Friday, September 28, 2007

your message: urgent. short. life-saving?

Five months after the shootings at Virginia Tech, another campus faced a gunman yesterday -- and avoided disaster with a campus-wide text message. Today's New York Times coverage offers a step-by-step view of the challenge for campus communicators. The article describes how St. John's University's chief operating officer weighed which medium would work for emergency messages:
After the crisis at Virginia Tech, “everything from bullhorns to texting was considered,” said Dr. Pellow, who is also the university’s executive vice president. “How do you communicate instantly? Because the expectation now is instant communication.”
A text-messaging option at the Manhattan campus drew just over 2,000 student subscribers--about 10 percent of the university's 20,000 population. And it was tested yesterday when a gunman, masked and armed with a rifle, walked on campus:
That was at 2:20 p.m. At 2:30, Mr. Hiraman had been apprehended, but there were reports of a second gunman. Within minutes, Thomas Lawrence, the university’s vice president for public safety, had dictated this message: “From public safety. Male was found on campus with a rifle. Please stay in your buildings until further notice. He is in custody, but please wait until the all-clear.” An information technology specialist pressed the “send” button at 2:38.
What we noticed: The 18-minute turnaround for a carefully crafted message is impressive, and while it's longer than a typical text, it avoids confusion through shorthand. The episode makes clear that you should check your assumptions about how and whether your audience will react to such a message; in this case, students said they hadn't subscribed to the text service because they didn't want spam, or thought it would alert them to schedule changes, such as snow days. Can you count on those receiving the message to share it with others? (After yesterday's incident, subscribers to the text alert system more than tripled.) Best of all: add these scenarios to your crisis communication plan. A fast and responsible response can only happen with preparation.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

weekly writing Coach: e-cites

Your copyeditor knew this was coming: Now that we have blogs and websites aplenty with content worth quoting, writers are more confused about citations, with some reverting to bad habits used in days of yore to refer to other, non-electronic entities and publications. (We refer to citations that take the easy way out, by referring to the entire organization as the source of a quote, as in "the university said today.")

The awkward transition to e-citations in mainstream media is highlighted by Robert Niles in a commentary on the USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review website, here. Noting that "the newspaper model doesn't always apply online," Niles highlight a case first raised on the Daily Kos blog about a story in the Wall Street Journal that attributed a position to the blog, when it really belonged to someone publishing on that Web community. Confused? Niles explains:

On DailyKos, a reader signs up for an account and, after a one week wait, can start posting diaries (i.e., a personal blog) to the website. One of the site's editors might then read it in consideration for linking to it from the site's heavily-read front page, but there is no other staff editorial review of the diary. DailyKos doesn't assign topics to readers and doesn't pay anyone other than a handful of editors and fellows for diaries, according to the site's FAQ. Unless a diary contains copyrighted material or otherwise violates the site's rules for posting, it will remain on the site, even if it conflicts with the owner's political beliefs.
Niles' specific recommendations, which appear in his commentary, urge good-faith research on who speaks for whom, and offer useful suggestions for how to write the citations in different situations. Your coach suggests you add these to your organization's style manual.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Video news release fined by FCC

The Associated Press reports this week that a $4000 fine has been issued by the Federal Communications Commission for cable television network Comcast, which aired parts of the video news release about unnatural sleep aid, without disclosing that the tape was paid for by the maker of the product. The Center for Media and Democracy brought the complaint, and said it marks the first time that a company has been fined for airing a video news release. As the story notes:

A video news release is a sponsored public relations video that mimics actual news reports. Such programs are common in broadcasting and are usually offered to news shows for free.

The Center has produced two reports, Fake TV News and Still Not the News to document a sampling of video news release usage and local television stations around the country. Read the FCC notice of liability here. It's important to note that the FCC rules say that cable broadcasts must identify the sponsor when the cable operator accepts “money, service or other valuable consideration" in return for airing material. Because VNRs are provided free, a coalition of public relations VNR producers argued they should be exempt from the rule. The FCC judgment disagrees, noting that the cable operator has a duty to identify the sponsor "when there is too much focus on a product or brand name in the programming."

