Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Online harassment is epidemic. Be prepared. Act.

If you’ve never seen or experienced some form of online harassment, you are in a TINY minority. This was brought home to me recently with the impact of a hammer on a nail. Survey results from a poll by a coalition of three organizations (Rad Campaign, Lincoln Park Strategies, and Craig Connects) got released June 4, and it is a sad story.

Among the “highlights” from the infographic the group produced:

  • 47% of respondents under 35 reported being harassed.
  • Facebook is a particular hotspot for online harassment.
  • Women and men report sexual harassment at nearly identical rates (44% of women, 43% of men).
  • Half of the people who were harassed did not report it.
  • Nearly 30% of people surveyed report being afraid for their life as a result of online harassment.
  • 3 in 5 people surveyed think laws concerning both online and in-person harassment are not strong enough.

Perhaps you are lucky enough to not have experienced harassment online. However, chances are that you’ve seen someone — a friend, colleague, whatever — harassed online. So whether you have experienced it directly or secondhand, you have a stake in changing this. We ALL do.

There’s no doubt that much harassment both exemplifies and reinforces deep and toxic threads of hatred: racism, intolerance, misogyny. But it’s simplistic and unproductive to throw up our hands in the air and simply blame “attitudes” for this problem. To my mind, we fall into one of three categories when it comes to online harassment:

  • Harasser
  • Victim
  • Onlooker

If you’re a harasser: stop it, or the rest of us are going to stop you.

If you’re a victim: don’t swallow this. Don’t hide it, or hide from it. Tell the people who care about you. Take action. Report the behaviour. If you don’t feel strong enough, ask for help with it.

If you’re an onlooker (like me): Step up.

There have been countless examples of people being affected by this, from respected bloggers going silent to comic book artists being threatened with death to people at conferences being harassed online and offline to young people killing themselves. All of it is unacceptable. And we all have two duties: to support those being harassed and to confront the harassers.

There are more of us than them. We don’t need to become virtual lynch mobs, doing to the harassers what they’ve done to others. We just need to tell these bullies that we see them, that they must stop, and that they are not going to do this anymore.

Later on comes the change of attitudes. At some point, we need to figure out why these people are doing what they’re doing, how we can help them understand how wrong it is, and make them change their beliefs. But first, the behaviour has to stop. And the biggest thing you can do? Call people out. And if we become targets, we should expect the same support from others that we give.

Can we eliminate this problem? Not quickly, easily, or likely ever. Can we improve it? Undoubtedly.

Are you looking for more help responding to online harassment? I can’t recommend the organization CiviliNation highly enough. They have lots of resources, and CiviliNation founder Andrea Weckerle’s book Civility in the Digital Age is excellent.

Digital Canada 150 – ahead to the past!

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that — as if by magic — just a few days after writing “It’s hard to be social when you’re not social” about the Canadian federal government’s difficulty grappling with social media, Digital Canada 150, the long, longgggg-awaited digital strategy of the Government of Canada was released on Friday afternoon, April 4.

This is a digital strategy that’s been promised and not delivered by five Industry Ministers since 2006, when the current government was first elected. So if the rest of this post is critical, I have to give the current minister James Moore some kudos for at least publishing something.

The first thing that gave me the willies? A Friday afternoon release. Even though it seems everyone’s wise to the tactic, I still get worried that a Friday afternoon release of anything means there’s a desire to bury it.

The second thing that gave me the willies? The flash animation for the launch, leading to the … flipbook and downloadable PDF, which treat the reader to full-page vanity messages from Industry Minister James Moore and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

And then we get to the meat of it. There are five pillars to the strategy: Connecting Canadians, Protecting Canadians, Economic Opportunities, Digital Government, and Canadian Content.

Each section has a number of policy directions, followed by a list of things the government has done, will do, and a success story.

A year-and-a-bit ago, Maclean’s magazine writer Peter Nowak wrote this “New Year’s resolution” for a digital strategy. In it, he argued for things like:

  • Create a Technology Minister.
  • As Nowak put it, “Incubators, incubators, incubators.”
  • And a combination of increased broadband service and subsidies and training for those who aren’t currently online.

