Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Bringing biophilia indoors

Ever since I started writing the textscape blog a few years ago, one of the recurring concepts that has affected my thinking about "the textscape" is  biophilia. Whether I am thinking about textscape in its most abstract and allusive senses or whether I'm thinking about it in the prosaic plain of practicing public relations,  I can't get away from that core, underlying concept of biophilia: the instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems -- or as E. O. Wilson originally defined it, "the urge to affiliate with other forms of life."

I see biophilia as a kind of text that nature has written within us, into our genes. More than one writer in this tradition has referenced (I don't know if they believe it literally or metaphorically) humankind's "memory" of the savanna, our species' first home. I know my interests -- from John Muir and Frederick Law Olmsted, to E. O. Wilson and Richard Louv and David George Haskell, to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and Bruce Chatwin -- revolve around insights about how being in and moving through nature heals, consoles, calms, renews, nourishes. How it demonstrably affects work productivity, illness recovery, and mood. I see it in the work of my friends in outdoor or wilderness behavioral therapy. I see it in the work of landscape designers and architects in the creation of healing gardens.

I hadn't realized how much this line of thinking had also been embraced by the very people (architects) whose job would seem to be to create non-natural, human-designed environments. So I was surprised to read a post on The Dirt, the American Society of Landscape Architects' blog, that detailed how deeply and thoughtfully architects and landscape architects have been developing "biophilic design" -- intentional design features for inducing the biophilic response. The article, "Biophilic Building Design Held Back by Lack of Data," provides several links to sources, some of which were entirely new to me.

Biophilic building design is another way to see the textscape -- it is how nature, how our potential, generative and healing response to nature, can be written (by humans, intentionally patterned) into our functional environments.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

PR needs to grapple with the implications -- and power -- of Big Data and Images

I have a blog post published May 29th at CommPro.BIZ, "Seeing Is Believing -- Why PR People Should Take Infographics More Seriously."  I make two related arguments. I contest that PR people generally have fallen behind other marketing and analytical disciplines in their understanding and use of big data, both for understanding challenges and for constructing effective advocacy. At the same time, though in a radically different realm, PR fails to take seriously the use of infographics in responsible, effective, and ethical ways.

On the one hand, the data (numbers) scares us off, and on the other hand we don't take visualization (pictures)  seriously. All this while Microsoft (see Microsoft's SharePoint Insight), IBM Enterprise Marketing, and Booz Allen are developing products and services based on both big data and visualization.

The same day my blog post appears,three other items cross my desktop. First, the 10,000 Words blog posts  information about a new Master's degree program at University Rey Juan Carlos of Madrid focusing on "investigative reporting, data journalism and visualization."

Second, I get an email from an executive at Booz|Allen|Hamilton asking me to participate in a research project they are conducting "about the future of public relations research, measurement, and evaluation" in conjunction with the 2012 AMEC European Summit on Measurement.

Third, Fast Company reports on a new technology product, inArticle, an "analytic news visualizer" developed by an New York University graduate student, Jeremy Scott Diamond, that transforms many of the standard news and social media analytics into visualizations that are not only cool looking but actually communicate insight effectively.

All that adds up to technology, services, consulting, journalism, and academic heavyweights demonstrating mastery and intelligence in big data analysis, visualization -- and strategic communication.

If PR people and PR agencies expect to be relevant in the next decade -- in the context of being strategic players in marketing, advocacy, and policy decision-making (and not just being tacticians) -- the profession has to quit paying lip service to "research" as one of the four steps to PR and start making serious technology investments, hires of trained people, and partnerships with academics and enterprises that are already using big data and visualization to establish credibility and critical insight.

In the coming years, strategic communications businesses and careers are going to be more exciting and demanding than ever. Those businesses and careers, however, may not be in "public relations." Social media tactics will not kill off traditional public relations, but inadequate depth and expertise in digitally-based analysis and presentation may.

This blog post was
re-published at  the
Institute for Public Relations
 "Research Conversations"

Sunday, May 20, 2012

PR needs to fail more

Not long ago, I observed a project in which the PR agency was one of several supposedly equal partners on an assignment for a large, sophisticated, global corporation that marketed to consumers.  The assignment was to help that corporate client develop a long-term strategy for one of its most important product lines.

