Sunday, November 25, 2012

Their, Myself, and I: Pronoun Missteps

When it comes to grammar, I’m not one to talk, but I have to admit there are a few common grammatical mistakes people make that make me cringe.  I’ll list them here, and with the help of some trusty reference documents, try to straighten the record.

Their She Goes

Have you noticed the way social media features the word “their,” as in “John updated their profile?” 

I understand why this improper use of the word “their” is used.  It was the closest thing the lazy computer programmer could think up that was gender neutral.  The direct alternative would be “John updated his/her profile,” and that may have seemed awkward.  Facebook and LinkedIn, among others, have opted instead to introduce poor grammar to a whole generation of digital natives. 

If I were in that meeting, I might have suggested the sentence, “John has an updated profile,” or “John’s profile has been updated.”

All By Myself

The rising trend of misusing “myself” is interesting because more often than not when it’s used, the speaker seems to be going out of his or her way to be as grammatical as possible.  Turn on the television news and watch a wide receiver describe a touchdown catch.

“The QB threw the ball to myself, and I made the catch for the winning score.”  Actually, the proper way to say it would have been, “The QB threw the ball to me, and I made the catch for the winning score.”

So here’s the right way to use, “myself.”

Myself is a reflexive pronoun.  Here’s how the Internet’s Grammar Girl explains it: “just think about looking into a mirror and seeing your reflection. You'd say, “I see myself in the mirror.” You see your reflection, and myself is a reflexive pronoun.”

Reflexive pronouns are himself, herself, yourself, itself and themselves.  Reflexive pronouns are always the object of the sentence. They cannot be the subject. 

But myself is not always the right word to use when “I” am the object. 

Here are a couple examples of the right way to use the word: “I imagine myself on a beach in the sun.”  Or, “I will buy myself a new pair of cowboy boots.”

One other proper way to use the word is to add emphasis, such as, “I myself couldn’t believe I won the lottery.”

But in any event, it’s never a good idea to include myself in a list, such as, “He invited Sarah, John and myself.”

There are No “I”s in Me

This one drove me crazy when my older son was in high school, because several of his English teachers actually insisted on the improper use of the pronoun “I” in their thesis papers.  They thought it made the kids sound smarter and more proper, perhaps.  But it was wrong.

Here’s the wrong way to say it, “Zach went to the mall with Jerry and I.”   Usually the mistake involves the use of “I” when it should be “me.”  The right way to say it is, “Zach went to the mall with Jerry and me.”

These are both singular, first-person pronouns.  One is the subject of the sentence: “I.” The other is usually the direct object: “me.”

I myself hope this was helpful to you. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

President Lincoln's Thanksgiving

It was just a few years ago that I learned the Thanksgiving holiday as we know it today, at least the one where the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions aren’t playing football, is actually rooted in a decision by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863.  That’s when the holiday became an annual tradition.

Here’s the story. Thanksgiving is always celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November.  It is a uniquely American holiday.  Back in 1863, while the Civil War was still raging, President Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”  While not a religious holiday, per se, it had significant spiritual significance at the time, and served as the kickoff to the holiday season that went through Christmas to the New Year.

As our history books tell us, the first Thanksgiving, was held by the Pilgrims to celebrate their first harvest in their new land in 1621.

However, during the Civil War, the president read a series of editorials written by Sarah Josepha Hale, which called for a national Thanksgiving Day to be celebrated the last Thursday in November of 1863.  As a result, he decided to make her proposition an annual tradition throughout the country.

The rationale behind the holiday was to start to help create a sense of unity.   In his proclamation of the event, President Lincoln pointed out the things for which Americans had to be thankful to God, including “fruitful fields,” the continued peace with foreign nations, and the continued preservation of the union.  Some historians have said that with the nation so divided at the time, as was pointed out by the president in his proclamation, it appeared the intent was to create a vision for a unified nation, living in peace, sharing the same values of God, family and country.

To Mr. Lincoln, the thought of giving thanks would have been an incomplete one if not to join together in appreciation for “the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”

In that proclamation, Mr. Lincoln touched on many of the issues the country faced in its war between the states, including the effect it was having on families.  He extended his particular sympathies to the widows and orphans created by the war.

