Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Four PR tactics I hope you never have to use

Working in a public school district presents a variety of communication challenges, both good and bad. Most of them occur during the school year and mostly involve explaining administrative, student, financial, or facility situations and decisions.

Unfortunately, for our district, a recent challenge involved the death of the newly retired superintendent and it happened over the summer.

Losing a high-profile community leader
The Mansfield ISD community was shocked to learn last week of the tragic accident that took the life of the district's former superintendent, Mr. Vernon Newsom. Newsom, who retired June 30 from the District, died from injuries he sustained in a motorcycle accident while on his first post-retirement vacation in South Dakota with his wife.

As a way for me to process my grief, I wanted to take an opportunity to share the reinforced or learned tactics from this somber communications experience: 
  1. Use an online press release as a resource page on the deceased to be updated as often as needed - In the first hours after learning of the accident and making basic information available to staff, we went into information-gathering mode and worked to prepare a press release. As new information became available such as funeral services and memorial opportunities, they were added to the page so our media friends could update their stories and the community could keep up with the situation. We had our current superintendent available for media interviews, provided copies of Mr. Newsom's biography as well as digital photos on cd and on the page. (If you provide photos, make sure they are high-resolution.) [related tweet]

  2. Turn a blog post into a memorial tribute forum - Our current superintendent (who incidently had been on the job officially for 22 days when the accident occurred) sat in my office and dictated a blog post that included an invitation for readers to comment with their thoughts and memories of our former leader. This turned out to be a very useful tool. The memorial post became the place where people could actually do something while we waited on final decisions for services. I think the post provided a much needed outlet to share what they were thinking and feeling. It was heart-warming to see so many people contribute comments. As of this writing, we've had 76 comments on the post. [related tweet]

  3. Be prepared to run a live video stream of funeral services - On the morning of the funeral, our communications department was charged with the request from the family to see what it would take to provide a live video feed from the funeral service. Thanks to the skills and quick work by our multimedia specialist and a co-worker from the technology department, we were able to provide live video using a hastily setup ustream channel. I don't recommend trying to set something like this up on the fly without properly testing it. I am very thankful it worked for us so an additional 350 people were able see the service. [related tweet]

  4. Set up a single pool shooter to cover the funeral for media -We have some great media friends in the Dallas/Ft. Worth market. One of them is Giles Hudson (assignment editor for the local CBS affiliate) who worked with me and agreed to provide a pool shooter for the funeral. What that meant for us is that we only had to have one news station's camera in the church instead of the four or five that it would have taken for all of major news stations to cover this high-profile funeral. [my related tweet]
Final thoughts
Our communications department is blessed with a great amount of latitude and administrative support, so the tactics didn't have to be sold to anyone.

We were very open about the situation from the beginning with our community using as many different communication channels as possible. I think this openness contributed to the positive response and out-pouring of suppport for the district. Over 1,200 people attended the funeral services and I think having a limited disturbance by the media was well-appreciated. Every journalist I spoke with about the situation gave their condolences and a few even had difficulty holding back their own tears. It's ok to be human.

Going through the different stages of this horrible chapter in our district's history has been a good reminder that through it all, no matter what your profession, life is precious.

Did I forget anything? What would you add to the short list of tactics? The comments are yours.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Why faking your network is worse than #twitterspam

I've been kicking around a thought for a while now regarding whether I despise spam on Twitter more or those users who think it's acceptable to game the system by using software to develop a huge fake following.

Yes, #twitterspam sucks. That should go without too much debate. Thankfully, this a problem that users can have a part in controlling simply by blocking spam accounts and using Twitter's @spam to report spammers and abusers of Twitter. The company also is taking steps to eradicate spam accounts and correct follower and following counts.

You big faker!

I pulled the above screen capture off of a presumably popular downloadable software that claim that you'll "be able to time-warp past years of network building to become a Twitter Elite in a matter of days?"

I really hated seeing that line in their promo page.

To me the line should be corrected to read: It's ok to be a jerk-face with no real marketing or networking skills because I'll just game the system to make it look like I know what I'm doing.

I think this is the ugly side of Twitter that doesn't get the attention it deserves and I hope it soon comes to an end. In the meantime, any respectable communicator with an ounce of sense should run as far away from these types of bogus network builders.

What do you think? Am I being to harsh on these types of (ab)users?

