Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Scientists: Don't 'Educate' the Public; Collaborate!

Much of our work involves communicating about highly technical subjects – science, engineering, technology, energy – to nontechnical audiences. So we routinely work with scientists and engineers. And many of them often seem frustrated that “they” – the public, the media, government officials – just don’t get it, whatever the subject is, because “they” don’t understand the scientific basis and the elegant logic behind it.

Now the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is turning the table. Yes, the public usually doesn’t get the science; but the scientists don’t get the public. In an important new report issued this week, “Do Scientists Understand the Public,” the academy argues that the technical community needs to do a better job of understanding the values and culture of the society they live in. It needs to factor public opinion of new technologies into the development process through collaboration, rather than just trying to “educate” the public to accept a new technology suddenly sprung on them.

The report says that “resistance is growing” to major scientific initiatives, from radioactive waste management and geoengineering to new energy sources and genetic engineering. To some scientists, the reason is that the public – in the words of DNA pioneer James Watson – is made up of “kooks” and “incompetents.” To the academy, though, another reason is the technical community’s belief that basic facts will win public support. As one scientist described this view: “Our job is simply to tell people – and if they don’t understand, then our job is to tell them a bit louder. That tends not to work.”

In fact, the report calls for better understanding of the public’s value system and attitudes toward risk, which are very different from the technical community’s. This means bringing the public into the process much earlier, paying more attention to social scientists and public opinion experts, and training more scientists in the important skill – now derided by much of the technical community – of communicating effectively to nontechnical audiences.

The future of new technologies now emerging – from smart meters and the electric car to geoengineering and wind power – may depend on how the technical community responds to the challenge this report lays out. Let’s hope we don’t hear of other scientists asking a colleague before a public presentation, as this report quotes, “You mean, I have to dumb down my presentation for Ma and Pa Kettle?”

-Potomac Communications Group

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Forgo the Forgone Embargo

Rolling Stone got scooped on its own story this week. The editors shared an advance copy of their exclusive interviews with military leadership in Afghanistan with AP, a regular courtesy to reputable news organizations. But, that embargoed article spurred news that moved faster than the magazine. After AP ran its story, Politico posted a PDF of the entire Rolling Stone article on its own site (until copyright lawyers threatened to get involved). In this rapid-fire series of events, President Obama ended up relieving Gen. Stanley McChrystal of duty barely two days later. The general’s critical remarks leaked out of the Rolling Stone story and splashed up online, demanding a top level Administration response before the magazine even hit newsstands.

Advance copies of press releases, news announcements and, in this most recent case, published articles are often distributed with the request that the information not be published until a certain date, also known as an “embargo.” Arguably, this practice gives reporters a chance to do their own journalism and dig a little deeper into current events. It offers them a bit of lead time to confirm their facts and offer more than what the public affairs office might provide on a topic. At least that’s one perspective on embargoes.

Embargoes have long been controversial. While public affairs professionals claim they are in the journalist’s interest, many journalists see embargoes as unwelcome interference. TechCrunch has offered all too accurate parodies of how this tension between PR and news operations evolved. Vincent Kiernan even wrote a book on the subject, describing how embargoes impede scientific knowledge by fostering a herd mentality that puts science writers at the mercy of a few academic journals.

It’s not the first time a wire service has jumped the gun for an exclusive story. Nor will it be the last – shortly after Dow Jones acquired the Wall Street Journal, the WSJ journalists were informed they would be judged on breaking news and stopped accepting news under embargoes. This latest news event at the Rolling Stone should send a clear message to communications professionals – the rules of engagement have changed. The vicious competition of the 24/7 news cycle has overwhelmed the traditional conventions of journalistic etiquette.

- Potomac Communications Group

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

For Science Info, the Blogosphere Rules

Here's quite a surprise: Guess what subject gets nearly 10 times more attention from the blogosphere than from the mainstream media. Besides celebrity gossip and snarky politics, that is.

The answer: science and technology.

Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism analyzed the differences in subject matter between blogs and the traditional press. In general, the differences weren't great. But the blogs - often dismissed as nothing but trivia and naval-gazing - actually cover science and technology much more thoroughly than the MSM.

Throughout 2009, PEJ found that the traditional press gave science only about 1% of its overall news coverage, even including such major issues as stem cell research and NASA. It gave another paltry 1% to technology, primarily internet security.

In the same period of time, though, "18% of the most linked-to stories on blogs in a given week were about science and technology news" - roughly 10% about science and another 8% about technology, including coverage of new breakthroughs like the Kindle and interviews with heads of high-tech companies.

For everyone trying to communicate technical subjects, the lesson is clear: the odds are better with the blogosphere than with traditional media.

