President Obama and language used stupidly

This is “a teachable moment” according to President Barack Obama.  I agree. This blog is devoted to advancing the art and science of communications, not politics,  so I won’t dwell on the rhyme or reason of the President’s statement made during his nationally televised prime time press conference this past Wednesday which opened Pandora’s box regarding the issue of racial profiling in this country. Suffice it to say that strictly rhetorically speaking, he either knew what he was doing or he didn’t. Given the context, a press conference convened principally to push his health insurance reform agenda – the latest nomenclature chosen in lieu of “health care reform”, as hopefully more effective – this same President who usually measures his  words, certainly should have considered  that his comment would be a pot boiler  and a distraction in terms of staying on message. Giving credit to the President as an astute public speaker, which few would deny, at the time, this was very possibly a “slip of the tongue”; Speaking extemporaneously, even with advance preparation and briefing, does not give much time for reflection ahead of utterance –  so, this public speaking “incident” becomes an excellent example to demonstrate that indeed  communication – particularly verbal communication – is most certainly in many respects an art as much as anything.

The particulars are that in response to a reporter’s question posed late in the press conference asking for the President’s reaction to an occurrence involving the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who happens to be African-American and who happens to be a renowned African-American scholar and who happens to own the home and the property where he was hand-cuffed and charged  with disorderly conduct (the charges were subsequently dropped), the President used the following language – among other language used: he stated that the police officers “acted stupidly”.

There are a number of words which in any language are “charged” with emotion – “stupid” and its variations are in such a lexicon. The word was used as an adverb, a form which modifies the verb “acted” and tells us in what manner someone acted. Like an adjective modifies a noun, like a rose becomes a red rose, an action becomes “stupid”. Now what was attempted to be qualified was the action, not the actor. Unfortunately the word chosen was also in the category of what I call “splatter” words – a word that “paints with a broad brush” so that everything in sight becomes “splattered” by it; so what was imputed by the media, the public in general, and the Cambridge Police Department in particular? Was  the President of the United States suggesting –  that the police officers involved were stupid! “Strong” language –  “stupid” qualifies as “strong” language – is to be used judiciously when warranted. When warranted? When circumstances require such a term for emphasis.

The latest “Special Features” section of this blog, “The Lens”, showcases the pronouncements of none other than the great Mark Twain addressing specifically all matters germane to communications, written and oral – Twain knew a thing or two about public speaking and his work as presented in this section is recommended to you; I want to quote one pithy point here. Twain said: “An adjective habit…once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.” He cautioned about using adjectives, and by extension their cousins, adverbs, sparingly – which would then strengthen their impact when they were used. Well President Obama normally heeds Twain’s advice, not peppering his speaking with such words, and therefore his use of the word “stupidly” was reacted to vigorously (whoops there I go as well, you can see how easy it is to fall into the trap).

So what is the lesson to be learned? Choose your words carefully.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/07/27/president-obama-and-language-used-stupidly/

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Walter Cronkite – the icon dies

He reported the exact time of John F. Kennedy’s death – 1 p.m. central, 2 p.m. eastern time. He took off his dark rimmed glasses, looked up at the clock in the studio and reported “38 minutes ago”; then in one of the rare instances on record, he choked up a little for a second or so – then gathered his composure and continued with the fact that vice-president Lyndon Johnson had left the hospital, that it was not known where he was “proceeding”, and that he would presumably be taking the oath of office.

Later, in his administration, Johnson would react to Cronkite’s suggestion that the Vietnam war would end in a “stalemate” by saying “If we’ve lost Cronkite, we’ve lost Middle America.” Upon his return from a fact finding mission to Vietnam Cronkite felt compelled to voice his opinion on the war on the air; since he never rendered an opinion in his on-air role, considering it his journalistic obligation to be objective and report the facts, the weight of this statement influenced a nation.

 Last night Walter Cronkite, exact time unknown, died. His is the voice many of us still hear in our heads reporting most of the major events during  just about all of the 20th century.

With uncanny coincidence his death coincides with the 40th anniversary of the space mission that put men on the moon; a mission he famously reported. It was another of those few occasions when he was overwhelmed momentarily by the magnitude of the event he was reporting – rubbing his hands together, smiling with glee – and in this way, accurately representing the feeling of all America – and of much of the world – at that moment of human achievement.

Why is Cronkite a communications icon?  For many reasons and in particular, because his work represents one of the standards by which broadcast journalism should be judged. It is said of Cronkite that he was trusted by all America. That trust was earned. It was cultivated through insistence on digging for the facts, getting it right, reporting it plainly, and without bias – telling the people what they needed to know, not necessarily what they wanted to know: Integrity is the word that comes to mind, reporting with integrity.