Veteran Internet observer Michael Geist calls the document “the digital strategy without a strategy“, and points out that of the $5.72 billion the government just raised from a wireless-spectrum auction, the plan identifies far less than that in investment. And IT World Canada’s Howard Solomon quotes Geist and others with some fairly substantive criticism. Openmedia calls it a rehash of previous announcements.

Byron Holland, the president of CIRA, Canada’s .ca registry, wrote in a blog post “The digital economy, and Canada’s digital future, is too important to be left to a series of activities that may or may not relate to one another. We have seen time and time again what happens when leaders get too focussed on day-to-day activities instead of focussing on a strategic direction.”

CIRA’s 2010 submission to one of the consultations that led to this strategy suggested, among other things, that “it is useful for the Government of Canada to benchmark Canada’s performance in the digital economy against other countries and in particular against major trading partners. With this in mind, it might be useful to create an ongoing compendium of publicly available data with an annual assessment of where Canada stands, available on-line.” Sadly, there’s nothing in the strategy about that, and if there were, we might well be quite disappointed with the results.

My particular hobbyhorse last week, and on an ongoing basis, is the federal government’s use of social media in its operations. The Digital Government section offers not the slightest hint that government departments or agencies will see their ability to actually DO social media increase between now and 2017 (the 150th anniversary of Confederation, our country’s founding). The section focuses almost entirely on open data — a useful tool, and not one I’d argue against. But if you were hoping that this document might encourage departmental blogs, or Youtube videos with comments enabled, or Twitter feeds that actually conducted conversations with followers, you are wearing a black armband today.

Our federal government has at its fingertips great levers of power and money. So far, it has not chosen to use those levers to re-engineer government to catch up with what we’re doing in our daily lives, right now. Rather, it’s simply going to pick around the edges of things, drop a little money from time to time, and unfortunately, let its citizens — and its international counterparts — leave it in the dust.


It’s hard to be social when you’re not social

A bit of a media — well, not a storm — drizzle began in my city last week. My local newspaper ran the story “Four staff work on widely-unwatched PMO promo videos.”

The nub of the story: in January of this year, our country’s Prime Minister (already the subject of some severe criticism for his inaccessibility to media) launched a YouTube feature called “24-Seven” (“24-sept” en français). The videos, at least one each week, are published to the PMO’s YouTube channel. And viewership has been less than revolutionary. The March 20-26 edition has 30 views in English as I write this, and 12 in French. Four public servants produce those sparsely-viewed videos “as part of their regular web publishing duties.” Those public servants include a director (annual salary at least $105K), a “multimedia specialist” (starting salary $56K), a “project coordinator” (starting salary $72K), and an “analyst” (starting salary $52K). The story notes that information wasn’t available about the people who actually shot and edited the video.

It’s easy to scoff at videos that have two-digit view counts, and equally easy to be sniffy about the expenditures. But this initiative is far from the only federal one that has failed on YouTube. Canada’s National Research Council has a four-year-old channel with 29 videos. Two of them have more than 2,000 views. Industry Canada’s channel has 15 videos, of which one has more than 1,000 views. Health Canada has posted 97 videos over the last four years, and has relative success, with some videos approaching 70,000 views. Environment Canada’s most popular video of its 30 has 9,300 views.

This week, the opposition parties to our federal government are continuing to ask questions about the videos, according to a post by intrepid CBC blogger Kady O’Malley. The opposition parties are assuming, I guess, that there may be tidbits they can use to hold the government up to ridicule or attack.

It’s surprisingly hard to get high-level numbers about YT views. A 2009 study by Tubemogul showed that less than five per cent of Youtube videos got more than 5,000 views. If those numbers are still even close to accurate, even 1000 views is not a definite failure.

Why don’t videos produced by our government do that well? Because Canada’s federal government does not do a good job with social media. It’s that simple. It consciously turns its back on the things that differentiate social media from traditional government communications methods. What do I mean by that?

In no particular order:

  • Closed comments and strangled sharing options
  • Lack of promotion
  • Lack of interaction with potential viewers
  • Focus on the channel and not the strategy or the content

Comments and sharing. If you put your videos up and disable comments and prevent people from embedding them in other pages, you tell the viewer that you’re not interested in the conversation.

