Getting out from under the social media influence (review of Gabrielle Bluestone’s Hype)

Who needs a business plan when easy money can be made with a little social media savvy and a whole lot of chutzpah.

In our post-truth and lonely world, there’s no shortage of easy marks online for scammers, grifters and fraud artists to overpromise and then shamelessly underdeliver or deliver nothing at all.

Nothing is what thousands of partygoers got when they flew to the Bahamas for the Fyre Festival back in 2017. There was no Instagram-gold weekend with supermodels and celebrities on a private island. Instead, they wound up stranded in a gravel pit with nowhere to sleep, no shelter from the sun and nothing to eat but cheese slice sandwiches. Meanwhile, Fyre Media CEO Billy McFarland was just offshore on a borrowed yacht living his best life thanks to other people’s money.

“Like most people, my first glimpse of the Fyre Festival was on Instagram,” says journalist Gabrielle Bluestone, who broke the story about the festival’s implosion in real time while working at VICE. “The slick commercial venture exploded onto America’s social media feeds in December of 2016, as hundreds of verified influencers – blue-check Instagram celebrities with tens of millions of combined followers – started posting the same ambiguous burnt sienna square, suggesting their fans #joinme by purchasing tickets to the mysterious event.

“The festival organizers who had hired the internet stars to promote the event were promising ticket buyers ‘two transformative weekends’ of fabulous luxury on a private island formerly owned by Pablo Escobar, where they’d be flown in on private jets, pampered by a dedicated wellness team and nourished with meals designed by celebrity chef Stephen Starr.”

Along with scamming thousands of ticket buyers, McFarland defrauded investors of $27.4 million. He’d eventually be charged with wire fraud and sentenced to six years in federal prison.

In her book Hype, Bluestone also takes a critical look at Insta-famous influencers like Danielle Bernstein and Caroline Calloway who fuel the hype machine.

Bernstein is a 20-something fashion influencer and founder of WeWoreWhat, an Instagram page with more than 2.5 million followers. She gets $15,000 per post to flog brands on her site.

“In a sense, she’s the version of me that I (and many other millennial women) could be if I weren’t too lazy to work out regularly, if I had an unlimited clothing budget, fashion sense and a general lack of shame around dancing in public,” says Bluestone.

“Calloway was someone who was clearly determined to become famous, but her goals didn’t appear to extend all that far beyond her follower count.” She pitched a mini-version of the Fyre Festival, inviting her 800,000-plus followers to sign up for cross-country $165 writing workshops, with the added bonus of handwritten notes in personalized journals, home-cooked salads and wildflower gardens to take home, which Bluestone says is “Influencer-speak for a bouquet of flowers in a mason jar.”

The pandemic may be making us more immune to hype and helping us remember that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Attention-seeking celebrities and affirmation-needy influencers who lounged in their McMansions or jetted off to parties and island vacations while telling us that we’re #inthistogether have come under increasing fire for being tone-deaf and self-absorbed. Once-faithful fans and followers who’ve been laid off, let go and holed up in studio apartments are pushing back, prompting tearful sorry / not sorry apologies from misunderstood influencers who seem too sad to even get out of bed.

“If any good can even be said to come of something like this pandemic, I think it was that it stripped away a lot of our everyday artifices,” says Bluestone. “And it turned a lot of cynical forgone conclusions into open-ended questions. What do we really need to survive in this world? To thrive? What kind of legacy are we leaving behind? What truly matters when every day is an emergency? Unfortunately, the celebrities did not get the memo.”

This review first ran in the April 24 edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton, Ontario and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

27 years in public relations turned into a 30-minute early morning walk & talk

If you’ve reached the end of Netflix, you can watch me talk about public relations while wandering through the woods for 30 minutes.

Prof Wayne Aubert asked if I’d offer up some wisdom for Advertising students in an upcoming class. So I turned 27 years of working in PR into a half-hour stream of consciousness (with just 15 minutes worth of filler & origin story).

Rather than record a lecture from the basement bunker / home office / spare bedroom, I went for an early morning walk & talk.

I made the case for why introverts can excel at PR, what I enjoy most & least about PR, the core foundational skill for PR pros plus some thoughts on crisis comms, media relations, social media, how to land a job, a couple shout-outs for Professor Aubert but no war stories.

