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As communication pros we’ve always had a tough challenge, but drafting and communicating a message these days is more difficult than ever. Beyond the long-standing requirements of clarity, relevance and credibility we now must address the emerging demands for trans-media content, real-time conversation (and adjustment) and targeted delivery across social platforms; all in a context of decreasing trust for leaders and corporations. It turns out that even if we satisfy all these best practices, we still face a major hurdle. Indeed, new research suggests that even the strongest factual messages may not be enough to change minds. Chalk it up to confirmation bias.

If you’ve ever wondered why even the strongest arguments don’t seem to resonate with a particular audience – even when supported with cogent evidence and presented by credible sources – this research by IPR has the explanation. In a recent study IPR author Christopher Graves found that when people are shown evidence they may be wrong, they not only discount that evidence, they become even more extreme in their original belief. […] While it may not have been particularly surprising that people cling to their beliefs to the degree that they filter out any evidence that challenges their beliefs, an unexpected finding of the experiment was a backfire. The study goes into interesting details about the physiology and neuroscience behind this phenomenon. One particularly interesting finding suggests the messenger of information is critical, since outsiders will automatically elicit skepticism: To avoid being rejected from the get-go, you must choose representatives with whom each group feels comfortable, messengers or narrators who send the proper cues that identify them as in-group members. 

Though I’ve long known people initially discount information that doesn’t suit their particular viewpoint or narrative, I was surprised by the lack of importance (or power) that facts have if they go against the prevailing views of the target audience. Furthermore, it appears the more you try the wrong approach, the more you polarize the audience and diminish the resonance of your argument. I suppose this information bias helps explain how seemingly smart, curious individuals can have such different opinions on major public issues (notably climate change) and are not swayed by evidentiary facts that contradict their position.

So what are PR pros to do with this information? I suppose the first decision is whether to throw in the towel and abandon probity and factual evidence as tenets of content. After all, if the facts don’t really make a difference with many people, why even bother? Let’s just jump on the hype bandwagon and sell snake-oil. Assuming we want to maintain our ethical stance and remain committed to telling the truth – in whatever format and channel is most effective – there is a potential path to success.

The IPR research itself suggests that the answer to overcoming strong confirmation bias can be overcome with the following strategy:

  • Affirm/recognize the audience’s core values
  • Argue the position through an emotional narrative
  • Choose an in-house messenger to reinforce, if not carry your message

It’s interesting to note that this roadmap in many ways echoes the increasing focus on influentials and storytelling in successful social media programs. It also suggests that it’s easier to change minds through conversation (and intellectual compromise) than just turning up the volume or frequency of your message.

I look forward to additional findings and guidance from this IPR study. For now, the lesson is that using facts and logic to convince a skeptical audience – no matter the underlying value of the evidence – will not only fail without the right strategy, but will likely backfire and permanently discredit your argument. Another good reminder to think before we act.

In recent weeks I’ve witnessed several instances of public figures using talking points, or planned messages, in ways that should make every PR professional cringe.

Perhaps the most visible example was the brouhaha surrounding Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, when Governor Pence appeared on talk shows to defend the proposed legislation – which was widely criticized for allowing, perhaps even encouraging, discrimination against the LGBT community. In one widely publicized interview, Pence methodically repeated his key talking points – including the widely debunked argument the Indiana RFRA was identical to a law passed by other states – even as the host provided detailed evidence to the contrary. To make matters worse, Pence repeatedly avoided answering a direct question about whether the law allowed discrimination against LGBT consumers, reverting back to stock messages that were not relevant. By most assessments, Pence did not fare well in the interview, yet his discredited talking points lived on even as the legislation was amended (despite Pence’s earlier claims to the contrary) to reflect the widespread criticism.

