Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Problems with Readers' Comments Sections: The lack of civility

In 2009, Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times Magazine raised an important question: "Reader comments are key part of online journalism. So why do they disappoint?"

To answer that, I checked out readers' comments on many sites -- NY Times, Wall St. Journal, Boston Globe, and others -- and most of the time, the comments are often off point, ad hominem attacks on either the author or other readers...In general, there's a school-yard mentality to the responses, which is helpful (apparently) for people who need to vent and rant but not for a general discourse.

Then, in 2010, Wall St. Journal's L. Gordon Crovitz wrote, "Is Internet Civility an Oxymoron?," looking at the same issue.

Crovitz then cited several ways that sites are addressing the problem of the comments section.
  • Some sites let readers rank the reputation of comment writers.
  • Gawker list comments based on readers' rankings.
  • Some don't permit any postings at all.
  • The Wall St. Journal permits people to review posts by paid subscribers.
  • The Washington Post will soon rank "trusted commentators."
Yesterday, I decided to post a comment to an opinion article in the Wall St. Journal.  I had figured the Journal's comment section might be more circumspect, interesting and erudite because of the Journal's monitoring system to review posts.

I was wrong.

I saw a lot of ad hominem attacks. A lot of emotion. And a lack of logical arguments. There was a call for reasoned debate, but most of the posts I read were focused on trying to score a point against the idiots on the other side (I saw this from both sides of the aisle).  There were quite a few people who modus operendi is to bully those they disagree with.

Seems to me the rating system deployed by the Journal does not work to promote civility. Neither does having people sign in with their real names.  And although you can report abuse regarding those comments that are attacks (rather than arguments) against other people's comments, the Journal doesn't seem to do any moderating to improve the conversations going on in its comments section.

The problem with political discourse in this country does not live only inside the Beltway. It's a problem all over the place, especially on newspapers' comments section.

I think closer moderation might be an answer, but I'd bet -- Crovitz aside -- that the free-market Journal is probably is not inclined to have a moderator. The Journal would not be alone in that decision.  Closer moderation would cost more while the payoff likely have no benefit to the Journal's bottom line.

And that's a shame. Because our country could use more civility in its political debates. And the Internet would be a good place to start.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Chrysler & the F-Bomb

Last week, someone working for Chrysler's social media agency accidentally dropped the f-bomb in a tweet from Chrysler's Twitter account, @ChryslerAutos.

You can read about it in Matt Wilson's article in Ragan.com's PR Daily, "F-bomb appears in Chrysler’s official Twitter account."

In his follow-up article, Matt asked some worthwhile questions:
  • Did Chrysler overreact to accidental f-bomb tweet?
  • Should the automaker have fired the social media manager who sent an offensive tweet? 
  • And could it have been spun into a positive? 
Matt points out that when something similar happened to the American Red Cross, "who turned a tweet about beer meant for a personal account into sympathy and blood donations."

But I don't think the situations are analogous.

For one thing, there's a big difference between what was posted on the Red Cross' Twitter feed and Chrysler's -- namely the latter used the F-bomb.  (You can read about the Red Cross' rogue tweet here.)

I think Chrysler couldn't just brush it aside and make a joke of it.

It's one thing for Melissa Leo at the Oscars or Steven Tyler on "American Idol" to let loose, but it's quite another for a company selling an expensive item to a mainstream population.

Plus, a brand has to earn the ability and the trust to joke with its constituents.

And while I enjoyed driving a Jeep for a long time, Chrysler's brand is not a jokey brand (as opposed to most domestic beers and alcohol brands, and, surprisingly, some insurance companies). Which is to say that we don't expect Chrysler to be making jokes -- so if they had tried to joke away the F-bomb, I think it would have fallen flat.

More than that, I doubt the internal culture at Chrysler is one that would feel like turning this gaffe into a joke.  This is not a judgment of Chrysler's culture.  Just some companies can't tell a joke.

What's interesting about social media, especially as illustrated by this situation, is that each organization operates a bit differently.  Everyone's learning and a lot of companies are making mistakes.  But each company's culture, resources, capabilities and relationships are different so that two companies in the same sector may operate and behave quite differently.