Now we are plied with an orgy of celebrity “news” ad nauseam; we are committed to a 24/7 news cycle that brings us a repetition of news which can actually numb our sensitivity to what is happening in the world around us; we are bombarded with opinion journalism – take your choice, and indeed that is what we invariably do, instead of demanding the truth, we tune in our favorite news slant, to confirm our perspective and tune out all else.

The Anchorman has died.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/07/18/walter-cronkite-the-icon-dies/

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Moonwalking for real

40 years ago  this coming week man walked on the moon. Incredible feat (feet)! Today, the grainy video footage has been digitally enhanced through the auspices of a video restoration organization, and the “high def” version is quite a sight to behold. To see for yourself go to: http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/hd/apollo11.html

Communication comes in many forms using many means, and has evolved  from Edison’s audio “recreations” as they were called (records) to CGI (computer generated images); certainly we’ve come a long way – including quite literally from the moon.

The point I want to make is that communication technology – at any point in time – ordinarily comes ahead of our ability and full understanding of how to most effectively utilize that technology. We are always just scratching the surface of developing technology. Look at TV – consider what was “on” at the start – basically just radio with pictures (if you don’t count the test patterns which showed up when content was not being broadcast, which was a lot of the time in the early days). We had to learn how to use the new medium, and as we gained an understanding of it, we absolutely altered the way we used it.

The cell phone of yesterday is the smart phone of today. What will come next? Another “giant leap for mankind” undoubtedly.

Today, let’s remember all that has gone before – including the seemingly archaic footage (there’s that “feet” verbiage again) of a man on the moon July 21, 1969 – 02:56 UTC, i.e. Coordinated Universal Time (or July 20, 10:56 pm,  EDT)which without question led to advancements now and in the future.

(This is a Quick Takes post; very brief posts on very timely topics with more detailed discussion to follow as warranted.)

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/07/17/moonwalking-for-real/

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Summer Hiatus

As if my loyal readers haven’t noticed, I’ve taken some time off for good behavior, which means fewer blogs during the summer. I’m actually hard at work on  new material for “The Lens” – the Special Features section of this blog. If you haven’t checked out the latest in  “The Lens” please take the opportunity to do so. And while you’re visiting, please check the “Essentials” category in the drop down list, and explore previous posts on one or several of the many topics identified in the tag cloud accompanying this blog. The philospher Martin Buber wrote about the need to go up to the top of a mountain, and get away for a while so that one could come down again refreshed and with fresh ideas. I’ll be down soon, with lots to “blog about” communicators and communications.

Iran’s eyewitnesses not “citizen” journalists

I have been considering the issue of elevating eyewitness reports – on Twitter – or elsewhere, to the level of citizen journalism. In fact, I have been doing extensive evaluation of this matter as the “phenomenon” occurring during the recent protests of the election in Iran has been generally hailed as technology advancing democracy. Thanks to cell phones and Twitter, citizens can provide “information” to a waiting world, no matter how hard a particular regime tries to suppress what may be taking place.

In theory, this is a good thing. It would mean that no government is able to hide behind a technology “blackout” which it might try to impose; and indeed in Iran, such was and is being attempted by the powers that be. Internet access has been successfully curtailed to strangle the flow of information in and out of the country. But the Supreme Leader did not reckon with the ability of great numbers of tweets to reach eager readers throughout the world, or cell phone photos and videos either.

This is all justifiably to be recognized as a step forward for humankind to be sure.  But, to convert eyewitness reports – which is what we are truly dealing with – into what has been dubbed  “citizen journalism” is a leap not to be taken lightly.

First, the authenticity of any given set of data, whether transmitted in words or pictures, is not finally subject to thorough verification. There is no standard under which the “reporting” is undertaken; normal professional reporting dictates corroboration through at least two separate sources for any bit of information to be considered credible and accepted for public airing. There is no oversight, or editorial scrutiny; in point of fact, one can question the source and origin of many of the tweets represented to be from Iran.

So what we have are eyewitness reports – an element often used by police and journalists in helping to piece together an incident or event; while a truly remarkable outpouring of verbiage and pictorial documentation, which certainly by its sheer volume and commonality of content, renders a “picture” of a government using totally heinous means to subdue an uprising over a questionable election, to raise these sincerely heroic efforts to get the word out to the world to the level of journalism is to reach too far and in the process to lower the bar for fact.

I have previously called attention to related matters in  prior posts which addressed the important concept of “truthiness” (see tag cloud). Truth, is not just “true enough”. The measure must be the strictest yardstick.

So while not diminishing the accomplishment of “the people” in sweeping away the “veil” attempted to cover the atrocities committed in the name of civil obedience through the use of new media and new technology, let’s not overreach, that would be to diminish the work of journalists throughout history who have indeed often risked their very lives to report the facts!

