Monday, April 27, 2009

blogging panel sold out

Tomorrow's panel discussion on "Getting Your Message Out: Creating a Successful Blog," hosted by PRSA's National Capital Chapter, is sold out and there are no guarantees of last-minute registration on site. However, I'll be blogging about it here and PRSA will be creating a podcast of the panel as well--I'll keep you posted. Looking forward to seeing eager would-be and expert bloggers at this popular session.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

20 key writing tests, from tweets to talks

If I'm working in communications and public relations, what's the most important skill I need to have? That's the question on many minds in these tough economic times, when there's more pressure than ever to add value or look good to your current or prospective employer. But, truth be known, for me, the answer is always the same, no matter what's going on in the world: Excellent writing is not only the most important skill in communications and public relations, it's the most versatile. I've led all manner of communications and public affairs operations, mostly in large, visible nonprofits and a government agency--and helped many more of all shapes and sizes in my consulting role. I've done that before, during and after the advent of the World Wide Web and social media, and writing is still, to my mind, the skill that works no matter the medium.

For many, however, writing's a skill that isn't sharpened. If I were testing a new hire today, here's my list of 20 written products he or she needs to be able to produce to demonstrate a well-rounded writing skill:

  1. A news release or news story: While many, myself included, debate whether this format's on its way out, a good, short news release is still a staple item, and writers need to know how to write one that reads more like a news story than a puff piece. To advance this skill: You should be able to write a news release in less than an hour, even if you must acknowledge the lack of key facts.

  2. A photo op or media advisory: Shorter and more to the point, these half-pagers (which today would be emails) need merely to advise the who-what-when-where of an event, and any arrangements made for broadcast media, press credentials and the like.

  3. A suite of letters: At some point, your president or CEO will need to send letters of congratulations, condolence, or cajoling to persuade someone (to part with a donation or join an advisory board, say). Three paragraphs, no more. To advance this skill: Spend some time developing thoughtful grace notes that will add eloquence and charm in the voice of your leadership. Then, master the casual but well-timed short note as well.

  4. A speech: Set a time goal that's fairly common--15 minutes will do--and consider an audience to focus on. Then write it, making sure you read it aloud, time it and trim it to allow for applause and pauses. To advance this skill: Insert stage directions, notes ("pause here") and reminders instead of writing out well-known items ("tell vacuum cleaner story here").

  5. A commencement speech: A particular variant, commencement speeches need to inspire....briefly. No graduate wants to keep that mortarboard on any longer than necessary. Humor and a light touch go over well, but make sure yours keep this young and restless audience in mind. Better yet: Tell a funny story on yourself, to add perspective.

  6. Congressional testimony, written: You have 10 single-spaced pages, typically, and while this is for the printed record, it should read as if you are going to read it aloud. The best testimony combines a core message or theme; tightly-written summaries of supporting data; and recommendations or a call to action with specific steps on how to get there. If you can anticipate issues or questions before the committee, reflect them in your comments and offer as many answers as you can--or say where that's impossible.

  7. Congressional testimony, oral: You should be able to boil down a written testimony into 5 minutes' worth of a spoken version that retains your core message or theme, refers back to your written testimony, and omits nearly all your data--but spends most of its time on your recommendations.

  8. Talking points: One page of bullets that reflect the most important points, areas of emphasis or data that your speaker might forget in an interview or speech.

  9. An introduction: When your principal needs to introduce another speaker. To advance this skill: Write an intro that avoids repeating biographical details and shares a personal perspective. Keep it short--2 to 3 minutes or less.

  10. Ceremonial remarks: When your speaker isn't the main speaker, but is there to show support. No more than 5 minutes when spoken, ceremonial remarks should add some value by sharing little-known facts or a unique perspective. For example, if your organization's president needs to give brief remarks on an award or an anniversary event, she can highlight what was going on in the world in the year the award or event first occurred. To advance this skill: Study Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, the premier example of short ceremonial remarks that made sure the main speaker was little noted nor long remembered.

