December 31, 2008

Ya Gotta Believe

When communications really works, one person tells a good thought to another person, or zillions of people, and that good thought takes on power and energy to change the world. I guess I've got big ambitions for this final post of 2008.

And why not? Isn't New Year's Eve about happily saying goodbye to old stuff and looking forward to the new stuff? Looking forward with no idea of what's coming, just believing that better days are just ahead.

Early this month I attended a World AIDS Day program where the speaker was Nobel Peace Prize recipient and former head of Doctors Without Borders Dr. James Orbinski. He shared a definition of hope by someone whose name was Hovel, or Haval...I wasn't sure. The quotation was short, but it was powerful and I wanted to get it and find out more about whoever said it.

(I had a teacher once who said that learning leads to questions, which leads to more learning, and if you're lucky you'll continue that cycle your entire life. I must be super lucky, because not only do I ask questions, but now I have the Internet and Google to help find the answers. I doubt that I'd have continued this search if I'd had to pester a librarian and wade through drawers of index cards and Dewey decimal numbers.)

Anyway, I've learned that the quote is by Vaclav Havel, a writer and dramatist who was the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic. The quotation is from his book, Disturbing the Peace:

"Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."

On the last day of one HELL of a year, one day before a new one begins and 19 days before the start of the Obama administration, I share Havel's words with you. I'm going into this new year feeling like things are beginning to make a bit more sense, and that gives me hope.

Here's to a happy, healthy, peaceful and hopeful 2009 for us all.

December 30, 2008

Astrology 101 for Communicators

In ancient mythology, communications are ruled by the Romans' fast-moving messenger god, Mercury. Early astronomers gave him props by naming the zippiest planet after him (Mercury orbits the sun in just 88 days). At least 3 times each year, these facts combine to bring us Mercury Retrograde, an astrological set-up that I believe merits attention.

Every planet has its retrograde phases, but when Mercury's involved, that's the proverbial horse of a different color.

Myzodiac.com explains that when viewed from Earth's perspective, a planet that appears to have stopped and then temporarily reverses its regular movement in the sky is said to be in retrograde. After about 3 weeks or so, the planet then appears to once again stop and reverse, now going "direct" and back on its normal cyclic path.

Think of it this way: you're driving down the freeway doing well over the 65 mph speed limit. When you pass a car that's barely hitting 50 mph, it can seem as if the slower car is moving backwards. Now imagine that for that moment in time, the perception of backwards travel somehow impacts the people sitting in that car.

So what? Well, when Mercury goes ziggity-boo, as my goddaughter would say, so do all of its royal subjects: thinking and perception, processing and disseminating information and ALL means of communication. Verbal, phones, faxes, computers...the whole ball of wax.

Supposedly, more people are aware of the phenomenon these days. That wasn't the case when my late godmother explained it to me in the mid-1970's. She was a psychologist and astrologer who believed that the info would be helpful since I was a communications major and a Virgo. (The 2 sun signs ruled by Mercury -- Virgos and Geminis -- are more vulnerable than others to a retrograde's effects.) My godmother tried to teach me much more about astrology, but Mercury Retrograde is the one thing that stuck.

I can hear the naysayers (led by my husband) tut-tutting that computers crash, letters are lost, shaky negotiations and personal misunderstandings happen every day of the year. And of course, that's true. But for me and my friends who work in public relations, journalism and other communications-related fields, Mercury Retrogrades are the only times of year when we can safely say that such occurrences are darned near guaranteed. It's not an excuse, it's just the way it is.

And one more thing to remember: once the planet goes direct, resuming its normal path, Mercury has the capacity to undo actions taken during the time of reverse travel. We are advised, then, NOT to start anything new during a Mercury Retrograde. Don't sign contracts or legal documents. Don't get married. Don't schedule a meeting requiring major decisions. Give yourself extra time for travel.

Also keep in mind that many folks believe in a "Mercury shadow" that begins about 3 weeks before, and ends a few weeks after, the retrograde period. Some really annoying stuff can happen then, too.

Well-known examples abound:

When the Titanic sank during a 1912 Mercury retrograde, the crew ignored several messages warning of icebergs in the area. The radio officer on the Californian, a ship just 20 miles away, was off duty and never received the urgent calls for help.

