Fittting in

One of the odd things about working at a new place is trying to balance enthusiasm. Obviously, you want to show that you give a shit about the job and that you’re a good worker. But that has to be balanced with the fact that it is, after all, work. And everyone there would much rather be doing at least 50 different things a helluva lot more than being at the office. So, you can’t be all that enthusiastic or enjoying yourself that much because, really, no one else is. And acting that way (understandably) strikes people, especially those who have been at their jobs for a few years, as weird and off-putting.

Not the easiest line to walk. But I think I’m getting better at it.

Shadowy Silk land has been silent because I’ve been working about 45 hours a week and I am not used to doing that. More blogging in bit, time-permitting. Dana Milbank nearly brought me back with a stupendously idiotic piece a few days ago but I was too lazy. Hopefully, soon, though.

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.

Ain’t Talkin’

This post has been turning around in my head for a while now and only really came about a few nights ago, after I had read the Carone piece and spent two hours trying to fall asleep.

Several weeks back, David Meerman Scott wrote a blog post about President Obama ‘newsjacking’ the results of Super Tuesday:

President Obama and his advisors’ choice to answer journalists’ questions on Super Tuesday, when voters in ten U.S. states vote in the Republican Presidential Primaries (arguably the most important date of the entire primary season) is a classic example of political newsjacking.

Watch the news conference on WhiteHouse.gov.

So in today’s online news stories, this evening’s television and radio broadcasts, and tomorrow’s newspapers, the Republican Super Tuesday winner(s) need to share the top story with the President.

The president has engaged in newsjacking before. For example: President Obama Newsjacks Iowa Caucus by joining Instagram.

What struck me about this was the focus of the post. Like many people in the PR/marketing biz, Scott’s post zones in on a similarity between politics and PR: the president can ‘newsjack’ (the titular subject of Scott’s latest book) and so can you! The post is about the overlap between public relations and politics, two disciplines that do share much in common.

This sort of analysis (applying PR principles to politicking) is endemic in the PR/marketing online conversation (another example of Scott citing similarities here). There’s nothing wrong with it. But to me, and this is why I reacted with such interest, it’s boring. We all know that politicians have different publics, have to cater their messaging to various constituencies, should embrace transparency to the degree they can, will use the same tactics used by marketers, yadda yadda.  It’s not the similarities that are interesting. It’s the differences.

I’ve harped on this before, but what makes politics such a fascinating departure from ‘typical’ PR is that people don’t receive and process information the same way. In fact, it’s not even close. Take, for example, a consumer PR crisis. Remember when Mattel had to recall a bunch of toys because they contained or might’ve contained lead paint, which is very much not good for the babies? People were understandably pissed, Mattel’s reputation took a hit and late-night comedians had half their jokes written for the next two weeks.

But that reaction was a universal reaction. Pretty much everyone looked up from their porn morning paper and went, “Wow. That’s no good.” And that was that. Consumer product safety is not something that’s bisected or fragmented by religion or tribalism or whatever.

Contrast our consumer PR example with the storied (and still ongoing!) saga about our current president’s place of birth. Now here, we have a situation in which there is, let’s be charitable, substantial evidence that Barack Obama was indeed born in Hawaii. And yet.. in 2011, a majority of Republican voters claimed that they either did not know or did not believe whether/that the Preznit was born in these here United States. And no, I am not willing to grant these folks a possible David Hume-like philosophical ignorance about the nature of certainty and whether any of us really know anything and that it’s possible that the illusory nature of the sen.. No.

Or what, we might ask, of a certain political party whose economic agenda, for the past 30 years or so, has been premised on the idea of tax cuts increasing revenue when that idea is demonstrably false? That economic ‘theory‘ remains an article of faith to this day.

On more than a few levels, I can understand why PR folks, especially established ones, are disinclined to ponder this sort of stuff in public. The subject matter basically demands a PoFlaWa. I’m sure many of the people whom I read have clients whose opinions differ from mine. Hell, there are probably more than few marketing types out there who are just seething at how the Socialist-in-Chief is destroying Murka. People tend to tread lightly around politics and I understand why. It’s not easy to argue.

To (almost) close, I’ll just say this: I find this sort of stuff, from both a persuasion and political science perspective, so damn interesting. Marketing, in my own estimation and that of people who are much more successful and respected than I am, is changing. From an interview with Douglas Rushkoff (via):

What will marketing organizations look like in the future?

It will be companies that figure out how to communicate the non-fiction story of a company, so it’s going to look a lot more like a communications company than a creative branding agency. It’s going to look a little bit more like PR, in some sense. It’s going to be people who go and figure out what does your company do and how do we let the world know about that? There’s going to be a lot of psychology involved, except instead of it being psychologists turned against the consumer, it’s going to be psychologists going in and trying to convince companies that what they’re doing is worthy. It’s breaking down this false need in companies to hide from the public what they’re doing–except for the ones that do (need to hide).

