Archive for December, 2009
In the spirit of Johnny Carson’s alter ego Carnac the Magnificent, here’s my look into the communications crystal ball for 2010.
But before jumping in, many thanks to Todd Defren who was kind enough to run these predictions on his blog PR-Squared.
A Federal Trade Commission Investigation Will Evolve into Bloggergate
This year saw the FTC lay down guidelines that require bloggers to disclose if they receive money or products in exchange for writing reviews. I predict Bloggergate surfaces next year with company X ratting out company Y – $405 receipt from Morton’s serves as the smoking gun; those fine burgundies are darn expensive – bringing the FTC’s fist down with a vengeance.
Social Media Will Backfire on a Political Candidate
Since candidate Obama parlayed www.mybarakobama.com and the work of digital agency Blue State into a stay at the White House, every political candidate has embraced social media as the new black. “Hey, I can raise money without kissing another a baby or shaking another hand. Cool.” Unfortunately, like desktop publishing in the early days, social media in the wrong hands can go Dennis Hopper bad. Expect to see a feud with the spouse going public via Facebook and Twitter and pictures galore. The candidate gets trounced at election time while the spouse ends up on Larry King.
Michael Arrington Will Be Humble on April 1, 2009
No, really. Hear me out on this one. I think Michael has the guts to pull this one off. It’s the perfect contrarian play.
Journalists Will Pitch PR
The ever contracting traditional media leaves a number of journalists concluding “I’m not going to answer to the man; I’m going to be the man,” resulting in a zillion new blog properties. Once the euphoria of running the show dies down, then comes the realization that “congrats” e-mails don’t put supper on the table. To build out their ecosystems, these journalists try to pitch communication pros with strong social media followings and bomb. PR veterans Todd Defren and Brian Solis end up doing a webinar for journos on the importance of reading their stuff and tailoring the pitch accordingly.
Side note: The seed for this prediction came from Tom Foremski’s post “What Happens When PR People Have More Traffic Than The Reporters.”
The Master’s Golf Tournament Will Trigger Another Slew of Articles on
Oh, the sweet irony as Augusta National serves as the backdrop for another round of tawdry stories on Tiger. Remember, this is the same place that banned CBS announcer Gary McCord for referring to the course as being as slick as bikini wax. You can figure the Master’s in early April delivers the right forum and time for the media to revisit Brand Tiger with charts illustrating the decline of his endorsement dollars. Of course, this also means every PR type and his mom weighs in with recommendations on how to rehab Tiger’s image while IMG opts to crowd source through a micro-site called www.WhatWouldYouDoIfYouWereTiger.com.
The Number of Social Media Monitoring Tools Will Crack 500
Virtually every Ph.D. student who can say algorithm and chew gum at the same time devotes their thesis to building a social media monitoring tool. Each is convinced he or she has cracked the code on the best way to capture every word, visual and action that transpires in this alternative universe called social media. These 500+ companies scamper to find a PR agency, creating a dotcom-like boom for the PR industry.
The Worst News Release of the Year Will Go To a Maker of Audio Semiconductors
Pressured by management who grew up on the Intel Inside campaign, the VP of PR for a semiconductor company which makes audio chips struggles to find a way into the mainstream media. After researching the biggest public events in the history of the U.S., the sleuthing turns up Elvis’s death and the anniversary of Elvis’s death in the top 25. Connecting the dots (or seemingly so), he packages the announcement of a new audio chip set as the Michael Jackson Limited Edition, timing distribution of the news release on June 25, 2010, the anniversary of Michael’s passing. Not good.
The Communications Profession Will Gain the Spotlight, Thanks to a Best Seller
The heads of corporate communications for AIG, Goldman Sachs and General Motors form a club affectionately dubbed the MOB Squad for Merchants of Bailout. Christopher Buckley gets wind of the arrangement and sues for copyright infringement, alleging resemblance to his best-selling novel, “Thank You for Smoking.” After posturing from the attorneys – the headline “Bailout Brothers Seek Solace While Author Wants Bucks” is rich – both sides make nice. A book deal soon follows in spite of internal squabbling about who gets to play Nick Taylor.
I’ll leave you with this.
At the end of 2007, Forbes columnist David Dreman penned the piece, “Seize the Day.” After pontificating on the credit crisis, he wrote these words of advice:
“The safest plays are among the big banks.”