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Following @childfund is a worthy cause and case study

Earlier this month, Geoff Livingston wrote on his blog about an awareness campaign for the rebranding of ChildFund International:
Follow @childfund and Help Change Children’s Lives

In his post, Geoff explains...

[t]o celebrate, ChildFund International is giving gifts of agricultural love and hope from the organization’s gift catalog for every 200 Twitter followers @childfund receives.  These efforts will directly benefit children in Gambia, Zambia, Kenya and Ethiopia. There is no cap on on followers, and the offer will continue through July 27. 
Each country has different needs so the gifts vary:
  • Chickens for a school in the Gambia
  • A goat for a family farm in Zambia
  • Mango trees in Kenya
  • Vegetable seeds in Ethiopia
This piqued my interest first for being what appeared to be a good cause and a simple way to help in a tangible way. It is worth noting that the veracity of the campaign was at one point called in to question, but a subsequent post cleared up any confusion.

Campaign as a case study
Another reason this community-building Twitter campaign is interesting is by observing it through the lens of a nonprofit. Nonprofits looking for good examples of other efforts to gain awareness should pay close attention to this one. It is especially important to note how the follow-up post explains the parameters for the campaign:
To be clear: The Twitter campaign isn’t about raising money, either. It’s about raising awareness of the work that ChildFund does for deprived, excluded and vulnerable children in the 31 countries where we work.
I hope you caught that. It's not always about the ask.

Communication efforts for a nonprofit should serve the organization through empowerment of the mission and supporters. As one Twitter friend noted in last Sunday's #blogchat on how nonprofits use social media, nonprofit organizations need to invest in marketing and communications as programmatic. It reinforces mission and builds the development framework.

I look forward to watching this campaign develop and observing best-practices that could scale down to other organizational needs.

In addition to following @Childfund (before July 27), you might also be interested in ChildFund International's Facebook , blogging and YouTube outposts as well.

(Photo credit: ChildFund International)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Lady Justice is blind, thankfully jurors are not

Nonverbal communication cues and jury duty

I recently had the distinctly new opportunity for me to sit on a jury for a driving while intoxicated (DWI) case. Prior to this week, my only justice system participation included a few speeding tickets in my youth and jury duty that mainly consisted of sitting in the over-crowded room for potential jurors waiting to be set free released back to normal life.

All of that changed for me as I sat with 15 other citizens on a jury panel being questioned during voir dire and ultimately selected among the six jurors for the case.

How exactly does this fit into a communications / public relations-focused blog? The Answer: Nonverbal communication played a factor in various stages of the case.

I want to focus on the face-to-face interaction from a juror's perspective that can be classified into three principal areas: environmental conditions where communication takes place, the physical characteristics of the communicators, and behaviors of communicators during interaction.
[Knapp & Hall (2007) Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction.]
Environmental conditions
  • Not in Kansas anymore - A courtroom is a very intimidating setting. If you have never participated in the space it can be difficult to understand the culture and norms (especially if your only perspective on a jury has been on television or in the movies.)
  • While being questioned inside the courtroom by both the prosecuting and defense teams, it was hard to make value judgments about about answers being given and whether or not the "right" or "wrong" answer would get you excluded from (or included on) the final jury roster. 
Physical characteristics
  • A book and its cover - I observed two very different sets of legal teams. One included a very polished, professional front. The other seemed to have a more difficult time exuding the confidence and character the one would expect (or hope) from a lawyer. 
  • Once picked to be on the jury, I was interested (and pleased) in the fact that it did seem that the final six was a cross-section of the citizens from the panel in age, sex, race, and personal experience.
Behaviors of communicators
  • Do you cross your arms? During voir dire, we were told at one point that, "it concerns us when we see jurors cross their arms," by one of the lawyers. This struck me as odd that arms crossed as a nonverbal communication cue is still being taught to have a stigma attached when crossing one's arms sometimes is a comfortable way to sit or is a sign of being cold.
  • After being told about crossing arms, I noticed no less than four potential jurors switch, either to or from an arms crossed position.
  • During the trial other behaviors came into play such as the those of the defendant, witnesses, legal teams, and even the judge. We watched how the lawyers conducted themselves in front of each other, the judge, and the jury. We noted things about the witnesses that played into their credibility.
We, the jury, find the defendant...
To be clear, I did in fact pay attention to the actual case, facts, witnesses, and evidence. These thoughts on nonverbal communication is a reflection on the experience. However, it is worth telling you that during deliberations, the conversation hinted at relevant nonverbal communication that took place: juror comfort, lawyer attire, witness speech patterns, and even the judge who read from a newspaper.

