What We Need to Know

The Tree of Knowledge. By Knilram, via Flickr.I saw this post on the ASAE’s communications listserv last week:

“ I would like to hear from other associations on how they are using social media (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) – Which ones? Benefits? What’s worked?”

Wow … how many days do you have to listen? There’s no bigger question in communications today.

I sense stratification in our professional community. At a panel that I moderated at the ASAE Annual Meeting this summer, it was possible to pick out the genetically encoded early adopters from those who were struggling to catch up. You could almost tell by the body language.

The early adopters were foraging for ways to exploit what they had already mastered. The others were still learning. They seemed frustrated and fearful.

It was demonstration of what Seth Godin meant when he wrote in his new book, Tribes, that the cost of innovating too early is small, compared to the cost of acting too late.

But not everything new today will prove useful tomorrow. I think we can count on that. Since time is our most precious commodity, what must people know today?

That’s the challenge that the Communications Council for ASAE has taken on. We’re updating a document that outlines today’s core competencies in communications. No offense, but the current version, written only a few years ago, is badly  out of date.

Still, the basics are the basics. You gotta know how to write, pitch stories, research your markets, plan campaigns, etc. But of the new social technologies, what is now fundamental? And if you can’t experiment freely, what can you safely observe from a distance, for now?

We’ll take our best guess, because we can only guess at the future. No one on our team is clairvoyant, as far as I know. Maybe through the wisdom of our little crowd, we’ll get it right.

We hope the document will be a career roadmap for new communications professionals, and a learning menu for experienced pros. It will evolve rapidly and often.

We could use your thoughts. Among the new technologies, what is already a must-know? Conversely, if you must choose your experiments carefully, what is OK to watch for a while?


Crisis Communication Planning Now Includes Social Technologies

Stuti Sakhalkar, via Flickr.

The terrorist attacks in Mumbai last month were Twitter’s coming out party, according to the New York Times. Eyewitnesses used Twitter and their personal blogs to describe what was happening, both to the outside world and to their fellow citizens locally. It was citizen journalism in its purest form.

A few days later, Jeremiah Owyang of Forrester sounded my wake-up call: Now that social technologies are becoming mainstream, do your crisis communications plans account for them?

For us, the answer was no. It’s time to change that.

In the aftermath of September 11, I led a team that drafted a new crisis communications plan for the Massachusetts Medical Society. It covered every scenario we could think of, from the beginning of the crisis to the post-crisis follow-up. Some time later, another MMS team created a comprehensive business continuity plan.

Both plans employ the communications technologies that we had seven years ago: Mainstream media, websites, e-mail and phone. But today, we also have blogs, twitter, Facebook, SMS, and more. As Mumbai demonstrates, these tools cannot be ignored.

So what would crisis communications look like with those tools? Here are two glimpses of what that world could look like.

When floods devastated farmland in Iowa this spring, a web design firm in Iowa created iowaflood.com. It aggregates all sorts of RSS feeds into a single portal. Even today, five months later, you can read Twitter updates, videos, blogs, and so forth. It’s very cool, and it’s possible to replicate this if you have the chops to pull this off in the heat of a crisis.

Kate Skegg, via Flickr.

When Hurricane Ike barreled into the Galveston, Texas, last September, the Texas Medical Association’s county medical societies worked with the state to fill resource needs, and the TMA became the communications platform between the doctors in the middle of the mess, and the rest of the state.

Steve Levine, TMA’s communications director, created Voices of Ike, a compelling blog that now reads like a hurricane diary in the doctors’ voice. To prepare, he recruited several doctors beforehand to e-mail him regularly about what was going happening during the preparation, mid-storm, and cleanup. He posted their running commentary on the TMA’s blog, its Twitter profile, and other vehicles.

Steve did the publishing because he knew his doctors didn’t want to learn about blogging technologies during this crisis. He was more interested in getting an authentic, real-time a record of what their eyes, ears and hearts were experiencing. He took care of the rest. “I did only a little editing,” he told me.

It served three benefits, he says. First, it informed people about what was going on. Second, it was a real-life opportunity to show the public what doctors do. Third, it was an outlet for doctors who wanted to share their experiences. As we know from Forrester’s social technographics research, not everyone is interested in doing that. But those who do so provide an incredible service.

So we’ve got some work to do on our crisis plan. Among the considerations:

  • It has to encourage two-way communication. We need to use every vector to get the word out; that’s a given. But there’s another new domain. We need to open up these same vehicles for people in the field to describe what’s happening, what they need, and to anticipate where the next problems will be.
  • We need to carefully choose the vehicles that our members will be using. Economy of effort is important when a crisis strikes. There will be little tolerance for wasteful action.
  • It’s clear that mobile technologies will be at, or near, the top of the list. We’re not particularly well prepared for that.
  • What if there are malicious posts, or well-meaning but erroneous posts? What if these posts harm people? I cannot ignore the legal issues.

Things to think about. Your thoughts?

140 Characters = Poetry

Blaise Pascal

The philosopher Blaise Pascal supposedly said, “I would have written a shorter letter, but didn’t have the time.”

I thought of this today when writing a Facebook update about our family’s home teardown and reconstruction adventure.

I’m really excited about our new house. The old house is getting knocked down next week. We spent four hours there this morning. We threw out, donated, or stored the stuff that remained. And in the midst of the excitement, some melancholy slipped in the back door.