In fairness, this stubborn adherence to irrelevant or misleading talking points isn’t limited to one side of the political spectrum. Last week US Senator Bob Menendez was indicted on criminal charges of bribery and corruption. The surprise wasn’t that Menendez pleaded not guilty, but that in his remarks he defiantly pronounced his innocence and defended his actions with arguments (and messages) that strained credulity given the scope and detail of the accusations. Undoubtedly, we will hear his script repeatedly as we wait for the legal process to unfold.

Like many communication professionals, I believe there is great value in proactively planning speaking points to position your argument (or product or policy) in the best possible light. I’ve trained my share of leaders on this practice. But there are several critical requirements to ensure this is done effectively, meaning the messages are relevant (in some way relate to the question and circumstance), supported by proof points and perceived as credible, or at least plausible and appropriate. It’s also important the messages be adaptable and evolve to reflect their resonance, or lack thereof, with observers. Worse case scenario, the audience or interviewer could disagree with your position, but not call into question your bona fides or integrity.

Unfortunately, the practice of talking points has become pervasive and perverted in recent years. Now it’s common practice for politicians, for example, to align on a set of partisan messages and repeat them with numbing frequency, notwithstanding the occasion or even the question. In the worse cases, these talking points are often misleading, if not outright fabrications; more slogans or aspirational headlines than information. What used to be shared as opinion or suggestion is now peddled as fact. The thinking appears to be that if you repeat something often enough – even if it’s not accurate or relevant – people will start to believe it.

Maybe the most surprising aspect of this is that the speakers appear oblivious to the fact their statements do not pass the sniff test. Witness the recent announcement by Senator Ted Cruz he was running for President. Cruz’ stump speech (ironically headlined with the theme of truth) is littered with sweeping, provocative claims that have been widely debunked, and not just by the obvious suspects on the other side of the partisan divide. Yet, Cruz appears happy to continue repeating his punch lines, presumably content that his target audience (conservative Republicans) is quite happy to believe in his worldview. My issue here isn’t with Cruz’s arguments or politics, but that he appears totally unconcerned about the widespread, repeated questions about the veracity of his statements. What me worry?

Like other industry observers, I suspect this neo-propaganda model of talking points owes something to the most infamous examples of intentional misinformation: the tobacco industry’s decades-long denial of health hazards from smoking. Other industries – notably the oil and gas sector – have followed a similar model of incessant lobbying fueled by massive advertising and marketing, all scripted by carefully written narratives and slogans with a tenuous relationship to truth or public interest. Now politics seems to have fully embraced this campaign model, designed more to shape public policy and sway voters than to educate or foster dialogue.

The problem with this paradigm, I would argue, is that the cumulative impact of this disputed, polarized messaging is the eroding credibility and relevance of the process and the messages themselves. Does anybody really believe what the politicians are saying? Or does having evidence to back your messages even matter anymore? A number of recent surveys on low levels of trust for a wide range of sources – notably politicians, journalists and corporate leaders – suggests there is a serious credibility gap in public discourse.

The result of all this, I fear, is collateral damage for the reputation of the PR profession, already struggling with accusations of spin and ethical lapses. All communication pros should carefully consider their own actions in these situations. What are the values and principles that guide our counsel and behavior? I believe our profession needs to take a stronger stand with our clients or company leaders, and promote a more authentic, relevant and cogent messaging strategy that can stand up to objective scrutiny. In short, stand up for the truth.

Over the past few years, I’ve often questioned why so many communication professionals – both in-house and in PR agencies – were slow and hesitant to adapt to the dramatic industry changes sparked by social technology. There are many logical explanations for this lag: caution about legal issues, concern about a public misstep, fears about rogue employees, a distaste for real (and potentially negative) interaction with consumers…the list goes on. But based on recent research I’ve seen the explanation may be more basic: most PR professionals simply don’t have the social media skills and expertise to be effective (or confident) advocates for change.

This excellent post by friend and former colleague Richard Binhammer provides a good summary of the skills gap in marketing and across the general US employee population. Indeed, the problem is not limited to communication professionals. However, this is where the problem is most acute and noteworthy, since our jobs dictate that we provide cogent, informed counsel and support on digital engagement with both external and internal audiences. By some estimates in these studies, only about 10 percent of workers truly understand digital technology well enough to incorporate that knowledge into their work and planning. For more background on the PR skill gap see this article and this study.