To add context to this, it’s important to note that one week before the first national Thanksgiving holiday, the president traveled north of Washington, D.C., to deliver his remarks at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg.  This was the site of the bloodiest battle of the war and was devastating to both sides.  Both armies suffered a total of over 50,000 casualties.  As Mr. Lincoln delivered his remarks five months into the aftermath of the three-day battle, some of the dead still were not buried.   

To read his Gettysburg Address, and then to read his proclamation of the first Thanksgiving holiday, you can get a more complete sense of the mood of the country, and perhaps get a glimpse of Mr. Lincoln’s frame of mind at that time.  While these were extremely powerful leadership documents, there is a high degree of introspection and sentimentality contained in both. 

I found them both to be worthwhile in my own reflection of what I happen to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving holiday.  As I read these words from Mr. Lincoln, however, I realize not much tends to change.  I too, am thankful for my faith, family and a wonderful country to call home.  And that’s just for starters.  Wishing you much for which to be thankful this week. 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The 2012 Election and the Emergence of "Identity PR"

The analysis among political scientists continues in the wake of the election of 2012, and it’s not just centered on the presidential race.  Many congressional seats and senatorial positions were won and lost according to the same dynamics that decided the presidential race.

Because the political sphere is a highly charged atmosphere where the media, issues, messaging and breaking events all come to play to create a final narrative, it also serves as a good laboratory for public relations.  It is with this in mind that one observation that is starting to emerge in the analysis is that “identity politics” won the day.  This could have a significant impact on the practice of public relations, leading to a higher emphasis on “identity PR.”

Before getting into the PR trend, some background is necessary, and to keep it simple, I will focus on the presidential race.

In 2012, the two candidates spent billions on advertising.  The polls at the outset of the campaign showed which states were “red,” which ones were “blue,” and which ones were considered “battleground” or “swing.”  The swing states were assumed to be persuadable through the traditional means – TV advertising, mostly on local stations; well-orchestrated and aggressive scheduling of “stump speeches;”  and of course, “the ground game” of using your campaign staffers in localized markets to turn out the vote.  The states that received most of this attention were Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Ohio, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Nevada and Iowa.

By the end of the campaign, only North Carolina and Indiana changed from their pre-campaign leanings in the polls which means that in the end, there were only two, true swing states.

What it also means is that when the campaigns focused primarily on geography – the swing states – they wasted massive amounts of time, money and resources.  The candidates hardly if ever visited the remainder of the country.  Their primary focus was on these states.

The first lesson here, then, is that by targeting localized and regionalized markets generally, the candidates missed the mark.

The politicos have credited other factors for determining the outcome and closeness of the campaign.  They cited the presidential debates, the economic recession, high levels of unemployment, and voter fears of change, or losing certain government programs.  The polls indicated consistently that foreign policy was not a major factor in voters’ criteria this time around.

The race was not a landslide for the incumbent, but it wasn’t close enough to give the Republicans enough comfort to assume that their current campaign strategies will work in the future.

Clearly, the Democrats made gains in the Senate and won the White House because they got more votes from their base than the Republicans did.  Over three million fewer Republicans voted in this election than did in 2008.  Mitt Romney received 1.8 million fewer votes than Republican John McCain did in 2008.  In fact, the Republican turnout in this election was lower than in 2004 when George Bush defeated John Kerry.  Experts are saying that to best understand the outcome the key not to focus on why voters who voted made the choices they did, but rather to find out why some went to the polls and some stayed home.

But here’s what’s clear for us.  When the campaigns garnered support, they did so not along geographic borders but on demographic ones.  In this election, it mattered less on the state in which you lived and more on which demographic group to which you belong.

Post-election research revealed the president received his votes from: 93 percent of African Americans; 70 percent of Hispanic Americans; 60 percent of men and women under the age of 30; and 62 percent of all unmarried voters.