Among the non-corporate, external partners were a major international management consulting firm, the national/international advertising agency, a handful of local regional advertising agencies, and the PR agency. All of the partners had notable experience both with the corporate client and the particular product line under consideration and more broadly in the industry sector. No neophytes. No slackers.

Very shortly into the project, however, it became clear that the strategic and marketing services partners were not equal – and they were not equal because of the different value propositions that each had sold to the client.

The client turned to the management consulting firm literally for strategy: for a decision about how the corporation should deploy limited resources against their objective. The client turned to the advertising agencies for embodiment of the strategy into artifacts of communications (print and online ads, billboards, websites, events, etc.). The client turned to the PR agency for amplifying the reach and impact of the strategy embodied by the artifacts created by the ad agencies.

This example is not just about how public relations is often low down on the food chain of marketing services. It reveals another way in which the lack (or paucity) of research in public relations relegates the practice to supporting roles.

The management consulting firm did not offer a solution to the client before it was hired or before the project began. The consulting firm sold a process that encompassed the development of options for resource allocation, the testing of options through primary research and the application of pre-existing econometric models, the demonstrated transparent failure of some of those options, the refinement of one option, and then the presentation of the solution. Upfront, they sold a process of generativity, testing and failures, and conclusions with evidence.

The advertising agency sold the client a comparable process. The ad agency, working in tandem with the consulting firm, developed “creative” approaches for the strategic options tested and refined by the consulting firm. Multiple creative media approaches were developed, tested, and refined. The whole process was transparent, and, like with the consulting firm, the “failures” baked in to the process were assumed in advance and paid for by the client. The ad agencies did not up-front sell a solution; they sold a process – that transparently included obstacles, setbacks, and redirections – that would hopefully yield a solution.

The PR agency did not sell to the corporate client a process. The PR agency sold a toolbox (a very good toolbox, by the way; extremely competent; tools wielded by experienced, hard-working, driven, perfectionist people).  The PR firm did not sell to the client a methodology of testing options – either the strategic options, the creative options, or even the alternatives within its own toolbox. There was no method to demonstrate and show failure – and more importantly to show, with evidence, preferential advantages, in concept or actualization, of public relations options.

From one perspective, it might be argued that this state of affairs shows the great confidence of the corporation in what public relations can do. Given the right strategic direction, the PR toolbox will work. However, anyone who has worked in public relations for any length of time knows the corollary to that – if the organizational objective fails, it is common to blame, at least in part, the execution of the PR activities, the use of the PR toolbox (That PR agency just didn’t get it. They didn’t pitch it right. They weren’t persistent. They didn’t have good contacts. They misrepresented their toolbox). And what is a PR agency to do? Not much. Without a research-based process – open and transparent to client and all strategic partners – there is just no evidence that the PR people did the right things or did them well. With no opportunity to test and “fail” in the project development phase, if a failure comes, it will come when it is too late to do anything about it.

Jonah Lehrer
In Wired magazine's contributing editor, Jonah Lehrer’s recent book, Imagine: How Creativity Works (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), Lehrer provides a compelling look at the components of creativity, both in individuals and in organizations. He makes a convincing case for the role in creativity played by serendipity, chance occurrences, new experiences, changing frame of references. He further shows the equally important, complementary value of persistence, practice, critical thinking (and criticism), and revision. A common factor in both the serendipity aspect and the persistence aspect may be surprising: failure; waste.

The serendipitous, new, creative solution to a problem emerges from a miasma of innumerable serendipitous, creative false starts and dead ends. The driving force in practice, critical thinking, and revision is getting it wrong and needing to do it better. Failure, waste drives real creativity. Success emerges from failures. Value emerges from waste. Lehrer cites study after study documenting how a solution emerges amidst failure. Yes, ultimate failure is a bad thing; but incremental, intermediate failures are a good thing – a requirement, a strength, evidence for trust by others -- for trust in yourself.