Lack of promotion. Videos rarely just magically find viewerships. You need to get them out there, with concerted effort at sharing. When even the most innocuous tweet is subject to a truly onerous process, it’s impractical to promote your video assets. Imagine if someone were to tweet “Would love to do my taxes, but I don’t think I know how”, and someone from CRA replied with a pointer to a video tutorial! But if that tweet has to be seen and approved by dozens of people, it’s never going to make a difference. That’s just one example of how social media could be used to promote video assets but isn’t. Another example: the Public Health Agency of Canada has a channel with 29 videos. It also has a FB page with 7,854 likes. I went through the FB page for 2014 and 2013, and there were no posts pointing people to the Youtube channel or to a specific Youtube video. Those types of cross-promotion have no “hard costs” attached; it’s not like you’re buying Google Adwords or FB “boosts” and spending real money. It’s someone’s time.

Lack of interaction with potential viewers. Canada’s federal government doesn’t allow its public servants to take individual voices online. There’s a long tradition in Canada where the Prime Minister speaks for Canada, his or her cabinet ministers speak for their departments, and the public service works impartially and anonymously, away from the public sphere. There are rare exceptions: Environment Canada meteorologist David Phillips is a bona fide star, doing countless interviews about weather. But Phillips has no online brand — no Twitter account, FB profile (that I can find), no blog. So his public persona is based on doing interviews with journalists, not with interacting with “normal people.”  Other jurisdictions allow their public servants more latitude. For example, the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office has nearly 200 of its employees on a blogroll. These posts are often engaging and VERY personal. They even allow UK citizens to guest blog, like this expat who now lives in Sofia, Bulgaria. Another example: the US FDA has a Twitter account, and while I don’t know who is behind its Tweets, they do engage with their readers from time to time, like this:

When everything is collective, impersonal, and when there’s no conversation at all, there’s no opportunity to build relationships with the people who might be interested in your content.

No focus on the strategy, content or presentation. Many federal government videos lack creativity and end up looking and feeling like really second-rate corporate products. I frequently point to this video, produced by the National Research Council as an example of what government gets wrong with YouTube:

Sadly, this is not a particularly isolated example. Slick? Yes. Professionally shot and edited, from the look of it. But the supers (the text that flies by) have no relationship to the images. The images themselves are simply an amalgam of people doing things that are more or less understandable. There’s no human voice to it. There’s no call to action; there’s no strategy or plan underlying the shooting.

Even when the NRC has cool content — NRC scientists spent two nights in the Louvre doing amazingly detailed scans of the Mona Lisa — the presentation of this content has a pedantic, “this is good for you but you won’t like it” feel. Why not speak with one of the scientists doing the work? Why not have him or her walk you through the painting? Why not explain why of all the countries of the world, the NRC’s equipment was the best to do this job?

I teach a lot of public servants about social media. And often, the classes are punctuated with “we can’t do that”s, with rueful head-shaking, with eye-rolling. I understand that there’s a value to government proceeding slowly in terms of its adoption of technology. But there is — or at least there should be  — a premium placed on innovation. The US Centers for Disease Control must believe that; they published an emergency preparedness guide to a zombie apocalypse, and garnered huge acclaim and attention.

The only thing surprising to me about the Prime Minister’s video channel is that it exists at all. That it’s poorly watched and takes four people to make the videos? No surprise. That its content is uninspiring and its presentation is not innovative at all? No surprise.

There’s one more thing that is disturbing about how our federal government uses social media, and it was stated perfectly by Ken Mueller in his recent post “Social media: where marketing goes to die.” I can’t say it any better than he did, so here’s his key paragraph:

When it comes to social media, I think most failed efforts are pretty much the same. It’s not that social media doesn’t work, it’s just that those in charge are generally guilty of some form of neglect. We spend a lot of time and effort on all sorts of marketing and communications campaigns, but somehow, social media comes last. Social media suffers from neglect. And then I hear “I guess it doesn’t work.”

No, you just let it die.

I worry that public servants will look at moribund Youtube channels, not understand the context of social media, and decide that even 70,000 views is a failure. And with no commenting or embedding, there’s no way to show other things that might indicate a video is catching people’s attention.

