Does Digital Savvy Pay Off in a Silicon Valley Political Election?

Ever since Barak Obama parlayed digital pyrotechnics into a stay in the White House, politicians have embraced the online world with the fervor of a Tuscaloosa preacher.

If digital could be a difference-maker in an election, it seems logical to think that Silicon Valley — the place where construction workers use Yelp to find restaurants, make the reservation on OpenTable and then tweet about the free canapés — would be that spot.

The perfect petri dish came to the fore in Ro Khanna taking on incumbent Mike Honda in the recent election for California’s 17th Congressional District, an area that covers a wide swath of Silicon Valley.

An Obama protégé, I assumed that Khanna would run a campaign heavy on the bits and bytes. But what I wondered was how much separation would this create with Honda who at 73 years of age sits at the far edge of the digital native classification.

My snapshot analysis starts with their websites:

Khanna Website - 2014 political election


Mike Honda Website -  - 2014 political election

Khanna’s site has the more switched-on look with the vertical scroll that works so well on mobile devices. Still, Honda scores points with a pop culture visual that borrows from Mad Men.

Turning to Twitter …

Khanna Twitter -  - 2014 political election


Mike Honda Twitter -  - 2014 political election

Khanna definitely brings a fresh look to his account. Plus, he gets the informality of Twitter with the closing phrase on his profile, “A little bit nerdy.”

Still, the numbers are the numbers, and Honda’s 14.7K followers crush Khanna’s 3,646 followers, which brings me to another point. Honda started tweeting in October 2008. Khanna joined in August 2012, making it appear that he viewed the social media platform as just another communications channel for his election campaign.

If someone could ever figure out how to roll back your Twitter start date like an odometer on a used car ready for Craig’s List, I’m guessing there are a few politicians who would buy such a service.

What about Facebook?

Khanna Facebook  - 2014 political election


Mike Honda Facebook - - 2014 political election

Again, I like the consistency of Khanna’s branding in his social platforms, and this time, he’s got the upper hand with 21,848 likes compared to Honda’s 11,510 likes.

Taking a look at Instagram …

Khanna Instagram  - 2014 political election


Honda Instagram  - 2014 political election

Instagram looks like a wash with neither politician emphasizing the social media tool.

As for YouTube …

Khanna YouTube  - 2014 political election


Honda YouTube  - 2014 political election

Like Instagram, neither candidate is exactly killing it. Most of the videos don’t crack the 100-view mark, and none of the videos receive 1,000 views.

My takeaway: While the stats reflect a growing appetite for video, a dull video is still a dull video. It also seems to indicate that integrating an amusing cat video into a political campaign would be high-reward proposition.

Back to the original question of much separation between Khanna and Honda when it comes to online presence — it turns out that my premise was wrong.

Not only did Khanna gain zero advantage from his online presence, but one could make an argument that the 73-year old Honda and his camp actually enjoyed an advantage on the digital front.

Just don’t expect a future Honda campaign to deliver a viral video of a cat coding a mobile app.



What the Heck Is a “Word Visual?”

My post last Wednesday explored how non-designers in the communications business can get the visual storytelling religion.

While the vast majority of PR folks struggle to bring a visual dimension to communications, there’s a design technique that plays to our strength.

What I call “word visuals” come in three flavors:

  • Clever words that stand on their own: The words, sometimes in hand-written form, completely carry the day. Little or no design goes into this type of visual storytelling.
  • Speech cloud from a celebrity: I get a lot of mileage from this technique which is particularly effective for B2B companies where you don’t expect a Conan O’Brien to surface.
  • Replace the words in an existing visual: Take something that already exists and replace the words with your own.

Clever Words That Stand on Their Own

One of the best examples of this technique comes from Douglas Wray who broke down the essence of social media platforms with the help of a donut.

Donuts - Handwriting -visual storytelling- word visual

Again, a third grader could design this visual. The power comes from the cleverness in the words.

The imperfection of the handwriting actually adds to the visual appeal. Check out what happens if we take the same content, but package it with typography:

Donuts - Typeset- visual storytelling- word visual

Using type results in a less interesting visual. There’s a certain beauty to the rawness of handwriting.

Even a few words can create a powerful visual. BusinessInsider wrote a feature on Ben Silbermann, Pinterest CEO, that included the Venn diagram below

Venn Diagram - visual storytelling- word visual

Just three words with two overlapping circles and voila — a touch of levity has been added.

