SOCK it to them in the Media

It’s been twenty or so years since I began using the term SOCKO.  I often worry that it may seem a bit silly or flippant, but I’ve not found a better term to express the impact, newsworthiness and succinctness that audiences of all types need. 

 Speaking and Writing in Sockos

Aces, press lines, Qs & As, key messages, mission, vision and value statements don’t do the trick for me.  If they lack impact or are not newsworthy, reporters won’t use them and audiences won’t remember them. Qs & As can go on forever with inflammatory, confidential or hypothetical questions.  Even articles in The Harvard Business Review question whether shop-floor workers in industry have any idea what to do differently after hearing mission, vision and value statements.

 

So, I’m still stuck with SOCKOs, which imply impact and allow me to discuss the communications theories that the five-letter acronym evokes.  This article made the front page of Winning Campaigns and has been reprinted and archived on the magazine’s web site.     

 

In a recent media training session with a senior member of cabinet, the time came to simulate interviews with one of my trainers.  I played good cop, asking the politician to consider what he wanted to say in the 5 to 8 minutes he’d have.

 

The client and staffers talked a bit about policy and goals.  It was an unfocused discussion.  I took a few notes on what the politician and his staff thought they should say.

 

At the end of the interview, I asked the politician to review his own performance:

 

“Good relationship with the journalist.”

 

“I felt positive about it.”

 

“I’m comfortable with what I said.”

 

“Strong performance” (from staff).

 

I pulled out my notes and observed that in the eight or so minutes he had had to speak, he hadn’t got out one single message that he’d planned to.  Jaws dropped.  I then parsed this observation more finely—either your strategy was wrong and those messages should not have been delivered, or your strategy was right but you missed executing it.

 

I’ve developed an acronym to show how to develop a good media clip.  It’s SOCKO.

 

SOCKO

 

I know this acronym evokes a crash or blow in a comic strip, but it doesn’t at all stand for punching reporters who ask you tough questions.  SOCKO does imply impact, but of the emotional or intellectual kind.  A SOCKO is a true, memorable, clear, short statement that encapsulates your position and makes the recipient say “Ah!” or “Oh!” or “Hum!”

 

SOCKO also stands for Single Overriding Communications and Knowledge Objective.  Each word is worth a few sentences in turn.

 

Strategic

 

A message is strategic because you’ve thought about it, practiced it and rehearsed it.  It is your considered opinion on what to say about a topic.  You’ve pondered what others will say in response and your rebuttal—a semantic chess game.  Rehearsal is done out loud with staff and with audio and video recording equipment.  Does anyone really think Richard Nixon thought about the implications of saying “I am not a crook”?  How about George Romney’s “When I came back from Viet Nam, I had just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Viet Nam” (often paraphrased as “I was brainwashed on Viet Nam”).  Or how about John Kerry’s “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it”?

 

Overriding

 

Media operate twenty-four hours a day and thus work at three times the speed of normal life.  Reporters need your clip right now.  They do not want to waste much time on context, background, disclaimers and parenthetical statements.  Get on with it.

 

I ask clients to imagine all they know about a topic.  It’s lots.  Reporters and the public can’t absorb it all.  Now I ask clients to imagine all they know about the topic in the shape of an iceberg.  What’s the fifteen percent that’s floating above the surface?  That’s probably the best clip.  You can then move on to the next most important fifteen percent, the next and the next again.  Just like real icebergs with portions chopped off, they right themselves, and another important fifteen per cent pokes above the surface.  Proficient communicators figure out how to combine chunks to sound like new clips when they’re really reiterating previous sound bites put together in slightly different ways.

 

So, a good clip is the overriding message you want to get out and the overriding aspect of what you want to talk about.

 

Communications

 

There’s about a fifty-percent difference between oral and written communication.  In this article, I don’t have intonation, volume, pausing, pacing or any other tools that I have when speaking.  But when I’m speaking, I don’t have fonts, italics, headings, bold, drop initials or any of the graphic tools that a writer uses to hold your attention.

