Caveat emptor

Nice feature article in the NYT during the weekend about tuition costs at both nonprofit and for-profit colleges. It’s  subject that deserves a lot more attention than it gets. This jumped out to me:

College marketing firms encourage school officials to focus on the value of the education rather than the cost. For example, an article on the cover of Enrollment Management, a newsletter aimed at college admissions officials, urged writers of admissions materials to “avoid bad words like ‘cost,’ ‘pay’ (try ‘and you get all this for…’), ‘contract’ and ‘buy’ in your piece and avoid the conflicting feelings they generate.”

Simple, direct language is the best way to help people understand something. Look at those two constructs and think about which one best helps people understand their future at college. It’s the not the marketing buzzwords. So, then, if the clearest, most concise language isn’t the language being used, the the first priority of these organizations isn’t giving potential students an honest reading of their situation. That’s revealing.

And, yes, I am aware that college is still the best route to a more financially secure future. And, no, there is no college “bubble.” This is just about the marketing, which calls to mind used car salesmen more than anything else.

Advertisements

You’d agree with Randolph Scott

Interesting post from Justin Fox over at Harvard Business Review. He cuts right to the chase:

We all like to think we can evaluate information and arguments rationally, regardless of where they come from. But we don’t.

No. We certainly do not. Fox quotes Yale Law School Professor Dan Kahan, who notes that:

People feel that it is safe to consider evidence with an open mind when they know that a knowledgeable member of their cultural community accepts it.

Fox then says:

Kahan is most concerned about scientific issues (climate change, HPV vaccines) where he thinks group identities get in the way of reasoned discussion. But the same tendencies can be seen in pretty much any case where there are conflicting opinions — which ought to make them of interest to anybody in a management or other decision-making role.

There’s probably some sophisticated PR insight that can be drawn out of this but I don’t have it right now. Other than arguing with people in a respectful way and trying to acclimate yourself to their predispositions and speech conventions, I dunno. No deep thought for today.

Just got my deep thought. I wonder how true this is for political discussion. Obviously, if you’re dealing with one person and your job is to convince him/her, then you have to be accommodating and understanding and non-snarky and never condescending and all that.

But what if we’re talking about political persuasion? Basically half the people in the country don’t vote. I’m not sure why (that’d be an interesting study but I imagine they might be hard to get hold of). Would using intentionally inflammatory rhetoric, designed to catch the attention of other people who weren’t paying attention, be a better strategy? Because remember: the people you’re attempting to convince probably won’t listen to you anyway for the very reason that Fox outlines.

I feel like the equation has to change when you’re switching from a one-on-one conversation with a committed, opposed person to a series of messages that appeal to millions of people, some of whom are already on your side, some of whom aren’t and around half of whom aren’t even paying attention. Is it worth catering your argument to the delicate sensibilities of ideologically hostile people in the hope that they see the light? Or are you better off torching those people and crossing your fingers that your tribe gets riled up while the unaware half takes a few minutes to stop watching porn and check out what’s going on? Another question to which I don’t have the answer.

And yes:

Great moments in political PR

The Heartland Institute, which is one of the leading “think tanks” producing “research” about the lack of effects/irrelevance/non-existence/shut up, hippies of global warming, has put up a few billboards to try and raise awareness of their position (via). Here’s one:

You may or may not remember the Heartland Institute for working with Philip Morris to call into question the legitimacy of research that documents the harmful effects of second-hand smoke. Charming.

Popping the bubble

Going off my last post, I’d do better to remember that most people spend their time thinking about stuff other than what I think about. I’m aware of that politically and my writing references that a bunch but I guess it’s just as true for marketing stuff.

When you read about marketing or PR, you quickly gain a level of familiarity with basic concepts and techniques that show up in every other post. Advice on how to write good headlines, craft engaging content, deal with your stakeholders in a respectful way, all of that stuff is repeated so often that it needs no saying among PR folks. Or at most, it needs only a casual reminder every once in a while.

But when you step outside of that echo chamber, in which everyone is talking to everyone else and they all work in the same industry and deal with the same client problems and use the same acronyms, you have to reset pretty quickly. Lots of people don’t have much of an idea how to define ‘public relations,’ let alone have developed thoughts on content marketing or the efficacy of automated email outreach. If you stay in the bubble too long, it’s easy to forget that, or at least it is for me.

