Sunday, September 27, 2009

fall into september's top tips

The year's moving quickly and, as the seasons change once more, here are the ideas, tips and advice readers consulted most this month on the don't get caught news & info blog:
  1. Trying to be perfect in your social media efforts? Don't. Accept that you can't be Mary Poppins in social media and learn how to manage with this month's best-read tip.
  2. If your CEO wants to try social media, but finds it difficult on a daily basis, read our 6 tips for getting around the most common barriers to getting your leader out there.
  3. Online video continues as a strong trend, so this fall I'm testing a new ultralight camcorder with the help of some clients and colleagues. Read about it here, in this month's third most popular post. And....
  4. See the new camera we're testing in this post of first impressions, and this one about its editing features.
  5. Do writers get bored? I'll never tell, but here's a popular weekly writing coach tip about how to rock the boring tasks in writing.
  6. When it comes to how your team is (or should be) using social media, I hear different things from you and from your boss. You may be surprised if you listen in to what I'm hearing with this popular tip.
  7. Would-be speakers from all over keep coming back to an older post on why you should wear blue for your audience in public speaking or television appearances. It's still among our top posts this month. Find out why!
  8. Social media moves fast, and if your communications operation isn't ready, it may force you to clean up your PR act. Find out more here.
  9. Communications directors are revving up for fall and consulting all our guidance for them in this series of posts
  10. Looking for media training? I offer it, as well as these tips on what to ask a media trainer, still among our most popular posts.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Kodak Zi8: video editing dream?

I'm shipping off the Kodak Zi8ultralight camcorder to the first of four testers shortly. But in the process of uploading the camera's editing software and getting it ready to send out, one of my strongest impressions is that this camera may be the online video editor's dream--I'll let my testers tell me if that's so.
I say that because of the range of options I see on the editing panel, which lets me do things like:
  • See and edit all my available videos and images, even those not created on this camera. All the editing tools appear to work with those videos, too.
  • Manipulate color brightness, contrast and saturation -- the latter lets me take nearly all the color out of a video for a near black-and-white effect or dial it up to super-psychedelic-saturation point.
  • Frame-by-frame advance for a great level of precision editing.
  • Converting your video into special effects, like black-and-white, sepia and "old movie" (complete with scratched frames); fish-eye perspective; overexposure; watercolor or sketch effects; and more.
  • Speed changes ranging in gradations from 1/5 to 5 times the original speed;
  • Rotation moving left at 90-degree intervals; and
  • Lighting enhancement.
Two more useful tools that expand what you can do: a timer that counts down your edited video against the original, and a "revert" button, the valuable undo option after you've played with all those features. You also can save various versions and capture still photos from your video.
For a pocket-size point-and-shoot camcorder, those features add much to the arsenal of what you can produce inexpensively and fast for your website, blog or social media posts. I'm looking forward to what my testers come up with as editing and shooting options. Stay tuned!

Buy a Kodak Zi8

Friday, September 25, 2009

weekly writing coach: readers

ProBlogger's a great regular read for those of us who blog, with great posts like 9 Things to Do to Make Sure Your Blog is Read by More than Your Mom and tips on monetizing, writing, and promoting blogs. But today, there's a post on creating reader profiles or "personas" that I think applies to all sorts of communications functions, from news release and magazine writing to community or member relations. The idea is to write a real profile, a bio, for the different types of people whom your writing targets--complete with a photo, demographics, made-up names and more.