Closer to our time, look at the the 2000 U.S. presidential election. Floridians thought they voted for Al Gore when they actually pushed the chad for Pat Buchanan. Mercury turned direct on election night at 9 PM, just when newscasters got everything wrong. When the dust settled, a majority of Americans thought they'd elected Al Gore, but George W. Bush took office. (Some astrologers say that Bush's entire Presidency reflects classic Mercury Retrograde results.)

Britain's Prince Charles was all set to marry the lovely (?) Camilla during a 2005 retrograde and wound up attending the funeral of Pope John Paul II instead.

This year, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin chose Sept. 25, one day after Mercury turned retrograde, to sit down for an interview with CBS Anchor Katie Couric. The rambling, disjointed and thoroughly confusing result was, well, a mess. The governor's interview days before with ABC Anchor Charlie Gibson, during the Mercury shadow, went just a bit better, but not much.

So what's a girl to do? You can't stay in bed for all these episodes in the sky, but you can be smart. Do some research, paperwork or filing. Work on a project that's already been started. Double-check everything.

On the positive side, the Greeks saw Hermes (Mercury's Greek counterpart) as the god of the unexpected and of coincidence. (Readers of The Celestine Prophecy will think of "synchronicity".) A retrograde, therefore, has been described by author Arianna Stassinopoulos as "the confusion which inevitably precedes new beginnings."

And that, my friends, leads me to share the news that the approaching new year will quickly usher in 2009's first retrograde period.

If you don't believe any of this, fine. You probably stopped reading in the first paragraph anyway.

But for the rest of you, write these dates down, be aware and awake, and have a very Happy New Year!

2009 Mercury Retrogrades
January 11-31, 2009
May 6-30, 2009
September 6-29, 2009
December 26, 2009 - January 15, 2010

December 27, 2008

Have I Got a Guy for YOU!

I'm a married woman, but I've just been introduced to TED, and now we're having an affair.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It began in 1984 as as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. Now, it's a fascinating website offering videos by the world's most inspired thinkers and doers giving "the talk of their lives" in 18 minutes.

TED's mission statement begins with this sentence: We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. And through the website, and the annual conference, that's exactly what the folks behind TED do.

I've only seen a handful of TED talks, but every one has been a winner. Other tems include eEntertainment . My favorite so far is a presentation by public health researcher Hans Rosling who explains the realities of developing nations vs. developed ones and what it might take to eradicate extreme levels of famine and poverty.

Even if you're married or hooked up, give TED a try. You won't be sorry.

December 23, 2008

Remember When News Crawls Meant Something?

A less discussed outcome of the tragedy of 9/11 was the beginning of non-stop crawls at the bottom of the screen on 24-hour news channels. You know what a crawl is: the horizontally moving news stories that may or may not have anything to do with what's actually on the screen at any given time. Like a stock ticker, but with words.

Before 9/11, crawls would come on during a program to tell you of something you might need to know before the next scheduled newscast. An impending change in weather or a school closing, for instance. The crawl was always important, but not so critical that it required program interruption.

In those first few days and weeks following the 9/11 attacks, there was much that needed to be communicated quickly, and it was all important. Rumors needed to be squashed and rapid-fire updates were vital on everything from anthrax in the mail to verifications of the missing and the dead.

There's no such thing as program interruption on a 24-hour news channel, so Fox News Channel started using non-stop crawls on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. CNN was next and the others soon followed. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson, we needed those crawls. We WANTED those crawls.

Now, seven years later, not so much. And so, as of Dec. 15th, CNN has eliminated them. Sort of.

Instead of moving billboards (crawls), CNN now offers brief, stagnate news updates directly linked to the onscreen story. The result so far, in my opinion, is comparable to news anchors recapping a presidential speech seconds after showing the President giving the speech. (In the screenshots above, CNN's busy crawl screen is on the left; the flipper's on the right.)

