Category Archives: communications

This is the Best Blog Post Ever

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Instead of responding to a particularly annoying political post on Facebook, I’d like to ask a question about today’s political rhetoric. Does everybody and everything have to be the best or the worst ever? Any time I hear that claim about any politician (or anything really), I disregard it immediately. I’m a sucker for polls about who was the best/worst president, but only because I’m curious about what people think — and I know it’s just an opinion.

But Donald Trump is good at throwing out these kinds of claims — without being challenged — and making them stick. Even after he back-pedals on a position or “clarifies” a statement, he has (intentionally) made an impression that won’t be undone.

The talking points about Trump’s opponent have worked well for him and the Republicans, if the web is any reflection. Google “Hillary Clinton is the most corrupt candidate ever,” and you’ll get 1.8 million results. But “Trump is the most corrupt candidate”? About 5,000. Bucking the trend is the New York Magazine article titled…wait for it…”The Most Corrupt Candidate Ever is Donald Trump.”

Also, according to Trump, Hillary was the “worst secretary of state ever.” I wish a reporter would ask him who the second worst was, to see if he can name another person who’s held the office. In 2011 he said, President Obama “has been a horrible president. I always said the worst president was Jimmy Carter. Guess what? Jimmy Carter goes to second place. Barack Obama has been the worst president ever.”

If you don’t believe him, you can read the book. Yes, there’s a book titled 150 Reasons Why Barack Obama in the Worst President in History. But after it was published in 2013, authors Matt Margolis and Mark Noonan discovered 50 more reasons, leading to their latest release, The Worst President in History: The Legacy of Barack Obama, complete with 200 reasons. Or you can just follow the authors’ Twitter account with the username…yes…@WorstPresident. Or contact them by email at worstpresident44@gmail.com. I mean, who has time for this?

Something tells me this is going to be the longest presidential campaign ever.

Is Your Cause “The Greatest”?

aliMuhammad Ali, whose life was celebrated in a public memorial service today, will be remembered as one of the greatest boxers and athletes of all time. The accolades for his athletic accomplishments, social activism, and religious convictions will continue for several more weeks and months.

It’s hard to imagine any other athlete (or anyone, really) giving themselves the title of “The Greatest” and having it stick. Many people cheered against him because of the way he boasted and belittled his opponents. But in addition to calling himself The Greatest, he also said, “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”

In promoting your organization or cause, don’t shy away from sharing its value, importance, and impact on society. But also make sure you can back it up with stories, statistics, and examples. A superlative without evidence will quickly be ignored, and will actually make people trust your organization or cause less. There are so many examples of this in nonprofit communications. How many times have you heard about a “unique approach,” “the first  of its kind,” “the biggest/the best/the only” with absolutely no proof that any of these claims are true? I won’t bore you with examples, but if you’ve got the time, you can read the 4.3 million search results for “unique approach” and tell me how many are actually unique.

You KNOW your organization or cause is The Greatest, right? So prove it.

 

 

“Weiner”: Crisis as Tragi-comedy

weinerHere’s the best description I’ve read for the new documentary “Weiner,” from NPR’s David Edelstein:

“…a cross between ‘The War Room,’ in which resourceful operatives steer a scandal-ridden but confident candidate to victory, and ‘The Blair Witch Project,’ in which everyone runs around screaming and dies.”

The film, which follows the mayoral campaign of Anthony Weiner, could have been a comeback tale about a disgraced congressman who turned around his reputation to serve the city he loved. Instead, it’s about a disgraced congressman who is further disgraced…this time in front of cameras that he invited into his professional and personal life.

It’s also a lesson about why crisis communications, no matter how well it’s executed, can’t make up for dishonesty. In one scene that will be uncomfortable for any communications professional to watch, Weiner tries to determine how to answer a question from reporters — not by telling his communications director Barbara Morgan the answer, but by trying to remember what he has said in previous interviews. “I think we’ve got to answer the question,” he tells her. “The problem was that a series of interviews that I did when I got in the race were after this. And people asked is the number still the same? I think I said to…six…and then cleaned it up in subsequent interviews because I knew that was a problem. The question is do we answer it or not? I think we have to answer these questions.”

It’s as much a film about Weiner’s wife, Hillary Clinton confidante Huma Abedin. She comes across as a strong and confident woman who deserves better, but in a situation that is out of her control. (If you ask me offline, I’ll tell you my Huma story, but I’ll just say that while I could somewhat enjoy watching Weiner’s downfall unfold on the screen, the movie is hard to watch knowing that it was Weiner, not her, who sought this cinematic attention.)

