Archive for the ‘blogger relations’ Category

Disclosure shouldn’t just be for bloggers

Over the last number of years, there’s been a great deal of discussion about disclosure in social media. In fact, the US Federal Trade Commission has had disclosure guidelines since 2000, and revised them just last year. Unfortunately, Canada hasn’t provided people working in social media with such guidelines. The federal organization responsible is the Competition Bureau, and there’s nothing directly addressing this issue yet. The Privacy Commissioner and Industry Canada also have fingers in the disclosure pie, but at this point, anyone in Canada could write about anything for pay and never tell you a thing.

Lots of bloggers I know do disclose, and many quite clearly. For example, Amy Boughner often has blog posts with disclosures like: “Disclosure: I received the OgoSport Ballooza pack from PlaSmart for this review. All opinions are my own.” 

 This is a model to be emulated by people working in social media and receiving products or services or other forms of compensation in exchange for content. I’m far from the only person to be talking and thinking about this. Stephanie Fusco was writing about it in 2012. (and finding great images to illustrate the concept). And it’s a shame that 14 years after the FTC published its guidelines, Canada and the OECD are not there yet. It’s a gaping hole that needs to be filled in.

But two things I ran across by chance recently reminded me that disclosure is important no matter whether you’re a blogger getting a free set of headphones or an organization carrying out an advocacy campaign.

The first was a book excerpt in Maclean’s magazine titled “An outlaw’s vision for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.” The excerpt from an upcoming book on the museum by renowned non-fiction author Peter C. Newman and his longtime collaborator Allan Levine profiles the museum’s architect, Antoine Predock, by all accounts quite a character and a much-celebrated architect.

Because I’m a geek, I noted that the book was to be published by a company I hadn’t heard of before — Figure 1 Publishing. So I googled ‘em. Nice site, principal employees with serious publishing chops. But … a 2013 Vancouver Sun article profiling the company after its founding says:

“Figure 1 is operating under a different business model than a traditional publisher. Authors or organizations will pay the costs of production themselves and Figure 1 Publishing will look after editing, design, distribution, sales and marketing of the books they publish. Sales revenues will go to both Figure 1 and the author or organization, Nadeau said, adding the model is a hybrid between trade publishing and vanity publishing.”

So… who paid for the book? Who paid the authors? The printers?

I don’t know, because despite contacting Figure 1 several days ago, I haven’t yet received a response.

Also today I got pointed to an Upworthy video titled “No One Applauds This Woman Because They’re Too Creeped Out At Themselves To Put Their Hands Together.” The video is titled “The Secrets of Food Marketing,” and it’s a TED-style talk delivered by marketing consultant Kate Cooper. Well, actually that should be “Kate Cooper.” Because it’s actually actor Kate Miles playing a woman named Kate Cooper. And there’s no such thing as the TED-style “E-talks.” Well, there are several things called etalks, but this talk isn’t part of any series.

The following text appears if you scroll down below the video: “Original video by Catsnake Film. Full disclosure: The speaker in this video is actually an actress named Kate Miles, but the facts about produce and its marketing are 100% real. The audience is also real, and thus the looks of disgust are totally real too.” And then if you go to the Catsnake Film website, it explains further that the video was made on behalf of an organization called Compassion in World Farming.

I contacted both the film company and Compassion in World Farming to talk about the video. Catsnake Film wouldn’t comment unless I allowed them to vet this blog post. I don’t do that, so I have no comment from them. I sent questions to Compassion in World Farming by email on August 12, but haven’t heard from them yet.

There really aren’t any social-media equivalents to the communications professional associations like IABC or PRSA, which both identify a lack of disclosure as unethical in their codes of ethics. And it’s surprising to me that there is no mention of ethics at all on the website of the Association of Canadian Publishers.

In the unlikely event that anybody will offer me some sort of goodies, I’ll be sure to disclose it here. I don’t believe in not disclosing those things, and I want to know what might be influencing the way a piece of content — whether text, video, or whatever — was created.

And whether it’s a book, a blog, or a viral video, we all deserve to know just who was paying the piper.

Disclosure: A particular thanks to the folks at CIPPIC, an Ottawa organization that does superb work on Internet policy and advocacy, for their help in researching this post. 

Are you now or have you ever been a commentist?!

Since I have a foot in the music “industry”, one of my regular reads in my RSS Reader is the Musician Coaching blog by Rick Goetz. He quite often has posts of interest to me. But last week, he had one that hit me right in the bull’s-eye: an interview with a singer-songwriter about how she built her career around house concerts.

