Archive for February, 2010

Policymaker Report Cards Offer New Exposure for Issues and Messages

February 2010

Personally, one of my least favorite school activities as a student was report card day. While I often knew in advance what the report card would say, I was always anxious about my parents’ reaction. Knowledge may be power, but I think we can all admit that sometimes there are things we wish our parents didn’t know about our academic achievements – or lack thereof.


Like our younger selves, policymakers don’t like report cards, but the tactic can definitely get an organization noticed in the media and the public. More advocacy organizations are using report cards — or scorecards — to draw attention to the performance (i.e. voting record) of Congressional and state legislators on a variety of policy issues.

Recently Environment America — a nonprofit, nonpartisan environmental advocacy organization — issued their annual Congressional scorecard. It identified members of Congress who are “Washington’s environmental champs” – policymakers who voted for the environment 100% of the time in the past 18 months on major environmental issues. The scorecard also called out policymakers who are “natural disasters” and did not support environmental legislation and/or issues. State affiliates of Environment America also replicate this approach and release scorecards focusing on their state’s representatives, as Environment Washington did in December.

Outside of the environmental movement, other advocacy groups also use the scorecard as a tool to bring awareness to and action on their issue. For example, the Human Rights Campaign issues a Congressional Scorecard each year to show how members of Congress have voted on equality issues. The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law has an interactive Web site dedicated to their annual scorecards on how Representatives and Senators voted  on anti-poverty legislation. The Web site even allows visitors to compare legislators’ grades.

Federal and state policymakers don’t like their voting records publicized and publicly evaluated. Their constituents (policymakers’ “parents” in this metaphor) are often unaware of the voting behavior and legislative actions of their representatives, and a scorecard can provide them a new, easy to understand viewpoint to evaluate their representative’s performance.

Issuing scorecards can also open doors for organizations looking to build relationships and alliances with key policymakers. Media coverage resulting from a scorecard release draws attention from Capitol Hill and state legislative staffers to your organization and may inspire — or force in an election year like this one — legislators to change their viewpoint and voting record on an issue.  In addition, scorecards provide valuable, concise information and data to reporters covering that policy issue and will help position your organization as an expert and resource for future insights.

In spite of the discomfort it causes lawmakers, the scorecard/report card approach is an effective tool in the policy communications arsenal to expand an organization’s message exposure. Hopefully, it will reinforce supportive policymakers to continue championing the issue or pressure failing legislators to improve their grade and make the honor roll on their next report card.

Reporters Use PR Professionals to Verify Information Found on Social Media Sites

February 2010

A recent study conducted by Cision and Don Bates of The George Washington University’s Master’s Degree Program in Strategic Public Relations found that a majority of reporters and editors turn to social media when conducting research for their stories:

Among the journalists surveyed, 89% said they turn to blogs for story research, 65% to social media sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, and 52% to microblogging services such as Twitter. The survey also found that 61% use Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia.

The study also found that the reporters and editors using social media outlets for their research understood the need to verify all of the information that they find.

Eighty-four percent said social media sources were “slightly less” or “much less” reliable than traditional media, with 49% saying social media suffers from “lack of fact checking, verification and reporting standards.

To verify the information found through social media outlets and sources, journalists are turning to public relations professionals. PR professionals can provide verification of the information as well as access to additional information and experts.  From the article:

Editors and reporters surveyed said they depend on PR professionals for “interviews and access to sources and experts” (44%), “answers to questions and targeted information” (23%), and “perspective, information in context, and background information” (17%).

As journalists using social media outlets turn to PR professionals for verification and context, PR professionals should establish themselves as resources by building relationships with local reporters.  This requires public relations staff to be aware of the ongoing conversations in the social media sphere with respect to their clients and areas of expertise.  PR professionals should be constantly tracking the stories in their clients’ field of focus – in new and old media channels alike – in order to keep track of which local reporters are covering those issues.  This enables public relations staff to establish themselves as a contact to be used as a source of information and pathway to experts that can provide quotes and data as needed.  With a good relationship established, journalists will reach out to a PR professional for verification, context and expert input the next time they are working on a story.

