ENGAGE: NYC Reveals the King of Storytelling

I enjoyed last week’s ENGAGE: NYC Digital Storytelling Conference. Talk NYC founder Derek Smith and his team put on a great event, featuring thought leaders from agencies, startups, and major brands. They covered the state of storytelling and where it’s going.

Below I share some of the highlights:

Aki Spicer, Chief Digital Officer of TBWA/ChiatDay covered the evolutîon of the agency and a day in the life of their teams. The operation seemed more like a busy newsroom with a mix of roles and talents. They have trend spotters, mixed-media specialists, and former journalists on staff.  It’s a much more diverse mix than the traditional creative and account director-led teams.

Rodney Williams, CMO of Moët Hennessy talked about old brands employing new storytelling tricks. They are in a regulated industry which prevents MH from selling direct to consumers (like the car business). The company employs experiential storytelling and won an award at the TriBeCa Film Festival for Moët Moments short films.

One of the most interesting things Rodney covered was about the cult of Cognac and the master distiller. It’s something I never knew about (kind of reminded me of the rigors of the master sommelier in the wine world). E.g. new recruits don’t even speak up in tasting meetings for the first 10 years – that’s how long it takes to get your Cognac “nose.” And Cognac master distillers come from long lines often stretching back eight generations.

An audience member suggested using VR to capture the experience of a tasting session – but Rodney demurred. Doing so would pierce the veil, transparency has its limits and it is important to pròtect the mystique – no watching the Cognac sausage getting made here.

It was great hearing from former Boxee CEO Avner Ronen.  He is heading up a new company called Public that has an app of the same name.  It uses text messaging to help teens collaborate and tell stories.  The app is aimed at members of communities such as middle and high schools.

Navid Khonsari of INK Stories talked about storytelling through gaming.  I am not really a gamer – and one might not instantly connect the medium with brand marketing.  But Navid made a compelling case and spoke about cool titles they’ve produced like 1979, which brings you into the Iranian revolution.

Then it was time for the session “The Rise of the Storytelling Bots” and I thought: great, here comes the Trump communications team (ba dum).  Seriously, Hakari Bee of Rapp NYC spoke about the topic.  It’s fascinating.  Who knew you could go to a site called ChatFuel.com and build a Facebook bot in 5-7 minutes, without coding?  Hakari covered best practices and case studies, including Mr. Miles (a bot and fictional character who flies KLM and Air France), covered by DM News.

Joe Hyrkin, CEO of Issuu (pronounced “issue”) made a compelling case that basically says creators are inheriting the Earth – they are the real kings of storytelling.  Joe cited examples ranging from the singer Solange to Sweet Paul.  He said that storytellers are building new media companies, and going where they want to share; it’s a creator’s world.

There were other great sessions. Unfortunately, I missed the later ones, as I could not stay the entire afternoon.  I look forward to attending the next ENGAGE DSC.

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It’s the End of the Truth as we Know it – is PR fine?

It’s like we went to sleep in late 2016 and woke up with a post-election, New Years, fake news, post-truth hangover.

Before, we generally believed in the sanctity of truth and reason. Now nothing seems real, and it is hard to know what to hold onto.

Much of this tracks back to the growing role of tech in our lives.  Josh Quittner of Flipboard wrote about our loss of innocence, in the story The Truth about Fake News:

When Wikipedia started to take off… I believed that finally, the world was racing toward one, glorious kumbaya moment. With the Internet being driven to every corner of the globe — and one Wikipedia for all — at last we would have a universally agreed upon baseline for Truth.

But so far, it hasn’t turned out that way. In fact, for months now it’s felt like we’re living in a hellish, ranting, Tower of Babel, with no one speaking the same ideological language and each of us in near-violent disagreement. One can find “evidence” of any theory one wants online. The Truth is more elusive than ever.

The NY Times wrote that we can’t even agree on the basic definitions of words.

It was inevitable, I guess, that PR got caught in the fray. Some have said that the profession contributes to the fake news problem.  Marketers are accusing competitors of post-truth PR claims.

The sad state of affairs presents a number of challenges for PR. How do we build trust, validation, and visibility through the press when media trust is at a record low? What do PR pros do when the client or manager wants to spew some of their own fake news or accuses others of the same?