About now, you’re asking what a house concert is. Quick explanation: a house concert is a musical event where a host opens up his or her home to a performing musician, and that musician is paid by donations from the audience. My partner and I started doing house concerts in 2007, and have had about 40 evenings where amazing musicians have left audiences laughing, crying, or just about any reaction in between.

After I carefully read the post, I left a comment praising the post, adding some background and context, and correcting (politely and constructively) some misstatements. That was on March 21. I waited a while, then dropped back to the site to see if there was any response to my comment. It was still in moderation. And, as I write this, there it remains, in moderation. After a few days I emailed Goetz to ask if there was some reason my comment wasn’t being approved, and I tweeted him as well. To this point, I haven’t heard from him. It’s been five days.

I’m not egotistical enough to think that being deprived of my comment is something that will affect anybody. But I do want to point out a problem that many websites face – handling comments well.

To effectively manage commenting, there are two things to keep in mind: your policy, and your technology.

First, policy. Decide if you even want comments. Most of the time, the advantage of comments — the extension of the conversation —  outweighs the disadvantages. But if you are concerned about abusive comments, about spam or malware, or have another reason for not wanting to allow comments, then that’s a choice you have the right to make. For example, übersite Copyblogger has just ended commenting on its site, arguing that the conversation shouldn’t be confined to its own property, but should be “in the cloud.” I don’t quite get that, but hey, they’re way more important than me, so …

You need to think about whether you are going to allow anonymous comments. I am generally of the belief that you should be confident enough in what you say that you’re willing to say it under your own name. Much of the worst vitriol online is generated by people using anonymous handles rather than real names. There’s no “right” answer to this beyond the answer you decide is right.

If you decide to accept comments, then you need to think about how you’re going to do it. You can let the floodgates open up and allow people to comment willy-nilly, without moderation. You can have people moderated the first time, but are given free rein once they’ve had a first comment approved. You can always have comments moderated. If I’m working in that environment, I get email notifications when I have comments, and I pretty much ALWAYS immediately click on them. If you’re going to moderate, you’re pretty much committing to TIMELY moderation or you’re going to take the wind out of the conversational sail.

If you moderate, you also need to make clear somewhere on your site why you moderate, and under what circumstances you won’t approve a comment. It’s much easier to point people to your house rules and explain why what they wrote is not going up on the site: personally abusive, obscene language, racist content, etc. are some of the reasons that are quite valid for rejecting a comment. AND DO NOT rewrite anyone’s comments. That’s just not done.

Now, to the technology.

Most modern blog software have built-in commenting systems. My usual recommendation is to ditch those. They’re pretty rudimentary, and there are better ones that you can plug in with little difficulty. There are three that are commonly used: Livefyre, Disqus, and Facebook. The nice thing about these commenting systems is that they allow things like threaded discussions, so that you can follow the flow of a discussion. They also allow people to sign in using a variety of social media tools (e.g. Sign in using Twitter, Google, etc. etc.). That makes it easy for people to sign in. While I’m not a giant fan of Facebook-based comments, there’s one undeniable advantage to them — when people comment using the FB comments, it will more often than not pop up on their wall, which may lead to people discovering your post from the commenter’s wall.

So put a little thought into your strategy around blog commenting. It’ll pay off down the road.

Anatomy of a pitch

Even a little PR / social media blog like this one gets pitched. A lot. The vast majority of the pitches I get are absolutely awful. So I’m going to profile one that made me WANT to write about it and explain why. 

This is the email I got:

daspitch

So why am I writing about this, and not the roughly 20 other pitches I got this week?

First, it’s an unusual concept. A legal insurance firm like DAS Canada doing a contest is unexpected (at least to me.)

Second, it points out a serious, real problem — being able to afford legal representation.

Third, it’s in the range of things that I might write about anyway — social media related, has a business application. You’d be surprised how many pitches I get for stuff that I would never in a million years write about on this blog (would you believe beach umbrella anchors?!). And you’d also be surprised by the people who pitch to me even after I’ve explicitly written to them and asked to be removed from their lists. (I’m looking at you, Imal Wagner, who pitches books to me that I would never cover, and has been told so).

Fourth, the release is reasonably well written. I could get the concept. And they quote the president of the Canadian Bar Association, which gives it some relevant credibility.

What didn’t I like about the pitch? The subject line’s kinda clunky. And I would love to have seen some personalization. A multimedia component would also have been nice — links to imagery or audio or video.

For all I know, the people at Pointman PR did absolutely no research, and me getting this was just a lucky chance for them. Or perhaps they thought about it a little. Either way, it worked. So what can you learn if you’re doing pitching to blogs or to mainstream media?