 

Most candidates spend a lot of time with the written word—bills, reports, letters and so on.  They have to be reminded to shift gears when they speak.

 

Good oral communication features stories, imagery and metaphors.  Sentences are shorter.  For TV, a big part of the clip is your positive body language, eye contact, engagement and open gestures.  For radio it’s pausing and variety in volume, pitch and tone.  In print it’s what makes a good headline or picture.  In all cases it’s a polished, condensed version of normal speech.

 

Many lawmakers think that speaking as if they were a paragraph in a complex contract sounds precise and thorough.  It doesn’t.  Even in legal journals, the advice is to avoid being “hyper-correct.”  Studies of judges and juries show that they tend to discount witnesses’ testimony if it is loaded with jargon and unnecessary big words.

 

So pursuant to the above, I exhort you to peruse your verbosity and expunge polysyllabic utterances.  Keep it simple and conversational.

 

Knowledge

 

Knowledgeable people have facts, figures, data and trends at their disposal.  How often does a political speech or clip in the media say something new?  Not often enough.  This takes research and work.  So does deciding how to cite figures.  A number can be expressed as a percentage, a fraction, or a whole number, or one can show the change over time.  Numbers can be expressed graphically with bar charts, graphs, dispersions, scatter diagrams or box plots.  Choose wisely.

 

Whatever the choice with numbers, research shows that anecdotes and images trump them every time.  Numbers are hard to remember and understand, but a story is memorable.

 

Objective

 

So what’s all this work in aid of?  What’s the objective?  In print the objective is a headline, picture, cutline (underneath the picture) or call-out (a quote culled out of the copy and made larger or bold to create a nice graphic look in a magazine or newspaper).  For radio it’s a sentence or two on the news or talk show that people remember.  On TV it’s the same, but it also could be something you’re doing that looks newsworthy.  That’s often called a photo opportunity, but try to avoid clichés, such as cutting a ribbon or “grip and grin” shows of you shaking hands with someone while you’re not looking at her but grinning like a mad fool at the camera.

 

In all cases you want to be remembered by the audience.  You also want to be interesting and helpful enough to keep the reporters coming back for more.

 

Research Design Issues

 

I have many concerns about the quality of research conducted in political campaigns, by those governing and by industrialists.  I even see those in the not-for-profit sector spending precious money on unproductive research. 

“Original” research in universities is often only conducted at the doctoral level.  Research that is done often involves relatively unproductive statistical tables or questionnaires that purport to be” scientific”.  Many students find searching through microfilm, microfiche and original texts in libraries to be passé, if they are aware of the technique at all.  This constricted research in universities translates into marginally beneficial or even irrelevant techniques and results in industry and government.      

 

How is it that the best educated generation the world has ever seen is relying on research techniques that would not achieve a pass in a second year social science course in a reputable university?  In government, and in the political campaigns designed to lead to governing, senior managers are making decisions based on flawed methodology.

 

But we are in unstable times when we need excellent public policy and politics.  America is polarized domestically and the European Union is beginning to show signs of eventually having similar economic and political clout in some parts of the world.

 

For those who look to the private sector for leadership and use the refrain of “running the government like a business”—please don’t.  Fully 82% of all mergers and acquisitions in private industry fail to produce new value.  There is a crisis of competence in all sectors, in part because of poor research.

 

Here are the top ten issues and comments on research techniques and challenges faced both in campaigns and then in governing:

 

 

The population is much more sophisticated than they were when the random sample telephone survey was invented.  A telephone call is now an intrusion, especially during dinner time.  Pollsters are experiencing up to 70% refuse rates.  I tell my clients that often the biggest message they are getting is that their constituents refuse to speak to them at all.

 

Compounding the problem is caller ID which tips people off that it’s a pollster calling.  The moment of silence before the questioner begins speaking is a further tip off, as is the robotic reading of questions from a computer screen.

