Feeding the trolls
This week, events in two blog circles in which I travel drew the trolls out from under their bridges: the League of Maternal Justice's BreastFest and the "retirement" of a PR blog character whose public face was attractive but who was best known for its ill-spirited, trollish attacks on other bloggers.
When a topic is controversial, even if only mildly so, the trolls are inevitable. What do you do when they show up in your place or in your face?
The safest and sanest approach is to ignore them.
That's why I don't feed the trolls. Sure, I've had them here from time to time, but lack of sustenance leads them to go elsewhere for their jollies. I don't respond here, and if they attack in the comments on other blogs or Web sites, I ignore them there. It's hard, especially when they get personal, as they always do. But the child's nursery rhyme is true: sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.
Dealing with the trolls was particularly hard for some of the women actively engaged in the breastfeeding debate. The act and the decision itself are so highly personal, and it didn't take long for the trolls to get offensive. But remember: the troll is the one with the problem. Not you.
If a troll or two turns up here as a result of this post, I'll ignore them. But unless a comment is obscene or libelous, I won't delete it. I stand by my words. Let them stand by theirs.
Some folks take a different approach. They bait the troll, on the theory that a troll's arguments are so ridiculous, the troll will end up proving the initial point it is attacking. This can be successful, but you have to have a really strong stomach. Because a troll is not rational. No matter how logical your argument, it will never penetrate the troll's generally thick skull. You will never convince him. Or her.
But maybe, just maybe, proponents of this approach argue, if you can stay the course, the weird non-logic, personal attacks and ramblings of the troll, as compared to your logical, reasoned arguments, will convert a few folks on the fence. And of course, initially there is an adrenaline rush from building your argument to beat the troll.
The rush doesn't last, the troll will get ugly, and the chances of changing anyone's mind this way are pretty slim. So, think hard before troll-baiting. Because it is going to hurt.
As for the late, not lamented blog character, Robert French's "eulogy" for the not-so-dearly departed says it best.
Social Media Club Boston: Fake Steve, Wal-Mart and Forrester Research
Moderator Monika Maeckle, VP Southwest Region, Business Wire (sponsor of the evening) A delightful and charming woman who did a great job moving the conversation along, involving the audience, but never losing control of the session.
And the esteemed panel:
As John Cass reported, Dan Lyons was the hit of the evening. Some of his bon mots:
On his Attack of the Blogs article: "I wished I had a do-over."
On Valleywag: "Valleywag sucks."
As John reported in his post, Dan said many people knew who FSJ was well before the New York Times exposed the secret. In a brief conversation after the panel, Dan said he was impressed that they were all able to keep the secret. He said a few of them even helped mess with Valleywag on who FSJ was. Gotta love it. Unless you are Owen Thomas I suppose.
Josh Bernoff was polished and articulate. I really liked his comment that starting a "social media" project by picking a technology is ass-backward. The POST model he shared really resonated:
First: PROFILE your customer.
Second: Define your OBJECTIVES.
Third: Develop a STRATEGY -- how do you want to change people
Then, and only then, decide on the TECHNOLOGY.
Another great quote from Josh: "Only one group of people that this (social media) is really bad for -- liars."
Steve Restivo from Wal-Mart did a great job representing his company, although it was clear that he was constrained by a corporate role, unlike the other panelists, who are encouraged (and compensated I am sure) to have strong public personas. Nevertheless I was impressed by both his acknowledgment of past mistakes like RV-ing Across America and his frank statement that competitor Target does a great job online.
The Social Media Club has chapters in a number of cities; check it out. And if you are in Boston, see you next time.
Flogging, this horse just won't die, more Wal-Mart and Edelman
It must really suck to be Richard Edelman this week.
I had decided to stop writing about Wal-Gate, even after no WOMMA sanctions for Edelman because it seemed excessively cruel to keep beating a dead horse. Give them a chance to get their house in order, I thought.
Until today's news that there were two more "flogs" for Working Families for Wal-Mart written by Edelman staffers without attribution.
This can't be simply "one bad apple" who didn't get it. There are just too many rotten apples and too much evidence that this is culturally acceptable behavior at Edelman.
Far from transparent or honest, it is Fifties-style PR with a social media patina (paraphrasing a comment by John Wagner on an earlier post here.)
And it is most certainly not what we did, or should, expect of a social media leader.
