Thursday, May 27, 2010

Getting Smart About the ‘Next Internet’

Cisco Systems has identified more than $20 billion in business opportunities in the smart grid arena. In an interview, smart grid guru Laura Ipsen said the networking giant predicts smart grid will be bigger than the internet. And they are working to avoid many of the missteps we saw during the rapid expansion of the web, including open architectures and standards – and privacy and security issues.

An Edison Foundation brief shows what a huge shot in the arm stimulus funding has been for smart meter deployments, a major part of smart grid development. However, no sooner did the meter hit the wall then the skirmishes began. Pilots including new pricing models for energy shook up customers from California to Texas and also raised questions about who owns (and protects) customer data.

More alarming is talk of hackers not only invading our privacy, but even cutting off our electricity through the 2-way wireless chip. In March, DC-based security consultant InGuardians, Inc. told AP that a study commissioned by three unnamed utilities revealed flaws – yet to be exploited – in the meters’ design that leave customers vulnerable.

With the promise of the smart grid – greater efficiency, customer control, new product innovation, and integration of renewables – let’s hope we can avoid some of pitfalls that stalled and nearly crippled e-commerce during the internet bonanza. We will need to fix the technology, to be sure. More importantly, we need to build confidence among consumers that smart grid benefits are real and the risks are small and getting smaller.

This is a real communications challenge that involves more than consumer education. Many utilities will need to re-think how and where they talk with their customers. Many are already moving in that direction. Watch for the success stories – and stumbles – to come.

- Potomac Communications Group

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Could Vogtle be Nuclear Energy's Florence?

Last week, the leaders of the commercial nuclear energy industry gathered in San Francisco to celebrate its recent successes and address the emerging issues of the day. The need for increased communications both within the industry and to stakeholders was a consistent theme.

Successes included the U.S. Department of Energy’s granting of two long-awaited loan guarantees, one to Southern Company for its new unit at Plant Vogtle and one that was announced last week to AREVA for its Eagle Rock Uranium Enrichment Plant in Idaho Falls. Southern Company CEO David Ratcliffe reminded the audience that as the first new nuclear plant to be built in the last 30 years, the next unit at Vogtle will be a target of anti-nuclear activists and asked for help in dealing with them. Conference participants learned about the impressive new nuclear energy program being launched in the United Arab Emirates. And they reveled in the great performance and safety record that the industry has maintained for years – the best in the world.

But other speakers reminded the industry that there are challenges ahead. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko put special emphasis on the need for strong communications programs, both internally and externally. Internally at nuclear plants, to continue to nurture and expand a strong safety culture for nuclear energy plant operators. And externally, to reach out to communities to help them understand that nuclear plant operators are trusted stewards of safety and the environment. Chairman Jaczko pointed to issues where much of the public sees a safety threat when in reality there isn’t one, such as tritium emissions into water sources. He cautioned the industry to listen and respond to public concerns, rather than brushing them off as irrelevant, and to be transparent with plant communities. And, he challenged the industry to look ahead, anticipate the issues that are likely to emerge over the next decade and plan to address them.

Stewart Brand, environmentalist and author of The Whole Earth Catalog and the recently published Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, gave a fascinating presentation about the realities of climate change and nuclear energy. He noted that the facts about climate change and nuclear energy should end the argument about nuclear energy for all but the most rabid anti-nuclear activists. He cited the works of a variety of scientists, including David MacKay and Saul Griffith, who lay out the “inarguable facts” that without a lot more nuclear energy, climate change will accelerate uncontrollably and tragically. And he argued that the nuclear energy industry should characterize itself as green, since its carbon footprint compares very favorably with those of other renewables. For Brand, communicating the facts about nuclear energy’s role in combating climate change will be key to its renaissance. Right on.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Looking Back at an Amazing Media Decade

It’s official – we just finished the most amazing decade in history, in terms of dramatic changes in communications.

The Poynter Institute in Florida tracks media milestones. And it has made it easy for us to look back at the past 10 years – from the beginning of 2000 to the end of 2009 – and clock our speed as we hurtle into the digital world ahead. It has identified 200 milestones in that period that it describes as “moments that transformed journalism.” And it has presented them in a scroll-across graphic that reveals surprise after surprise. We forget how fast we're moving.

The decade began with the merger of AOL and Time-Warner – which we can now see as a painful lesson about how much smarter the digital guys are than the “dead-tree” media. Then one historic development after another emerges, including:

- Internet newspaper subscribers overtake print subscribers (in 2000!)
- IPOD is introduced (2001)
- Google News launched (2002)
- ITunes and Skype begin service (2003)
- YouTube launched – and cell phones help report on London subway bombing (2005)
- The first tweets and newspaper-published blogs (2006)
- IPhones, Kindle and first online-only presidential debate (2007)
- New York Times and AP release IPhone app, and White House starts a blog (2008)
- Kindle books outsell books in print for Christmas (2009)

And throughout, a steady drumbeat of declining newspaper readership and growth of on-line publications and social media.

Poynter has done us a service by graphically showing us the revolution we’re still living through. Everyone in communications needs to understand it – whether or not we like it.

- Potomac Communications Group

Monday, May 17, 2010

Happy Birthday, YouTube

Everyone in communications should light a candle today for what may be the most revolutionary invention so far in the 21st Century. YouTube turns 5.

It launched in May 2005. In four and a half years, it was attracting a billion hits a day. Hitting the 2-billion mark required only another six months. And the revolution has only begun.

From amateur home videos and “vloggers,” YouTube now offers feature films, live sporting events and an opportunity for individuals around the world to “broadcast” their own videos – including scenes of repression and violence in countries that try to censor all communications.