 

Perhaps the biggest challenge is that up to 10% of the population has just one hand-held device or phone—higher in the crucial 18-24 age group.  Many will not participant in phone surveys because they have to pay the air time.

 

People miss-remember dates, events and attitudes—what researchers call “backward and forward telescoping”.   They also tell researchers what they wish had happened, or use answers to researchers’ questions as surrogates for other messages.  The classic example is that far more Americans reported that they voted for President Kennedy after his assassination than could have done so in the closest election the US had had to that date.

 

Social science is too imprecise to determine that 22.3% of people think or do anything—often referred to as “spurious accuracy”.

 

Citizens reserve the right to lie to pollsters and reserve the right to park their votes in the undecided category or tell pollsters they will vote for a party or candidate when they have no intention of doing so, in order to temporarily reward or punish candidates.

 

One joke about polls goes like this:  “If an election were held today, everybody would be really surprised because it’s scheduled for November 4”.  That kind of captures some of the unreality of polls these days.

 

  • Focus Groups.

 

Robert K. Merton is the inventor of focus groups.  He also coined the terms “role model” and “self-fulfilling prophecy”.  He disassociated himself from the way practitioners implemented his ideas about focus groups.

 

The dirty little secret about focus groups is the number of times companies rely on semi-professional attendees whom they know will show up on short notice to fulfill a client’s needs.  Students, the disadvantaged and others who need an honorarium or have time on their hands are often overrepresented.

 

There are ways to make focus groups more reliable.  What the Harvard Business Review calls “empathic testing” involves using a product or discussing an issue in real life conditions.  Putting respondents around a board table and having a formal focus group leader ask questions is not a normal life experience or venue and the results will thus be forced and false.

 

Anamatics is similar and involves making the experience realistic and having participants focus on the element to be tested.  Realism in the venue can be addressed by driving respondents around in a van while they listen to radio ads a politician wants tested.  This is closer to how voters would listen to an ad than sitting at a board table.

 

For TV ads, we have stripped rough cut ads into tapes of the actual TV show in which they will appear.  Testing can occur in shopping malls where hundreds or even thousands of people can view the potential ads and react to them.

 

For print ads and even editorial content, we have mocked up the copy and inserted it into real newspapers to see how respondents react.  We don’t tell them what we want them to react to, we first want to know if they care to look at the ad or story at all.  That’s the so-called “unaided” response.  If they don’t look or read, we have some valuable information.  Then we asked them to review the ad and get more valuable information in their “aided” response.

 

Campaigns and sitting politicians use lots of mail.  Direct mail raises money and mobilizes troops.  Newsletters and political “householders” let constituents know what their representative is doing.  But nobody opens the mail or reads a householder while sitting around a boardroom table.  These items should be thrown on the floor in a pile of other mail and magazines to see if anybody bothers to stoop down and pick it up.  If someone does, the next question is whether the political piece is interesting enough to cull out of the pile and read.  If not, that’s a valuable answer in itself.

While on the campaign literature theme, there’s always somebody in political meetings showing a mock up of a brochure or householder who points out that the candidate’s picture or name or other important information is off on the right-hand side “where the eye naturally goes”.  By this time in the meeting, I’m too exhausted from trivia and nonsensical issues to point out that we read from left to right in English, Spanish, French and most other languages prevalent in North America, and only read right to left in Arabic, Persian, and some other languages.  (I wonder where these perceived and received pieces of communication wisdom come from?)

 

With regard to video and TV production, audiences are very sophisticated.  Most people own video cameras and watch TV dozens of hours per week.  Research has shown that focus group attendees will review the production qualities of ads, rather than the content.  To counter this, advertisements can be mocked-up by a graphic artist and one can then test the voice-over or content separately.

 

Candidates can test debate one-liners, still pictures for brochures, slogans and any other communication element, without layers of clutter or testing of extraneous elements.

 

  • Graduated Questionnaires.