  • Just look at the blog a little. I’m a PR blog. It’s not that I don’t care about children getting impaled by rogue beach umbrellas. It’s just that it doesn’t fit my slant. So don’t WASTE MY TIME PLEASE!
  • Think rich content. If there had been a picture, I probably would have used it.
  • Personalize. Yes, it’s a pain. But do it anyway.
  • And if you’re told to stop pitching to someone, FLIPPING WELL STOP PITCHING!

 

Not-for-profits, social media, and accountability

One of the things that social media offers EVERYONE is the chance to present important work to the world in engaging ways. Proof? Just look at a map from the James McGregor Stewart society in Nova Scotia. I think if you read this post, you’ll see that even the most underresourced organization can use online tools to do good work and spread it.

First, the inspiration. Parker Donham, an old acquaintance from my days as a freelancer for CBC Radio in Sydney, wrote in a June 5 Contrarian post:

The James McGregor Stewart Society, a small voluntary group with a single summer intern, has managed to pull off in a month what the Disabled Persons Commission of NS (annual budget: $600,000) and the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission ($2.1 million) have not achieved in the decades of their existence.

It has surveyed the accessibility of MLAs offices throughout the province. The results will not be a source of pride for Nova Scotia or its legislators.

So, the back story:

The James McGregor Stewart Society’s prime mover, a guy named Gus Reed, got a question from his intern. She wanted to find out  how easy is it for people with disabilities to meet with their elected representatives? So, simplicity itself. She phoned each of the 52 MLAs’ constitutency offices and asked them some very simple questions about accessibility. Here’s what they asked:

  1. Does your office have parking? If so, is it paved? Does it have designated accessible spots?
  2. Is there a power door button?
  3. Is your entrance accessible (level, ramped, and / or elevator?)? Does it have a portable or other questionable ramp? Does it have a step or stairs?
  4. Is the washroom large enough for a wheelchair? Are there grab bars and/or a wheel-under sink?
  5. Is your office on an accessible transit route?

With this, they assigned points so that MLAs could score between -1 and 6.

Here are the results:

MLA Accessibility map

The mean score was 3. Keep in mind, you could get a 3 by having a disabled parking space at your office and having a door at street level. If you had an accessible washroom you’d get a 5.  So a mean score of 3 is not exactly inspiring.

I spent a little time trying to get a handle on the Nova Scotia government’s accessibility policy. As best as I can understand it, buildings constructed since the 1990s, or buildings that have changed their purpose (from a house to a retail store, for example) are required to conform to the provincial building code, which mandates a number of measures to ensure disabled people can get access. (The building code regulations are here, and the province’s 1986 Building Access act is here.)  Unfortunately, calls and emails to the province’s Human Rights Commission and Disabled Persons Commission resulted in little useful information. However, a cheerful fellow at the  provincial department of Labour and Advanced Education (which is responsible for the building code) walked me through the regulations so that I got a cursory understanding of them.

The shameful level of accessibility is one thing. But I’m not an accessibility blogger – I’m a PR and social media blogger. So I’m gonna take on that aspect of this.

What really caught my eye in Parker Donham’s post was that nobody else had done this sort of survey before. Certainly, it’s not a technical challenge; simply pick up the phone 52 times and you’re done.

But what social media now offers is the opportunity to disseminate these findings in a graphically-rich way quickly, easily, and widely. No wire service needed, no fancy-dan graphic designers. Just Google Maps, Blogger, and email.

I spoke with Gus Reed on Skype on June 6, and he told me they weren’t sure what would happen with this survey. With no staff, the James McGregor Stewart Society has no “machine” to churn out a mass of followup documents. And this story may not make a dent in the media or in Nova Scotia government policy.

I want to draw out some public relations and social media lessons for both activist groups and for those who are their likely targets — large corporations, organizations, or government.

For activists:  

  1. Do solid work — like calling all 52 constituency offices, and tell your story well. Don’t focus only on media attention. A well-told story, like “people in wheelchairs can’t participate in basic democracy” is going to make people stop and read. If your work is shoddy or bloggers or media get burned, though, good luck getting someone to listen a second time.
  2. Use the resources you have at your disposal. In this case, the society has a blog on Blogger. Sure, they could get more fancy. But they haven’t. They used Google Maps to visualize and annotate their data. Gus Reed used Skype to give me more information.
  3. Have a plan. Even if you’re not going to push hard on the media front, doing the work requires followup. What will your next steps be? Once you do them, what’s next? Even for voluntary organizations with no staff, this stuff isn’t a closed circle, it’s lather, rinse, repeat. (Hint: there are lots of municipalities in Nova Scotia to look at, Mr Reed. Hint 2: There are 12 other legislatures that groups could survey in exactly the same way.)

