Sunday, May 31, 2009

While we May: Our top 10 tips

May was a busy month for me and for my readers, who are searching the blog for branding, social media, writing and media relations tips. I'm also looking for your input on some new training tools this month. Check out the most popular posts in our ongoing conversation:
  1. Employers are fickle. Social media is your friend: That message from my talk on branding yourself with social media tools, given at the Science Writers in New York May meeting, was this month's most popular post. Read my tips and ideas here.
  2. Tell your boss: Be like Gumby on social media. While we're on employers and social media tools, let's get ourselves a new, but retro, role model. Flexibility--and a few other Gumby-like traits--are what's needed to adapt well to social media as a communications tool. Leave this post on your boss's desk, I say.
  3. Constructing approaches to social media: That was my theme at the Construction Writers of America annual meeting, where we discussed ways to use social media to showcase your historical archives, engage customers, conduct media relations, source news stories and more. Read my collection of tips here.
  4. New Flip camera features: I love using Flip video cameras, the smallest around. Read about the new features announced this month--including more memory--as well as much lower prices that make this video camera an even better social media option.
  5. When you disagree with the reporter: A high-profile interview on NPR took a turn for the worse when the subject vehemently disagreed with the reporter--so much so that the disagreement became the story. You can hear the full interview, the finished piece, and see my analysis of what you should do here.
  6. I'm looking for a new media-training video. Can you help? I've blogged before about the most overused training video and it's out of date. See the video of the first reader nominee for its replacement: An Amy Poehler episode of Parks & Recreation. Don't forget to leave your suggestion!
  7. How to handle embargoes and off-the-record interviews: In a high-profile, even over-hyped, announcement this month, a scientist spilled the beans too early, breaking an embargo. Here's what you should know to understand this situation and how to handle it.
  8. Learning how to write for Twitter: The weekly writing coach feature reviews a new Twitter Book that'll give you strategy and writing pointers for the 140-character messages used on Twitter. com
  9. Overstepped your bounds in an interview? Sometimes, exaggerations creep into your media interview responses. Don't get caught without these tips for avoiding--and correcting--such mistakes.
  10. A new reference for writers: Check out the Phrase Finder, a new online tool that will help you put the right words at your fingertips.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

twitter book: old-media-new-media guide

Maybe it seems so old-media to read a book--you remember books, don't you?--about a new-media phenomenon like Twitter. But The Twitter Book is the perfect, er, analog to the digital world of Twitter, whether you're a newbie or have been tweeting away for some time. I'm delighted that one of my tweets--I'm @dontgetcaught on Twitter--is included as a demonstration of how to effectively promotoe your blog on Twitter, one of its most useful functions. You'll find advice on how to get started and how to avoid common mistakes, with loads of real examples of how others have handled the key principles of Twitter: listening in, having conversations, sharing information and ideas and revealing yourself. Twitter uses for business also get their due, with tips on managing multiple Twitterers, handling customers and more. I like the book's visual format: Each left page has several pictures of actual tweets that demonstrate the principles shown on the right page, and while it's an easy read, you may find yourself dipping into this book from time to time to get new ideas and perspectives. There are plenty of useful URLs and ideas here!

Buy The Twitter Book

Friday, May 22, 2009

weekly writing coach: activating verbs

Writers often find it's tough to compete with film and television--after all, words just don't have the advantages of the visual. But there's one writing fix that offers hope: using active verbs. And it was a New Yorker article by David Denby about Victor Fleming, Hollywood director of both Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz that reminded me. Both films celebrate their 70th anniversaries this year, and Denby described them with paragraphs full of active verbs that brought me to a halt in my reading. Here's his description of the action-packed, pratfall vaudeville style of the actors playing Dorothy's friends:
When Lahr lands on his rump, his legs shoot up like a moving swing suddenly emptied of its child. Bolger does flailing, rubber-legged collapses and recoveries--he teases the ground, engaging it and then taking off from it. And Haley, in his rusting metal case, leans perilously, like a telephone pole in a storm.
And when he captures Vivien Leigh's magnetic facial expressions in GWTW, he writes:
As the small mouth puckers, the lynx-eyed glance, with head slightly turned, appears to see around corners.
Taut stuff, and a good reminder to edit and craft your prose with an emphasis on active verbs when you're capturing visual, moving scenes or situations.

