Dear Mass Media and Social Media: Help Stop Terrorism

Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 8.17.18 AM

There are way too many mornings when I awake to read another front-page article about an innocent person who is killed (now, often beheaded) by implacable, bloodthirsty terrorists.  These stories appear often in the online equivalent of above the fold (or for people who still buy papers, really above the fold).  This morning was no exception when I read about the beheading of Kenji Goto, a Japanese journalist.

From my own memories of September 11 to the “Je Suis Charlie” movement to these latest horrific videos, a thought occurred to me that stirred up memories from when I was a kid.   Growing up a baseball fan, the only games I got to watch were those broadcast on network television on Saturdays – the Game of the Week.  In the 1970s, it became in vogue to either streak across the field or run around like an idiot until you got tackled, hauled off and likely released a couple of hours later – so everyone could see you on network TV.  It still happens (see below), but the impact is largely confined to social media (this video has more than three million views):


In the 70s, the TV cameras used to follow these idiots, tracking them while they tried to elude either the police or stadium security and the announcers would often provide commentary.  Then, someone came up with a great idea:  STOP SHOWING THE IDIOTS.  By denying them what they wanted most – “exposure” on television, the craze eventually went away.

I have been around the media for a LONG time and know that in about every news room in America, the mantra of “if it bleeds, it leads” holds true.  The more gruesome the killing, violence, hostage situation, you name it, the more the editors salivate at the increase circulation numbers, eyeballs or TV ratings.  it’s true: newsrooms love this stuff.  If you don’t believe me, ask a reporter.  It gains eyeballs, clicks and readers.

Bloodthirsty animals like ISIS are now exploiting traditional and social media to boast and show off their latest atrocities, and at least the media that I read are more than happy to write prominent articles about it with pictures of some poor soul kneeling before someone in the last, humiliating moments of their lives. And yes, I showed  the image above, but to make a point.

There is an all-too-familiar pattern to what is happening today in the poorly named “war against terror.”  It goes like this:

  1. Sadistic, media-crazed barbarians kidnap an innocent civilian
  2. Said barbarians issue a picture or video, demand ransom and publicize their latest prize
  3. Media carries the story, along with quotes from said barbaric group
  4. Demands are not met or ransom is not paid
  5. Innocent person gets killed, often in bloodthirsty, dramatic fashion, such as a beheading
  6. Sadistic animals release a video and a statement that is carried VERBATIM by media outlets all over the world, becoming a megaphone for said barbarians
  7. Impotent world leaders express outrage.  Today’s statement from the Japanese government was “Japan strongly condemned the killing, saying an “atrocious act of terrorism” had been committed and that the country was “outraged by the horrific act.
  8. Fueled by world attention in mainstream and social media, sadistic, media-crazed barbarians prepare to re-feed the media beast that lives off of “if it bleeds, it leads.”
  9. Repeat.  Again, and again.

Don’t believe me?  How about Jerrold Post, director of the political psychology program at George Washington University?  He says:

“Terrorism is basically a media phenomenon,  You can look at it as a species of psychological warfare waged through the media. Which means that while we know terrorists influence the media, media coverage also influences terrorists.

Well, I don’t own guns.  I can’t drop bombs.  But I am pretty smart and have worked in communications since the late 1990s, and here’s my piece of unsolicited advice for the print, television, radio and social media decision makers:


YouTube and Twitter have done their best to deny social media as a venue for these animals, but it’s difficult and this stuff goes viral – fast.  According to a September 2014 article, Forbes reports “With 100 hours of new footage uploaded every minute, YouTube says it doesn’t, and couldn’t, prescreen content, relying on users to flag violations.”  I get it.  These two platforms have the best of intentions, but are overloaded.

But I’m not done.

ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, Fox News and others:  stop reporting on beheadings.  Major newspapers like my hometown Washington Post (on which I learned of the latest atrocity), deny the terrorists a cheap propaganda victory.  Online news outlets like the Huffington Post: think about what you can do to help win the poorly named “war on terror,” ignore the spike that you’ll see in web traffic and stop being their publicists.  