I can’t do worse.
Here’s wishing everyone a healthy and prosperous 2010.
By definition, there’s a feel-good element to a hero.
They overcome obstacles on their way to a positive outcome.
And if the hero starts out as an underdog a la “David versus Goliath” there’s even more of a reason to have a rooting interest.
The same concept holds true in business storytelling.
While we tend to think of a hero as bigger than life – Mother Theresa, the Dali Lama, Shrek, etc. – the hero in the context of a business story can bridge theory to reality.
A recent New York Times piece by Steve Lohr called “Making It All Compute” does exactly this under the umbrella of National Computer Science Education Week.
Before jumping into the NYT story, it’s worth rewinding the tape to the original news release:
WASHINGTON, D.C.—December 7, 2009— The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and its partners are launching Computer Science Education Week (CSEdWeek) to uncover and remedy the inadequacy of the nation’s computer science education system at the K-12 level. While 5 of the top 10 fastest growing jobs are in computing-related fields, the percent of schools with rigorous high school computing courses fell from 40 percent to 27 percent from 2005 to 2009. The last 60 years witnessed an extraordinary burst of innovation and talent that have produced a nation where most can scarcely remember life without computers. Yet this innovation-based society is at risk if students are not learning fundamental computing knowledge in our nation’s schools.
Nothing particularly riveting or new about the fact that American kids continue to tune out science and math.
Is there a worse acronym than the Association for Computing Machinery, affectionately called ACM? The word “machinery” conjures up the image of a restaurant-grade mixer, not exactly an attention-getter for the under-20 crowd.
But Lohr uses the ACM news announcement as a springboard into the need to better package computer education, with three heroes showing the way starting with the chief information officer at Harvard Medical School:
Growing up in the ’70s, John Halamka was a bookish child with a penchant for science and electronics. He wore black horn-rimmed glasses and buttoned his shirts up to the collar… Dr. Halamka grew up to be something of a cool nerd, with a career that combines his deep interests in medicine and computing, and downtime that involves rock climbing and kayaking
Like the oxymoron, “cool nerd.”
Hard to miss the photo of Mr. Halamka wearing a hip black shirt under a sports coat. It’s not quite Steve Jobs with the mock black turtleneck, but in the same category.
We also learn about Kira Lehtomaki, who parlayed a love for art into a gig at Walt Disney Animation Studios where she draws on a computer with specialized graphics and modeling software.
And the story closes with high school senior Mario Calleros who jumped from playing computer games to an internship at UCLA where he helped build a smartphone application for navigating the campus.
I was particularly encouraged by this last vignette. There’s still hope for my own son to get more out of Madden than the ability to mimic sports announcers.
It’s these three “heroes,” Halamka, Lehtomaki and Calleros, who bring the NYT story to life. That’s what justifies the piece being on the front of the business page above the fold.
For stories with complexity, customers can often play a similar role in humanizing the content and, again, bridging the theory to reality.
There’s a reason that the official Google Blog is so well read and shows up on the Techmeme leaderboard.
Beyond dominating search, the Google posts are crafted with a conversational tone and often contrast the old way with a new way.
Take last week’s post “Go thataway: Google Maps India learns to navigate like a local.”
In short, it explains how improved directions in India came from including landmarks (visual cues) that both describe a turn as well as confirm that the person is on the right track.
For the men in India who are not big on asking for directions (and you know who you are), this latest incarnation from Google must be a godsend.
The storytelling kicks in with a screenshot of Google Maps directions in India from 2008:
It’s almost like you’re expected to tape measure each leg.
Now look at how map directions in India appear today:
Even if you don’t speak the local language, these directions give you a fighting chance to move from point A to point B.
The contrast is obvious.
Often, companies are reticent to explain the “old way” because they mistakenly feel it comes across as a “negative.”
Yet, this information is vital to putting the “new way” in context.
When the New York Times hired Ashlee Vance, many enterprise computing PR folks rejoiced.
Tired of watching the Web 2.0 hotshots dominate business media stories on computing, they thought, “Finally. Here is a major daily bringing on Vance with the implied message that enterprise computing once again matters.”
It was as if people forgot that Vance wasn’t coming out of Computerworld or Dr. Dobbs Journal. This was a guy who spent five plus years honing his entertainment chops at The Register, the book which proudly exclaims on its masthead, “Biting the hand that feeds IT.”