Health news media seminar Nov. 2

(Update: Registration link is now included.) EurekAlert!, the science and medical news portal convened by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a don't get caught client, will present "Communicating Health News across the Media Spectrum," a seminar for public information and public relations professionals on Friday, November 2, from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. at the National Press Club. Registration is $40 per person for EurekAlert! subscribers, and $65 per person for nonsubscribers; you can register here. A top panel of journalists speakers will lead the seminar, including:

  • Glenn O'Neill, health and medicine assignment editor, USA Today;
  • Sally Squires, nationally syndicated "Lean Plate Club" columnist, and nutrition and health writer, Washington Post;
  • Ed Tobias, assistant management editor, Associated Press Broadcast;
  • Adam Voiland, health, medicine and nutrition reporter, US News and World Report; and
  • Michael Waldholz, managing editor, global health, science and environment, Bloomberg News.

For more information, call 202-326-6716 or send an e-mail to

Friday, September 21, 2007

getting media relationships started

A recent question on LinkedIn came from a first-time communications director who'd done no media relations, but needed to establish relationships with reporters in her new job. Here's our advice to her for getting her toe in the waters of the news coverage pool:
A smart way to approach this--and one that will make you stand out-- is to take the preparatory steps that reporters will expect you to do:

1) Figure out who your relevant audiences are. If your issue is education, that might include state officials, local officials, parents, teachers, students, voters/taxpayers, etc. Use these to determine which media outlets are relevant to your organization.

2) Read, watch and listen to all the relevant media covering your organization or issue. Do that for national outlets -- even if you don't anticipate coverage from them -- as well as state and regional media. Observe them routinely, to understand who's covering what, their interests, what's already been done, what hasn't been covered and why, which issues are hot right now, and more.

3) Figure out reporters' deadlines -- most have multiple deadlines during the day or week. Start by observing when stories appear and how frequently, or ask the reporter directly. (A newspaper reporter, for example, may have to file a web story, a web update, a radio interview, a TV piece, and finally her story for the next day's paper, all in the same day.) Don't call close to deadlines, and if you do call, always start the call by identifying yourself and your organization, and asking immediately "Are you on deadline?" as a courtesy.

4) Before you ever contact a reporter, figure out what you have that they might want: experts? data? access to interviewees? special reports? a particular viewpoint? images? sound? Determine which reporters want what--again, start by observing closely--and be ready to describe it when you speak with them. Make sure your resources for reporters are ready: get training for your spokespeople, have fact sheets ready on your issues, know where your images are and whether you own copyright to them.

5) Understand formats that reporters need, and those that don't work. For example: Don't attach huge files of images to an email, but do indicate that high-res images are available. Make sure your news release format fits a reporters' Blackberry--it's a completely different format than the traditional release.

6) When you finally do get hold of a reporter -- and I prefer to do that by phone -- ask them what they're working on, what they need that they can't find elsewhere, and what they need from you. It may be nothing at this point, but you need to start where they are to build the relationship. You'll learn much more useful information that way.

weekly writing coach: un-hyphen?

The BBC reports this week that hyphenated words are on the wane, and email takes the blame: Our need for speed in communicating has spread from text-messagers yearning to save money to emailers seeking to save time. As if to confound writers, proofreaders and copyeditors, however, some formerly hyphenated words will split in two while others become compound nouns:
The sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has knocked the hyphens out of 16,000 words, many of them two-word compound nouns. Fig-leaf is now fig leaf, pot-belly is now pot belly, pigeon-hole has finally achieved one word status as pigeonhole and leap-frog is feeling whole again as leapfrog.
That sure sells dictionaries. We especially like the comment from Hugh Payne, of York, England, on the BBC story: "Indeed, it is a mistake to make a fuss about punctuation unless clarity or actual meaning is at stake. As the house-style guide of Oxford University Press used to say, 'If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad'." The Shorter OED offers writers lots of online help: You can download code here to put an "Ask Oxford" search function on your website, access their "ask experts" page with frequently asked language questions here, and see their resources for better writing here.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

let bloggers be bloggers?