Last night, for example, Larry King interviewed Vice President-Elect Joe Biden. Seconds after Biden said he'd met with President-Elect Barack Obama to say that he wanted to be in the room for key discussions even if he had no actual role, this sentence (or something close to it) appeared at the bottom of the screen: BIDEN SAYS HE WANTS TO BE COUNSELOR TO OBAMA.

A tad repetitive for those of us who were watching when Sen. Biden made the remark. And if the flipper isn't for the viewers, who is it for? (I hear someone asking about the people who just tuned in. Well, what about them? It's CNN for goodness sakes. Surely they'll repeat what Biden said within minutes anyway, right?)

Later, during a story on flooding after a water main break, the bottom-of-screen message told when officials expected to be able to cap the flowing water. On full-screen was the standard shot of gushing water and floating cars. This time I clearly understood how the flipper can help, because while the anchor described the depth of the water, the flipper told what people really want to know.

CNN calls the non-crawl a "flipper" and hopes it creates a cleaner screen. It might, if the animated boxes announcing BREAKING NEWS or LARRY KING LIVE OR CAMPBELL BROWN weren't placed right above it.

My coach friend tells me that people don't really multi-task. We actually just switch attention between several activities very quickly and fool ourselves into thinking we're doing more than one thing at a time. No one really does more than one thing at a time. Ever.

So if the purpose of the crawls, or the flippers, is to deliver two news items simultaneously, it doesn't matter whether the bottom-screen message is related to the full-screen story or not. As viewers, we're either reading the bottom with less than half-an-ear tuned to the audio, or we're watching and listening to the real news story and the bottom-screen is a blur of peripheral vision.

I liked it better when a crawl meant, "HEY! Pay attention! Something's going on!" Right now, it just means that broadcasters have forgotten what a clean screen looks like.

December 19, 2008

Your Friends Are Talking

After reading and writing so many posts about communicating online, it feels strange to think about messages sent by action or deed.

From Aretha Franklin singing to Rev. Rick Warren preaching, practically every person taking the microphone at January's presidential inauguration is apparently sending a message to someone somewhere. If you've been married and paired people up at reception tables, you have a teensy, teensy idea of what I'm talking about.

It's the same stuff your mother told you -- people judge you by your friends sometimes. Try to choose friends who make you shine inside and out.

December 14, 2008

Has Anyone Noticed that Change Is All Over the Place?

This cartoon by Mike Luckovich in the Atlanta Constitution almost made me cry.

My best friend is a life/career coach with a special touch for journalists wondering how to transfer their skills to The Real World. She was the one who told me that 3,800 media-related jobs were recently lost in a single week. Gannett, The Hartford Courant, The Cleveland Plain Dealer. The Chicago Tribune and The New York freakin' Times.

Having once worked on the periphery of that world, I've seen newsroom fear before. These folks go out in the world to tell the rest of us what's going on. When they do the job right, they make pests of themselves questioning and probing the people who claim to want to protect and represent us. They challenge Presidents and explain crazy things like Twitter.

When your days are spent driving toward the tornado when everyone else is driving away from it, it's hard to imagine what to say to sell yourself to anybody outside that world.

The media cutbacks in the newspaper industry -- well, let's be real here -- the not-so-slow-anymore death of the newspaper industry, is what tears at my heart the most. When I hear people say "There will always be newspapers," it backs up my radio vs. TV analogy.

Radio was the hottest thing ever...until it wasn't. Once television caught fire (commonly thought of as Day One), radio began to die. It rallied, of course. I mean, we have radio now. But it sure isn't the same radio that it was in 1946 when my mother and aunt whispered with The Shadow and laughed at The Bickersons and learned about war from Edward R. Murrow.

Radio survived, but differently. I expect newspapers to do the same. What's different is the change in access.

To me, newspapers are like baseball. Something basic and universally loved, which I think was true for most of baseball's existence. Throughout time, both butlers and billionaires could follow and cheer for the same team. With TV, they both watched the same game, though in very different locales, and for a shining moment now and then, the poor person and the rich person might talk as peers about their shared love.

Cable killed that.

Suddenly the rich guy could watch the game because he could afford WTBS. The poor guy had to wait for a wrap-up in the next day's paper or local TV news.