Hey, I never adored the house – hence the teardown. But it’s where my two baby girls turned into wonderful young women. It’s where we had great times with our family dog Matisse, who died recently at age 16. The back yard was his kingdom, and mine.

The old house saw nine Thanksgivings, nine Christmases, nine Easters, two First Communions, nine summers of balmy nights with the crickets keeping time. Great whiffle ball tournaments. Bats swoop around at dusk, at about 30 feet altitude.

Paradise, in a suburban lot measuring 177 feet by 85 feet.

So how to convey these thoughts in Facebook’s 160 characters, or even Twitter’s 140?*

When I wrote for TV newscasts back in the Ice Age, I learned how to say a lot in a 10- or 15-second script. I learned one trick from my late father, a Shakespeare teacher. He always read his writing aloud. I did the same when I went to TV, and it helped. Bad writing hurts the ears. I keep it up today. (It may not always work, but it helps.)

I’m re-reading one of Jakob Nielsen’s usability books. He talks about how web users don’t read online; they scan. Cynthia D’Amour understands this. Her blogs are brief and rich and fun.

Facebook and Twitter impose this discipline. I swear, sometimes, it’s poetry.**

Listen to a conversation next time. Notice how short the sentences are. Notice how they don’t use clauses. Notice how powerful the verbs are. Notice how complex the communication is.

Now, write that way, especially if you’re writing for the web.

If you have the time.

* here’s how I did it:Frank spent the day storing stuff from the old house. Mix of excitement (new house) and melancholy (lots of good stuff happened there).”

** Like this tweet from David Gammel today: Went for a run then had two helpings of turkey and stuffing. And a piece of cake. Oops.

Media Relations – The New World According to Brian Solis (from the ASAE Annual Meeting)

Brian Solis, one of the superstars in social media strategy, spoke at the ASAE Annual Meeting in San Diego last week. He talked about how public relations professionals can still influence opinion and behavior even though mainstream media is in its death throes.

Sadly, the session wasn’t recorded. But its content was too good to let it disappear. From my notes:

  • PR professionals have to be the new influencers. In the past, we influenced opinion and behavior mostly by reaching the influencers (reporters and editors). Now, we’re it. “We have to become experts in the industry we represent . …You should get really smart and passionate about the industry you represent. If you’re not, you should find another job.” (Gotta love that kind of straight talk.)
  • News releases aren’t just for reporters anymore. There is a bigger audience than just your A-list (or even B-list) reporters. Half of IT professionals get their daily updates from news releases on Yahoo or Google. So it’s still important to do your news releases right. One way – write them tight and bulleted, and weight them well with SEO keywords so they can be found.
  • Kill the ghost-written quotes. Puffery never had any value … even less today. If you must quote, make sure it’s compelling.
  • Getting on bloggers’ radar screens is art + science. You could buy lists, but Brian built his own list. How? Read on.
  • Some ways to build blogger relationships:
    • Leave comments as you vote on Digg
    • Make sure your headline rocks (SEO loves great <H1> headlines.)
    • Befriend a Power Digger, the same way you would befriend an A-list reporter. If a Power Digger notices you, they tell their networks. It’s almost impossible to get to Digg’s home page on your own.
    • Digg’s home page is solid gold. Brian says a home page listing on Digg “guarantees” you 10,000 to 30,000 unique visits within a single week. (whoa!) Getting placed on the home page of StumbleUpon gets you the same in about a month’s time.
  • Target the “Magic Middle” of bloggers. You could try to get to the Technorati Top 1000 (Brian is in the top 5000), but you’ll get more activity and more long lasting relationships with the Magic Middle (blogs with 20 to 2000 links) than with the A-listers.
  • Metrics: No consensus yet. But think “profits.” If your goal with metrics is to persuade the C-suite, then think – what do they care most about (hint: … sales? profits? membership? Yes, it’s that basic.) Then track back to the social activity that will move that number. For example: Have targeted landing pages for social media PR campaigns to track something like meeting registrations or product downloads.
  • Monitor the social network conversations! “Just because a conversation was taking place and you weren’t there to hear it, does that mean it didn’t happen?” Brian shared “The Conversation Prism,” a dastardly image that pulls together a sampling of the social networks on the web today. This where the conversations about your brand are happening. As Brian noted, “This is overwhelming to say the least.” The image is on Flickr. He’s going to publish a wiki soon that explains all of these in detail, to help you figure out what’s pertinent to your markets and conversations.
  • Twitter: Yes! At least 200 journalists use Twitter right now, Brian said. Do you need a better reason to do it? The 140-character limit focuses the pitch line like nothing else.
  • How do you find influencers on Twitter? On search.twitter.com, search any keyword that is specific to your industry. Do that keyword, plus conference, or plus events. You’ll see the people who are starting those conversations. Then find out who’s following them. Befriend them – not just for what they can do for you, but simply to start a conversation. It’s doing that over and over again, building relationships. (That’s not so different from traditional PR after all, is it?

(Sidebar: Ben Martin just wrote a provocative post about data mining on Twitter. He says it’s evil. Others (like Wes Trochlil) say it’s the price we pay for playing in social media. Reluctantly, I’m agreeing with Wes’ point of view. But as Bill Parcells said, I reserve the right to change my mind. This conversation isn’t over, by a long shot.)

Other resources

The Conversation Prism

The Social Media Manifesto

It was my personal privilege to moderate this session. Thanks to all who came and spoke up. And thanks especially to Brian and his co-panelist, Chris Jennwein, of Greenspun Interactive of Las Vegas.