Archive | June, 2008

Google and the Human Brain

12 Jun

One day, my eight-year-old asks me, “Daddy, who invented the swing set?” I immediately answered that much like Samuel Morse invented Morse code and Thomas Crapper invented the toilet, the swing set was invented by Alexander Swing back in the late 1700s. He didn’t buy this (or the suggestion that it might have been Esmerelda Set) for more than a couple seconds, so I said what I usually say in these situations: “OK, let’s ask the Internet!” Which means to Google it.

The cover of the July/August Atlantic magazine reads, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” It’s a thought I’ve often had as I find us using Google — and the Internet as a whole — like Dumbledore’s Pensieve to hold information outside of ourselves that otherwise would overflow our ability to contain them.

Carr makes a compelling point about how technology structures the way we think:

…what the Net seems to be doing is is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: In a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski...

It’s as if the more we can find out through a simple search, the less we need to know, the less we’re required to discover something unknown, the less need we feel to create something new. It’s true when you’re a part of a network as well — back when I was at the Big Agency, we talked so much of experience from anywhere in the network, we sometimes neglected to train and empower teams to be experts.

Carr says that like mechanical clocks and every other major communications technology, our minds are adapting to the Net. In the process, some things are gained, and some are lost.

In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.

But maybe the competition will do us good. Facts are a commodity — junk food for the brain. Thinking, inferring, and imagining are what propels us, and gives each of us something distinct to contribute to our worlds. Carr says that this is where deep reading benefits the brain.

The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire … but for the intellectual vibrations those set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation…we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.

So, I’ll tell my kids to Google the facts, and to keep reading, and even see if they can discover something new. Because the Net doesn’t have all the answers.

Hey Freelance PR Consultant: How’s it Going?

10 Jun

I ran into a some of my old clients at the coffee shop today.  Like many others who haven’t seen me in some time, they asked me “How’s it going?” A loaded question — when you’re running your own business, you want to answer that question with what can be an elusive combination of confidence, competence and openness to new opportunities.

It also struck me that there’s no reason why the blog can’t answer the “how’s it going” question for me once in awhile.  And so, with your indulgence, a bit about me today.  Here’s how it’s going:

I started Kadet Communications in September 2007.  Since then, I’ve engaged with a diverse set of clients:  a systems integrator, a private school, a large technology company, a local restaurant run by a ‘star chef’, an industry association, and an Internet startup.

When I started out, most of my business came from contracting back with my old employer.  That business has been completely replaced.  Looking ahead, I’d love to add one or two good client relationships to the mix.

Projects have included:

  • Designing and executing a research-based brand re-positioning program to help a company better describe itself in marketing and sales.  Based on the new positioning, rewrote advertising and marketing copy, and developed a new navigation strategy for their website re-design.
  • Coaching an organization in how to overcome negative internal  perceptions, creating strategies, messages and vehicles for presenting positive stories about the organization’s future; and placed a positive story in the local daily newspaper.
  • Writing new brand guidelines to express an established company’s new, more focused marketing strategies.
  • During a time when public opinion has begun to align against them, counseling an industry association on communications strategy and set up meetings with media opinion leaders.
  • Playing a key role in a start-up venture’s efforts to define a new brand, describe a complex business model and develop a successful communications and marketing strategy.

My work has, amazingly, been just the type of work I wanted when I went on my own:  Helping clients with complex stories to tell those stories better. Delivering them solid, workable, creative and effective communications, branding and social media strategies.  And doing more storytelling — both for clients and here on this blog.

I’ve benefited from the kind referrals of friends, family and colleagues.  I’m having fun, meeting new people and reconnecting with old friends and colleagues.  What more can you ask for out of work?

Comments, referrals, questions and advice are most welcome!

Subscribe Now!

6 Jun

As communicators, we should reach people where they are, not where we want them to be. You may want them to visit your website, for example, but if your audience is learning the latest via text message, MyYahoo, Twitter, or the local paper, you’re missing an opportunity.

Which is why I’m surprised at how few corporate websites take advantage of tools like RSS feeds — letting people subscribe to news and updates via easy readers and news aggregators.  Which leads to the question, for the trained skeptic anyway:  how many people really use RSS? The answers are promising and tell me — and to marketers, I hope — “ignore this at your peril.”

Rather than offer exhaustive research (or stats that I have to pay for), here are a couple items for discussion.
First, RSS Diary offers a reference from August 2006:

RSS is currently used or is planned to be used within the next 12 months by 63% of consumer product marketers, 65% media and communications marketers, 37% retail marketers, 37% financial services marketers and 38% equipment and tech marketers.

A good start. I’d suggest that, given the prevalence of encouragements to subscribe, they have.  This survey covers an audience of folks that are serving customers and influencers who want to track news and keep up to date on their industry and market changes.

Next, and more to the point, Robert Scoble addressed this question last fall on the Scobelizer blog. He did some back-of-the-napkin analysis and came up with10 million people using feedreaders; prompting one of his readers to report that FeedBurner says it has more than 65 million subscribers to RSS feeds. But it’s not the numbers that are important, he says, it’s who they are:

…what’s the real power of RSS? The news influencers use it. So, if you want to reach the Paris Hilton crowd you’ve probably gotta go through someone who uses an RSS aggregator. Most of the journalists and almost all of the bloggers I know use RSS.

And that’s what matters to us. RSS is an incredibly simple and useful way to let media, bloggers and customers keep track of your news. RSS makes it easy for others to find and share your news with their networks, via websites, news portals and blogs.