What I fret about now is that as newspapers get thinner, with more stories from faraway wire services and more reporters writing about things not in their area of expertise, the poor guy is the real victim once more.

If you have been blessed with a cable or satellite TV account for many years, this may be very hard for you to imagine, but please try. Imagine that your primary, or, heaven help you, your ONLY source of news is the local, daily newspaper and local and network TV.

Holy crap.

On related note, what does all this mean for communicators and PR folk fighting for less editorial space and pitching to overwhelmed reporters? How will their tactics and strategies change?

And one more thing. February 2009 brings the much heralded end of TV as we know it. The digital conversion is one more thing for that poor guy to have to do to just tread water. Whenever I see that reminder crawl at the bottom of the screen, I pray for the elderly and others whose lives revolve around the flickering box. For them it brings not just entertainment and education. For a sad, and horribly large number of people, I fear, a TV is their only company, and the only other human voice they regularly hear.

I do not believe it is too strong to say that in some cases, a TV is life.

I hope the transition goes well and converter boxes are in place where they should be and everything's everything. I really, really do.

December 11, 2008

Do You Hear Buzzing?

Fantastic opportunity this morning to be a presenter at the Center for Community Solutions' "Telling Your Story to the Media VIII". Every time I present on social media and online tools, I learn as much as the audience! Heaven knows blogger George Nemeth is a major source of info. (He turned me on to twitterlocal.net where you can find tweeple in your neighborhood!)

I've decided that Twitter is like Barbie. It all started with one little doll (who, BTW started out as a brunette). And look at Barbieland now. That's my point.

Check out this post by SM blogger Brian Solis and the scope of the twitterverse will take your breath away. And be sure to read the comments! Tht's where I learned about the birth of be-a-magpie.com, a Twitter network that blends ads with tweets. Slightly disgusting, but did anyone doubt that there were more people working on that so-called problem than there are working on a cure for AIDS?

I probably should apologize to the folks at this morning's event because we did dump a ton of information on their heads. I'm certain at least one man was in a daze. But I'll bet that same man won't look at his computer the same way anymore, and I'm also certain that he's curious enough to try some new websites and tools.

I'm on a mission to teach people that Google searches far more than "Web" and "Images." It's not necessarily a mission from God, but it'll do.

So many at the program this a.m. are still trying to comprehend why so many folks are twitterholics. Try this analogy: There was a "Star Trek" episode (well, of course I'm referring to the ORIGINAL! I'm Uhura!)

Where was I?

Oh! Anyway, people living in another dimension were represented by a buzzing sound. These people are standing in the halls on the Enterprise, unseen, talking to each other, falling in love, breaking up, living their lives -- all right next to James T's clueless crew.

Twitter is that buzz in your ear.

If you're not understanding by now that there is a new conversation going on without you, then all you'll ever hear is bzz-bzz. But, as someone asked this morning, "How do I use this stuff to get people in the door?"

Walk this way. Come with me into the new millennium.

Send your press releases out the traditional ways, to the traditional media. Then find out who's blogging about your issue and send the release to them, too. Use twitterlocal.net to find tweeple in your geographic radius. Send 'em tweets about the work you're doing on to get ready for the upcoming event. No heavy-handed "We're having a party!" Instead, just casual talk about stuffing gift bags or preparing water bottles for the walk-a-thon. Maybe on the morning of the event, tweet about the behind-the-scenes excitement.

And after the event, tweet about how it went. And then keep on tweeting. It's a relationship, not a one-time billboard. Remember Mom's advice: If you only call your friends when you needed something, they won't be your friends much longer.

December 8, 2008

Connecting One-to-One

It's that time of year again. Holiday presents mean thank-you notes.

Well, at least for most little kids it does. For a lot of adults, the pesky things are generally reserved for brides and job-seekers. But because everyone's learning that relationships are more important than ever these days, more people acknowledge that if a simple thank-you can boost a connection, so be it.

There are ways to let the computer do it for you -- twitterlater will automatically send out "thanks for the follow" emails, for example. Those are really appreciated by tweeple, I'm told.