From the presidential campaigns to professional meetings and conferences, organizations continue to grapple with how, when and whether to issue press credentials to bloggers -- or create new policies just for them. In our ongoing coverage of the issue (see our previous posts here), we've found two recent examples of how the struggle's unfolding. The New York Observer suggests that political campaigns have begun reshaping their relationships with bloggers, now more numerous and diverse:
That’s why the smart campaigns are building a different model. George Allen’s “Macaca” moment last fall confirmed the power of the Internet to rapidly and widely spread breaking political news, whatever its source. So in the wake of Macaca, the presidential candidates have figured out that it makes more sense to treat blogs as news outlets—if partisan ones—to be used to disseminate a message, rather than as constituents to be courted. That strategy subtly puts them, not the bloggers, in the driver’s seat.
At the same time, campaigns have largely abandoned seeking bloggers as supporters and spokespeople for their cause. Blogger-only access to candidates and their breaking news means the campaigns have begun cutting out mainstream reporters on certain stories, the article notes:
“There might be times when I see something on a blog and wish that they had called me,” says Dan Balz, The Washington Post’s veteran political reporter. “I’ll call and say, ‘That’s something I’d like to have known.’” Still, he adds, “there’s too much else to worry about. There’s so many moving pieces in this campaign. There’s food for all.”
Not so fast, says a column in the September-October issue of Communication World, the magazine of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). (IABC members can access the full article here.) What about "live-blogging," in-the-moment reports from your conference or meeting? Should those bloggers get press credentials, or should you boot them out for videocasting your speech live? The column notes the issue didn't exist years ago, due to the inherent time lag in reporting from a conference site:
Today, the time lag has all but disappeared because of some nifty developments including speech-to-text (making it easy for a slow typist to dictate posts to a blog) and unobtrusive blogging via a smart phone with a QWERTY keypad. It is even possible for a blogger to train a high-resolution web cam at a presenter and stream a multimedia presentation to an outside web site.
To its credit, the article quotes the shocked and the savvy, reflecting views that range from angry to accommodating -- and indicating that the issue's far from settled in most organizations. We recommend you:
  • amend your current press credentialing to accommodate bloggers for what they are: bloggers with opinions, or journalist-bloggers. If you accommodated journalist columnists before, won't you accommodate opinionated bloggers today?
  • consider access you can offer bloggers that will make your communications efforts more efficient and reflect their needs -- and whether that changes what you offer mainstream reporters, many of whom also blog.
  • remain aware that any participant may register for your meeting at full price and blog while sitting in a session.
  • make clear your policies in advance of meeting registration, and brief your speakers and their organizations about any policy changes, particularly when it comes to live broadcasting from the meeting room.

the last lecture

For those of you who have trouble starting a talk, the idea of a last lecture may sound like your heart's desire. It's part of a trend on college campuses, says today's Wall Street Journal:
Schools such as Stanford and the University of Alabama have mounted "Last Lecture Series," in which top professors are asked to think deeply about what matters to them and to give hypothetical final talks. For the audience, the question to be mulled is this: What wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance?
But with its focus on 46-year-old Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch, who's dying of pancreatic cancer, that question sharpens--and informs--the challenge.

You can watch a video of Pausch's last lecture via the link above. It's an affectionate romp through disappointments and dreams in his life and career, and it offers reminders for those of us who still have speeches to give:
  • Share with the audience exactly where you stand today: You may have changed your mind about a major policy, be celebrating a special birthday or have been dreading the speech. But sharing this morning's thinking with your audiences gives your speech a freshness missing from many lectures. It's what they came to find out.
  • Get out into the audience: Walking off the stage and into the audience is still the best way to engage them. Hand things out or pass them around. Pausch, who recounted fulfilling his childhood dream of winning giant stuffed animals at carnival games of skill, had the toys brought out and distributed them to audience members.
  • Move: After showing x-rays of his tumors, Pausch does one-handed pushups on stage to make a point about his health. It's a gripping moment, powered by movement.
  • Don't avoid the emotional or the personal: In the course of his last lecture, Pausch showed photos of his bosses and students; gave a birthday cake to his wife; and shared how his mother described him as "a doctor, but not the kind who helps people." It's these gestures that best connect you to the audience. Once discouraged and dismissed as a technique women brought to public speaking, top speakers today understand that audiences of all types, from television to the lecture hall, value personal connection.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

what to leave out of a speech

Speakers and speechwriters alike can cross this task off their lists: Don't write out familiar anecdotes in your script, speech or talking points. Why? A personal story gains power when you put down the paper, look at the audience and speak from your experience...and, for the most familiar stories you tell, the script trips up the speaker. After all, it happened to you, so you should be able to tell it to your audience. But it does pay for the speechwriter to place a reminder in the written speech -- along the lines of [TELL VACUUM CLEANER STORY HERE] -- and for the speaker to rehearse a smooth transition from reliance on the script to telling the anecdote, and back again. Speakers, take note: It's smarter to save your speechwriter's skill for those portions of the speech you don't already know by heart.