 

Self-administered questionnaires are not used much anymore, but are a valid technique.  One of the best examples of these is the old Bureau of Broadcast Measurement diaries that were mailed to households to survey radio listening and TV viewing.  People often put down their favourite station, not the one they actually watched most.

 

With telephone or in person surveys, respondents become easily and quickly fatigued with having to choose among:  strongly agree, mildly agree, somewhat agree, agree, mildly disagree, strongly disagree.  What does mildly agree mean, other than the fact that it’s stronger than just agreeing and weaker than strongly agreeing?  How does one compare one person’s strong agreement with another person’s?

 

The best model to determine the weight to put on a respondent’s report is to see if that person actually changes behaviour as a result.  People often report that they will change voting habits, but actually do not.  This makes their threat to do so a surrogate for other matters that should be probed.

 

In industry, it’s the same.  I have a telecommunications client which conducts quarterly research to determine how much its customers like them.  The results show that up to 30% of respondents say they are “agree”, “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” with the notion of switching service to a new company.  Yet for years the so-called “churn rate”—the rate at which customers actually change telecommunications providers (phones, hand-helds, internet, etc.) is under 3%.

 

It is vital to distinguish between what people actually do and what they say they might do.

 

  • Elite Interviews.

 

It may not sound egalitarian these days, but elites are good respondents because of how they became elites—they know their demographic well.  These one-on-one, in-depth interviews can augment focus groups, polling and other techniques.

 

Who’s an elite?  That’s easy.  Ratepayer groups, condominium boards, religious groups, union leaders and even book club busy bodies all rose to the top of their little heap, in part through knowing what their demographic is like.  They can be a great source of information.

 

 

The term, taken from navigation, stands for gathering data from several different sources, or with numerous methodologies.  Where data intersect, results are more reliable.   

 

Researchers have identified several types of triangulation including:  within-method, between-method, data, investigator, theory and methodological triangulation.  Within-method means two separate polls, perhaps by different companies that say the same thing.  Between method might be a poll and a focus group that produce similar results.  Data triangulation might involve qualitative or quantitative results that are much the same.  If several investigators find out the same thing, that’s triangulation.  Theory triangulation might involve a psychological and sociological explanation of behavior.  Finally, these days, using mixed methods—both qualitative and quantitative—is increasingly the norm to avoid the errors that each alone can produce.

 

  • Mixed methods.

 

The distinction between qualitative and quantitative data has been blurred for at least fifty years.  Few branches of any science have the predictability of Newtonian physics.  Current thinking is to engage in a mixture of methodologies, mentioned above.  So, a reproducible poll with a large sample that claims to be “scientifically” accurate might be cross referenced with qualitative focus groups, elite interviews and such that plumb small samples more deeply.          

 

  • Question formulation.

 

Average People don’t speak the way telephone researchers do, or the way those who write questions think they should.    It’s hard to imagine anyone constructing a questionnaire where a response could be “some good” which is a common expression in the Canadian Maritimes, or “awesome” as is currently popular.  The California “Valley Girl” response of “gag me with a spoon” was probably not used, even in its hay-day.

 

  • Telephone interviewers.

 

In addition to the long pause, script reading and intrusion, some companies balk at long distance charges, skewing data to urban respondents.  For decades, first year social scientists have been warned that telephone surveys obviously only gather information from those with telephones.  Triangulation is the antidote.

 

 

Social scientists are supposed to keep notes, tapes and a reflexive diary to examine themselves as a scientific instrument while they are examining other people or issues.  Commercial researchers would rarely do this.  

 

  • The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

 

The use of a particular research instrument has an effect on the outcome of the research.  Heisenberg stated, “[o]n the level of molecular research, the presence of the experimenter is certain to affect the results in a way which cannot be measured”.

 

The mere fact that a pollster calls up respondents has such affect.  Asking about certain topics that the respondent might not be concerned with, puts that matter on the public agenda.  Moreover, researchers cannot control for the myriad other variables in that respondent’s life.

