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Archive for June, 2009

The almost instantaneous shift in coverage away from Iran to Michael Jackson’s death raises two concerns for me: one is about the merits of the two stories, and the other is about the ease of covering the two stories.

Concerning the merits of what gets covered, did you notice how quickly the media stopped covering Farrah Fawcett’s death from cancer when Michael Jackson died suddenly and mysteriously? I guess you can attribute that to relative star power. Michael Jackson is viewed as the bigger celebrity. Subsequently, Farrah got bumped.

It was not only entertainment reporters who covered Michael Jackson’s death, but serious news reporters and anchors did so as well. Coverage was 24/7 for days in most every news outlet, including business cable channels. And it continues today, but to a lesser degree. Farrah Fawcett barely received a mention after Jackson’s death.

Compared to events in Iran, does the death of a troubled pop star merit the wall-to-wall coverge it is receiving?

Second, I wonder if the difficulty in covering events in Iran has anything to do with it. For example, the Iranian government exiles or arrests journalists and TV reporters when they try to cover the post-election demonstrations. Admittedly, it is almost impossible to cover an event when the country’s government works so hard to prevent it.

But social media stepped in to fill the void. Citizen journalists continue to provide a steady flow of information and images to the outside world, often at great personal risk.  I tweeted earlier that I had watched in amazement as a major TV news organization “covered” the unfolding events in Iran by showing TweetDeck, Facebook pages, YouTube, and blog postings on air. Like others, the news organization has no reporters on the ground in Iran. It merely reports what the citizen journalists provide.

While it remains extremely difficult to cover events in Iran, it is relatively easy to cover Michael Jackson’s death. Is the media merely picking the low-hanging fruit? Or, does the media view the death of the pop star as more compelling than the grassroots battle for freedom and justice in Iran?

I report; you decide.

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Neda Agha Soltan, the 26-year-old woman who was shot dead at a demonstration in Iran, has become a galvanizing figure world over.  She risked — and lost — her life supporting calls for freedom and justice in Iran after the highly-contested election that kept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power.

The be precise, it is the image of Ms. Soltan’s bloody and lifeless body that has moved so many people around the world. That video image is accessible because of social media.

As the demonstrations progressed, the Iranian government shut down Facebook and YouTube for an estimated 23 million Iranian users. But a brave and resourceful videographer sent the footage to friends who knew how to get around the censors. His effort made it possible for millions worldwide to see Ms. Soltan’s death, and subsequently, to praise her life and what she stood up for.

Throughout history, there have been images that symbolized various struggles. The image of Ms. Soltan’s violent and tragic death is the unforgettable symbol of the post-election turmoil in Iran.

Rest in peace, Neda Agha Soltan.

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Any day now, I expect to see this promo:

Tonight on XBC, we explore “The First Five Months: President Obama’s Sock Drawer.”

With unprecedented access, XBC goes behind the scenes to explore President Obama’s sock collection. Never before has a president chosen so brilliantly the socks he wears to lead the free world.

XBC’s top reporters studied President Obama’s sock drawer for insight into the man. Join us for a comprehensive look at the man inside the socks.

What guides his cool demeanor as pressure mounts to choose between black or blue for formal occasions? How can he consistently choose the perfect style for date night?

XBC gives you the complete picture, not just socks for statecraft, but colorful socks for all occasions.

Don’t miss “The First Five Months: President Obama’s Sock Drawer.” Tonight at 8 p.m. on XBC.

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Faced with challenges to its privacy policies, Facebook did a familiar thing here in the Washington, D.C. area. It hired a lobbyist.

But not just any lobbyist. Facebook hired Timothy Sparapani to help shape bureaucrats’ view of FB, the third most-viewed site in the world.

The irony is that Sparapani used to be one of Facebook’s most ardent critics. As the former senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Sparapani is a prominent privacy advocate. He used to argue that Internet companies had far too much control over consumers’ data.

In hiring the lobbyist, Facebook is apparently reacting to the growing concern that the U.S. Congress will consider restrictions on how Internet companies collect, store, and use consumer data. The Washington Post reports that privacy watchdogs say Internet companies’ self-regulation has failed to adequately tell customers how their personal information is being treated online.

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Denmark-based super communicator Allan Jenkins‘ comment on my post below, “Speaks, Tweets, and Leaves” brings clarity to the exploding phenomena of Facebook and Twitter. It’s all about connections.