Does this apply to every act of terror?  Certainly not.  Events like what happened at Charlie Hebdo can and must be reported.  BUT – for those editors who make the “write or don’t write,” “report or don’t report” decisions on individual acts of terror accompanied by insane rants, ask yourselves an important question:

By reporting on acts of bloodthirsty violence, are you interested in helping terrorists get out their propaganda, or are you interested in making money?

It might seem complex, but it’s actually pretty damn simple.

Stop showing the idiot on the baseball field.  Go to commercial.  Deny the idiot/animal their platform.

And take away their power.



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The Cost of Doing Business Online: Trolls

Internet Trolls

There have been way too many instances of late in which online detractors or idiots (read: trolls) have shown up on my social media radar screen.  I envision many of them looking like Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons, but I continue to be amazed at how people can take legitimate social media activities and turn them into their own personal platforms for extraordinarily insensitive commentary.  Free speech?  Sure.  But exercising free speech still doesn’t excuse you from being a complete moron.

Example #1:  Season Affective Disorder Twitter Chat

An agency of the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), has conducted several Twitter chats, covering a wide variety of topics related to mental health.  I don’t have any scientific data to back it up, but I imagine that it’s hard for people to go on a highly public and visible platform like a Twitter chat, discuss their own mental illness or feelings of depression – and have their comments linked back to the personal profile.  It must be really hard.

On November 13, 2014, NIMH conducted a Twitter chat about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – good timing as the amount of light available in daytime hours in going down many places and SAD affects a lot of people, especially at this time of year.

As I’m working, I’m watching the chat out of the corner of my eye, when one particular tweet showed up – and told me that the trolls have arrived:

What?  Racist?  And what the hell are those pictures? I suppose that one could argue that the troll on the other end of the tweet may well have suffered from some form of mental illness, but then I saw another tweet:

As people were discussing how certain light boxes how shown to be very effective at helping those with Seasonal Affective Disorder, the troll posted this:

Not cool.  It then occurred to me that whomever was doing this was trolling a Twitter chat on mental illness – a tough topic for people to talk about, let alone in a highly public way.  To their credit, no one, especially those at NIMH engaged with this troll and he/she eventually went away.  I believe, however, that making light of mental illness during a social media event pretty much makes you a complete asshole.

Example #2:  New England Patriots and Twitter

November 13 must have been International Troll Day.  Ask the New England Patriots.

With a brand new Twitter account and in an attempt to quickly reach one million followers, their social media team created a clever way to attract people to their Twitter account and have people follow them – they created a Twitter bomb.  The Patriots’ social media team enabled people to enter certain text and said text would appear verbatim on the back of a Patriots’ jersey in the form of a tweet.   They were expecting people to enter their last names, a neat way to show your Patriots fever.  A very cool idea for whomever came up with it:

And that’s when it went wrong.  Very wrong.  As the Boston Globe wrote,

99.99 percent of their fandom who just wanted to share in their social media celebration. But it’s always that 0.01 percent that causes 100 percent of the problems.”

And that 0.01 percent did exactly that, creating a jersey using the “n word” made up of letters and numbers.  And unfortunately, it went viral.  A troll had gotten through the keyword filters that the Patriots set up (I am not going to post the tweet as not to give the person further exposure) and before the Patriots’ social media team could react, the post went viral (it was up for more than an hour, which is the only thing for which I would criticize the effort – you have GOT to have a warning system in place if you automate an effort like this).  After said hour, the tweet was taken down, but as I’ve said in the past, the Internet is forever and screen shots rule the day.

Trolls 1, New England Patriots, 0.

Much has been written about this mistake, so I won’t provide a lot of additional commentary.  My only point would be that if the Patriots were looking to go from zero to one million followers using an automated method (and they were going to sleep at some point), there is no way possible that humans could have prevented this.  Moreover, most of the social media accounts I manage have keyword filters as well, but the 0.01 percent of the trolls will always find a way to do 100 percent of the damage.  Thankfully, no one got fired. And the Patriots social media team quickly apologized:

Like the Globe writer, Bill Speros commented this was a mistake fed by clever trolls:

“If every person in America was fired after they made a mistake at work, our nation’s unemployment rate would be 99 percent by the end of next week.”