Even millennials, who tend to be much more tech-savvy than older workers and use most major social platforms every day, have their blind spots. Though younger workers have grown up with the mobile Internet and have likely posted most of their lives online, they lack the strategic savvy and broader perspective required to use their knowledge in a business context. Put another way, they understand the technology, but not the PR business. This article in Fortune provides a good snapshot of the millennial strengths and weaknesses.

All of this evidence reflects what I’ve seen over the past 10 or so years as both a communication executive and consultant. We are falling behind in a digital world. Badly. Events like SXSW, the tip of the spear in digital innovation, suggest that everybody is fully immersed in digital media and driving cutting-edge social media strategies in marketing, advertising and communications. But I don’t think the folks at SXSW reflect the average PR professional, or company – particularly outside the tech havens of Silicon Valley, Portland and similar global outposts.

Leaders who are socially savvy and proactive are extremely rare, the proverbial unicorn. A surprising number of communication teams seem to rely on one or two in-house digital gurus – typically social media managers, digital designers or marketing experts – who are often over-taxed and overwhelmed. Lacking adequate depth and breadth of critical social skills, many communication teams rely on a range of outside experts ranging across digital disciplines to cobble together programs: web design, platform vendor/technology, visual/video content, editorial content, social community management, research and analytics, and so forth. I’ve rarely seen all this requisite expertise housed within a PR agency or team, much less inside the same organization. Though the outsourced virtual “best team” approach may be effective in the short-term, it doesn’t support the efficient, dedicated work required to plan and execute a robust digital strategy.

There is urgent need to address this social skill gap; the credibility, relevance and effectiveness of the communication/PR business are at stake. The solutions are obvious, if not easy or inexpensive: training in social media history and skills; built-in time to participate in relevant seminars and meetings; progressive BYOD and social media policies; reverse mentorship programs; recruitment of tech-savvy professionals; mandatory boot-camps on digital metrics; and, alignment with related disciplines (i.e. digital design, intranet technology, social analytics, CRM.) Smart communication leaders will take steps to ensure they – and their teams – become the social media experts their clients expect and need to be successful in the digital age. Without making progress in the social skill gap, I fear PR may simply be pushed out by smart marketing or technology firms (and teams) who pull together the requisite social capabilities.

During SXSW a few weeks ago I had the good fortune of meeting a number of my former colleagues from Dell, where I worked from 2002 to 2006. During my stint there I had the incredible good fortune of working on the team that would design, develop and manage Dell’s then new – and since much lauded – social media program.

But our conversation didn’t dwell so much on the good old days as the realization that years later many companies are still hesitant to embrace, or even explore, the full potential of social media technology. This despite the dramatic increase in cheap, user-friendly technology to support everything from targeting to analytics to collaboration. In fact, outside of some perennial leaders – many of them in the technology industry – many organizations are still grappling with the same questions and fears we saw almost ten years ago. And this is particularly true of companies exploring a social strategy inside the enterprise. (As just one example of this slow going, the folks at Prescient Digital estimate that only 4% of companies have a truly social intranet system.) After comparing notes about our respective clients and consulting gigs, we concluded many of the original arguments, tools and basic social media models we developed in those early days were still relevant, and very much in demand.

