Going slower faster

Go slow faster!

Yesterday was an anniversary. Eleven years ago, I started this blog. I was working media relations for a university then; both my parents were alive; I had a regular column for a CBC Radio show (in fact, a lot of the early content of the blog was made up of scripts for my CBC column), and I thought there was something to this social media thing, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was. Who knew I’d still be doing this a decade later?

Not that I planned any of this out at all, but my blogiversary coincided with a visit to Ottawa by Gini Dietrich, the CEO of Arment Dietrich and the author of the brand-new book Spin Sucks (also the name of the agency blog). I’m working my way through the book and plan on giving it a fuller review soon. But her appearance at Third Tuesday Ottawa was a convenient marker.

I have a lot of respect for Gini, the business she’s built, and how she’s done it. I also like her a lot. She’s fun and funny to be around, and she falls in that category of people that I take great pleasure in teasing (not growing up with sisters leaves a void in your life you have to fill somehow). And it was unsurprising to me that her presentation to TTO was typical of her: incisive, opinionated, entertaining, and well-reasoned.

Gini summed up one of her central arguments about the suckitude of spin as “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” referring to the need for PR practitioners and clients to adopt a long-term mentality toward social media and toward brand identity. For example, don’t use black-hat SEO techniques for an immediate boost in search engine results (sprint); build your site and act in a manner so as to build those results over a longer term (marathon). She’s been developing this metaphor for some time.

I like the metaphor (and forgive her for using a running metaphor despite her being a far superior athlete – a cyclist – than just some runner). But here’s the challenge of being a marathoner in this business is trying to convince people to stop running so fast.

The social media tools and the availability of real-time results is a potent drug, and it’s easy to become addicted to instant feedback, instant action, instant reaction. So the challenge for me when I’m working with a client is to simultaneously tell them to be active on social media, to be monitoring feeds and the like, but at the same time to not assume or expect that your video will go viral, that your blog will rocket to the top of the charts, etc. That’s especially true if you have other people in the consulting world who are promising those easy instant results.

In my experience, one of the best things I can do with a client is get them into using an editorial calendar for their social media efforts. Turning the page from month to month – physical or virtual – makes people think longer term. What powerful tools or arguments have you discovered to help your clients or your colleagues get the tricky balance between FASTER and SLOWER! I’d like to hear ‘em.

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.

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.

Crowdfunding ≠ wishful thinking

Because a lot of my brain and my non-working life is focused on music, I see a lot of crowdfunding pitches. I mean, A LOT. When you become friends with a lot of musicians, sometimes it seems as if every week I get multiple requests to help make a CD, fund a tour, a theatre project, or some other worthwhile venture.

Crowdfunding is a crowded marketplace. A new infographic from CraigConnects and Rad Campaign tells us that more than FIVE BILLION DOLLARS was raised this way in 2013. But while the crowdfunding field is complicated and numbers vary widely (see this article from the Canadian Media Fund for an example of just how many ways you can define ‘success’), it’s fair to say that a large number of projects, if not a majority, do not end up meeting their financial goals.

 

So when I contributed to two recent campaigns that were very successful, I started to think about why they made it when so many others don’t. The first was “The Kneeraiser.” In a nutshell, some civic-minded folks decided to buy someone a knee. The someone in question was singer-songwriter Christa Couture. While I had met her several times, I was shocked to read on the Kneeraiser site that Christa was an amputee. Turns out that after a diagnosis of cancer at 11, she became an amputee at 13 and has been a monopod for the last 22 years. While Canada’s public health-care system covers basic prostheses, there are remarkable high-tech prosthetics out there which cost extra. While many employees would have part of those costs covered by benefit plans, a full-time musician doesn’t have benefits. And so, the knee-raiser was born, with a goal of $15,000 to get a basic microprocessor knee. That goal was reached in 3 days, and the campaign is now closing in on a $25,000 goal.