- Potomac Communications Group

Friday, June 18, 2010

Vocus Acquires HARO

At the launch of the Vocus Users Conference last week, Vocus president and CEO Rick Rudman announced that Vocus had acquired HARO (Help a Reporter Out). This announcement surprised many in attendance.

HARO started in 2008 under the direction of entrepreneur (and sky dive enthusiast) Peter Shankman (Twitter: @skydiver). The HARO system is quite simple. Reporters log into HARO and create a query about a source needed for their story. PR professionals sign up to get a daily digest of these queries (along with stories of Shankman’s hobbies like sky diving) delivered to their email inbox every day. If you know a source that could be helpful for a particular story then you can email the reporter to pitch your angle. The HARO system now includes more than 100,000 sources and almost 30,000 reporters.

HARO is not the only system like this nor is it the first. What makes HARO unique is that it is free – for reporters and PR professionals.

When Rudman announced last week that Vocus acquired HARO, people quickly began wondering how the system would change. For the past week Rudman and Shankman have said the same statement over and over and over: HARO WILL NOT CHANGE.

So far, they are right. Nothing has changed. HARO is still a good resource for reporters and PR professionals. As happy Vocus and HARO users, we look forward to see how these two companies will grow together in the future.

For more information about HARO or to sign up for daily queries click here:

And you can follow HARO on Twitter: @helpareporterout

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Pinnacle Worldwide Expands

Pinnacle Worldwide, an international network of independent agencies that PCG joined in 2006 as the Washington, D.C. representative, has announced a significant expansion of its network through a new strategic alliance with 27&More.

Pinnacle, based in Minneapolis, comprises more than 30 firms with offices across the country and around the world. Frankfurt, Germany-based 27&More operates in 44 countries and has a particularly strong presence in Europe and Latin America.

Thanks to this new alliance, PCG can call on expert partners in close to 100 cities around the world to provide our clients with national and international service.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Tweet by Any Other Name...

In a sign that the lines between news writing, social media and medium criticism continue to be erased, the standards editor of the New York Times made a somewhat surprising decision: The word “tweet” as a way to refer to activity on Twitter is not “standard English.”

Reporters at the Times are being encouraged to use “use Twitter… write on Twitter… a Twitter update” among other alternatives for both the noun and verb usages of tweet. This news comes according to an item posted on the blog The Awl early yesterday, which quoted directly from the editor’s letter to his staff.

Interestingly, this puts the Grey Lady at odds with the AP Stylebook, usual arbiter of general usage in the journalism world. According to a tweet from @APStylebook (not to be confused with @FakeAPStylebook, though you should follow both), “Under #apstyle, tweet can be used as a noun, for a Twitter message, or as a verb, for sending a tweet.”

Of course, the Stylebook is a set of guidelines, not an instruction manual. And the Times sets the agenda when it comes to journalistic practices like few, if any, other publications.

But refusing to use tweet seems to violate a basic rule of print journalism. That is, why use three words when one works just fine? If a Times reader is interested in an article where tweets are prominently involved, can’t we safely assume that the word is standard English to that reader? And the editor’s own letter uses the word “Paleolithic,” which I would submit is not standard English (or, more accurately English of any kind, being entirely borrowed from Greek) to a large portion of the media consumers in the English-speaking world. So it’s unclear what the standard is for “standard” English.

The Times is in the right when it seeks to avoid jargon that would confuse readers and obscure the power of its journalism. But at the point when almost two billion tweets enter the world, we’ve probably crossed the line from jargon into common usage.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

PCG Sponsors DC Sports and Social Media Event

PCG is proud to be a Gold Sponsor of the upcoming “Play by Play: Sports and Social Media.” event on June 23. The gathering is sponsored by the Social Media Club of DC and you can find more details and RSVP information here.

Thanks to Larissa Fair (@LYF108) for planning the event and to Marketwire (@Marketwire) for joining us as co-Gold Sponsors.

As the content on our blog demonstrates, energy is our home base here at PCG. But we’re always on the lookout for new, exciting and underserved markets when it comes to helping potential clients communicate better with their customers and fans. That spirit drives our media trainings, our social media work and this latest sponsorship opportunity.

We hope you’ll join us on the 23rd. To follow us at PCG in the social media sphere, check out PCG Tweeps Matt Simmons (ed. note – that’s me), Andy Hallmark and Brian Meeley: @mps2003, @andyhallmark and @BMeeley.

- Potomac Communications Group

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

20X20: Can you PechaKucha?

We can thank Japan for many things – sushi, karaoke and a PowerPoint revolution. While the Takahashi method strips slide-decks down to their black-and-white barebones, PechaKucha (pronounced pe-chak-cha) presentations invite inspiring visuals and compelling stories that produced a new art form, now taking the world by storm.

