19 August 2014

Trying to sort it all out

The past couple of weeks have been family-focused for me.  I was away and relatively (though not completely) unplugged.  I'm very grateful that I have the resources to do that, because I know most people don't.  From an extreme distance, in more ways than one, I watched the scene unfold in Ferguson.

I read the national media accounts - the ones that focus on sensationalism and conflict, and try to explain  "why it's important" or "the 5 things you need to know" or how what's happened is just a proxy for someone's real agenda or confirms someone's world view.  I read the local media - the ones that insist that "this isn't who we are" and focus on the leadership (or lack thereof) in the community.  I read the "niche" media that reflects perspectives I don't and can't truly have - conservative media, African-American media, foreign media, people who write about law enforcement.

I looked at all this and I asked myself "what if Michael Brown were my son?"

But then, none of this would ever happen to my son.

If a local cop found my son walking in the middle of the street, and by some miracle chose not to ignore it, he'd probably just threaten to tell me about it.  If he found my son hiding a box of cheap cigars under his arm, he'd probably tell him to give them back. If he smelled marijuana on him, he'd probably think fondly of the days when he'd sneak a joint. He might even crack a joke.

If my kid got into trouble with the law, people would be falling over themselves trying to figure out how a good kid could get caught up in this stuff.  They'd wonder if he has problems and they'd try to find him help.  My son would probably get a dozen second chances.  We would be telling prosecutors not to ruin this kid's future.

If a cop shot and killed my son in a situation like what happened in Ferguson - and by that I mean "jaywalking" - there would be no riots.  They wouldn't be necessary, because everyone knows accountability would be swift and sure.  I'd see suspensions, resignations, written apologies, and drafts of settlement agreements with big dollar amounts attached to them. I'd get a call from the mayor, maybe even a member of Congress. I'd probably watch the offending officer break down crying, wondering aloud how he could have possibly made such a tragic mistake, and beg my forgiveness.  Someone would set up a scholarship fund in my son's name, and the police union would make the first donation.

Less than a week after this "accident," I'd never have to worry about calculating, depraved, and cowardly character assassinations from a local police chief that demonstrates a level of incompetence and disregard for the rule of law I'd never think possible in modern America.

I'd never have to witness a surreal spectacle of police officers with more combat gear than a military special forces unit dehumanize the citizens they're sworn to serve and throw journalists in jail for trying to document it.

None of this would ever happen to my family. I cannot possibly comprehend the depths of pain the Brown family feels right now.

There is one thing, however, I can comprehend as a professional in crisis communications.  It's the level of deception, depravity, and hypocrisy coming from the Ferguson police chief in the guise of "public relations."

As his officers abuse the citizens they're supposed to protect, he also allows them to block, assault, detain, and tear gas journalists - all in obvious violation of the law. He's clearly condoned, and possibly even directed this behavior.  This prevents the documentation of abuse that would likely hold him accountable.

Just before he finally released the name of the officer who killed Michael Brown, he accused Brown of stealing a box of cheap cigars a few minutes before he was killed.  He acknowledged that this had nothing to do with the shooting, but said he had "no choice" because journalists had apparently filed "FOIA requests."   He also said he hadn't informed the Missouri Highway Patrol - the organization who had taken over for him due to his profound incompetence - of his decision because he was still "in the mode of the county being in charge."

I've done enough work with public entities and dealt with enough FOIA issues to know this is exquisite bullshit. Nothing in the law requires the police chief to do what he did.  This man has ignored the laws that would force him to act transparently, and he has deceptively invoked laws to obfuscate the facts.  We now know state and federal officials urged the local police chief to exercise appropriate restraint.  The chief effectively flipped them the bird.

He said all this at a press conference he called - one in which he asked the media to "exercise discretion" by not bringing members of the Ferguson community with them.  He wanted the media to know this and report it without the instant reaction of outrage.  He wanted the narrative of Michael Brown the robber to cut into the narrative of Darren Wilson the shooter for that first round of coverage.

And he stood there, in front of cameras, and claimed he was powerless to stop it.

That's a lie.

01 August 2014

The Anonymous Nobody Index: a measure of alternatives to doing actual work

It's come to my attention that Dr. Neil Hall, "Legendary self styled maverick genome scientist…and father of 4," has developed a new influence metric that will almost certainly take the marketing and communications field by storm:
In the era of social media there are now many different ways that a scientist can build their public profile; the publication of high-quality scientific papers being just one. While social media is a valuable tool for outreach and the sharing of ideas, there is a danger that this form of communication is gaining too high a value and that we are losing sight of key metrics of scientific value, such as citation indices. To help quantify this, I propose the ‘Kardashian Index’, a measure of discrepancy between a scientist’s social media profile and publication record based on the direct comparison of numbers of citations and Twitter followers.
I, of course, was instantly offended by this.  Pulling meaningless social media metrics out of your ass with gratuitous references to pop culture is MY job.  Yet there it was, published in a scientific journal, no less.

