Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How to Write a Press Release

How to Write a Press Release
Writing a press release is, not too different from writing any other document. We are going to discuss the content of your press release and how it should be formatted. Certain rules must be followed to ensure that you are including all the necessary information.

In addition, it must be laid out in a manner that will not negatively affect the reader's interpretation.

Press Release Topic?

What is my story?

In order to write a press release, you must determine the subject of your story. It can be about an event that affects your industry, or it can be about a change in your company that will affect your customer base. Whatever you choose to be your story, you must remember to cover the basics. Your press release must always tell who, what, where, when, and why.

Is my story news?

A mistake that is often made in the development of a press release is the misunderstanding that a press release is an advertisement. It must be understood that, even though a press release can assist your company in acquiring customers, it should not be your focus. The primary purpose of your press release is to deliver a newsworthy story about your company to the reader.

Writing a Press Release

Once you have answered the important questions, it is time to begin writing. Like any other paper, you should always start off with your thesis. Your thesis is the purpose for why you are writing the press release. Make sure that you express this thought in a manner that is of interest to your prospective reader. Readers are very picky; if they do not see relevance in your press release immediately, they will discard it.

The layout for your press release:

First, open with a strong headline to grab the reader's attention. The headline along with your opening paragraph should tell a gripping story. This is essential to keeping the reader's interest as they read through the detail section of the release that follows.

Second, stick to the facts. Make it interesting, but avoid embellishments. Also, when giving the details of your press release, be sure to illustrate the story to your reader. Use real life examples that they will be able to relate to or visualize.

Next, select an appropriate angle for your press release. By this I mean, try to make it relevant. Keep in mind what's going on with social issues and current events and sculpt your press release accordingly. This will make your story even more attractive and worthwhile to potential readers.

Finally, be concise and grammatically correct. Avoid adding extra fluff words that distract from the true meaning of your press release. Don't include clich├ęs and jargon that may not be understood by the general reader. Make sure that you have permission to use any quotes or inside information. This will prevent there being any conflicts that may result in your press release being pulled. Be sure to check you release for punctuation and grammatical errors. Take a look at some other press releases to make sure that you have followed the proper format.

Press Kit Mantras

Crafting an attractive and informative press kit is a whole new beast in the digital era.
The meaning of the phrase press kit is evolving. As recently as a decade ago, it meant literally a package of information in a folder sent out to reporters to try and generate interest in a company. The kits were an easy way to share a comprehensive look at a business, but were notoriously cumbersome. A reporter attending an industry trade show could walk away with suitcases full of packets of information from a dozen different companies in a mess of envelopes and loose papers. Lots of it, to be honest, ended up in the recycling bin anyway.

Over time, some companies and promoters got savvier. Press kits occasionally morphed into elaborately designed folders of multimedia information – CDs, music samples, and content on flash drives. Often freebies were tucked inside, but all the same, much of that would be overlooked and land in the trash.

These days, a press kit has been shrunken down to digital bytes, making it easier to handle for both reporters and public relations teams. In addition to saving money on printing and mailing costs, the modern press kit gives media instant access to photos and videos featuring your business that they can download and use immediately.
"Reporters who are on deadline, working on way too many things, spread across multiple beats, going nuts, you want to make it easy for them to write about you," says Leyl Master Black, managing director SparkPR, a public relations firm based in San Francisco.

Public relations professionals say creating a good press kit is as important as having a website or customer service hotline these days. But putting one together is often as easy as gathering up some information about your company you already have lying around. But where do you start? Experts offer these tips:
Putting Together a Press Kit: Focus on the Key Elements

You want your press kit to be one-stop shopping for any journalist looking to write about your company. But public relations firms say they also use the kits as marketing tools for potential advertisers or clients. Professionals say every kit should include the following elements:

Company overview: What does your company do? When did it start? Is there something unique about your founding that people might be interested in? The overview is the place to sum up your business so that even someone who hasn't heard of you before will understand what your operation is all about. This can also include a fact sheet listing elements of your business or a timeline of growth and achievements.

Biographies: Use this section to talk about your company's founders, CEO, chairperson, investors or any other key players.

"It's a great opportunity to differentiate and put a human face on the company," says Lauren Selikoff, chief marketing officer for Allison & Partners, a public relations firm based in San Francisco. "Bios are often a lost opportunity for that because really a company's executives are the soul of the company. You can get some insight into how a company's management team thinks, what their vision for the future is."

But keep the descriptions tight and don't try to tell everyone's life story or you risk losing interest fast, warns Lou Hammond, founder of Hammond and Associates, which handles public relations for several resorts and destinations out of its New York, Florida, and South Carolina offices.

"No bio in today's world needs to be more than three paragraphs," she says.

FAQs: You can use a frequently asked questions section to help differentiate your company from your competitors, Black says. She recommends talking to your sales team to find out what questions keep popping up. Your answers will help place your company in context of the larger marketplace. You may also want to consider including customer testimonials or product reviews if appropriate.

News coverage: You should always include at least your one or two most recent press releases. But you also should include any coverage or mentions in the press your company has received, such as reprints of magazine stories, clips from a newsreel, or screenshots from online publications. Don't have any coverage yet? Erin Tracy, vice president of Regan Communications, says you should consider hiring a production team to create a demo video. This gives you a chance to show off your company and executives as poised, articulate, TV friendly, and ready for interviews.

Getting rights for reprints of news coverage can sometimes be costly, so Selikoff recommends considering just linking to the coverage instead in your online press release.

Art: In the spirit of one-stop shopping, your press release should provide some photos or B-roll footage of your company that media organizations can easily use. They could be photos of your products, headshots of key employees, video of your operations or a map of your location. The kit should make it clear that journalists are allowed to republish the images or video with any appropriate credits. Including a logo with the images is an easy way to get your brand image out into the public consciousness, experts say.

When creating publicity materials for the "Back Jack" campaign that seeks to turn Jack Daniel's birthday into a national holiday, public-relations firm DVL, which is based in Nashville, included archival photos of the liquor's namesake and high-quality downloadable videos talking about his history.

