Posted by: ateedub | March 25, 2009

The Right Response from AIG

From yesterday’s New York Times Op-Ed pages:

DEAR Mr. Liddy,

It is with deep regret that I submit my notice of resignation from A.I.G. Financial Products. I hope you take the time to read this entire letter. Before describing the details of my decision, I want to offer some context:

I am proud of everything I have done for the commodity and equity divisions of A.I.G.-F.P. I was in no way involved in — or responsible for — the credit default swap transactions that have hamstrung A.I.G. Nor were more than a handful of the 400 current employees of A.I.G.-F.P. Most of those responsible have left the company and have conspicuously escaped the public outrage.

After 12 months of hard work dismantling the company — during which A.I.G. reassured us many times we would be rewarded in March 2009 — we in the financial products unit have been betrayed by A.I.G. and are being unfairly persecuted by elected officials. In response to this, I will now leave the company and donate my entire post-tax retention payment to those suffering from the global economic downturn. My intent is to keep none of the money myself.

I take this action after 11 years of dedicated, honorable service to A.I.G. I can no longer effectively perform my duties in this dysfunctional environment, nor am I being paid to do so. Like you, I was asked to work for an annual salary of $1, and I agreed out of a sense of duty to the company and to the public officials who have come to its aid. Having now been let down by both, I can no longer justify spending 10, 12, 14 hours a day away from my family for the benefit of those who have let me down. …

-Jake DeSantis

Posted by: ateedub | March 19, 2009

The Clean Coal Frenzy in DC

I’m watching the Daily Show right now (Comcast in Washington, DC), and I’ve already seen 4 ads about clean coal (it’s 11:20).  Within the same commercial break, I’ve seen both of these commercials:

Washington’s metro stations and train cars are plastered in yellow ads with mermaids holding black rocks and the URL thisisreality.org. US News has an interesting blog post on the “reality campaign” here.

It’s clear that this debate is gaining momentum in this time of economic downturn. It seems that the stimulus bill, with its provisions for developing green jobs and sustainable energy sources is, perhaps, having an impact on our national energy outlook. But in the spirit of “shovel ready” projects, is clean coal the answer?

The fact is, there is no clean coal right now. Clean coal requires the development of systems and technologies that are not currently available. The “clean” part of clean coal is the idea that carbon released from the combustion of coal can be kept out of the atmosphere – using carbon capture and sequestration. Time Magazine, by no means a paragon of left-leaning values, explores some of the technology hurdles in this January article.

The NY Times has an interesting piece on how the stimulus is bringing back the clean coal rhetoric that we heard during the Presidential campaign last year. This is why the metro ads are back up and the Daily Show is alternately being sponsored by the pro- and con-clean coal lobbies.

[A digression on my personal views: Don't get me wrong - I think we should invest in research into clean coal through standard research mechanisms found in NSF, DOE, and EPA. I just think it's premature to invest in clean coal plants when the technology is fuzzy at best and certainly completely untested.]

What I find particularly interesting about these lobbying campaign is that one is far more sophisticated than the other. The Reality Campaign is hipper. It uses irony and some of the more recently popular advertising tactics, like the serial ads that don’t mean anything until you put them together (see mermaid reference above), or an unusual and annoying sound to recapture a viewer’s attention in a TV ad. Besides this, the creative is brilliant. What better way to draw attention to the drawbacks of coal than to choose a canary as your mascot?

On the other hand, the America’s Power campaign follows the typical political ad, simply replaying parts of Obama’s campaign speeches. While this attempts to capture the energy of “the moment”, I think they’ve missed their chance. The “Yes we can” chant at the end of the ad is so January 19th. From Inauguration Day onward, Obama has taken a much more sober tone in his speeches and with the economic troubles continuing, the sense of hope many of us experienced is being beaten down by layoffs, disappearing 401Ks, and the number of nominees with tax problems. I know Obama’s popularity is still up there, but we are no longer chanting “Yes we can!” So this campaign seems to have missed the moment altogether. I think it will be far less effective than the quirkiness and irony of the Reality Campaign.

Posted by: ateedub | March 17, 2009

So What Should AIG Do Now?

As I drove home tonight, I was listening to C-SPAN radio’s replay of the House Democratic Press Conference from earlier today in which a series of Congresspeople lambasted AIG executives for their idiocy in giving bonuses. They demanded apologies, they demanded the money be returned, and they demanded that Congress do something about it.

This seems to be pretty basic crisis communications. Apologize, give it back, and ask someone to do something about the problem. But if this is what Congress is asking for (or rather, the Democratic members of Congress are asking for), how should AIG respond to restore its reputation and the public’s trust?