For organizations:

  1. Do not look at this as a threat. Look at it as an opportunity. Even if it’s critical. And especially if, deep down, you know the criticism is well-founded.
  2. Do not ignore small organizations as powerless. The “amplification effect” may leave you chasing down a forest fire.
  3. Respond. Promptly and substantively.

UPDATED: Just how bad a PR move is shutting down “World Nutella Day?”

Seeing lots of chatter online today about the pending shutdown of World Nutella Day. World what-what? Yeah, World Nutella Day.

Now, I’m not a user of the world’s favorite hazelnut spread. But plenty of people are. But many people are. Enough that back in 2007, an American woman named Sara Rosso who lives in Nutella’s homeland of Italy created (of her own volition) World Nutella Day.

Since then, their site has become a go-to destination for people who like the product (created by the same people who make Ferrero Rocher, Kinder candies, and Tic Tacs) for recipes and stories. Rosso and her Nutella-loving pal Michelle Fabio also have written the e-book The Unofficial Guide to Nutella (affiliate link).  

But apparently, no more. Rosso’s website says (I’ll paste the text here in case the site disappears):

“On May 25, 2013, I’ll be darkening the World Nutella Day site, nutelladay.com, and all social media presence (Facebook, Twitter), in compliance with a cease-and-desist I received from lawyers representing Ferrero, SpA (makers of Nutella).

Seven years after the first World Nutella Day in 2007, I never thought the idea of dedicating a day to come together for the love of a certain hazelnut spread would be embraced by so many people! I’ve seen the event grow from a few hundred food bloggers posting recipes to thousands of people Tweeting about it, pinning recipes on Pinterest, and posting their own contributions on Facebook! There have been songs sung about it, short films created for it, poems written for it, recipes tested for it, and photos taken for it.

The cease-and-desist letter was a bit of a surprise and a disappointment, as over the years I’ve had contact and positive experiences with several employees of Ferrero, SpA., and with their public relations and brand strategy consultants, and I’ve always tried to collaborate and work together in the spirit and goodwill of a fan-run celebration of a spread I (to this day) still eat.

I have hope that this is not a goodbye to World Nutella Day forever, for the fans’ sake, and hopefully it will live on in one form or another in the future.” 

So. From all appearances, this is a big corporation knuckling down on a humble blogger. Certainly, that’s the theme on the Nutella Facebook page, where several hundred comments are roundly criticizing the brand for its actions. Some are even posting video responses:

Doesn’t get much more emphatic than that.

But… what if there’s more to this? As a teacher, one of the case studies I have used for a long time in social media classes has been what’s become known as “The Ranger Station Fire.” This 2008 incident began when Ford sent out a cease and desist letter to someone operating a web site dedicated to the Ford Ranger.

Here’s Ron Ploof’s summary, an eminently useful document.

The Ranger Station Fire by Scott Monty

So at this point, all we have is the World Nutella Day website. We don’t know the contents of the C&D letter (which is more than likely in Italian). We haven’t seen any response from Ferrero. On page 8 of “The Ranger Station Fire”, Ploof describes the fact that the Ford fan site was selling unauthorized products with Ford’s logo on them. They then (VERY quickly) separated out the demands for the URL and compensation from the IP issue.

In the Ford case, they did not end up killing The Ranger Station. It’s still thriving, and they’re still selling products (now compliant with Ford’s IP).

What needs to happen now? Two things:

  1. Sara Rosso needs to make very clear exactly why Ferrero has asked her to cease & desist.
  2. Ferrero needs to do the same thing.

Right now, it’s impossible to know if Ferrero has done something really stupid, or has done something right & executed badly, or whether this is the best of their alternatives and they’re just communicating poorly.

If Ferrero has no compelling reason to have taken this action, they are likely going to be a case study for teachers like me to use in the future — in how to alienate the people who love you.

I have asked Ferrero for comment, and I’ve also sent questions to Sara Rosso. I’ll update this post whenever I have new information to share. 

UPDATE: around 4:00 pm EDT, I saw a statement from Ferrero on their Italian site. Get the update in this post.

Sometimes you just can’t win.

I disagree with the Government of Canada on many things. So many I couldn’t begin to list them here.

So it’s with some surprise that I find myself… defending at least one of their actions.

A flurry of attention got given in my FB and other circles to this story recently:

“OTTAWA (NEWS1130) – The Harper government has been monitoring political messages online, and even correcting what it considers misinformation. One local expert says the government is taking things too far.

Under the pilot program the Harper government paid a media company $75,000 to monitor and respond to online postings about the east coast seal hunt.

UBC Computer Science professor and President of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, Richard Rosenberg, says it seems unnecessary for the government to be going this far.  “The government has a lot of power, that it feels the need to monitor public bulletin boards, or places where people express views and then to respond to that, seems to me going beyond a reasonable action the government should be taking.”