So why the uneven, reluctant adoption of new approaches and technology?  While many have focused on potential fixes for PR teams and their clients (check out this excellent blog post by my former Dell colleague Richard Binhammer) I am more curious – and perplexed – about the barriers to progress in PR. Why is a business filled with smart , accomplished consultants so slow to adapt? Based on my perspective the past few years, I offer a few suggestions:

  • Bunker Mentality – There’s no way to escape the dramatic tectonic shifts in new technology and the related impact on entire industries, including news media, advertising, retail, music, and not least communications and PR. The dizzying pace of new products and functionality makes it even harder to keep up with change. While some organizations seem invigorated by these shifts and flood of new opportunities, many have reacted with grudging, superficial tactics without changing their strategy or business model. In many ways, they are still in denial.
  • Inertia – The sad reality in any corporate setting (indeed, perhaps even in human nature itself) is that there is very strong momentum for doing things the way they’ve always been done, particularly in times where staffs are lean and driven by short-term objectives. And despite all the hype around innovation and risk, very few organizations have cultures that encourage, or even allow activity outside the norm. Often, companies need a major event like a new strategy or leader to encourage a shift in direction. Without that, it’s difficult to change old habits.
  • Functional Insularity – Functional departments that would typically help spark and support innovation and change – or at least be the sources of new ideas and information – are often the most insular, reactive ones of the bunch. HR and IT, for example, are in many cases reluctant bystanders to progress and sometimes surprisingly uninformed about new technology or trends. (In some of my social media projects, in-house IT departments are either reluctant partners or standing on the sideline.) The one department that seems to have embraced change, albeit sometimes reluctantly, is marketing. PR is often caught in the middle of this dynamic and too often unwilling or unable to drive its own momentum.
  • Boomers Dominate Leadership – Though statistics suggest boomers are among the fastest growing users of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, many older workers are less familiar and comfortable with new technology, social or otherwise. This helps explain anachronisms like the CEO who refuses to use email or others who shun any type of digital discourse. The grizzled leadership in many PR companies has the same generational anxiety about trying new tools and approaches. This trend should change as younger, much more tech-savvy workers gain leadership roles.
  • Tyranny of Today – Many communication professionals operate at a hyper pace and in a routine that leaves little room for introspection or learning. In that context, it’s easy to simply continue focusing on immediate projects and put off professional development – both formal and otherwise. Add to this the reality that many clients and peers are also focusing on their daily priorities, and paying little attention to broader issues outside their immediate tasks. Perhaps the most common refrain I’ve heard from peers struggling to understand and incorporate new technology is “I just don’t have time.”
  • Knowledge Gap – Save perhaps for a few precocious millenials, very few of us in the PR industry start with a deep base of knowledge in social media or related technology. What we know is what we’ve learned in the past decade or so as social media has become more prevalent in our lives. So it takes effort and commitment to remain in learning mode and stay current on major trends and new platforms. Unfortunately, it seems too many PR pros are counting on a few resident tech nerds or outside experts rather than upgrading their own knowledge base.

Taken together, these factors help explain the myopic outlook and slow adoption of social media in PR. And I’ve experienced every one of these barriers, so I have some understanding for the challenges in our business. But they shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction. I don’t want to be having this same discussion in 5 years.

Like many of my peers, I look forward to Mary Meeker’s annual report on internet and technology trends. Though I always tell clients they need to focus on their own situation and custom solutions, it’s also true that a PR program devoid of context and detached from prevailing technology trends is likely to fail. With that caveat, here’s my take on the highlights of Meeker’s report:

  • Internet becoming ubiquitous: Internet growth around the world continues, with 2.4 billion people now online, and there’s plenty of room for that to continue with huge untapped populations in developing countries. For example, internet reach is only at 42% in China and 45% in Brazil.
  • Digital content booming: The growth of digital information that is created and shared – including documents, pictures, video, music and tweets – has multiplied 9 times in the last five years. And this content is increasingly findable due to being tagged and searchable through numerous platforms. Incidentally, emerging platforms like Vine or Snap are two examples of new options for creating and sharing content.
  • Social Media popularity growing: The use of social media platforms continues to increase. Though Facebook still dominates the global scene, it saw a slight decrease in percentage of users. Newer platforms like Instagram and Tumblr experienced the biggest growth, while YouTube is now firmly established as the second most popular platform (by percentage.)
  • Mobility becoming more common: About 15% of internet traffic is now mobile (up from less than 1% in 2009), and growth of at least 1.5 X per year is likely to continue, if not accelerate.
  • Emergence of “alwaysonglobal citizens: The result of growing mobility options, digital content and transparency is giving rise to more people who are essentially always connected to the internet – no matter where they are or what they are doing.
  • New devices fueling boom: Though smartphones continue to grow in popularity, other devices like tablets (growing 3 times faster than phones) and so-called wearables (e.g. sensor-enabled Google glasses) and drivables (connected cars) are likely to turbo-charge the mobility trend, expand functionality and make everywhere computing the norm.