The mess is bigger than PR.  We can’t fix it, but we can and should do our part. I thought I’d offer the following tips:

  • We’re all news consumers too. Be responsible ones – don’t spread fake news.  If you see something, say something: friends don’t let friends spread misinformation (to use two clichés).
  • Adhere to highest ethical standards. There will always be bad actors in marketing, the Trumpian brawlers who want to win at any cost.  It’s unfortunate if they are your boss or client.  You alone can decide if you want to work in that kind of environment. See my post: Above the FUD: Keeping PR Clean when the PR Gets Dirty.
  • Ratchet back the hype – It was never a good idea to inflate claims. Make sure the news you promote is accurate and pristine.
  • We can help with fact-checking reporters and clients.  Look up sources. Validate data.  The better PR pros are already doing this – it is not too late to start.
  • Do yourself and the field a favor.  Educate about PR.  Let people know that it does not equal propaganda or fake news (in this post I propose a definition of the latter).

 

 

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What to do when PR hits a Pay Wall

PR folks know the feeling. You put a press release over the wire – and then duck.

Not necessarily because of all the press inquiries that come in (wouldn’t that be great)? You duck to avoid the flood of offers from pay-to-play opportunities. Each one needs to be vetted and explained to the client or manager, who sometimes brings you the “opportunity”, accompanied by words like: “Hey! They want to put us on TV! This PR stuff ain’t so hard. Go get ’em, Tiger!”

If this used to be just an annoyance, it’s now routine and threatens to disrupt the profession. Media have fragmented and downsized, while PR has grown. Publications are under pressure like never before. The wall that used to separate church and state (editorial vs. advertising) is now a sieve.

The result is that the PR pitches are met, more often than not with counteroffers, especially from smaller publications, blogs, and influencers (another way of saying a former reporter with a personal brand who freelances for media while taking paid gigs from vendors).

The tolls are many and varied (these are based on my own experiences and those on my team):

  • The publication has decided to charge for that byline, as part of their new native advertising arm
  • Worse, said arm is an embedded agency that competes with yours
  • Product reviews, once a PR staple, are no longer free in many cases
  • The “reporter” we pitched for CES is charging to take briefings
  • Another one makes a heavy pitch for your client to sponsor their exclusive newsletter
  • The TV spot comes with a “production fee”
  • That brand page that used to get great organic reach needs a paid boost to get the same results

PR has long been associated with media relations and “earned media”. We’ve traditionally shunned paid opportunities. So these new realities can seem jarring and cause PR teams and their sponsors to wonder where this is all going – their investments, results and the field.

PR can adapt by applying the same ideas that have defined the profession in new ways. This means taking a fresh look at basics, like finding audience and telling a story. For starters we must reexamine the belief that media must be earned. The truth is that PR has never been free; ask anyone who’s written a check to an agency or paid a PR salary, or for a wire service.

Once you wake up to this, and also to the NEW opportunities you’ll realize there are ways to make the system work for you.

My recent Entrepreneur piece offered five tips for succeeding in this new era of pay-for-play PR.  Check it out. If you’d like to get five more tips, please visit this page.

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3 Ways to Blow out Influencer Marketing Results

When looking for the right influencers, it’s tempting to focus on the big fish, the ones with huge followings. Most think that size matters (as I’ve pointed out, influence is not just a number).

Then again, much has been said about the benefits of targeting micro-influencers – those with fewer than 10K Twitter followers. They’re said to hold more sway, pound for pound, and be easier to engage than mega online personalities.

Go big, go small – perhaps there’s another variable worth considering in your influencer marketing. Those seeking to improve results might want to take a page from the real estate business.

Recall the old joke about the three most important factors that affect property value?  It’s all about location, location, location. Similarly, the influencer’s network perch – and how they connect with other circles – can hold the keys to that showcase property (OK, I’ll stop with the bad real estate puns).

It’s all about network science.  The application of this field to marketing was very nicely illustrated in this Moz blog post. It discusses how to achieve the “majority illusion”.  You can create the perception that your topic is wildly popular by getting the right influencers to share the information.

Kelsey Libert writes: “Marketers can… create the tipping point needed to drive action or spread a message far and wide. It starts with identifying influencers who have the potential to create the majority illusion among your target demographic, and then encouraging those influencers to help amplify your message.”

If that sounds tricky, get comfortable, grab a coffee or your drink of choice, set for a spell and read the entire piece.  It’s heady stuff for marketers and worth the slog.

I’ll try to simplify and summarize in a few words.

The theory relates to the structure of social networks.  Kelsey’s team mapped data representing Twitter influencers, showing their connections and affiliations with verticals such as automotive, tech and marketing.

The larger nodes (assumed to be more influential) don’t necessarily have more followers, but more connections across their extended networks (in other words not just first degree links, which connect people directly, but indirect ones – the followers of their followers, etc.).

She summarizes  “… social influence is more like six degrees of Kevin Bacon than a popularity contest. Because of this, marketers should focus on getting their message spread by influencers within a focused niche or strategically-positioned influencers to maximize reach, rather than looking for influencers who merely have a large following.”

