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Public Relations – Why Relocate America’s Ranking of Grand Rapids Matters

August 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Spotlight on G-Rap

Recently, ReclocateAmerica.com ranked Grand Rapids as #2 on its “Top Ten Places to Live” behind Austin, TX.  Way cool, right?

Apparently not.  Both before and after the publication, three pieces have been written about how Grand Rapids shouldn’t be seeking external validation at all:

Salient quotes from the three articles (in order):

“Despite the reality of all our advances, whether replications of another city or other ideas that are completely our own, maybe we need to stop trying to make people love us and simply learn to love ourselves a bit more. When we focus so hard on what the world thinks of us by jumping up and down in a childlike manner, maybe we are saying, ‘Look at me, look at me, look at me.'”
– Tommy Allen

“But I would suggest to Tommy, and to everyone else, that he not lose the thread he tripped over – the idea that maybe we need to start by pursuing contentment in our own eyes and judging ourselves by our own measures.  For every top 10 we chase, for every passing mention on meaningless morning TV we crave, we need to ask ourselves how we could have, should have, turned that effort inward.”
– Stad diPonzi

“Halfway through reading that, I came down with a serious case of List Fatigue. The news here is that we got named one of America’s top 100 cities and then enough visitors to the site pushed Grand Rapids to No. 2. Which is cool, if this is the kind of validation you seek. […] Grand Rapids’ placement on this particular list appears, more than anything, to be an expression of pride on the part of various community members. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But does Grand Rapids, as “diPonzi” suggests, suffer in general from a disproportionate need for outside attention?”
– Troy Reimink

I think they’re missing the point.  Lists like these have little to do with validating our egos – they’re all about stimulating discussion about quality of life and promoting economic development.  What the lists do is provide away to include our city’s name in the national dialog.  The (perhaps unfair) reality is that sort of thing matters a great deal.  It’s an important part of public relations.

As writers like Dan Gardner have pointed out – the research shows that human beings make very important decisions (like where to live) based on irrational and limited information or perceptions.  The news and discussion generated by “top ten” lists like this is just the kind of data floating through the ether that attaches itself to peoples’ perceptions and drives decision-making.

If you don’t talk about yourself (or encourage others to) – it’s probably not going to happen.  So as distasteful, slimy, and decidedly un-Midwestern as it may be – we need to promote ourselves.  Everyone (even cities) could use a little self-aggrandizement.

After all, what is SXSW if not the city of Austin saying “Look at me, look at me, look at me!”  … and it works.

There’s a great analog to this in Grand Rapids’ ArtPrize Competition: though it publishes “top __” lists – that isn’t the point.  The point is to inject a discussion of the arts into the public consciousness, and in so doing – help promote and encourage all artists in the process.

I shouldn’t have to lecture three guys with published opinion columns about the importance of self-promotion. :-}

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The Grand Rapids Shootings and the Social Media Future for First Responders

July 11, 2011 1 comment

First Responders and Social Media

As the horrible events of July 7, 2011 unfolded in Grand Rapids and a troubled Roderick Dantzler murdered seven people including two children, people around the world skipped the news media altogether and watched/listened live (via live streams of the police scanner – at one point 14,000 people were logged in).  It was a tragic example of the amazing technological power the average person wields, which [to paraphrase FDR/Spiderman’s Uncle Ben] “comes with great responsibility.”

What I observed made me think about the role social media will play in the future of society when events like these occur.  Here’s how my night went: Read more…

Six Problems With the @MyGR6 Contest

July 5, 2011 7 comments
A word cloud of the "My GR 6" entries thus far...

A word cloud of the "My GR 6" entries thus far...

A group of local corporations partnered with community leaders to create a contest called “My GR 6.”  The contest awards acclaim (in the form of billboard space) and prizes to whomever comes up with the best six words that describe the city of Grand Rapids (according to a panel of judges that aren’t yet disclosed).

While it’s great to see any effort to foster community pride and raise the profile of my home city, I do have some issues with how it’s being accomplished.  Here are a few of my concerns: Read more…

#PressDebate Catalyst for Great Discussion on Journalism, Social Media and Ethics

February 21, 2011 7 comments

Recently Twitter facilitated a fascinating discussion of journalism, media, ethics, and social media in Grand Rapids after an article was published by Grand Rapids Press Reporter Rachael Recker about Grand Rapids’ flashmob empresario Rob Bliss‘ latest project that included a selection of tweets from local residents. I tried to aggregate the entirety of the original discussion that led to the tweets being included in the story here.

What seems to have happened is that dissatisfaction with how the tweets were presented morphed into a larger debate that centered on this question: What obligations (if any) do the news media have for using content from social media in their reporting? Secondarily, what balance do reporters strike between personal contact and professional contact (given that in most cases their social media presences used for work are also the same ones they use for their private lives)?

Paraphrasing the sides for this particular debate:

  • The Quotee: The tweets occurred in a context that wasn’t represented in the story that was published and our views were misrepresented as a result.
  • The Quoter: Content published via social media is fair game for reporting, and the tweeters were notified that the discussion would be part of an upcoming blog post.  The context of the entire debate wasn’t necessary for the story.

I like everyone in this particular debate and I don’t think there was any malice or wrongdoing.  On an academic level, however,  I tend to agree with the Quotee side for a couple of reasons.

