Do We Need a “National Timeout from Declaring Things Month?”

Working in government for nine years, I’ve been primed to the existence of special months or weeks for various causes.

However, in each of the last nine years, my scale of impatience about these special months or weeks has increased consistently and with added confusion.

I reached a breaking point in the last few days as I’ve encountered the following special months or weeks in April (and there are probably more!):

  • Distracted Driving Awareness Month
  • National Volunteer Week
  • National Victim Rights Week
  • Work Zone Safety Week
  • Child Abuse Awareness Month
  • National County Government Month
  • National Public Safety Telecommunications Week
  • National Public Health Week
  • National 9-1-1 Education Month
  • Sexual Assault Awareness Month
  • Fair Housing Month
  • Donate Life Month
  • Pet Preparedness Twitter Challenge in April
  • National Youth Violence Prevention Week
  • World Health Day

These are all worthy causes and important facets of our lives, but to the average resident even remotely paying attention, doesn’t this list look silly when viewed together? What about the other 11 months or 51 weeks of the year when, by logic, it’s not distracted driving awareness month or national public health week? Are we supposed to forget about those topics in “off” weeks or months? If the goal to reach everyone, then how can people possibly muddle through this menu of months with an ounce of attention?

I understand the premise of declaring these weeks/months — to garner focused attention for a period of time about issue X or topic Y. Does this work, though, especially in a social convergence era? Are the needles on these topics moving because of these declarations or are these timeframes rote and just recycled every year as a way to check a box? It feels like these weeks/months come from an era of only three nightly news options or only Johnny Carson for comedy at 11:30 p.m. I’m sure there’s something important designated for June, but it may be top of my mind in April and I need the information now.

Maybe it’s time to declare July as National Timeout from Declaring Things Month so these designated timeframes can be rethought rather than rehashed every year. Thirteen Fifteen declared topics in a one- or two-week period seems like overkill to this government “junkie” or “insider.”

Your ideas? Your experiences (either as a government communicator or just as a consumer)?

UPDATE 1: April 7-11 is National Youth Violence Prevention Week.

UPDATE 2: April 7 is World Health Day.

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By @g_r_e_g Posted in #gov20

“The Cluetrain Manifesto,” Local Government and Emergencies

I recently completed teaching an online graduate class at The George Washington University about social media. As I designed the class and envisioned the curriculum, I knew immediately “The Cluetrain Manifesto” would be a central component.

For those not familiar with this landmark book published in 1999, it detailed what we’re now living through today in our social media world. It was a very prescient book at the time (and still deeply relevant today).

“The Cluetrain Manifesto” consists of 95 theses such as:

  • Markets are conversations.
  • Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.
  • Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
  • The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.
  • …markets are getting smarter, more informed, more organized. Participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally.
  • Companies can now communicate with their markets directly. If they blow it, it could be their last chance.
  • Corporations do not speak in the same voice as these new networked conversations. To their intended online audiences, companies sound hollow, flat, literally inhuman.

If you’ve never read this book or looked at the 95 theses, then you may be saying, “Um, yes, that very much sounds like today’s world.”

So I asked my students to share thoughts about “The Cluetrain Manifesto” throughout the course. One student, in particular, provided a wonderful bridge between the manifesto and social media in emergency management (#smem for those that do not follow the hashtag on Twitter):

“Currently Colorado is undergoing tremendous wildfires, so the theses can be seen very readily within my local community daily.  For example, #34 talks about “companies must share the concerns of their communities,” and this is especially felt when the community the local government is in undergoes an emergency such as a wildfire. The government cannot have a detached response to the emergency, they must express their concern in every way imaginable – twitter updates, website posts, etc. The media and the entire community are waiting on baited breath for updates and the local government must be responsive, timely, and by utilizing many different forms of media. Also, the community has a desire and a want “to participate in the conversations going on behind the corporate firewall,” as #62 alludes to.  They want to be heard as well as be updated as timely as possible because this goes beyond a product or an idea that we are trying to sell, but instead impacts the very structures of their life and livelihood. This correlates very closely with #83 that states “We want you to take . . . us as seriously as you take one reporter” in that the focus needs to be on the community and not on what the media needs to hear. Questions such as when can I get back in my neighborhood, is my house destroyed, etc. are much more personal than the media who is looking at another news story. Using social media allows the local government to communicate the issues and facts of the emergency in many ways to help prevent and refute misinformation that just as readily flows during a time of crisis.”

I LOVE this response at it states the connections so well (with a tinge of passion for this student’s community).