Epilogue: Wal-Mart and Edelman
Well, as many PR bloggers have already reported (best round-upto date is Constantin's), Edelman has emerged from the cone of silence around the Wal-Mart fiasco. On Richard Edelman's blog, an apology and acceptance of total responsibility. And on Steve Rubel's, a short comment and link to Richard's blog.
Quite frankly, I do not see how the agency could have done anything else. It could be Edelman's fault. Might not be. Probably is. Doesn't really matter. Whether it was their fault or not, the agency must fall on the sword for the client. Or lose the client.
I know a lot of folks would love to be privy to the post mortem on this disaster. To them, I say, how does it feel... to want. We know what we know and we ain't likely to know much more. And I don't really care. I'm more interested in:
- what Edelman does in the future. Will they finally learn and get it right the next time? What Richard and Steve say is all good and well, but the proof is in what they DO;
- the lessons we can all learn about honesty and grassroots marketing from this fiasco.
I've commented on a number of other blog posts about this mess, among them Kami Huyse and Peter Himler, that the real shame is that had they done this right, with honesty and clarity about the sponsorship, this RVing blog might just have worked. People with RVs do stay in Wal-Mart parking lots. That's not an invention. They might have rallied around a blog that focused on them, their lives, their culture. If it was well written, corporate sponsored or not, the public might have enjoyed it. Many do shop in Wal-Mart, image problems notwithstanding.
Bottom line, had there been truth, I would have given it a big, so what. A good idea is still a good idea even if the corporation has it. The error isn't in sponsoring a blog to advance a corporate objective. The error is the lie. People can forgive many things. But generally and pretty universally, we hate being lied to.
I'm pretty sure the folks at Edelman and Wal-Mart get this now.
There is nothing wrong with trying to spark something in the "grassroots." If you've understood the situation, and deliver a compelling message, it will take fire. That's what viral means -- the message is so compelling it propels itself through the social network. But we cannot create a grassroots effect Artificial, the campaign has no life, no community and cannot spread without more artifice and manipulation.
You must tap into something in the community for grassroots efforts to bear any fruit. Two recent examples come to mind, and I'm sure it will surprise none of my readers that both come from science fiction television, Firefly and Farscape. Momentum came from the community and the producers were smart enough to engage with, to love their communities. They treated them with respect and love, and guess what? When the franchises needed support, the communities around them sprung to action.
In both cases, the TV shows were cancelled and fan support had a great deal to do with subsequent movies. In the case of Firefly fans, strong DVD sales provided further proof for the movie studio that the decision to greenlight a feature film (Serenity) was the right one. And when it came time to promote the film, no fan base was more loyal than the Firefly fans.
Except maybe the Farscape fans, who lobbied for a resolution to their much loved and highly acclaimed series, and finally got it in 2004 with the Peacekeeper Wars miniseries. I wasn't a Farscape viewer when it was on TV but now, having seen all the episodes, I can say without hesitation that it is a damn shame the show was cancelled. Can we have some more, please?
In both cases, the grassroots communities were there, and the shows were able to tap into the love to make things happen. Fans didn't mind when Joss Whedon asked them to do something for Serenity. They knew he'd pay them back in spades. In fact, both fan groups are still going pretty strong online and to date, there are no (public) plans for more of either on TV or the big screen. [Boo Hoo]
That's how a company can tap into the grassroots. And I do not believe that it is only possible for science fiction franchises.
However, it is only possible when we understand that a grassroots campaign only works when the initial impetus comes from the community, not the corporation that benefits.
It's grassroots marketing when the roots really are in the grass. When they are not, it is probably astroturf.
Wal-Mart and another lesson from Science Fiction
Yesterday and today, the blogosphere has been a-buzzing with the latest Wal-Mart social media faux-pas. Short version: the much-heralded Wal-Marting Across America blog turns out to be... not a grassroots blog by a couple of independent RVers, but rather a Wal-Mart sponsored blog written by paid bloggers (one of whom is a photographer for the Washington Post) and created by the firm's PR agency Edelman.
Ouch, blecch and all those other nasty words. I'm not going to go into an analysis of Edelman's second (or third depending on what you count) social media strike with the same client. Others have done a brilliant job of this already. So if you haven't already, read about transparency and honesty and what WAS Edelman thinking ? on these great blogs:
- John Wagner, one of the first out of the blocks with What was that we were saying about transparency? followed by Washing away in a tide of 'how could they?'
- Biz-Hack, tracking the developing story
- Kevin Dugan, Will Edelman Walk the Talk?