Where there is the Internet, there will always be trolls.  No matter how serious the subject, nor how insensitive the message, there will always be someone about .01 percent more clever and devious than a good social media team.

Does it mean we should stop?  No way.  I’ll keep doing Twitter chats, Google Hangouts and maintaining many social media properties – but I do so with the knowledge that on one particular day at one particular time, I’ll get trolled.

It’s the new normal, and the unfortunate cost of doing business online.

Image credit: Dr. Platypus, Flickr Commons

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Why You Might be Measuring the Wrong Web Analytics


Having done some incarnation of online work for the last 17 years, I would bet that the number is into the hundreds of the times in which I have had to justify/sell/validate/excuse/explain the use of online tools and tactics (to many a dumb-ass boss).  Now, with the advent rise and domination of some social media platforms, this has become a little easier.

While I no longer have to explain what a “page view” is (well, actually sometimes I do), most social media tools give me a sense of what we now ultimately call “engagement.”  Page views, click throughs, Likes, Shares, Comments, and re-tweets.  These are pretty numbers and even more impressive when you do things like add up the number of hashtag uses for a Twitter chat and the “impressions” number comes into the millions.

Are we measuring the right things?

Ultimately, when we talk about the social media/web person’s nirvana, it’s a page views, in whichever form it exists.  This means that through advertising, social media, some other web site, email or direct link, some web surfer came to your page! Well, this is something that we’ve been trying to do since I started in the business.  And the bigger the number, the easier it became to “sell in” your online projects as having had an impact.

Courtesy of my friend Eric Berto, I read a piece in yesterday’s Gigagom about a new service/product called “Chartbeat,” which has me questioning the metrics that we’ve been using for years. Here’s why:

  • While page views is still the mother lode, unless you have a very sophisticated system, most analytics packages will give you total page views and average time on the page.  It’s up to you to determine if this is “success.”  Do 1,000 page views and an average time on your page constitute success?  Maybe.
  • Do a lot of page views mean that you have attained success?  Well, maybe.  It depends upon what you are comparing it to – it has to be apples to apples.  I don’t compare this blog to the online version of the New York Times for obvious reasons, those being daily humiliation and feelings of inferiority.
  • Finally, and something that I have talked about repeatedly (and in a September 15 post on this blog as well), your first step in ensuring that you online efforts are, at a minimum, measurable, and at a maximum, a success, is determining what success is.

Completely utter and random sidebar:  my only problem with Chartbeat is the fact that, sadly and irritatingly, it reminds me of Don Johnson’s then horrendous and tortuous attempts at becoming a singer in his 1986 song “Heartbeat.”  Now try and get it out of your head.  We now return to our regularly scheduled blog post.

So what is “success” and how is it measured?

The Gigaom piece I mentioned above talks about an intriguing.  Rather than measuring the traditional factors like page views, here’s what Gigaom has to say about Chartbeat:

For some time now, media companies and content producers of various kinds have been trying to convince the rest of the industry — and especially advertisers — to move away from flawed measurements like pageviews and unique visitors and focus on measuring attention (emphasis mine). The Financial Times, the Economist and even viral sites like Upworthy have been at the forefront of this movement, and so has web analytics firm Chartbeat — and now Chartbeat says it has become the first analytics company that is certified to measure reader attention.”

Reader attention?  I like the sound of that.

It’s great if you can get thousands of people to come to your web site, but you need to get their attention in order for them to read, digest, understand and perhaps even share your piece of content.  There is a big difference between a click and someone actually digesting and internalizing what it is you want them to read:  and having them take the action that you want them to take.

Here’s more about what Chartbeat says they offer, in an “Attention Economy“:

Chartbeat looks at a variety of factors…including what portion of the page is within the viewing window (so it can tell you how far down someone got in the article or piece of content). But the crucial one is to sense whether someone is actually looking at the page, and it does this by tracking movement or interaction — based on the fact the average user touches the mouse or keyboard at least once every 4.8 seconds.”