Couldn’t agree more. With more forced transparency, faster relay of information and a greater capacity for people to make their voices heard, bullshitting people is increasingly harder for companies. And yet… in our political discourse, bullshit not only still persists, it dominates. I find this fascinating. But no one, at least no one that I’ve come across in my time reading marketing and PR blogs, says a peep about this. I’m not expecting them to line up alongside me on Team Lefty, although from reading much of the content, it’s difficult to feel that many PR folks don’t lean that way (and some, to their credit, claim the mantle). I am somewhat surprised, though, that this isn’t frequent fodder for thoughts on how politics perverts straightforward persuasion.

Because you have one of our two main political parties, and even more so their most dedicated followers, believing things that are at odds with a wealth of evidence (start here, here and here).

Why do they believe this? Or why do they claim to believe this? Well… that’s a very interesting question, innit? It’s something that I wrote about by hand when I traveled*. I hope to have the time in the next few weeks to transcribe my thoughts on such things, despite the fact that famous people have publicly preempted me.

*If you ever go to New Caledonia, make sure you speak French. Or go with someone who speaks French. Or be prepared to sit on the beach and write and read and keep to yourself. Delightful place. Not too many English-speaking folks, though.

Content Marketing Future

Ah, now this is very interesting. By way of NetWeave, I have come across an article in AdAge on the future of content marketing. I may not have written about content marketing in Shadowy Silk land before but I have thought about a good bit. I’d suggest reading the article in full, because it’s not very long. It’s valuable because it hits a lot of things I’ve considered.

First worthwhile point:

“I do think we’re in the early stages of a “content bubble,’ which is being inflated by the idea that brands should be publishers,” said Kyle Monson, content-strategy director at JWT, New York. “It’s a good idea, but now we’ve got a rush of people calling themselves “content strategists,’ though they may not have any idea how to create compelling, strategic content.”

I go back and forth on this. Is content marketing and social media presence in general something that’s going to have legs or is it just the newest shiny object that the larger business community thinks is a great idea and latches onto, only to drop in a few years? I dunno and neither do you. I used to be a lot more partial to the latter. Less so now because I’m going to enter a profession that’s going to revolve around content marketing I’ve done social media work at places where they’ve been genuinely happy with it and it’s produced more awareness about the organization.

Second point I like:

“There are a few really great content campaigns out there, and loads of terrible ones,” he said. “The balance is such that, eventually, CMOs might not want to hear about clever content campaigns anymore, because they’ve traveled that road before and didn’t see the ROI. That’s how bubbles pop.”

The other perspective is that this is just the beginning of solid investment that can drive business. As experimentation gives way to systematization, the metrics — soft now — will firm up.

Gets at so much of what’s trite and ultimately pointless about content that focuses on marketing advice. I’m not saying that all of that advice is bad stuff, because I read a lot of it and there’s a good amount that’s actionable and useful. At the same time, though, so many of the basic communication principles (don’t be an asshole, don’t lie to people, solicit advice, etc) are so screamingly basic to regular interpersonal interaction that repeating them over and over again isn’t really instructive. Case studies can be better for that, but at the end of the day, it’s about putting those principles in practice. And you won’t know they’ll succeed until they do.

In other words, people can talk ’til they’re blue in the fact about ‘remarkable’ content, can study what sort of content goes viral, can investigate when is the best time to share and all that. That stuff’s all quantifiable. But ‘remarkable’ isn’t. ‘Remarkable’ is subjective and qualitative. How do you know if content is ‘remarkable?’ When the actions of other people tell you so. Game plan and do all the research you want (it’s useful!). But when push comes to shove, you know ‘remarkable’ from how people receive it and nothing else.

Third point:

It’s “a transformation in which brands truly become publishers,” Mr. Murdock said. “They produce substantial volumes of content — a minimum of five pieces a week — that are not about their own products but about the interests of their customers. Only such substantial operations can produce real results.”

The “not about their own products” part is key to content marketing success.

Quality comes from understanding that creating content isn’t the same as PR, and it certainly isn’t advertising. Seems like an obvious point, but wade through the deepening thicket of content programs and you get mixed results. For every American Express Open Forum or Red Bull Art of Flight, there are many more crap ones, graveyards.

This sort of crystallizes one of my previously (and probably still) incomplete thoughts. Good PR, obviously, is when you don’t have to lie to people. It’s about mutually aligned interests (yours and your client’s and those of the general public). If I’m repping a company that makes tax software which is cheaper than its competitors products and intuitive to boot, that’s perfect. Persuading you to buy their software is my interest, buying the software is in your interest and selling the software is obviously in my client’s interest.