How empathy + connection = engagement on your social media accounts (review)

How you behave during next month’s holiday parties should guide what you post to social media in the new year.

You won’t show up at parties looking to put the squeeze on co-workers, friends and neighbours. You won’t pressure them into renting your family cottage on Airbnb, hiring your kids for summer jobs or signing up for HelloFresh meal kits so you can get the referral discount. You won’t demand that party-goers take out their phones and follow your Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts. You won’t corner anyone in the kitchen for an hour-long humblebrag and the opportunity to bask in your brilliance. And as soon as you get home, you won’t be firing off the first in a never-ending and unrelenting series of daily emails pressuring them into doing business with you.

Instead, you’ll strike up conversations during the parties that are free of a sales pitch. You’ll be genuinely interested in what people have to say and you’ll work hard to be just as interesting and entertaining. You’ll listen more than you talk and when you talk, it will be more about them and less about you.

Please take the exact same approach with your social media accounts for your business or organization.

social media brand“Social media is a cocktail party full of folks and your brand’s success depends on being the one person at the party everyone wants to talk to,” says Claire Diaz-Ortiz, one of Twitter’s first employees and author of Social Media Success for Every Brand.

“A successful social media strategy isn’t about convincing Mark Cuban to retweet you, ‘going viral’, or pushing your product down people’s throats. Instead, the goal of social media for any brand should be to pique existing and potential followers’ interest enough to get them to further engage by moving up something I call the engagement ladder.”

At the top of the ladder is where we make our first purchase and then become loyal customers. Social media should steer us to the lower rungs where we first get to know, like and trust you.

So how do you pique our interest on social media and get us reaching for the first rung on your engagement ladder? Diaz-Ortiz recommends following the 80/20 rule. With 80 per cent of your posts to social media, give us value-added content you’ve created or curated that’s free of hard and soft sells.

Diaz-Ortiz also advises against chasing after new followers. Focus instead on driving up engagement among your existing followers. “What most brands do not understand is that the success of your reach on social media is far less dependent on new follower growth than it is on how engaged your existing followers are with your product or service.”

You drive that engagement by combining empathy with connection. “In a world of perfectly-filtered selfies and instant gratification on every post, it’s easy to think that social media is about you. Newsflash: your brand is not the hero. Your customer is. It is important to make your story about your audience and to always seek ways to increase empathy and connection along the way, rather than constantly post about your own awesomeness (hello cocktail party dude everyone hates).”

To generate the empathy your followers crave, tell great stories where your customers are the hero. Be wildly useful and share content that helps solve their problem. And ask your followers questions and solicit their advice.

By now, every entrepreneur, small business and organization is on social media. Few of us do it well and we’re asking the wrong questions, says Diaz-Ortiz. Fortunately, she knows both the right questions and answers. Her book will make your social media accounts the life of the party.

I’ve reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999. By day, I serve as  communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science and call Hamilton, Ontario home. 

 

Field notes from a marketing and communications conference (25 takeaways)

field notes

Here are my top 25 content marketing, social media, video, issues management and crisis comms takeaways from the 2nd annual Marketing & Communications for Post-Secondary Conference held May 7 – 9 in Toronto. The conference was produced by Summers Direct and Swansea Communications and presented by Academica Group.

Highly recommend this conference for anyone working in marketing or communications with colleges or universities and looking for some inspiration. You too will leave with a book full of notes and ideas.

1.     With content marketing, the sweet spot is the intersection of what your audience wants, what your organization is an expert in and where there’s untapped potential for marrying the two. – Graeme Owens, LinkedIn Marketing Solutions

2.     The most engaging and shareable content is helpful, inspiring and entertaining. – Graeme Owens

3.     On social media, visuals are the new headlines. Don’t use stock photos. Shoot your own. Enlist the help of amateur photographers in your organization. – Graeme Owens

4.     68 per cent of Canadians are now on social media. We either use it a lot or not at all. Very few of us are still using social media passively. – Jane Antoniak, King’s University College and Dr. Alex Sevigny, Master of Communication Management Program, McMaster University

5.     Instagram is the fastest growing platform. Seniors are the fastest growing demographic. – Jane Antoniak and Alex Sevigny

6.     Facebook is our 21st century commons. Young people aren’t excited to be there but they’re not leaving in droves. – Jane Antoniak and Alex Sevigny