Facebook now has more than 200 million active users. More 100 million users log onto Facebook every day. Twitter now has 17 million monthly visitors, up from just over 1 million a year ago. The power of these connections and the sense of belonging they provide is being noticed by many, including traditional media types like Washington Post writer Howard Kurtz. Kurtz said today, “old-style news outlets would kill for that sense of belonging.”

Allan Jenkins explains it this way: “Living on an isolated island, which I adore, I rarely see other communicators. Several times a month, when I am up in Copenhagen, but I am not going to an office of communicators…so my ‘office,’ if you will, of communication colleagues, is Twitter (and, for those communicators whom I know well, FB). Many are not IABC members, either, so I get outside that echo chamber. Most of their tweets are links to articles, white papers, discussions. Yes, some of the posts are trivial, but so is a lot of water cooler conversation… it builds the network. I couldn’t live, professionally, without it.”

Hearing Allan’s feelings of isolation really resonated with me. I, too, feel isolated. Between semesters at Towson, I am in Virginia working out of my home office. Facebook, and as I learn to use it more effectively, Twitter, help me connect with people I can’t be with in person. My valued friends and colleagues reside the world over, making social media connections all the more necessary and valuable.

As I blogged about before, one of my goals for attending IABC’s World Conference in San Francisco last week was to enjoy face-to-face communication with many friends and colleagues. One was Allan, whom I have gotten to know better via social media. As Allan says about his conference experience, “This is my chance to talk with friends and colleagues — but I don’t forget that social media has made them colleagues and, often, better friends.”

This is true for me as well. Sure, it may be a trifle banal to hear what someone ate for lunch, but there is a simple joy in the sharing. For example, one of my former students, now a successful PR agency account rep,  tweeted today that she felt really bad. I was able to send a quick direct message to her via TweetDeck, to which she quickly responded. It was all short and sweet, but a satisfying connection nonetheless.

Another example concerns my friend communication consultant Sue Horner from Oakville, Ontario, Canada. Sue and I became friends via social media, first blogging, then Facebook. But we did not actually meet F2F until last week in San Francisco. We went for coffee and had a delightful conversation. I felt like I had known her for a lifetime.

As with Allan and Sue, distant connections are maintained effectively via social media. Then, when we do meet F2F, it seems as if we are in a continuum of friendship that is not affected by time and space. I find that quite satisfying.

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A simple sightseeing trip June 10 in Washington, D.C., turned into a media storm for friend Susie Towater.

Susie came to Washington to attend a Volunteers for America event, then to stay with us at our home in Vienna, Virginia. Susie and my wife Marilyn, Chi Omega sisters from undergraduate school, planned a simple visit, mostly working in our flowerbeds, a shared passion.  Susie was excited that Marilyn bought her a new pair of garden gloves for her use here.

But on Wednesday, June 10, 2009, Susie and husband Charlie, wanted to see the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Susie was five minutes late meeting Charlie at the Museum. That five-minute delay meant that they were across the street when gunman James W. von Brunn, 88, of Annapolis, Maryland, began firing a .22 caliber rifle at the chest of security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns, 39, before other guards shot him.

“We heard the gunshots as we walked toward the museum,” Susie said. “It was a pop, pop, pop, and Charlie said it was gun fire, but I thought it was cars backfiring.”

As Susie and Charlie approached the Museum, they saw a security guard run out of the building, then they saw the body of the gunman lying on the sidewalk. “The police did not seem to be concerned about him,” Susie said, “for they knew he was not going anywhere.”

Moments later, a media storm changed Susie’s quiet visit with old friends into her 15 minutes of fame. She was interviewed by the police, and then the media descended on her. She was a guest on Fox New Channel’s America’s Newsroom program, CBS, and MSNBC’s Hardball.

She was interviewed via her cell phone by Fox News Channel’s Neil Cavuto while being driven home in a CBS limo after her appearance on that channel.

Print media interviews included cover photos of Susie in the Washington Post, Washington Times, and USA Today, plus interviews with Associated Press and in newspapers from Canada, El Salvador, Venezuela, and Tampa, her home town.

It was interesting for me to see how the media treats eye witnesses whose stories they wish to get. Susie was staying at our house, and the media kept after her. MSNBC sent a limo to pick her up for an appearance on Chris Matthew’s Hardball show Thursday at 5 p.m. Susie had met Matthews at the Volunteers for America function June 5. Susie, a true Southern lady who tends to be conservative, has a wonderful sense of humor. When introduced to Matthews, Susie said, “I am so pleased to meet you, for you are my favorite conservative!” Ultra-liberal Matthews proved to be a good sport, seeing the humor in it.