 

The second was a campaign launched by my friend Jill Zmud to help produce her second album, “Small matters of life and death.” The Ottawa singer-songwriter’s record was inspired by a family member she will only ever know second-hand. Jill’s uncle had been a touring musician, but was killed in a car crash before she was born. Decades later, Jill found a box of reel-to-reel tapes that became half of her uncle’s musical bequests to her. The other was his Fender Telecaster guitar, which is her main instrument. Jill’s fundraising goal was met, and then some, and she got media coverage including  The Globe and Mail, a major coup for any indie artist.

 

So why did these two campaigns succeed, and why do so many other campaigns struggle? I think there are two things that set Jill and Christa’s campaigns apart: the story, and the perks.

 

Both Jill and Christa had something beyond a “help me make a record” pitch. In one case, it was to support a musician to attain a necessary medical device that she simply would not afford otherwise. In the other, the story of Jill’s uncle’s untimely death and her discovery of his music made for compelling reading and captivated the listener / reader. That Jill was completing the CD and doing the crowdfunding and perparing for a CD-release show while also getting ready to give birth in April made her story even more interesting. Christa’s love for Fluevog shoes, and a well-placed picture, ended up in the company sharing her story with its 93,000 Facebook fans.

 

And both campaigns offered creative and quirky perks for contributions that were fun and engaging all on their own. Because Christa is a well-loved member of a supportive artistic community, she was able to offer donors music perks from seven different performers, as well as art, signed poetry chapbooks, tote bags, and all sorts of other things. Jill offered everything from a credit line in the CD to writing a song for the donor’s wedding to a painting by her artist brother to a one-act play written by her husband to a evening of game-playing with she and her husband. Both Jill and Christa’s campaigns also did  many of the basics right: they maintained momentum, they regularly posted updates via various social media channels, they included video as a part of the campaign, and they gave themselves enough time to meet their goal.

 

So if you’re thinking about trying crowdfunding as a way of completing a project, don’t go in blind. Do the background research necessary to do your project right, and spend time planning it so that you do what Jill and Christa have done:

  • tell a compelling story in multiple ways to engage your audience
  • establish and maintain momentum
  • offer perks that maximize creativity and attract attention on their own
  • use your networks and social media channels to keep the flame burning

And if you’ve read this far, please consider helping to get Christa’s Kneeraiser to its stretch goal of $25,000 and make her the first Canadian bionic folk singer.

Off topic: help Team Jacob in IMAlive suicide prevention fundraiser

Jacob Weiskopf

Our team is named for the irrepressible, cheeky, and fabulous Jacob Weiskopf. He touched so many in his short time here.

This is an unusual post for this blog, in that it’s not going to have anything you can learn directly from it (I TRY to have something informative in most posts). And it’s fairly personal.

This week is National Suicide Prevention Week in the US, and around the world, September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. I’m hoping you’ll read this post and that you’ll contribute to the Team Jacob fundraiser mentioned at the end. So please keep reading.

There’s a great deal that I love about this world, and I don’t really want to leave it anytime soon. Although if a bus hits me tomorrow, so it goes. But that’s not the case for many, many people. One of the people who decided to leave was my brother, around this time of year, 34 years ago. He was 19. I was 13. The loss of a sibling, of someone young, is always devastating. And our family was devastated by the loss of my brother. At that place and time, suicide and mental health were deeply stigmatized. And so there were generous helpings of shame and guilt and concealment to be shared among me, my parents, and my surviving brother. I think the stigma of suicide has been slightly reduced since then, but it’s still there.

The loss of my brother was — for better and for worse — a formative experience in my life. I was shaped in the same way as if you put wet sand into a bucket. When the bucket’s removed, the sand remains formed. And many of my brother’s friends were deeply affected — maybe scarred is the right word — by it. Flowers still show up on his grave, all these years since, anonymously. Perhaps my parents were the most affected. The loss of a child is a breaking of a natural order. The loss of a child by suicide can leave feelings of failure and guilt that can change everything after.