First, the tweets were part of a rather lengthy (for Twitter anyway) discussion and were selected in a fashion that cast the tweeters as being opposed to something (in this case, the next Rob Bliss flash mob event), when in fact there were ultimately a lot of positive comments for the event and Rob Bliss.  There are a couple of bits of nuance that further complicate this story:

  1. The negative discussion (and certainly of some of the comments quoted – particularly those drawing a comparison between Bliss and Lady Gaga) was focused on the methods employed to promote the events (and their value to Grand Rapids, which is debatable).  I feel that the full discussion should have been included, given that it was available and that digital publishing frees reporters from the concision necessary for print newspaper.
  2. There’s a a very vocal contingent of Rob Bliss Haters who have dogged him since he started organizing events in Grand Rapids.  Unfortunately people who are not part of that contingent were forced into appearing to be part of that contingent by virtue of the comments that were selected for inclusion in the story.

Second, using the tweets involves a very murky area of the journalist/source relationship.  The tweets were posted by the participants voluntarily, and the participation in a discussion with the reporter was voluntary.  Being a public relations flack, I will always tell any client that no conversation with a reporter is “off the record.”  As a professor and professional advisor for the Grand Valley State University Public Relations Student Society of America Chapter, I always tell job-seeking students that they need to be wary of anything they publish online  because ultimately it can be public and can be viewed by people they will come into contact with throughout their lives.  Caveat emptor, as they say.

To be fair to Rachael Recker – she did indeed post a tweet that noted she would be “addressing” the comments of the tweeters – however I don’t think that constitutes notification because there’s no implication that quotes would be used (more that she would have her own information or perspective to reply to the discussion).

What makes these areas murky is that Twitter conversations with reporters (at least for myself and the participants in this case) are both personal and professional.  Discussions frequently take place that remain confined to Twitter or Facebook.  Not everyone shares that view of the dual role, however.  GR Press reporter Meegan Holland participated in the #pressdebate discussion as well, describing her standards for using content from sources which I thought were interesting:

“I always ask permission before using reader comments made in an email. But not for tweets, FB posts, story comments. #pressdebate [… when I inquired about the difference she responded …] Because emails are one-on-one. Tweets, FB posts are public.”

She later noted:

“My Twitter relationships aren’t personal. They’re business! :)”

I noted that I thought this might surprise some of her Tweeps.  I tend to believe that the spirit of the friend/follower is one that is similar to an email.  Whether it’s right or wrong, people tend to assume that the discussions they have via social media are ‘private’ in the sense that they’re only of interest to the immediate participants and that they won’t go further than that.

Like I am inclined to do, I defer to scholars on the subject of journalistic ethics.  The most comparable historical analog for public conversations in social media is overheard conversations in (a consideration raised by @jon_dunn and @jeffhillgr).  In doing some information-gathering for this post, I ran across this excerpt from the book Online Journalism Ethics: Traditions and Transitions which draws this same comparison:

“The real issue here involves what the journalist does with the overheard (or, in this case, overseen) conversations.  Using them as leads, whether to a story idea or a source, is one thing.  But if those conversations find their way into a reporter’s story without their author’s knowledge or consent, the ethical problems have multiplied.  Both lurking and engaging other users in online conversation without letting others know that the journalist is there as a reporter – that is, intends ot use people’s comments in a story – are comparable to undercover reporting.  The lack of disclosure means the journalist is using deceptive information-gathering practices; the deception involves hiding the journalist’s presence, intent, or both.

Such deception may sometimes be justified, just as it is offline. […] The decision to lie demands a rational choice that weighs, among other things, potential good and potential harm, as well as a willingness to be publicly accountable for both the deception and the rationale for deceiving.  Building on this framework, media ethicist Edmund Lambeth says deception in pursuit of a story may be permissive as a last resort, when the problem in question is significant, pervasive, and systemic, and when it demands an urgent solution that can be achieved only through media atention.  That is a difficult bar to meet; in effect, it discourages the practice of deception unless there is a compelling public service need – and no other viable way to serve it.  The vast majority of conversations among ordinary online users will fail to meet such a test.”
(Friend, C. and Singer, J. B. (2007). “Online Journalism Ethics: Traditions and Transitions,” M.E. Sharpe., p. 87-89 [on-line] Accessed via Google Books 21, February, 2011)

Ultimately what would have been ideal is if the tweets were used to solicit comments for the story; that way everyone knows they’re going to be quoted and gives them the opportunity to frame their opinion as they see fit.

These are all fascinating issues – I hope we continue to debate them (particularly in the @journchat Twitter Chat).

Tangentially-Related Sidebar:

People laud Bliss as a social media pro, but I don’t necessarily agree.  To truly be effective with social media – it requires participation and engagement.  Bliss primarily uses his social media presences in a one-way fashion to syndicate messages promoting and organizing his events.  He didn’t, for example, weigh in on the discussion (which would be appropriate given his status as an advocate for flash mobs and his personal connection to the discussion).

Twitter Conversation in Grand Rapids Press About Rob Bliss’ Events

February 21, 2011 1 comment

Rachael Recker at the Grand Rapids Press wrote a compelling article about Rob Bliss’ next event in the Grand Rapids Press. For those that are interested, below is the full discussion (reconstructing a Twitter conversation was difficult even with TweetConvo – my apologies to anyone whose tweets are out of sequence – please drop me an email if anything needs to be adjusted and I’ll be happy to fix it). Read more…