Related posts: An exercise in excising passive-agressive verbs

the new newsroom: see it now

I used to use the movie All the President's Men to teach young communicators what a big-city newsroom looked like, in case they hadn't been in one (reportedly, the film's producers minutely copied the Post newsroom, right down to collecting the trash for hints). You can learn a lot about approaching reporters (or today, bloggers and online news-sharers) by the way their workspace is organized. Today, that movie newsroom, with its corded phones and electric typewriters--not to mention its mainstream reporters--looks waaaaaay out of date. So what do today's newsrooms look like? Here are some resources to check out:
  • Nieman Journalism Lab, a blog that looks at the intersection of mainstream and social-media journalism, takes you "inside five newsrooms H.L. Mencken wouldn't recognize," including Talking Points Memo, Gawker Media (complete with seating chart), The Daily Telegraph, The Spokesman Review, and The Valley Independent Sentinel.
  • The Next Newsroom, Chris O'Brien's social network devoted to "building the ideal newsroom for the next 50 years." (Look at the site's photo pages to see a variety of modern-day newsrooms from large to living-room-size.)
UPDATE: And here's a novel use of social media: Chicago's FOX 6 offers a live-blog opportunity to join the newsroom staff as they hold their editorial meeting -- a different door into the newsroom.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

social media: Gumby is my role model

You work with people who do this when you propose adapting one of your current communications approaches using social media tools: They bring out the "buts," are quick to cite the latest story that Twitter's a flash in the pan, or they just don't get around to acting on your proposal. They're nostalgic about the [manual typewriter/corded phone/quill pen] they used to wield so deftly, and they have the war stories to prove it. They know all too well that the communications ground is shifting underfoot--because they hover over coverage of the demise of this and that newspaper. They don't want to have to use [Facebook, Twitter, blogs, RSS] themselves, but they don't trust you to use it strategically.

Or is that you I'm talking about?

We talk a lot about how your approach to social media needs to cede control and be transparent, conversational, crowd-sourced, and responsive in real-time. But we don't talk much about how to approach your own responses to the process of that adaptation, and it's a big change to make. I've seen speaker after speaker at social media sessions essentially tell the audience "Just do it! Trust me! You don't have a choice!" -- none of which makes the recalcitrant, reluctant or rigid traditionalist feel much like trying.

So let me reframe it for you: I want you to approach social media like Gumby. You know, that 1950s green claymation character with the slanty head and the pony sidekick. And before you laugh too hard about that, know that Gumby's television show has been on YouTube since 2007. The next time you (or someone else) starts resisting social media too strenuously, humor me and model your approach after Gumby, making it:
  • Fun. You can't help but laugh at Gumby, and the same's true with social media. So have some fun. Before you start to earnestly sweat the details of how this will work, find out about the fun features in social media--and use them. A sense of humor goes a long way, not only in creating a deft corporate touch on social media, but in helping you adapt.
  • Flexible. The ultimate Gumby trait, you need to display this in abundance--not just in trying social media in the first place, but later, when new applications pop up and replace the ones you just learned. Think of your resistance like the law: You don't need to break it...just bend it a little. Flex, stretch and wrap your arms around a new approach.
  • Imperfect. Between his mishaps and his slanted head, you might want to run from the Gumby role model for your social media forays. But, if fear of making mistakes is holding you back, take a deep breath and know that virtually no one avoids them. It's how you recover and learn from those mistakes that counts. (And the social media community's pretty helpful and forgiving on that score.)
How to move this discussion forward in your office? If you're too young to remember Gumby, trust me on this one and forward this post to your friendly office recalcitrant. If you remember Gumby just fine, understand that there are plenty who don't share your deep retro knowledge--but do, when you're trying to be more flexible about social media, feel free to mutter "I'm Gumby, dammit" under your breath. (Photo "Gumby and Pokey" from Flickr by horizontal.integration)

Monday, May 18, 2009

embargoes: scrambled or fried?

Last week, a piece of science news about a 47-million-year-old fossil primate, planned for release at a big news conference in New York, was first disclosed in stories in the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Mail, with the cooperation of the lead scientist--who then refused, along with his team, to speak to any other reporters once the story was broken. Science magazine's very good account has been updated to note that the WSJ reporter says the scientist...
gave me the information freely, and it was only at the very end of our conversation that he suddenly said his comments were "embargoed" until Tuesday." Standard practice in journalism is that a conversation is off-the-record only if both the reporter and the interviewee agree on that before it begins.
While there are two policies in play in this example, that report is correct: It's impossible to deem somthing "off the record" after you've said it, only before. (Here's a good basic explanation of "off the record" from the National Association of Science Writers.) An embargo is a pre-arranged agreement between the news-issuing organization and reporters, in which extra advance time is allowed to research and report on stories, with a fixed time and date for release, so that all news media outlets are on a level playing field--in other words, the material's off-the-record long enough to allow reporting, but no news organization can scoop the others during that time period. In both cases, however, those policies are agreed to in advance--and if you're the source, you should be reiterating them before every embargoed interview, not after it ends.