For Exhibit A, consider the 2008 Register “radio” wrap-up by Vance with the header “Bill Gates cried to make the world a better place” and classic Vance narrative:
Apparently, Bill Gates let some lass from 23 and Me have it when she tried to draw a link between vaccines and autism. Touchy stuff, I know. But Bill loves his vaccines.
No, this is not your garden variety trade journalism.
Where am I going with this?
Check out the Vance story which ran in The New York Times last week: “Minnesota’s Enormous Apples Computer.”
The story explains how the University of Minnesota took proceeds from licensing the “code” to Honeycrisp apples to help pay for a $6 million supercomputer.
Can you imagine the university’s computer scientists going door to door selling chocolate bars to raise this kind of dough? No way could they equal the windfall from the apple IP.
Plus, the story is humanized by explaining one potential application that would improve a surgeon’s game before an operation.
Scientists at the University of Minnesota have started looking into creating scans of hearts and brains that can then be translated into 3-D images on a computer. With such technology, a doctor could, for example, practice doing surgery on not just any heart but rather your heart ahead of the actual surgery.
Hard to argue with the upside of this one.
Vance closes by bringing the story back to fruit, noting that while the University did not maximize its revenue from the Honeycrisp, they’re projecting up to $30 million per year in licensing fees from its latest incarnation, the SweeTango.
Kudos to HP’s Erin Collopy and her Burson team (HP helped build the supercomputer) who set the stage for the piece and ensured Vance had access to the right people at the U of Minnesota.
Ironically, it was also a medical angle that landed one of our clients ILOG in The New York Times earlier in the year in another Vance story: “The Doctor Will B.R.M.S. You Now.”
Needless to say, business rules management software isn’t exactly a door opener into the business media.
Again, the technology was humanized by showing the benefits to hospital patients framed by the fact that 1.5 million people are hurt by medication mistakes annually, which adds $3.5 billion to the hospitals’ tab.
I thought we had nicely made the point with hard data, but Vance managed to extract a pile-on comment from the director of IT integration at Vanderbilt University Medical Center:
Even top-notch doctors miss key factors, and things slip through the cracks.
Now, that’s reassuring.
To close on the subject at hand -
Enterprise computing stories need that entertainment quotient and contrarian twist to play on the big stage.
And the jarring sound bite doesn’t hurt.
The movie business provides a window into how people like their stories.
The path for movies can take many forms, but they end on a positive note 99 percent of the time.
That’s the way we like it.
Shrek gets the princess (albeit, with a revised look).
Michael Oher goes on to play offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens.
Indiana Jones solves the riddle.
Even in a depressing ending like “Cool Hand Luke,” Paul Newman is there to soften the blow.
Turning to business stories, 2009 will go down as “The Year of the Downer.” The financial carnage has consumed the media in a way that makes coverage of the dot-com meltdown look like amateur hour.
Yet, the niche media property Tonic, which only covers good news like “Ingredients for Peace: The Cookbook” (you too can bake chicken like Desmond Tutu), has seen its readership significantly increase amidst the wreckage.
People still want heroes, obstacles overcome and happy endings.
With this in mind, I believe 2010 will find business media properties more open than ever to positive stories. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of reporters and bloggers don’t find satisfaction in writing for the umpteenth time about another foreclosure in Bakersfield.
Now, that doesn’t mean rev. 3.554 of a product offering or your CEO bowling to raise money for charity will end up in a national daily.
But legitimate business stories, those that build drama articulating the difference between what was and what is, use numbers, and bring anecdotes to the fore have a better chance of getting a listen next year.
The psychological component for business storytelling – now there’s a phrase in which an acronym doesn’t quite work – is what I expect to be a factor in 2010.
Quantifying this, I’ve created what I’m calling the “Cautiously Optimistic Index.” Using the Factiva U.S. database, I’ve captured the number of articles that mention the phrase “cautiously optimistic” cut by month.
Aside from a dip in September – perhaps the one-year anniversary of the Lehman Brothers collapse caused a pang of temporary heartburn – you can see an almost 3X rise since the start of the year.
This bodes well for a positive environment in 2010.
I know, I know, not exactly scientific. But if you want science, go talk to Wall Street.