Rosenberg says knowing that the government is monitoring certain topics online could result in people being more careful with their identities when they’re posting about political issues on the internet.

He says it’s the first time he’s heard of this happening in Canada.”

There are 20 pages of comments on the story. Most are along the lines of this:

Democracy dying a quicker death in Canada!

I guess the right to free speech, freedom of the press, the right to strike, belong to a union, belong to a professional group, a society, freedom to associate and every other right or freedom we have under our Constitution or the Charter of rights and freedoms will slowly be eroded by this government! Two generations of mine fought in two world wars to defeat tyrants and dictators, their legacy for us does not leave room for the same politics happening here. I work with people from all around the world and many have asked how Canadians can allow this to happen in our country. Some left their homelands to escape dictatorships and tyrrany but see it happening here. Something is dreadfully wrong here. This is no longer the Canada I grew up in, these are not the politicians my parents and grandparents would have supported.

  • Barry
  • Apr 3, 2012 2:56 PM

It would be REALLY easy for me to write a post critical of the federal government’s actions. I’m not much of a fan of our current government. Except… isn’t this exactly what we tell organizations to DO?

One quick example: Radian6 has a book out called Nine Rules of Social Media. Chapter two is the rules of listening:

  1. Refine, refine, refine.
  2. Process what you hear.
  3. Don’t ever stop listening.

Later, they talk about “the rules of engagement”:

  1. You don’t have to talk directly to people to be engaged.
  2. Social media engagement policies and guidelines are a must.
  3. Be kind, be social, and be consistent.

I don’t think anyone involved with social media would find much to argue with with those rules, in principle.

Another example is the now ubiquitous US Air Force Blog Assessment Chart, made popular by Jeremiah Owyang.

US Air Force Blog Assessment Chart

 

And if I was being asked for advice from a client on a controversial file, I would think the fairly standard fare would include:

“Listen where people are talking about you. If you see plainly wrong information, consider whether and how to correct it. And engage in the conversation if you feel it will further your case.”

So if we social media folk tell our clients to listen all the time and engage when appropriate, why would we not want our government to do the same?

And if we want a responsive, attentive government, are they not supposed to know what people are saying in public forums and on public websites? 

Whether or not we are in support of a government or a political party, surely we must be able to agree that it’s in our — and their — best interest to listen to and understand what discussions are being had in the online public square, and to understand what this means to the government’s policies and programs.

Where the government seems to me to be falling down is in explaining what it did and why. After a week (admittedly a week including a long weekend and a very difficult period of preparing to lay off thousands of employees) I received an e-mailed response from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s media office.

Here’s what I asked:

I’m a communications blogger interested in learning more about the program of monitoring and engagement DFAIT coordinated concerning the seal hunt. (see this story:
http://www.news1130.com/news/national/article/58287–harper-government-monitoring-online-chats-about-politics  or  http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/Canada/20091222/seal_monitoring_091222/)

I would appreciate the opportunity to learn what tools were used, what criteria were used to gauge success or failure of the initiative, and whether it was judged successful or not. I would also appreciate seeing some examples of how and when the government engaged in discussions to correct misinformation.

Here’s what they told me:

This pilot provided a tremendous opportunity for the Government of Canada to test new media monitoring and communication tools as a way to be better informed about what Canadians are saying about important public policy issues.

There were two objectives to this pilot: to correct misinformation about Canada’s seal harvest, and to train Government of Canada employees to detect and correct misinformation about this industry. Both objectives were met.

Topics for monitoring and correction covered the two main myths regarding the seal harvest: the myth that the harvest is inhumane, and that it is unsustainable. 

Not much detail there. So I guess if there’s a lesson to be had, it’s that doing good work (at least one can assume it was good work) deserves a good story to be told.

 

Social media is “new territory for PR,” sez PRSA. BS, sez me.

Food giant ConAgra and its PR firm Ketchum found itself in a reheated soup recently, when an event for bloggers in which food bloggers were fed frozen dinners as a “secret surprise” went wrong. At least some of the bloggers took offense, and a retreat was hastily beaten.

The story is an interesting one, as written by Andrew Adam Newman in the New York Times. But I was most interested in the quotes by PRSA ethics expert Deborah A. Silverman.

Here’s what Newman’s story closed with:

The promotion was “unfortunate” and “struck me as being not quite where they should be in terms of honesty,” said Deborah A. Silverman, who heads the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards at the Public Relations Society of America.

In an e-mail message, Ms. Silverman added, “Ketchum has an excellent reputation for high ethical standards,” but “the social media realm (including bloggers) is new territory for public relations practitioners, and I view this as a valuable learning opportunity.”