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/07/15/irans-eyewitnesses-not-citizen-journalists/

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Viral “marketing” – word of mouth in a YouTube world

We are presently experiencing a virtual pandemic. I am not referring to the current Swine Flu, more properly named the H1N1 Flu . I am speaking of viral marketing,  the term itself is relatively recent and started to be used in the mid 1990’s. The term’s imagery is particularly engaging. While it certainly can carry a negative connotation I want to address the ramifications of this “phenomena” as it relates to the age-old concept of “word of mouth” now sometimes referred to simply as “WOM”.  We have all heard this: there is no better form of advertising than word-of-mouth. Among other attributes of WOM, the perceived non-commerical nature of the communication enhances its credibility. One of my basic premisses about WOM in its contemporary manifestation is that technology has spawned a social networking capability that adds such potential impact to word of mouth  that it has or at least is on its way to re-asserting itself as one principal means for driving acceptance/popularity of products, persons, ideas, and “information”.

How did someone or something get notice – positive or negative – historically, let’s say in Rome in 63 B.C. “Word” travelled on horseback or chariot; escapades and episodes were passed from person to person and made reputations, for ill or well. But it wasn’t exactly speedy delivery.

Cicero, the great orator, politician, and philosopher of the period said “Like readily consorts with like”; the idea is that the transmission of a message from an accepted source has both credibility and influence, and is therefore eagerly  shared with others,  because in part, the person who passes it on  wants to be associated with the remark and the party making it.

In viral communication, those who get the “virus” affect going are usually individuals with what has been characterized as high social networking potential (SNP).  There is in fact a whole new area of marketing/public relations activity devoted just to injecting positive “buzz” intentionally through using a viral approach – kind of like seeding a cloud to produce a rain shower.

The Susan Boyle example from the TV show “Britian’s Got Talent” is a textbook study in viral communication and its potential impact. The YouTube clip of her singing in the competition literally spanned the globe with meteoric speed, and due largely to this she has become something of an icon – and rightly so, exemplifying  the adage, “you can’t tell a book by its cover”. Thus the rise of another “star”  born through the power of the Internet.

There are lots of implications for all of this. Does the viral approach to popularizing persons and things have merit or is it a menace? The verdict is yet to be rendered –  by a jury of our peers  –  and the jury is still out.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/05/24/viral-marketing-word-of-mouth-in-a-youtube-world/

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Real time conversation – a “real first”!

The next logical step in personal communication: real-time. Wow, what a concept. This latest developing development comes to us courtesy of the man who gave us gmail, that ubiquitous staple of the online world. Paul Buchheit, among other dabblings since leaving Google and being flush, is “playing” with Friendfeed, a quite interesting  tool in and of itself (check it out at http://www.friendfeed.com ).

By putting emphasis on real-time, Friendfeed (Buchheit) is trying both to leap frog the competition and presumably point the way. What a way it is to be sure. Kind of “Back to the Future” aided precisely in kind like in the movie – through technology. Not in this case through hot cars with time warping capability, but the equivalent. These “vehicles” don’t have wheels, they are “communication vehicles” – means to an end, namely talking to, not talking through, around, or at others. The difference is between leaving a note posted on the refrigerator vs. actually carrying on a live conversation.

This blog has previously pointed to source information suggesting that social networking as we know it today is wearing thin in relation to its value as a means of true communication as perceived by users. See: https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/04/10/quick-takes-social-network-fatigue/

Feeling connected in real time totally changes the equation in terms of personal communication, so much so that it impacts the very character, content, and potential “outcome” of that communication. This is a big deal indeed as McCluhan would I’m sure point out – in fact he has; the medium is and will always be the message. (https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/03/07/marshall-mcluhan-revisited/)

 Even if the rhetoric sounds like re-inventing the wheel, which it does and what is put forward is attempting to approximate “the wheel”, i.e. live conversation, it puts the merit of true personal communication back in play and that’s the really big breakthrough here!

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/05/10/real-time-conversation-a-real-first/

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“Accidents” can be the answers

When I was on the advertising side of communications I had many unique experiences. Because everything wasn’t ready until the last minute  a chartered  plane took me to  Lake Placid,  New York – the plane was crammed full with presentation binders, displays, and all the necessary multimedia equipment  to deliver an annual product introduction for a major multinational company. I thought we were completely prepared for anything; oops, nobody thought to mention the unconventional  power generating system at the famous winter resort we were heading to that would grind our “gear” to a halt. We ended up improvising as a small army of volunteers manually advanced the phalanx of slide projectors cued with scripts hastily reworked on site. A minor victory over technology bugs; and  to this day I always have back up plans and try to be as “self contained” as possible for any presentation. Accidents do happen, sometimes with fortuitous result, which is the moral to this story.