  11. A tweet: 140 characters, including spaces and punctuation. If your organization tweets on a variety of topics, practice one for each type. To advance this skill: Figure out how to write an even shorter tweet that allows 12-15 spaces so someone can re-tweet it.

  12. A Facebook update: Similar, but longer than a tweet--and more likely to include fully expressed verbs and no abbreviations. To advance this skill: Figure out how to write engaging updates with humor, brevity and perspective. Add some personality.

  13. A memorandum: What does everyone need to know in this situation? What don't they need to know? Where can they get more information? A page or less, please.

  14. A letter to the editor: The short form of an opinion article. It must include--wait for it--an opinion. Ideally, you can get across what you need to say in two paragraphs: The setup and the conclusion.

  15. An opinion article: The longer form, destined for the op-ed page. However, the same rules apply: I should be able to read just the first and last paragraphs and understand your viewpoint and why you feel that way. The mid-section just helps make your case with data or examples. Five hundred to 1,000 words, max.

  16. A blog post: Try this in several formats and lengths, but at a minimum, be able to write a 250-word and 500-word post, the most popular lengths from a reader's viewpoint. This might take the form of an announcement, a short update, or an opinion.

  17. A greeting card: Short and special-occasion is your goal. You'll need a few words on the cover and an inside greeting. This may work for donors, members, employees, so pick an audience and an occasion to focus this task.

  18. An email message about a major tragedy: Think of this as an all-hands memo that needs to strike a balance between information and reassurance. An accident, a death, a violent episode all may form the basis. For practice purposes, research a past event and write as if it were current today.

  19. A press statement: Omit the back matter. This is merely a quote--sometimes as much as 2 paragraphs, but typically just 2 sentences will do. To be used when you want a limited set of remarks that is available equally to all news outlets.
  20. A headline: Still essential. Five or 6 words or less works in most formats. To advance this skill: Focus on including keywords that will encourage clickthroughs--such as adding a geographic location ("Hartford man wins charity prize" is better than "Name wins charity prize," for example).

I routinely coach writers working in public affairs, communications and development offices, and can conduct group trainings combined with one-on-one coaching if that's what your team needs--or just work with one writer. Email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz for more information.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

DCSWA: social media suggestions

At the DC Science Writers Association professional development day today, I'm joining Nancy Shute of nancyshute.com and US News & World Report, and web consultant Craig Stoltz, former Washington Post health section editor on the panel "Blogging, Twittering, Facebook, and other social media: What Good Are They?" Our goal was to answer the question, "Can social media really help science writers do their jobs--as journalists, PIOs, staff or freelance?"