The Hangover

I’ll take a break from my harrumphing and tut-tutting and tsk-tsking of the PR blogosphere for not writing about exactly what I’d like them to write about to share this:

Susan G. Komen for the Cure may have popularized the color pink as a universal symbol of breast cancer fund-raising. But these days, many of the breast cancer foundation’s local affiliates are singing the blues

Registered attendance or donations have declined by more than 25 percent at some of the group’s recent Race for the Cure events, according to interviews with officials at 10 of the national nonprofit’s local affiliates.

Although the group’s race season is just getting started, the early returns indicate that local affiliates, a mainstay of Komen’s fund-raising operations, are struggling to recover after a public outcry in February forced the national Komen association to rescind a controversial decision that would have curbed financing for breast health programs by Planned Parenthood.

So, Komen is still experiencing some serious trouble in the wake of l’affair Planned Parenthood. From a few grafs down in the article, this jumped out to me, too:

But the very strengths that enabled Komen to become the world’s most prominent breast cancer nonprofit played a role in its recent stumble, corporate governance experts said. Nancy G. Brinker, the group’s charismatic founder and chief executive, built Komen into a pink powerhouse, thanks to an army of dedicated local volunteers and donors. Yet when the national headquarters decided to make a policy change that would have prevented affiliates from financing Planned Parenthood programs, it left those local chapters out of the loop, according to interviews with Komen affiliate officials.

“To a certain extent, we did not feel we were controlling our own destiny, which was unfortunate,” said David Egan, the co-executive director of the Komen Minnesota affiliate.

Likewise, corporate governance experts say, the insider culture at Komen’s headquarters, with national executives and board members deeply loyal to Ms. Brinker, discouraged independent efforts.

“They are too insular,” said Daniel Borochoff, the president of CharityWatch, a watchdog group that rates nonprofit organizations.

I have my fun, every so often, taking potshots at PR people who are paid enormously well to advise organizations to do things that I think are screamingly basic. Stuff like empowering people on all levels in your organization, soliciting honest advice from stakeholders both internal and external and issuing timely, unrestricted apologies when the situation calls for it.

From the beginning of this snafu, it was clear that some people were kept in the dark about cutting off Planned Parenthood. So, the above advice, even if I’ve heard it a gazillion times, is still worth repeating again. The Komen episode underlines that there is one large, spectacularly funded organization that hasn’t heard this advice or has no interest in taking it. And, of course, it isn’t just one organization. No doubt there are many, many more.

Mediacentrism

My thoughts return to the PR blogosphere and its substantive commentary (or lack thereof) on political matters. I think I have found a serviceable, though imperfect, analogy to sum up my beef.

Brian Solis, who is generally acknowledged to be a leading writer in ‘big think’ PR pieces and an overall pretty sharp guy, writes a lot of stuff on the intersection of business, the ever-evolving digital age and how that affects organizations. I was not a huge fan of his writing early on but the more that I’ve read, the more it’s grown on me.

One of Brian’s pet points, and one that I’ve seen him make several times in writing, is that often people focus on digital media and social platforms as ends in and of themselves rather than a tactics that fit into a preexisting business model and organizational ethos. Now, if you made it past the embarrassing number of buzzwords in that last sentence, here’s what I’m getting at:

Brands and their marketers suffer from what I refer to as medium’alsim, a condition where inordinate value and weight is placed on the technology of any medium rather than amplifying platform strengths and ideas to deliver desired and beneficial experiences and outcomes.  Said another way, businesses are developing for the sake of development and establishing supporting presences without regard for how someone feels, thinks, or acts as a result. In doing so, “engagement” programs are calculated, brought to life in the form of an editorial calendar that, by its very nature, isn’t not designed to really engage people at all.

Emphasis mine. I misremembered the term he cam up with, which caused me to waste a good ten minutes on Google searching for a combination of ‘Brian Solis’ and ‘mediacentrism’, failing at that, cursing at Google and then even considering using Bing. But no matter. My moniker is ‘mediacentrism.’ It’s the exact same idea and, I have now realized, it’s one of my chief complaints about how PR types write about politics online, if they do write about it at all.