 

 

Ray Rice, NFL & Ravens: When is Your Reputation Beyond Management?

I’ve done my share of my share of crisis communications and reputation management, but the Ray Rice video — and the public reaction to it — makes me wonder if some reputations are beyond repair. Ray Rice’s career and reputation may already be ruined, but this story’s not over, and the NFL and Baltimore Ravens will be under scrutiny in the following days.

Back in May, when Rice spoke publicly about his alleged abuse of his then-fiancee, he said of his 2-year-old daughter, “One day she’s going to know the power of Google. Me having to explain that to her, what happened that night, that’s something I have to live with the rest of my life.” Well, with the release of the new video footage today, those Google searches just got a lot worse.

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March, the Ravens, eager to hold on to their Pro Bowl running back, brushed it off as a private incident. Coach John Harbaugh called Rice “a person of character,” saying “When you drink too much in public, those kind of things happen.” [Watch the elevator video and read that again: “…those kinds of things happen.”]

General Manager Ozzie Newsome added, “We respect the efforts Ray has made to become the best partner and father he can be. That night was not typical of the Ray Rice we know and respect.” The team even took to Twitter to publicize the fact that Rice’s fiance addressed her own role in the dispute:

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That tweet was removed today, a few hours after the video was released by TMZ Sports. In a press conference tonight, Harbaugh said that he and other Ravens officials had seen the video this morning for the first time. The NFL also stated it had not seen the video. That raises a few questions:

1. If the NFL conducted a thorough investigation, how could they have been unable to obtain the video? This happened in a casino, where there is no shortage of cameras. If they wanted to know what happened in the elevator, they would have insisted on seeing the video, and clearly it was available. But the NFL said today: “We requested from law enforcement any and all information about the incident, including the video from inside the elevator. That video was not made available to us and no one in our office has seen it until today.”

2. If the NFL and Ravens are being truthful, and they saw the video for the first time today, what does the video change? They knew that when Rice and his fiance entered the elevator, she was conscious. When he dragged her out of the elevator, she was not. Hmmm. I wonder what happened?

Call me a cynic, but here’s what really changed — the public saw a graphic video and now the NFL and Ravens can no longer defend their efforts to explain this incident away. The message to NFL players? If you beat up your wife or girlfriend, don’t get caught on tape.

What Can Ernest Hemingway Teach You About Blogging?

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One of the keys to a blog post is getting to the point (and, even more important, having a point in the first place.) Sometimes I edit an article or blog post by removing words and sentences that are redundant, uninteresting, or unnecessary — and find that there’s not much left. In fact, one of the things that prepared me to create short posts for blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ was writing and editing letters for President Clinton in the White House. There’s not much room on one page (or in one tweet) to make your point, so you have to be efficient with that limited space.

Ragan.com recently republished a post I missed the first time called “Ernest Hemingway’s Five Secrets to Good Blogging,” written by Erik Dekers, the co-owner and vice president of creative services for Professional Blog Service. Dekers says that If you blog or do any writing for the web, you can learn a thing or two (or five) from Hemingway. “Blogging is the new newspaper,” Dekers writes. “Posts need to be short, punchy, and interesting right from the very beginning — all characteristics that marked a Hemingway story.” The lessons:

  1. Write and speak with authority.
  2. Avoid adverbs.
  3. Don’t write for “the reader.” “Don’t worry about what the critics and haters are going to say,” Deckers writes. “Don’t anticipate what comments you might get, and how you can head them off at the pass. Don’t avoid controversial topics just because you think someone might disagree with you. Write for you, and make it awesome.”
  4. Have a set writing schedule. “Hemingway’s schedule was to get up early, get to the typewriter by 7 a.m., and write until lunchtime. Even when he was starting out and had to work odd jobs, he would only do them after lunch. He didn’t drink until he was done writing, and he would even get up when he was hung over.”
  5. Leave stuff out. “He would omit everything he could, including background information that was not relevant to the story. Similarly, as bloggers, we need to leave things out. Don’t use descriptions of what you were thinking when you came up with a certain blog topic. Explain why something is important, and what it means to us.” Read the full post.