There's a world of potential here for communicators and journalists. For DCSWA, my focus is on a mix of science and non-science examples, to help the crowd see different models and help them think beyond the box. Here are links to what I think science writers and communicators should be mulling in social media:
  1. Specialized social networks: Yes, you should be on Facebook and LinkedIn--Facebook pages, now numbering more than 100,000, are the new corporate information basic, whether you're a freelance writer of science books like Carl Zimmer, or DARPA, the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency. But you also should explore specialized social networks, like Army of Women, which aims to recruit healthy women for clinical trials on breast cancer prevention and helps researchers build suitable cohorts for their trials; Disaboom, for people with disabilities; communities for scientists, like LabSpaces, designed to foster collaboration; or GottaMentor, which goes beyond linking to your professional contacts to helping them mentor one another.
  2. Video and photo sharing: Visuals are still dominant in their appeal on social media--and a great way to engage with your audience and share your stash of photos and film. The Library of Congress has done a successful experiment with a Flickr photostream from its vast collections, and shared data on metrics; EPA is currently hosting an Earth Day video contest to engage citizens in promising to protect the environment. Beyond science, Will It Blend?, a commercial site, features its engineer CEO grinding up objects in its high-end blender--an approach that captures the joy of blowing things up with your chemistry set that also is blowing up viewing records of the videos and boosting sales 700 percent. With examples like Blendtec, it's important to remember that consumers are 30 percent more likely to make a purchase if they've watched a short video online at lunchtime. The YouTube Symphony Orchestra is a grand-scale example of using a video contest that could be used in all sorts of ways--think of doing a version for the popular science talent contests, for young science Ph.Ds looking for faculty jobs, for crowdsourcing the next big questions to pursue on any number of scientific disciplines. Same goes for Richard Branson's blog, currently asking entrepreneurs to submit videos of their big ideas; the best will be shown in-flight on Virgin planes, which carry lots of business executives who might be able to advance those new ideas. Why not big scientific research ideas?
  3. Blogs and Twitter: Possibly the most facile and flexible tools in the social media arsenal, blogs and Twitter have myriad applications for science writers. Honestly, my favorite science-related poster is an amateur, attorney Bill Romanos--he consistently delivers valuable links and reading across a range of disciplines. Real-time data updates for data-rich monitoring projects would do well to follow the "smog blog" at UMBC, where you can see updates on air quality throughout the U.S.--not just numbers, but visualizations of moving smog; Cooking for Engineers, the foodie blog of a Silicon Valley computer engineer that's built an impressive following with a focus on molecular gastronomy and good recipes; Colonial Williamsburg's cannon blog, a log that follows efforts to recreate a Revolutionary War cannon, showing mistakes, failed attempts and progress over the course of a multi-year experimental effort; and two federal agencies on Twitter, FDA recalls (think pistachios), a good example of relaying emergency information, and NASA, a catchall Twitter feed that's in addition to more than 20 mission-specific feeds NASA publishes. (I'd love to see these federal Twitter pages get more interactive--they're mostly focused on pushing out information than taking it in.)
  4. Profiles: Important for the individual science communicator, journalist or freelancer, your online profiles on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google are key to establishing and maintaining your brand. See this previous post of mine on using profiles to network, useful whether you are a reporter, author or communicator. Science writers who work for scientific institutions should consider making sure all their researcher experts have fully developed profiles, too. My best tip: Google profiles, while less well known, offer you the chance to post comments on Google search results.
I work with a wide variety of science-focused organizations to develop communications strategies, train their communicators and develop content, often with social-media applications. Email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz if I can help your scientific group move into social media for its communications.

Friday, April 17, 2009

employee blogs v. CEO blogs: which is best?

A commenter on this blog wants to continue the discussion from this week's IABC-Washington session on corporate blogs, with these questions:
IABC discussion last night on Corporate Blogs centered on getting the CEO to do it well (or at all). In the military, we have a limited number of leaders blogging ("General Van" at the Corps of Engineers is a great example), but we have HUGE numbers of followers blogging. The "milblogger" community is prolific, talented, and incredibly net-savvy. The question I have is this: which is better? If resources are limited, when/why should we lean toward employee versus employer blogs? Is there a measure of candor that comes across simply because a blogger is NOT in a position of authority? Or do listeners/readers/lurkers need to hear it from the top to believe it? What's been your experience?

It's always tough to generalize about questions like this one, so I'm glad this commenter added the context about a military environment, where "milbloggers" are indeed prolific--not just members of the armed forces, but their families, military analysts and more. Blogging's given them all a great outlet to observe and express their thoughts about the military experience. Some branches of the military, the Air Force in particular, have embraced transparent and easy-to-understand policies on use of new media (see this post and video from the official USAF blog) and this post from Social Media Today, which notes:

Considering that over 70% of their Airmen are active in social networking through Facebook, MySpace and other public sites they're ahead of the curve in understanding that "all Airmen are communicators," and they're taking a smart approach to unleashing the power of their employee base for the good of the service.