"He's celebrating what would be his 160th birthday," says Mark Day, senior vice president at DVL. "We want to point out to the media that Jack Daniels actually was a real man. [The kit] becomes a library of all things Jack Daniels for the particular birthday promotion."

If you don't have professional photos to share, Tracy recommends setting up a company Flickr page, YouTube account or Facebook profile and linking to them through the kit. Those services are easy to use and a quick way to share photos from recent events, she says.

Contact information: This seems like a no-brainer, but public relations professionals say some people often overlook including a section telling media whom to contact for more information. You should list phone numbers and e-mail addresses for your company spokesperson, public relations person or a designated staff member who handles media requests.

"The benefit of having a press kit is having all of the information that you want people to know together in one spot," Selikoff says. "A press kit without contact information is useless."

Monday, October 29, 2012

Media Alliance Code of Ethics

Media Alliance Code of Ethics
Respect for truth and the public's right to information are fundamental principles of journalism. Journalists describe society to it. They convey information, ideas and opinions, a privileged role. They search, disclose, record, question, entertain, suggest and remember. They inform citizens and animate democracy. They give a practical form to freedom of expression. Many journalists work in private enterprise, but all have these public responsibilities. They scrutinize power, but also exercise it, and should be accountable. Accountability engenders trust. Without trust, journalists do not fulfill their public responsibilities. Alliance members engaged in journalism commit themselves to

Respect for the rights of others

1.  Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts.  Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis.  Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply.

2.  Do not place unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics, including race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation, family relationships, religious belief, or physical or intellectual disability.

3.  Aim to attribute information to its source.  Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source's motives and any alternative attributable source.  Where confidences are accepted,  respect them in all circumstances.

4.  Do not allow personal interest, or any belief, commitment, payment, gift or benefit, to undermine your accuracy, fairness or independence.

5.  Disclose conflicts of interest that affect, or could be seen to affect, the accuracy, fairness or independence of your journalism.  Do not improperly use a journalistic position for personal gain.

6.  Do not allow advertising or other commercial considerations to undermine accuracy, fairness or independence.

7.  Do your utmost to ensure disclosure of any direct or indirect payment made for interviews, pictures, information or stories.

8.  Use fair, responsible and honest means to obtain material.  Identify yourself and your employer before obtaining any interview for publication or broadcast.  Never exploit a person's vulnerability or ignorance of media practice.

9.  Present pictures and sound which are true and accurate.  Any manipulation likely to mislead should be disclosed.

10.  Do not plagiarize.

11.  Respect private grief and personal privacy.  Journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude.

12.  Do your utmost to achieve fair correction of errors.

Guidance Clause

Basic values often need interpretation and sometimes come into conflict. Ethical journalism requires conscientious decision-making in context. Only substantial advancement of the public interest or risk of substantial harm to people allows any standard to be overridden.

How to Develop Your Photography Skills

How to Develop Your Photography Skills
Learn the basics, if you haven't already. Basics of photography include composition, which is essentially the placing of a subject within the frame of a photograph, lighting, and the basic workings of your camera. See How to Take Better Photographs for some introductory material.
Be ready. At least half of the time, the difference between a great photograph and a mediocre one is being in the right place at the right time, with a camera in your hand. Carry your camera with you as often as you can. Make sure to use your camera often, too. Just carrying it around does no good.
Be there. Being "ready" is not enough. As Ken Rockwell says of his early experience,

Did you catch the spoiler word in my logic, "anything that presented itself?" I was a spectator. I thought that photography involved taking pictures of things that came along. NO! You have to get out there and find things. Finding and seeing are the hard part... taking a picture of what you find is the trivial part.

So get up, get out there and take photographs. Go out at every time of day, every day, and look for things. Don't wait for the right opportunity to come along (but be prepared if it does!); go out and find them. Look for opportunities everywhere you go (whether you're at the mall or on the other side of the world), and go to places to look for opportunities. If you can see something in your mind, chances are you can set it up and shoot it!
Stop looking for subjects to photograph and learn to see.
Look for colors. Or do the opposite: look for a total absence of color, or shoot in black-and-white.
Look for repetition and rhythm. Or do the opposite, and look for something completely isolated from the things around it.
Look for lighting, and the lack of such. Take photographs of shadows, or of reflections, or of light streaming through something, or of things in total darkness.
Look for emotion and gesture if you're photographing people. Do they show happiness? Mischievousness? Sadness? Do they look thoughtful? Or do they just look like another person mildly annoyed to have a camera pointed at them?
Look for texture, forms, and patterns. Great black-and-white photographs are stunning because black-and-white forces the photographer to look for these things.
Look for contrasts. Look for something that stands out from the rest of the shot. In your composition, use the wide end of your zoom (or a wide-angle lens) and get closer and make it so. Look for contrasts of all the things above: color amid dullness, light among darkness, and so on. If you're photographing people, try putting (or finding) your subject in a context in which they stand out. Look for happiness in unexpected places. Look for a person in a surrounding in which they appear out-of-place. Or ignore this and take them completely away from their context by opening your lens all the way to blur the background.
Look for anything that will hold a viewer's interest which isn't a traditional "subject". As you find your niche, you'll probably find that you end up going back to taking photographs of subjects again. This is fine. Looking for things which aren't subjects will improve your photography no end—you'll soon see a different world altogether.
Keep your photos as simple as possible. Get as close to your subject as you can. Use your feet, and use your zoom lens (if you have one) to fine-tune your composition. Get rid of anything that doesn't give some important context to understand your photo fully.
Shoot film. If you already shoot film, then shoot digital as well. Both film and digital cameras have their place in the learning photographer's arsenal. They both have their advantages and disadvantages, and both will teach you a different set of habits. The worst habits of digital are balanced out by the better habits of film, and vice versa.
Digital cameras give you immediate feedback on what you are doing right and what you are doing wrong. They also reduce the cost of experimentation to zero. Both of these things are invaluable to the new photographer. However, the zero cost of digital makes it far too easy to fall into the habit of "spraying-and-praying" and hoping a good photo comes out at the end of it.
Film cameras force you to be more careful about what you are taking. Even a millionaire would be reluctant to sit around on his yacht taking thirty-six photographs of his bathing towel on film.[1] The economic incentive to make more of the shots you take might lead to less experimentation (which is bad), but it does make you think harder before taking photographs (which can be good, if you have a good idea of what you should do before taking the picture). What's more, film still has a look all its own, and you can pick up professional-quality film gear ludicrously cheap as well.
Show the best of your work to other people. Which is to say, find the best of your work and show only that to other people? Even the greatest photographers don't take superb shots every single time; they're just very selective about what they show to others.
Be brutal about it. If they're not great shots to you, then never show them. Your standards will increase over time, and even the ones you might have once thought were passable will probably look pretty lame to you a few months down the line. If this means that all you had for a day's worth of shooting was one or two photos, then that's okay. In fact, it probably means you're being just harsh enough.
eek out and listen to the critiques of others. Don't fall into the trap of posting in "critique my photos"-type threads on the Internet; these are usually full of the pixel-peepers mentioned above. Still, it's good to seek out constructive criticism, as long as you're careful about who you listen to.
Listen to artists. If someone has some great artistic work to show— photos, paintings, music or anything else—then this is reason to take them seriously, since other artists instinctively understand visceral impact, whether it's in their field or not (and if your photo doesn't make an impact, it's probably better deleted). Most non-artists do, as well, although they aren't as well positioned to tell you what you're doing right (and they're more likely to be nice to you to avoid hurting your feelings).
Ignore anyone who critiques your photos harshly and has no stunning photography to show. Their opinions are simply not worth listening to.
Figure out what you're doing right and what you're doing wrong. If someone liked a photograph, what made them like it? If they didn't, what did you do wrong? As said above, other artists will probably be able to tell you these things.
Don't be modest if someone likes your work. It's okay, photographers love being complimented on their masterpieces as much as anyone else does. Try not to be cocky, though.
Look for work that inspires you. This doesn't mean merely technically impeccable; any (very rich) clown can stick a 400mm f/2.8 lens onto a $3000 digital SLR, get a well-exposed, super-sharp photograph of a bird, and that still won't make them Steve Crone. Rather, look for work that makes you smile, laugh, cry, or feel anything, and not work that makes you think "well exposed and focused". If you're into people photos, look at the work of Steve McCurry (photographer of the Afghan Girl), or the studio work of Annie Leibowitz.