Does PR need a social-media Lewis and Clark?

Does PR need a social-media Lewis and Clark?

I have some issues with this. First, Ketchum’s “excellent reputation” has at least one gigantic hole in it in the shape of Armstrong Williams.  I wrote about the Armstrong Williams scandal when it happened in 2005. It stank then and it stinks now.

They’ve also been sharply criticized for their use of Video News Releases (VNRs) — criticism serious enough to cause PRSA to issue a bulletin about their ethical usage.

Second, the idea that social media and blogger relations are “new territory for public relations practitioners” is hokum and hooey.

A quick Google on blogger relations found articles from Lee Odden in 2006 and John Cass in 2007 on doing blogger relations right. Neville Hobson wrote an article for IABC’s Communication World magazine in May 2006 about blogger relations (I’m not a PRSA member, so don’t have access to their resources as I do IABC’s). I pointed to some guidelines from Cory Doctorow in 2008 on this blog.

I asked Deborah Silverman, who is a PR prof at Buffalo State in New York,  if she wanted to expand on her view, and she did. Here’s her response:

“The social media realm, including bloggers, is relatively new territory for public relations practitioners, as evidenced by the large crowds who attend social media workshops. Social media have been around for only about five years. Although many practitioners may be familiar with social media, there are numerous new ethical issues that are arising; one of those is where bloggers fall within the consumer-advocate-journalist continuum. So I do believe that this situation was a learning experience for all of us. Above all, it reiterates the ethical tenet in PR that disclosure of motivations, intentions and/or sponsorship is paramount.”

First, it’s unfortunate that Silverman chose not to respond to the concerns over Ketchum. Second, I disagree with her on a number of points. First, the fact that social media training attracts crowds doesn’t necessarily mean it’s new. People still go to speechwriting workshops and speeches aren’t new; people learn to write news releases and the news release is more than a century old. And while this may be a “learning experience” for Silverman, ConAgra, and Ketchum, I think a lot of social media practitioners only learned a new way to screw up blogger outreach.

One could be charitable and say that it’s too soon to REALLY know how to do this. But it’s not true. There’s no reason to not know how to do this well, and to do it.

May have more about these issues soon.

UPPERDATE: Tonia Ries at the RealTime Report has more thoughts and references related to this story, as does the always readable Jen Zingsheim at Media Bullseye.

The story of EasyDNS says important things about crisis communications. And journalism.

EasyDNS logoA Toronto company named EasyDNS has become a potent case study of two things: crisis communications and the limitations of journalism in the Internet age.

EasyDNS provides domain name servers for clients all over the place and is also a domain registrar. Until early December, there wasn’t much reason for an average person to know much about them.

But that was before a misunderstanding catapulted them into the middle of the largest news story of 2010. Someone, somewhere, confused EasyDNS in Toronto with EveryDNS in New Hampshire. EveryDNS had terminated its servicing of Wikileaks. This ticked off the supporters of Wikileaks, and when someone mistakenly identified EasyDNS as the villain, things went wrong.

Valleywag was the first major site to make the mistake, posting “Wikileaks loses its domain” on December 3rd. Within two hours of finding the Valleywag post, EasyDNS has gotten the post corrected and put up  a blog post of their own explaining the situation. After that, the Financial Times(registration required) the  New York Times “The Lede” blog, the Associated Press, and The Guardian all — independently — ran stories perpetuating the idea that a company who until now had no dealings with Wikileaks had struck the organization a blow.

Mark Jeftovic

Mark Jeftovic, EasyDNS CEO (Globe and Mail)

And in the meantime, EasyDNS’s team, led by CEO Mark Jeftovic (left), who seems a savvy and smart guy, were eliciting corrections and trying to keep their site and blog up to provide correct information. Aaaaannd… they were approached by Wikileaks to be one of several companies providing DNS services. By December 6, EasyDNS was providing service to Wikileaks.

You can read the full timeline in quite some detail in Timeline of an Epic Fail, the company’s blog post trying to compile all of this information. I’m more interested in teasing out some of the implications.

First: you are always at risk. I’m sure that if Mark Jeftovic at EasyDNS had someone tell him in November that his company would be misidentified as a “villain” in the biggest story of 2010, he’d have chuckled (or “chunkled”, as he writes in his timeline). But he was. One of my rules for crisis communication and response is that even things that are HIGHLY unlikely sometimes happen.

Second: as an organization, you need to be flexible enough to devote ALL your resources to resolving organizational crisis. At one workplace a few years ago, my team and I were running flat-out on a crisis that threatened customer service standards, financial damage, and public embarrassment. A few office doors away, I don’t think the response would have been “Crisis? Is this a crisis?” You need to have your whole organization be aware that a crisis state exists (not necessarily an EMERGENCY) and that action has to be quick, decisive and significant.