With those specifics in mind, here are some thoughts on CEO vs. employee blogs, from my perspective:

  • People like to hear directly from the top: That's the one advantage that CEO blogs have over any other employee blog. It's a big advantage, when it works.
  • That advantage can be lost if the CEO doesn't really want to blog. Once you start discussing ghost-writing, infrequent posting and other dodges, you need to face facts: Your CEO doesn't want to blog and therefore should not. Lack of enthusiasm will show.
  • There's plenty of power in letting employees blog, unfettered. Microsoft is said to have some 30,000 employees who blog about the company--and no policies about blogging. Their only guidance: All the existing policies (about disclosure, product releases, SEC guidelines and more) apply. And check out Zappos.com, where employees are encouraged to Twitter and their posts are shown on the company web site--along with the CEOs posts. Aside from the morale boost, this tells your employee you trust them, and tells your audience you're committed to transparency.
  • Audiences can hear authenticity. So if your CEO can blog with an authentic voice, her blog will work. If your employees can do the same, their blogs will work. What works for the audience is the sense that they're not hearing spam, spin or sputtering, but something real.

So, if times and budgets are tight, I'd choose the bloggers who want to blog, have the support to blog and can work out a plan that makes that happen. I've helped several clients map out editorial plans for their blogs, train teams of bloggers, and establish core editorial topics and departments, just as you would for a publication. Email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz if you need help getting your blog off the ground.

May 13: NY science writers talk branding

Registration's now open for my forthcoming talk to the Science Writers in New York on Wednesday, May 13. The topic is "Me.com: Branding Yourself and Your Outlet in the Digital Age," and it takes a different slice out of the social media pie. How do you make yourself known in the world of Facebook, Twitter and blogging? Can an individual writer or public information officer create a brand--in addition to the brand of her publisher or organization? What should you know about using online profiles--on sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and even Google--to advance your brand? Which URLs and handles do you need to scoop up to protect your brand? I'm a longtime member of the National Association of Science Writers and eager to visit the New York City contingent next month for what's sure to be a lively discussion. The session goes from 6pm to 8pm on May 13, at 4 West 43rd Street in the Columbia Room. SWINY members attend free, and non-members pay just $10--or $20 if you want to join for the rest of the year. Feel free to post questions here, and I look forward to seeing you at the event.

Monday, April 13, 2009

4 strategies borrowed from print media

Should your organization be borrowing its communications strategy from....print media? You know, those newspapers and magazines with shrinking ad revenues and readerships, the ones going out of business or furiously reinventing themselves every hour these days. Yes, them. What?

Communications and public relations--perhaps more than many professions--are undergoing a sea change, and the waves haven't subsided yet. It's more than time to reexamine your traditional products, from print publications and static Web sites to the news conference and even a media relations staff. (Here are my 8 tests for examining your communications in 2009 as a start.) But tough times call for tough measures. I'm suggesting you take another step and consider these models you may want to borrow from the apparently tattered traditional print media:

