The Plight of the Well-Informed

reading

There is a man named Paul Horner who writes fake news on Facebook for a living.

Some of his best work includes convincing others he is the mysterious British graffiti artist Banksy, or writing that President Obama signed an executive order for an election recount and revote on December 19th.

Horner taps into our greatest fears and biases and makes a nice little profit, while gullible users do the legwork for him by sharing these stories with their family members and friends, often without doing proper research. The stories spread like wildfire and, before too long, they are accepted as truth.

(Editor’s Note: For an excellent primer on how fake news goes viral, read this case study.)

By sprinkling this content around the internet from a handful of different web sites he owns, Horner makes upwards of $10,000 a month just from AdSense. Not a bad return for making stuff up.

But in an election year that was like no other election year, fake news stories had serious implications.

It’s fun to poke fun at your Aunt Margaret from upstate New York who liked to share obviously fake stories about Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the election, but Aunt Margaret wasn’t the only one. Hundreds of thousands of people were doing the same thing, and it had a real impact.

The spread of falsities stop being cute when they begin to have a real impact on the future of our country.

***

A big part of my job involves monitoring the media for one of our financial clients.

I wake up early each morning and peruse the news of the day, then share the articles I deem important in a report that is shared with their leadership.

While the articles I clip focus on automotive and banking, I’m sifting through The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times to find those articles, which means, whether intentionally or not, I’m retaining the top news of the day.

And, during the election, there was a lot of news. About both candidates. So I took a lot in. Because of this, I’d like to think I was well-informed when it came time to vote on Election Day.

But then I started doing something you should never, ever do: I started reading the comments on the articles and paying attention to what Americans were saying on social media.

Bad move.

I had no idea how ill-informed people are about important topics. For every article being shared by reputable publications, there were a handful of articles that were dubious, at best.

In other words, the truth could’ve been gleaned easily with a bit of research, but nobody, it seems, has time for that.

As someone who prides himself on being up-to-date and knowledgeable about current events, I’ve become paranoid that the well-informed among us will soon be in the minority, fighting every day to ensure that our brothers and sisters know what’s fake and what isn’t. But I don’t think that’s a war we will win any time soon.

Call us “the elites” or whatever you like, but being well-informed is everyone’s duty.

***

In the face of everything else that is happening in our country post-election, it might seem trite to complain about how news is being reported.

This country was founded on the principle, though, that there should be no infringing on the freedom of the press. But every time we share a false article from a false news source, we lose a little bit of that freedom.

If we are lazy about being informed, then it becomes easier for politicians to muzzle that freedom, because we will then have become so disenchanted with what the media tells us that we will welcome the shutting down of “biased media”.

But a true and fair media is a protection given to us that many around the world don’t have the ability to enjoy.

In a Q&A with the Washington Post, Horner himself admitted that he’s part of the reason Donald Trump is the president-elect.

Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it.

No matter who you voted for, I think most of us expect some element of truth to guide us on a daily basis.

There should be cause for concern when lies rule the day.

Election Proves Twitter Still Has Value

balloons

Twitter has had a rough year.

With layoffs and a perceived lack of direction of what the company actually wants to be, the microblogging service that burst on to the scene nearly ten years ago (has it been that long already?) is having a mid-life crisis, in as much that ten years can be considered “midlife” in today’s tech environment.

But on Election Night, something happened.

As America watched the returns come in, Twitter saw users send 75 million election-related tweets to their networks, shattering the previous record of 31 million tweets.

The fact that Donald Trump scored an improbable victory probably helped drive people to tweet their feelings, but it also showed that Twitter is still a place where people gather online to react with others during big events.

And, if you’re a social networking company, isn’t that what you strive for?

Unlike Facebook, which tends to be dominated by static conversation that gets lost amid all of the algorithm changes, Twitter is still the go-to source for providing real-time information, often providing news faster than the traditional news sources we’ve leaned on in the past.

Twitter is the first place I go when I get a whiff of important news. In the days since the election it has proved invaluable as a resource, if not a depressing resource.

Still, you can begin to see where Twitter’s value lies: as a gathering spot for humans to interact when major events occur. Sure, false news also runs rampant, but the truth tends to overcome as facts are confirmed.

Sometimes I like to conduct thought experiments where I wonder how we would’ve reacted had Twitter been a thing when Kennedy was assassinated, or when 9/11 occurred.

I’m not saying we would’ve reacted any differently, but, I think, we may have found comfort.

Twitter obviously has value. The numbers back it up. For all the talk about users dropping, we’ve seen people return in droves when they are emotionally invested in something.

And now, with news coming out about President-elect Trump’s appointments, it’s imperative we have ways to talk openly with others, but that’s for another post.

For now, Twitter has shown that its allure lies in bringing people together by the hundreds of thousands.

Seems like a pretty good reason to stick around and see where it goes from here.

Curiosity Leads to Great Storytelling

curious

With apologies to Laura Trierweiler, there does not exist a list of questions that one asks to find the best stories.

If there was, I wouldn’t be writing this article.

Different questions, asked in different situations, bring out different stories, so there isn’t a one-size-fits all approach to storytelling.

In my experience, though, I don’t think we ask enough questions.

We are content to take what we’re given at face value and try to pry a story loose from the rubble, but that’s not sustainable. Unless you are being inquisitive, you’re never going to find a story that demands to be told.

To illustrate my point, I’m going to use an announcement I worked on a few years ago for a client, General Motors Fleet.