A Walk on the Wild Side: Nonprofit Lessons from Lou Reed

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photo by Thierry Ehrmann

I never know what to say about celebrities who die. It’s always sad, of course, especially if I admired their work, but what do I have to add the tributes I see all over Facebook, Twitter, and the web?

Lou Reed, who died at 71 on Sunday, and his band Velvet Underground made some of my favorite music, and influenced my tastes as I discovered other music. I admired Reed as an intelligent writer (he was an English major) and as an unabashed observer of American society. As I’ve listened to his music over the past few days, it occurred to me that several of his songs contain lessons and insights for nonprofits. Can you think of others?

“Pale Blue Eyes”
Thought of you as my mountain top,
Thought of you as my peak.
Thought of you as everything,
I’ve had but couldn’t keep.

This is one of Lou’s most melodic and popular songs, but what many people don’t know is that it was inspired by a female muse – who had hazel eyes.

Lesson: Be honest in your communications, but also creative. “Pale Hazel Eyes” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

“Dirty Blvd.”
No one here dreams of being a doctor or lawyer or anything.
They dream of dealing on the dirty boulevard.

Reed loved New York City, but he was also realistic about the underbelly of the city, and the gap between the haves and have-nots. In this song, Pedro at first seems doomed to a life of poverty and drugs, but finds a book of magic and dreams of flying away. It’s all relative, but for Reed, that almost qualifies as a happy (or at least hopeful) ending.

Lesson: Share the grim reality of the problems you’re trying to solve, but also give your supporters hope and show them what’s possible.

“Perfect Day”
Oh it’s such a perfect day.
I’m glad I spent it with you.

Whether this song is a simple love story or an ode to heroin addiction, it’s one of Reed’s most upbeat and most covered songs.

Lesson: Celebrate your successes, and thank your donors for making them possible.

“Walk on the Wild Side”
Holly came from Miami, F.L.A.

Sex, drugs, and rock and roll – it’s all here, and it’s also one of Reed’s most melodic songs. Quintessential Lou, it’s a simple narrative with interesting and offbeat characters.

Lesson: What stories can you tell that haven’t been told before? Think differently. Surprise your audience. Take a walk on the wild side.

This One Word Could Help You Raise More Money

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As much as I enjoy reading blogs, journals, newspapers, and magazines about nonprofits and fundraising, I think some of the most interesting lessons come from other sources. For example, Psychology Today‘s blog recently published a post titled “The Power of the Word ‘Because’ To Get People to Do Stuff.” According to author Susan Weinschenk, PhD, “Because is a magic word when you want to get people to do something.” Could that include asking them to support your cause?

She cites a 1978 study in which people on a college campus tried to cut in line to use a copier. There was 60 percent compliance when someone asked, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the xerox machine?” But that rose to 93 percent when the person asked, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I have to make copies?” And it was 94 percent with “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”

Next, they tried the experiment with a person with 20 pages. In that case, only the “…because I’m in a rush” increased compliance. Dr. Weinschenk concludes, “When the stakes are low, people will engage in automatic behavior. If your request is small, then follow the request with the word ‘because’ and give any reason. If the stakes are high, then there is a little more resistance, but still not too much. Use the word ‘because’ and try to come up with at least a slightly more compelling reason.”

How does this affect your requests to get support for your organization or your cause? Are you explaining WHY someone should support you? And do you think the word “because” makes a difference?

Young Donors are Different: What the Latest Research Means for Fundraisers

Young donors differ from other donors in many ways, and new research on their interests, preferences, and behaviors suggests several ways you can engage them more effectively. Penelope Burk, president of Cygnus Applied Research and the “Burk” in the annual Burk Donor Survey, talked to me about findings in her 2013 research that relate to young donors.

What Young Donors Support
Burk’s research shows that many young donors support human services (54%) and arts/culture (47%). Many people think of the environment as a favored cause for young people, but research doesn’t back that up. Only 21% of donors under the age of 35 supported environmental organizations, compared with 34% of middle-age donors and 45% of donors 65 and older.

What Appeals are Appealing
Young donors are far less likely to respond to direct mail appeals (31%) than donors age 35-64 (50%) and donors 65 and older (68%). They are much more likely to respond to online appeals and give electronically (49%) than middle-age donors (37%) or older donors (32%). Events are appealing to all age groups, Burk said. “Young donors are as interested in giving through fundraising events as older donors in the study. Events in which they can actively participate, rather than simply being guests, tend to be more popular with younger donors.”

