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.

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

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.

Number aren’t everything

Don’t have much to add to this piece by Christa Carone in AdAge. It perfectly expresses the sort of stuff I’ve written before about how empirical research, which is incredibly useful, isn’t the be-all and end-all of PR/marketing because numbers and data can’t teach you how to write. This graf sums it up:

Indeed, marketers “know” more than ever. We have information about our customers’ needs, preferences, purchase histories and spending patterns, and insight about the messages that prompt them to act. Thanks to social-listening tools, we also know what they are saying about our products, services and our brand. And that’s the tip of the iceberg. I wouldn’t want to give up the data that helps us make fact-based decisions quickly. But I fear that marketers’ access to and obsession with measuring everything takes away from the business of real marketing. It’s impossible to measure squishier, meaningful intangibles, such as human emotion, personal connection and the occasional “ahhhh” moment. Those things often come with a marketer’s intuition, and they deliver big-time.

Yep. Read the entire thing. It isn’t long.