If that weren’t cool enough, it turns out that you can sharpen your pencils and target them based on your goals:

Do you want to spread your message widely, or in a niche group? Are you trying to build buzz for your topic and go viral, or more interested in driving action and conversions?

(Yea, I know, the answer is “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Marketers want it all).

This all sounds great, but the average marketer or PR pro may not know where to get started, what tools can help, or how to understand the language of network science.

I will try to answer these questions in my next post.  Stay tuned! And please share any feedback or questions here.

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Nailing the Facebook Image: Handy Cheat Sheet

Click on image to expand and print

To properly target and engage your audience on Facebook, you need impressive visual assets. Luckily, Facebook offers the freedom to be creative and use eye-catching images in your profile, company page, ads and event invites.

However, there are image dimensions and sizing guidelines that you must follow, or they will not appear as you like and may not be approved at all.

Luckily, TechWyse created this Facebook image sizes and dimensions cheat sheet to lend you a helping hand when crafting your next social media campaign.

Even the savviest social media professionals may not be aware of the Facebook’s image specs. For instance, shared images and shared links require different sizing when it comes to uploading.

Facebook recommends 1200 x 630 px for a shared image. On the other hand, Facebook recommends that shared links should be 1200 x 627 px.

Besides image sizing and dimensions, Facebook also imposes text character limits. They will disapprove/give lesser reach to promoted posts with more than 20% text. This means that you need to make sure the text you are using in your post images must meet this character limit if you want to see your post approved.

Bookmark, download or print the cheat sheet and share it with your team of social media content creators, digital marketers and graphic designers. Hang it on your desk, on your office wall or anywhere you can easily reference it when working out the specifics of the visual assets to accompany your Facebook posts.

Hope it helps! Good luck.

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Trump is sucking the Air and Fun from PR and News

There’s tension in the PR and media worlds, between the stories we’d love and the ones they want to write.

Good PR is the art of finding common ground. Your client or company gets mentioned, the journalist likes the result, it’s a great article, and everyone goes home happy.

Great PR is about taking reporters to a place they never even considered.

Sure, it’s much easier just to give the press what they want. But what if all they want is Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump?

It’s not just the political press. I’ve had many conversations with PR folks from varied beats, the refrain they hear is that reporters just want to write about Trump. Give them something with Trump.

I’ll try to put politics aside for a moment. I won’t just focus on the first three words of the title.

I’ll ignore the irony of the media obsession with the man who’s called them the enemy of the people (here’s a story about a New York Times reporter from the tech beat who tried to tune Trump out for a week; Farhad Manjoo says he’s “inescapable”). I’ll even cut them some slack, after all, the media just serve up what they think we want to read.

Let’s face it the man has hijacked our attention spans and conversations, which inevitably turn to the latest Trump-driven episode. Bigly.

So, does PR strike a Trumpian bargain? Do we hold our noses and write pitches that align with whatever he lobs at the latest news cycle? What do you think?

There’s a larger story here, about the responsibilities of the press, and PR’s role. But right now I’m just venting as Trump is eating the media world, and taking much of the fun out of PR.

Oh well. Perhaps I can take some comfort in the fact that this blog will be more widely shared and read given the topic.

Crap.

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My Take on the Fake News Debate

I attended the Daily News Innovation Lab’s session: Proposition: We can Solve the Fake News Problem. It featured an Oxford-style debate on whether there’s a solution to the fake news problem.

Some very smart people from the worlds of media, business, and technology made great arguments for each side.  It was entertaining and informative. I’m pleased to say that the optimists won, according to the audience vote at the end.

Why would anyone think we can’t fix the fake news problem? In brief, it is hard to define, pervasive, systemic, and there will always be bad actors trying to game the system. Think of it like hacking, or information warfare.  Plus, Google and Facebook make money on fake news, and some say they’re just giving users what they want.

Arguing for the optimists, Jane Elizabeth of American Press Institute said that these systems were created by the people, for the people, and people will solve the problem. Dean Pomerleau of The Fake News Challenge likened it to the Spam epidemic of the early 2000s, which most would agree has been contained, if not completely solved.

I unsuccessfully tried to get a question in at the end about the faulty premise of the debate. How can you even ponder a cure until you’ve more clearly defined the problem? As I pointed out in my last post, there are many varieties of fake news (propaganda, misinformation, counterfeit news sites, and yes, lies, damned lies).  And it is almost impossible to define the concept of “news” itself, or “truth.”