 

In the end, perhaps my premise is flawed.  Perhaps we are not the best educated generation the world has ever seen.  We have more degrees and a multiplicity of choices in methods, but may lack the clarity and professionalism of previous generations.  Pity, we need that clarity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Safety’s Sake…Think Again

We often assume the police, fire, EMS, mayor, and other first responders are fulfilling their duties to keep us safe.

 

But according to my studies of plans from the top 100 English-speaking cities in the world, this isn’t always the case.

 

Many of our cities are in danger from their own emergency plans which sometimes feature pages of jargon, acronyms, missing appendices, irrelevant lists of contributors, and wishful thinking.

 

Researchers in the field call them “fantasy plans,” relying on public transit, private cars, and even expertise and help that often doesn’t really exist.  Up to 56% of urbanites don’t have cars, and often the remedies listed in crisis plans turn out not to exist. In fact, some evacuation orders have killed more people than the emergency did.  Contra-flow for evacuations, with all roads leading out, has been called potentially life-threatening by researchers.  

 

Where does San Francisco fit in?

 

San Francisco has two main emergency plans: the All-Hazards Strategic Plan and the Hazard Mitigation Plan

 

The biggest strength of San Francisco’s All-Hazards Strategic Plan is the emphases on a comprehensive training program for city workers, the use of volunteers, and social media.

 

But the All-Hazards plan was last updated six years before I studied it, and the plan has not followed the maintenance schedule set for it. Moreover, when I studied it, I found myself wondering whether anyone is really safer as a result of reading San Francisco’s statements describing how the plan was developed or what the visions, missions, and guiding principles of it are. It’s hard to see how these help anyone prepare for an emergency, but they take up about a quarter of the plan.

 

The Hazard Mitigation Plan is different. It’s newer that the All-Hazards plan. But it has some of the same problems.

 

The Hazard Mitigation Plan is full of very general statements and is often overly preoccupied with semantics definitions. The section on “seismic hazards,” for example is mostly about distinguishing earthquakes from landslides and tsunamis. A brief history of the effect of those events on San Francisco follows. But I could find no procedures describing specifically what to do in the even of those emergencies.  How does it help  victims to be absolutely sure they are being swept away by a landslide versus a tsunami or earthquake?

 

It looks as though San Francisco’s plans were not intended for the general public. They offer hardly any information on individualized, micro-level measures that citizens can take to prepare themselves to deal with emergencies.

 

No city’s crisis plan is perfect. But a good plan can mean the difference between a well-handled crisis and disaster which can cost lives.

 

Some other cities’ emergency plans do have something serious to say — Boston’s climate change study, Kansas City’s dealing with pets, for whom residents will risk their lives, and Richmond, B.C.’s links to great information on personal preparedness. These are just some of the elements that stand out and which could be duplicated by other cities.

 

If San Francisco or any other city lacks the money or time to write a better plan, the best advice from publicly available plans could be cut and paste it into a better document than is on most websites in North America.

 

Some of the plans, including San Francisco’s may have been updated in the months since I read them. No plan will ever be able to foresee every form disaster can take, so it’s important to be flexible and learn from the experiences of other cities.  But the main focus should be on useful, clear information for the average citizen.  

Today in History: July 13th

2007: Conrad Black is convicted in U.S. District Court in Chicago of mail and wire fraud and obstruction of justice. The charges related to diverting funds due to Hollinger International for personal benefit, and to Black and his chauffeur removing documents from Hollinger offices in violation of a court order prohibiting removal.

Political Conventions – Lordly Body Language

1991: Gwich’in people of Mackenzie Delta settle a land claim, getting 15,000 square kilometres of land and $75 million. This is the first regional settlement with northern native groups.

For more on negotiations: Buy ‘Tough Love – Power, Culture and diversity in Negotiations, Mediation & Conflict Resolution’

1968: the Hong Kong Flu pandemic begins. It would go on to kill 1 million people worldwide.