- Shel Holtz, Edelman and the one-sided conversation
- Todd Defren, Strike Three for Edelman
- Toby Bloomberg, Defending and Defining The Blog Culture
Suffice it to say that Edelman's reputation has taken a deserved hit and they should be embarassed. Publicity and high profile hires to the contrary, they just don't seem to "get it," and also seem determined to prove that at every turn. One thing for sure, they should be taking a long hard look at their social media practice. Will they? That's Richard Edelman's problem, not mine.
What can we learn from this latest fake blog? Toby's post above, which talks about the importance of the blog culture, and a separate post by blog buddy Mary Schmidt Why Sci-Fi is Relevant to Business (and Life) got me thinking.
Mary's post covers a bunch of things we can learn from science fiction. To her list, I'd like to add one more "rule" that drives the ethos in much of the science fiction I really love, from Star Trek, Foundation and Doctor Who to Farscape and Stargate, and can also be considered a key rule for working in the blogosphere. To sum it up: don't f*** with the natives, don't hurt the humans.
Starting with the Three Laws of Robotics created by Isaac Asimov (Wikipedia):
- A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
and the Prime Directive of Star Trek, which "dictates that there be no interference with the natural development of any primitive society, chiefly meaning that no primitive culture can be given or exposed to any information regarding advanced technology or alien races. It also forbids any effort to improve or change in any way the natural course of such a society, even if that change is well-intentioned and kept completely secret." (from Wikipedia),
science fiction understands some fundamental principles about human nature and culture to which we should pay attention.
Even shows like Stargate, Doctor Who and Farscape which aren't quite so hands off as the Prime Directive understand quite clearly that you have to fit in with the culture and do your best to not let your technology, or values, overly color where you are or what you do. And more than anything, first, do no harm.
And that is what we have to do with the blogosphere. Because the blogosphere isn't a thing. It's people. When we lose sight of the people, when we stop respecting the people, we make stupid mistakes. We think that because, yes, there are stupid people in the world, all people are stupid. They won't penetrate our fake blog (flog). They just wanna shop at Wal-Mart. Wrong.
We need to understand that our Prime Directive, if we choose to engage with bloggers, either on their blog or our own, is to be honest. About who we are, why we're doing what we do, and who is paying the bills. It's okay if you have an agenda. People expect, and respect, that. I've done a number of blogger outreach projects for clients, and I always identify my interest in the project. Why wouldn't I? Doesn't make the story any less interesting, and it respects the intelligence of my correspondents.
And that's the lesson, my friends. Respect. For differences. For opinions. For the culture. When we have mutual respect, we have a conversation. Without it, it is just vocal chords moving, bits and bytes shifting.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me thrice.
Jees, I don't know. Whaddya you think?
Have a great weekend.
Cleaning out my Bloglines Closet
I read a lot of feeds, on a variety of subjects, and take advantage of bloglines "keep new" to save things to look at/blog later. When I'm busy, the "blog closet" gets pretty full, and quite often, many of the things I've saved for later are over and done with.
But some things are timeless.
- Like this 1975 live interview with members of Monty Python. (via Boing Boing) Check out the hair!
- And this short historical analysis: The Founders Never Imagined a Bush Administration (via Talking Points Memo)
- The wonderful Yvonne DeVita is going to jail... for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. You can help her make her bail, or check out her blog for some other suggestions on how you can help.
And of course, some things, you just know I am going to comment on.
Like character blogs. At Beyond Madison Avenue today, Mack Collier writes that character blogs would be a good solution to carry on cancelled TV shows. You betcha. Just take a look at the sheer volume of fan fiction on the Internet. I would still pay for a Whedon-produced character blog featuring the characters from the Buffy/Angel-verses.
Great advice from the Copyblogger. Writing about this week's NY Times article "This Boring Headline Is Written For Google," which discussed the ramifactions of search engine optimization on the news business, he reminds us: "Write for people, people." Amen. We don't need fancy footwork (or cute headlines) as much as we need clear, concise writing. A little time spent there can save a boatload of hassle, not to mention cost.
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By Anonymous. By a Character.
After the recent spate of character blogs in the PR space, I started thinking about character and anonymous blogs. Which are not that terribly different, in concept and in execution.
There are good reasons to use both forms. And both can be abused, to the overall detriment of blogging.
