When a retweet misleads

If you’re a Torontonian and on Twitter, you would know that Mayor David Miller is an active participant; posting comments, photos of events and his general take on life in the city. I heard him speak about his interest in social media at Mesh conference and was impressed by his passion and candour.

You may also know that the Tamil community in Toronto has been staging protests lately to draw attention to the situation in their home country. This weekend a march shut down the Don Valley Parkway.

What do these two situations have in common?

Well, on Sunday it appeared as though the Mayor wrote a politically sensitive tweet that was later retweeted.

In reality the Mayor never posted the tweet-in-question. What happened, according to TV Ontario’s The Agenda blog, was that an individual sent an ‘@’ message to the Mayor. Another person retweeted it, leaving out the original sender’s name but leaving in the impression that the Mayor had, in fact, commented. The full story is unfortunate on a number of ethical levels.

For PR people, this is yet another example of a situation we need to be aware of and monitor. And as communicators we need to make sure we don’t rely on the results of a single search, but dig deeply enough to piece together a full story before we offer clients our counsel.

Thanks to my friend Keith McDonald for sharing the TVO blog post with me.

Facebook listens

After the brouhaha that erupted over the change in Facebook’s terms of reference (TOS), founder Mark Zuckerberg has reverted to the old terms for the time being while the organization works to develop its new TOS.

And this time, they created a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities group, with five clear principles (including an apology for any misunderstanding). They are encouraging users to provide their ideas and feedback as they set out to develop a new version.

As a communications advisor, I’d say they did all the right things quickly and effectively to help restore people’s confidence and their credibility.

They:
– Listened
– Accepted responsibility
– Reached out to their users
– Communicated their principles and commitment
– Apologized

And I applaud them for that.

Everything that’s mine is Facebook’s

Facebook has altered its terms of service and the wording indicates that it will now own all of the content people post – in perpetuity. The change has generated a lot of disgruntled comments on Twitter and in the blogosphere here and here. And it’s easy to understand why.

I’m not a big Facebook user but I think that signing away all rights to your ‘friends’, photos, ideas, thoughts and intellectual property is probably not a smart idea. That said, I won’t be cancelling my account anytime soon and I’m sure many people will feel the same.

After all, Facebook is a wonderful platform to connect with people, chat with them, share moments of your life.

Mark Zuckerberg defends his position on the Facebook blog. Trust us, he says. We’re good people. And I have no reason to believe otherwise, except for the fact that as a CEO he needs to protect his company’s rights.

But, as individuals, we have our rights to think about, too.

I wonder about the ramifications for businesses and organizations with FB groups which have their own sets of copyright and intellectual property rules (not to mention lawyers) to contend with. That should make for a good long legal debate.

I can’t begin to speculate on the answer.

But it seems to me there’s a difference between sharing and a giveaway. And, however, mundane, I don’t want my life’s minutiae assigned to someone else (that sounds a bit like an Albert Brooks comedy plot).

To me, this IP grab is like visiting a store and having the retailer ask you to hand over all your personal belongings when you leave.

It will be interesting to watch how Facebook deals with the fallout, what the outcome will be and how it will affect all of us in the long run.

The other shoe

With more and more PR people wearing blogger’s hats (a great addition to any winter wardrobe), the line between PR and journalism – citizen or otherwise – continues to blur.

I was thinking about this when I received my first over-the-transom pitch a while back. And though I was glad to be noticed, I wasn’t sure how to react. Probably because I’m not usually on the receiving end.

Not long after, a personal blogger I know was approached by a word of mouth firm that wanted to send her products for review. When she told them she works in PR and may be conflicted, the WOM’er said, ‘I’ll just pretend I didn’t hear that and we’ll send them anyway.’

I think that’s just plain wrong on so many levels and is yet another example of why our business has a bit of a bad name. (She didn’t do the post.)

And it made me wonder: when is it OK for PR folks to blog about a pitch they’ve received? Or really, when is it not appropriate?

It’s a grey area and, like so much else in our business, it all comes down to knowing where to place our self on that fine line we call reputation (ours, as well as our clients). In other words making an ethical judgement call.

As many have already said, be transparent, identify yourself and be open about who/what you represent. Some bloggers have gone further by listing their criteria for accepting pitches.