I don’t expect government videos to be as creative as those done by two creative individuals like Pomplamoose (keep in mind, these folks compose, perform, and record the music AND shoot and edit their videos themselves). Trust me. In an enterprise as large as the federal government, there are people who have the technical and creative skills needed to make truly good videos. But they’re hamstrung. Same thing with every social media channel. The potential for excellence is there. But surely there’s an inch of play that the government’s communications policies could allow the talented communicators who work there to exercise.

Don’t alienate the person you want to influence

It’s something that happens to us all, probably every day: we see a news story, a blog post, a tweet, a FB update. It talks about some law or poicy that’s changed things in a way we don’t like. And we get cranky about it. We talk to a friend or our partner; we tweet about it; and either someone says to us that we should do something about it, or we say it to ourselves.

So what do you do? One thing lots of people do is write a letter to the politician in charge of the issue.

Union members participate in a letter writing campaign

Union members participate in a letter writing campaign, (photograph CC-licenced by Flickr user aflcio)

I saw this process unfold online just last week, when new regulations governing the fees non-Canadian musicians must pay to play in Canada, and the fees that promoters or venue owners must pay to have them play in Canada, became a matter of some media attention and some intense discussion in the music industry.

You probably don’t need all the nitty-gritty on the fees. Let me summarize. It’s going to cost a lot more for US-based musicians who aren’t performing in concert halls or house concerts to legally work in Canada.

You might think that Canadian musicians would be excited about this, right? Not so fast, Sherlock. You see, folk and rootsy musicians live in a bit of an unusual niche. Cooperation and competition are teamed up in this world. And in general, folkies are vehemently opposed to the current Conservative-led government in Canada. So on Canadian music forums, these changes were greeted with outrage.

And unfortunately, that outrage made its into a number of the letters sent to the minister and subsequently shared on music industry mailing lists and the like. Some of those letters were from highly respected and senior people within the music industry.

Cynics might suggest that letters to politicians have no effect. When I started to talk about this issue with friends, someone mentioned an apocryphal tale of Congressional interns shredding baskets of letters and faxes from constituents. I haven’t been able to find that reference, and I really hope it isn’t so.

At least one man didn’t feel that way.

The late Omar Ahmad, an internet activist and politician from California, did this TED University talk in 2010.

So if you have a public affairs issue that you want to speak out on, what to do? Well, Ahmad’s video gives lots of great advice. And my friend and sometime colleague Mark Blevis has been researching and analyzing digital public affairs for the last several years through his company Full Duplex.

“There’s an old saying in politics that if you get 10 handwritten letters from constituents, it’s an issue.” Blevis says. As a letter writer, “you want to create the impression that you are reasonable, rational and understand there are multiple opinions. If the person presents themselves in a combative way, they’re almost presupposing their email will be seen as noise.” Mark says that whether by email or written by hand, letters should do three things: present a concern, propose a reasonable solution and, above all, be respectful. “Ask yourself ‘if I received this email, how would I react? If someone wrote to me using that language and tone, would I do anything more than send it to the trash?’”

A couple of examples of how people have advocated their opinion well on this music issue:

First, American singer-songwriter Jonathan Byrd sent this to his email list:

“Share this with every Canadian you know, right now.

New legislation was written by people who don’t realize how it will affect venues and the grassroots culture of music in Canada. It’s a game changer. A business closer. Economically and culturally harmful, no doubt about it.

What You Can Do:

1. Call the “Office For Client Satisfaction”: 1-866-506-6806 explain to them that we need “Exemptions for the arts in regards to the recent changes to the LMO and Temporary Foreign Workers Permits”
2. Go to: submit a complain under the program “Labour Market Opinion”
3. Call your local MP
4. Share this with your friends. The more calls they get, the more seriously they will take this issue.

Canada is rightly protective of its musical culture. There are Canadian-only festivals and rules for the percentage of Canadian content on the radio. However, Canadian musicians are outraged by this new legislation because it destroys cultural exchange and seriously threatens small to mid size venues who depend partly on international acts to fill their schedules and draw audience. If these rules stand, fans will notice a vastly different music scene next month. Some venues will not survive. Most American rock bands will never play in Canadian bars again.