Suicide is an IED. There may be just a crater left, but there’s shrapnel everywhere. One of the saddest, most tragic parts of suicide is that while the undeniable pain and suffering of one person ends, loved ones and friends are plunged into anguish and grief. And while healing is possible, and, for that matter, eventual, it is among the worst of pains that can be imagined. The cliche of suicide being a “permanent solution to a temporary problem” is true, for the person who dies. But for the survivors, it is a permanent problem with only temporary solutions.

Online fundraising for Get punky for Team Jacob!

So, here’s the thing. We all know that for most people, the circumstances that cause suicidal feelings can and will change. So it’s crucial that there are ways of helping people past their moments of crisis, their dark hour. And that’s what this blog post is really about. The Kristin Brooks Hope Centre, a US-based not-for-profit, operates a unique and powerful service called IMAlive. You’re probably familiar with the idea of a crisis line. Well, IMAlive offers a virtual crisis line. For those in crisis who find it more convenient to communicate via a keyboard, they can be connected with a trained volunteer who can help them get through the darkness.

This isn’t therapy. It’s not a one-time magic solution. It’s a step. A crucial first step.

Suicide takes thousands of lives each year in the US, including more than 4,000 young people. This year, a friend, Anne Weiskopf, suffered the loss of her son Jacob. Jacob was struggling with acute depression, and in a moment of darkness, was gone. She, her husband Douglas, and Jacob’s brother Jared, and a multitude of friends and relations are now working through the grieving process.

So when I heard that the Kristin Brooks centre was doing a fundraiser called the 24-7 Giving Challenge, I wanted to get involved. If the fundraiser meets its goal of raising $50,000, the IMAlive chat service will be able to operate around the clock for a year. That means that whenever someone’s in need, there can be someone there for them. That is amazing. So another mutual friend of Anne’s, Anne Marie van den Hurk, agreed to head up “Team Jacob” to honour his memory and to help see this happen.

If you believe in this cause, if you’ve lost someone to suicide, if you’ve found yourself in that dark place and been helped out by someone — please find it in your heart to give. The amount doesn’t matter. You know what you can give. There are chances at some prizes for donations at various levels, so if that’s a motivator, use that. Pass the word, too. If you donate between September 8 and 14, your donation will get counted as part of the challenge and part of Team Jacob’s total.

What else can you do? You can visit the Team Jacob page. You can learn more about IMAlive or the Kristin Brooks Hope Centre. You could reach out to someone you know needs that support. And if you’re in that dark place, reach out and ask for that support. People care about you.

Suicide is not an answer, no matter what you’re facing.

Thanks for reading this far.

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.

http://www.checkeredowl.com/help-stop-new-government-fees-threatening-music-industry/

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: http://www.servicecanada.gc.ca/eng/ocs/complaint_form.shtmland 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,
JByrd

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.

When organizations walk racial tightropes

Nepean Redskins logo

The Nepean Redskins logo and team name are being challenged.

Here in my home town, there’s a bit of a kerfuffle going on about a youth league football team, the Nepean Redskins.

A local musician, Ian Campeau, has filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission over the name of the team, which he feels is offensive to him and to other First Nations. The complaint is likely no surprise to the team; Campeau has been lobbying for a change of name for some time.

And certainly in my dictionaries, the term “Redskin” is considered an offensive term. Here’s good ol’ Google’s definition:

Redskin

Given the history of controversies over  names for various First Nations sporting teams, this news story fit into a fairly convenient narrative: sports team  with a name offensive to a group comes under fire. And predictably, arguments of “political correctness run amok” and some racist commentary lit up comment streams and talk radio.

In fact, it happened just a little while ago right here in Ottawa, when the new basketball team currently known as the Ottawa Skyhawks was known as the Tomahawks for about a picosecond. And of course, there’s no shortage of examples of these controversies in US college and professional sports.

