Crowd-Sourcing a Research Project

OK, Rowdies, I need some creative juice for a research project I’m working on.

Last week, I went to an interesting lecture by Michael Chorost, an author and speaker on science and technology.  Mr. Chorost has written two books, one detailing his experience with a cochlear implant and the other, just out, on the interaction between people and technology and how that exchange is becoming more intimate. The lecture was sponsored by the local PRSA chapter as the first of its John Beardsley lecture series.

One of the interesting ideas Mr. Chorost threw out was that Twitter is the beginning of a global nervous system, at least in the sense of conveying emotions.  When the Arab Spring took hold, for example, the emotions of those tweeting their experiences from Tahrir Square and elsewhere reverberated around the world.

Of particular interest to me, given my endless fascination with “bad things” was the notion that the first news of a sudden event – an earthquake, an explosion, a plane crash, etc. – will travel almost instantly around the world via Twitter not in the form of specific news – “a plane has just crashed” – but in the form of a more emotional “WTF was that?” sort of Tweet.  I’ve seen this anecdotally – the first news of the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s Abbottadad compound was a series of Tweets from a neighbor wondering what was causing all the noise in the middle of the night – but Mr. Chorost’s lecture got me wondering if it would be possible to somehow track such sentiments in realtime and to alert us when there’s a spike in such comments.  This might only give you a couple extra minutes heads up, but in some situations, a couple minutes is a huge advantage.

Thus was born over the last couple of days my first efforts at the “WTF Index.” All rights reserved.

The WTFI is trying to track first notice of incidents by scanning the Twitterverse in more or less realtime for the occurrence of certain terms that would be most likely to be Tweeted in the moments immediately following an adverse event. I’m looking less for specifics words than I am for expressions of surprise, fear, shock, etc.  My assumption is that in such situations, most people won’t immediately know the specifics but they will report “huge explosion” or “bright light in the sky” or simply “Whoa” or “WTF?”

There are a couple of challenges with this.

First is finding the right tool.  The volume of global Tweets per second is staggering – at peak times it can pass 8,000 (as it did for the globally significant event of…wait for it…Beyonce’s pregnancy) – which creates  issues of both bandwidth and processing.  The best place to do something like this would be from inside Twitter itself, but since they’re not likely to offer me a job anytime soon (“Hey, Biz…I’m @jmaustin just in case you’re looking) I have to make do with the tools at hand.  For me, that means Tweetdeck and a collection of search terms.

And that’s where I need your help.

So far I’m tracking:

  • Whoa
  • “what was that”
  • “what the hell”
  • uh-oh
  • “huge explosion”
  • “huge noise”
  • “light in the sky”

And, of course…

  • WTF
  • “what the fuck”

Needless to say, these terms produce a huge number of false positives in the sense that most posts that end up in the net are variations on “WTF…no peach yogurt AGAIN???”  There are also way too many hits per minute – between 25 and 125 in my observation so far – to scan each one. Accordingly, I’m just looking at the total number of Tweets that fit the search terms and using that number to look for moments when the Tweeting activity deviates sharply upward from the normal background noise levels.  I haven’t seen it yet (no global disasters since Thursday shockingly) but my expectation is that I’d see a spike when something happened.

So…I’d love the Crowd’s ideas on what to add to the list of search terms.  If something unexpected happened right now in your vicinity and your first instinct was to reach for your Twitter client, what would you Tweet?


– Austin

When PR Ghostwriters Get Busted

Are there ethical lines that we cross when we write an “authored article” for our clients? Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa thinks the Wyeth pharmaceutical company and its writing PR firm went too far in ghostwriting articles for doctors in medical journals supporting a Wyeth hormone replacement drug. The New York Times ran a story on Saturday in which Grassley said “any attempt to manipulate the scientific literature, that can in turn mislead doctors to prescribe drugs that may not work and/or cause harm to their patients, is very troubling.”

From the Times story:

Doug Petkus, a Wyeth spokesman, said Friday that Mr. Grassley was recycling old arguments.

“The authors of the articles in question, none of whom were paid, exercised substantive editorial control over the content of the articles and had the final say, in all respects, over the content,” Mr. Petkus said.