The point here is not that RSS is the end all and be all of communications. The point is that as communicators, we should recognize that our communications should reach people where they are. That’s why websites should make it easy for readers to share content on social bookmarking sites like Digg,, and others (and for a cool intro to social bookmarking, check out this video). It’s why corporate news rooms should offer RSS feeds, email alerts and mobile alerts as well as prompts for social bookmarking. And it’s why it’s worth trying out social sites like Twitter, which many influencers are using to share and scan for interesting news.

So…how do you want my updates?

The Brand is Who You *Really* Are

4 Jun

I’ve had a recurring debate with a technology client about their positioning. Without going into too much detail, some sales and marketing folks are concerned that top management likes to “get their hands dirty” with client projects rather than stepping back into a more sales and management role — concerned that it might make the company look too small for corporate clients. 

My take: Embrace it.  Play it up.  Celebrate it. Let the market know that the top management is among the best out there — and they’d rather get out there helping clients than sit home at the office. It’s part of the company’s identity — one of the traits that separate them from the rest.

Your brand is who you are — the promise to your customers that you will live, every day in every part of your business. It can’t be imposed, forced or created out of thin air.  It can be uncovered, enhanced and amplified.  It can be aspirational and inspiring … founded on who you are and expressing who you want to become. 

It was fun to see Fast Company’s hip’n’cool cover subject allude to this in its cover story on Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s forthcoming effort to reposition Microsoft:

Bogusky explains that with previous clients, instead of hiding qualities that may seem negative — such as Mini’s tiny proportions or Burger King’s fat content — Crispin exploits them. “It’s part of your job as a marketer to find the truths in a company, and you let them shine through in whatever weird way it might be,” he says.  

It doesn’t have to be weird, but if it’s true, it can shine. 


Public Relations in the Extreme

3 Jun

Politics is public relations in the extreme.  It magnifies and amplifies the best and worst of PR practice.  We’ll often use politicians as examples for media training — they consistently stay ‘on message’.  We appreciate spokespeople who get out there and take the heat from the press corps — the ones like John Wodele, who had to explain Jesse Ventura for four years and did it with — at least from this outside perspective — his honesty and dignity intact. 

Then there’s Scott McClellan.  As President Bush’s assistant and then lead press secretary, McClellan was a cog in the execution of a major public affairs campaign to marshal public opinion in support of the Iraq invasion.  A campaign, he now says, was misled the public. This is PR in the extreme – facilitating public discussion and decision-making with the public’s blood and treasure on the line.

Most of us don’t have to deal with this day-to-day.  In my work, I’m helping tech companies find new ways to stay in the public eye. I’m helping another communicate its brand to employees and partners.  I’m working with a private school to remind its community that there are good stories amid tough financial times.  I’m helping a startup with its message and developing online and offline communication strategy for its launch. 

It’s fun.  It’s great work, and, I’d argue, important work.  But for all of that, we can be a bit thin-skinned as a profession.  Last year’s kerfuffle over Wired Editor Chris Anderson’s PR blacklist is on example; Sunday’s rant and response by CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen is another.  Cohen’s points about the core dishonesty of public relations practice were flip, ignorant and over the top.  But, as he points out, there is a reason why PR has such a poor reputation. 

Here’s my take on why:  Public Relations calls itself a “profession” — like Law or even Journalism.  It’s not. And this core identity crisis leaves us challenged to even define public relations, let alone defend it.

Lawyers are accountable to their clients, but they’re also accountable to state and federal regulations and their state bar association.  Even the role of the news media is made plain in the Constitution and their ideals and standards are part of our civic education. They can hold themselves as upholding ideas beyond the narrow interests of their clients and bosses.

Public relations people, whether we’re at an agency or an organization, are hired to help sell something. Our clients want people to choose their brand of soup, support their technology platform, build new stadiums, specify their brand, donate time and money to their cause, work with us in a crisis, vote for their legislation, and invest in their stock.  Public relations is a core part of the business of convincing people to take the action an organization wants them to take.  Our responsibility is to our organization, bound by ethics, honesty, civic duty and common sense.  We sell.

Now, our preferred methodology is to facilitate public discussion — to help our clients make their most compelling case through the news media and influential institutions, organizations, social networks and forums.  This distinguishes our practice from direct “sales”.  

But our practice is inherently self-interested on behalf of our organizations.  We speak with bias.  We focus on the story our organization wants to tell, toward our organization’s goals. We have no responsibility to tell another party’s story, but in my experience, the best, most credible and convincing stories are the ones that that are rich discussions that give clarity to complex issues — so sometimes, we’ll help make that happen, too.

As I said, it’s great work, fun and sometimes exciting.  And it’s necessary.  Contrary to popular belief, the truth doesn’t write itself — someone has to choose the right words.  Some stories are too complicated for simple headlines and pretty pictures.  Not every marketer is a great writer. Not every executive is a student of the increasingly complex news and social media environment. 

PR people are.  We’re good at words.  We’re students of the media and the Internet. We talk about what’s in the news, share stories, and argue about strategy.  We engage with journalists, bloggers, friends and others in online networks.  And we help our organizations and our clients do the same. 

So, no, Mr. Cohen, our profession is not full of liars and dissemblers. We’re advocates for the success of our organizations, and we know that our organizations’ successes hinge upon being believed, credible and convincing.  It means we’re biased and self-interested, but it means, as a practice, as a career, and as, well, professionals,  we’re on the side of the truth.  You can sort it out form there.

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