If you're on Flicker or any other photo-sharing website, then keep an eye on the people who inspire you (though don't end up spending so much time at your computer that you're not out taking photos).
Learn some technical trivia. No, this is not the most important part about taking photographs. In fact, it's one of the least important, which is why it's all the way down here; a great photo taken by a point-and-shooter ignorant of these things, is far more interesting than a boring photo perfectly focused and exposed. It's also infinitely better than the one that wasn't taken at all because someone was too busy worrying about this sort of trivia.

Still, it's handy to have a working knowledge of shutter speed, aperture, focal length, etc., and what effects they will have on your picture. None of this will make a bad photo into a good one, but it can sometimes keep you from losing a good photo to a technical problem and can make great photos even better.
Find your niche. You may find that you're a good enough communicator to photograph people. You may find that you enjoy being out in all weathers enough that you can do landscape photography. You might have huge telephoto lenses and enjoy motor racing enough that you find yourself having fun photographing them. Try all these things! Find something that you enjoy, and that you're good at, but don't limit yourself to it.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Fashion Photographer: Career Guide

Fashion Photographer: Career Guide
Fashion photographers use cameras, lights and other equipment to capture photos that highlight clothing design. In addition to taking pictures, fashion photographers must study photography, learn how to edit photos and build a portfolio. Many work as freelance photographers or are self-employed.

Step 1: Study Photography
While fashion photographers are not required to have a degree, they can gain a greater understanding of their craft by studying photography at a college, university or trade school. Many schools offer a bachelor's degree in photography. Coursework includes photography history, light studies, digital photography and fine arts. Fashion photographers may also choose to advance their education by attending graduate school or enrolling in programs that focus on fashion photography specifically.

Step 2: Develop Editing Skills
Fashion photographers must be able to edit their work to meet the needs of their clients. Using Adobe Photoshop and other computer software, photographers crop photos, correct flaws and alter the images they have taken. Photographers may take courses in photo editing or develop skills on their own.

Step 3: Build a Portfolio
Fashion photographers showcase their best work in a portfolio. They may upload their work to a website or digital portfolio. Prospective clients choose a photographer based on the style and the skills exhibited. Fashion photographers must keep their portfolio up-to-date and ensure that their abilities are well represented in the work they include.

Step 4: Manage Responsibilities
In addition to taking and editing photos, fashion photographers must handle business and marketing matters, since many individuals in this field are self-employed or work as freelancers. They must schedule shoots, manage finances and keep up with clients by answering e-mails and phone calls. They benefit from networking and meeting contacts in the industry. Some photographers may also print and frame their work. Some professional photographers may hire assistants to help them manage business matters. Fashion photographers must also study and enforce copyright laws to ensure that their work is protected.

Step 5: Book Shoots
Fashion photographers book shoots for clients. These duties may include arranging travel, reserving a space or working with publishers to make sure all needs are met. They must be flexible and able to work in a variety of climates. While they may suggest certain styles, fashion photographers must follow the direction of their client to ensure that photos meet their needs.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Online Crisis Tips

Following my post on preparing for a brewing media crisis I was asked how I felt about scripted responses, specifically, prepared Twitter posts that can be shared across multiple satellite offices. Since you rarely know what form an online crisis will take, I prefer to follow a set procedure and then tailor each response to the specific issue.

Think of several crises that may befall your organization: a leaked YouTube video of an off the cuff comment made by your CEO, a racist comment made by a member of your staff to a client or customer, a product defect that injured or poisoned a consumer, or an ill advised post that went viral (see KitchenAid post). In any of these cases the response would be different based on the specific issue, the seriousness of the claim, or the staff members involved.

Here are 10 tips to help you through an online crisis when time counts and coordination of your message is key:

Smooth Approval Process

In a social media crisis you must have a smooth approval process for posting information. Depending on the structure of your organization you may have a multi-tiered process. Organizations with multiple locations and duplicate sub-departments may either choose to empower local staff members to make final decisions or await a strategy from headquarters. A lengthy system of checks and balances may make you feel safe however the minutes that turn to hours reviewing a single post can make your organization appear confused or in the midst of a cover up.