Speech Cloud with a Celebrity

I noted earlier that I deploy this technique on a regular basis.

When Jolie O’Dell, a journalist at VentureBeat, bitched about PR professionals accompanying executives in press interviews, I served up the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld:

No PR Person for You- visual storytelling- word visual

As a second example, a post lamenting the lack of budget information in RFPs riffed off of Jay Leno and his diction during his monologues when he hosted the Tonight Show.

Leno - Work with Me - visual storytelling- word visual

Replace the Words in an Existing Visual

Literally anything with writing on it becomes a candidate for this technique:

  • Books
  • Posters
  • Billboards
  • Movie posters
  • Signs
  • Even a soda can (more on this in a moment)

In a post that examined anecdotes in business storytelling, we found a photo of a person holding a sign at a football game and took the liberty of changing the sign to cheer on the Anecdotes (GIF toggles between the two):

Go Anecdotes - visual storytelling- word visual

I mentioned this technique can even be applied to a soda can. Playing off New Coke, we inserted Twitter predicting that a new version of the social tool would come to the market.

Twitter Cola - visual storytelling- word visual

Again, these types of visuals depend on words to do the heavy lifting.

Equally important, you can create them with minimal design expertise, though mimicking a typeface on a soda does require someone at the controls of Photoshop.

Word visuals at their best can trigger that “what the heck!” moment from the reader.

Side note:  In the right hands, crafting words in SlideShare can become a poor man’s video. The post, “The Beauty of Words Can Push into Visual Storytelling” includes an example of this.



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Helping Non-designers Get the Visual Storytelling Religion

Why PR Pros Struggle with Visuals - Sigmund Freud

Previous posts have discussed the challenge for PR folks to embrace visual storytelling in communications. Coming from the world of words (WOW), we’re typically not schooled in design and the creation of visuals .

But as PR increasingly manages owned media properties like blogs, we should be taking a page — taking a visual doesn’t exactly have the same ring to it — from professional publishers. Responding to the crush of information and more people accessing content on mobile devices, they definitely have the visual storytelling religion.

A recent Gizmodo story on Bloomberg Businessweek reminded me of this very point. Its deputy creative director, Tracy Ma, calls out editor Josh Tyrangiel as an enlightened soul:

“When he rebooted the mag he created this environment where the visual people and the words people have equal footing and work side-by-side,” says Ma. “That’s not the case anywhere else, I think, and it’s a model that’s worked pretty well for us, and something we keep pushing for.”

This has been Bloomberg Businessweek’s mission going back to 2011 when creative director Richard Turley relaunched the publication. I particularly liked his touch of combining hand-written snippets with conventional magazine design.

Bloomberg Businessweek My Way

Forget about the industrial-grade resources at Businessweek’s disposal for a minute.

It’s more about the mentality.

Here’s a business magazine that interrogates the likes of Jack Welsh, Jeff Bezos and Fred Smith saying visuals are just as important as words.

Again, being steeped in words, PR struggles with this leap.

Yet, there’s a design technique that plays to the strength of PR, allowing for the creation of what I’ve come to call “word visuals.” Just as the name implies, words carry the day in this type of visual. What could be better from a PR pro’s perspective?

Word visuals come in three versions:

  1. Clever words that stand on their own: The design side is sparse or even non-existent in the case of hand-written lists (like on a chalk board).
  2. Speech cloud from a celebrity: This is one of my favorites, particularly for B2B companies where the intersection of a Jimmy Fallon with say computer security software can jar the senses.
  3. Replace the words in an existing visual: Take anything that has already has writing — could be billboard, a sign at a sporting event or even a soda can — and replace that writing with your own words.

I will publish a companion post on Monday that shares examples from each of three categories.

Side note: I wrote a post on Richard Turley’s work and a Bloomberg Businessweek photo essay on a Jordanian refugee camp last year. It’s a great example of how visual storytelling can make sense of a complex topic as well as bring out the humanity.

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Creativity, Stupid Talking Head (CNBC) Tricks and Achieving Greatness

The grab bag returns.

For those new to the neighborhood, these posts consist of three vignettes that caught my attention, but don’t have enough substance for a stand-alone post.

Here goes —

People Don’t Actually Like Creativity

That was the headline in a Slate article taking the position that most people don’t like creativity:

  • “We are taught that our own creativity will be celebrated and that if we have good ideas, we will succeed. It’s all a lie.