  1. Break apart, then re-aggregate, your content in ways your audience can use it. Rather than reading an entire newspaper, plenty of users choose to read only certain sections, or a selection of sections, or just the graphics, or graphics with text. (That's true for mobile phone users, as well as many online readers and those who skim the dead-tree editions.) Use RSS feeds, tags and bookmarks to carve your content into topical, time-oriented, or other segments and offer them in a menu that your fans, readers, employees or customers can use in ways that suit their specific needs.
  2. Start charging a fee for previously free services: If you've been publishing and direct-mailing a free publication, newsletter or magazine to your employees, customers, alumni, donors and other key audiences, but aren't sure everyone wants it in electronic form, offer a print edition at a premium price--then print it on demand to save more on storage and printing needless copies. While you're at it, set a fee for bulk copies and encourage other groups to purchase print issues for distribution. You may find a whole new audience--and you'll quickly find out who wants that print copy. Or, provide your publication/video/guide for free to a core audience and charge a small fee to anyone who falls outside that key demographic.
  3. Already charging a fee? Raise it. Today's New York Times looks at the venerable weekly news magazines--such as TIME and Newsweek--which have traditionally been priced very low per issue. In a twist on print media's search for profitability, they're considering raising the cost per issue...and some analysts say that price makes no difference in reader engagement. The article notes: "...whether consumers pay $5 or $50 for a subscription does not affect their perception of the magazine, according to a study conducted four years ago by the media consultant Rebecca McPheters for publishers including Time Inc., Condé Nast, Hearst and Meredith. [She said in an interview] 'we've done a lot of work around public-place readership, and we find that public-place readers who pay nothing are almost as engaged as those who pay'.” Or offer the publication in a more convenient format and charge more for the mode of delivery (as the New York Times and other newspapers do on the Amazon Kindle).
  4. Give some things up entirely, in favor of new options. I continue to meet communicators who feel they must--must--continue to publish print publications and carry out full-bore traditional media relations while adding blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter to their menu of communications tools. But many publications--the Christian Science Monitor and U.S. News and World Report among them--now publish online-only formats. I'd rather see you take this route than publish so infrequently that you can't pierce your audience's consciousness...or fail to keep up with social media changes.
Every one of these suggestions requires audience research and feedback, and may take some experimentation and flexibility. Try one or all of them as a pilot project, measuring your audience views as a baseline before you start and after the end of your pilot to see whether you've moved the needle. I can hear some objections already: What if you've never charged a fee before? Consider this: I have many clients who've told me that their free print publications were so well-received that some readers wanted to know how they could pay for a subscription. Clearly, for some there's a niche market that can be capitalized upon.
Do you see other lessons from the newspaper and magazine world? Share them in the comments.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

photos as a social-media strategy: 5 views

Back in the mid-1990s, I was working at U.S. EPA when the so-called "ten-year" Mississippi floods hit, and I'll never forget a newspaper account that detailed how a local high school became a staging area for damaged family photos lovingly saved in the recovery efforts. Lines of flood victims formed to walk through the high school gym, where table after table held ruined, wet photos of graduations, weddings, trips to Disney World, summer vacations.

Today, I expect such a scene may be a thing of the past, given the popularity of photo-sharing social media sites. And if your organization hasn't uploaded its picture stash on the Web, consider it one of the low-hanging fruits you can easily pick to start your social media communications.

Sure, it may feel as if photos don't have the pizzazz of a Twitter feed or online video. So here are my five views on why you should consider a photo-sharing strategy as the core of your social media communications efforts:
  1. Photo-sharing boosts your media relations: A few years ago, newspapers began devoting much more space to photos, in an effort to compete with the Web's visuals. Now all news media are in on the act, with online, print, and broadcast news--yes, even radio--competing for new photos to post online. Bloggers also look for photos to illustrate their coverage, and with more than 200 million blogs out there, represent a major avenue for expanding your coverage. Make your photos available copyright-free so they can be downloaded faster--and make sure your photostream includes basic "official" photos of your senior staff, buildings, signage, campus and more, as well as more event-specific shots..
  2. Photo-sharing makes it easy to engage audiences. Here, the numbers tell the tale. Photo-sharing may be the most frequently engaged-in activity in social media. Facebook is the largest photo-sharing site in terms of users and the fastest-growing. But in "Who has the most photos of them all? (Hint: It's not Facebook), TechCrunch sorts out photo-sharing sites by number of stored photos this way: ImageShack, 20 billion; Facebook, 15 billion, PhotoBucket, 7.2 billion; Flickr, 3.4 billion; and Multiply, 3 billion. At those levels of participation, you're sure to find photo fiends who share your "views," so to speak.
  3. Photo-sharing invites people to comment on your archives: Got a mystery photo? Shots never before seen? Post them and ask people to add details, ideas, or ratings. I've written before about the success of the Library of Congress Flickr feed (go here to read about how they measured that success). More recently, this New York Post article details the roaring success of Life.com, a new website that's launched with photos from the now-defunct Life magazine and Getty Images archives. More than 97 percent of the photos posted are rarities, never before seen by the public--a fact that invites browsing, and ratings, by ordinary folks and celebrities like Ellen deGeneres.
  4. Photo-sharing invites people to share their own photos: If you're smart about it, your photostream should include an invitation to others to post their photos of your events, people, and news. Ask alumni (whether former students or employees) to post photos from their days with you, or challenge attendees at your current events to share their pics. (Again, the participation data noted above tells you that people like -- and find it easy -- to share photos, so take advantage of it.) While you're at it, invite photo contests, submission comments and more.
  5. Photo-sharing adds dimension to your online presence. You can have the swiftest search and the best-organized task bar on the Web, but it's photos that will add emotion, visual pauses, click-throughs and participation to your site. Photos, from formal to candids, professional or amateur, allow us to see ourselves in your setting. Make sure your photo archives get uploaded, tagged and available--and promote that availability--to ensure your image is completed with images. Be sure you're using all other social media outlets, from Facebook and Twitter to bookmarking sites, to share your photo trove.