The routine practice of public relations that does not integrate a genuine research dimension (testing of options; assessment and transparent acknowledgement of the relative shortcomings of various options; measurement and authentic evaluation of outcomes against objectives) leaves much of PR services without a value proposition. On a macro level, PR has no historical data, general rules, or standards from open scrutiny of experience. On a micro level, PR people have the seats of their pants.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

To change, challenge the textscape

Charles Duhigg
My previous two posts have touched on how the textscape is a system of our beliefs (via Michael
Schermer's The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies--How We construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths (Times Books, 2011)) about which we are mostly unconscious. David George Haskell, author of The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature (Viking, 2012), asserts that the written word/world (the textscape) is an ecosystem. I also think that a further important insight comes from another best-seller: Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit: How We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Random House, 2012) convincingly portrays how much of our lived experience is possible, and has meaning, understood as the dense fabric of habits --an inner textscape-- that make day-to-day life possible.

He writes: "The ways we habitually think of our surroundings and ourselves create the worlds that each of us inhabit. 'There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys. How's the water?" the writer David Foster Wallace told a class of graduating college students in 2005. 'And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?" ' "

"Water is habits, the unthinking choices and invisible decisions that surround us every day--and which, just by looking at them, become visible again."

Duhigg's book shows exhaustive examples of how our inner textscapes, the "habits, the unthinking choices and invisible decisions that surround us every day" -- can be either productive or destructive. The textscape is the ecosystem, the writing of the world, that Haskell observes, but the textscape is also the internalization of all those writings of the world that calcify into our habits (for good or bad). Duhigg is optimistic: "If you believe you can change -- if you make it a habit -- the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be. Once that choice occurs -- and becomes automatic -- it's not only real, it starts to seem inevitable, the thing, as [William] James wrote, that bears 'us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.' " For Duhigg, the textscape isn't traditional concept of Fate; through Duhigg's vision, we see the textscape as an internal inscription (habits, a fabric of behaviors) that all -- or maybe most of us -- can rewrite, when we choose.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Brand insights: beliefs come first, explanations follow

Michael Schermer
A recent Search Insider blog (May 10) by Gord Hotchkiss of Mediative, puts Michael Shermer's The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies--How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths (Times Books, 2011) into perspective for helping us understand how we apprehend brands. Shermer, as well as the kinds of neuroscience that Hotchkiss also cites, is pushing back the horizons of our understanding of the potential powers (and lack thereof) of argument / marketing. The immediacy of new communications research fields (such as Search) is making insightful use of neuroscience that has mostly, up till now, scared off (for cost or complexity reasons) the rhetoricians and marketers.

Michael Schermer has been unsentimental (to put it mildly) about how and why people believe. (He is also author of, among several other books, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time (Holt, 2002).) But maybe some dispassionate neuroscience will help the marketing world accept more of the perspective offered by Schermer and his compatriots at The Skeptics Society.

More PR people (communicators, marketers) need  to  reject definitively the "blank slate" supposition about their audiences (which is so often the default position). Gord Hotchkiss's blog post gives a taste of the sophisticated analyses and insights that are now possible, and how brands, and how we use them, are more subtle, and differently powerful, than even we communications pros had generally acknowledged.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Textscape as ecosystem

David George Haskell
Author and biologist, David George Haskell, was recently interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio's To the Best of our Knowledge (April 29) about his research and his recent book, The Forest Unseen:A Year's Watch in Nature (Viking, 2012). Haskell describes science as "an application of the poet's desire to see the world and to revel in that world." He articulates his own version of a textscape as he describes a "parallel" between the written word and a forest:

"I do think that there is a strong parallel between the written word and how forest ecosystems work. Ecosystems are all built on relationships. To me, the miracle of the written word is that it connects our consciousnesses. So when you read something, when I read something, that someone else has written, the deepest part of ourselves, the center of our consciousness, is connected to another person's consciousness. And thereby we grow and change. To me that's a very ecological process. So walking into a bookstore is like walking into a forest. You can hear all these voices coming from different sides all interacting and complicated in unpredictable ways."

I would just change "word" to "world" in the Haskell quotation: "There is a strong parallel between the written world [the textscape] and how forest ecosystems work. Ecosystems are built on relationships. . . . the miracle of the written world [textscape] is that it connects our consciousnesses."