Foreign workers (like me) already pay fees to play these venues. A 10 or 15 percent increase would go over with some grumbling, but otherwise no problem. I’d pay double without question. Americans can’t really complain because it is much harder for Canadians to tour the US. However, this legislation means a four or fivefold increase in the fees to play a single show, and exponentially more to tour. A US artist can easily make a living without going to Canada, so we just wouldn’t go. It’s like excluding California, as far as population base. This legislation does damage to the Canadian culture and economy. It hurts Canadians WAY more than Americans.

The Canadian government is very supportive of the arts. I seriously doubt that this was their intention. They need to hear from business owners, promoters, musicians, and fans. I know I have a lot of Canadian fans here and you are passionate about music! Educate yourself about the new legislation, share the information, and let your government know you care. Thank you so much!

Your fan,

And Canadian performer Sue Passmore of the Good Lovelies wrote this on her blog:

It’s a long note, I admit, but this is important to me, my career, and to the careers of my musician peers beyond Canadian borders.

I am an independent Canadian musician, and if I had to pay a $425 fee for every gig I played outside of Canada, my career would be over. I wouldn’t be surprised if other countries followed suit by implementing a similar fee for Canadians to play in their country, and I wouldn’t blame them for it. 

This fee will hurt the smaller year-round venues, all seasonal festivals, not to mention the question as to the future of any world music festivals and programs that currently exist. It’s a fee that does not benefit or protect the Canadian music scene. In fact, it isolates us, and we will be less musically rich for it. There should have been a great deal more consultation and conversation with the entertainment community prior to its passing.

This is a two-way street. Canadian audiences will miss out on a lot of exceptional music if smaller bands are forced out of the mix. International touring is an expensive venture to begin with and we should encourage those willing to put forth the effort to travel our way, not tax them for wanting to develop their fan base. 

Is the government aware of the average income from a bar gig? I’ve seen it as low as $100 for a 4-piece band with an audience of 100 patrons. It isn’t too hard to do the math – that does not cover travel, food or accommodations, let alone a living wage beyond expenses. Charge the band hundreds of dollars to play that gig, and there is no longer a gig being played.

As a musician, I do not thank the government for this gesture, it sends the wrong message to all of my international colleagues. To you, my friends, my most sincere apologies. We feel as blindsided as you do.

These are examples of people writing politely but forcefully. There’s no name-calling, no invective.

If you have a public policy issue that you want to make a point about, don’t do it with insults or with sarcasm. If possible do it with a pen on paper. (Assuming your handwriting is legible). And do it with simple language and one point.

If you have longer points to make, make them in op-ed pieces, in blog posts, or in other media. But when communicating with politicians, consider the needs of the recipient. Being brief and respectful may not get you your heart’s desire, but it might keep your missive out of the recycle bin.

Social Media Success and the Second Commandment



Social Media Preaching

NOTE: This is a repost from my June 18 post on the wonderful Spin Sucks blog, written by the fine people at Arment Dietrich and kept vibrant by a community of smart commenters and guest posters. Enjoy!  


I am of the atheistic persuasion. So this may come as a bit of a shock, but I’m gonna do a little preaching on the Second Commandment, social media style.

For those of you who need a refresher:

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them…”

Before I get down to the serious preaching, let me give you some context.

Bad stats

Bow Down to Bad Data

First, the odd case of Mary Meeker. I heard about it via the San Francisco Chronicle. Meeker, who apparently is a big deal (a partner at the venture capital Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers), did her annual Internet Trends presentation at the All Things D conference.

One of the things she told people: Smartphone users check their phones an average of 150 times daily. The issue? It appears the number comes from nowhere. But despite the problems outlined by Jeff Elder, the statistic is all over the web.

Social Media Saviors

Secondly, a post on the Forbes website about social media uberdude Gary Vaynerchuk and his new ideas, titled “Why Gary Vaynerchuk’s New Social Media Strategy Should Change The Way You Do Business.”

What really threw me was this quote:

He’s redeployed an employee at VaynerMedia, his social media consultancy, to “shadow my life” by following him at conferences and key local events to record his remarks and turn them into social media content. “I’ve built the infrastructure around me to become a greater content provider,” he says. “I have someone calling me at the end of the day – there’s now someone in my life pestering me for content.”