Officials for DesignWrite, a Princeton, N.J., firm, and its parent company, JMI, a medical information company in New York, did not return multiple phone calls and e-mail messages requesting comment.

According to the Times story, quoting internal Wyeth documents from Grassley’s probe, DesignWrite wrote the articles under a Wyeth communications plan, completing the manuscripts before they were “sent to the putative author for review. Any revisions were subject to final approval from the company.”

“Such activities would seem to run afoul of medical journal guidelines,” the Times writes. “The World Assoication of Medical Editors, for example, says ghost authorship — which it defines as a substantial contribution not mentioned in the manuscript — is ‘dishonest and unacceptable.’ “

So the Wyeth spokesperson says the docs have final say, and the Grassley documents, which include a “publicaton plan tracking report” from Wyeth, say the company has final say. There’ s one PR problem.

But overall, what’s Kosher in writing articles for someone else? I thought of all this when, for the second time recently, I offered to write an op-ed kind of article for friends who are too busy to do for their own companies what their companies do for their clients.

I have an internal gut measurement. If I’m offering to do a first draft, after interviewing the person whose name will be on the piece about what he or she wants to say, and after reading other things that person has written, and then turning the draft over to that person, I feel fine. I’ve been a pump-primer. I’ve gotten something going. It’s close to what the person would have written if he or she had time to sit in front of a computer for a few hours, and the final draft is in that person’s hands.

But occasionally in my PR career I’ve been around programs where pieces have been written entirely by PR people to support a client’s cause and then the PR team goes looking for people to sign the piece, whether an op-ed or a letter to the editor or a bylined article. And that’s made me feel queasy. Greasy. Clearly, in that case, the ideas and viewpoint are coming from the PR people, not the person who signs the piece. And that I don’t want to be part of. It comes down to where the piece is initiated. If it’s hatched in the mind of the person who signs it, and that person goes looking for a writer, that seems Kosher. If not, not.

I was a little surprised, when I moved from the newsroom to a PR agency and wrote a few op-eds with and for clients, that the op-ed editors fully understood that PR people help write these things. They expect that the piece will accurately reflect the executive’s views, they understand that execs get help writing speeches and other things, and they were OK with the process. And so was I.

What about you, PR folks and journalists out there? What do you think is ethical? What crosses a line?

— Bruce Benidt
Continue reading “When PR Ghostwriters Get Busted”

How to Get A Job: Part II

A couple of weeks ago, I posted “How to Find a Job in Public Relations,” a piece that grew out of concern for graduating seniors at my university who are hitting the job market this month. Many of you kindly commented with great advice.

Tomorrow I’m going to be addressing a women’s leadership class through the Mankato YWCA around a slightly different topic: “How to Use Social Media to Get a Job.” Any job, really.

Now, I’m no expert at social media. The last time I posted an image of “the new social media prism,” Benidt quipped that it looked like a turkey on steroids. And it’s true: it does.

But it seems to me that one of the ways you can get through the loss of a position or even prepare yourself for the worst of times is to reach out now to others in your industry or profession, to long-lost colleagues and best friends, to new people who share your interests. Put together a safety net, so to speak, so if you fall you might have a softer landing spot.

Look. You already participate in the social media set. That’s why you’re reading this blog. (And we at the SRC thank you.) But if you actually comment on the posts, you become a public part of the social media landscape and we get to “know” you.

Actually, what we at the SRC don’t want to tell you is how easy it is to set up your own blog. Just go to or and if you can follow three steps, you’ll be blogging. Write about your field, your profession, your passion. (Let us know where you are and we’ll send you some “link love.”)

Do you twitter? Why not? In 140 characters or fewer, you can carry on mini-conversations with others around the world about industry openings, helpful articles, best practices in any profession (try #journchat on Monday evenings for great discussions among journalists, public relations people, students and nerdy professors.) WARNING: twitter may be addicting.

Are you on LinkedIn? Think of it as a grown-up version of MySpace. Or, how about MySpace or Facebook? Those are certainly ways to build contacts. Just remember: what you put on the Web lives forever.