A huge part of good content marketing is research. Producing your own stuff is useful, of course, but sifting through everyone else’s stuff (of which there is a lot more) is paramount. The good stuff that you find is informative, actionable, relevant or useful in some other way to people who have a relationship with your client. The angelic intersection of content marketing and PR is when the majority or best-sourced content backs up your argument. If so, you can find the best content, demonstrate to the public that their interests are served by you and your organization and it’s smooth sailing.

The more devilish side is when those two practices don’t overlap. That leaves the you in a position where you either have to sacrifice the client’s interests or bullshit people. I think we can all guess which one of those will happen more often.

Content marketing fits into this dynamic, which has always been true regarding information, but is more important than ever because more information is available and better channels exist to promote that information. As to whether content marketing is a bubble, I don’t know. It’s pretty clear, though, that some businesses (Citi, which is referenced in the article, being one of them) can’t do good content marketing because a huge part of their business practice is premised on fucking people over.

So, looking at it another way, content marketing might pose a clarifying question: in this day and age, where it’s increasingly harder to bullshit people, what percentage of businesses with enough money to earnestly pursue content marketing will succeed? The number of those that do might tell us something interesting. But that something interesting will be more about the businesses rather than PR or content marketing.

Informedness as a variable

One of the things that I’ve found interesting as I think about the way that I consume news info and how that affects how I think (yeah, meta, I know) is how I’ve sorta come full-circle on source credibility.

I’m fanatical about looking up authors of pieces that I read and knowing about their previous positions. It astounds me that people can consume media, especially about important topics, and not have that same obsessive desire to know the prognosticator’s track record. For me, the first check of a political pundit is their stance on the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And I move on from there.

When I first started doing political reading at a high volume (two or three years ago, by my guess), I figured anyone who trusted a political pundit (or even more so, a politician) was an idiot. Source credibility is important, sure, but only fools are willing to let an argument stand on the reputation of its promoter. I trusted pretty much no one that I read. I clicked on just about every hyperlink in a piece. At this point, I didn’t know a tenth of the online websites of which I’m now aware, so that pathological need to fact-check my every source wasn’t quite as daunting as it might sound, but still, I did a lot of work. To this day, to say that I read critically is an understatement.

That attitude changed as I encountered sites where people would curse and harshly criticize the political establishment and do other stuff that jibed with me. As I read those sites (it was a lot of Greenwald, some TPM, getting into Balloon-Juice, laughing at Politico, etc), I started to assume that by reading an informed and persuasive polemic (yeah, usually Greenwald) I knew the entirety of every issue. This was during the watering-down and subsequent passage of the Affordable Health Care Act, which had all those shitty compromises and made me all disillusioned and pissy. I spent a buncha time reading the epic flame wars on BJ, which often ran in excess of 300 and 400 comments, trying to suss out whether the Firebaggers or Obots had the winning arguments. More often than not, I came down on the Firebagger side, which made sense, because this was the point where I was down on Obama, not just for the ACA, but also because of Guantanamo, his handling of the banks, his staffing decisions, Afghanistan, etc, etc.

Nowadays, I’m in what I’d call my third phase, which is where the title of this post comes from. I’ve come full-circle on being informed, which I am, to a higher degree than most people, but also knowing the limits of being informed.

For instance, if you read an article saying that Obama and Congress passed the ACA, a historic piece of legislation, you’d think, “Wow! Pretty good.” But then let’s say you read a well-written critique of Obama’s negotiating, replete with informative links, that takes Obama to task for not pursuing a public option, which (the argument goes) he might’ve been able to get, but didn’t because he sold you out. You’d read that and go, “Well… shit. We coulda done better.” But then let’s say you read a counter-point to the critique which argues persuasively, again with good links, that the 60 votes for the public option were never there. But then the critique author goes, “Well, with that attitude, it never woulda happened. Shouldn’t he have tried?”

And then, especially if this story were about national security, you have to keep in the back of your mind that the administration leaks info at strategic times. Is that in play? You also have to bear in mind that “the administration” is made up of several individuals, all with varying degrees of power, responsibility and influence, and that the decision may have come from ill-informed (but well-represented) advice. Was it then Obama who nixed the public option or larger stimulus or tougher rules on the banks or whatever? Or was it Rahm convincing him? Or Geithner? Or Summers? Sure, the buck stops with O, but if Rahm argued like hell for a course of action and Obama went that way, that’s a useful tidbit to know, innit?