One of the clients I worked with in those days was Corning, Inc. – their Biomedical division had just introduced an innovative piece of laboratory equipment, a blood gas meter, but it wasn’t selling well partly because it was different technology than the market was accustomed to using. It wasn’t selling well except in one particular sales territory where it was doing great, and I talked to the sales rep about his surprising success. “Well when I go back for my sample unit, the  lab won’t let me take it, they try it and they buy it.”  Of course he wasn’t supposed to leave his very expensive sample unit, just show it during his sales presentation. Thus was born the “Borrow A Meter” campaign, and one of the most successful product launches I can remember.

We can’t control everything. Unanticipated things happen. When that occurs you just might be able to use the result to advantage if you’re open to consider something different than what you expected.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/05/03/accidents-can-be-the-answers/

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“Immediacy”, is it too quick?

I will be brief. In fact, some studies suggest that most will read only the first four lines of text of this post before moving on. So I may only have “two more lines of your time”. What we are dealing with is “Immediacy” – a relatively new use for a term that has generally meant (are you still with me?):  to occur or accomplish without delay; in an instant.

What those using the term are attempting to express is that we are living in a communications milieu counted in seconds and sound bites and 140 character maximum communications called “tweets”. This genre of communications is becoming more and more prevalent and more and more the norm.  I have previously addressed a somewhat related issue, see: https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/04/10/quick-takes-social-network-fatigue/

Whether the consequences of “Immediacy” are  positive or negative depends upon a number of factors. If the purpose is finding a specific answer to a specific question then certainly there is merit in accelerating the process. But when the “short-cut approach” becomes the one and only recognized approach much can be lost such as clarity,  thinking things through, reflection; decision making on the basis of a “quick pick” is quite different than decision making based on more deliberate consideration of any given matter. There is a concern that those engaged  primarily with media and messages configured to satisfy “Immediacy” will have capacity to concentrate and stay on task only in short bursts. There is no stopping and smelling the roses  in an immediacy mediated world. So we gain some things, we lose some things; the trick may be  in learning to control rather than be controlled by the technology that makes this all possible.

We certainly need to be conscious of the potential impact of “Immediacy” on the interaction between communicator and  audience. Latest studies indicate a trend of less and less “time spent” on news websites. While “time spent” may not be the optimal index regarding “engagement” with a website, this trend tends to support a probable consequence of a culture focused on “Immediacy”. For further reading on the subject check out The Culture of Speed: The Coming of Immediacy by John Tomlinson, Professor of Cultural Sociology at Nottingham Trent University. It’s only 192 pages.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/04/29/immediacy-is-it-too-quick/

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Boy do we need a Chief Technology Officer!

I have been absorbing the news for the past few days. It’s really true. President Obama, in his weekly radio and internet address on Saturday, April 18, announced that Aneesh Chopra will be the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer. Chopra currently holds the CTO position in the state of Virginia. Why is this appointment meaningful?

First, a little background. The Obama administration’s agenda as regards technology is summarized this way: “President Obama and Vice President Biden understand the immense transformative power of technology and innovation and how they can improve the lives of Americans. They will work to ensure the full and free exchange of information through an open Internet and use technology to create a more transparent and connected democracy. They will encourage the deployment of modern communications infrastructure to improve America’s competitiveness and employ technology to solve our nation’s most pressing problems — ” http://www.whitehouse.gov/agenda/technology/

This nation has a lot of work to do to bring technology, particularly information and communication technology (ICT) into balance with societal needs. Yes we’re tweeting away, and faithfully updating our Facebook profiles, but we have no where near harnessed existing technology to make a difference in the lives of many in meaningful ways, or organized our public functions, governmental and otherwise to take optimal advantage of what technology can do.

This is only part of the task ahead. The nation’s first Chief  Technology Officer will need to be forward thinking about what the future demands. This is an important part of the job description.

There are many parts to this puzzle. The Obama technology agenda document identifies a number of  areas of interest, I will note just a few: “preserve the benefits of open competition on the Internet.” – “Encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media, promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, and clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation’s spectrum.” -” Use technology to reform government and improve the exchange of information between the federal government and citizens while ensuring the security of our networks.” – “America should lead the world in broadband penetration and Internet access.”  For the complete document detail go to: http://www.whitehouse.gov/agenda/technology/

The CTO position will officially be that of associate director for technology under the administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy office. Hardly a cabinet level position. But it’s a step in the right direction. A step into the future.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/04/23/boy-do-we-need-a-chief-technology-officer/

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