It attracts nearly twice as many viewers as the three major TV networks combined, in prime time. YouTube says that viewers spend an average of 15 minutes a day watching its videos. But the company is determined to increase that amount of time significantly – and, as the New York Times points out, to move YouTube from the computer to the TV screen.

We encourage our clients to take YouTube seriously as a powerful communications channel. Many companies have felt the sting of barbed attacks on uploaded videos. And many others have tried to take advantage of the opportunity to get their own video messages to the public, with mixed results. The challenge is to keep our own understanding and effective use of YouTube expanding as fast as the channel itself is evolving. Worth some thought, even as we say Happy Birthday.

- Potomac Communications Group

Monday, May 10, 2010

Creativity is the measure of invention but what’s the message?

I recently attended a thought-provoking forum at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Daniel Botkin of UC Santa Barbara gave a presentation — Powering the future: a scientist’s guide to energy independence — with participation from commentators/discussants Kenneth Green (AEI) and Mark Mills (Digital Power Capital).

After thoroughly examining the pros and cons of nuclear, solar, wind, coal, natural gas, etc. Botkin claimed the U.S. is losing out in the race to develop the best new technologies. America must be very active in research & development (R&D) of new technologies, he said.

Mills stressed the power of the markets, explaining how market-based solutions provide long-term sustainability. But marketplace drives interdependence not independence.

Ken Greene simply stated: “the goal to be energy independent by date x is wrong. America doesn’t want independence, we want affordability.”

So, what’s the message? What’s the goal? It’s become difficult to interpret the essential message in the furious energy debate. A rule of thumb in communications is to structure the message around the goal, but it’s hard to keep up with competing goals from across the political spectrum.

In a recent op-ed, Thomas Friedman wrote: “American industry is ready to act and is basically saying to Washington: Every major country in the world, starting with China, is putting in clear, long-term market rules to stimulate clean energy — except America. Just give us some clear rules, and we’ll do the rest.”

The right message and shared goal will bridge differences and connect common energy interests. We need to take care in saying great things in clear, simple terms. There is abounding optimism in new energy technologies and investing in a wide-array of energy systems. This sentiment is everywhere. But it takes the right message to seize opportunities and galvanize people toward real action on policy.

-Potomac Communications Group

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Business of Keeping Attention

The ability of a business to grab and keep the attention of its audiences can determine its survival in the 21st century. But business leaders learn quickly that attention getting isn’t just a form of microeconomics among their current and potential customers. To succeed, they are recognizing that they need to compete not only with competitors in their industry. They need to compete with all the noise and demands modern life presents.

Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck define attention as the “focused mental engagement on a particular item of information. Items come into our awareness, we attend to a particular item, and then we decide whether to act,” in their book, The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business. The fast-paced American lifestyle dramatically reduces an audience member’s ability to focus on a particular piece of information for an extended period of time, if at all. The result is a hyper-competitive market to gain and maintain attention.

To better understand how the “attention economy” changes over time, communicators can follow the Well Being Index, a polling service maintained by Gallup to observe trends in people’s attitudes towards work, life and health. For instance, Gallup demonstrated that lack of time and stress go hand in hand. As evidenced by the data, 54% of Americans who do not have enough spare time these days said they frequently experience stress. This is twice the percentage of those who have sufficient time to attend to their matters.

Stress and lack of free time make it critical for communicators to understand their audiences and deliver information in such a way that will allow consumers to act. The basic steps to attempt this feat include:
Knowing your audience
Presenting only pertinent information
Providing your audience with the tools they need to act

Consumers have different needs and wants. When it comes to spending attention capital, consumers want to know those vying for their attention have made some investment in getting to know what they need.

- Potomac Communications Group

Monday, May 3, 2010

Content in 4G

Since our rundown on the technology and capabilities of what “4G” really means in those cell phone ads, it might make sense to look at public relations on advanced networks from a less technical perspective. Let’s start with a basic premise:

New technology means new opportunities to sell stuff.

It’s pretty obvious how that translates into new opportunities for our cousins who write ads for consumer goods. From Dell (the manufacturers) to Best Buy (the retailers) to eBay (the place to buy a Dell once purchased at a Best Buy), they’ll all either need or already have new ad campaigns designed to build followers on Twitter, “Likes” in Facebook and, ultimately, dollars in the PayPal account.

What’s not obvious is how service industries (such as public relations and corporate communications) can take advantage of all the new eyeballs carrying content machines with them wherever they go. Particularly for public relations professionals in Washington, DC, our goals often relate to subtle change on issues, not the number of units shipped.

The solution to the PR/4G riddle is most likely a 100-page market segmenting memo (ed. note – memo in progress). But three simple ideas might illuminate the path:

1. Content is still king – everyone wants their video to go “viral” because it seems as if you’re getting something for free when other people spread the word. But unless your kid just got back from the dentist, the odds of a major viral pick-up are long against you - you’ll get only as much out of your content as you put in. Invest in PR professionals who can develop creative and compelling content, and maybe *maybe* you’ll win the viral lottery.

2. Everyone is someone’s publicist – as services that used to require inside know-how become commoditized (like video editing or pulling contact info on reporters), the competition to stay relevant intensifies. Understand that anyone with a smart phone could be a news source – it’s both a threat to your message discipline and a tremendous opportunity to bypass the traditional media filters.

3. Relationships still matter – Remember to ask clients, potential clients and the reporters covering you what their customers and audiences want to know. Your skill at maintaining those relationships will endure long after your iPhone dies and the Fail Whale comes for us all.

In other words, no matter how big or small that number is in front of the “G” in your network, new technology means new opportunities for smart PR pros who take the time to tell good stories.

- Potomac Communications Group