Sound like a timewaster? It's actually a clever, sticky, memorable way to make sure everyone on your team understands and knows their audiences (and I'd do these for internal and external audiences). You may have different audience profiles for different projects, times of year or operations, and there may well be overlap. But the exercise of creating profiles helps you think through who's reading your writing and ensures that the choices you make--from timing to word choices--hit the mark. Try this for the different audiences you're trying to reach.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

our Kodak Zi8 test

I'm excited to be launching a wide-ranging test of the new Kodak Zi8HD ultralight camcorder, with the help of some clients and colleagues around the U.S. The camera has just arrived and while it's getting charged and assembled, here are some early thoughts I can share with you and my testers, who'll get the camera next:
  • Weight: It's still lightweight, but with its larger battery and the need for an SD card to extend the memory, this 1.4-pound camera's heavier than the Flip MinoHD Camcorder or the Flip UltraHD (the 120-minute version), which are 11.2 ounces and 12 ounces, respectively. See the view top left, showing the battery compartment.
  • Connections: After the Flip, with its pop-out USB connection (which doubles as a charger and as the path to upload your video), my first impression of the Zi8 was "My, doesn't this come with an assortment of cords and plugs," and none appears to do more than one function--so you have a charging cord, an uploading cord and the cable to connect to a TV or monitor. There's a pull-out USB on a flexible short arm (see photo right). A full charge requires 2 hours!
  • Memory: Flip cameras come with built-in 30-, 60- or 120-minutes of juice, and charge relatively quickly via the USB port for later models (or with new AA batteries for the smaller, older models, useful for those who don't want to take chances). The Zi8 "has limited internal memory--perfect for a few practice videos/pictures," according to the manual. So I've added $88 to the price with a 32GB SD card, the maximum memory this can accommodate, which will allow up to 10 hours of recording.
On the plus side, there's potential for widescreen filming, longer videos, and an external microphone jack--all catnip for those of us who've been playing with Flip cameras. My first impression: Can't beat the Flip for intuitive design and ease-of-use out of the box, but the extra features open up lots of possibilities. Watch this space for updates from me and my testers in the weeks to come.

And Flip has just reduced prices on its cameras, so you can now get the HD versions for around $150-160, instead of their earlier just-over-$200 price. (Photos for this piece? Took them, yes, with a Flip camera.)

Buy a Kodak Zi8

Buy a Flip MinoHD Camcorder (the 60-minute version) or Flip UltraHD (the 120-minute version)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

weekly writing coach: rock the boring tasks

No writer likes to admit this, but sometimes, your writing tasks are mundane. More boring than watching grass grow or paint dry. And that often means mistakes on the horizon--or worse, a motivation drain. Here's a great post by Michele Wittle, "My Worst Writing Mistake: Getting Sick of my Work," a cautionary tale that serves as a strong reminder to avoid this trap and to check your work when you're most bored.

Whenever I have a routine piece of writing or editing to do, I think of Frank Karel, a former journalist and communications vice president for the Rockefeller and Robert Wood Johnson Foundations. He once hired me to compile a report for the Johnson Foundation that was beyond mundane--a roundup of all the foundation's grants for a particular year, destined for its tax filing. And here's how he framed the task: "This is going to feel like you're writing 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' 400,000 times. But it needs to get done and if you do it, I promise we'll give you better things to write." Frank Karel died this past weekend, but I'll never forget the way he helped me rock a boring writing task, with three things: humor, an acknowledgement of the realities of the situation and the promise of better writing to come. Do yourself a favor and try to do the same the next time you're faced with a boring writing task.

Monday, September 21, 2009

where to catch me: upcoming talks

I'll be speaking on communicating -- in science and in social media -- at two different workshops later this month and early next:

Please let me know if I'll see you at any of these workshops--I'm looking forward to them and to meeting the participants.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

let social media clean up your PR act

Call social media the "new broom" of the communications office: It's going to force organizations to clean up their communications and public relations acts, before they get caught by the fast-moving forces of the social web.

I hope that's what will be happening at the U.S. Coast Guard in the wake of its ill-timed training exercise last week on the Potomac River--within striking distance of the Pentagon, White House and the presidential motorcade--at 9:30 a.m. on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Because the drill included a mock attack that could be overheard on radio channels, CNN and Fox News reported a suspect vessel firing shots--and set off panic (including FBI and police response) and a discussion on Twitter that's still going on a week later, with thousands of people spreading the initial message, the correction, and finally, opinions on who messed up what. And while the Coast Guard issued a hasty statement (so fast that the initial version, now corrected, was riddled with typos) and maintains a useful presence on Twitter, it clearly got caught unawares by this incident.