Raise a Flag

At the first hint of an online issue the designated crisis coordinator should be alerted. This staff member will then decide the severity of the issue and alert key staff members if need be. Be sure to cast a wide net to those who interact with the media or may encounter questions regarding this news. You never want your senior management to be caught unaware. I am frequently the crisis coordinator, since I oversee internal and external communications, allowing my organizations to feel comfortable with a process centralized by a trained spokesperson that underwent crisis training.

The Manual

To prevent an internal crisis within your process you need to have a manual dictating various scenarios. Who do you contact if the crisis coordinator was “hit by a bus”? What happens if the CEO is unavailable for a statement? How does your call center coordinate responses with your social media team? These inevitable questions need to be considered and planned for as far in advance as possible.

Move Quickly

Once a crisis coordinator has been alerted he or she can ensure that all key members of your staff as well as outside consultants are aware of the situation and begin to formulate a strategy and response. As a crisis coordinator I frequently use email only for consensus data at this point and begin having office discussions or call a quick meeting/teleconference. This helps the process move quickly and keeps everyone in the loop.


The staff member who originally raised the issue may be eager to post a response. In some cases you may decide that a response is necessary to let the public know that you are aware of the issue and to thank all involved for bringing it to your attention. In other cases you may wish to wait until you know a few more facts and post a response. In my experience I have found that an initial response thanking the poster works well. If you wait too long before your first post you may appear uncaring or out of touch.

Stay Positive

Many crises are elevated when an organization becomes defensive. Even if a person is attacking you I find that it is best to treat that person, publicly at least, as if they are being helpful in bringing a concern to your attention. Keep the dialogue positive. The crisis coordinator should have the authority to post an immediate response requesting further information before jumping in too early with a coordinated statement.

Stay Nimble

As additional information comes to light, draft appropriate responses and decide if you should spread your response to other media. Is a press conference necessary? Do you notify the board of directors? Depending of the crisis you may need to elevate the scope of the discussion to offer clarity to the general public before rumors begin to spread.


Operating multiple locations, your coordinated effort should require each location to post similar alerts tailored to their local audiences. However, as you coordinate your responses you should not use form statements that have been kept on file. All it takes is one investigative post to highlight that you responded the same way a few months ago when a separate crisis occurred. Remember that this is a social interaction and personalization can mean the difference between appearing caring or unconcerned. Need I say it: Appearances are everything in a crisis.


It is vital to review the events of each crisis. What worked and what broke down? Was there an event that was not accounted for in your manual? When was the issue solved and when did it get away from the response team? This is when accountability takes center stage and every staff member involved needs to be debriefed.


Now that you know what went well and where you failed, you need to update your manual. In fact you may need to remove a strategy rather than just adding to your response procedures. Once you have a new finalized version be sure to circulate it among your crisis response team and ask them to disregard prior manuals.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Careers in Video Jockey

With the advent of various music channels on TV, Video jockeying is becoming an exciting career option for the music crazy generation. The main job of the VJ is to introduce music videos and host music related shows on Television. But as competition increases, music channels are on the trend of incorporating many diverse shows to attract the public, especially the youth. So the VJ’s area of work involves apart from introducing videos; hosting game to travel shows to youth forums, chatting with the public, doing interviews with artists and music celebrities etc. In short, they act as intermediary figures between the audience and the musicians or music videos. It may also involve off- camera work like deciding on the theme and choosing the songs to suit the theme of the show, participating in promotional like road shows, attending theme parties and with experience, even writing script for the show at times.VJs must constantly keep up-to-date on the latest trends in music, all the latest videos and information about music stars and other celebrities. In that sense, they take upon a more journalistic role. They also should have a well-rounded knowledge of all types of music and also should be informed about a bit of everything from films to politics to travel whatever the theme the show demands. Some of them specialize in a particular area or genre of music. They must be able to answer any queries about music and must fulfill their roles as experts. Vj’s interact with the viewers through telephone, e-mail or fax. Jockeying generally involves three areas and as such Jockeys are called a Video Jockey (VJ), Radio Jockey (RJ) and Disc Jockey (DJ). They all deal with music but while VJ’s present shows on TV, RJ’s do it on Radio and DJ’s in live shows in clubs, restaurants, Music stores etc.
There is no specific educational background or formal training is required to be a VJ, except some personal attributes. However a background in mass communication, visual communication or the performing arts comes in handy. An interest and love for music is an essential aspect. Along with that, excellent body language and dress sense, a pleasant voice, good command over the required language depending on the medium, presence of mind and a good knowledge of music anyone can aspire to be a VJ. One has to get to know about the various styles of music, musicians and albums. With the changing trends one also needs to be well informed generally on topics like politics, travel and what is new. Command over language is important as video jockey needs to talk a lot. Some amount of voice training would definitely help as VJs need a voice that’s clear, pleasant and strong. He should be able to take split second decisions, answer promptly, be energetic and have a wonderful sense of humor to make the show interesting. He may also need to work erratic hours and travel extensively.
Job Prospects and Career Options
 VJs are mainly employed by Music channels, Producers of music shows and film based programmes.Besides popular prospective employers like MTV, Channel V, B4U music, MCM Asia etc, there are many number of channels including regional ones who are in demand of VJ’s. But it is not easy to get a break in the field. You may be employed on a contract basis per show or on a full time basis. There will be paper ads calling VJ’s or VJ hunts advertised on TV. The selection will be tough, which may include a test on paper, on voice modulation or facing the camera. Your screen presence, physique and voice, and ability to stand out in the crowd will go a long way in being selected. Once you are selected, there is no such thing as hierarchy in this profession. Beginners with talent may get to handle their own shows within the first 6 months. It mainly depends on your ability. Besides the excellent pay, you get to host shows in the country or abroad, meet celebrities, and be on the glam walk of life. Keeping up the popularity for long is not easy and as such this profession is a short lived one. The rule is make hay while it lasts. But the profession gives you ample scope to diversify to various fields such as Modeling, Theatre (direction/acting), Film (acting), Music videos (directing/acting/choreography), Anchoring, News casting, PR etc. that generally VJ’s do. The more popular you get through veejaying the more the choices you may have.
 There is a great scope for the profession with the explosion of satellite channels and more and more music channels being launched. The success of the music show depends entirely on the VJ’s ability to connect with the audience and make them come back for more. Although this is a short lived career, within that short time span, a successful VJ can earn between 10,000 to 25000, running up to lakhs depending upon the popularity of the show. Apart from the earnings, the glamour and popularity associated with the profession attracts youngsters to the field.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Beyond Critical Thinking!