So often, political posts are focused on the delivery mechanism. Here’s a post from Dan Zarrella about how the leading GOP contenders’ Twitter stats. Here’s a David Meerman Scott post about how Obama’s video is a great example of content marketing. Here’s an InkHouse post about the optics early on in the primary process. Etc, etc.

Again, I stress, there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with these posts. They can be interesting. I’m aware that it’s not the job of PR folks to analyze policy. I’m aware that much of their professional work does concern image-managing, so this emphasis makes enough sense. But, nevertheless, I think there’s a lost opportunity to look at the way information is disseminated and rejected received. Plus, let’s not kid ourselves: Jeff Zeleny and Ashley Parker spend almost all of their time writing about trivial, optical stuff. PR people could look elsewhere. And yes, because I am ever the thoughtful and substantive blogger, I’ll give you an example.

Greg Sargent had an interesting post a few days ago. An NYT/CBS poll asked about tax fairness in the context of growth, to steal Greg’s wording, and here’s what happened:

Which do you think is the best way to promote economic growth in the U.S.? 1.Lower taxes on individuals and businesses, and pay for those tax cuts by spending on some government services and programs, or 2. Spend more on education and the nation’s infrastructure, and raise taxes on wealthy individuals and businesses to pay for that spending.

Lower taxes, cut spending: 37

Spend more, raise taxes: 56

And here are a few more figures:

The poll also finds that 67 percent say the government should do more to help improve the situation of middle class Americans; 52 percent say government shold [sic] do more to improve the housing market; 57 percent think the wealthy pay less than their fair share in taxes; and that 51 percent think capital gains should be taxed as ordinary income. People say they dislike government in the abstract, but when the talk turns to specifics, suddenly active government doesn’t look so bad.

Emphasis all his. And wow. Sounds like good news for the Preznit, eh? Except there’s also this:

But a whopping 55 percent are confident in Romney’s ability to make the right decisions about the economy. If Romney clears the basic competence threshold with voters, as seems likely, it could be trouble for Obama.

Waitwaitwait. The public supports, by twenty points, raising taxes on the wealthy and spending more (Obama’s plan) as opposed to cutting spending and lowering taxes (Romney’s plan). 67% say the government should do more to help middle class families, which Romney’s economic plan will not do (see previous link). 52% say government should do more to improve the housing market, an area in which Obama has been quite poor but it stands to reason that Romney would be worse. And 51% think that capital gains should be treated as income, a change which the Buffet rule would mostly accomplish. Romney, if you haven’t been up on it, does not support the Buffet rule.

So: the general public opposes Romney’s general economic plan by 20%. On each discrete issue, the public is more aligned with Obama’s policies than those of Romney. And… wait for it… 55% of Americans claim to be confident about Romney’s ability to make the right decisions about the economy. Now, that’s interesting.

Oh hello, it’s you again

Guest post today on Spin Sucks from Molli Megasko. Molli writes about how people have stereotypes about Millenials and often times those stereotypes are wrong and stupid. Makes sense to me. I am a Millenial and I’ve seen this dynamic at work in various places, if never actually at a work site.

Here’s where we run into trouble:

I’ve been pretty pissed off about this recently and finally felt empowered when I saw this quote posted on the Newera Social Marketing Facebook page:

I’m part of that generation known as Millennials, and even if we don’t know whether social security will be around when we retire, or if we’ll be able to retire, or if we’ll even have jobs to consider retiring [from], we know this: We are hustlers.

– Taken from a Good Culture post titled What Generation Overshare Can Learn from Biggie.

No. No. No no no no. From the Trustees Report summary:

After 2020, Treasury will redeem trust fund assets in amounts that exceed interest earnings until exhaustion of trust fund reserves in 2033, three years earlier than projected last year. Thereafter, tax income would be sufficient to pay only about three-quarters of scheduled benefits through 2086.

Or put another way: Social Security, if we do nothing, will still be able to pay out three-quarters of its benefits by the time Ms. Megasko is 102. And no, I did not miss the irony of this comment being approvingly quoted on a blog called ‘Spin Sucks.’