I've set hundreds of embargoes in my time communicating science, and it's never easy or comfortable. Ancient fossil stories are particularly like catnip to public audiences and the news media, but it still should have been possible to release this story open to all with no restrictions, or with all restrictions known and stated up front to all reporters. It's not clear precisely what went wrong in this exchange, but I hope these reports don't reflect a pattern I've seen when scientists are engaged in high-stakes announcements: Get the ground rules scrambled, break the story by sharing it out of bounds, blame the reporter, withhold further information to make it clear it wasn't your fault. What should scientists (and other sources) do instead?

  • Accept that you don't set the rules in this kitchen, and if you can't stand the heat... Journalists aren't accountable to your rules, but their own--and in this case, the rules have to be clearly negotiated and stated ahead of time.
  • Check with the chef: Ideally, you're learning these rules well ahead of any announcement, but even right before one, be sure you understand what you can say and when. Your public information officer or communicator can explain the tradeoffs, and how to handle them.
  • Don't blame the diners for mistakes in what you're serving up. You may think this helps your image, but in fact, it belies a lack of experience with reporters. (A similar effect happens when you start reacting to your coverage by saying that you've been misquoted consistently. It just doesn't happen that often.) More productive: Seek out training to prepare for how you'll handle these exchanges.
  • You can't unscramble that egg by changing the rules. The best rule of thumb in an interview: What comes out of your mouth is fair game. There aren't any do-overs. If you don't like what you said in one interview--whether the words were poorly chosen or just ill-timed--that's a clue that you need to spend more time working on precisely what you want to say and when, in concert with your communications team, and well in advance of your interviews.

And if that sounds too much like work to you, well, it takes work to make sure reporters--and your institution--are getting what they need in any announcement. Consider what Stephen Jay Gould had to say on the matter: “So many scientists think that once they figure it out, that’s all they have to do...I never saw it that way. Part of the art of any kind of total scholarship is to say it well." The smartest scientists or sources of any kind seek out training and preparation before they start flinging hash; contact me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz for information on media interview skills and media strategies that include training and preparation.

UPDATE: A hat tip to science journalist Carl Zimmer, who looked into what limitations reporters faced in this announcement, which helps complete the picture on this restrictive, go-for-the-attention announcement.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

more on newspaper's social media policies

Twitter's prompting the latest round of social-media policy development at the nation's major newspapers, with a lot of buzz surrounding the Wall Street Journal's restrictive policy, as well as others from the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, among many others. NiemanLabs has a great summary post that includes links to the major newspapers' policies, as well as discussions about why they are--or are not--effective. (To their credit, some newspaper editors are questioning why reporters can't be trusted in 140 character posts when they're trusted to write whole articles.) Newspapers, just like every other corporate entity, are struggling with how to guide their employees' use of social media options for work purposes. I'd expect many of these policies to change, but for now, they offer you a mixed landscape that can help guide your interactions and expectations of reporters in the social-media playground. A related question: Should news organizations' social policies guide your organization's policies? Maybe not. While they're still in flux, take them under advisement, keeping in mind that traditional media's rules don't fit easily in this new environment. As a result, the more restrictive policies, to my eyes, attempt to preserve the old milieu--not the best approach to adapting to new options. UPDATE: Check out Cision's list of journalists on Twitter to find and follow reporters of interest to you.

Related posts:

Best practices in social media policies

6 Wild-West rules for social media policy development

Top newspaper policies on moderating blog comments

when you disagree with the reporter

What happens when you want to disagree with a reporter during an interview? How do you handle it? Do you wind up hammering your point--or hammering your fingers?

This situation may come up more often now that mainstream media reporters are being encouraged to share their opinions and personalities. But it's always been true that an interview's a two-way see-saw, and the interviewee can swing the conversation smooth or wild. In this case, NPR's Planet Money reporter Adam Davidson interviewed Elizabeth Warren, who heads the Congressional Oversight Panel keeping tabs on the bank bailout program. They wind up having a heated disagreement over what the program's priorities should be.