You can bet that the Obama Team remembered to send out 'official' thanks. An 8-1/2 x 5-1/2" postcard with a color pic of the Obamas & Bidens on Election Night. The copy sounds exactly as though it came from Obama's lips:

"This victory alone is not the change we seek -- it is only the chance for us to make that change."

It's "signed" by Michelle and Barack. Their signatures are in blue against black type, which is important for 2 reasons. First, there's a shocking number of folks out there who will believe their card was personally signed by the Obamas. Yes. There. Are.

And for those of us who know better, there's something about seeing the squiggled names in inky dark blue that makes your inner voice ask, "I know they didn't sign this, but it looks so real!"

A written thank-you note conveys the seriousness of your gratitude in a way that a spontaneous, genuine and verbal "Oh wow! Thank you!" can't. The note says you took the time to make sure the giver knows you really mean it.

Here's a real tip: send HANDwritten thank-you notes on actual notecards to zoom to the head of the class. (If your handwriting sucks, don't try it. Run the notecard through your printer!)

I hear you out there muttering that the HR person is in her 20s and she could care less whether something is handwritten or not. Possibly. But in a pile of 'thank-yous' that the other job candidates printed out on 8-1/2 x 11" paper, your 4x6 notecard will stand out. YOU will stand out. In a good way.

December 5, 2008

God Bless Us, Everywun

A new website called Everywun went live this week with what I think is a neat twist on clicking for a cause. It's not like Facebook's Causes app that awards the users with the most donation. With Everywun, users can support broad categories like homelessness and women's rights without spending a dime.

Click on the "badge" there. Go ahead. I'll wait.



Everytime someone clicks on a badge, a donation is given by a corporate sponsor that's contracted with Everywun to support that issue. I put badges on my website and Facebook page, too. It's easy and it's free. I don't think there's a limit to how many badges one can get.

It's a neat idea -- it'll be interesting to watch how it all rolls out. In an SF Chronicle story, Everywun daddy Dan Jacobs says his goal is "to create a world in which it's easy to participate in philanthropy and you don't hve to part with resources you don't have."

My other piece of bling is the Socializer widget at lower left. It scrolls headlines of stories posted on delicious, Fark, reddit, and other social sites. News you can use, kiddies!

December 4, 2008

My Famous Friends

Sunday's NY Times outed several famous tweeple (people on Twitter). An interesting mix: Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Shaquille O'Neal, Dave Matthews (yes, THAT Dave Matthews), Monthy Python alum John Cleese, Australian PM Kevin Rudd and "Heroes" star Brea Grant.

I found it strange that the article doesn't give the VIPs' screen names, but it does tell the number of followers for each. (#1 Shaq with 13,439. Cleese a close second at 12,697). The article doesn't have much deep info on the celebs' in Twitterville, though now I know that Netanyahu doesn't do it on the Sabbath, proving that there are indeed sinful tweets to be had.

I think I found Shaq's address on my own (@The_Real_Shaq) and Cleese, too (@JohnCleese). It wasn't that difficult.

And although I've been following MSNBC's Rachel Maddow for a while (I LOVE her!), I realize that it has never occurred to me to use my Twittertime trolling for celebs. Is that a generational thing? As in, I could care less what Jessica Alba is tweeting about? Maybe.

But now I'm wondering just who I would tweet with/to, if I could. It's a new form of the game "which person in the world would you have dinner with?" I think I'd rather be twitterfriends with Michelle Obama even more than with her husband. And does Mandela seem like a tweeting kind of guy to you?

December 2, 2008

Defining a Good Blog

Happy Belated Thanksgiving and I hope you noted the occurrence of World AIDS Day '08. Every 10 minutes another American is infected with AIDS. I'm just sayin'.

Let's get started today by talking about blogging. I'm sure you noticed I took off a bit for the holiday. Not that you care, but I felt guilty every day about it. One day, I turned on the computer, put my hands on the keys...and...nothing. So I ask you:

Is it better to blog every day or every other day even if you have nothing to say? It's an interesting issue. The argument I've heard is that if you don't blog every day, your readers will get tired of the silences and leave. My response is, if what you read on a blog 4 days out of 7 is crap, aren't you going to leave anyway?

If you're out there, I'd really like to see some comments on this one.

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