Here's the thing: It didn't have to happen. In this case, while many observers shot the messenger, social media's not the culprit. Social media showed up all the avoidable cracks in this communications system. As a consultant who helps organizations think through strategies and communications crisis plans--and who sees too many groups or companies say, "we don't have the time or money to make a plan"--I look at this incident and others like it as an indicator of things to come.

So, let me ask you: Have you looked at what you can do to clean up your communications act before social media does it for you, in a very public way? If not, it may be time for an audit with that in mind. Here are some perspectives I took away from the Coast Guard incident about what parts of this game social media is changing:
  1. Your sense of timing: Anyone in spitting distance of your emergency, from passersby to listening-in news media, can spurt an alert without benefit of your information in an apparent emergency. All they need is a cellphone. What do you need? A faster monitoring system that includes what's on Twitter, for starters. You'll also need information and methods in place ahead of time, where possible, so you can move faster than ever before in responding.
  2. Your planning. This is no longer optional, and may be your only lifesaver if a similar incident came to pass. The Coast Guard might have looked at the 9/11 anniversary date and said, "No attack exercises on that day--too easy to be mistaken for the real thing." But failing that, it also could have issued an alert days ahead of time to major media, given the training's location in the nation's capital, letting the desk and key reporters know that training exercises would continue as usual and would include faux attack announcements. It could've tweeted that information more broadly, too, on the day in question...more than once. Anticipating how things may be seen and reported (by reporters or citizens) has to be part of your discussions.
  3. How your spokespeople are prepared: From your leaders to those actually handling the situations you may encounter--from security to maintenance--you'll need to invest in training, if only so that you know what their instincts are in an emergency and how to make sure they fit the situations you can anticipate. Failure to do this can lead to problems with optics (think showing up in a suit and tie at a flood scene) as well as more weighty problems (pulling guns on reporters to keep them away from a disaster), all of which have happened before. How will you respond in a variety of situations? Who'll handle reporters? Who gets access? How? How will you do that--and social media--if you're operating from the sidewalk instead of your office? (Handily, technology makes that last one easier, if you plan ahead.)
  4. How you'll use social media to share information. This isn't something you can start doing overnight, or on a whim during a crisis. I've been following the Coast Guard for months on Twitter, so I happened to see its response in real time...but like many others, I'd already passed on the CNN reports, which came out faster. If you've got your networks in place before a crisis comes up, you can use them to pass information to others. If you lack a social media presence, you won't have the traction to do that at that critical moment. (And by presence, I don't mean just one avid social media maven in your company or organization. All critical units need to be ready to participate in spreading the message to key networks.)
Related posts: Where a communications plan gets you in a down economy

Add 'responding to rumors' to your communications plan

How to accommodate reporters in a crisis

Sunday, September 13, 2009

weekly writing coach: edit better by hand

I rarely print documents and do most of my editing in the machine, just like you. But when it matters, when the piece doesn't flow, when I'm stumped or stuck, I print it out (with plenty of line-spacing to allow for handwritten corrections) and edit by hand.

One of my great writing professors and mentors, Tim Cohane, taught an entire semester of magazine writing in which we edited everything by hand (and, in fact, wrote the first three drafts of every article in longhand, but that's another post). Only after it was perfect could you put it into a machine, in his book. And while you may not want to use it every day, the by-hand method offers writers these advantages when you're self-editing:
  • It slows you down: Working by hand includes more pauses and time to think--and sometimes, that's what your written work needs. Want to slow yourself down more? Read it backwards (great for catching typos).
  • You can see all the versions at once: The Smithsonian Institution holds in its collections a handwritten draft of Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics to the title song from The Sound of Music, in which the opening line apparently went through several versions, with all the optional words written in and crossed out (as in "The hills are alive/With the sound of sunshine/magic/morning/music"). At times, you need to see what's been discarded as well as what's on deck, without having to click on a balloon to do so.
  • You can focus on sections or parts: One of the best self-edits you can do involves focusing on one paragraph and the sentences within it, to see whether you've got the cadence, the sentence lengths, and the word choices just right. It's easier to focus on one unit if you can't scroll to the others, I find.
  • It's easier on your eyes: Rest your eyes from the backlighting, and you might just notice some words or phrases that need more attention.
Related posts: Weekly writing coach: length variations (in sentences and paragraphs)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