I found the image of someone following Vaynerchuk around capturing his thoughts and “transcribing his remarks into social media” ludicrous. But when I scrolled down to the comments, I found…

  • “I have a great amount of respect for Gary Vaynerchuk, the guy really gets social media – I had a fantastic experience with him where he called me up at 1am to sing me a lullaby following an interaction on Twitter…and yes I created content. I have heard other people talk about the idea of having someone capture their thoughts throughout the day, so it is not as far out there as some may think.”
  • “Kevin hit the nail on the head with this article. Gary V is amazing. His book “Crusth IT!” is a must read. Gary started as a little kid understanding to accomplish your dreams you must work VERY hard. He is a perfectly example of the American dream. If u r in to social media follow everything Gary says to do!!”
  • “Gary V is right on. I especially like his perspective on micro-content and the many forms of communicating through video or music – it’s not just about being a great writer anymore but being able to communicate your message in (sic) through all the great social media vehicles is becoming increasingly more important in the B2B world. The other great point is you need to re-prioritize your time (hey, maybe less meetings) to invest in social media no matter what your role is in your company.”
  • “My 2 cents: One can NOT argue with success.”

And when Scott Monty — no minor figure in social media either — wrote a post detailing his incredulity, he included the following:

  • “To be clear, I like Gary and consider him a friend. This is in no way a personal attack; I just happen to disagree with his prediction and thinking, based on what I’ve read.“

Monty went on to say a scheme like this was “the last thing the world needed;” a position he moderated after Vaynerchuk explained himself on Twitter, “Yeah some confusion most likely my fault for sure, but u should know me better, its more not to miss things than to force things…”

Thou Shalt Not Believe Everything You Read

We love social media success stories. Perhaps too much. Perhaps so much that even when they say stupid things, we cheer them. And perhaps so much that when someone decides to criticize them, they feel compelled to preface the criticism with sentences like “this is in no way a personal attack…” because the anticipated reaction is a firestorm of criticism from the army of Vayniacs or otherwise cutely-named followers who will defend the honour of their hero.

Just because someone has a good idea once doesn’t mean ALL their ideas are good. Just because someone has a good track record as an analyst doesn’t mean they can’t be wrong or make stupid mistakes.

When someone commented on the Vaynerchuk Forbes article “My 2 cents: One can NOT argue with success,” I responded, “Yes you can. And you should.”

I meant it. Gary Vaynerchuk is an undeniable phenomenon. Does that make everything he says worthy of support?

In a fast-paced world such as social media, it’s easy to listen to the emphatic people, the ones with the profile, the ones who go to the hot conferences, and are friends with the other important people. But NONE of that means they’re right about everything. And it does nobody any good to blindly parrot their statements.

And if you think my argument is full of more holes than a piece of cheesecloth…tell me so!

Peace be with you, social media brothers and sisters.

How could Nutella be this dumb?

Following up on my previous post about the threat to World Nutella Day…

Ferrero’s Italian site has a news release.

“World Nutella Day: una positiva conclusione del caso

Un positivo contatto diretto tra Ferrero e Sara Rosso, owner di una fan page non ufficiale di Nutella chiamata World Nutella Day, ha chiuso il caso.
Ferrero desidera esprimere a Sara Rosso la sincera gratitudine per la sua passione per Nutella, gratitudine che estende a tutti i fan del World Nutella Day.
Il caso è nato da una procedura di routine a difesa dei marchi, attivata in seguito ad alcuni usi impropri del marchio Nutella all’interno della fan page. 
Ferrero è lieta di annunciare che oggi, dopo aver contattato Sara Rosso ed aver trovato insieme le appropriate soluzioni, ha immediatamente interrotto ogni precedente azione. 
Ferrero si considera fortunata ad avere fan di Nutella così devoti e leali come Sara Rosso.”
The rough Google translation to English (which I’ve corrected for obvious errors, but may still contain others):
“A positive direct contact between Ferrero and Sara Rosso, owner of a non-official fan page of Nutella called World Nutella Day, he closed the case. 
Ferrero would like to express its sincere gratitude to Sara Rosso for her passion for Nutella, gratitude extends to all fans of the World Nutella Day . 
The case arose from a routine procedure in defense of trademarks, activated in response to any misuses of the brand Nutella inside the fan page. 
Ferrero is pleased to announce that today, after contacting Sara Rosso and finding appropriate solutions together, it  immediately stopped all previous action. 
Ferrero consider themselves lucky to have a fan of Nutella so devoted and loyal as Sara Rosso.
The WND site has been updated as well.  To my mind, that’s barely even a START at making things good for Sara Rosso and World Nutella Day. Ms. Rosso seems more gracious than I, however.
Congratulations to her, and Ferrero: please don’t ever do something so stupid again.