The Slate story goes a step further, asserting that people are actually biased AGAINST creative thinking.

Like many counter-intuitive viewpoints, there’s truth to the story.

It’s just not the complete truth.

Deviating from the status quo inevitably causes heartburn. No one starts the workday thinking, “I can’t wait to get shoved out of my comfort zone.”

That’s why the sheer act of creativity typically falls short of the finish line.

Instead, it takes strength of conviction and persuasive communications — Hello, storytelling — to reach the “let’s do it” stage.

CNBC Talking Head Steps in It

This is one of those life-is-better-than-fiction moments.

Check out this CNBC interview with the head of IDA Ireland around the seven-minute mark when CNBC’s Joe Kernan appears absolutely gobsmacked that Ireland uses Euros, not British sterling (pounds) as its currency.

Adding to the buffoonery, Kernan appears to think that Ireland is part of Great Britain asking the “savvy” follow-up question, “Why Euros in Ireland?

You can’t make this stuff up.

H/t to friend and colleague Mike Sottak at Wired Island who passed this ditty my way.

The Alchemy of Greatness

I love this Venn diagram in Brain Pickings that captures the elements behind greatness.

Venn diagram

“Greatness” is a big word  and one that doesn’t fit. But I can still appreciate that these four components have advanced my own career.

Mentors go without saying.

Luck – whether it’s dumb, smart or something in between – absolutely plays a role. I often think how lucky I was to land in Silicon Valley in 1981, attracted by the natural beauty, weather and sports teams. I knew nothing about technology. Heck, I was the guy that figured a semiconductor was a person who led an orchestra on a part-time basis.

As someone who has learned about business management and leadership on-the-fly, I know that you need colleagues who will push you and periodically say, “The emperor has no clothes.”

And one’s better half definitely plays a huge role in success. My wife Heather has certainly earned a spot in the diagram.

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McDonald’s Serves Up Failure and Fries in Business Storytelling

McDonalds Logo - business storytelling

Every PR agency and internal PR function strives to communicate positive stories about the organizations it supports. When we capture storytelling assets for one of our clients, no one proactively comes forth to share the time that something went horribly wrong.

Yet, failure is one of the best techniques to bring tension or even drama to business storytelling. In fact, many journalists won’t pursue a feature story on a company unless there’s a dimension of failure.

You can see how this plays out in a recent story in the Chicago Tribune on McDonald’s Innovation Center.

McDonalds Sesame Hamburger- business storytelling

Before going further, it’s useful to recognize that there are shades of failure ranging from Failure with a big “F” — also known as “epic” when an entire organization goes south — to small “f” failure.

The failure in the Chicago Tribune’s story on McDonald’s certainly fits the small “f” category. We learn  that McDonald’s invented a contraption that dispensed the right number of Chicken McNuggets for cooking so employees wouldn’t have to count them out each time. The invention didn’t see the light day. Same goes for a  3-D printer that was supposed to create Happy Meal toys in real time (that one got shelved).

If you’re thinking  these failures aren’t “life threatening,” I agree. It’s questionable whether they even bring a touch of tension to the story. Still, they serve a purpose in guarding the journalist from the worse conceivable insult, “What a puff piece!”

That’s why you’ll find that feature stories in the tier 1 media properties typically follow a formula, including two to four vignettes that put the company in a negative light and the obligatory mention of a competitor or two.

The ramifications for PR are counter-intuitive. In packaging what we term one-off storytelling in pursuit of feature coverage, including at least one “negative” in your pitch increases the likelihood of success.

But how often is PR prodding and cajoling resources to discover actions that didn’t go according to master plan?

I think it’s fair to say not very often.

One final point —

I’m convinced that failure when it underpins the narrative is the surest way to crack a heavyweight media target.

One of my favorite examples involves UPS garnering coverage in The Wall Street Journal when it came clean that its training program underperformed. The Journal lead kicks off:

“Vexed that some 30% of driver candidates flunk its traditional training, United Parcel Service Inc. is …”

What on the surface appeared gutsy, actually carried zero risk. Because UPS framed the narrative with the fact that its corrective actions lowered the flunk rate to 10 percent. The storytelling came through in the “how” UPS achieved this result including several amusing anecdotes.

There are many ways to play the “F” card.

Of course, you’ve got to dig up the failures first.



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