I don’t recall if the seed for this story was buried in an email, or was brought up at a meeting, but it was interesting enough to warrant further discussion.

In talking with one of the fleet team’s account executives who was responsible for fleet sales in Alaska, he mentioned, offhandedly, that he was helping to deliver a Chevrolet Colorado by airplane to a remote village in Alaska because the terrain was too difficult to drive over.

He said it with such nonchalance that it almost didn’t register, but my first reaction was “Whaaaaaat?”

I made a note to follow up, at which point I was able to ask the rest of the questions that popped into my head: How will it fit in an airplane? Will it be damaged? Is this normal?

If we were not curious enough to ask that first question (You know, the “whaaaaaat?”) however, this story never would have materialized.

As a storyteller, it was fairly fascinating to learn how the process of putting a truck in an airplane would happen.

As a PR professional, it contained all of the elements of a good story: a press release, images, a video, and a strong social component.

We ended up turning this nugget of an anecdote into a full-blown story that we were able to tell beyond our traditional fleet media. (Jalopnik even turned it into a GIF.)

If we didn’t exhibit some level of curiosity, thought, it would have gone away, likely never to have been heard from again.

But we were able to tell it, and the story did well to showcase the durability and functionality of the truck, which was necessary.

Now that I’ve bragged about my exploits, let’s back up for a second: there is no list of questions we can ask, as storytellers, to become better at telling stories.

My only advice is this: don’t be afraid to ask those questions, and ask a lot of them.

You are paid to sift through the chaff and find those points that separate you from the competitors.

The best way to do that is to be curious.

The Only Constant is Change

change

A wise man once told me that the only constant is change.

It holds true for all facets of life, both professionally and personally.

I first heard this gem at the height of the recession in 2008.

It was a tough time for everyone. The agency I worked for had to let a handful of people go. Everyone was sitting on pins and needles. Each vague meeting notice brought with it the threat of another round of layoffs.

Needless to say (but I’ll still say it) it was a nerve-wracking time.

As we were forced to watch our friends and colleagues pack their belongings and say their goodbyes, the man I referenced above shared this bit of wisdom that has stuck with me to this day.

Not only has it taught me to take most things in stride, but it also helps me keep an even keel when it seems like everything is working against you.

I think it’s helpful to remember this if you work in public relations. Especially for an agency.

One of the great fears that keeps us up at night is losing a client’s business. It’s why we bend over backwards and work long hours and late nights to ensure our client is happy: we don’t want to lose revenue that helps us maintain our livelihood.

But for a number of reasons — some that are out of our control — we do lose business. And it sucks when that happens. You look inward and wonder how projects and assignments could have been handled differently and, suddenly, it’s glaringly obvious.

But, like I said, that’s hindsight.

It’s like a golfer reading a putt wrong and looking back at the break, wondering how they missed it. That golfer didn’t have the information at the time, so they made a poor decision. Next time they will make the putt because they learned from their error.

The “what if” energy is better spent elsewhere.

The longer you work in this industry, the more you’ll come to realize that fearing change benefits nobody: clients will come and go, accounts will change, work will be upended.

Life will go on.

Fear only serves to handcuff us into non-action. If you sit and wonder when the ax is going to fall, you’ll never improve your lot in life.

There is only one thing you can count on in business and life, and that’s change.

If you write that down and put it in your cubicle as a reminder, you’ll be better prepared to handle change than most people.

And while everyone else is worrying about what the latest element of change portends for their future, you won’t waste time worrying: you’ll be moving forward, on to the next challenge.

Great Storytellers Ask the Right Questions

storytelling

Storytelling is as much about asking the right questions as it is about telling an actual story.

Ask anyone who tells stories for a living — journalists, novelists, screenwriters, public relations professionals — what separates the greats from the mediocre, and they’ll tell you it’s the individuals who ask the best questions.

After all, telling an interesting story is more than just asking “What’s next?”

The great storytellers think beyond the next logical step in the story to earn the interest of the audience.

When a character goes to the store, it’s not the act of going there that draws in your reader; it’s the reason for going to the store that is of most interest. This simple act can provide enough information for a dramatic pivot.

If you learn early on that the main character went to a department store to buy a wig and a dark pair of sunglasses, there is obviously something deeper at play that you yearn to find out about. Your readers will stick around to find out the reason for buying a disguise. There are so many questions that must be answered that stem from that simple act.

It’s up the storyteller to ask those questions of their character and put together a compelling narrative.

If you’re writing for business, you need to capture that same idea.

You don’t need to lend an air of mystery to your company’s story. But you need to keep them coming back for more, and the way to do that is to make sure your story is open-ended.

Maybe you are announcing a new product or service. The announcement, whether it’s a press release or blog post on your site, should hint at something greater happening than just something new for your customers to try.

And that “sneak peak” comes from asking the right questions of your subject matter experts.

I can’t tell you how many times a germ of a story showed itself because I asked the experts the right questions. Or, I just asked questions.

You would be surprised how often PR professionals fail to listen and ask questions. This belief that we should know everything often forces us to refrain from asking questions, lest we look like we don’t understand the material.

But there is nothing wrong with asking questions. It’s the quickest way to understanding the stories we need to tell, and they often lead to the best stories.

So the next time you set out to write a press release or a blog post, make a list of the questions you need to ask, then let the other questions come organically.

You’ll be surprised what you learn, and your audience will benefit.