Implications for Communications
Burk says the biggest difference between older and younger donors is their preferences for communications. “The youngest donors (under 35) appear to be less patient and they make decisions about what they will and will not read more quickly,” she said. “Young donors are more sensitive to getting too many emails and they are less forgiving of charities that send communications that appear to be uninteresting.”

Burk’s advice for fundraising appeals to young people: Get to the point. They say they are too busy to read a lot of text, so “make communications content (especially the first sentence) compelling enough to persuade young donors to take the time.”

Young donors have a decided preference for electronic over print communication. Only 3% of those receiving information online would have preferred to get a print piece in the mail, but 45% of those getting print currently say they would much prefer electronic communication. “Not-for-profits should make every effort offer their donors the opportunity to transition into electronic communication with every communication they send,” Burk said.

The Giving Potential of Young Donors
While some organizations overlook younger donors because of they currently give less than other donors, Burk’s research shows that young people can give more. In fact, 58% said they definitely or probably could have given more to charitable causes last year, a figure considerably higher than for older donors (42%).

“While the average gift value of young donors is much less than their middle-age or older counterparts,” Burk said, “it appears that either the tactics fundraisers use to acquire donors and renew their support are not reaching people under 35, or fundraisers are under-asking, assuming that young people cannot give more generously.”

Do these findings match up with what you’re seeing in your organization? How do you tailor your communications to younger donors?

Download a free executive summary of the 2013 Burk Donor Survey or purchase the full survey.

 

Which is a Worse Influence: Miley’s Twerking, or Her Spelling?

In my recent post about bad grammar and spelling on social media, and how it affects companies’ reputations, I didn’t make the point that these errors may also affect children and others who are still learning the English language. In this video, young students in Brazil take the time to correct their favorite celebs — and the results are entertaining and eye-opening. Could it be that Miley Cyrus’s use of grammar is as harmful as all of the other ways she’s influencing a generation that grew up watching “Hannah Montana”?

In the intro to this video, Andrea Baena, a teacher in Brazil, says, “The main point of social media is how fast it is. They’re not worried about their accuracy — they’re more worried about the message. We have celebrities that are not really worried about the language. Concerning education, it’s really bad, because when they see their idols speaking like that, they come to us and say, ‘This is right — he’s American, he’s using it.’ ”

So Red Balloon, an English school in Brazil, asked 8- to 13-year-olds to check and correct their idols’ tweets. You have to admire how well they play the role of grammar cops while also being polite and even complimentary of stars like Charlie Sheen, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, Sylvester Stallone, Ashton Kutcher, John Cusack, and so many others. My favorite line is to Miley — “Look, ‘birthday’ has no Fs.”

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What do you think? Snarky or cute? Or both?

Spelling, Grammar, and Your Reputation

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As an English and journalism major in college, I used to test my proofreading skills by trying to find a typo — any typo — as I read The Washington Post. Things have changed a lot since then, and errors in the most prestigious newspaper in the nation’s capital are all too common.

The photo above is from the front page of the Post‘s sports section on Sept. 13. I know the reporters and editors of the sports section know that the Mets play baseball, and the Nets play basketball. The story got it right, but the prominent subhead got it wrong.

Grammar and spelling standards are in sharp decline, for a number of reasons. In the newspaper industry, tight budgets have led to cuts in both reporting and editing positions, meaning that fewer people are churning out content, and fewer people are reviewing that content and correcting errors. This is not a new problem; several years ago, former Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton addressed this problem in a blog post: “I don’t mean to pile on, but copy editing mistakes are among the most frequent complaints to the ombudsman.” He quoted a reader who had written to him: “The quality of copy editing at the paper is abysmal….Is anybody reading what goes on up on the Web site or in the paper?…It diminishes the overall reputation of the paper.”

The quality of newspapers has declined, but the biggest impact on poor grammar is social media, which gives everyone the ability to be a publisher. The same things that make social media so powerful — its immediacy and access — also contributes to lots of bad grammar and spelling.

Which raises the question, does it even matter if people use correct spelling and grammar? Several studies say yes — that your company’s use of language directly affects your reputation. In a July 2013 study, Disruptive Communications found that the use of poor spelling and grammar is the mistake most likely to damage their opinion of a company on social media. Read “What Customers Hate About Social Brands.”

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A friend who knows me too well once gave me a book called I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar. It turns out I’m not the only one.