Beyond Critical Thinking!

The ant vocational dimension of the humanities has been a source of pride and embarrassment for generations. The persistence of this reputed uselessness is puzzling given the fact that an education in the humanities allows one to develop skills in reading, writing, reflection, and interpretation that are highly prized in our economy and culture. Sure, specific training in a discrete set of skills might prepare you for Day 1 of the worst job you'll ever have (your first), but the humanities teach elements of mind and heart that you will draw upon for decades of innovative and focused work. But we do teach a set of skills, or an attitude, in the humanities that may have more to do with our antipractical reputation than the ant vocational notion of freedom embedded in the liberal arts. This is the set of skills that usually goes under the rubric of critical thinking.

Although critical thinking first gained its current significance as a mode of interpretation and evaluation to guide beliefs and actions in the 1940s, the term took off in education circles after Robert H. Ennis published "A Concept of Critical Thinking" in the Harvard Educational Review in 1962. Ennis was interested in how we teach the "correct assessment of statements," and he offered an analysis of 12 aspects of this process. Ennis and countless educational theorists who have come after him have sung the praises of critical thinking. There is now a Foundation for Critical Thinking and an industry of consultants to help you enhance this capacity in your teachers, students, or yourself.

A common way to show that one has sharpened one's critical thinking is to display an ability to see through or undermine statements made by (or beliefs held by) others. Thus, our best students are really good at one aspect of critical thinking­—being critical. For many students today, being smart means being critical. To be able to show that Hegel's concept of narrative foreclosed the non-European, or that Butler's stance on vulnerability contradicts her conception of performativity, or that a tenured professor has failed to account for his own "privilege"—these are marks of sophistication, signs of one's ability to participate fully in the academic tribe. But this participation, being entirely negative, is not only seriously unsatisfying; it is ultimately counterproductive.

The skill at unmasking error, or simple intellectual one-upmanship, is not completely without value, but we should be wary of creating a class of self-satisfied debunkers or, to use a currently fashionable word on campuses, people who like to "trouble" ideas. In overdeveloping the capacity to show how texts, institutions, or people fail to accomplish what they set out to do, we may be depriving students of the capacity to learn as much as possible from what they study. In a humanities culture in which being smart often means being a critical unmasked, our students may become too good at showing how things don't make sense. That very skill may diminish their capacity to find or create meaning and direction in the books they read and the world in which they live. Once outside the university, our students continue to score points by displaying the critical prowess for which they were rewarded in school. They wind up contributing to a cultural climate that has little tolerance for finding or making meaning, whose intellectuals and cultural commentators delight in being able to show that somebody else is not to be believed.

I doubt that this is a particularly contemporary development. In the 18th century there were complaints about an Enlightenment culture that prized only skepticism and that was satisfied only with disbelief. Our contemporary version of this trend, though, has become skeptical even about skepticism. We no longer have the courage of our lack of conviction. Perhaps that's why we teach our students that it's cool to say that they are engaged in "troubling" an assumption or a belief. To declare that one wanted to disprove a view would show too much faith in the ability to tell truth from falsehood. And to declare that one was receptive to learning from someone else's view would show too much openness to being persuaded by an idea that might soon be deconstructed (or simply mocked).

In training our students in the techniques of critical thinking, we may be giving them reasons to remain guarded—which can translate into reasons not to learn. The confident refusal to be affected by those with whom we disagree seems to have infected much of our cultural life: from politics to the press, from siloed academic programs (no matter how multidisciplinary) to warring public intellectuals. As humanities teachers, however, we must find ways for our students to open themselves to the emotional and cognitive power of history and literature that might initially rub them the wrong way, or just seem foreign. Critical thinking is sterile without the capacity for empathy and comprehension that stretches the self.

One of the crucial tasks of the humanities should be to help students cultivate the willingness and ability to learn from material they might otherwise reject or ignore. This material will often surprise students and sometimes upset them. Students seem to have learned that teaching-evaluation committees take seriously the criticism that "the professor, or the material, made me uncomfortable." This complaint is so toxic because being made uncomfortable may be a necessary component of an education in the humanities. Creating a humanistic culture that values the desire to learn from unexpected and uncomfortable sources as much as it values the critical faculties would be an important contribution to our academic and civic life.

But the contemporary humanities should do more than supplement critical thinking with empathy and a desire to understand others from their own point of view. We should also supplement our strong critical engagement with cultural and social norms by developing modes of teaching that allow our students to enter in the value-laden practices of a particular culture to understand better how these values are legitimated: how the values are lived as legitimate. Current thinking in the humanities is often strong at showing that values that are said to be shared are really imposed on more-vulnerable members of a particular group. Current thinking in the humanities is also good at showing the contextualization of norms, whether the context is generated by an anthropological, historical, or other disciplinary matrix. But in both of these cases we ask our students to develop a critical distance from the context or culture they are studying.

Many humanities professors have become disinclined to investigate with our students how we generate the values we believe in, or the norms according to which we go about our lives. In other words, we have been less interested in showing how we make a norm legitimate than in sharpening our tools for delegitimization. The philosopher Robert Pippin has recently made a similar point, and has described how evolutionary biology and psychology have moved into this terrain, explaining moral values as the product of the same dynamic that gives rise to the taste for sweets. Pippin argues, on the contrary, that "the practical autonomy of the normative is the proper terrain of the humanities," and he has an easy task of showing how the pseudoscientific evolutionary "explanation" of our moral choices is a pretty flimsy "just-so" story.