The point of all this is that being totally informed is impossible. There are so many layers of information and rhetoric that you can only read a certain amount, which is by definition a sliver of the actual relevant info*, and make up your mind. So, having now frittered away countless hours reading arguments that go back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Bush tax cuts and even Ronald Reagan’s election, I’ve found a number of commentators whom, despite their faults (and we’ve all got ’em), I trust. And I generally go on that now.

*So, the contrarian asks, what’s even the point of reading, then? Shan’t we all plead Socratic ignorance and leave it alone? No. No, we shan’t. There are issues (2003 invasion being one, Bush tax cuts being another, Katrina being a third) that have so many separate, credible accounts of gobsmacking, willful ignorance, incompetence and graft that none of us overstep our bounds by calling bullshit.

Public Journalationism

That was the best portmanteau of “public relations” and “journalism” I could invent. No, it’s not very good. Maybe you can think of a better one. Doesn’t matter.

What does matter (OK, not in the cosmic sense, but still) is that Jay Rosen has a fascinating interview over at PressThink with Tracy Schmidt. I highly recommend the entire thing, if you’re in either PR or marketing or journalism or just interested in the changing world of information. Yes, it’s a bit long but it is worth your while.

What really struck me about the interview is the overlap between journalism and public relations. Those two industries have always been tied because both, ultimately, are about the dissemination of information. Journalists might argue that their profession is a bit more “pure” because it adheres to some sort of “objectivity” and standards but that all went out the window when those damn bloggers arrived but that’s never really been true and everyone who works in journalism knows it. Look at this passage, though:

Schmidt: Yes. So Bill asked me to move over to 435 Digital in October 2010 to work on its marketing campaign. He wanted me to write a blog about best practices for small business in the areas of SEO and social media. The blog was rolling along great. Meanwhile, I had been teaching several graduate classes at DePaul University on the intersection of social media and journalism. And on occasion, I would do a workshop for business people about understanding and using social media. So Bill asked me to test the concept of holding a class at Tribune Tower for our clients. Well, the classes started selling out.

PressThink: At how much a pop?

Schmidt: I started with very basic classes–like Intro to Facebook and Intro to Twitter. At the beginning, it was $50 for a 2 hour class held in a conference room at Tribune Tower. I literally brought the coffee in from Starbucks across the street and plugged my computer into a projector and put up Facebook and we walked through the site. Attendees asked for more classes on advanced topics– specifically using it for their businesses. We had no idea if it would work, or what it was, but by May, two months after I started, I was teaching two or three classes a week.

That sounds exactly like the sort of tasks we young, tech-savvy PR people are supposed to be doing. It’s a pretty good description of the way that I’ve talked with some people for whom I’ve done social media work, although I wasn’t officially giving lessons.

Reading that passage, I’d assume Schmidt was a PR or marketing professional. That’s understandable, though, given how social technology is making these two already-symbiotic industries even more similar. Both journalism and public relations deal in narratives, and by extent, depend on pieces of information. And good information can come from anywhere. Good info has always been able to come from anywhere, but nowadays, it really can come from anywhere and it can do so damn fast.

News institutions and journalism need public input for better advertising info, editorial direction and, most importantly, credibility with their customers. Public relations practitioners need public input to raise awareness, determine the efficacy of their campaigns and, again most importantly, establish credibility with their clients’ customers. The similarity between what Schmidt is doing with journalism and how college public relations students are being instructed underscores the convergence between the two industries in a world where information is cheaper, more widely available and easier to broadcast than ever before.

Kewl

I like this idea a lot. The NYT is using some of their money to play around with a feature that allows you to zero in on a story and then follow along subsequent articles on similar topics. From Nieman:

The task (or, more accurately, one of the tasks) for beta620, the Times experimental projects group, is to find a better way to make the newspaper’s information more readily available — both to readers and to the Times itself. Their latest stab at the problem is something they’re calling Deep Dive, a project that aims to give readers a richer, more nuanced understanding of stories.

Deep Dive uses the Times’ massive cache of metadata from stories to go, as the name suggests, deeper into a news event by pulling together related articles. So instead of performing a search yourself within the Times and weeding out off-topic results, Deep Dive would provides readers a collection of stories relating to a topic, based on whatever person, place, event or topic of their choosing. So let’s say you’re interested in protests in Yemen, with Deep Dive you could use an article from nytimes.com as a seed and let the system collect a history of previous items relating to news from the region.

Cool stuff. Sorta makes me think about a Twitter-like structure for consuming news, where you can subscribe to different topic streams and follow along. For what it’s worth, if the NYT were to segment their reporting, so that I could directly donate to a part of the organization that followed union activity, environmental reporting, financial malfeasance cases and other stuff that piques my interest, I’d pony up. And as long as I knew that money was in no way going towards the salaries and travel charges of Tom Friedman, Bobo, Gail Collins and the rest of the clowns, I’d be happy to do so.