So what’s different here? Ian Campeau isn’t your average dad concerned that a racist team name may have negative effects on his young daughter — he’s a musician in a hot new group, A Tribe Called Red. The trio, as they describe themselves,

“is producing a truly unique sound that’s impacting the global electronic scene and urban club culture. Since 2010 the group – made up of two-time Canadian DMC Champion DJ Shub, DJ NDN and DJ Bear Witness – has been mixing traditional pow wow vocals and drumming with cutting-edge electronic music. Their self-titled album, released in March 2012, was long-listed for Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize and included in the Washington Post’s top 10 albums of the year.”

As you can glean from the musicians’ handles, their music plays with traditional First Nations stereotypes in their music. So that makes this complaint an interesting one. And another thing that makes this dispute interesting: the team had consulted an Ottawa coalition of aboriginal groups last year to ask their opinion of the name, and came away with some positive results.

According to a CBC story, Marc Maracle of the Ottawa Aboriginal Coalition said:

“They didn’t choose the name with any malicious intent to insult or criticise the aboriginal community here in Ottawa or the aboriginal population in general. And in our discussions with them, it was clearly a recognition of strength and pride and character in aboriginal people collectively”… The coalition recommended that the team publish literature about how the name was chosen, “as well as using the issue as a positive education tool, not only within their own executive but with the players and participants in their athletic club as well as with the coaching staff and the parents,” he said.

“Our opinion was that Nepean was using the word Redskins in a positive way, not in a negative way, and that’s really where it starts and it ends from our perspective. It’s unfortunate that it’s been presented in obviously a more confrontational way … as opposed to building a relationship and working at it from that angle. … It just takes on a different connotation that’s not entirely consistent with an approach that the coalition is currently engaged in.”

Once I learned that the team had consulted with First Nations organizations and had gotten at least a tacit endorsement, the narrative started to get muddled. I began to think about the Florida Seminoles. They have explicit approval from the Seminole tribe to use the name. So what if someone were to make similar objections to their name?

Campeau isn’t “wrong.” If he feels the name is offensive, it is, at the very least to him. The team isn’t doing it to offend, and they consulted with representatives of the community to ask if they were being offensive, and they were told they were using the term in a positive way. So they’re not “wrong”, either. So if nobody’s wrong, then who’s “right?” Maybe nobody’s right either.

And what to do when your organization comes under criticism for some form of insensitivity or offense? First, are the complaints justified? Second, have you consulted with anyone appropriate concerning the offensive material? A knee-jerk reaction to appease the offended person or group may be an immediate solution, but you may be in a position where, even if you’re not in “the right”, you’re not necessarily wrong.

Sometimes it’s not as simple as saying “no more Chief Wahoo” or getting rid of a logo. Sometimes it’s more subtle, and if the complainant is reasonable and a person of good faith, it’s likely better in the end to try to build relationships and find some common ground or at least understanding than to either double down or knuckle under.

All dichotomies are false dichotomies

I spent a week with my mom this month. It was the first anniversary of my dad’s death, and it had been a while since I’d seen her, and I thought it was a good time for me to be in Cape Breton. So there I was.

Spending time with an 88-year-old where my access to the Internet was distinctly limited changed my behaviour a little bit. Rather than sitting in my second-floor office typing, I spent a lot of time with her, talking. Or listening to her. I think she’s a bit lonely, and having another person in the house made her want to talk. So I let her.

A fountain pen on a computer keyboard

The pen is mightier than the ‘board?

And so, one day we ended up in Baddeck. Baddeck is a tourist town at one end of the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton. It’s probably best known for its association with Alexander Graham Bell, who lived there for a long time and built the Silver Dart, the first plane to fly in the British Commonwealth (in 1909) and the HD4 hydrofoil that held a speed record for boats for 20 years, and was a giant booster of Cape Breton as a place of pastoral beauty.

Today, it’s got lots of gift shops, ice cream, a museum or two, and a stunning bay full of pleasure boats. And an antique store. We went into the antique store, which had some interesting books (which I didn’t buy), some neat militaria (which I found interesting), and some china (my mom found a lovely cup and saucer). When she got to the counter with her purchase, I jokingly said “Thank God you don’t have any fountain pens, or I’d be in real trouble here.” At which point the proprietor brought out the fountain pens, and I walked away with a classic black and silver Parker 51 for twenty bucks.