If we humanities professors saw ourselves more often as explorers of the normative than as critics of normatively, we would have a better chance to reconnect our intellectual work to broader currents in public culture. This does not have to mean an acceptance of the status quo, but it does mean an effort to understand the practices of cultures (including our own) from the point of view of those participating in them. This would include an understanding of how cultures change. For many of us, this would mean complementing our literary or textual work with participation in community, with what are often called service-learning courses. For others, it would mean approaching our object of study not with the anticipated goal of exposing weakness or mystification but with the goal of turning ourselves in such a way as to see how what we study might inform our thinking and our lives.

I realize that I am arguing for a mode of humanistic education that many practice already. It is a mode that can take language very seriously, but rather than seeing it as the master mediator between us and the world, a matrix of representations always doomed to fail, it sees language as itself a cultural practice to be understood from the point of view of those using it.

The fact that language fails according to some impossible criterion, or that we fail in our use of it, is no news, really. It is part of our finitude, but it should not be taken as the key marker of our humanity. The news that is brought by the humanities is a way of turning the heart and the spirit so as to hear possibilities of various forms of life in which we might participate. When we learn to read or look or listen intensively, we are not just becoming adept at exposing falsehood or at uncovering yet more examples of the duplicities of culture and society. We are partially overcoming our own blindness by trying to understand something from another's artistic, philosophical, or historical point of view. William James put it perfectly in a talk to teachers and students entitled "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings": "The meanings are there for others, but they are not there for us." James saw the recognition of this blindness as key to education as well as to the development of democracy and civil society. Of course hard-nosed critical thinking may help in this endeavor, but it also may be a way we learn to protect ourselves from the acknowledgment and insight that humanistic study has to offer. As students and as teachers we sometimes crave that protection because without it we risk being open to changing who we are. In order to overcome this blindness, we risk being very uncomfortable indeed.

It is my hope that humanists will continue offering criticism, making connections, and finding ways to acknowledge practices that seem at first opaque or even invisible. In supporting a transition from critical thinking to practical exploration, I am echoing a comment made by my undergraduate philosophy teacher Louis Mink, and echoed by my graduate mentor, Richard Rorty. Years before Dick Rorty deconstructed the idea of the "philosopher as referee," Louis Mink suggested that critics "exchange the judge's wig for the guide's cap." I think we may say the same for humanists, who can, in his words, "show us details and patterns and relations which we would not have seen or heard for ourselves."

My humanities teachers enriched my life by showing me details and pattern and relations. In so doing they also helped me to acquire tools that have energetically shaped my scholarship and my interactions with colleagues and students. It is my hope that as guides, not judges, we can show our students how to engage in the practice of exploring objects, norms, and values that inform diverse cultures. In doing so, students will develop the ability to converse with others about shaping the objects, norms, and values that will inform their own lives. They will develop the ability to add value to (and not merely criticize values in) whatever organizations in which they participate. They will often reject roads that others have taken, and they will sometimes chart new paths. But guided by the humanities, they will increase their ability to find together ways of living that have meaning and direction, illuminating paths immensely practical and sustainability.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Setting Strategic Direction: Vision, Strategy, and Tactics

Defining and Using the Three Tools of Leadership

You’re so proud of your new vision statement. It sounds nice. Inspiring, even. But the vision is useless unless it can direct action.

Your vision lays out a destination; your destination guides your strategy; and strategy chooses action. It’s action that leads to success. In those moments of action, having clear direction is crucial for building momentum. If your organization is like most, you spent weeks debating every word crafting your vision, mission, strategy, and goals. But no matter how lofty, if they aren’t created in a way that provides direction, those statements are little more than high-priced indulgences.

Every company means something different by the words “vision” and “strategy.” One person insists that “Provide our customers the highest possible quality widgets” is a vision. A friend takes one look and assures him, “That’s a strategy.” Here are some useful definitions that will help you decide if you’ve set a direction that can truly get traction.

Envisioning the future
Vision is timeless. It’s based on who/what you want to do. It’s why you’ve got an organization in the first place. It must be specific enough that everyone can use it to decide if their work is moving the company forward. Progress towards the vision must be measurable. A vision is independent of specific competition, and while it may mention the customer, it must guide even someone who doesn’t know the customers’ mind. The best visions imply whom the company serves, what it provides, and what distinguishes it from other companies providing the same products and services. Vision sets the broad direction. It says, “Go west, young man.”

Wrong: We will provide exceptional products and services that our customers value.

This vision requires knowing the customers’ mind in order to understand what the company provides. It doesn’t distinguish what is unique about the company, since presumably everyone in the market produces something customers value.

Right: We will help boat owners everywhere navigate new seas with geographically based directional products and services.

This vision tells us the market, the product (navigation products and services), the distinguisher (geographically based), and the progress measurement (delight).

Some organizations may call this a mission statement, rather than a vision. Or, they may have both a vision and a mission, with the vision expressing the ideal world or company, and the mission expressing the company’s purpose. For our purposes, they’re the same. A mission statement rounds out the vision. Together, they give timeless, overarching principles chosen by the company that express the company’s reason for being.

The strategy thing
Strategy links the destination (vision) with current reality. Strategy applies to the whole company, and answers the question “How will we reach our vision, given current market conditions, competitive scenario, regulatory environment, etc.?” Strategy is narrower than vision, but broad enough to guide companywide organization structure, hiring, capabilities that must be developed, and so on. Strategy says, “We’re going west, but we ran into this grand canyon. We can go around to the north or south. Let’s choose south.”

For example, a company may have a vision to “provide scientifically proven technology to solve the medical needs of consumers and hospitals.” In the 1950s, the strategy may be doing in-house research, hiring and developing scientists, and a compensation program based on discovery. In the 1990s, the same company may have a strategy of acquiring small drug-making companies and buying and protecting patents from other companies. Both strategies will reach the vision, but they are appropriate for different competitive environments, and they have different organization structures, different financing options, and different operational characteristics.

You know you have a strategy if you chose your current path from many alternatives, all of which would have reached your vision, each of which would have required hiring different people and building different systems. If you didn’t consider many alternatives, or you didn’t choose your alternative considering your competition, your vision, and your current market conditions, then you probably have a tactic, not a strategy. If you can execute your strategy with your current people, reward systems, and organization structure, then it’s not a strategy, it’s a tactic.