I approach this purely as a communications and reputation-management problem, so please understand that I am setting aside any operational concerns at this moment. Here are the standard crisis comm reactions:

  1. Anyone who was in the approval chain to distribute the bonuses needs to resign.
  2. The CEO, CFO, COO, and all other senior management need to take $100,000 or less salaries until the company is no longer dependent on government money.
  3. The $165 million paid in bonuses should be returned to the government bailout fund (understanding that the money can’t be taken back from the individuals who received it, but the company should take that hit to its balance sheets).
  4. AIG should work on pitching the positive outcomes of the bailout funds – how many blue collar jobs were saved.
  5. Find someone – anyone – who can speak on your behalf. (Except the employees who received the bonuses.)

And all of these things might have worked 5 months ago, or even a week ago. But the story is too widespread, has been picked up by far too many news outlets, and is certainly outside of the controllable range.

But I have to say that AIG is doing an excellent job of making the case for bank nationalization for the administration and/or Congress…convenient.

Update (3/18): Will DiNovi has an interesting piece on the public outcry over on The Atlantic’s opinion pages. It seems I’m not the only one who sees the opportunity in this latest crisis within a crisis…

Posted by: ateedub | March 4, 2009

Kerfuffle in Social Media

Kerfuffle is not a commonly used word in American English. The OED‘s first record of it is from a 1946 short story from Frank Sargeson. They suppose it comes from the older Scots word, curfuffle, meaning “disorder, flurry, agitation,” which in turn originated from two Scottish Gaelic words meaning wrong/awkward and to become disheveled.

I’m not entirely sure why I know the meaning of the word, unless I picked it up contextually.  It means a disturbance or dispute, usually caused by a misunderstanding or inappropriate response in a social setting. More formal definitions are certainly available – I especially like the nuance of Urban Dictionary’s.

I do not recall hearing kerfuffle used very often until I got involved in social media and began interacting with others in this sphere. The first time I remember hearing it – at least within the past year – is from Joseph Jaffe on his Jaffe Juice podcast.  This post is probably not the original topic about which I heard him use the word, but it is one of many examples on his blog. I remember thinking that this was perhaps a more common term in South Africa.

But then I kept hearing it over and over:

So where and how did the word become so popular in the online space? I wish I could find (an easy) way to track the use and popularity of the word online. Who was the initial trendsetter in the social media community?

Aside from this question, what I find most interesting about the word is when it’s used over the many possible synonyms:

  • commotion
  • disruption
  • brouhaha
  • misunderstanding
  • mis-communication
  • tiff
  • conflict
  • tussle
  • spat
  • to-do
  • uproar

Had the term been in popular use in 2004, would we have called the Janet Jackson wardrobe “malfunction” a wardrobe “kerfuffle”? And will we eventually call the Middle East conflict, the Mideast kerfuffle?

Question from Geoff and Qui: In social media campaigns, so many efforts rely on the tools and the technologies, as opposed to a bonafide communications strategy.   Why is a strategy important for your social media effort.  Further, why is it so important to research the social web community to inform your strategy?  Please limit your answers to 500 words and cite sources (using hyperlinks or traditional end notes).

Strategy is not only the framework that defines your communications plan, but also the benchmark upon which you measure your success. Far from being a plan to execute, strategy is about the big picture – choosing an approach to the communications problem at hand. It answers the questions of how and why, not who and what.

On the other hand, tactics are the who and what of your plan. What message are you sending, through what channel, and to whom? To understand why this is the action being taken, the strategy must be referred to.

However, selecting the best strategy is not a straightforward process and varies by situation. For example, communicating with a group of teenagers requires a very different approach from a reaching out to working moms. We know this instinctively, but how does one determine the correct strategy for approaching them? The answer is always research.

Teenagers tend to be very active in the social media space, particularly on social networks, instant messaging applications, and SMS. But a recent report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project suggests that teens do not consider their online social activities to be “writing.” How successful would a letter-writing campaign targeted at teens be if this kind of information was not included in an analysis? In fact, this data should inform the development of a more effective strategy that achieves the overall objective.

This is particularly true in the social media world where tactics may change drastically in a three month period. The rise of Twitter over the past year illustrates this concept. Any social media campaign launched in July 2007 based upon tactics would have completely missed the boat with Twitter. Nature Conservancy succeeded in 2008 using L’il Green Patch, a Facebook application as a tactic to achieve fundraising and awareness goals, but 2009’s Twestival in support of Charity: water  succeeded by activating people through Twitter, not Facebook. While this may reflect a change in the popularity of different tools, it could also reflect the different audiences activated by the campaigns.