Monday, September 17, 2007

it's a wonderful room

"It's a wonderful room," said the program chair who organized my speech. (She liked it because it held more than twice the number of people at the meeting, plenty of room for a big crowd.) "Wonderful room," murmured the meeting planner, who'd chosen it. "Just look at that painted ceiling." (I was hoping not to have to fight with it for people's attention.) "So historic...a wonderful room," said the president of the organization. (We found that the historic values didn't lend themselves to technology, however.) The wonder was that I'd be heard at all in this cavernous auditorium, with a stage and balcony, and so much seating that participants scattered all over the available space.

What saved that speech: I arrived more than an hour ahead, paced the space, asked about the technology and watched it fail in a test, and remade my presentation so that I walked into the large audience (via the central aisle) to engage participants. I used technology sparingly--mostly the microphone--and didn't stay stuck to the lectern, placed so far away from the audience that I'd look like an ant. And I tossed my slides and went for an interactive discussion on the topic, possible only because I was prepared.

Before you give a speech, get in touch with the meeting planner and ask for a layout of the room (most hotels and conference facilities provide this), as well as the number of seats that will be set for your presentation. Ask about technology: microphones, extension cords, laptops, projectors. Will you be able to walk into the audience? Use a portable mic? Many event planners assume you'll stay close to the lectern, for example, and you want to be sure everyone understands your needs. Even then, be prepared to restate your needs to the A/V person on the ground...or adapt in less-than-wonderful conditions.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

weekly writing coach: the unspoken

When your editor rejects a word choice as slang, or you can't find a commonly used word when you look it up, keep in mind that dictionaries avoid words frequently spoken, but rarely used in print. This Associated Press article uses two recent examples: "snitty," which describes "disagreeably agitated," in use since 1989 but with a hiatus in print use until 2005; and "regift," the popular term for passing along a gift received but not wanted. Here's what happened in the latter case, according to an editor from Merriam-Webster:
"We're not trying to pick up on a word that just became popular and everyone starts speaking it," said Joanne Despres, a senior editor. Once regift started gaining momentum in publications after 2001, Despres did some more checking and found that "regift" started appearing in newspapers almost immediately after it debuted on "Seinfeld."
It's worth discussing whether your workplace style guide should include--or avoid--words that don't meet this rule, especially when you're targeting youth audiences. Do take the time to gauge whether the newfangled term has meaning to your audience, and realize that a stickler of an editor may well reject it when she reaches for her dictionary and finds it hasn't yet made the cut.

Friday, September 14, 2007

executive women's speaker secrets

...will be divulged next March 10 from 12 noon to 2pm at the Executive Women's Forum at the Tower Club in Tysons Corner, Virginia. Don't get caught president Denise Graveline and speechwriter Jeff Porro will give participants strategies to "Take Your Next Speech from Good to Great." Stay tuned for registration details to come later this year. In the meantime, we've developed "Eloquent Woman" workshops we can bring to your workplace, annual conference or retreat for groups of 10 women. To find out more, email us at

book pr: word of mouth builds 'legs'

Book authors should read today's Wall Street Journal article about "how a blockbuster was born" in the case of Eat, Pray, Love, a best-selling memoir that busted out in paperback after the publisher noticed it had developed unexpected sales, or 'legs,' in a limited hardcover run. The article notes:
Penguin's approach shows how publishers, which typically don't conduct market research, are becoming increasingly adept at hand-picking certain titles for stardom.
Few authors receive the kind of treatment this book did -- but you can benefit from the article's insight that "word-of-mouth publicity [is] believed by many to be the single most important factor in creating a major best seller," particularly early in the book's publication and even months later. How to create word-of-mouth? Try these tactics:
- Augment your publisher's press list. We help our author clients see how large or small the publisher's list is, and arrange to augment it so that more reporters get a release and the option to request a review copy. And we identify additional audiences that may find the book of interest, then target related media outlets. (In Eat, Pray, Love's case, its theme of spiritual seeking was determined apt for Yoga Journal, for example, even though it's not about yoga.)
- Blog about it. Author blogging's a must, both to build readership and to move your book title up in the search engines. Don't wait till your book is published, either. Early blogging can build word-of-mouth and advance orders. Make suggestions for book club discussions and get readers engaged.
- Comment on others' blogs and start a conversation. Offer to answer questions, direct people to your blog, share an insight.
- Seek your own speaking engagements. Don't wait for a tour. Tell your blog readers, networks and friends that you're avaiable, and seek out related organizations and offer to speak. Your publisher can support appearances by making sure the book is available at the meeting or in local stores.
- Use online networks to advantage. Tell your networks--from Facebook to LinkedIn--about your book, early and often. Many sites offer users the chance to share insights about their favorite books, which helps create buzz. And make sure your profile highlights your book--one author we know uses it in her "title," saying she's the "author of..." instead just "author."
We can help authors build and carry out just such a strategy. For more information, contact Denise Graveline at