Looking beyond this one debate, fake news has inflamed passions, as it may have tilted the US presidential election and encouraged a nut to shoot up a pizzeria. Any discussion about solutions inevitably gets into tricky areas like censorship, free speech, the roles of media and the government, and the responsibility of business.

I don’t think it will be as easy as fighting spam (this CIO article implies that AI has met its match here).  But I do think there are fixes, assuming we can agree on a definition, and what might qualify as solving this.

I attempt to do so below, and also share my thoughts on the most contentious issues.

Defining the Problem

We’ll never get rid of misinformation, wacky theories, bias, rumors or propaganda.  I propose defining fake news as lies or false information packaged as news.  Let’s include counterfeit news sites and any gaming of algorithms and news feeds to propagate false information.

The Social Network’s Role

Some place the problem at the doorstep of social networks and online news aggregators, such as Facebook and Google respectively. Others say that it is not the platform’s jobs to be truth-tellers.  Should they hire fact checkers?  Who then checks the fact checkers?

Many say that Facebook and Google have no incentive to clean up the mess, as their business models are based on clicks and sharing regardless of veracity. I completely disagree.  If they don’t, their brands and reputations (and hence businesses) will take a beating.  No one wants to spend time in places where there is lots of junk.

They can and should take measures to combat fake news.  I mean, they’re already policing their sites for bullying, obscenity, grisly pictures and other clearly unacceptable things.

It could involve a combination of crowd correction, e.g. a way for users to flag fake news items, and technology akin to spam detection. For all the grousing that it is too hard a problem to solve, check out these articles:

Who Should Judge Truth?

Some argue for greater regulation and transparency.  Since algorithms play a growing role in determining what news we see on the networks, shouldn’t we all better understand how they work?  Why not make their inner workings public, like open source software?

Others say that doing this would make it easier for bad actors to understand and manipulate the programs.

Can’t the government come up with laws to make sure that news feeds are unbiased and don’t spread false information?  Or, perhaps there should be some watchdog group or fact checking organization to keep the networks “honest.”

Again, I think it is incumbent on the tech companies to clean up the mess.  But this should not go so far as making them hand over their algorithms.  It’s their intellectual property. And I am leery of government oversight or any third party organization that polices truth telling by decree.

I am in favor of setting up a group that proposes standards in fake news detection and eradication.  This industry body could factor in interests of all parties – the social networks, government, users, and media to issue guidelines and also audit the networks (on a voluntary basis – think the MPAA movie ratings, the Parental Advisory Label for recorded music, or Comics Code Authority).

If Facebook, Google, Reddit, Apple News and others want to earn the seal of approval, they’d need to open up their systems and algorithms to inspection to show they are not aiding the propagation of fake news.

 

 

 

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Are PR and Branded Content Fake News?

I attended a meeting of the NY Internet Society that featured a panel of media experts, journalists, and a Silicon Valley lawyer.  They discussed the problem that has come to be called “Fake News”.  You can read about the session and see a YouTube video of the event by checking out my wrap on Hack the Feed.

The neat label is deceptive because it’s an incredibly complex subject.  Some say it’s about propaganda and spinning. Others say it is about lies and counterfeit news sites. Still others say it is about how we get news today, which is increasingly on social networks.  Algorithm-driven news feeds can be gamed to spread lies. This apparently happened in the 2016 presidential elections.

Buzzfeed’s Gilad Lotan suggested Googling “Hillary’s Health.”  To this day, conspiracy theories rise to the top of the results.

Andrew Bridges, lawyer of the platforms would have us believe there are many types of “fake news”.  Seven, to be exact:

  1. Research and reporting with a pretense of being objective (e.g., major newspapers)
  2. Research and reporting in service of a cause (National Review, Nation, New Republic)
  3. Pretend journalism – claim to be a news source but is a curator (Daily Kos)
  4. Lies – the ones that Politifact and others give Pinocchio noses or “pants on fire” awards
  5. Propaganda – the systematic pattern of lying for political gain
  6. Make-believe news, like Macedonian sites.  They make up news from whole cloth.
  7. Counterfeit sites – they make you think you are at ABC News.com, for example

He asked whether global warming, evolution or the latest gossip are examples.

You can’t find solutions without defining the problem.  It’s in Andrew’s interest to make a complex issue even more convoluted – because that makes quick fixes, especially ones that place the onus on his clients, seem inadequate.

If you see the problem as truth vs. lies vs. exaggeration vs. spin vs. propaganda – well then, it does seem to be a tough one to fix, if not impossible.  Who is the arbiter of truth? And what about opinion, which some might call spin?  What about free speech?  Should we outlaw PR, which some say is a cause?