What does this all mean for the PR/communication industry? It suggests that companies that are already lagging in their understanding and adoption of new technology – whether via social media platforms, mobile delivery or multi-media content – will risk irrelevance and even obsolescence if they don’t adapt quickly. And those that are still using traditional models of marketing, customer service or news management are clearly swimming against the current. New technology has changed how people access information, create content, make decisions, purchase products and even communicate with their peers. There is no longer a safe harbor for companies who believe they are outside the reach of these trends, since their employees, and customers, are increasingly immersed in the always-on environment described by Meeker and others.  Sitting on the sidelines is no longer an option.

I was pretty happy to read the dual press statements from Yahoo and Tumblr when they announced their partnership this week. I have to admit in recent months I’ve pretty well given up on press releases – a sterile, decaying art form that is seemingly impervious to innovation and improvement. It’s true that some companies have made their releases more social in recent years, even entertaining, but too often releases are formulaic, devoid of personality and cloaked in vague and trite legal jargon. In other words, they are usually boring, generic and lacking credibility.

In this sorry context come the above mentioned releases. First Yahoo. Right off the bat, you’ve got to give the Yahoo team kudos for featuring the elephant in the room right in their bylinewe promise we won’t screw it up. Marisa Mayer’s comments about Tumblr and its CEO David Karp seem genuine and conversational – as if (lo and behold) the quote is actually real. She also acknowledges the obvious – that the two companies couldn’t be more different – but also makes a good case for how they can complement each other. A few other nice touches – the word awesome and an ironic exclamation point  – help make the release not just credible, but worth reading. And though the release has some typical verbiage on opportunity and assets, the business case is presented in a way that makes sense.

The Tumblr statement is even more refreshing, and totally in keeping with the company’s smart, rebellious image. David Karp’s blog post is funny, sarcastic and ends with a disarming “F… yeah!” It’s also concise and hits the obvious concerns of his team right at the top. All this and not a legal term or ten-dollar word in sight.

Beyond the initial statements, both teams used their arsenal of social media platforms to get the word out and provide ongoing elaboration and commentary. In the process, they haven’t shied from some of the controversial aspects of the deal (notably Tumblr’s not so secret reputation as a hotbed of porn.)

The lesson here is not that companies need to make their press releases irreverent or informal, but they should remember their identity and their target audiences – which include employees and consumers, not just Wall Street heavies. In this case the tone of the statements seemed entirely appropriate. It helps that this transaction seems to fit with the strategy of the respective companies – Yahoo gets a new potential audience, a boost in buzz and some much-needed hip factor; while Tumblr keeps its independence while benefiting from the huge audience and finances of a large partner. Another point I’ve argued many times with peers and clients is that information that is important – notably in formal announcements like press releases that must be carefully crafted – doesn’t have to be serious or boring. Compelling content that is aligned with readers’ interests, lexicon and media habits is much more likely to be read and believed. Isn’t that the point of releases in the first place?

In the wake of their unequivocal electoral defeat in November, the GOP party has been doing some chaotic soul-searching to figure out what went wrong, and how they can get back in the White House.

Well, it appears the brighter Republican minds have determined that they had a “messaging” problem in the election, rather than any demographic or policy dissonance between the American electorate and the Republican platform. More specifically, some argued it was who delivers the message and how it’s delivered that matters most; the underlying GOP messages themselves retain their probity and relevance. To use the words of one attendant at the RNC debrief: “we don’t need a new pair of shoes, we just need to shine our shoes.”  More recently, following the inauguration of President Obama, Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders reaffirmed this assessment, saying their party needed to change the way it communicates, not its ideas, to win back the White House.