And that's ok.  It shows that an organization's focus and values truly are important and that when communicating your organization culture and personality, it's critical to truly understand that culture and personality.

Let me know what you think.

In the meantime, for some good steps for how to handle a mistweet, check out "It’s Okay to Mess Up" by Beck Johns.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Google vs. the Content Farms

There's been a lot of attention recently to "content farms," sites that provide lots of articles on a range of topics, but typically of low quality.

Part of the attention was driven by the IPO of Demand Media and by Google's recent algorithm change to "lower the search rankings of websites that the company said offer little useful information," according to the Wall St. Journal's "Google's Search Cleanup Has Big Effect," noting:
"Google has said the change was aimed, among other things, at sites with what it calls 'low quality' content: just enough information to appear in search results and lure users to pages loaded with advertisements. It estimated that the new algorithms would affect about 12% of U.S.-based search queries and would expand to non-U.S. queries in the near future."
 Defining and defending "low quality content" has become a big issue.

For one thing, how do you define low quality?

When defining "low quality," both the Journal and the New York Times cited Amit Singhal, a Google fellow, quoting the company as saying, those sites "which are low-value add for users, copy content from other Web sites or sites that are just not very useful.”

Seems a bit like circular logic -- and I'm on Google's side.

The other defining characteristic is the low pay received by writers of these articles -- typically $10 to $15 per article.  That seems to have outraged the mainstream reporters the most -- when they try to get paid at a higher rates.

I think Content Farms are disruptive in a bad way (as opposed to Clay Christensen's positive disruption). They make more noise that makes it difficult for users to get good info.  The challenge is in defining low quality -- and the fact that sometimes, people just want basic info, and don't need long-form journalism.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Good Tips from Forbes' Rich Karlgaard on Examples of Great Restructuring

In "Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard," by Chip Heath & Dan Heath, make the case that too many companies try to shore up weak spots rather when what they ought to do is find their bright spots and model that behavior for the rest.

In his Feb. 26th column, "Ten Tips: Great Restructuring Winners," Forbes publisher, Rich Karlgaard picks up that theme: " Let's not spend time dissecting the losers. What are the Great Restructuring winners doing right?"

Karlgaard highlights 10 tips, of which I think four are most relevant to communications functions:
  • Internal communication -- Karlgaard cites some organizations as doing a great job with internal communications.  Our point is that communicating to employees is critical as companies gear up from the recession, and that too many organizations overlook internal comms because they're focused on customer communications.  Zappos is an example of engaging your employees to deliver great customer service.
  • External communication. Clearly this is a critical area, especially as companies look at how they integrate social media into their communications toolkit.  Karlgaard cites IBM's chief marketing officer, Jon Iwata, who has implemented am IBM alumni network, which has more than 200,000 former employees as members.
  • Brand. Karlgard's point is that "The best brands are not shallow. They touch a customer's every sense," and companies need to think about and improve how people interact with their brand.
  • Purpose. I've been feeling that a sense of purpose is very important, and is something that gets overlooked.  A sense of corporate purpose often gets overlooked, but it's important to engage your employees and your customers.

    As Karlgard says about purpose:
    There has never been a better time to be a company of integrity. You'll never achieve integrity unless everyone knows what you stand for--your purpose. This must be built on a moral foundation. God and the tweeters will strike down those who fake it.
I totally agree with Karlgaard about a sense of purpose.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Charlie Sheen Makes the Case for Strong PR Support. Inadvertently.

If you've been living on Mars, you may have overlooked the media blitz of your fellow Martian now living on Earth. Perhaps you've been focusing instead on news of lesser importance, like figuring the correct spelling of Libyan dictator Moammer or Muammar Gadhafi, Gaddafi, Qaddafi, Khadafy, or Khadafi; frankly, I prefer to call him Colonel Mo.)

For the rest of us, it's been hard to avoid the real-time train wreck that is Charlie Sheen.  (You've seen or read about them so I'm not going to include the ton of links here.)