7.     In managing an issue, borrow from the Arthur W. Page Society playbook. Tell the truth and be patient. Show contrition through your actions. Listen to your stakeholders. Manage for tomorrow. Remain calm, patient and good-humoured. Conduct PR as if the fate of your organization depends on it. – Christine Szustaczek, Sheridan College

8.     Unions are doing a better job than your organization in communicating with your employees. And they’re going to get even better at it as they invest in new technology, including smartphone apps. – Priya Bates, Inner Strength Communications

9.     If what you’re communicating isn’t relevant to the day-to-day realities of your audience, you’re training them to ignore you. – Priya Bates

10. Communicate with the key influencers in your organization. These frontline, on-the-ground, respected and connected influencers are not your formal leaders. – Priya Bates

11. How do you know if employees are engaged? They SAY great things. They STAY with you. And they STRIVE to go above and beyond in their jobs. – Priya Bates

12. If others in your organization can do a better job of telling your story, let me. Harness the power of testimonials from real people. – Michelle Blackwell, UBC Library

13. Content marketing is about creating real value for your audience. Provide a solution. Stop selling and start helping. – Lauren Lord, EDge Interactive

14. Provide your audience with the answers they’re looking for and then supply the information you want to give. – Lauren Lord

15. Online content that will draw an audience to your organization includes how-to tutorials, human interest stories, lists, controversial posts where your organization takes a principled stand, guest articles and videos. – Lauren Lord

16. If content is king, distribution is queen. To get your content out to your audience, know who you’re trying to reach and then use a mix of paid, earned, shared and owned (PESO). Paid social is the best way to generate reliable traffic, to launch a new campaign, boost high-performing content and target specific groups for specific outcomes. – Lauren Lord

17. Instagram Stories is the new television for teens. – Dr. Philip Glennie, Academica Group and Kayla Lewis, Seneca College

18. Consider Takeover Tuesdays and Throwback Thursdays on your social media accounts. Seneca College hands over its Instagram account to students and even incoming students (with supervision from the comms team). The college also posts archival photos from the its 50-year history. – Dr. Philip Glennie and Kayla Lewis

19. Before you can tell your organization’s story, you need to get your audience’s attention. Video is the best way to do that. – Warren Weeks, Weeks Media

20. The most watchable and shareable videos are 30 seconds to 2 ½ minutes, tightly edited and tell a story with an emotional core. – Warren Weeks

21. If your organization has a teleprompter, throw it out or sell it on eBay. Use the money to invest in a light and a mic so your videos don’t have the look and feel of a hostage video. – Warren Weeks

22. In a crisis, it’s not what you want to say. It’s what we need to hear. Anchor your communications in shared, foundational values. Listening is key. – John Larsen, Edelman PR

23. You can’t communicate your way out of a problem. To regain our trust and restore your reputation, you need to take action and fix the problem. Tell us what you’re doing to make things right. This can include telling us you have a longer-term plan with a commitment to report back. – John Larsen

24. Don’t be afraid to pause. Be careful and deliberate. Figure out what’s known and unknown. Validate information. Mistakes can be made by moving too fast. – John Larsen

25. Have clear roles for spokespeople in a crisis. Your PR person POSITIONS the story and provides context. Your subject matter expert PERSUADES (for example, your Chief Information Officer explains what’s being done in the aftermath of a data breach). Your executive presents the PERSONALITY of your organization (this is what we fundamentally believe and stand for). – John Larsen

Review: Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator

trust meThis review first ran in the Feb. 11 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

My Feb. 11 hour 3 interview (35 min mark) with Bill Kelly on CHML 900 is posted here.

Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator

Ryan Holiday

Portfolio / Penguin

$28.95

Welcome to Diatribe Partners, Hamilton’s premier consulting shop specializing in social media smackdowns.

Got a local politician, member of the Fifth Estate, business or community leader who doesn’t share your view of the world? We’re here to help.

We custom-build campaigns to shame, silence and grind your enemies into submission. At Diatribe Partners, we don’t cast aspersions. We destroy reputations. Dissatisfaction guaranteed.

A winning combination of snark and self-righteous indignation will fire up and unleash the fury of real and fake Facebook friends and Twitter followers.