Second-and-a-half: Just because you’re totally focused on the crisis, don’t forget you have other business. EasyDNS was sending out e-mails to its customers as well as updating its own blog, as well as keeping feedback channels open on e-mail, twitter, and phone. They seem to have done a good job of keeping their existing customers informed and addressing their concerns.

Third: Be politely persistent with media who get something wrong. It’s shocking and disappointing that EasyDNS were badly served five separate times by media both blog-based and mainstream. It’s certainly made them more cynical about the quality of journalism. Who can blame them? But they did things right. What’s also interesting is that some media noted the error, while others simply corrected it in their online versions.

Fourth: Don’t be shy. EasyDNS was tireless in chasing down rumours and being proactive. Particularly if you’re “in the right” as they were, don’t just hope for things to “blow over”, be quiet, and wait for eyes to pass you over. You’re already part of the story. You might as well be a FULL part of it. I don’t know how “human” the company’s voice was before this, but their tweets, blog posts, and e-mails had a great voice, correcting errors and portraying emotion without coming off like ranters or bullies.

Fifth: recognize that in crisis lies opportunity. Jeftovic was already thinking this way when he wrote his blog post OK, so would we take on Wikileaks at this point? Now is there business benefit to EasyDNS actually doing this? Probably not directly. But my impression of EasyDNS has gone from zero — until yesterday when Jeftovic appeared on CBC Radio’s “Ontario Today” (you can listen to an interview with Jeftovic there) I’d never heard of ‘em — to “this is a company that has its act together and has some principles.” That can’t be bad.

Are there other lessons to be learned from this incident? You tell me. And attention Craig Silverman! There’s likely a whole chapter of “Regret the Error Volume 2″ in this story.

Audio from my Cafe Scientifique panel discussion

Last night (Tuesday, May 25), Ian Capstick, Erik Hagborg and I were the panelists for a hugely fun (at least for me) panel discussion on social media and its effects on more “traditional” communications. The discussion was part of the Cafe Scientifique program. This discussion was organized by The Canada Museum of Science and Technology and the Canadian Museum of Nature. Particular thanks should to to Isabelle Kingsley, who organized the event.

Here’s roughly the entire evening in audio format. It’s about 100 minutes long, and it ranges from the future of cursive script, to the “art should / shouldn’t be free” debate, to the fundamental disadvantage of the e-book (hint: “Hey! Read this!”) to how we preserve the important things in a digital age that doesn’t preserve things in tangible format.

Apologies for any rough audio — it was a big room and I was recording only with my Edirol. Mostly pretty good, I think. The audio begins with Erik Hagborg’s opening remarks. Download it here, or use the player below.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