Monday, April 06, 2009

record the discovery process with a blog

When communicators are thinking about creating a blog, one of the most overlooked options is to make it true to its origins as a log: a timed, dated entry of ongoing observations. One of the best examples I've seen is this relatively new blog from Colonial Williamsburg, chronicling "The Cannon Project," an effort to recreate a British Infantry light three-pounder cannon. The effort will involve a variety of the "trades" employed at the historic site:
Reproducing the cannon will require the participation of a number of trade shops: founders, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, gunsmiths, harness makers, tailors, weavers, brick makers, tool makers, and carpenters. Together, they will illustrate the complexity of production needed to support the Revolution.
So far, posts on this blog support the principles I encourage scientists to use in describing their methodology, using the process--and the progress, or lack thereof--to create a story non-technical experts can appreciate and follow. Sharing simple observations works: Discovery and disappointments are shared in equal measure, with great visuals to capture each step. Here's an example from a recent post that demonstrates the virtues of detail when you've committed to an observational blog:
After turning down the surface of the casting several tenths of an inch, we’re finding even more porosity, including some large, and relatively speaking, deep holes. While this is disappointing, discovering such problems was the reason for this initial pour.
You don't need to re-cast a cannon to fire up a good observational blog. What processes, observations or methods can you unfold for your blog's readers? Can you chronicle a project--the cannon will take two years' work--or follow a new initiative? Are there new things to discover and describe at frequent intervals? Then you may have a true log-blog in the making.

Friday, April 03, 2009

DC science writers to get social media tips

Program and registration details are now available for the DC Science Writers' annual Professional Development Day, to be held here in Washington on Saturday, April 18. I'm joining Nancy Shute, formerly of US News and World Report, and Craig Stoltz, formerly of the Washington Post, for a plenary panel on social media options for public information officers and journalists. Members and non-members are welcome to this program!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

fire away: ?s for reporters, trainers, more

In the current economy, you need to have your questions--and clever ideas--for reporters, your editors, media trainers and speaker trainers on the front burner, not the back burner. Here's a roundup of questions I think you should ask in the following situations:

  • When a reporter's interviewing you, ask these 10 questions to be sure you understand the who-what-why from the interview subject's viewpoint. These questions work whether you're the interviewee, or setting up an interview for someone at your organization;




  • Are you a writer? Here are questions to ask your editor to get the feedback she wants to give--and you need to get;




  • Giving a speech? Here's what to ask the meeting planner or organizer about the room you'll be speaking in;




  • Need to update and upgrade the media training you offer? Ask a media trainer these 14 basic questions before you choose how to proceed, and look at issues and questions that will help you gauge what updated training should look like--and what it should not look like.



  • Trying to fit training into the tough economy? Check out these ideas from my clients who also are trying to re-tool training in these difficult times to get the most bang for the buck, from strategic retreats for your communications team to social-media training and more.

  • I'm happy to answer any of these questions for my training and coaching clients. Contact me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz for more information and to discuss your specific needs.