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

weekly writing coach: dnt abbrev.

That's short for "don't abbreviate," inspired this week by a study reported in the Washington Post about medical errors resulting from misreads of abbreviated terms. Of 30,000 errors reported to a national database--some fatal--five percent involved shorthand or abbreviations. A hospital accreditation board "recommends that doctors jettison some such abbreviations and instead write out the full word." We say the same goes for you: Ban abbreviations and avoid acronyms while you're at it. Acronyms have lost their utility, as more and more organizations arise with the same initials. (Want to find out just how many groups are using the same acronym? See our previous post on the Acronym Finder here.) And abbreviated terms make too many assumptions about your readership. To ensure maximum clarity, spell it out--or find something other than initials to substitute as a short second reference.

the business case for social media

...may be more difficult this week, as the BBC reports on a new study suggesting that workers who spend time on Facebook cost UK firms the equivalent of US$260 million per day. At the same time, AdWeek put Facebook at the top of its list of 10 hot digital trends, in part due to its audience growth of 110 percent over the past year, based on Nielsen ratings.

Confused? It's the same tug-of-war we've seen with blogging, as Web trends that begin with personal uses migrate to the workplace and find new applications in communicating information more efficiently and effectively. (See our earlier post here about a federal government agency banning employees from simply reading blogs, let alone putting them to work -- or reading them for, say, coverage of the agency.) We wish the authors of the current study had done another one, asking firms that use social or new media for business purposes what they've saved in IT and web design, printing, postage, customer service and more -- that would make for a more balanced view.

As we've told our new-to-blogging clients, the controversy -- and hanging back on the part of other companies -- leaves room for you to innovate and get a jump on the competition. You'll find our collective coverage of new and social media here, and we invite you to make use of it when you're making the business case in your workplace.

Monday, September 10, 2007

nonprofit uses for Facebook

Lee Aase blogged yesterday about a straightforward way nonprofits and professional groups can use Facebook: to replace a member directory. For nonprofits and other businesses struggling to understand social media and new options to replace existing communications strategies, this post offers a clear view of what's possible. Consider this option if you have natural groups in your organization: foundations with grantees; nonprofits organizations with advisory boards or multidisciplinary teams; coalitions with many members; professional societies, ditto; churches, Scout troops, breast cancer 5K teams, even more so. Essentially, Facebook, as described here, gives you a fast and useful way to connect with your members, using everything from photos and video to fast group-wide emails. And you don't just need to round them up electronically. Use your Facebook group to raise funds, take polls, and alert members to ways they can participate, online or offline. Denise Graveline will join nonprofit marketing consultant Don Akchin in November at the Maryland Nonprofits annual conference to talk about "Energizing Your Communities of Support" using new media options just like this one. If you're using Facebook in this way, leave us a comment and tell us how it works for you.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

weekly writing coach: ask the editor

Want a shortcut to success? Get direct with your editor--be that your boss, a colleague or some other gatekeeper--and ask for feedback. Don't cringe: The person who spends as much time as you do focused on your writing has insights, ideas, wishes for your written product. Now's the time to find out. Ask your editor these constructive questions:
- what's the edit you most want to stop making on my work? Uncomfortable to ask, but the answer tells you mistakes you're repeating. Eliminate them, and you'll reduce the editing stress immediately.

- are there patterns you see in my work? do they need changing? Just as we favor turns of phrase in our conversations, so too do writers fall into habitual openings, constructions, verb usage. Find out what your editor sees. If the pattern's holding you back, focus on finding options for change.

- what's a writing challenge we face as a group? can I help fill that gap? Find out whether your team lacks a specific writing skill -- speeches, op-eds, very short items, interviews -- then go about learning it. You'll increase your utility and expand your range.