Romney’s base consisted of white men and women who are married, particularly those over the age of 30.  It is not yet clear where the senior citizen block came down.  On social and economic issues, it is believed that the 65-and over demographic would have leaned Romney, but the big question-mark was whether that campaign’s plans for reforming Medicare had a significant impact on the actual vote among seniors.

Each of these demographics viewed the election, and their votes, through the prism of their own self-interest, what they had to personally gain or lose with each candidate.  While this is not a new concept, their self-interest was as much defined by the campaigns as themselves. 

Two examples: The Romney campaign spoke consistently to the self-interest of small business owners and middle class families.  The Obama campaign spoke consistently to the self-interest of younger, single women.  In the process both campaigns didn’t stop short of trying to prove they could meet voter needs, but they went further to essentially tell those targeted voters what they should need, want and expect as members of a particular social interest group.

What are Identity Politics?

The basis of identity politics is to center on the self-interest of the targeted audience as it identifies itself in a social interest group context.  Do I define myself by my age, by my religion, by my marital status?  Or, do I define myself by my current economic class – blue collar, white collar, professional, etc.?

Identity politics emerged in its current form in the 1960s when smaller sub-sets of voters increasingly defined themselves along the lines of sexual orientation; gender; race or ethnicity; or religious affiliation.  Since then, the number of groups that might fall under the “identity politics” realm has exploded.  Just about every activist and lobbying organization represents a group that can be targeted with the identity political appeal.  By 2012, the electorate appears to have evolved to the point that the vast majority of voters have fallen into some category.

What this Means for PR

For those of us in PR, this means that when we work for companies or organizations, we have to be even more mindful of the identity groups within our own targeted audiences.  Consumer PR has always been rather sophisticated demographically. I think we’ll find that more frequently, all PR programs will be more mindful of demographics and social identities within such audiences as customers, vendors, employees or investors.

Let’s say we have an employee communications project encompassing five regional hubs across the country.  Instead of making assumptions that all employees in the rank and file will react the same way to the same news, it’s more likely that a group of employees from Texas will react differently than their peers in California on the basis of how they identify themselves when they are away from work.

This is slightly exaggerated to illustrate, but over the years, you might have met an old friend on the street and asked her, “So what do you do?”  Back then, she might have said, “I’m a banker and I live in Springfield with my husband, two kids and a dog.”

Today, that exchange could go differently.   You may ask again, “So what do you do?”  And under this new era of identifying ourselves as who we are outside of work, she could respond, “I’m a marathoner, and I like to travel to races with my family in our hybrid. We all run and like to volunteer at the local food bank on Sundays after church.”

While the people involved may be doing the same things they’ve always done, what’s changing is how they identify themselves and more readily use that identity to make choices.  In the example above, exercise is not just exercise, a car is not just a car, family life isn’t just family life.  It’s a statement.

And all of this is amplified on social media, where social interests are showcased by the millions each day, along with the sharing of opinions on everything from the latest news to a new decorating idea.

Like its political cousin, identity PR will have to take into account the self-interests of targeted audiences beyond the business at hand.  Here are some examples:

·         Announcement of natural gas drilling project in West Virginia will likely be seen by that region as a positive economic development in that jobs are being created, while in parts of New York it will play out as a threat to the environment.
·         The mere act by the CEO of a consumer goods company of accepting an invitation to speak at an evangelical Christian college could be characterized by special interests on Twitter as an endorsement of all of that college’s positions on social issues.
·         And if the same CEO announced the hiring of a celebrity spokesperson to do a few commercials for the company, and that celebrity happens to be in a same-sex marriage, the CEO could come under fire from others on allegations of supporting same-sex marriage.

We have entered a new era of identity PR, one that will only get more supercharged as social media becomes more prevalent than it already has become.  Looking ahead, it will be more the norm for PR programs to break audiences down according to more narrow and sometimes fragmented demographics.  And it will be more routine to anticipate possible issues management and crisis situations that could result from disparate groups reacting differently to the same developments.

Friday, November 2, 2012

"Newsjacking" Highlights the Power and the Limitations of Social Media

As Hurricane Sandy approached land last week, Sears knew there would be demand for many of its products, from generators to chain saws.  The retailer has seen this before during times of natural disaster.