What other ideas do you have for helping each other out during these uncertain economic times?

purchase orders nice

PRSA needs to diversify its view of diversity

I’m the new guy here, so let’s this out of the way: Hi, my name is Mike (“Hi, Mike!”), and I’m addicted to MSNBC.

I have a short bio here. OK, so let’s get on with it…

As a student, I served on the national committee for the Public Relations Student Society of America, the kiddie version of the Public Relations Society of America. I was lucky enough to almost literally stumble into this outstanding experience. I met some amazingly fun and talented people, and we worked with leaders from PRSA to make both organizations more meaningful to the industry they serve.

And I once stood next to James Grunig.

I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything, but that’s not to say it was perfect. Even on the kiddie committee, we wrestled with some fairly heavy issues – one of which still nags me today, despite my total lack of involvement with the organization since my national committee stint.

PRSA and PRSSA shared the noble goal of improving diversity within the groups and the industry at large, particularly in terms of organizational membership and leadership but also in the educational sense, helping all members better understand the less familiar corners of world’s population. The nobility of the goal was complemented by the practicality of the idea that if a PR professional better understands, say, the Hispanic communities in the southwestern United States, he or she could better pitch stories to that community’s media outlets.

In many respects, PRSA has done well in educating its membership about a variety of specific communities who identify themselves with a common language, race, orientation, nationality, profession, political preference or mix thereof. For example, the July issue of Tactics, the association’s newspaper (the last one I received before my membership expired) featured an article titled “LGBTinos: a unique niche market effectively reached online,” which informs readers on the ins and outs of conducting media outreach directed toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Latinos. The next page has a similar article aiming to give readers a basic understanding of the disabled community.

These types of stories are helpful and interesting, often (thankfully) written by members of the very communities being discussed. I could complain about how most of these articles are the same and rarely go beyond generic, “PR 101” advice like read the publication before pitching the editor, know what they cover, know the audience, etc. – but I won’t. I have something else to complain about.

Another part of PRSA’s diversity initiative, arguably the more significant part, is improving the diversity of the organization’s membership and leadership while helping agencies and communications departments improve the diversity within. As the thinking goes, how can you communicate to diverse audiences without truly knowing, understanding, relating? Again, a noble goal, but it’s in this regard that I think PRSA’s efforts fall short.

In that same issue of Tactics, I read an article that sums up my experiences with PRSA’s diversity efforts: “Where are all the diverse PR practitioners?” laments the lack of diversity the author sees in his visits to PR classes “at several Midwestern universities,” making the not-unreasonable claim that this problem is reflected in the population of practicing PR professionals.

What’s the author’s evidence of the diversity problem? Too many Caucasians, apparently.

“Generally, only a handful of African-American students are in these classes, and even fewer Hispanics and Asians.”

I don’t disagree, speaking from my almost exclusively Midwestern perspective. But why the focus solely on race? I use this article as an example, but it’s representative of much of my experience with PRSA’s approach to diversity. We’re loaded with ideas for how to pitch stories to “diverse” media outlets, but when it comes to being more diverse, the solution is to be more epidermally colorful.

PRSSA wanted to improve membership diversity, so our committee discussed a plan that involved targeting HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities, a phrase I’m glad PRSSA didn’t invent). Discussions of diversity did often include mention of matters beyond race, but actions taken stayed squarely in the realm of skin tone.

Our committee itself was truly diverse. We were European and African and Asian and Mormon and Buddhist and Catholic and male and female and large and small and come from families of divorce and families of, well, not divorce and – you get the point. You’d think protestations of an incorrect focus with regard to diversity would have been acted upon. Nay.

I know many people have devoted much blood, sweat and tears to PRSA broadly and its diversity initiative specifically, and I know many of those people, and I love a few of them. I hope some of these people will tell me I’m wrong, that I’m not seeing a lot of other, better informed work going on. Or maybe that things have gotten better since I’ve faded away from the PRSSA/PRSA circle.

But I don’t hold out too much hope. After all, these are PR people. If they were doing something even remotely well, I’m pretty damn sure we’d have heard about it.