Like Bill Gates Shows, Leaders' Personal Messages Online Can Be a Winning Strategy

February 2010

I know, not everyone is Bill Gates. Very few people on the planet can gain 100,000 followers on Twitter eight hours after launching their Twitter profile.

bill-gates-microsoft / CC BY 2.0

But perhaps we should start thinking like Bill.

Using his newly formed Twitter community, Gates recently launched his newest endeavor, The Gates Notes, where he will personally document his thoughts, travels and work with his nonprofit organization, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

It’s not uncommon for CEOs and executive directors of NGOs to share updates and information with supporters through blogging and/or e-newsletter columns. But Gates’s new Web site takes it a step further and other nonprofit leaders should take note.

This interactive Web site gives visitors an inside look at global issues from Gates’s personal perspective. Even his first post on Gates Notes feels like a diary entry:

It often feels like I’m back in school, as I spend a lot of my time learning about issues I’m passionate about. I’m fortunate because the people I’m working with and learning from are true experts in their fields. I take a lot of notes, , and often share them and my own thoughts on the subject with others through email, so I can learn from them and expand the conversation.

I thought it would be interesting to share these conversations more widely with a Website, in the hope of getting more people thinking and learning about the issues I think are interesting and important.

With the thousands of charitable and advocacy organizations competing for the public’s attention, Gates Notes shows how a personal touch can set an organization apart and build a larger community. Whether through blogs, e-newsletters,  social networking profiles or more traditional communication channels, readers will appreciate and respond to candor, honesty and passion for a cause when shared through a real human voice. Think of it as persuasive storytelling 2.0, using technology to share personal testimonies and insights.

Are there limits? Absolutely. Often, organizational leaders do not have the time and/or expertise to communicate via social media and rely on their communication staff to do it on their behalf. This can pose quite an ethical dilemma. In such a personal medium, can people  share messages through social media pretending to be (or on behalf of) someone else? Are we misleading readers? As a profession, we are still trying to figure it out. PR pro Todd Defren’s blog PR-Squared is exploring those very ethical issues.

The bottom line is that whenever possible, leaders should write their own posts for authenticity and transparency. If this is not an option for an organization, then leaders and communicators should consider creating social media presences under their organization’s name or profile, instead of tying it to a specific individual. Then, anyone affiliated with the organization can communicate on their behalf, eliminating ethical challenges.

Honesty and transparency when communicating online are the best policy. And if we take a tip from Bill, the personal touch can be a winning strategy.

The Buzz on Google Buzz

February 2010

This week, Google rolled out a new feature they’ve called Buzz.  For an introduction to Buzz, view the video below.  This marks the first time in quite awhile that Google has rolled out a new product without doing some extensive testing prior to a full release – Gmail, Wave, Docs, and Voice all went through a testing phase of some kind prior to their release.  But Buzz is here, and communicators need to be aware of what it is and some potential pitfalls.

Perhaps the easiest way to think of Buzz is to compare it to your Facebook live feed.  It is a real time display of what your friends are doing on the web.  Buzz accomplishes this by pulling information from your existing web accounts, including the Google suite of products (Picasa photo albums, Chat status messages, shared items in Google Reader) and other web platforms like Twitter and Flickr.  We should all expect that the list of sites that integrate with Buzz will increase over time. Every time you update a web platform that you’ve connected to Buzz, Buzz updates as well, broadcasting that update to your network of Google followers. What’s more, Buzz adds a new status update feature tied to your Google Account.  You can write text, incorporate links, video, photos and more, and share that with the friends that follow you on Buzz – or with the world at large. Think of it as Google’s answer to Twitter, without the 140 character limit and with the ability to add multimedia.