Let's start with the good reasons. Anonymity. If you are in real danger.. for your life. If your company discourages blogging of any sort, on or off the clock (boo hiss), but you have something to say. Not about your company but maybe your life or your hobbies or your politics. Doesn't matter. When attribution is dangerous, anonymity makes sense.
It also makes establishing credibility a bit harder. WHO are you and why should I trust you? More on that in a minute.
Character blogs are not that terribly different from anonymous blogs (and vice versa). Someone creates a character as the blog voice. Or they leverage an existing popular character as the voice. The writer isn't "real." [To some degree, all of us create a blogging persona, but the more closely aligned your true self is to your blog self, the better off you will be in the long run. ]
A character blog is extremely hard to do well. The blogosphere is conditioned to expect a real voice, and when it is a created persona, it reacts. Sometimes belatedly, but in the end, characters with unclear attribution are not well accepted. Bloggers want to know who you are. Are you credible? Do you have real authority in your blog-space, or is your authority as imaginary as you are?
Now, in my opinion, character blogs can work, although we haven't seen that many examples. Yet.
But they have to be honest. At a minimum, they have to be up front that this is a CHARACTER. And clear about the objectives. The best example is Manolo the Shoe Blogger. Manolo is all about the shoes. Yes, there are gossipy type posts, but everybody who reads this blog knows: it is about selling shoes. Full stop.
So anonymity and characters can work. They can also fail spectacularly.
Anonymity and characters fail when they are used as a screen for venom and bile. When the writer uses the form to deliver criticism without credibility. Absent being in danger for their life, when someone criticizes something, we want to know who they are, and what gives them the right.
That's why companies typically frown on anonymity, even in internal blogs. A student in one of my recent workshops shared that her company actively encouraged internal employee blogging but would not permit anonymous blogging. Employees had to have the courage of their convictions.
By far, the worst evil is the character blog that does not admit it is a character nor provide us with information about the people behind the character.
When a blog is anonymous, we evaluate the content and make an assessment about credibility. When someone starts a character blog, and tells you upfront that it is a character, we make a decision about information and entertainment value.
But a blog that pretends to be written by a real person. Clouded in pretense and falsity? A fake persona? Crystally clearly false, and definitely far from honest and transparent.
So, blog anonymously or as a character if that is your best or only choice. But if you can, speak up as yourself, or at least as the author of your character. And don't use your blog to advance a vendetta, settle a score or just to stir things up. Try to contribute a positive voice to the conversation.
Truly, it is just as much fun.
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The Week in Review: March 6-10
A new (and very interesting) client has just come on board, I had deadlines for some other projects, and I had to take a quick trip mid-week. Time has been tight, so blogging has been light.
So this post is going to be the week in review -- comments on the things I probably would have blogged in more depth had I more time.
Of course, the top PR blogging news of the week was the Edelman-Wal-Mart blogger relations story, starting with the New York Times article on March 7th, and continuing on with commentary from just about every PR/Marketing blogger on the planet. Except me of course. I was at a client :-) Check out the great round-ups of the commentary written by Constantin Basturea and Tom Murphy. And don't miss Richard Edelman's post. For more coverage, here are the google and technorati searches on "Edelman Wal-Mart"
My .02 -- this really does look like a simple effort at blogger relations, perhaps not the best execution, but not intentionally sinister. In fact, I think Wal-Mart would be foolish to not engage in grassroots blogger relations, given how well organized its critics in the blogosphere are.
Here's my take-away from this tempest in a teapot:
First, we have to be fair in our criticisms. Part (but not all) of the outrage about the Wal-Mart outreach was outrage about Wal-Mart in general. You have to put both your friends and your enemies to the same test. If something would be okay if your buddy did it, but it is bad if the evil empire does it, you are not being fair. This is not dis-similar from what happened in the initial outrage more than a year ago about character blogs. GourmetStation and others were being lambasted for having characters as the blog authors. I pointed out a certain inconsistency using the example of Spencer F. Katt, the PC Week/eWeek mascot for 20-plus years who has both a column and yes, a blog. Somehow, a character everybody knew and liked was okay. It was only the new ones that were bad blogging practice :-) Wrong. Be consistent in BOTH your flames and your kudos.
Second, as PR practitioners start reaching out to blogs... as they should, and as most of us have preached, dare I say ad nauseaum, we have to expect mistakes. Given the ongoing commentary on PR blogs about the general quality of much PR practice, we shouldn't be surprised if some PR agency efforts at blogger relations are better than others. I have no particular opinion about Edelman's blogger outreach program. Time will tell whether it was good, bad or something in between. I am certain however, that no blogger outreach program will be (or should be) successful without complete transparency. You MUST be completely honest about your role and your vested interests. And not surprised if your entire campaign is published on a blog somewhere.