I think the problem is more basic.  How do we even identify “news”? In this age of atomized, fragmented media, when the source can be unclear amidst the social fire hose, how can we tell if we are seeing a legitimate news item vs. some kooky rumor vs. a lie?

The first instinct is to consider the source – again the source is not always clear, and the journalist could be a citizen.

The question kind of reminds me about the concerns and debate over branded content.

I have some ideas for how to define the problem and corresponding fixes.

What do you think?

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Enterprise Design Tips and Resources, via NYETM

I enjoyed the NY Enterprise Tech Meetup last week. In addition to two great demos, the event featured a panel that discussed UI design. It is a topic that intrigues me.  Fusion PR has represented a number of providers of tech that improve user experience.

It’s always great to do a reality check and hear about a market segment first-hand, from those who work in the field. Plus, I was hoping to learn about the publications UX pros read, and influencers they follow – great primary research for the PR team

As you’ll see, the event delivered all of this and more.

WTF is Design in the Enterprise?

You can be forgiven for thinking that “enterprise design” is an oxymoron. “Business software” does not summon images of elegance or beauty.

Plus the field is not helped by its abundance of buzzwords which all kind of sound alike: user interface, user experience, enterprise design and customer experience. Factor in related acronyms and modifiers and you have a real mess (UX, UI, CX, usability, user experience management/UEM, behavioral analytics, UX design – you get the picture).

Yet good design has never been more critical.  Vast sums are spent on software each year, and many licenses sit on a shelf, often due to poor UX. Plus, the rise of Apple and consumerization of IT have led to a growing appreciation for great design, in both hardware and software.

The Panel

On hand to help us understand Enterprise Design and how to nail it was a great panel, moderated by Jessica Lin of Work-Bench:

They all shared great tips, and the audience chimed in and repeated some of the info via Twitter.  Please see the Storify wrap below.

Enterprise Design Resources

Afterwards I had the chance to ask the panel about important design publications and  influencers.  Most agreed that Jakob Nielsen and Nielsen Norman Group are still very important.  Here are other resources:

Also, my web searches uncovered this great Medium article on 20 UX Design Blogs and this Quora Q & A on the topic.

Finally, I saw that the NY Tech Alliance is hosting a related event next Wednesday: User Experience Research – Past, Present and Future.  Tom Tullis, author of Measuring the User Experience will be speaking.

Demos

No NYETM would be complete without great vendor demos.  This one featured two:

  • MaestroQA – Helps customer care teams run quality assurance and coaching programs; improves these things by streamlining processes in one solution.
  • BigID – Helps organizations deal with unbridled PII sprawl by transforming the practice of privacy management and personal data protection.

 

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Newsflash: PR is NOT Sinister Media Manipulation

Over the years I’ve learned to accept that most people simply don’t understand my chosen profession, public relations.  Some think it is just about media relations, which can be irritating (see my post about PR’s PR Problem).

Working with journalists is only one aspect of the field (in this post, I list others). Many succeed in PR without ever doing so – and those that just focus on media seem increasingly old school.

If PR does not equal media relations, it hurts worse to have sinister media manipulation called PR – but that is exactly what the New York Times did in the story: Russian Hackers Find Ready Bullhorns in the Media.

The article discusses how Russian operatives packaged and sold damaging information, gained from hacking, to a pliant US press corps during the 2016 presidential campaign. Like a cheap novel, no one comes away looking very good. Max Fisher writes:

“As the dust settles on Russian interference in the United States election, journalists are confronting an aspect that has received less scrutiny: Moscow’s ability to steer Western media coverage by doling out hacked documents… Reporters have always relied on sources who provide critical information for self-interested reasons. The [rub] is to serve the public interest without falling prey to the source’s agenda. But in this case, the source was Russia’s military intelligence agency — and its agenda was to undermine the American presidential election.”

The piece goes on to describe exactly how this was done.  It repeatedly describes the effort as “public relations work” under the heading A New Dark Art.

In another section, ‘Almost More like a PR firm’, the reporter quotes a source:

“Tom Cheshire, a reporter with the British network Sky News… said [the operatives] behaved ‘almost more like a P.R. firm, really’ and were ‘very businesslike,’ doling out scoops and trying to shape coverage.”

In my experience the vast majority of PR pros – even the ones who focus on media work – are doing nothing more than trying to get positive press, for brands, celebrities, and organizations. It’s not about manipulating media for some sinister purpose.

Too bad, because it’s an otherwise great piece that explores the tension between reporter and source, and the public’s right to know.

Reporters, I know you have a tough job, and it’s not your responsibility to explain PR. Still, you should understand the power and impact of your words – and their potential to perpetuate negative and unfair stereotypes.

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