What would we all love?  Well, for one, I would love to have heat maps of readers’ eye Charting reader eye movementmovements for everyone who hits your pages (I wrote about this and how recruiters read resumes for Shelly Kramer’s V3 Integrated Marketing Blog), but unless you have volunteers and labs, are NSA or North Korea, you are never going to have the ability to measure precisely how every single visitor reacts to every single piece of content on every single page of your web site.

I have not used Chartbeat, but am intrigued by the concept that a company has worked on ( for some time, apparently), figuring out what “engagement” actually means.  Well, I believe that it means what we want it to mean – which is how much of an impact our content has on readers.  Many different social media platforms use this term in their analytics dashboards, but their definitions vary.  Engagement, as defined by Chartbeat, sounds like one of the better ways to measure something that has become an accepted, albeit highly subjective, industry standard.

So who’s right?

The answer is that I don’t know, and am passing along this information having read an article on third party site about a platform I have never used.  BUT – and it’s a big “but,” if Chartbeat can actually accomplish what they claim to (and with some high profile initial clients like the Economist on board, there has to be something of value there) they are simply giving social media and online professionals the opportunity to further quantify and measure what we should have been doing all along:  judging how much attention people paid to our content, vs. how many times they hit our pages.

Good luck, Chartbeat.  Sounds like you are looking at the right things.

P.S. – If you are interested in PR measurement and analytics and don’t already know of their work, I strongly encourage you to get to know Katie Paine and Shonali Burke.  I’m hopeful to hear from them in the comments as they know a LOT more about this topic than I.


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Update Post: The Wiki White House Web – Sorry, Dan

My political prediction black eye
My political prediction black eye

Disclosure/side noteI had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to present on a topic with a member of the White House Digital Engagement team on September 19, 2014.  It got me thinking.   I’ve had this blog for some time, so from time to time, I go back and read what I’ve written, predicated or been a blowhard about to see if my predictions came true.  Some did, while others crashed and burned.  And being AT the White House with the digital team reminded me that I had written a post about the likelihood of a “digital presidency.”

In my 4th most popular post ever, “Reality Check: There Will Be No Wiki White House, Dan” from December 1, 2008, I got cranky when Dan Froomkin, writing for the Huffington Post (and who apparently really, really hates George W. Bush), made several predictions about what an Obama administration White House web site would look like.  I doubted and probably even mocked most of his predictions.  While probably much of what I wrote was in reaction to his snark about the “stodgy, wheezing version of” of the Bush administration (I had friends who helped build and maintain that site), guess what?

I was wrong.  About just about everything.

No one every goes back and slams a weatherman for being wrong.  Sports prognosticators, unless they are engaged in gambling rackets gentleman’s wagering clubs, rarely get their feet held to the fire (literally) for their erroneous predictions.  But the Internet is forever, and if I go out and criticize someone’s predictions, I should be able to stand up to scrutiny six years later.  So here’s a quick synopsis of what Dan predicted, what I responded with, and what the currently reality is now.   It’s a score card, and it’s not pretty.

White House blogs:

What Dan predicted: “Imagine a White House Web site where staffers maintain blogs in which they write about who they are and what they are working on.”

My response: “White house staffers may, in fact, be allowed to have their own blogs, but they will be so watered down by legal concerns that I fear that they might turn into a Twitter feed: ‘Just went out for coffee.  Tastes burnt.’  In a town where secrets are coveted but leaks like a sieve, there would be little compelling news to keep a blog fresh, but more importantly, interesting.  The lawyers will do what they do, which is lawyer things to death.”

The score:  Dan 1, Mark 0.  Proof point:  check out the White House blog section, authored by White House staffers, covering a wide variety of topics.  And it’s not someone ghost writing for Obama;  it’s the staffers themselves giving their takes.

Streamed (video) meetings:

What Dan predicted: “…some meetings [will be] streamed in live video.”

My response: “Only the most vanilla meetings will be streamed.  There is a reason why reporters are kicked out of the room when the real stuff happens.  Anything else would be staged like a FEMA press conference.”