reboot and remove: stop doing something

In my first public relations job, I stormed into my boss's office one day to complain about all the overtime I was putting in. His reaction? "Stop doing it and see whether anyone notices, besides you."

Too often, when we're thinking about how to reorganize or reboot a communications operation or plan, it's all about the moving: Move this task to this unit, move this person across the hall to another team, consolidate everybody. Or, in other instances, keep moving, keep busy, keep at it. I excelled at that, according to my boss...but the only person who thought it was needed was me.

Instead, why not think about removing something from your array of services? Letting go of tasks and projects may be a more effective way to rejuvenate your communications (and solves that eternal complaint that people can't find time to do one more thing). Here's an elegant post by Joe Bonner that takes the musings of a social media CEO about removing the rear brake on his bike and translates the idea to a communications shop: Ask why you're doing what you're doing, and stop doing it if it's no longer effective. I think this is especially true today, with all the new options out there (and still in development) for how we communicate on behalf of organizations and companies.

Removing--tasks, units, approaches, familiar routines--causes lots of upheaval, especially in these uncertain times. So communications leaders should be anticipating that they'll need to introduce other supports, such as cross-training or across-the-board re-training, to help staff members make the adjustment. And why not engage teams in the brainstorming about which brakes to remove? What could you accomplish with the budget for, say, a print magazine or annual report if you stopped doing them? Is there another, better way to accomplish that goal--or can you just stop and move on to something new and different? Finally, here's a last, best test: Stop doing it and see whether anybody notices. Worked for me--and let me focus my energies in a concentrated way on the things that did matter to the people I was serving.

Related posts: New media adapters: The annual report revs up

Trying an audio annual report

2009's communications changes: 8 tests to stay current

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

you can't be Mary Poppins in social media

What do these things have in common: Your first attempt at diving off a diving board. Making a presentation. Playing any complex musical instrument for the first time, where someone can hear you. Dancing by yourself. Dancing with someone else. Fixing a piece of broken china. Trying social media, golf, cooking, gardening or videotaping yourself. Making a fire in the fireplace. Singing out loud.

To do all those things, you gotta be willing to suck. The only difference lies in social media: You knew about all the other things. Now you're finding that out about social media, and you don't like it.

So don't just like it, I say. Do as they do in the military when making the best of what you see as a bad situation, and "embrace the suck." If you still can't bring yourself to try social media because you might mess it up, let me suggest that you must be Mary Poppins, who could (and did) claim to be "practically perfect in every way." And that's too bad, because you'll never make it in social media if she's your role model.

This isn't a new thought with me, but it bears repeating. I didn't attend this session on the expanding social media audience for science, at last year's National Association of Science Writers annual meeting--but I can just imagine the question that prompted the answer "You gotta be willing to suck," from Zack Barnett, interim director of web communications at the University of Oregon (and I'm very glad @jennylaurenlee captured it in a tweet, pictured above). The question probably started with a "but..." as in "But isn't it bad to post video that's not broadcast-quality?" or "But what if you don't have time to make the copy perfect?" or "But what if you write something and your boss gets anxious about it?" or "But what if the comments are negative?"

The answer to those and myriad other typical questions from those afraid to try is "so what?" And that's because if you won't try because you're afraid to suck, you'll never succeed. It's a prerequisite only [spoiler alert!] because no one has all of this figured out. Not even you. Barnett updated for today the elegant words of Robert Louis Stevenson, who said, "Our business in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits. You know, pick yourself up, dust your keyboard off, start all over again. Be yourself, not Mary Poppins.

