Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Headdesk headlines: You won't BELIEVE how stupid they're getting!

Don't get me wrong. I like Upworthy, the site that entices you to read about "things that matter" and "pass 'em on." I get drawn in by its creative headlines, like "Let's Talk About How That Cheap Stuff You Just Bought at Wal-Mart Costs $6,000 More Than You Thought." I admire its share statistics, and the way it mastered the art of Facebook news feed domination. I can, for the moment, put aside its clever sponsored content, mostly from social change groups.

But that success has spawned a host of imitators in the click-baiting, headline-writing department.  These types of headlines can get you in trouble before we ever read the posts that go with them:

The unwieldy construction
Cue journalists and grammar fans (including me) shaking heads, bemoaning the demise of the copy desk, which used to catch cumbersome headlines like this one. You'd save two characters to say, "Hear From Woman Who Killed Hit Man Hired by Husband," with a clearer result, and you'd only add a few more to add "Her" before "Husband," making it clearer who was married to whom. I'd love to see your rewrites in the comments, please--this one is a good exercise to pass around to the writers in your communications office.

The unscientific conclusion

No, actually, we don't know how many women get groped in public by men--not from this study, a nationwide survey of just over 2,000 people in the U.S. on an issue that's plagued by underreporting. The group sponsoring the study is an advocacy group, but this headline belongs to Mother Jones, a reputable journalistic publication. Jumping to conclusions is a common marketing ploy, and the sign that those tweeting and writing these headlines missed that part of journalism training that advises you never to generalize. Saying "everyone had a great time at the picnic" is bound to unearth the two people who broke up that day, the person who got food poisoning and the ones plagued by ants. Don't do it in your stories, and don't do it in the headline. This type of study is so rarely attempted that it would have been news without the overstated, overreaching headline.

The critical missing word

Study Finds Humans Have Dozens of Universal Expressions, screamed the headline. Since I coach speakers and have written about the difficulties of speaking for international audiences or in your second language, my reading of that headline was that--surprisingly--there might be some universal turns of phrase.

Not so, friends. The expressions in question? Facial expressions. One word would have clarified that headline, still making it of interest to me. It's almost more work to omit it than to include it.

The vague attribution

I'm lucky to know Jonathan Mann, the "Song a Day Guy," who has written and posted a song a day on YouTube for a looooong time. But when he does a clever song with a news hook, as he did when he set Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg's Supreme Court dissent in the Hobby Lobby case to music, the attribution disappears in the headlines. Salon posted it as "Someone just turned Justice Ginsberg's blistering Hobby Lobby dissent into a song."  "Someone," aka Mann, acknowledged on Facebook, "It really is true that "some dude" or "this guy" or "someone" always goes more viral than "Jonathan Mann". So funny." Also lazy. Back in the day, we headline writers had to get clever when fitting names into headlines, and we didn't get to punt with "someone." I've suggested Mann write a parody version of "If I Needed Someone" to get back at the vogue for the vague. Here's Jonathan Mann's latest "someone" hit:

The faked reaction

"This Woman's Speech Leaves The Audience So Disturbed At Themselves They Can't Move" screams this San Francisco Globe headline, which has been all over my social feeds. Again, this is from an advocacy group. To my speaker-coach eye, this looks like a staged speech with a hired audience. And in fact, the video ends with the speaker walking off stage. You don't actually see what the audience does at the end. Faked audiences--the ones who "ooh" and raise their eyebrows and pay wide-eyed, smiling attention uniformly--never quite manage to seem real. Neither does this headline. As more and more cause-related groups try adopting the tactics of marketing to go viral, let me beg you to consider whether your credibility is worth the approach. In this case, a faked audience and exaggerated headline don't, in fact, convince me this group is credible. Quite the opposite. As I like to say, you're not that desperate for the publicity.

The Bad Pitch blog says:
Tricks for clicks may get you a short-term increase in traffic. But it won't build audience in the long-term. If you're worried you won't attract readers without headline clickbait? Either spend money on headline syndication or come to grips with the fact that your content might suck.

xkcd says it even faster:

Share your favorite headdesk headlines in the comments, please....

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Max Karochkin)

Friday, July 18, 2014

The weekend read

You've got mail, communicators: Time to push that envelope toward the weekend. I have a special delivery of great ideas and info, shared this week on Twitter and curated here just for you. Signed, sealed, delivered, this weekend read is yours:
I'm leading my workshop on women and public speaking, Be The Eloquent Woman, as a pre-conference session before the European Speechwriter Network conference in Amsterdam this October. Are you in? Great new speakers are being added to the lineup every week. Please share both these unique professional development opportunities with your colleagues...and show up yourself. 

Put a stamp on it: I'm glad you stroll over to this mailbox on Fridays. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

On PR, Wikipedia and the next thing you'll be trying to edit

PR and Wikipedia have long had more of a standoff than a relationship going. Communicators fret about not being able to make simple factual changes to Wikipedia pages about their companies or organizations, but that yen to make changes has led some to revise history, or at least try to do so--witness Five Thirty Eight's list of the 100 most-edited Wikipedia pages, loaded with controversial topics ranging from climate change to George W. Bush. Getting paid to write a Wikipedia article violates the site's terms of use, and the Wikimedia Foundation has banned at least one firm it accused of "paid advocacy editing." Any paid relationship is supposed to be disclosed in your editing account, according to new terms of service on Wikipedia.