I think there’s a positive outcome to PR people being pitched. With the shoe on the proverbial other foot, we get a chance to experience life from a journalist’s POV. Interesting loafers, I say, though they don’t quite fit and I’m not sure I’d want to wear them everyday.

Hopefully all of this will give our industry a greater understanding and empathy for media, which will help us do a better job.

Why I hate asterisks*

I was on the subway yesterday looking at the sale ads and getting ready to score an amazing deal…on something.

But my hopes were dashed when I noticed that fateful symbol perched on BIG OFFER’s shoulder. And though it’s barely visible, it packs a wallop that slaps you back to your senses.

I’m talking about the asterisk.

I don’t like asterisks because they represent exceptions. Exceptions, usually, to a screaming overpromise.

What I resent most are the enticements that purport to ‘build me up buttercup, just to let me down’. Having an asterisk is like keeping people spellbound by a sprawling story, only to admit in the end that, well, maybe much of what you said, just didn’t happen.

Granted, the promises seem too good to be true. And they’re easy to spot. In fact, the front section of today’s Toronto Star featured 24 ads; 17 of which had a disclaimer of sorts, 11 with the ubiquitous asterisk. That’s nearly 50 per cent.

Now, although I’m singling them out, asterisks aren’t the sole culprits. And to be fair, there’s a group of other hench-symbols (they know who they are) often found lurking with expressions like ‘up to 80 per cent’, ‘for a limited time’, ‘select merchandise only’, ‘dealers may vary’, ‘quantities limited’, ‘some items not exactly as shown’, etc. And while they may be just as bad, asterisks are the ones you notice most often at the scene of the crime.

Perhaps as a new, more balanced economy emerges from the tatters of our old reckless one, we can ask for a straight exchange on the asterisk and the worst parts of the sales pitch. And if we’re lucky, maybe we’ll receive a credit toward credibility – all at no extra cost!

*Not to be confused by the French comic Asterix, of which I have yet to form a definitive opinion.

A failure to communicate – and sell

My phone rang a few minutes ago. The gentleman on the other end said, I’m calling to renew your subscription to some magazine I had never heard of.

Now, like most agencies, we get lots of publications. But as I couldn’t place this one, I told the rep that I didn’t think we had a subscription.

Without missing a beat he said, OK, then will you be interested in a free trial?

I answered quickly, succinctly and in no uncertain terms.

Now, I love magazines and all media, for that matter. But I thought, this is yet another example of communication obfuscation from their industry – trying to sell by pulling the proverbial wool over my eyes.

Obfuscate injures communicate

I think we’ve all seen them – those subscription offers from various magazines that promise $1 million dollars (or more) – and perhaps even a visit from Ed McMahon

I actually had an aunt and uncle, who received a ‘you may already be a winner’ envelope and called up their relatives to say that their ship had come in (not in those words, of course, they were prairie folk). I didn’t have the heart to burst their bubble and they found out the truth soon enough.

I recently got a note from a publisher which thanked me for subscribing by sending three ‘Treasurer’s Entry Cheques’. The first one for $500,000 and the second for $60,000 both had a stamped note saying ‘payment guaranteed to winner’. The third one for $31,000 was even more forceful: ‘imminent payment’, it proclaimed.

Now, I know better, but still I was enticed.

Even worse was the wording used in the oh so personal cover letter:
‘The fact that you are now in possession of the enclosed documents is proof that your chance of becoming a prize winner is all but confirmed.

Notice the words in bold: fact; now in possession; proof; becoming a prize winner; confirmed. They’re working hard to persuade you that you’ve already won.

However, now look at the disclaimers in italic: your chance; all but. These words are almost hidden behind the screaming bolds, yet it’s the strong, quieter ones that really tell the truth about the offer.
I have to admit that part of me enjoyed reading the sentence for its wordplay. But, the other part was angry at how language is being used to obfuscate, not communicate.
This type of spin was de rigeur in many PR circles and one of the things that gave our industry its bad reputation. I think we can all look back on our careers and pick out a few examples we’re not so proud of.
Fortunately, the rules of social media have altered the playing field (writing field?). We now have to speak honestly, credibly and, yes creatively too. We can no longer hide behind a slick turn of the phrase.
The best PR people will let this filter into all aspects of the practice. And that will only be good for the profession (and gullible aunts and uncles everywhere).