As a communication professional, I would be the last person to deny that language and messaging can make a difference in public perception, attitudes and behavior. And I support the theory that the GOP election campaign was littered with examples of messaging (scripted and unintentional) that influenced the polls and ultimately fueled their electoral defeat. But the GOP post-mortem analysis seems far too simplistic and self-serving. In fact, it reflects a particular obsession in politics with adjusting words and labels to be more palatable and resonant – packaging which often comes with limited connection to, or impact on, the underlying policy reality. This game of focus-group window-dressing and euphemisms has become so common and predictable in Washington it’s something of a bad cliché. “Hey, we need a user-friendly label for this new tax law that plays well in the middle-class….”

In PR we often run into clients or prospects that ask us to “message” them out of a crisis or bad reputation. And just as often I tell them that communication alone can’t fix a bad decision or policy. But they still try.

I’ll leave it to others to determine whether American voters really buy into the GOP platform – the actual policies, values and laws that they promote and implement. But I would argue the Republican messages were only one part of a broader construct that shaped their public profile – which includes their actions and ideas, not just their words. And though brands and labels do matter, they can’t exist (or be changed) in a vacuum. Messaging without supporting evidence and ongoing corroboration – particular in a political context – is little more than dubious propaganda.  I also believe that most American consumers/voters are smarter than political leaders (and their armies of consultants and lobbyists) give them credit for, and will see through the most blatant messaging overhauls.

As luck would have it, I’ve been reading the results of Edelman’s excellent annual survey on trust. The survey suggests that trust of leaders and organizations is critical to influencing audience opinions and behavior (whether it be purchase, engagement or advocacy.) I think most of us would agree with that basic premise. But the study further argues that to build and sustain trust companies/leaders must focus on five key areas:

  • Stakeholders want to see ENGAGEMENT behaviors like frequent, transparent communications and obvious care for employees and customers.  There’s great faith built on the back of dialogue and interaction.
  • They expect clear exhibition of INTEGRITY of business practices and responsible actions about issues. Again, transparency is key, since it’s inadvisable to go around bragging how high your integrity is.
  • Quality PRODUCTS AND SERVICES seem like cost-of-entry, but this is a powerful way to build trust, especially with your innovation in evidence.
  • Once upon a time, brands could truly differentiate themselves by addressing a greater PURPOSE than mere profit and valuation results. Purpose initiatives are more powerful than ever for bonding and setting oneself apart… but now it’s expected, if not demanded, that businesses work to protect the environment, address societal needs and impact their community.
  • The fundamentals of the enterprise – OPERATIONS – are an important basis for trust; these include having highly regarded leadership, ranking among top companies and posting strong financial returns. And while you’re not likely to generate great increases in trust with these, if you fail, trust will plummet, and you’ll have much bigger issues to address.

I recognize the Edelman study focuses on companies and executives, rather than politicians or political parties. (On a side note, the survey shows that government lags business, media and NGOs in trust ratings, with the gap between government and business growing.) But I think the findings are quite relevant to this issue. It suggests that some of the old chestnuts of PR like “walk the talk” and “show me don’t just tell me” are still valid. In order to drive and sustain tangible changes in public attitudes and behavior, words (spoken or written) aren’t enough. It’s time politicians and executives commit to a more mature, comprehensive approach – where their actions, ideas and messages are real and aligned – to build credibility and support. I’ll be watching with interest how the GOP does with its “words first” approach.

Each year at this time the gigantic Consumer Electronics Show occurs in Las Vegas. This is like the Super Bowl of the technology industry with equal parts hype, illusion, innovation and debauchery in the program. What strikes me every year, however, is not necessarily the news or products coming out of CES – here’s one summary of the key trends at CES – but that the event is virtually ignored by the PR industry.

