08 October 2014

In which the PR guy calls BS on the science people

Welcome to the world of social media metrics
Everyone loves a good "top ten" list, and I'm not just talking about David Letterman.  We like top ten (or top 50, or top 100, or whatever) lists of people - mostly because it gives us an opportunity to judge other people and project our own personal issues and avoid things that really matter.

A few months back, a scientific journal published an article by genomicist Neil Hall about the "K-index," where K stands for "Kardashian." It was a measure of "unearned" popularity among scientists.  It compared a person's number of citations in scientific journals against their number of Twitter followers. 


Some noteworthy scientists  called out some of the article's nonsense. I had something to say about it too.  Science - the magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science - responded by publishing not one but two "top scientists on Twitter" lists. 

(By the way, I  note the irony of Neil Hall being better known for his snark on unearned publicity than for his actual work in genomics.)

But here's the thing - the AAAS pieces had some semblance of a "methodology" in developing their lists.  I put methodology in quotation marks because it is full of caveats - including a lack of consensus on the definition of "scientist."

You read that right - Science Magazine's list of "top 50 science stars on Twitter" consists of people who - according to Science Magazine - may or may not be actual scientists.

The thing that bugs me the most about the lists, however, is the reliance on Twitter followers as their anchor metric.   

Social media metrics are daunting as it is, but vanity metrics such as number of likes or followers or even friends don't equate to influence.   For example, more than 150 of my Twitter followers are actually fake.  When Newt Gingrich ran for President, only 8 percent of his million-plus followers were actual people.

If I want a lot of  Twitter followers or Instagram followers, or Facebook friends, or YouTube video views, or blog comments, or blog links, or even search-engine-friendly blog posts,  I can just buy some.

I care much more about the quality of people I engage with on twitter.  I care much more about the kind of information I can get on twitter by following very specific groups of people.  True influence is earned online through candid and effective stakeholder engagement.

So unless you're just publishing click-bait - and I wouldn't be surprised if that's all this was - Don't describe your Twitter list as the "top" anything.  Use these lists as an opportunity to position yourself as a competent curator - someone who recognizes good content and organizes it effectively.  Explain why someone is on it without resorting to numbers anyone can buy.

Saying "this is a list of people I like to follow" also helps people know a little about you. 

24 September 2014

The radical transparency of #farmtopork

There are some obvious "Don'ts" in Public Relations.

Don't tell a reporter you will throw him off a balcony. Don't "reply all."  Don't drop an f-bomb if you're the Pope. Don't be Joe Biden.

And of course, Don't take a dozen online moms on a tour of a "kill floor" at a pork processing plant.

But here's the thing about that last don't: you kind of have to do it if you want people to truly understand where their food comes from.  So that's exactly what the Animal Agriculture Alliance (my client) did.

The Alliance told the true, complete "farm to fork" story, using pork as the example. They invited twelve bloggers from across the country to see first-hand and learn about the entire process - from insemination on a sow farm, to a nursery, to a finishing farm, to processing.   The bloggers met with farmers, with veterinarians, with environmental engineers, with scientists and nutritionists.  No question was off the table.

And it was amazing.  These remarkable women viewed this process with open eyes and open minds.  They have said they found the experience to be educational, engaging, and entertaining. They shared their thoughts online using a hashtag, #farmtopork.

Each of the women have had their own unique perspective, but I noticed one opinion they all share - they all have a much deeper appreciation and respect for farmers and for all the people who bring food to our tables.  They saw first hand the passion and lifelong commitment that farmers bring to their work.  They saw how much sophistication and science is required in agriculture today.  They saw how safety - food safety as well as worker safety - is the top priority.  And they also saw just how nice everyone was.

And so while we can take that last item I mentioned off the list of PR "don'ts", we can probably add one as well.

Don't ever underestimate the ability of online moms to listen, think critically, and make up their own minds - no matter what you have to show them.

10 September 2014

Real men know what accountability is

I am by no means an expert on domestic violence, or how to prevent it.  The pieces I read by Roxane Gay, Liz Gumbinner and Rebecca Wolf are better than anything I could ever write on the topic.

I do have some knowledge in crisis communications and how companies and leaders demonstrate accountability in the aftermath of big mistakes.  That's what this post is about.

The National Football League is one of the most prolific sources of entertainment in the United States. Its owners and leadership earn profits in large part thanks to a special set of rules and benefits few other businesses get - preferential tax treatment, public subsidies and infrastructure support, business-friendly hiring practices, and so on.  They are the yachts William Carlos Williams wrote about in my favorite poem.

So I'm not surprised when the league develops rules of conduct that seem arbitrary to the rest of us.  I'm not surprised when they employ circular logic to defend the indefensible. I'm not surprised by the league's reaction when they are suddenly held to the standards others face every day.

Here's the thing.  There's a difference between saying something and doing something.  There's a difference between apologizing to someone and making them whole again.  There's a difference between saying you have a new policy and actually implementing that policy.  There's a difference between saying you're accountable and actually being accountable.

Ray Rice hit his fiance in an elevator - knocking her unconscious - and then dragged her out of the elevator.  He admitted doing this. The NFL had all of the facts and gave him a 2-week suspension.

When the NFL got overwhelming criticism for this decision, the commissioner admitted "they got it wrong" and announced a new policy.  The first time you do something like this you get a 6-week suspension, the second time you're fired. Rice's suspension, however, remained at 2 games.

Three days later, two NFL employees were arrested on domestic violence charges.  To date, neither has been disciplined under the new policy.

Then a video emerged confirming the facts the NFL already had and confirming what Rice said he did.  No one has suggested, at least publicly, that Rice lied or misled the league.  The facts haven't changed.  However, Rice is now fired.  He has been held accountable.

The NFL commissioner insists that no one at the NFL saw this "new" video.  Others have suggested this is not the case. Either way, the video does not offer new facts.

The commissioner says "the buck stops with me" and when it comes to the NFL's errors in appropriately enforcing rules, "I'm accountable for that."

The NFL commissioner is embarrassed.  He's apologetic.

He hasn't been held accountable.

And that's why the NFL hasn't stopped the damage yet.