Again, a comparison. When I started to get a great deal of media exposure as spokesperson for Cyber Patrol in the late 90s, I was very careful to make sure that my public statements passed the ultimate test: would I be embarassed if this were on the front page of the NY Times? Different times, same general principal. Ain't no such thing as "off the record."
Moving on, conferences. Without a doubt, the model of conferences where the panel is presumed to be the "experts" and the audience the "students" is outmoded. In tech and in marketing, the two arenas where I have spent most of my professional career, the audience often knows as much, or more, than the panelists. I've written about this here a bit, and it was one of the inspirations for the Room of Your Own proposal for Business Blogging currently under consideration for BlogHer 06. Our idea is that the panelists are there to kick off the discussion, but in fact the entire audience is the panel, and an active part in building our takeaway "best practices" for business bloggers.
This week, some smart bloggers asked some great questions about the "conference issue:"
- Kent Newsome, This is not the summer camp I remember
- Christopher Carfi, On The Conference Thing: Etech, SXSW, Unconferences and Monocultures
In the category of smart business advice:
- PR Squared has a series of three posts of "bad advice" about customer references which of course are excellent advice for PR and MarCom pros. Here they are: one, two, three
- Converstations gives some great advice on how to best write your posts in A Blog Posting Mantra.
- And Jill Konrath has some great advice on thinking like your customer.
In the news:
- Boing Boing continues its campaign against Smart Filter
- Google settles a click fraud case. I remember asking an SEO rep about click fraud about a year ago. "Not a big problem," she said. Yeah right.
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Random acts of blogging
For today, I have a whole bunch of interesting stuff to comment on that has accumulated over the past month or so, while I was feverishly working so I could take two weeks off, followed by the mostly off-line vacation.
In no particular order.
Blog comment spam: I increasingly find myself the victim of blog comment spam. I usually just delete it and move on. Here are two takes on the issue: from Blog Business World, some ideas for how to manage it and from Jeremy Pepper, some words about blogs that do not allow comments for fear of spam.
One thing I am thinking about: I have noticed that the comment spam always seems to be on the same old posts, leading me to suspect a script of some sort. I AM considering turning off comments on these older posts, with a note explaining why comments have been turned off for any legit folks who want to comment on the topics.
Web 2.0. Okay, I am trying, really, to understand why we need to define a Web 2.0. Sexist though it may be, I'm wondering, is this kind of a "guy thing" -- the need to define and box up things? How does any of this help customers and who really cares? Why do we have to put it in a box? Because as Elisa Camahort says in her post, a version number implies something finished and definable,and that ain't the web that I know.
Seriously, please, can someone explain to me what Web 2.0 is all about, other than a way for companies to promote their offerings ("Web 2.0 compatible, whatever that is), and for consultants and analysts to make money explaining it to everyone. Simple words please. I'm just wondering, "where's the beef?"
Here are a number of other posts about Web 2.0. I've read 'em all, and I am still confused....
- From Blog Business Summit, how NY TImes omitted blogs from article about Web 2.0
- Corporate Blogging Blog, the value of Web 2.0
- Emergence Marketing, The fanaticism around web 2.0 tools sometimes confuses me...
- NevOn, Understanding Web 2.0
- Jeremy Pepper, Do Web 2.0 companies have launch parties
I would be remiss if I didn't comment on the call to action by Steve Rubel for PR agencies to figure out this new media thing. Huh?! If you don't know what I'm talking about, actually you are very lucky -- it is a tempest in a very small teapot, a major ego-fest and I am 100% with David Parmet: YAWN!! He has the link in his post to the memeorandum thread if you have the inclination.
Those who are doing things will just keep on doing. If you want to posture, position and pontificate, go for it, help yourself to happiness. I'd rather just get on with it. Some other interesting commentary on same:
- Robert French on leaving out PR educators
- Niall Cook channeling Rodney King: Can't we all find a way to get along?
- Jeremy Pepper, One Step Forward Two Steps Back
Character blogs. As many of my readers know, I have strong opinions about character blogs --I believe they are a valid blog form, albeit hard to do well. About a year ago, this debate took off flying. A year later, here are a couple of anniversary commentaries:
That's it for random acts of blogging. This weekend I will start my end of year series.....