Created by two Tokyo-based architects in 2003, PechaKucha initially allowed designers and architects to meet and show their work at “PechaKucha Nights.” In order to prevent extreme elaboration, the organizers allowed presenters to create 20 slides, showing each slide for only 20 seconds – providing 6 minutes and 40 seconds for each presentation. Its success of is unmatched. Today you can attend a PechaKucha night in 307 cities world-wide.

Ilan Guest, a South African Urban Planner, presented one of my favorite examples of PechaKucha at an event in Johannesburg. Guest illustrated the grand challenge of re-planning urban South Africa in a post-apartheid world, while still displaying engineering issues and highly technical maps.

Even though traditional PechaKucha presentations revolve around a specific event, this style will allow you to quickly express your messages and keep your audience interested. I find it most useful for shorter presentations that are highly visual and usually discuss experiential or “big picture” topics.

I think there are two, rather obvious and important, keys to becoming presenter comfortable with PechaKucha.

1. Watch PechaKucha examplesObserving how others use this method around the world will allow you to see the magnificent visuals and rhythm of PechaKucha. It will also inspire you with future presentation topics.

2. Practice creating and presenting – Once you have a topic in mind draft an outline and create a highly visual presentation. With little to no text, choosing the right images is an important part of PechaKucha. You could start by giving a presentation on your family vacation. From there all it takes is practice.

In a PowerPoint world filled with bullets and graphs, PechaKucha releases presenters and their audiences from the doldrums and introduces them to compelling topics, beautiful places and though-provoking questions. Even if PechaKucha doesn’t apply to every presentation you have to give, your slide-decks and communication skills will certainly get an upgrade.

Monday, June 7, 2010

À la vôtre (cheers) to another great ECTC and CPMT awards luncheon

We’re excited to celebrate our 10th year working with the IEEE Components, Packaging & Manufacturing Technology Society. In addition to our continued marketing communications support, once again, we had the pleasure of promoting registration and call for papers for the Society’s largest sponsored event – the Electronics Components and Technology Conference - held June 1 – 4 at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel.

Last year, we established a presence for the conference on Linkedin, Facebook and Flickr. To build upon the momentum, we developed a social media strategy to increase continued dialogue amongst conference attendees after the event and show value to non-attendees in hopes they will participate in 2011 in Orlando, FL.

Each year, CPMT recognizes the best in microelectronics technology during an awards luncheon at ECTC. In addition to creating the luncheon theme and all supporting materials and providing production support for the event itself, our job is to make the CPMT luncheon a memorable experience for the award recipients and roughly 800
attendees from around the world, and market the value of CPMT membership.

Given the Parisian flare of the conference hotel, we used the city’s famous painters as inspiration for this year’s awards luncheon theme - “Celebrating the Masters of Microelectronics Technology.” The attendees loved it. In fact, the PCG team caught several of them creating their own masterpieces at the luncheon with the watercolor kits we created: paint sets with commemorative CPMT labels, paint brushes and sheets of watercolor paper printed with the CPMT logo.

À la vôtre (cheers) to another great ECTC and CPMT awards luncheon.

- Potomac Communications Group

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Help Takahashi Help You

Understanding some PowerPoints are as difficult as winning wars. The plethora of design and animation features the system provides can enliven a presentation. Unfortunately, when users, myself included, put all of those features into play at one time, the result can be a 50-slide deck with dancing words and kitschy music. Not good.

Luckily, one man’s lack of access to this complex tool developed an entirely new way to deliver presentations.

Masayoshi Takahashi was a computer programmer in Japan trying to create a slide deck for a conference. According to Garr Reynolds, Takahashi didn’t have access to PowerPoint, photo or drawing programs. Stuck solely with text, he came up with an effective way to give a five-minute presentation. By using giant black words on a plain white background, Takahashi not only got his message across, but was the star of the conference.

Now before you start deleting hundreds of precious bullets and graphs, consider this. While the Takahashi method may not be applicable for highly technical subjects, it can offer a new way to think through your content and hone your delivery.

The next time you prepare a slide deck, I challenge you to choose one slide and deliver it using the Takahashi method. Should you accept this challenge, I promise that you will reap three important benefits.

  1. Use less time creating slides You won’t need to spend hours creating that particular slide, since you will only use select words critical to communicating your point.
  2. Develop your presentations skills – You will spend the time you saved creating the slide to learn every facet of your material and practice how you present it.
  3. Engage your audience – With only a few words on the screen, your audience will not read the slide but focus on you and everything you say.

Masayoshi Takahashi may be a PowerPoint rock star, but his style doesn’t apply to every slide deck, and that’s okay. Taking the time to practice his method, even on a small scale, will help you refine your presentation style and develop your communication skills.

- Potomac Communications Group