

    What will be the long-term implications for Burson-Marsteller? This firm has made ethical faux pas in the past, and will probably make similar mistakes in the future. Whether they will be able to redeem their reputation or whether they will continue to be an agency you can turn to for a questionable campaign has yet to be seen, and probably doesn’t matter. However, this kind of scandal does lasting damage to everyone in the PR profession. It’s up to all of us to show the world that ours is an honorable profession, despite the few flacksters who make the rest of us look bad.

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  • 11May

    When I saw Eli Pariser TED presentation on  has come up with a concept called the “The Filter Bubble,” I was reminded of the old Outer Limits television show and their opening sequence: “We are controlling the transmission… We will control all that you see and hear…”

    What Pariser points out is that your Internet experience is being monitored and, more importantly, managed. Okay, this isn’t really news. If you have a subscription to Netflix or shop on eBay or Amazon you know that they have built algorithms into their systems to offer suggestions based on past shopping patterns and preferences. That actually seems, well, helpful. However, what Pariser points out is that by controlling what is delivered online, we are actually creating islands of Web experience that insulate us from other areas of the Web that may challenge our thinking or desires. Apparently, with the help of search bots and search algorithms, we are all creating our own gated communities of web experience where the online vendors and search providers are serving as the gatekeepers.

    For example, it never occurred to me that Google, Yahoo, and other search engines are tailoring search results based on what they know about me. Apparently the search results are filtered based on IP address (work or home), computer you are using, time of day, and other criteria. Okay, I expect that from advertisers, since microtargeting consumers is not particularly new. However, I am appalled that my search results are being filtered to provide a more personalized and thereby insular experience.

    I was fascinated by the example Pariser offered to prove his point. He had two friends search Google for the term “Egypt,” and one friend retrieved the latest political news while the other retrieved vacation and travel information. Huh? You mean web search is not a neutral playing field? You mean when I look for online information I will get data customized by some robot based on what it “thinks” I am looking for?

    Pariser is correct in his assessment that this kind of controlled experience is dangerous. We need to be challenged regarding our world view and we need to be able to share opposing viewpoints. I know my liberal spouse has spirited debates with her conservative compatriots on Facebook, but everyone appreciates the dialogue. What happens when those conversations get filtered out because those conversing are not “like minded”? Then we all lose. The Web should be used to promote the open exchange of information and understanding – that’s what Tim Berners-Lee envisioned.

    More importantly, Pariser’s observation’s demonstrate that you can’t rely on the web for objectivity. It is not a neutral news source, and the organizations that are promoting the news are for-profit, which means they are tailoring their data to keep you coming back as a user and potential customer. As Pariser notes in his presentation, in the past we have had editors as watchdogs of journalistic standards, to help promote informational integrity and promote fair reporting and access to information. With the free-for-all of the web, bloggers are now being treated like journalists but they are not held to the same standards, and now apparently the webbots are acting as news editors and determining whether we should receive the facts according to the New York Times or Page Six.

    I, for one, like to make my own determinations based on all the available data; not just the information some computer algorithm thinks I might find interesting. How about you?

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  • 04May

    This is the presentation I delivered today before the Northern California Business Marketing Association Branding Roundtable. We had a good, interactive discussion with those present, discussing their needs, the pros and cons of different channels, and which channels work best for B2B and B2C.

    One of the things I am advising clients to do these days is start with a corporate blog. A blog provides brand focus. It is a single forum where you have to think about what promotes your brand value before you commit your thoughts to the blogosphere. Once you have clarified your brand position, it’s easier to feed the social media machine, disseminating your blog thoughts through LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter – the Holy Trinity of Social Media.

    Of course, there is other content you can use to feed the beast. It was interesting that even talking to experienced marketing professionals this morning, some were still reluctant to dip their toe in the social media pool. They were worried about making a mistake or not having enough content. You have to get started before you can refine the process.

    Part of this morning’s discussion, for example, was around corporate process and paranoia around blogging. One of those present said it took months to get the company to approve a blog post because the committee could not agree. Another marketing executive talked about how his managers complained that the tone of the blog was too “friendly” and not sufficiently formal, like a white paper or data sheet.

    This panic over initial missteps is what prevents companies from entering into the social media conversation, and ultimately cause them to fail. One of my recommendations is “fail fast, fail cheaply, and correct course.” If something doesn’t work, move on. We actually had an interesting discussion about the longevity of social media content. I noted that, to an extent, blog content is disposable because it has a short effective shelf life. However, it was pointed out that blog content remains discoverable for as long as it’s posted, although you can correct or change the content.  However, social media feeds like Twitter and Facebook have an effective life of hours or days. This means you have forums you can use for social media experimentation to see what works for your strategy.

    So this presentation represents just some of the concepts I am sharing with my clients. I would be curious to hear your reactions and recommendations. The floor is open for comments.

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  • 02May

    twitter_bird_arrows_kybdAs a follow-on to last week’s blog post about the future of Twitter, I spotted an interesting item in the Adotas newsletter today regarding Twitter’s anticipated ad revenue.

    According to a new report from BIA/Kelsey, there is both good news and bad news. The good news is that revenues for social media advertising is expected to from from $2.1 billion in 2010 to $8.3 billion by 2015. The bad news for Twitter is that the majority of the cash is allocated for display advertising – $7.7 billion by 2015. Non-display revenue, like promoted Tweets and promoted accounts 0 will grow to $600 million in 2015. According to the report, non-display ads, like promoted Tweets, didn’t generate any revenue in 2011, although other sources peg Twitter’s 2010 earnings at $45 million.

    According to Adotas, eMarketer predicted Twitter earning sof $150 million in 2011 and $250 million on 2012, which is very much in line with the BIA/Kelsey report. But these figures fall far short of Twitter’s promise. To quote from Adotas:

    I can’t be the only one thinking, “That’s it?” But last week I commented that Twitter’s beta text ads would bring in incremental revenue at best — there is no Twitter ad product that promises exponential revenue growth, something that’s ever-more haunting since North American user growth stalled a while ago.

    As Twitter’s valuation keeps skyrocketing, it’s getting tougher to turn a blind eye to these grim revenue estimates.

    It will be interesting to watch this birdie as the business of social media evolves.

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