So what do you need to know about Buzz?  A few things:

  1. Buzz asks if you would like to share who you follow and who follows you when you create an account. Reacting to concerns raised by folks like techPresident, Google revised their Buzz privacy policies very quickly.  Because Buzz pulls from your most active email and chat contacts to create lists of followers, it is possible you could display contacts that you’d rather not publicize.  techPresident accurately notes how displaying your contacts could cause problems for journalists and politicos – but we’d like to extend that concern to communicators and advocacy groups.  Many nonprofit organizations have taken advantage of Google Apps, which offers great services for free or at a low cost.  Any organization using Google needs to check their Buzz privacy settings to ensure that their contacts aren’t displayed to the world.  If you set up your account earlier this week, you’ll need to do this retroactively.  For instructions on how to do that, check out this post from Lifehacker.  If you haven’t set up your Buzz account yet, Google will now prompt you with the question, “How do you want to appear to others?”  To protect your list of contacts, uncheck the box that states, “Show the list of people I’m following and the list of people following me on my public profile.”
  2. Buzz can crowd your Gmail inbox pretty quickly. Google clearly intended Buzz to become an integrated part of your email account, which has led it to display new Buzz messages alongside your new emails.  For organizations that use Gmail, this can crowd your inbox very quickly, and become rather annoying.  Again, Lifehacker has instructions on how to remove the Buzz updates from your Gmail account.
  3. Buzz has enormous possibilities for public sharing of information. Any information that is shared on Buzz that is categorized as “public” is available via the Buzz search engine. This is HUGE, as it allows you to search what people are sharing in real time via Buzz status updates, Google Reader, Twitter, Picasa, Flickr and more all in one place.  What’s more, anything posted in a public forum on Buzz is open to comment from anybody finds it.  We’ll have more on this later – but this promises to allow individuals and organizations to monitor and participate in conversations on issues that are important to them.

There are a lot of great resources out there that have details on how to set Buzz up and begin using it, and I encourage you to check them out.  I will have more soon on some of the ways organizations can use Buzz to further their communications agendas.

PS: I’m a bit shocked that Google is trying to get away with the Buzz name.  After all, Yahoo! has been using the term “Buzz” for their bookmarking platform for some time now.  I imagine you’ll be hearing more about this in the not so distant future.

UPDATE (2/26): Google made some changes to Buzz in reaction to the strong criticism they received over privacy concerns.  Writing on the Google blog, Product Manager Todd Jackson runs down the updates, including more prominent controls over who you follow and who follows you, as well as what items import to Buzz automatically.

Hispanics Are Online More; Prefer Content in English, New Survey Shows

February 2010

Hispanics in every life stage are increasingly online, and the majority prefer content in English, according to a new survey from Cheskin Added Value, commissioned by AOL Advertising.

The survey shows Hispanics (58%) closing the digital gap between themselves and the general population (71%).

Since our first study in 2002, the number of Hispanics online has grown significantly – faster, in fact, than the total US online population.

Hispanics consume online media in English, which the survey says reflects a greater availability of English language information (27.6%) vs. Spanish (7.9%).

In general, Hispanics recognize the disparity between the availability of English and Spanish language content. They perceive English sites as more comprehensive, detailed and useful than Spanish language counterparts. This belief is prevalent across all levels of acculturation and life stages.

hispanic_mainWhat’s more, Hispanics are early adopters and technology leaders, and they favor quality of online information over language preference. Not surprisingly, the survey showed that Hispanics were skeptical of straight translation, favoring meaningful adaptations that reflect ties to their home country or their experience in the U.S.

The survey included more than 700 Hispanics in various life stage groups: the young and free (30% of sample) stage represents people who are single, average 26-years-old and have no children; the young family stage (17%) are 33-years-old, married and have one child; the mature family stage (23%) are 40-years-old on average, married and have two children; the prime of life stage (18%) are 41-years-old, married with no children; and the empty nester stage (13%) are 57-years-old, have children over 18 years old and are married. The survey authors chose this approach over the more traditional lens of acculturation and language.

Segmentation by life stage provides another way to understand the values and interests of Hispanics, based on their preferences and behaviors, which are not necessarily unique to their cultural background or acculturation level.

This type of analysis showed that English-language marketing messages are favored by almost all of the youngest Hispanics, as well as many of the other market segments, regardless of time in the U.S. and English-language fluency.

The entire report can be obtained here.