As I read article after article in the business, marketing and technology media outlets, there is nary a mention in PR industry publications. (PRWeek US does have one article, but it focuses on how brands are adapting their promotions to drive buzz at the event rather than the actual technology.) There’s a similar trend on popular PR blogs and discussion groups, with those leaning on communication (or broader, related topics like engagement and dialogue) virtually ignoring the event and related discussions.

This lack of interest, and coverage, reflects a dangerous blind spot for the PR industry, which still focuses on churning out content and traditional techniques and tools and lacks interest and expertise in emerging technologies. I’ve witnessed the same “leading from behind” trend with the industry’s uneven, tentative reaction to the social media revolution, which has resulted in sporadic deployment and glaring knowledge gaps across the industry. It’s as if the technology side of the equation has been outsourced to digital agencies or even IT teams (though the latter also lag badly in some organizations.)

I recognize CES is about consumer technology and products, but I believe the concept of marketing to consumers carries some relevance to marketing – or communicating – to other audiences, including employees. At minimum, should professional communicators not track what new technologies are impacting various products and industries – particularly those directly grounded in communication areas like digital content and collaboration?

This is one area where marketing and advertising firms seem to have the upper hand. They realize, it seems, that they risk irrelevance and oblivion if they don’t seek to understand and implement new technology to inform and engage customers. I like the approach of the Starcom/Publicis agency team, which hosted hundreds of clients at CES to expose them to emerging trends and partner in discussions on the implications for marketing. Their message on the event is perceptive and telling:

“CES is about more than just technology.  The agency views it instead at the Consumer Experience Show. […] One of the underlying messages from CES is that technology is a major contributor to a culture and business climate that is evolving at warp speed. Ultimately, creating a compelling experience is what we’re all struggling to do.”

I keep hoping that the PR industry will stop playing catch up on these major trends. Maybe I’ll see more interest and participation at SXSW in Austin, which is ostensibly more relevant to PR professionals. Getting informed and engaged is in the interests of our industry, and our clients.

A recent war of words – played out on the Web between Gawker and Reddit – was only the latest example of the argument surrounding the right approach for screening comments on the Intranet. In this case, the folks at Gawker helped to out one of the most notorious trolls on Reddit, which is a popular hangout for anonymous users who like to push the envelope on what is appropriate content. The discussion surrounding this issue raised important questions about privacy, conduct rules and the quality and scope of free expression. I have to admit I’m glad Gawker “outed” the troll in question – since I found his work toxic – but I wish Reddit would have more taken proactive steps to purge their site of the most egregious abuses.

This online polemic brought to light an unfortunate truth about the Web; the sad state of commentary of many sites and platforms. Several years ago, when new social platforms greatly expanded and facilitated the process of online commentary, I was optimistic that communities (both large and specific to sites and authors) would generate a fairly useful and candid exchange of ideas.  There would always be outliers and pesky critics who seem to spend all their waking hours on sites, of course, but on balance the community would self-regulate and provide a range of reasonable ideas and arguments.

Unfortunately, based on what I’m seeing online lately I have to admit that is often not the case. Many comment sections – even for websites and platforms where you would expect good self-regulation and informed users – are a wasteland of trolls, spammers and perverts. Some of the worst offenders are political hacks that don’t even bother with original content, re-posting their canned message numerous times with little logic. If there are rules of conduct and filters for inappropriate language, they are not immediately apparent. I suspect many of the sites are rarely if ever moderated or edited. I realize that some topics invite strong opinions – notably news and political sites – but the noise has spread well beyond the expected sites and platforms. Take a look at this recent example on CNN, where a seemingly innocuous (and positive) news post about Drake getting his high-school diploma sparked a nasty, racist diatribe of abuse.