We’ll enlist the help of local hit-happy and traffic-hungry social media power users to recycle a steady diet of mis- and disinformation.

Together, we’ll blindside and bury your enemy with a barrage of well-timed tweets and posts crafted to be as viral as they are toxic.

We’ll bait your besieged and frustrated target into saying something regrettable that can and will be used against them over and over again in the court of public opinion.

We’ll manufacture online conflict and controversy that stands a good chance of generating offline coverage in the mainstream media.

And should your foe fight back, we’ll take a slight detour to the high road. We’ll claim only to be interested in having an impassioned constructive conversation and giving voice to the common people.

Here at Diatribe Partners, self-confessed media manipulator and online hit man Ryan Holiday is our patron saint. And Holiday’s expose — Trust Me, I’m Lying — is our playbook.

Holiday, who’s director of marketing for American Apparel and a freelance reputation manager, admits to having abused and misled social media to influence what wound up in the mainstream press. “I created false perceptions through blogs which led to bad conclusions and wrong decisions — real decisions in the real world that had consequences for real people.”

Those tactics and consequences can be ugly. “Online lynch mobs. Attack blogs. Smear campaigns. Snark. Cyberbullying. Trial by comment section. It is clear to me that the online media cycle is not a process for developing truth but for performing a kind of cultural catharsis,” says Holiday.

Anthropologists talk about ritualized destruction and degradation ceremonies. Colonial Massachusetts had Salem witch trials. Today, we have Twitter and Facebook. “Their purpose is to allow the public to single out and denounce one of its members,” says Holiday. “To lower their status or expel them from the group. To collectively take out our anger at them by stripping them of their dignity. It is a we-versus-you scenario with deep biological roots.”

And then there’s the predominance of snark and sarcasm in social media. People say online what they would never have the courage to say face-to-face. “There is a reason that the weak are drawn to snark while the strong simply say what they mean,” says Holiday. “Snark makes the speaker feel a strength they know deep down they do not possess. It shields their insecurity and makes the writer feel like they are in control. Snark is the ideal intellectual position. It can criticize but it cannot be criticized.

“Bloggers lie, distort and attack because it is in their interest to do so. The medium believes it is giving the people what they want when it simplifies, sensationalizes and panders. This creates countless opportunities for manipulation and influence.”

Holiday argues that you can’t have your news instantly and have it done well. That you can’t have your news reduced to 140 characters or less without losing large parts of it. And that you can’t manipulate the news and expect it won’t be manipulated against you.

The economics of the Internet have created a twisted set of incentives, says Holiday. Traffic is more important and profitable than the truth. “When we understand the logic that drives these business choices, those choices became predictable. And what is predictable can be anticipated, redirected, accelerated or controlled.”

Diatribe Partners has decided to ignore Holiday’s final words of caution. “Part of writing this book was about a controlled burn of the plays and scams I have created and used along with the best of them,” says Holiday. “Of course, I know some of you might ignore that part and use this book as an instruction manual. So be it. You will come to regret that choice, just as I have.”

Media Relations Summer Camp Roundup

Jane Allison, the pretty remarkable Manager of Community Partnerships with The Hamilton Spectator, and I are more than happy to share our media relations summer camp gameplan with other communities that are looking to bring nonprofits & local media together.

2012 MEDIA RELATIONS SUMMER CAMP:

Nearly two dozen campers from 13 community building organizations in Greater Hamilton got the chance to share their stories during  during Media Relations Summer Camp 2012 on July 10 and 12 at The Hamilton Spectator. The camp was offered free-of-charge by The Hamilton Spectator to thank local groups and organizations that are making Hamilton an even better place to call home.

BACKGROUND:

The idea for Media Relations Summer Camp came out of a Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction community event a few years ago. During the event, more than 60 nonprofits and community groups prepared posters outlining how they were making Hamilton the best place to raise a child. Those posters showcased a ton of great stories that were just waiting to be told.

Further inspiration came courtesy of the Community Media Workshop. Since 1989, the Chicago-based Community Media Workshop has worked to diversify the voices in news and public debates by providing a unique mix of communications coaching for grassroots, arts and other nonprofit organizations and sourcing grassroots and community news for journalists. In connecting the community with media, the Workshop promotes news that matters.

Here in Hamilton, the Media Relations Summer Camp gives community builders a unique, hands-on opportunity to polish, practice and pitch stories to reporters, columnists and editors with The Hamilton Spectator. 