And that disagreement became the story--the very reason you want to consider how, when and whether to counter a reporter's statements. As a result, I can share with you the full Planet Money piece, a little over 18 minutes long, with the context and discussion about the interview and the meltdown. And, because NPR made the decision to release the full, unedited interview tape here, you can benefit from hearing exactly how the interview developed. You'll notice that over the course of an otherwise pleasant 74-minute interview, Warren's response changes when her primary talking point is challenged: Her voice speeds up, the pitch goes higher, and her volume, eventually, rises rather dramatically. The exchange starts to get more personal and less policy-oriented.

What can you learn from this?
  • Expect provocative questions. In this case, the questioner used a long, respectful, back-handed way to say, essentially, "I disagree entirely with your main point. Don't you see that it's not, in fact, what you should be focusing on in this crisis?" In other cases, reporters might use an effective if vague, "So what?" to challenge you. Washington has long called this approach the "Russert test," and to pass it, step one is to take your own talking points and come up with countering questions--and then answers.
  • Counter without defending. This is more difficult than it sounds. You'll want to consider not only your words, but your tone of voice, apparent attitude, emotion and other cues that will signal to listeners, viewers and your interviewer that you're on the defensive. That's why it's best to be prepared with calm, reasoned replies you've prepared in advance.
  • Know where this reporter's coming from. In this case, Planet Money's view and coverage of the topic were already well-established (which the reporter references in his questioning) and it shouldn't have been a surprise. Make sure you and your communications team are familiar with existing and likely approaches to lines of inquiry...and how you will handle them.
  • But don't treat this as a personal disagreement. Many interviewees forget that reporters ask questions for one reason only: To get information from you. They may sound angry, skeptical, uninformed or just plain ornery, but the goal remains the same. That information may include the content as well as your delivery and what it says. In this interview, the "disagreement" or countering question appears to have been handled as you might handle an argument over issues with your friends and colleagues, complete with hurt feelings and rising voices. It's not only possible but preferable to handle tough interview questions with more control.
  • If you're sure of your facts, counter decisively--and with confidence. "Absolutely not" is a fine way to rule out a question that's fishing for a provocative answer. Just be sure you're sure. Staying calm with your counters ("I don't see it that way, although I can see how you might") will enhance your credibility.
  • Are you on the record? When you're being recorded, your reaction is, too. Better to practice your response before you're on the record. The more controversial your topic, the more you should prepare.
Update: Go here to see NPR's ombudsman discuss the interview. While she (and many listeners) concluded the reporter was wrong to pick the argument and feature it in his podcast, the fact remains that it happened and it became the story. The savvy source will work to control the conversation rather than get caught in the firestorm, I say.

Related posts:

Can you pass the Russert test? How to survive a grilling interview

Don't get caught without anticipating interview questions (the ones you want, expect and fear)

Monday, May 11, 2009

weekly writing coach: online style

Good writing starts with good references, and for most communicators, adherence to the AP Stylebook is the first place to find your writing style points. But now you have options that may put the book closer to hand: AP Stylebook is now on Twitter, sharing tips, standards and lore about the book, and you can get more detailed information if you subscribe to the AP Stylebook Online service. Individual subscriptions are just $25 a year, site licenses are available for groups, and only subscribers can send queries for the editor to answer. Just want to see the answers? Check the "Ask the Editor" page to see what others are asking.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

get me a new media training video

When it comes to media training, I'm on the record suggesting that it's past time to find a new video to replace the tried and true, but outdated, Bob Newhart episode favored for decades. (It's a good idea to include a request for updated training content beyond the video, too.)

Reader Joe Bonner thinks he's found the replacement: An episode of Amy Poehler's Parks and Recreation comedy on NBC, titled "The Reporter." I've included the 22-minute episode below for you to judge and comment. If not this one, what else might a media trainer use these days to show trainees what to watch out for in media interviews? Just like Bob's well-worn episode, needs to wrap a cautionary tale in comedy, but in ways today's audiences can appreciate. Leave your suggestions in the comments or email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz, or message me on Twitter.

Related post: What to ask a media trainer

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

overstepping in an interview: how to fix it

You don't often see this on a blog: A scientist taking another scientist to task for stretching the truth in a media interview. Here, the author's noting the tendency of some interviewees to make statements that are too sweeping, expressing hunches or guesses or even pure opinion without having solid research to back it up--and failing to note the difference in the interview. That's bad for any interviewee, but especially for scientists when they are sought out as expert sources.