Only this time, the company’s marketing people decided to do some storm preparedness of their own. They created a special Web page that allowed for easier one-stop-shopping for anyone taking measures to prepare for the impact of the hurricane, or further inland, the “super storm.”

The company then used Twitter as part of its effort to create awareness of its Web page and its position as a supplier of storm preparedness and recovery items.

Here’s what the company’s official Tweet said:

“Did Hurricane Sandy affect your city? Get your generators, air mattresses & more in one place:  #HurricaneSandy

In a pre-social media world, Sears may have advertised this on TV and perhaps radio.  If there was time, it may have taken out newspaper ads, but it wouldn’t have “tweeted” this.  And most likely, it would not have caused concern if the ads were of the same general tone.

But in today’s social media environment, the company’s tweet sparked backlash against Sears by those on social media accusing the company of “newsjacking.”  This is a relatively new term that’s based on the idea that if a person or company tries to use a major news event for personal or corporate gain, it’s guilty of newsjacking.

There were some pretty extreme examples of this around Hurricane Sandy.  One apparel retailer tried to use social media to promote a discount on products over the Internet for those who may suffer “boredom” as the hurricane wears on. Obviously, social media has done nothing to inhibit insensitivity. 

To be sure, Sears’ situation was different.  For many decades, the retailer has been a major resource for just the kind of tools and supplies people need during times of natural disaster.  It could easily be argued that the company was doing people a great service by creating awareness of its products, and by offering discounts on those products, which it did.

But Sears came under fire in social media on accusations of trying to use the storm on grounds of “corporate greed.”  The comments were all over the board, some in favor of Sears, and some which complained of the timing and nature of the content.  Quite a few believed the company should have put a moratorium on advertising or even given the products away.

From a PR standpoint, there are a couple of issues going on here that need to be addressed.  One is the whole notion of “newsjacking.”  Another is whether Sears deserved the social media backlash. 

“Newsjacking” is a new term for a very, very old idea.  The whole PR industry is based in large part on the idea that companies, organizations and individuals find a way to tie their messages and themes into the current events of the day. This is how they achieve relevance, and you can’t do effective PR without it.  The key is to do it ethically, credibly and tastefully.

It would appear that those who live their lives on social media are discovering for the first time  the issues we’ve dealt with in PR for many decades.  They’re conjuring up new terms that also bring with them value-judgments, oftentimes based on an altruistic worldview, devoid of a deep understanding of the societal value of business, commerce and industry. 

In the social media world, most all newsjacking is bad, particularly if there is a business component to it because that would suggest corporate greed. 

On the other hand, because of the lightning speed and very informal systems and tone of social media, examples of tastelessness have escalated with the numbers of social media users.  So there is some basis for skepticism on the motives of corporate social media users.  It is perhaps for this reason that Sears almost unknowingly put a social media target on its back.

As the water gets pumped out of the New York subway system, and as New Jersey begins the long rebuilding process in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, those of us in PR and social media are left with a number of issues.  We need to come to terms with the possibility that some social media initiatives tied to current events could lead to accusations of newsjacking.  Companies should have pretty clear communications strategies and policies so that when companies venture into the world of breaking news, they do so with clarity on their best of intentions. 

At the same time, the social media business, as fragmented as it is needs its leadership to step up and start to provide a higher level of professional standards.  The current mindset in social media is to let the tail wag the dog.  Comments are largely un-moderated.  Well organized social media mobs tend to make the most noise and rule.  As a result, there has emerged a social media groupthink on Twitter and Facebook. 

Corporate interests tend to be the group’s easiest and most common targets.  Social media activists know that the traditional media these days gives unusual weight to the volume of tweets as opposed to the legitimacy of the comments or concerns on Twitter, for instance.  You can’t expect the users of social media to be attracted to or adhere to higher standards of behavior on social media.

But the time may now be right for the social media discipline to begin to self-police and establish its own more professional standards for the management of social media sites and pages.  This would not be unlike the standards and codes we adhere to in the public relations and journalism professions.