RECRUITING CAMPERS AND COUNSELORS:

A call for applications to the 2012 Media Relations Summer Camp went out on Twitter in early June. Nearly 30 organizations registered online. To make sure every organization got a chance to make their pitch, 13 organizations were selected. Groups were picked based on the stories they wanted to tell and the media coverage they'd received in the past. The 2012 campers were:

  • The Hamilton Academy of Medicine
  • Hamilton / Burlington SPCA
  • Hammer City Roller Girls
  • Centre Francais Hamilton
  • Community Living Hamilton
  • Living Rock Ministries
  • Stolen Sisters / Sisters in Spirit Action Committee
  • Hamilton Safe Communities Coalition
  • Hamilton Arts Council
  • I Heart Hamilton Tour
  • Habitat for Humanity
  • Bob Kemp Hospice
  • YMCA of Hamilton-Burlington-Brantford

Seven PR pros generously volunteered their time and expertise to serve as camp counselors. A special thanks to our all-star line-up of counselors: 

  • Consultant Robert Plant
  • Media relations trainer Joy Shikaze  
  • Grace Diffey (Hamilton Community Foundation)
  • Brent Kinnaird (Inspire Marketing)
  • Wade Hemsworth (McMaster University)
  • Chris Farias (kitestring creative branding studio) and
  • Debbie Silva (St. Joseph's).

So here's how the camp played out…

TUESDAY MORNING:

Media Relations 101: Campers got a primer in what stories not to pitch (avoid groundbreakings, ribbon-cuttings and giant cheque presentations) and better stories to tell (focus on how their organizations create solutions, provide opportunities and build hope, resilience and prosperity). Campers also learned how to pitch (build around a person, send a clear, concise email and make it as easy as possible for the media to tell your story). 

Campers also got the details on The Hamilton Spectator's ongoing Young Professionals profiles of business and community leaders who are under 40 years of age.

The media relations primer was posted on SlideShare and also to Dropbox, along with the Young Professionals overview, tips on how to write an op-ed, media contacts in Greater Hamilton and 100 tips for effective media relations.

TUESDAY AFTERNOON:

Campers spent the afternoon polishing their pitches with our camp counselors. Two counselors worked with 2-3 campers reviewing and strengthening their story ideas.

THURSDAY MORNING:

Conversations and key points from the day were captured on the #mediacamp Twitter hashtag.

Campers first practiced their pitches to our panel of counselors who offered constructive feedback. Each camper stood before the panel and talked about their story ideas. Campers pitched the one story they'd most like to see on the front page of The Hamilton Spectator.

Editorial Writer and Letters Editor Lee Prokaska-Curtis dropped in and gave campers an overview of how to submit both letters to the editor and opinion pieces and how to book meetings with The Hamilton Spectator's editorial board.

THURSDAY LUNCH:

For 90 minutes, campers delivered their pitches to staff from The Hamilton Spectator's newsroom (Jane did the recruiting). Each camper went before the media panel for approximately five minutes to tell their story and answer questions. The panel provided both specific feedback to each pitch and general feedback to all the campers on how best to connect with The Hamilton Spectator.  A special thanks to:

  • Editor-in-Chief Paul Berton
  • Managing Editor Howard Elliott
  • Sports and Business Editor Rick Hughes
  • Columnist Susan Clairmont, and
  • Municipal Affairs Reporter Emma Reilly 

THURSDAY AFTERNOON:

Campers got a 2-hour primer on social media courtesy of Chris Farias with kitestring. Chris demystified social media by walking the campers through Facebook, FourSquare, Twitter, Pinterest and blogs.

FEEDBACK AND EVALUATION:

On Friday, a survey went out to the campers courtesy of Survey Monkey. One camper suggested that pitches be submitted by email, with the media panel then asking follow-up questions and offering feedback.

"I cannot say enough good things about the Media Relations Summer Camp. First let me say thank you for picking our organization to be part of this year's camp. This experience so exceeded  my expectations. The information you shared was right on the money. This was exactly what we needed to dramatically improve our dealings with the media and, ultimately, the amoung of ink and airtime we might be able to generate in the future. I hope you smile in the future when you hear and see more about our organization in the weeks and months ahead." — A happy camper.