Being a narcissistic online social media guru - and an American one, no less - my first instinct was of course to calculate my own "K-index." I checked my Twitter followers (somewhere around 3500) and my number of scientific citations (roughly zero).

I could be wrong, but according to Dr. Hall's model I think my K-index is infinity.

Dr. Hall's model is, of course, sheer brilliance.  If he's not careful the folks at Klout may grab the patent on it. For the first time we may be able to accurately measure the degree to which someone is an undeserving clod who never really accomplished anything meaningful in life.  You know the ones - the really popular ones, who get all the attention, the pretty ones who just coast through life, having things handed to them at every turn, having people fawn all over them, as if THEY were the smart ones, THEY were the ones who deserved to be prom king, THEY were the ones who dated the really cute girls, THEY were the ones who could just seem to say the right thing at the right time while YOU, the really smart one, the one who was shy and maybe a little funny-looking or smelly but so industrious and well-meaning and really nice if they just got to know you a little bit, YOU, the one who works and will probably discover something really really important - something that you don't really have the time to explain because people really won't understand it anyway and there isn't enough damn time to teach others the really complicated things that just come easy to you - YOU really deserve all that attention, and sure, sure it would be great if someone famous mentioned your work on Twitter or the radio or television or whatever, and yeah, you suppose it would be nice if someone tried to help you explain why your work is important so it continued to get funding from people who don't know a lot about science but do know a lot about finance or law or marketing so they have money...

Sorry, was I talking out loud just then?

Anyway, there is one small problem with Dr. Hall's article - one that is no doubt going to be cited I don't know how many times. It's that time he steps out of character to give us something "on a serious note" - possibly written when he realized that his model likely calls women "Kardashians" because they are underrepresented in scientific citations:
My introduction highlights the fact that women have a history of being ignored by the scientific community. Interestingly, in my analysis, very few women (only one in fact) had a highly inflated Twitter following, while most (11/14) had fewer followers than would be expected. Hence, most Kardashians are men! This ‘study’ does not prove that we, as a community, are continuing to ignore women, or if women are less likely to engage in self-promotion, but it is consistent with either or both of these scenarios.
So I'll step out of character as well.  Here's a little bit of PR advice, given in good faith, to an obviously smart guy who was clearly trying to make a joke.

Don't go there.

Don't go through the goofy exercise of cherry-picking a few people you think don't deserve their publicity and then try to make some vague, CYA statement on gender.  Don't throw out a thinly-veiled (albeit clever) critique of science communication and self-promotion while failing to clearly articulate what you really think about this important issue.  

Don't create a situation where your "fifteen minutes of fame" is spent on something other than your work - especially while you're insisting that it's your work that really matters.

16 July 2014

Female Role Models: Ends and Beginnings

For a long time I had a feature on this blog called Female Role Models, where I would "introduce" readers to a handful of women I thought were great examples of success for the rest of us.  I would write an installment whenever I noticed a man said or did something particularly stupid and sexist.

Then last year I learned about the everyday sexism project, and started reading more from women who wrote about these issues.  Some of the writers were self-identified feminists, others were simply women who wrote about current events. I quickly realized if I tried to write an installment every time a guy did something stupid, I'd have no time to do anything else. 

This issue is personally important for a few reasons. I was raised by a single mom for some of my formative years. I've spent my life surrounded by strong, smart women.  I think we solve problems faster and make better decisions when we incorporate diverse perspectives, and women bring some of those perspectives to light. I also know women start most small businesses and are the driving force behind America's entrepreneurial spirit.

Through my work, I've had the opportunity to see some great examples of this - particularly online moms who launch their own successful startups, pursue and excel in science careers, attain positions of leadership at large companies, and serve as advocates and mentors for other women. 

I've also seen disputes over the behavior of others. I've seen people dehumanize other people who make mistakes, and I've seen people try to defend the indefensible.  I've seen people I know and respect call other people I know and respect "the horde," "the mafia," and "the lynch mob."

It's important to identify bad behavior and make examples of those who engage in it.  It's important to have candid and provocative discussions about right and wrong. It's important to challenge convention and question authority and fight for the things we believe in. 

And while none of this should stop, I think we need to reframe this discussion a bit.  We should spend more time identifying and celebrating the people who work so hard and overcome challenges. We should find young people who may have a goal but don't perceive an opportunity and show them there are people who look like them pursuing the same goals.  We should give people something to be "for," not just "against." 

So while I won't be writing blog posts about female role models - it just takes too much time for me to sit and write posts - I will be adding pins to the FMR Pinboard as quickly and as regularly as I can. My criteria are relatively vague, but they work for me: 
Someone an online mom can show her daughter [or son, a great point my wife made] and say, "See her? See what she's doing? See how she's living in the same world you are, with the same challenges you have, and see how she succeeds? THAT is how you do this. THAT is what I stand for. I want you to be like HER."
I hope it's a resource for people who want inspiration or really just confirmation that yes, despite all of the crazy, there are legions of people out there who are showing the rest of us how it's done.  And I will consider any recommendations sent my way, so please share.