Most communication professionals would agree the ideal is to foster robust dialogue on the Web – and to allow questions, comments and suggestions that help extend and enrich the discussion (or related products and services.) But that choice is no longer automatic given the bottom-feeder trash on many comment sections. The key question for many has become – is it even worth it to try to manage the comment sections? More pointedly, how do you encourage and filter comments without coming down too hard on either censorship or chaos? This question is a critical issue not just for individuals and organizations on the web, but also for companies striving to engage their employees through internal platforms behind the firewall.

My take is that allowing anonymous comments – particularly inside a secure, corporate platform – opens the door to the worst abuses. Even without formal identification or registration requirements, the quality of dialogue would greatly improve with more diligent moderation. Set common-sense rules and enforce them. Where abuses do occur – whether based on a site’s conduct guidelines or broader legal restrictions – site managers should take responsibility and remove and/or punish the offenders, rather than taking a hands-off approach with a blanket defense of freedom of speech. Whatever the response, something has to change or I fear many comment sections will be left to a vocal, vitriolic minority that erodes the credibility and relevance of the conversation, as well as the sponsoring sites and organizations.

The U.S. election season the past few months has been notable for the vitriol, partisanship and disingenuous arguments featured in much of the conversation. In fact, it’s been a depressing showcase of the worst instincts of communication professionals, with decorum and credibility taking a back seat to carpet-bombing ads and scoring political points. But during the DNC a few weeks ago, Bill Clinton provided a memorable reminder that well-delivered and packaged information – and balanced arguments – can still pack a punch.

Clinton’s speech was widely lauded as the most cogent and straight-forward defense of Obama’s re-election platform to date – even better than Obama’s own keynote speech and numerous previous attempts to frame his case for another term. Using all of his considerable skills as an orator and politician, Clinton presented a clear and crisp argument for why Obama deserved a second term – or at least made the best case for it. Though the address was certainly partisan, it relied heavily on anecdote and evidence and avoided the worst excesses of the party campaigns.

The most interesting lesson for me here is that information – no matter how credible and relevant – is just not enough. In fact, the Obama team had been struggling for weeks to shape and share essentially the same content that was so effectively presented by Clinton. Indeed, the secret sauce of communication is the presentation, format and delivery of the core material, or messages. This may be a truism of PR but one that is often forgotten in the race to just get out the message. Clinton used essentially the same material as Obama, but explained and presented it in way that was more streamlined, resonant and repeatable than before.

Here’s a few specific tactics Clinton used that bear notice:

  • The best speeches or presentations are about sharing information with people, not talking to them. Despite his keynote speech format, Clinton made me (and presumably other listeners) feel we could have been sitting with him in a far more intimate , informal setting.
  • There’s no substitute for experience and credibility. Say what you want about Clinton’s failings as President, but he remains an incredibly smart policy wonk who has first-hand experience in many of the issues he discussed in his speech – notably welfare reform. That carried gravitas that simply isn’t shared by most other speakers (hello Paul Ryan.)
  • Building on the last point, Clinton backed all of his arguments with evidence. One can argue with his data, views and conclusions, but he certainly backed his assertions with a solid explanation and relevant proof points.
  • Clinton is famous – sometimes mocked – for his litany of mannerisms; the aw-chucks bite, folksy chuckle and wagging finger are just three of his famous repertoire. But these seemed heartfelt and appropriate, and were very effective in helping him to make a point, or add emotion and emphasis to his comments.
  • Simplicity is a forgotten art in the overhyped world of politics. Many of Clinton’s key points were captured in punchy, repeatable phrases. Though not slogans per se, they are easily understood and repeatable.
  • The best evidence is personal stories that capture the inherent issue, and proposed solution, in even the most esoteric policy arguments. Clinton used several of these effectively.
  • And finally, Clinton’s speech was relevant and responsive – particularly in how he provided a point-by-point dissection, and rebuttal, of the most popular Republican criticisms. Unlike other speeches that seemed drafted in a vacuum, with no acknowledgement of media or political winds, Clinton made sure he addressed the questions many viewers would want answered.
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