The score:  Dan 2, Mark 0.  The White House streams meetings here, and has done a fair amount of Google Hangouts, which, although heavily scripted, still count.  So an online meeting is an online meeting.

Public Calendars

What Dan predicted: …a on which “… the president’s daily calendar is posted online.”

My response: “The President’s Daily Calendar would have to omit outside appearances, which would gut its effectiveness, because of Secret Service prohibitions.  And why tell the opposition party that you are meeting on something that you might want to keep in-house.  To do otherwise would be stupid.”

The score:  Dan 3, Mark 0The President’s daily calendar is here, but it’s certainly not complete (again, probably for security reasons) – or I must have caught him on a really light day.

Policy Wiki

What Dan predicted: “And while that may sound impossible, organizations like Wikipedia provide one model for handling vast quantities of user-submitted content with great if not perfect success.”

My response: “Major policy proposal proposal workspaces?  Too many cooks spoil the broth.  Research Selogene Royale’s presidential campaign in France.  She turned her Web site into an electronic “listening tour” and requested policy input from French voters.  She ended up with a party platform that stretched from Normandy to Nice.  This is good in principle, and lousy in practice.”

The score:  Dan 4, Mark still zilch.

Campaign Promises

What Dan predicted a site on which “… progress towards campaign promises is tracked on a daily basis.”

My response: “Trust me, the Republicans will do that for them.  And if they don’t keep a campaign promise, do you think the Web site will have a big, red “X” in the “We Didn’t Keep This” column?”

The score:  Dan 4.5, Mark .5.  While does an impressive job of touting President Obama’s accomplishments (why would it not?) NO political Web site EVER is going to detail broken campaign promises, like this newspaper does.  (And yes, it just feels nice to put a .5 on the board).


What Dan predicted: “Because the Internet doesn’t look kindly on information that just flows one way. To live up to their promises, the president and his staff are going to have to do more than just talk — they’re going to have to listen, and respond.”

My response:  Screw it.  Let’s just say again that I was wrong.  See below.  Score:  Dan 5.5, Mark .5, with two caveats.  First, the Obama administration has had the good fortune (and wisdom) to take advantage of timing to become the first “digital administration.”   I think that any political operation worth their weight in salt would have taken advantage of standing social media tools.  Heck, even George W. Bush’s Facebook page has, at the time of this writing, 4,084,849 Likes.  So had his administration served at a different time (or Hillary, or someone else), somebody would have stepped forward and developed a digital strategy that puts information where people already surf and are likely to see it.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one area of the site that I bet even its inventors regret: the Petitions page.  This section …”a new platform that gives all Americans a way to create and sign petitions on a range of issues affecting our nation.  And if a petition gathers enough online signatures, it will be reviewed by policy experts and you’ll receive an official response.”  And you get get this with just 5,000 signatures in 30 days.

Imagine the poor bastards who have to respond to every crackpot idea that gathers enough political steam – and then assign a group of people to respond to it?  My guess is that this was a little bit TOO popular for its own good, because very quietly, the administration raised the amount of signatures required to trigger a White House response to a whopping 100,000 signatures in the first 30 days.  I bet I heard a sign if relief from the White House petition team.  Go get some sleep, guys.

But back to the topic at hand.


I read a what I labeled a pretty much a snarky, dreamy-eyed HuffPo piece and essentially tore the predictions to shreds.  Most the commenters on that post agreed me with as well. And as you’ll see from my own score card, I pretty much got my ass handed to me in the prediction department.

Sorry, Dan.

You were right, and I was wrong.  I guess we DO have a Wiki White House.

Image credit: David Alexander via Flick Commons.

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In Social Media, be a Communicator, Not a Technologist

Man with Bullhorn

Communications is not based upon technology

It’s surprising how much, even in 2014, I talk about this.  To friends.  To colleagues.  And now, in blog posts.

I’ve had the good fortune wanderlust to work in three public relations/public affairs agencies, one international corporation that is about to be the largest IPO in history as well as two stints in the federal government – and a few other gigs.  I’ve been doing “online” since 1997, when Mark Zuckerberg was 13 years old.