The tactics
Tactics are limited in scope, typically just to a part of the company. They’re shorter term than a strategy. They involve executing given the existing capabilities and resources of the company. Unlike strategy, tactics generally work within the current organization structure, rather than changing the organization. Tactics say, “We’re on the south path. Let’s travel two miles today.” Your tactics probably won’t work unless they’re generated from a strategy that lays out a consistent philosophy for how your company will compete/win/attract customers in today’s market.

Your “moments of truth” are those moments in time when you build traction and momentum. For example, a moment of truth in creating a quality-driven organization might be when the CEO refuses to ship a poor-quality product, even though it will hurt quarterly numbers. Moments of truth always happen during a tactical action. That’s why you need a vision and strategy—without them, people won’t have the guidance to ensure they can move the company forward in that moment.

Your strategy also helps you find your moments of truth. If your strategy involves locking up important distributor relationships, your moments will involve reputation and relationship building, creating the perception of value to the distributors, and establishing negotiating leverage to capture an exclusive relationship. If your strategy is to be a low-cost provider, moments of truth might be times when opportunities for efficiencies arise, or incidents where you can encourage a “continuous improvement” mindset in your team.

At the end of the day, your vision and strategy only exist to drive tactics. And often, the most significant tactics are those moments of truth whose effects are far-reaching. When your vision sets direction and your strategy ties it to your current situation, they provide a compass for everyone in your organization to follow for years to come.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Just the right way to write!!

Writing Skills

Getting Your Written Message across Clearly a colleague has just sent you an email relating to a meeting you're having in one hour's time. The email is supposed to contain key information that you need to present, as part of the business case for an important project.
But there's a problem: The email is so badly written that you can't find the data you need. There are misspellings and incomplete sentences, and the paragraphs are so long and confusing that it takes you three times more than it should to find the information you want.
As a result, you're under-prepared for the meeting, and it doesn't go as well as you want it to.
Have you ever faced a situation similar to this? In today's information overload world, it's vital to communicate clearly, concisely and effectively. People don't have time to read book-length emails, and they don't have the patience to scour badly-constructed emails for "buried" points.
The better your writing skills are, the better the impression you'll make on the people around you – including your boss, your colleagues, and your clients. You never know how far these good impressions will take you!
In this article, we'll look at how you can improve your writing skills and avoid common mistakes.
Audience and Format
The first step to writing clearly is choosing the appropriate format. Do you need to send an informal email? Write a detailed report? Create advertising copy? Or write a formal letter?
The format, as well as your audience, will define your "writing voice" – that is, how formal or relaxed the tone should be. For instance, if you write an email to a prospective client, should it have the same tone as an email to a friend?

Definitely not.

Start by identifying who will read your message. Is it targeted at senior managers, the entire human resources team, or a small group of engineers? With everything you write, your readers, or recipients, should define your tone as well as aspects of the content.
Composition and Style
Once you know what you're writing, and for whom you're writing, you actually have to start writing.
A blank, white computer screen is often intimidating. And it's easy to get stuck because you don't know how to start. Try these tips for composing and styling your document:
Start with your audience – Remember, your readers may know nothing about what you're telling them. What do they need to know first?
Create an outline – This is especially helpful if you're writing a longer document such as a report, presentation, or speech. Outlines help you identify which steps to take in which order, and they help you break the task up into manageable pieces of information.
Use AIDA – If you're writing something that must inspire action in the reader, follow the Attention-Interest-Desire-Action (AIDA) formula. These four steps can help guide you through the writing process.
Try some empathy – For instance, if you're writing a sales letter for prospective clients, why should they care about your product or sales pitch? What's the benefit for them? Remember your audience's needs at all times.
Use the Rhetorical Triangle – If you're trying to persuade someone to do something, make sure that you communicate why people should listen to you, and pitch your message in a way that engages your audience and present information rationally and coherently. Our article on the Rhetorical Triangle can help you make your case in the most effective way.
Identify your main theme – If you're having trouble defining the main theme of your message, pretend that you have 15 seconds to explain your position. What do you say? This is likely to be your main theme.
Use simple language – Unless you're writing a scholarly article, it's usually best to use simple, direct language. Don't use long words just to impress people.
Your document should be as "reader friendly" as possible. Use headings, subheadings, bullet points, and numbering whenever possible to break up the text.
After all, what's easier to read – a page full of long paragraphs, or a page that's broken up into short paragraphs, with section headings and bullet points? A document that's easy to scan will get read more often than a document with long, dense paragraphs of text.
Headers should grab the reader's attention. Using questions is often a good idea, especially in advertising copy or reports, because questions help keep the reader engaged and curious.
In emails and proposals, use short, factual headings and subheadings, like the ones in this article.
Adding graphs and charts is also a smart way to break up your text. These visual aids not only keep the reader's eye engaged, but they can communicate important information much more quickly than text.

Grammatical Errors

You probably don't need us to tell you that errors in your document will make you look unprofessional. It's essential to learn grammar properly, and to avoid common mistakes that your spell checker won't find.
Here are some examples of commonly misused words:
"Affect" is a verb meaning to influence. (Example: The economic forecast will affect our projected income.)
"Effect" is a noun meaning the result or outcome. (Example: What is the effect of the proposal?)
"Then" is typically an adverb indicating a sequence in time. (Example: We went to dinner, then we saw a movie.)
"Than" is a conjunction used for comparison. (Example: The dinner was more expensive than the movie.)
"Your" is a possessive. (Example: Is that your file?)
"You're" is a contraction of "you are." (Example: You're the new manager.)
Note: Also watch out for other common homophones (words that sound alike but have different spellings and meanings) – such as their/they're/there, to/too/two, and so on.
"Its" is a possessive. (Example: Is that its motor?)
"It's" is a contraction of "It is." (Example: It's often that heavy.) (Yes, it is this way around!)
Company's/companies (and other possessives versus plurals)
"Company's" indicates possession. (Example: The company's trucks hadn't been maintained properly.)
"Companies" is plural. (Example: The companies in this industry are suffering.)
To learn more about commonly misused words, misused apostrophes, and other grammatical errors, take our Bite-Sized Training session on Written Communication.