But in Narrowing the chasm between PR professionals and Wikipedia, word comes of an organized effort to start repairing that relationship. Eleven firms have issued a statement about their commitment to the goals of Wikipedia, and to the ethics policies of their firms. The statement came out of a meeting earlier this year in Washington with a mix of Wikipedia volunteers and scholars who study the wiki phenomenon. In part, the firms agreed on the following:
We have promised to continually seek greater understanding of the project’s goals for our employees and clients, and to investigate and seek corrective action in any instance where a potential violation of Wikipedia’s policies arise based on the work of our respective agencies. And we have committed ourselves to push our industry as a whole to have more deliberate conversations about a high standard of ethical engagement with the Wikipedia project (and similar initiatives) as well as better education in our field for what the Wikipedia project is striving to achieve.
There was one big transparency misstep with this initiative: It came as a surprise to Wikipedia itself. Maybe not the best of best practices for PR firms. A better approach? The Phillips Collection, a museum in Washington, DC, asked Wikimedia volunteers to help them write and upload articles without a hitch. They weren't self-promotional, but contributed to knowledge about particular artists.

This post from a Wikipedia administrator details just how complicated its posting rules are, which suggests you should at least make an effort to understand them before you start trying to change them. One person who gets the rules is the most prolific volunteer poster of all, responsible for some 2.7 million articles, or more than 8 percent of the total. And yes, he uses a bot for some of that.

In the meantime, I think I've spotted the next thing that PR could ruin for everyone, if it wanted to (and too many practitioners want to). The Knight Foundation just awarded nearly $4 million to an effort by Mozilla, the Washington Post and the New York Times to create an open-source platform "that will allow readers and users to upload pictures, videos, and other media for news outlets to use." Yikes. Just think about that for a few minutes. Described as a publishing platform for readers, you can read more about OpenNews here. It's not clear how this will play out, but the effort is worth keeping your eye on.

If you insist on playing with Wikipedia, at least use these tricks and extensions to improve the experience. And if you're thinking about making anonymous edits to Wikipedia, keep in mind that it's possible to set up a bot that identifies edits from particular IP addresses and tweets out who's changing what, as in this example of a bot that tracks edits from U.S. Senate or congressional offices.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Kristina Alexalverson)

Friday, July 11, 2014

The weekend read

If you've felt you were wandering around in the dark all week, communicators, there's a little light ahead. It's firefly time where I live, and the weekend--time to shine a light on the great leads and reads I found and shared on Twitter this week. Here they are, communicators, curated just for you:
I'm leading my workshop on women and public speaking, Be The Eloquent Woman, as a pre-conference session before the European Speechwriter Network conference in Amsterdam this October. Are you in? Yes, I said Amsterdam. Please share both these unique professional development opportunities with your colleagues.

If you didn't get some of this week's headings, many are from the lyrics to "Glow, Little Glow Worm," which really can only be appreciated when the Mills Brothers, from the ancient time, are performing it. (We know it's the ancient time, because they refer to "yon woods primeval.") I think there are universal laws about this:

I take a shine to you every time you show up here on a Friday. Thanks for reading!

(Creative Commons licensed photo by jeffgoldring)

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Amazon throws a curve into the changing world of press credentials

Six journalism groups recently released results from a survey about press credentials, and how difficult they are to secure these days. The survey asked reporters, photographers, bloggers and citizen journalists to share their experiences, and found that freelancers and photogs had the toughest time getting credentialed, along with citizen journalists who identified themselves as activists. It's a good addition to my collection of examples of how companies, groups and governments are handling press credentials for bloggers.

But now it appears we've all had our eyes on the wrong ball. While the rest of us have been looking for use cases and precedents and taking surveys about proper press credentials, Amazon used its recent announcement of the Amazon Fire phone to blow wide open the typically closed process of press passes.

For a couple of weeks before the announcement--before it was even clear what would be announced--Amazon had a form on its website encouraging journalists, developers and customers to apply to attend, with different screening questions. Customers and developers were invited to submit short videos about why they wanted to attend, and developers had more questions to answer.  I captured the application form in three screen shots:

The unusual mix of attendees changed the event, of course. Customers cheered when the announcement was made, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos personally greeted customer attendees at a luncheon after the press, er, news conference. CNET Reviews' editor-in-chief shared this observation:
Expanding press conference credentials to a wider audience may not be as crazy as it looks in an age of social media, even if you are not a corporation with a product to sell. With fewer journalists to attend press events, and fans who can tweet or blog or Instagram your news, inviting a sampling of customers as well as press--in effect, making it more of an event with press than a press event--may be worth considering. Or, you may want to consider live events for fans and partners, with more efficient electronic release of information to reporters. Would you do it?

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Wikimedia_CH)

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Blog closed this week

Even before we had a web hosting catastrophe last Friday, we were planning to keep the blog closed this week, an annual tradition that lets us think deep thoughts and plan new features....and this week, be grateful for the ability to publish. I thank all my wonderful readers for their patience. There won't be any proper posts, nor a weekend read, this week. We'll be back in action next Tuesday.

And this post is my official test that things are back to normal. You can help by leaving a comment.

American readers, enjoy the Independence Day celebrations! You can catch up with the blog this time next week...