Ultimately the case was decided based on the facts and evidence of the case within the framework of the legal charge we were given, but I am convinced nonverbal communication played an important role in the process.

We've come a long way
Being on a jury was actually pretty interesting. It helps that I was able to turn the experience into a blog post, but I am thankful to have had the opportunity. Typically, society pokes fun at jury duty and we joke about different ways to get out of serving. But, when it comes down to it, our system of a jury of one's peers is actually a very empowering and enlighted system of jurisprudence.

Don't believe me? Tell it to the witch.

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Next Communications Turns One

Today marks the one-year blogiversary for the Next Communications blog. Twelve months ago I made the jump to this platform and started this effort to put my thoughts, opinions, and observations down. When I started writing, I really didn't think anyone would care to read my musings nor did I think I'd have any readers beyond my wife, my parents, and perhaps a colleague or two.

To my surprise and personal joy, readership has had a modest amount of growth and some good conversations have evolved both online and offline. This has been great to develop and I look forward to continuing the fun.

Before we start year number two, here's a few things I'd like you to know:

To celebrate this blog's anniversary I hope you do two things:
  1. If you are on Twitter, go follow @childfund and Help Change Children’s Lives; and 
  2. If you have one near you, go to 7-11 and get a free Slurpee.
    (I know, it's random but these two things will do you good.)
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Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Giant meets an unfair Headline

Yesterday, a post on the Dallas Morning News Investigates Blog gave a curious headline that called into question the communication openness of a popular local theme park
"Six Flags Over Texas now says the Texas Giant roller coaster will remain closed all day today -- the third straight day of a mysterious safety problem at the Arlington amusement park."
The headline and first line of the post struck me as strange because from a PR perspective, any opportunity to effectively communicate a situation relating to an error with the Texas Giant (a popular wooden roller coaster) that could impact the safety of patrons would be well worth the time to research and explain.

And that is exactly what the spokeswoman did when asked by the Dallas Morning News (DMN) writer, "what kind of error?"
"I haven't been given that information yet...I'm just holding tight until the engineers provide me with that information...Our priority right now is getting to the root of it and making sure that we get it up and running safely. To me that's the No. 1 priority. I'm in constant communication with them. When the time is appropriate they will let me know, and I will convey that information to you guys. Until that time there is nothing else to share." [source]
Time to Share
So the PR person explained the situation based on the information she had at the time and expressed a willingness to discuss it further after receiving more information and yet the investigative reporter goes with a They won't talk headline. Um, what?

This is an unfortunate example of the type of unfair characterization on the part of a media outlet to suggest impropriety and obfuscation when in fact there clearly was a willingness to share. Perhaps it was done sensationalize the story a bit, which judging by some of the comments on the post was how at least some people thought. Other comments took the side of the concerned public and was pushing for more questions and inquiry. Other commenters attacked each other over previous comments. Still others called into question the reasoning behind the DMN covering something as silly as a roller coaster temporary closure. At one point in the comments, the writer interjected:
"I'm not speculating. Everything may well be fine. I'm just asking questions. That's my job. When people don't answer the questions, that makes me more curious. Think about it: If you ask your kid a question about what's wrong and they don't answer, don't you get more curious?"
[emphasis added]
Exactly when did the PR person not answer his question? In fact, later in the evening a local radio station's Web site had an update posted on the coaster situation as well as a new post today (with yet another They won't talk headline) was provided on the DMN blog since more details were ready to be released.

Big Picture Time
The temporary closure of this popular wooden roller coaster doesn't really reach level-critical since nothing much happened in this situation at the amusement park beyond a problem was detected, a decision was made to suspend operations, and details were explained when they were available.

Communication Carry-out: PR professionals need to guard against speculating on any situation in which we do not have all of the information. We need to wait until we have enough of the truth to share that would help shed some light on a situation. I applaud how the Six Flags spokeswoman handled the information release, it is just unfortunate that a decision was made to muddy-up the truth for the community. What do you think?