Similarly, the recent kerfuffle over Motrin’s “baby wearing” advertisement for aspirin that outraged mommy bloggers illustrates that Motrin did not do enough research. Before launching a social media asset, Motrin should have known who were the key influencers among its audience. This research would have shown them that mommy bloggers are an influential group, and that they use a range of social media tools including Twitter.

Regardless of whether a given campaign includes social media elements, all communications activities should be rooted in a strategy-development process that includes research.

Posted by: ateedub | February 2, 2009

Dealing With Uncertainty

Before my blogging sabbatical, I was working on an article about the “new” prostate cancer screening recommendation recently released by the US Preventive Services Task Force.

Until this report came out in August, the standing recommendation was generally understood to be that men over the age of 50 should be screened via PSA testing and a DRE. The 2008 USPSTF report found that they couldn’t determine whether there was any benefit to screening over the age of 75. So the new recommendation is not against testing men over 75, because the harms are likely to outweigh the benefits.

When you look closely, there’s no change in recommendations. I’ve spoken with three leading specialists in prostate cancer treatment and research from three different practice fields. They all agree that for all intents and purposes, this does not change how a doctor should care for a 75-year old man.

Interestingly, the urologist with whom I spoke (who is a member of a surgical society that does not accept the new recommendations), said that nothing changed and it won’t affect his practice. The medical oncologist was somewhat concerned about the overall message about screening being less clear – because she treats patients whose cancer was not found early enough. And the population scientist felt very strongly that these findings were important because the data do not support any benefit coming from screening.

To illustrate how these three opinions about the report could boil down to the same conclusion of no change in the way care is provided, you have to look closely at the language. The American Cancer Society‘s recommendation says that men should have a conversation about PSA testing with their doctors starting at age 50:

The American Cancer Society (ACS) does not support routine testing for prostate cancer at this time. ACS does believe that health care professionals should discuss the potential benefits and limitations of prostate cancer early detection testing with men before any testing begins. This discussion should include an offer for testing with the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test and digital rectal exam (DRE) yearly, beginning at age 50, to men who are at average risk of prostate cancer and have at least a 10-year life expectancy.

The language is pretty vague, but essentially the recommendation is to have a discussion; whether you’re over 50 or over 75.  And this makes sense to me. There are many factors that go into this decision, and it illustrates the “art” that goes into medicine. We don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach.

But I think the way we deal with uncertainty as individuals makes us want medicine to be a science. The urologist I spoke with is comfortable because he doesn’t perceive any uncertainty in the decision. If an active 80-year old comes into his office for screening, he will have the discussion with him. If a 55-year old in poorer health comes in, he’ll also have the discussion.

On the other hand the population scientist was adamant that the data show no benefit, much like Schweitzer. In fact, she is waiting for the results of the PLCO (prostate, lung, colorectal, and ovarian) Cancer Screening Trial, because as the ACS statement alludes to, the benefit of PSA testing is not clear.  Perhaps the population-wide study will not find that lives are being saved – or at least extended – through early detection. Or perhaps it will find that they are, but that the negative impacts of screening (false positives, false negatives, excess biopsies, etc.) make the relative benefit very small. She’s unprepared to deal with the uncertainty.

The medical oncologist wants everyone to be screened. She doesn’t care about the uncertainty, as long as at least one person benefits.

I did not end up writing the story about this for work because I ran out of time trying to find a coherent narrative about it for my institution. It’s a little hard to weave these difficult conversations about uncertainty into an official story.

Posted by: ateedub | February 1, 2009

Science in American Popular Culture

Chris Mooney has an interesting column on Science Progress this week. He – rightly in my opinion – identifies Colbert as one of the leading (or only) popular purveyors of science on TV. Chris says:

In other words, you might say that George W. Bush’s anti-intellectual administration created a perfect opening for Stephen Colbert’s hugely popular caricature of anti-intellectualism; and this in turn transformed Colbert into possibly our most important defender and explainer of scientific knowledge. (Again, if you get the jokes.)

This led me to think about where we go (as a nation/culture) for our information. Although the numbers are steadily dropping, I will assume that many people still rely primarily on the evening news shows to to find out what’s going on in the world. And the amount of science you get there is really slim.  In fact, NBC’s  Nightly News no longer has a science or technology link in its left-hand nav. (CBS Evening News and ABC World News thankfully do still have them.)