It writes like a dream. I’ve used it in a notebook, on some paper, and in a handbound leather journal that I bought in Pisa at Legatoria Dante. Why am I telling you this long preamble? Because of a column I read in my morning paper. In the column, titled “The end of the printed word, revisited”, journalism professor Andrew Cohen argues

 

“Just when you thought that ink was over and paper was passé, along comes word that the world of books isn’t disappearing after all. In fact, its death has been greatly exaggerated.

Skeptics of the virtual life are scorned as Luddites or antiquarians. With the arrival of every new laptop, tablet and smart phone, we are to fall on our knees in wonder and gratitude.

In two particular but significant ways, though, we may be having second thoughts. One is how we are reading. The other is how we are writing.” 

Plainly put, this is a bollocks straw-man argument, which Cohen himself proves in the column. As Shel Holtz so frequently says, “New media does not push out old media.”  E-books don’t mean the end of paper books. TV didn’t end movies. The keyboard hasn’t ended the pen. About the only things that have almost entirely disappeared that I can think of are the typewriter, the floppy, and the 8-track. And even typewriters are still being sought out (by the nichiest of niche markets, mind you). The car and the motorcycle didn’t eliminate the bicycle or the train.

penbookI suspect that nobody’s ever made the kind of statements that Cohen uses as the basis of his argument. I love technology. I started using computers with my TI99/4A and haven’t stopped since. I have an e-reader (thanks to a contest run by blogger Andrea Tomkins); I have shelves and shelves of books. I have an iPod crammed with music, and I have hundreds of CDs. I have a computer I’m using to write this post. I have my pens and books to write thoughts and ideas and stories and yes, sometimes blog posts too.

Sometimes I read things digitally. Other times I want a printed version. Sometimes I grab my iPod. Others, I pop in a CD. Or I plug headphones into my computer. It’s not about either-ors. It’s about options. None of us are binary. When it comes to technologies, we’re all omnivores. Dichotomies in this world are all false ones.

If you read or hear something suggesting that A means the end of B, or that the writer or speaker is a member of a scorned minority by virtue of not liking this or that piece of technology, or social media, or whatever — do yourself and the person in question a favour. Politely tell them they’re wrong, and that reducing the remarkable complexities and subtleties of human behaviour to a binary choice is silly.

Social media mind, beginner’s mind

This is the kanji for Shoshin, the state of "beginner's mind" discussed in Zen Buddhism.

This is the kanji for Shoshin, the state of “beginner’s mind” discussed in Zen Buddhism.

Because I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years teaching at Algonquin College and at Eliquo Training and Development, and because I’ve done a fair amount of speaking on social media and communications topics, I’ve found myself doing lots of “social media 101″ talks. And I’ve written dozens of posts here under the “how-to” or “SMB101″ categories, which are posts particularly useful for people trying to get started in social media.

Do I find that repetitious or tiring? I suppose that would be possible. But as I’ve been doing this, I’ve become more and more convinced that even though “going deep” is appealing, business as a whole is still at the beginning stages of exploiting social media.

Given that social media has been a “thing” for a number of years, the following stats may surprise you:

These stats, and the feedback I get from students, tell me that while those of us who think about social media all the time are busy talking about some of the minutiae, trying to figure out the latest changes to the Facebook algorithm, and pushing the discipline forward, a large portion of the people who are actually working with customers are still trying madly to figure out if and how to do a blog, start a Facebook page, or get on Twitter. And another large group of businesses have started using some or all of those tools, but are floundering.

While it’s a joy to be on the cutting edge, it’s important to realize there are a lot of people out there running businesses who are just struggling to get by. It’s easy to say “Well, they just need to buckle down and get going,” but it’s nowhere near that easy to DO. Let’s not leave them behind.