“Back in the day” (my kids make the Grandpa Simpson voice when I use that expression), Grandpa Simpsonwhen I got started doing online public affairs, the cutting edge technology was the ability to enter your zip code and then generate an email to your elected representative.  On your 36000 baud modem.  Technology could NEVER get better than this, right?

Well, now there are countless publishing platforms in the hands of anyone (outside of China and other Communist countries) like WordPress, Facebook or Twitter in which you can spark communication with others.  Or entertain them.  Or influence them.  Or, as I have often done in the past, piss them off.

But even since 1997 in an industry where the only constant is change, there is one thing that has not, and never will change:  you have to be a good communicator first, and a technologist second.

Why good communications skills matter

If you aspire to be a social media expert, at the heart of what you will do is communication.  You’ll have one or more intended audiences, one or a set of messages, channels through which you will send these, and hopefully a way to measure the success of your efforts.  Period.  Full stop.

Disappointingly, what I still find is that many organizations (and scarily, employers looking to hire social media “experts”) are focus on is the wrong thing:  the bright, shiny social media platforms.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard, usually from senior management who have just read a Wall Street Journal piece on the topic, “WE NEED TWITTER/FACEBOOK/PINTEREST“!”  That’s great. But a nicely done Facebook page is not going to help you achieve what you ultimately want to do, which is to use the channel to convey your (again, hopefully) carefully crafted message.  A social media plan chock full of tactics that are not first rooted in a communications strategy is like putting lipstick on a pig.

How this hurts companies

Far too often, when people within organizations get starry-eyed at the prospect of using a popular social media platform to disseminate critical messages, bad things happen, like:

  1. Hiring a “guru.” If a company (or a dumb-ass boss) becomes fixated on a piece of technology, they will likely hire someone who is expert in the technology, not in communications.  I think that we are, for the most part, moving past the era of companies hiring hipsters with soul patches who show up at work in pajamas and are hired based upon the number of Facebook fans they have, but if you fixate on wrong things, like pure use of the tools, you’ll miss the mark in hiring the right person to help you get your messages across.
  2. A revolving door. If you are, in fact, a communicator who happens to be good at social media and are instructed (as I have been) to launch a platform that you know is doomed to failure because it just doesn’t fit, this is demoralizing.  And sooner or later, when it fails (and it will), where will the blame land?  Squarely on your desk. This drives good, strategic thinkers out the door and results in a social media “brain drain.”  You’ll lose good, smart people.
  3. Overestimating the impact of  social media.  Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that your company fixates on a platform, your are good at communicating and connecting with your audience and you DO manage to generate a healthy number of Facebook and Twitter followers.  Good for you.  But what does this mean in terms of achieving communications objectives?  Usually, a lot of big numbers are good to present to management, but recent survey have shown two stark realities about these “big” numbers:
    1. SocialFlow conducted a study between April 1 and July 31 analyzing 1.6m organic posts from Twitter, Facebook and Google+.  Shockingly, they discovered that 99% of organic social posts create almost no engagement.  So amassing big numbers of fans does not mean that they will think, act on, or pass on the information that you push out via your social media channels.
    2. Again, in another recent study conducted by Brightedge revealed that what’s old is new again:  Google will drive more traffic to your web site than Facebook.  They found that organic search drives 51% Of traffic, social only 5%.

Does all of this mean that you should abandon ship and ditch all of your social media programs?   Hell, no.  It’s just important to a) keep this in mind when you are really thinking about your “large” audiences on Facebook and b) be very careful about the way that you communicate what success is to management (NOTE: you should have determined what “success” is BEFORE you launched your communications initiative).  I’ve written about good measurement many times before, but it still continues to be an issue in social media.

The wrap-up

For more than 100 years, communications professionals have been placing ads in newspapers, billboards at the side of highways, and now, content on social media platforms.  But what was true 100 years ago is still true today:  the ad, billboard or Like is not the important part of your communications or outreach efforts;  these are just channels.  The important part is crafting a good message and choosing the best tool to get it  to the people you want to reach.

What is old is new again.  Hopefully.

Image credit: Fitz Crittle Photography, via Flick Commons


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