An Ounce of Prevention – On Pandemics

An Ounce of Prevention – Black Death

Today in History: July 11th

2005: Deh Cho First Nations agree to a deal with the Canadian government to get participation in the environmental assessment and regulatory review of the $5.7 billion Mackenzie Valley Pipeline gas project.

For more on negotiations: Buy ‘Tough Love at the Table: Power, Culture and diversity in Negotiations, Mediation & Conflict Resolution’

1991: Carla Hills, American trade representative, says the North American free-trade deal NAFTA will not endanger auto pact or harm Canadian culture.

For more on politics: Buy ‘Political Conventions’

1955: Seven American teenagers die on Mount Temple, near the Valley of the Ten Peaks near Lake Louise, Alberta. It is Canada’s worst single mountaineering accident.

For more on crisis management: An Ounce of Prevention

Today in History: July 10th

1971: Death of Samuel Bronfman, prominent Canadian businessman.

Tough Love at the Table – Pipe Cleaner

1958: Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and President Dwight Eisenhower sign an agreement to have Canada and the United States set up a Joint Committee to guide North American defences in the event of enemy attack.

For more on politics: Buy ‘Political Conventions’.

1887: A dam breaks in Switzerland, killing 70 people in their homes. The water pressure on the dam slowly eroded the concrete. Rescue boats launched to assist people caught up in the sudden flood were ineffective, as some of those on the boats drowned when they capsized in the roiling waters. For more on Crisis Management: Buy ‘An Ounce of Prevention’.

Today in History: July 8th

2000: The Canadian Alliance choses former Alberta Treasurer Stockwell Day as leader, replacing founder Preston Manning.

1991: A study by the C.D. Howe Institute points out dangers of a post-separation economic alliance between Quebec and Canada.

1991: A Gallup Poll reports that 69% of Canadians want Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to resign, including 80% in Ontario, but only 54% in Quebec.

Today in History: July 7th

1996: Canadian Space Agency astronaut Dr. Bob Thirsk lands with his Shuttle mission crew mates at the Kennedy Space Center, after Columbia completed 272 revolutions of the earth, and a record 16-day, 21-hour, 48-minute and 30-second flight.

1975: Ed Broadbent is chosen leader of New Democratic Party on fourth ballot in Winnipeg, replacing David Lewis. Finishing in second place was Rosemary Brown.

1887: Blyth built a cloth-sailed wind turbine (or “windmill”) in the garden of his holiday cottage in Marykirk and used the electricity it produced to charge accumulators; the stored electricity was used to power the lights in his cottage, which thus became the first house in the world to be powered by wind-generated electricity.

Today in History: July 6th

1998: Two Canadians are among the 167 crew members killed as a gas leak leads to an explosion and fire on the Occidental Petroleum drill rig in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland. For more on Crisis Management: Click Here

1946: On this day in 1946, George Walker Bush, is born in New Haven, Connecticut. When he was two years old, Bush’s parents moved to Texas. George W. Bush was elected president in 1999, and served until 2008. Learn more: Click Here

1944: In Hartford, Connecticut, a fire breaks out under the big top of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, killing 167 people and injuring 682. An investigation revealed that the tent had been treated with flammable paraffin thinned with gasoline to make it waterproof. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus eventually agreed to pay $5 million in compensation. For more on Crisis Management: Click Here

Today in History: July 2nd

1990: A stampede of religious pilgrims in Mecca leaves more than 1,400 people dead. To followers of Islam, traveling to Mecca is one of the five pillars of the religion, and must be one at lease once in a follower’s lifetime. They were crushed or suffocated in a long tunnel.

1964:  President Lyndon Johnson signs into law the historic Civic Rights Act in a nationally televised ceremony at the White House. The Act prohibited racial discrimination in employment and education and outlawed racial segregation in public places such as schools, buses, parks and swimming pools.

1926:  Arthur Meighen, who became Prime Minister on June 29, 1926, is defeated by one vote on a non-confidence motion, so he calls a federal election for September 14, 1926.