  • 00:00 — Opening statements. Erik takes us back to the beginning of communications with the run at Marathon, then moves on to the four questions of the evening: Are we conducting too many of our relationships via tech? Why do we choose to use technology to communicate? Does tech facilitate or impede face-to-face communications? Are technology and f2f interactions complementary or exclusive? (Bonus from Erik: The difference between a “friend” and a “good friend”?)
  • 05:45 — Ian Capstick talks about his earliest experience with technology and F2F communication, when he was a teenager and met online friends in Ottawa at a choral conference.
  • 09:20 – Ian’s train of thought is briefly interrupted as his dinner arrives.
  • 11:40 — Ian recalls the phone phreakers as one of several examples of how humans hack technology for good and ill.
  • 15:25 -- Bob acknowledges that concern about social media is fair, but fear is unreasonable. People will use technologies in the ways that best suit them, and that one of the tension points with social media is that they are changing and growing so rapidly that our collective, unconscious agreements on what’s proper — the norms of using the medicum — are being left behind. Social media killed geography as the defining limit of friendship.
  • 23:00 — I inform the audience that Mel Blanc was allergic to carrots (as is Ian Capstick)
  • 24:00 – Discussion kicks off with an anecdote from moderator Isabelle Kingsley about texting as distraction
  • 26:00 — How to sift through “all the crap” on the Internet, and whether there’s more crap on the Internet than there was before, with a slight detour into Internet dating
  • 34:00 — Ian recommends Andrew Potter’s “The Authenticity Hoax
  • 37:00 — Discussion about the idea of digital legacy, in which I deftly pimp out PAB 2010. Adele McAlear and Derek K. Miller, come on down to pick up your name-checks! Ian argues that the problem won’t be a lack of information left behind but TOO MUCH.
  • 40:00 — Erik talks about the craft behind communication — the calligraphy and the content of handwritten letters, for example. We won’t lose the CONTENT; we’re going to lose the style and soul. Ian counters by saying “the pen stole oral history,” polls the audience on the use of cursive handwriting, and nominates Isabelle Kingsley as the leader of the future handwriting guild.
  • 46:00 — Where will obsolete media be preserved? Punch cards, 8-inch floppies, 5.25s, 3.5s… Erik suggests most technologies will be backwards-compatible and that this is not a huge worry. He also admits to, as a child, ruining his father’s punch-card programs on their home mainframe (parenthetical note: Erik had a mainframe in his HOUSE?!)
  • 49:00 — Bob shouts out to Project Gutenberg and Librivox as examples of how people are preserving ‘outdated’ content
  • 51:00 — Do people have opinions on e-books? Ian is conflicted and thinks there’s a generational shift involved with the shift from paper to pixels. Bob hates the DRM, the lack of pass-on-ability and marginalia and mourns the loss of craft in e-books as well as the LP-CD-MP3 transition.
  • 55:00 — Erik jumps on a DRM soapbox and ventures the “art wants to be free” argument, to be countered strongly by Ian and audience members, and weakly by house-concert presenter Bob (yes, I’m shamelessly whoring myself; it’s my blog.) Erik maintains that examples of commercial success exist.
  • 59:00 — Ian begs to differ and betrays his proud socialist heritage by arguing creating content has to be valued and compensated (shoutout, Cory Doctorow)… “we must find alternative funding models!”, and takes a run at Robert Bateman (f-bomb warning)
  • 1:06 — Discussion of the power of social media tools to connect people and to foster awareness and action internationally, with references to Iran, to Burma, Michael Jackson, balloon boy, and to the local experience of Ian and my blogging about Cornerstone.
  • 1:16 –  Does reliance on specific ways of communicating leave you excluded from some people because they don’t use the same channels? Discussion of how to get out of your “comfort zone”, how Bob’s next-door neighbour reached out using Facebook to make the introduction (thank God), and how Ian met his condo-mate at a ChangeCamp.
  • 1:27 –  Does the desire for texting / tweeting / constant “communicating” mean people miss out on genuine interactions?
  • 1:30 — The difficulty of sloppy communication, and how interpretation of communication tells as much about the  interpreter as about what is being interpreted.
  • 1:34 — after an awkward jump-cut where I muffed the recorder, Ian gives his online parenting advice, which incorporates a story about his own adolescent online adventures in the land of shirtless men. Bob talks about tailoring communication media to the audience, whether family or not.

Errata: I talk about Librivox at about 48-49 minutes in. But I screwed up: it’s Hugh McGuire, not Hugh MacLeod, who created Librivox. Hugh MacLeod is also a great human being, but for other reasons.

Links:

Erik Hagborg is a VP at RealDecoy

Ian Capstick is the owner of MediaStyle

Canada Museum of Science and Technology

Canadian Museum of Nature

Librivox

Project Gutenberg

ChangeCamp

Cornerstone

Changecamp

Pitch FAIL. But thanks for your interest.

I got the following pitch today. I’m redacting it to remove identifying information, but man, does the last line of that covering note grate on my nerves. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never expressed interest in this company.

Here goes:

Greetings! COMPANY X, LLC just posted — COMPANY X empowers passionate online publishers with addition to its PROGRAM Y. Please contact us if you need any additional information. Thank you for your interest in COMPANY X, LLC.

Best Regards,
PR Department
PHONE

press@COMPANYX.com

Original Collateral Text:

COMPANY X empowers passionate online publishers with addition to its PROGRAM Y Program

CITY–STATE/ October 27, 2009 – COMPANY X, LLC announced the launch of the new entry level tier of its PROGRAM Y: PROGRAM Y: Standard. The ‘Standard’ package is for small content owners and web media companies. The new program rounds out COMPANY(TM) revolutionary program.

MISTER X, GRAND POOHBAH, commented: “Online publishers who want to do more than, well, one thing at a time, are frustrated. I know, I’ve been in their shoes. They’ve posted blogs, videos, photos and audios on sharing sites and tried to tie it all together along with social networking and other widgets. The tools are all different, they don’t talk to each other and every time a version changes — things break. They have no way to really grow audience and their users cannot contribute “any media” rich content. They’ve tried ad programs and ad networks and they only seem to “cheapen” content. Worse still – they seem to spend more time wrestling with the technology than on their content. I only wish that COMPANY(TM) had been available for my previous companies! ”

I’ve asked the company when I had expressed interest in them, but haven’t heard back from them.

I know that we’ve all moaned about bad pitches, but this one just got under my skin.

Hope this doesn’t get under yours in the same way.

Ciao,
Bob.