I'm not the only communicator hearing the silent scream of "I don't want to fail at this" from friends and colleagues. Here's a great post on the topic from the Signals vs. Noise blog about how to win fans by dropping the potato pancake --advocating the Julia Child method of forging past a cooking failure, perhaps the real origin of what's now called the five-second rule for dropped food. We've got our own versions of five-second rules in social media, too--really, simple ways you can embrace-the-suck--and more evolve every day. Here are a few:
  1. Ask for help out loud: In the great tradition of the high-tech world, post your question and answers will come. Generally, folks are willing to help one another. "Where do you see that?" pops up on my screen at least 10 times a day, with a genial, "Bottom left corner, click where it says click" coming back at you from out in the social-media universe.
  2. Say oops when you need to: Typos and dropped letters happen, and everyone hits "post" before they're ready at least a few times. I typically post "I'm moving too fast..." with my corrections, because that's true--and it's a good reminder to me to slow down. Be benevolent to yourself about it. You'll get better, but only with practice.
  3. Ignore--or unfollow--the harsher critics: In social media as in life, some people only feel good when they're trashing someone else. The good news: The crowd generally does not support extreme behavior in social media, especially from the Poppins-like. Anytime you see someone post "Everyone should do X" or "No one should do X" in social media, wait for a bunch of folks to stop following him.
  4. Use the many learning opportunities: On FriendFeed, join the "FriendFeed for Beginners" group. Twitter users search the hashtag #newbie, where you'll see beginner-level advice and questions on everything from iPhones to Twitter. Facebook has a thorough-going Help Center (bottom right corner, people, bottom right corner). Read all the "about" and "help" sections you can find. Watch what other people do. It's expected that you need to learn.
  5. Take feedback in a good-humored, humble way: I love that the people I talk to on Twitter, Facebook and FriendFeed--for the most part--have lovely manners. "Gosh, I didn't mean that," or "I must've misfired. I was wanting to say this..." or "Thanks for the tip--who knew?" are all among the gentle "Got the message" posts I've seen. Be willing to admit you're not a Poppins, and you'll go far. Play nice and people will generally play nice, too.
  6. Don't leave your personality at home. I always say that if you don't have a personality on social media, you need to get one. No one really believes those apple-polishing Facebook updates that tell us how happy you are to be writing memos at midnight. Falling down a little just makes you human, and more likeable (see about potato pancakes above).
Finally, remember this: If you're going to aim for practically perfect in every way in social media, you won't get to enjoy it. You'll miss out on business and personal benefits. You won't take risks and see the benefits. You'll fall way behind on what's fast become the world where business marketing, collaboration and learning take place. You'll miss the chance to expand your network exponentially. Your brand (personal or professional) won't be as memorable. And that would really suck.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