Monday morning movie break

Saw these two things this morning, and can’t help but share them.

First, Doug Gilmour sells (?) computers:

Second, the incomparable Chris Hadfield pretty much does a music video that can not be topped. Read more about his impact on Sue’s blog.

(Apologies to Gini Dietrich for appropriating the Gin & Topics concept. I won’t do it again. Unless people like it.)

Is copying a news release plagiarism?

Plagiarism is a big deal from the time we all go to school. Of course, back when I was in my first university program in the 1980s, plagiarism was achieved by retyping content. The Internet, CTRL-C and  CTRL-V, made plagiarism MUCH more simple. And not surprisingly,  tools like Turnitin popped up to help teachers and professors to determine if a term paper or essay contained plagiarized content.

And in the media, plagiairism is always a hot topic. Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail is a lightning rod for allegations of plagiarism, but she’s far from the only high-profile journalist or writer caught cribbing others’ notes (think Doris Kearns Goodwin or Jonah Lehrer). Even my main man Stephen King has written about plagiarism (in “Secret Window, Secret Garden“) and himself been accused to the point of lawsuits.

So I was interested to see Paid Content write about a new tool called Churnalism. Churnalism US, as it’s apparently going to be called to differentiate it from the original UK  site Churnalism, is a new initiative from the Sunlight Foundation. It’s a tool that lets people paste in text or a URL, and then find out if that particular content is taken from something in a database of sources the tool searches. That database currently includes:

According to the Paid Content post, Churnalism also searches Wikipedia.

Interesting stuff, eh? So here’s my question: if a journalist copies and pastes content from a news release, is that plagiarism?

Step one. What is the definition of plagiarism?


pla·gia·rism [pley-juh-riz-uhm, -jee-uh-riz-]  


1. an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author: It is said that he plagiarized Thoreau’s plagiarism of a line written by Montaigne.Synonyms: appropriation, infringement, piracy, counterfeiting; theft, borrowing, cribbing, passing off.

2. a piece of writing or other work reflecting such unauthorized use or imitation: “These two manuscripts are clearly plagiarisms,” the editor said, tossing them angrily on the floor.

Seems there are two factors here:

  1. without authorization
  2. lack of credit

The folks at PR Watch were pretty emphatic when it came to the use of Video News Releases or VNRs back in ’06. They felt that the practice of TV news stations inserting full “news reports” prepared and distributed by PR firms in their newscasts was unethical, simply calling it “fake news.” But those news releases weren’t “plagiarism”, per se. The ethical problem there was one of pretending that this was journalism when it had not gone through any journalistic processes.

But as Pekka Pekkala points out in Online Journalism Review, “copy-paste journalism” is rampant, especially in technology journalism. And  columnist Steve Penn suing his newspaper for wrongful dismissal in the US is arguing that it was common practice for journalists there to cut and paste. When journalism site Poynter reported on his case last year, a Twitter-based poll they ran at the time found a quarter of respondents saying copy-paste was OK even without attribution and only 3% saying it was plagiarism.

Most journalists would likely argue that grabbing content from a news release is wrong. But what about a quote from the release? Is that plagiarism?

The issues this new tool raises are interesting ones.

  • Are we PR folks distributing news releases with the assumption or the hope they WILL be copied? (IMO, not necessarily an assumption or a hope, but an acceptance that they will be copied from time to time)
  • Is there an implicit authorization for those on the other end to do so? (IMO, yes)
  • Are journalists who do this wrong? (To quote my FIR colleagues, it depends)
  • Are journalists who do this plagiarists and deserving of disciplinary action? (No)

What do you think?


Choose event settings carefully

Before I get into the blog post proper, a quick note: my heart goes out to all those suffering in Boston. If you would like to help those affected by the bombings, I might suggest The One Fund, which has been established by the Mayor of Boston and the Governor of Massachusetts.

All right. On to a crisis of a much less dire nature.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty looks at a Joe Mamma bike in this Toronto Star photo from last October.