I've been talking about the role of public relations in the age of social media quite a bit since a panel I moderated in Oct., including with a reporter and with students at a local university, where I guest lectured earlier this week. And the reason I broke the Charlie Sheen-free-zone I had tried to establish is because I
think Sheen's rants support the case that publicists still play an important role in the lives of their clients, whether an actor or an organization.

Here are three things that Sheen's meltdown can teach us:
  1. You may not notice a publicist's behind-the-scenes work when things are going well, but you certainly can see the impact when there's no guidance from a PR professional. A strong publicist is important to provide objective counsel on the types of program on which to appear and the tenor and nature of the comments one should consider making during those appearances.  Clearly, that's not been happening here, leading to Sheen's publicist quitting, saying he was "unable to work effectively” with Sheen -- something of an understatement.  Lest you think it's only an issue with Sheen, remember what Tom Cruise's appearances were like after he replaced his publicist with his sister.
  2. You can lose good will and reputation quickly.  For nearly a decade, Sheen has been the lead actor in TV's top-rated comedy, but in a matter of a week, Sheen has gone from delivering punch lines to being the punch line.
  3. It can take a long time to repair your reputation.  Just ask Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise.  At this point, Cruise has taken steps to rebuild his reputation, but he had been the top box office star for years, but that changed after he performed his own stunts on Oprah's couch.  Meanwhile, as for Gibson, last night Letterman ran a segment that inter cut lines from Gibson's taped phone calls with Sheen's off-the-wall recent interviews.
  4. You can never underestimate the public's interest in a celebrity meltdown. Sheen's story is ubiquitous; it takes more effort to avoid it than to read, see, hear, talk or tweet about it. You might not realize it but there's actually a lot of other news -- some of it actually important with significant implications for us as a country -- being crowded out by Sheen's meltdown. For example, the state of the Arab world and their push against dictators; just because Mubarak has stepped down doesn't mean story's over.  But it's now harder to find news about Egypt. There's the possible budget showdown that, not surprisingly, has been postponed, along with the protests in Wisconsin. But Sheen, followed today by the news of the firing of Dior designer John Galliano, seem to fascinate people. You can't ask why do people care; they just do.
  5. You can't just wing it, you need a good story to tell, even if you've got a movie to plug. This lesson comes from an appearance last night of actress Amanda Seyfried on the Late Show with David Letterman.  Letterman's never been a great interviewer but last night, Seyfried's appearance came off as flat and unfunny. The lines she kept expecting to pay off with laughs never hit.  What's perhaps interesting is that she had previously appeared on the Late Show just a few weeks earlier, and had done a much better job.  (In searching for Seyfried & Letterman, her prior appearance showed up first; the brief segment, below, was the comic highlight but doesn't do much for her image.).  Last night, they didn't have much to talk about, not even her upcoming movie.  The lesson this teaches is that you always need a plan and key messages for what you want to say. Even stars need to think ahead for their goal for any media appearance, and shaping that story is something a good publicist should do.
I know that entertainment PR is a specialized niche, but the lessons of Sheen's meltdown are relevant to other parts of the PR world. And it helps make the case for getting good PR support ahead of time. Cleaning up after a disaster is always more complicated slogging than addressing issues before they turn into a crisis.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Need for Thought Leadership: Mayor Bloomberg's editorial initiative underscores the value

You might think that as Mayor of New York City, you might not need to think about thought leadership and expanding ways to communicate your thoughts to the public.

After all, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has access to the media on a 24/7 basis. And not just local New York media -- if the New York Times and Wall St. Journal can be considered local media. New York is, of course, the media capital of the US.

But that's not enough, apparently.

As I wrote last month (Bloomberg to Publish Editorials -- Welcome to the Blogosphere, Mr. Mayor), Bloomberg is launching an opinion section called Bloomberg Views to air his ideas.

Check out "After Business and Politics, Mayor Tests Opinion" in today's New York Times. For those who think thought leadership -- the concept of promoting your thoughts as blazing a path -- is not worthwhile or is just about ego, think again.

Bloomberg, a billionaire who can afford to lose money, still feels that thought leadership is important to maintain his visibility, which in turns enhance the reputation of his media empire.

My point: if Bloomberg feels he could benefit from thought leadership, so could a lot of companies.