Generally though, we get health segments that interview doctors about the impact of a new finding, but not about what the finding is. More often, it’s a story about a potty trained parrot. I kid you not – this is one of the stories that came up on NBC NN’s site when I searched for science.

I have a general dissatisfaction with the evening news shows (how much news can you really convey in 22 minutes?), but why does the Post have so little original science reporting (most of it now comes from HealthDay and AP)? The Times is trying to limp on with its reduced staff. But I think the real question is why the public is not demanding in-depth science coverage.

In the 1950s and 60s, there is no way a paper could get by without covering the science being done at our national laboratories, or the technology and engineering feats that went into building some of the first space age rockets.

I could go on about this, but I think the real question is one that Mooney brings up in his column – what will happen now that we have an administration that promotes science? Will America’s inventions, discoveries, and achievements once again take a central role in our sense of national pride?

This brings me to Sanjay Gupta. Having a charismatic, media-friendly Surgeon General or National Science Advisor, or Secretary of HHS would do wonders for public perception of science and its importance (of the three, Gupta is the only one suited to this role). If Gupta accepts the offer as Surgeon General, and is confirmed by the Senate, his role would be that of spokesperson – or maybe even science evangelist.

I’m not sold on the idea that we should hire our scientific and medical leadership based on their social appeal. But being in PR, I struggle to find someone with the charisma, knowledge, and the time to be an evangelist for my organization, or for science. So perhaps this is the right approach for the administration, as long as Gupta and Obama ensure that someone is doing the hard science work behind the scenes.

Incidentally, Chris, I think you took the right approach to the Report. Did you see the interview with Philippe Petit the next night? He skewered Colbert, making me want to see his movie far less than I had wanted to before.

Posted by: ateedub | January 25, 2009

Hello, again

Those of you who follow me – if there are any left – will be delighted to know that I am back from my (un-announced) blogging sabbatical.

I may have mentioned before that I tend to over-commit to things. And I found myself teaching, taking classes for my master’s, being in a relationship, taking care of our puppy, trying to stay in touch with family and friends…oh and did I mention the more than full time job?

But I’m back and raring to go…tomorrow

Posted by: ateedub | September 7, 2008

The Man in a Top Hat by the Supreme Court

Seth Godin just wrote an interesting post about the infinite amount of information on the Internet. He argues that today’s problem is not finding what you want, but deciding what you want to find. While I largely agree with Godin, I would note that there is an important caveat: after you decide what you want to find, you have to figure out how to search for it.

The days of cataloging the internet are long gone. Yahoo’s subject-based searches are gone. And while Google Directory is still available, they’ve moved the project away from the main Google offerings, and are open directory (the basis of Google Directory) is being created in partnership with AOL search. In addition, page rank plays a major role in how the cataloged sites are presented.

In the age of search engine wars, it may seem like this is no longer an issue. But like Godin, let me illustrate my thesis with an example.

Two to three times a week I take my dog for a run in the morning around Capitol Hill. We typically head over toward the Capitol, weaving our way in-between House office buildings, the Supreme Court, and the Library of Congress. Every morning that I’m out around 7 am, I see a man in an old-fashioned long coat and top hat on his way to or standing in front of the Supreme Court. This is true even in the heat of summer in DC.

I’ve searched for information on this person several times, using various combinations of: man, “top hat”, “supreme court”, “US supreme court”, Washington, morning, “7 am”, coat, “in front”, outside.

I found nothing.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I found plenty of information about the recent Supreme Court ruling on the DC gun ban, a quarterly newsletter in the Supreme Court Historical Society archives, Texas politician Bob Eckhardt, and Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy on Goodreads. The two search results that seemed to show the most promise ended up being a treatise about civil war Washington and the 2001 inauguration. (I searched using Google, Yahoo, and MSN Live Search – the three engines with the highest market share.)

The only places I would expect to actually find information on this topic would be blogs or maybe an image search. I couldn’t find anything remotely related on Google Blog & Image Search, Technorati, or Live Search Feeds & Images.

So now that I’ve written about this, there will at least be one truly relevant result on the search engines. I have no doubt that this information exists online somewhere. But I wasn’t able to find it, and still have no answers.

Posted by: ateedub | September 5, 2008

Obsessing Done…Now Back to Blogging

I have been watching the conventions for the past two weeks, breaking only to sleep, work, and teach (and still keeping up to date with everything through twitter and my RSS feeds). So now that they’re finally done, I can go back to ignoring the campaign trail and focus on science and communications…at least for a little while.

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