Last fall, Canada’s Finance Minister Jim Flaherty held a media event at a bike shop here in Ottawa. Joe Mamma is a funky shop here in town, specializing in hipster fixies and cool cruiser bikes. In the event, Flaherty talked about some of the measures contained in his government’s 2012 budget, highlighting a small business tax credit and the government’s decision to hold the line on new taxes. The 2012 budget also elminated duties on miports of athletic equipment. Good news for an indie bike shop owner.

Fast-forward a few months: Same bike shop. Different MP from an opposition party. Different message.

In the 2013 budget, the government announced a number of new tariffs (which, they told media nad opposition, aren’t taxes at all), some of which affected … you guessed it… bicycles. Now looks like those bikes that Jose Bray sells at Joe Mamma are going to be MORE expensive. So the NDP, Canada’s official opposition party, held a news conference at Joe Mamma to criticize the 2013 budget.

I’m not going to get into the politics of this — beyond saying I like lower prices for bikes because I’m a cyclist.

But if you’re doing any sort of public or media event, you may want to think about that event setting. I’m sure Flaherty’s staff thought Joe Mamma was an ideal setting for an event. But they missed the contingency that budget changes that were likely being discussed as they held that event could irritate the owner to such an extent that he would hold another event to criticize them.

If you’re the “backdrop” for an event, it might be a good idea to be very clear with the event organizer about that’s happening. In one story talking about the duelling photo ops, shop owner Jose Bray talked about about not being aware of what was actually being announced by Flaherty, and then feeling blindsided by the new tariffs. Even if it’s a cabinet minister, you have the right to ask exactly what they’re announcing. They may tell you to pound sand and find another location. But that’s the way things go sometimes.

And kudos to the NDP’s staff, for making the opportunity happen by reaching out to him.

A bad event is like taking a photo in the middle of Times Square. A good event is like taking a studio portrait of someone. Your goal, whether you’re the organizer or the “backdrop”, is to control as many factors as possible to allow your messages to get out. The studio’s lighting, props, and makeup are the same thing as the event’s backdrop, spokespeople, and schedule. Make sure that you’re making decisions that are designed to benefit you or your organization to the greatest extent possible.

Storify demonstrates how not to react to public criticism.

A demo of Storify. Image from


The recent kerfuffle over Storify and the ability of Facebook users to use it to post material from secret groups has got me thinking about the reaction of companies to real or perceived criticism.

When this — I’m not even sure what to call it: weakness, vulnerability, flaw, bug? — came to light via Julie Pippert and the online publication AGBeat, Storify reacted in a way that I would characterize as defensive.

In long discussions online, most notably with blogger Amy Vernon of Internet Media Labs, Storify’s Burt Herman essentially repeated a couple of key messages.

  1. nothing posted online is private and you could always copy and paste or take a screenshot
  2. [Facebook users] need to trust who they are sharing with

I found Herman to be defensive. I understand why. He’s a cofounder of a useful and laudable tool that many people are using and praising. Time magazine called it one of the 50 best Websites of 2011.

But my read of his reaction is that he spoke from the gut and not the head. Look at the timing. Amy Vernon’s tweet was posted at 6:20 am on January 18; Burt Herman was brought into the conversation by a woman named Sue Llewellyn at 7:21 am; Herman then replied an hour after that. Once he’d taken his position, it seemed to harden, as so many positions do.

There’s a lesson here for all businesses. It’s easy to feel attacked when someone finds something disturbing or concerning. If you’re a company founder, you can feel threatened and want to protect your “child.”

But if you react in that manner without serious forethought, you risk ignoring the fact that you could simply be wrong.

Three pieces of advice:

  1. Think carefully BEFORE you react. Be dispassionate; find a way to be objective. Put yourself in the position of the other person, and don’t let your emotions take the fore.
  2. Consider reaching out offline before or during your online response. Twitter is not always the most useful way of having a long-form discussion. Perhaps you need the nuance that a phone call or an email exchange or the like can use to inform your response to the criticism — whether you have to acknowledge an error or you’re right to think that the problem is not really there.
  3. Even if you’ve taken a position on something, don’t hold on to it without carefully evaluating circumstances and facts.

The pace of social media discussion is not an excuse to not be thoughtful.