When being prepped for her appearance on Hardball, Susie asked the intern helping her for any tips. “Don’t worry about it, because Chris will interrupt you and talk over you anyway,” the intern said.

At CBS’ studio, a nervous Susie was counseled by another intern who said, “Don’t worry. All this will be over tomorrow.” Such is the fleeting nature of being a media darling. Sure enough, as I write this, Marilyn and Susie are browsing local flower nurseries unimpeded. Like an afternoon thunderstorm down South, Susie’s media storm has blown over.

But it was fun for a while, Susie said. “The most fun was my husband Charlie telling Matt Lauer that we would not come to New York to be on the Today show with him. I wanted to work in the yard with Marilyn.”

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As stated in my previous post, I attended the IABC World Conference June 5-10 in part to see old friends on the IABC staff and from the membership. In addition to professional development, one of the greatest aspects of my career-long IABC membership is the friendships I’ve made with people worldwide.

I treasure my conversations with these people, some of whom I only see once a year at conference. Although we stay in touch via various means during the year, nothing beats face-to-face interaction with people you respect and care about.

The main purpose of IABC’s World Conference is professional development. In that respect, this was an excellent conference with top programs and speakers. The program was substantive and balanced and provided something of value to all communication/PR practitioners who attended, no matter their level of experience or job description. IABC is a master of excellent and timely professional development programs. Without IABC, I could not have been as successful in my career as I have been. I have the highest respect and affection for IABC’s staff.

For most actively involved IABC members, the networking opportunities are a tremendous plus of the conference. So, did I find those fulfilling F2F experiences I so wanted to find?

Yes and no. What happened?

For one thing, attendance was way down perhaps due to the weak economy. My session on strategic communication planning and management was well-attended, as were the educational sessions I attended. But overall, the numbers simply weren’t there.

The presence of social media, as expected, was all-pervasive. I took time to observe what was happening around me. Conference attendees act very much like my Millennial students with their cell phones and PDAs, but my students are not allowed to use these devices in class. The moment students leave class, the cell phone/PDA goes into action. Conference attendees feel no such constraint; they sit in sessions and use cell phones, PDAs, and computers with impunity and wild abandon. When out of sessions, you see many people sitting alone using technology rather than talking with people.

The typical in-session scenario is this: a person attends and tweets a session for his/her followers. Or, an attendee blogs about the session while the session is being conducted. Then, there are the text messengers who carry on conversations while in a session. Countless others feel compelled to check for messages every few minutes or to surf the Web.

What is happening here? What does this all mean? 

Twitter is definitely the current darling of the social media glitterati. So many people tweet sessions that a presenter’s message is magnified perhaps a hundred or a thousand times or more. Session tweeters say they are “reporting” on the event for others out there in the Twittersphere who could not attend. Tweets are re-tweeted, and the word spreads exponentially at 140 characters a pop.

For example, I was part of an invitation-only think tank on social media, and during that half-day session, fully one-fourth of the 30 participants were using their computers or cell phones or PDAs the entire time. One participant who constantly reported on the event from his laptop was asked why he stayed on his computer talking about the session with people who were not invited rather than “being fully there.” He replied that he was there, but he felt responsible to share the event with so many others who weren’t.

Okay. If you say so. When it came time to report findings of their small group work, he totally missed the assignment and went off on so many unrelated tangents as to draw laughter from the other participants. Perhaps his followers in the Twittersphere got better from him.

Critics of the practice say, “But you are not listening. You are tweeting.” Defenders of the practice say they are listening and listening even more closely so as to be able to tweet salient points.

Whatever your viewpoint, Twitter changes the rules of engagement for speakers and conference attendees. Some savvy presenters encourage tweeting during the session and display the tweets as the session progresses. That way, you can see an underlying full, rich discussion happening in real time simultaneously. The essence of the session can be shared with a much wider audience. The presenter may become Twitterlebrity.

Twitter followers who are in less-than-interesting or relevant sessions can leave to attend one that is tweeted to be more lively and interesting. Twitter adds a bold new dimension to “session surfing.”

No doubt Twitter is the current force to be reckoned with. I am anxious to see if it will be the same at next year’s IABC World Conference in Toronto.

I’ll try to be in Toronto to roam the halls in search of meaningful conversation. But in the meantime, see you on Twitter. I’m at http://twitter.com/LesPotter

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