get past 6 CEO barriers to social media

Let's just say you're one of the lucky communicators, with a CEO who's ready and willing to take the plunge into social media...but she still sees barriers, rapids and dangerous falls ahead. (I don't recommend moving forward if your CEO is unwilling, however.) Here's how to guide your soon-to-be-social CEO so she can ford the rapids more, well, rapidly--organized by objection:
  1. I'm never near a computer: Time to give your CEO the mobile memo, with information on applications like Facebook for the iPhone (similar apps are out there for most mobile devices). And Twitter is designed to be as simple as texting on a phone, any phone. So if your CEO is off the computer but on a BlackBerry, that's no barrier to participation.
  2. I can't remember how to blog/tweet/post to Facebook. I don't want to login to something else. I do email best. Your CEO's time has come, with a new service called Posterous, which allows him to post to a blog--or update any social media service using simple email, allowing for audio, video, photo and text posts. He doesn't even need to create an account--just send the content to Posterous. No excuses left! Mashable.com has published this excellent guide to using Posterous for simple and elaborate posts, with lots of good tricks to make posting this way more effective.
  3. I can't type: Time to bring back old-fashioned dictation in the form of an audio blog post. Your CEO can phone in posts up to 60 minutes long on services like Hipcast from anywhere, and even post interviews or conference calls so more than one person can participate. (Think about phoning in updates from the hallways of a meeting.) When the CEO's in the office, record there, transcribe to text and post the audio as a podcast for a two-for-one experience.
  4. I don't have that much time: Give your CEO a focused role that makes the task seem shorter, then match it with the right technology. Examples might include: Adding a CEO's comment to longer blog posts written by staff, tweeting instead of blogging (they call it micro-blogging for a reason), or, for any length of post, making sure that it updates to all your company's social media pages--so that single CEO tweet, just 140 characters or less, gets onto multiple platforms automatically.
  5. I'm never in this time zone/I'm always traveling. Get out that mobile memo again, but this time, point out that updates can post at any hour, and mobile apps make it possible in almost any place except takeoff and landing. Make an advantage out of the CEO's travel by asking her to post pictures, and to dateline her posts "Posted from [place]" to add to the excitement. Take a further step and arrange a tweetup--a meetup organized via Twitter--to introduce your CEO to customers/clients/contacts on the ground locally.
  6. I'm not much of a writer. If audio's not a great solution, posting pictures or short video from an ultra-light camcorder like the Flip MinoHD Camcorder or the forthcoming Kodak Zi8 HD, both of which include all the software needed to edit and upload a short video to email or social sites. They're light enough to fit in a pocket and have only a couple of buttons to push to make a good-quality video in short order. Both include the option to pull still photos from video, making them a time-saving option as well.
Need more inspiration or convincing for your CEO to take the plunge? Check out the related posts below for interviews with social-media-using CEOs. And if these barrier-jumping tips work for you, er, anyone else in the organization,, well, so much the better.

Related posts: Interview with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh on Twitter and blogging

If Marriott CEO Bill Marriott blogs...so can you

Employee blogs v. CEO blogs: Which is best?

Buy a Flip MinoHD Camcorderor a Kodak Zi8 HD

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

testing a new ultra-light camcorder

For all that I love the Flip MinoHD Camcorder and what it's done to make online video inexpensive, fast and fun for communicators, I'm always looking for new social-media tools for my pocket arsenal. The soon-to-be-available (Sept. 15) Kodak Zi8, another HD ultralight camcorder, seems to offer some competition in the form of:
  • widescreen capabilities for video or still shots with a 16:9 aspect ratio,
  • a jack for an external microphone, which allows audio recording in stereo--a real advantage,
  • capacity to record up to 10 hours of video if you use a SD/SDHC card slot that can hold up to 32 GB (which, unfortunately, is not included in the price).
My Zi8's on pre-order (an option on Amazon.com but not the Kodak site) and to test it, I've asked a small group of communicators from universities around the U.S., many of them among my clients, to participate in a round-robin of trials with this new camcorder. I'll be shipping it to them and posting their video and their comments here on the blog for all to see and share. We'll start the trials this month and continue through October, posting as we go. I've selected communications operations that used both Flip cameras as well as larger, more traditional camcorders, and am hoping they'll give us examples of sound and image quality in a variety of settings and conditions.

This gives me a good chance to remind readers that I don't review products that are given to me for free by the manufacturer--I pay retail for them and test them just as you might, and don't receive a fee for doing so. Links to Amazon-available products do return a small fee to me if you purchase them through this blog, and I use/read/test whatever you see listed here. In the case of my Zi8 reviewers, none of their comments should imply an endorsement, nor are they receiving a fee or any compensation except the use of the camera for what may seem all too brief a time.

While we're all waiting for the Zi8 launch date, you can find out more about this new option with the specifications list, the available accessories (that remote control's intriguing), and product reviews. and the user guide and support information.

I'm looking forward to getting these samples and reviews. What questions do you want answered about the Zi8 (on its own, or in comparison to the Flip or a more traditional camcorder) that would help your communications operation? Leave them in the comments and we'll do our best to cover them!