Some of your readers – arguably an increasing number – won't be perfect at spelling and grammar. They may not notice if you make these errors. But don't use this as an excuse: there will usually be people, senior managers in particular, who WILL notice!
Because of this, everything you write should be of a quality that every reader will find acceptable.

The enemy of good proofreading is speed. Many people rush through their documents, but this is how you miss mistakes. Follow these guidelines to check what you've written:
Proof your headers and sub headers – People often skip these and focus on the text alone. Just because headers are big and bold doesn't mean they're error free!
Read the document out loud – This forces you to go more slowly, so that you're more likely to catch mistakes.
Use your finger to follow text as you read – This is another trick that helps you slow down.
Start at the end of your document – Proofread one sentence at a time, working your way from the end to the beginning. This helps you focus on errors, not on content.

Key Points

More than ever, it's important to know how to communicate your point quickly and professionally. Many people spend a lot of time writing and reading, so the better you are at this form of communication, the more successful you're likely to be.
Identify your audience before you start creating your document. And if you feel that there's too much information to include, create an outline to help organize your thoughts. Learning grammatical and stylistic techniques will also help you write more clearly; and be sure to proof the final document. Like most things, the more you write, the better you're going to be!

The New PR: Super Responsibility, Solid Research & the Equity of Relationships

The New PR: Super Responsibility, Solid Research & the Equity of Relationships
It was early 2006: Biz Stone was working at Google before launching a little something called Twitter, Facebook was only open to college and high school students, and Chris Anderson had just started telling us about The Long Tail of the Internet in WIRED. In another corner of the Web, Richard Laermer and Kevin Dugan joined forces and started talking about the current state of the public relations industry.

“The media was making fun of PR people and a lot of people were asking, ‘What’s the point of PR?’” recalls Laermer. “Kevin and I thought it would be really fun if the two of us could find ways to improve our own M.O. What if we could make the people who really shouldn’t be in PR leave the industry?”

Hence the launch of the Bad Pitch Blog, celebrating its fifth anniversary this month of acting as PR industry watchdog. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Bad Pitch Blog, I highly recommend checking it out. So, here’s the basic idea: Dugan and Laermer ‘out’ PR people who have written really bad pitches and then sent them, untargeted, to the media masses.

Oh, and by the way, the blog covers other great insights, new ideas and savvy news for and about the industry, too. But, Laermer explains, “If you look at our page views, when we really go to town on somebody, our numbers are through the roof. People love the bad pitch posts.”

The bad pitch posts aren’t written with ill intentions, however. In the very first post on January 20, 2006, Dugan explains, “It’s our hope that the Bad Pitch blog will entertain the true victims of this practice, the PR industry, and it will help the guilty parties improve. Hopefully the blog will someday become obsolete.” That’s quite the goal, but has anything really changed?

When asked if he thinks the PR industry has changed since the launch of Bad Pitch Blog, Laermer replied, "I definitely do. Back during the blog's third anniversary, Kevin and I met and we weren't sure. Now we are certain - the last 18 months have been a real shift. People are starting to realize how important it is to stop squandering the equity of relationships. You are putting out info on behalf of other people; that's a huge responsibility."

The Equity of Relationships

Where did the PR industry originally go wrong – and how have we improved? “I have this theory called ‘Super Responsibility’,” explains Laermer. “In the ‘90s we used to say being responsible meant not lying. I would hope everyone knows that today. Super Responsibility is being completely true to the things that come out of your mouth: don’t confuse people; don’t use jargon; be 1000% sure of data and statistics that you share with people. All that non-assuredness we are glib with comes back to bite you in the behind.”

If we are required to have Super Responsibility and our job is to get our news noticed, we, as PR people, have to find new ways to navigate the new media landscape. Laermer offers a few tips: “We used to just reach the press, but now it’s the end-user. We can’t be a wannabe – it confuses the customer, or the person we are trying to reach. I’m always vying to find what works the most within the current situation – sometimes that’s the old-fashioned aspect of our business: picking up the phone or, like the other day, when I sent mail to a journalist. He called me right away and said, ‘I haven’t gotten mail in ages!’”

The message folks in the PR industry have been hearing again and again is that we need to target our news to the people that are most interested in it – and the ones we’ve built relationships with. “People love to be thought of – everything is about relationship and equity,” said Laermer. He continues, “Targeted pitches are the ones that will work. Never ever waste people’s time; the person who wastes the least amount of time will be looked upon as someone whom journalists and others want to use as a source. It’s just karma.”

Laermer finds that producing great content is becoming one of the most important facets of our industry, “We have to pay attention to the words we use—it can’t just be about the commas and quotes that say how 'thrilled' we are; our content needs to be so good that it’s immediately usable. You don’t need a dateline; you just need to learn how to be a writer who finishes their writing – in other words, don’t do drafts.”

It’s All About Research

I use that phrase all the time in Cision’s Media Research department, and was delighted to hear from Laermer that he felt the same: “Do your research, too – I remember not too long ago when I had to go to the library to look stuff up; we are so damn lucky today. I love spending time in the Library of Congress site—it’s like magic to me! When you go deeper than just a Google search, you’ll find knowledge that is both shocking and thrilling– and that’s how you start trends. Like the Mannings always say: ‘Go deep!’”

He continues: “A lot of people have realized this is no longer a profession where you can succeed just by being ‘a people person.’ You have to be the best possible communicator—to all parties. Researching trends, providing great ideas, going in directions no one has thought of, educating clients and bosses, and making people think and laugh. It’s how you get so-called influencers to pay attention—and it’s how you get buy-in at work!  In the last year or so, that’s really started taking hold because we have no choice; to rise above the chaff you’ve got to grab attention. And take lots of risks.”

As we start a new year, think about these questions: What’s your big, trend-starting idea? What have you discovered through research? Who have you built relationships with this year?  If we all find answers to these questions, perhaps in another five years, the Bad Pitch blog will be obsolete. Here’s hoping.