The GR8 Spelling Revolution: Texting's Impact on the English Language

February 2010

Will the increasingly popular use of text message language (e.g. LOL, BRB, BTW, etc.) have a lasting effect on the English language? Ammon Shea explores this issue in a recent New York Times Magazine article, “The Keypad Solution.”

The language gap between parents and their children is nothing new. Slang like “groovy” and “far out” baffled adults during the ’60s and left them asking, “When did ‘hip’ come to mean something other than the part of the body where the leg meets the torso?” As I grew up in the ’90s, influences like Bill and Ted, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and a back-talking Bart Simpson filled elementary school chatter with words and phrases such as “rad,” “dude,” “tubular,” “cowabunga,” and the ever poetic, “eat my shorts.” / CC BY 2.0

However, the text messaging phenomenon is impacting not only what youth say but also how they spell it.  What’s more, “textisms” are no longer used exclusively among adolescents and teens. With social media tools like Twitter on the rise, the need to express one’s thoughts as immediately and concisely as possible is changing the way we communicate, with keypad language becoming increasingly popular.  As communicators, should this give us cause for concern?  Should we push back on mangled spelling, or allow a new generation to develop their own standards?

Interestingly, Shea’s article highlights the history of attempted spelling reform. Some very notable American thinkers – including Ben Franklin, Andrew Carnegie and President Theodore Roosevelt – all made ardent attempts to fix the troubling spelling inconsistencies found in the English language. Having taught English for a year in Ecuador, I know how frustrating the many spelling anomalies in the English language can be to a student. For example, Shea makes the point:

“The fact that through, rough, dough, plough, hiccough and trough all end with -ough, yet none of them sound the same as any of the others, is the sort of thing that has been vexing poets and learners of English for quite some time.”

Moreover, the American Literacy Council, a nonprofit founded in 1876, argues that there should be multiple ways of teaching people how to spell.  They’re a proponent of their own phonetic method called SoundSpel.

But will textisms be welcomed as an opportunity for spelling reform? Not likely, if you believe the article. Shea relays the opinion of Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University and author of “Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World,” in his article:

“[Baron] predicts that the number of “textisms” will stop growing as people continue to develop more proficiency in using handheld devices and as the devices continue to grow more sophisticated than simple telephone touch pads. She adds that part of the appeal of texting shorthands is their novelty, and that that will fade.”

This may be true, but as we wait for the tide of textisms to recede, there are many online text dictionaries to aid parents and those of us less proficient in text language.   Whether you choose to embrace textisms or not, it’s certainly an interesting development in the English language.  And don’t even get me started on emoticons!  Who knew there were so many facial expressions at our finger tips?

Nevertheless, communicators must think beyond our own opinions to try and experience things from our audiences’ perspectives.  Audience research is the first step in developing any social marketing campaign.  If adolescents and teens are our targets, can we justify dismissing a major development in how youth communicate because it’s against our linguistic sensibilities? When targeting youth, should we incorporate textisms into outreach materials? This would be a great issue to raise in future, youth-centered focus groups.

While I see no huge inconvenience in writing out “what are you doing?” – or WRUD in keypad language – the shorthand may feel more natural to others. It is important as communicators that we remain open to emerging trends; the rise of social media has certainly demonstrated this fact. The landscape of communications is constantly changing, and in order to effectively navigate that landscape, we must consider all developments influencing how people communicate.

Frank Zappa: First Amendment Artist

February 2010

Frank Zappa: First Amendment Artist

Frank Zappa: First Amendment Artist

February 2010
Frank Zappa
First Amendment Artist

“I have four children, and I want them to grow up in a country that has a working First Amendment.” – Frank Zappa, September 18, 1985.

Frank Zappa was known as one of rock’s sharpest musical minds and an astute social critic. A lifelong free-speech advocate, he testified before a Senate subcommittee in 1985, and he championed democracy by urging Americans to exercise their voting rights. In 1991, after serving as a cultural liaison for the Czechoslovakian government, he considered a run for the U.S. presidency. Zappa’s continued interest in the political arena became his focus, working less and less with music.  His efforts helped to stir political interests in other artists, who today are increasingly committed to First Amendment issues.