Why would that happen? Scientists, just like any interviewee, often feel the need to answer the question, or to lengthen their answer, and those efforts to fill the seeming void are where any interviewee can get off track. If you don't know, or research doesn't exist, or you're not sure, just say so. Not only is that more accurate, it's actually appealing to those of us curious about the as-yet unanswered questions of science.

When I'm leading sessions of the AAAS "Communicating Science" workshops, I don't have to work too hard to stop the participants from making overly sweeping statements, because their colleagues do it, most of the time. But if you're in an interview, there's an easy way to catch yourself from communicating a too-sweeping statement: Ask questions of the reporter before you start the interview, and make sure you understand what the reporter is taking away from the interview, before it ends. Those are among the 11 "what to ask reporters" questions you should use in your next media interview.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

constructing approaches to social media

This morning, I keynoted the Construction Writers Association annual meeting and walked the group through a variety of approaches to social media that illustrate a range of principles and trends, as an overview. Here's a roundup of some of the resources I covered, with additional links for the group:
  • Go find your fans, and join them (not vice versa) as NPR host Ira Flatow did when he stumbled upon the Facebook group "Science Friday, the best day of the week" about his weekly show. Companies like Coke and Fedex have done the same; read more about that here.
  • Don't ignore your company's historic information as a social media tool. The National Trust for Historic Preservation's trying an experiment this month on Flickr, asking folks to download a sign that says "This Place Matters," then take a photo of themselves with it, in front of a building they want to call attention to. It plays into the yen to share, see yourself online, and support a cause. And Colonial Williamsburg's Cannon Blog, a log of efforts to recreate a Revolutionary War heavy cannon, also brings the historic forward to build a devoted following.
  • Use existing sites and look for deeper ways to engage your audience. There's no need to build your own network when looking to use social media. Mentoring social networks go beyond ordinary linking to create deeper relationships. Try GottaMentor for that purpose, and look here for other sites that will help you "power network" with social media, including building a Google profile.
  • News organizations and communicators, while late to the game, are finding interesting uses for social media. Both groups are starting to move past pushing out headlines and news releases, and wading into online communities. Help a Reporter Out matches experts with reporters on deadline; news organizations have started crowd-sourcing leads for stories; and a range of organizations have begun to share information on sites like Twitter. Two good-to-follow construction businesses to follow on Twitter: the Portland Cement Association's Concrete Thinker, and Christopher Hill, a construction attorney.
I'm happy to follow up with CWA members looking for social media strategies, policies, training or content development; just email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.

Monday, May 04, 2009

weekly writing coach returns: phraseology

How can I not love a writer's resource that focuses on phrases--and weekly, at that? Out of Britain comes The Phrase Finder (aka A Phrase A Week), and make no bones about it, this site intends to enlighten you on the sayings, idioms and fabled phrases that are often handed down and quoted, but little understood. It updates and automates features I've traditionally loved in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which you can find here on Some 85,000 folks have signed up for email or other updates from The Phrase Finder, so join them--and use the site to find, or check up on, phrases you want to use in your writing each week.

Flip camcorders: new features, bargains

For all you Flip camera fans, there are new options: The new Flip Ultra and Ultra HD camcorders now come with more memory (up to 8GB in some models), larger screens and a new HD version. Look for the second-generation Ultra cameras, both under $200, for the new features, but note that you can get the original 30-minute-size Flip Ultra for as little as $59.99 on Amazon. The cameras are quickly becoming the video camera of choice for many users, and I'm a big fan. Check out this announcement from Flip for more details.

in recession, communicate more: opinion

Bruce Trachtenberg, executive director of the Communications Network in Philanthropy, shared these cogent thoughts about why a recession's the perfect time for private foundations to boost, rather than pare back, their communications efforts. He notes: an era of shrinking resources, when all of us are being asked to do more with less, most communications professionals, if not all, might actually say their challenge is a little different. Rather than stretching limited resources, their role is to complement the grant making already under way in foundations and amortize those investments by creating connections, showcasing successes, demonstrating solutions, and inspiring others to take similar action.
I'm a member of the Network and think Bruce's take on how foundations should be making best use of communications in these tough times will work for many sectors and many organizations. Check out his four-point plan, from creating connections to expanding into digital communications, for inspiration today.