Another student wrote:

#95 states that we are waking up and linking to each other. We are watching, but we are not waiting. So important in the event of an emergency. We can’t sit around and wait to see what the aftermath is, we have to know and be able to react.”

Social media has roots, though that may be counterintuitive to many people. “The Cluetrain Manifesto” still astounds me today with its insight that was well ahead of its time. Some days I wish a new manifesto would come out to accurately predict what’s coming next, but too many people still need to read these 95 and understand the world in which we live — and I still need to work hard everyday to fulfill the accurate expectations of today’s networked world.

What theses resonate the most with you today?

#DonDraper, Media Relations Myth and the Future of Public Affairs

What kind of employee would Don Draper hire in 2013?

Would the “Mad Men” advertising genius look for the skills of 1964 or something a little more contemporary? As my wife and I continue our “Mad Men” marathon in season four, I often compare that era to today.

For example, as he’s trying to pitch a new angle for the now defunct Mohawk Airlines, print and radio ads were advertising gold, the standard tools by which success was measured for getting the word out. But today? A hasthtag would likely be one of his first thoughts.

So as I sometimes see job openings in the public affairs arena, why are so many (by my unscientific count through periodic glances in recent weeks leading up to this post) senior level positions so focused on media relations? I’m amused by this continued trend that public affairs officers, especially in government, need to have umpteen years of experience dealing with the media.

Hogwash (to use a technical term).

The media don’t really want the help of a public affairs person most of the time. Sure, journalists may need assistance to get an interview or to get some facts and perspective, but most journalists worth their byline would – and should – bypass public affairs and focus on the angle they’re interested in. That may be uncomfortable for some to read, but I believe the hand holding that often accompanies a journalist’s call represents a failure to imagine a new future of public affairs.

We need good journalists in our communities, but independent of their existence, senior level positions should advertise for someone who knows search engine optimization. Or hashtags. Or, perish the thought, some coding experience. Or how to first execute the elements to post and then analyze Facebook Insights like this below (which is Facebook’s new per post metrics view):

Facebook metrics screenshot

As a public affairs profession, we can have impact, too, by talking, engaging and interacting directly with our communities. These skills of 2013 that Don Draper would look for are much more relevant and useful than hoping a journalist will cover your story the way you want it through a press release littered with useless quotes that required five people to approve. Journalists can be good amplifiers of messages during emergencies or for human-interest stories, but in today’s world, organizations are broadcasters/publishers, too.

No, we’re not journalists and I would be “sinning” against my undergraduate journalism education if I equated the two, but senior executives at organizations need to realize the alleged art of media relations is dying. The art of engaging directly with your community is rising and you need senior-level experience to respond to the future rather than stay stuck in the past with media relations as a dominant determinate of success.

Social media, customer experience, web design, SEO and other digital duties shouldn’t be relegated to mid-level people while senior level folks “handle” the media. That’s a structure I’ve seen for years in many organizations and many recent job ads perpetuate this notion.

The whole public affairs enterprise needs a different focus if we want to remain relevant to the people we serve rather than becoming more irrelevant to journalists who have a different purpose.

Mohawk Airlines would fire Don Draper today if he presented an entire campaign focused on media articles, radio buys and print ads. Media relations should not dominate today’s public affairs landscape, which is a difficult fact for many senior executives to digest.

That era, along with Mohawk Airlines, has passed.

“Opening” Our Minds to the Challenge of Consistent Creativity in Government

Are you in the “open” mode?

Is your mind ready to pursue digital communications in an exploratory fashion that embraces triumph and failure?

As government communicators, that’s sometimes a challenge due to old ways, bureaucracy, rules and inertia. We’re public servants in 2012, but are we adapting fast enough to the change we see? Often, the change we’re experiencing is already years old. How do we both keep pace and ahead of the curve?

Creativity calls our name, but many of us in different ways. I’m creative about many things, but I often fall short in other areas. You’re probably in the same place, too — inconsistent creativity.

I try to draw inspiration from people’s words — their experiences, concepts and passion. TED Talks are, of course, one constant source of ideas.

A video I recently discovered, though, has really focused the challenge of creativity for me. The actor John Cleese (“Monty Python”) delivered a riveting lecture about creativity years ago. This talk is certainly TED worthy, as one YouTube comment declares.

Cleese describes how creativity needs “open” and “closed” modes so our minds can prepare and focus to be creative (in social media, government or whatever our work). He then details the key ingredients for the “open” mode to succeed:

  1. Space
  2. Time
  3. Time
  4. Confidence

I invite you to watch the full lecture and his great delivery of it here…

… or a key excerpt of it here: