Category Archives: Technology

Twitter and the Age of Crisis

“I am Married to a Crowd”

Boston Globe, Friday, April 11,2009, A-15.

My wife (Twitter handle: @GirlsSentAway) was the muse for this article and its star.

According to Boston Globe statistics, of 5,200 Globe articles tracked, the humor piece about my wife’s tweeting was among the top 25 most frequently emailed. (Lots of twittering birds out on those limbs.)

Not that everyone approved — of Twitter, my article, the Globe’s decision to publish it,or what HBX, an anonymous commenter on the Globe site, said was a “puff piece”. Mr “X” also lambasted my twittering spouse and me for being a couple of shameless, fame-hunting “celebrities,” which got a giggle from the Twitter Queen and me. (Stand aside, Lindsay, Britney, Justin and A-Rod!)

At grad school in Eng Lit, we read Chaucer’s “House of Fame”.  The author of The Canterbury Tales had no more respect for fame than HBX. Whether Chaucer would have retweeted (RT) my article to excoriate it, however, is a matter I shall leave to literary historians.


While all this seem utterly unrelated, it has a more than a whiff of crisis communication, a specialty of general management and public relations, which I teach. What is fame, after, all, but a perception of reputation? In the era of constant communication, reputation — a public figure’s, a private person’s, a politician’s, an organization’s — is subject to the kinds of violent swings we associate with the stock market. Crisis has been described as a circumstance in which someone (or some organization) faces a significantly damaging blow to reputation, and has hardly any time to react. The usual examples: Monica’s impact on Bill Clinton’s presidency. The Valdez’s impact on Exxon. Abu Ghraib’s impact on foreign opinion of the U.S

It’s no secret that ours is an age of crisis. While poet W. H. Auden nailed the post-W.W.II era as the “age of anxiety,” the digital revolution has upped the ante considerably by speeding up, spreading out and constantly enabling  communication. For this reason, perhaps, even the most trivial matter can feel like a crisis and appear like one. As a result, persons and organizations may well be even more anxious than Auden thought they were in the early years of the A-bomb era.

Thus, to be a celebrity today is to be stalked by gawker, and one misstep away from a humiliating gotcha in The Smoking Gun. It’s enough to make even faux celebrities install alarms and surveillance cams in their underwater-mortgage homes.

But while I regard Auden’s anxiety-tagging of the nuclear era as insightful, I am unpersuaded by HBX’s of the world the sky is falling because of Twitter. Those sorts of perceptions are right out of the Chicken Little playbook — just plain silly.

What is not so silly or trivial is the way in which communications revolutions like the one we’re experiencing has a way of making us feel even more anxious and insecure and neurotic than ever.


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Filed under Literary Criticism, Personal Essays, Social Media, Technology

Twitter Messiah

I started teaching college almost 40 years ago chalking and talking. In my mid-twenties, I was the age of the undergrads, give or take. After a few sidebars in the Real World, I returned to academia double the age of the students. These days, the age multiplier is three, and given the sorry state of my 401K, I can see the writing on my Facebook Wall: 4x.

My retirement plan: Feet first.

Which is why I’ve learned to write in 140  characters or less. My retirement is a re-tweet.

But more than that. I’ve become a twitter messiah, assigning, persuading, herding  students into twitterdom. Blogs, I hear, are another tech disposable. This one, as well.

I see I’ve gone well over the character limit. (Good friends might say I exceeded that limit long ago.)

So it’s time for a song (as I anticipate the Oscar medley this evening).

Rourke, Winslet, Slumdog, Adams, Springsteen, Boyle. There you have my picks (you needn’t have asked).

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Filed under Academia, Technology

Israel’s Twitter Sampling Diplomacy

I’ve heard of gunboat diplomacy, cultural diplomacy and public diplomacy. But until today, I had been unfamiliar with Twitter diplomacy — at least, until the New York Times reported a selection of the “conversation” taking place about the Gaza crisis and the explanatory tweets offered by David Saranga, head of media relations for the Israeli consulate in NYC. Here’s a sample:

Question from peoplesworld: 40 years of military confrontation hasn’t brought security to Israel, why is this different?

Answer from israelconsulate: We hav 2 prtct R ctzens 2, only way fwd through negotiations, & left Gaza in 05. y Hamas launch missiles not peace

Which brings to mind, however randomly,  Juanita Hall’s sprightly, if  English-challenged song in “South Pacific,” advising American GI’s that they should engage in “Happy talk/Keep talkin happy talk/Is good idea/You like?”

Or think of it in other ways — for example, as a hip DJ’s sampling. And while Mr. Saranga, the Israeli PR spokesperson, isn’t sampling Sam Cooke or Abba Eban, for that matter, the truncated syncopation of his language has that rhythmic discontinuity found under the strobe lights on the dance floor.

Everything old is new, as we know. Take the poet ee cummings:

it’s jolly

odd what pops into

your jolly tete when the

jolly shells begin dropping jolly fast you

hear the rrmp and

then nearandnearerandNEARER

and before

you can


& we’re



–i say

that’s jolly odd

old thing, jolly

od, jolly

jolly odd isn’t

it jolly odd

Small-lettered cummings wasn’t only speaking American — he was talking modernity. And I suspect that those shells weren’t peanuts but bombs falling in WW I.

original cover, 1926 (Charles Scribner's Sons, publisher)

original cover, 1926 (Charles Scribner's Sons, publisher)

My mother once observed of my father’s frequent meditative silences that “Sam speaks like a telegram.” She might also have mentioned other telegrammatical communicators such as Ernest Hemingway. In The Sun Also Rises, travelers communicated their plans to their overseas friends like this:

Arrive Paris Christmas STOP Be wearing raccoon coat STOP Bring flask STOP.

All right: I made up that telegram. But still.  The pauses.  The concision. And the irony  — always the irony.

25th anniversary edition (Oxford, 2000), winner of the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award & named by the Modern Library as one of the 20th century's 100 Best Non-Fiction Books

25th anniversary edition (Oxford, 2000), winner of the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award & named by the Modern Library as one of the 20th century's 100 Best Non-Fiction Books

In The Great War and Modern Memory, the best book I ever read about WW I’s radical alteration of language from late nineteenth century Romanticism to the wised-up flatness and ironic tone the Great War brought.Compare the pre-war with the after party:  steed/horse; comrade/friend; the summons/the draft notice; to conquer/to win; ashes or dust/dead bodies.

And so Israeli’s public diplomacy is sampling, in a sense, the ironic, truncated language of what emerged from what’s been called the first industrial war. But of course that’s all in the Way Back.  What comes across more immediately in Mr. Saranga’s diplomatic language  (post-diplomatic language?) isn’t the irony of the literati as much as the sarcasm of the technorati — unintentional as sarcasm may be.

I detect a little DUH! and some eye-rolling in the following exchange:

explore4corners: How many attacks have there been against IS in the last 6 months? How many casualties? The MSM doesn’t report that here.

Israelconsulate: ovr 500 rockts Hit IL in the 6 mts of CF per the last 72 hrs mre than 300 hit IL. kiling 4 ppl & injuring hndrds

So this is it — the new language of public diplomacy cum PR 2.0, as the public relations world calls it.  A little cummings, a dash of Hemingway, a sprinkle of Sam Cooke, an oz. of Lonelygirl14, a shot of Seinfeld. Pour into 2.0 saucepan and tweet for 5 seconds.

Fact is, Mr. Saranga would get high marks from the new mandarins of public communication. He’s “engaged the conversation,” wading right into the hostility and dispensing with the old-school clueless of  “No Comment.” He’s using social media tools as they have been designed  — not to write prose that the literati inventors of PR would have approved —  but to make the heretofore “silent” inner speech visible within the Short Attention Span Theater of the technorati age.

No longer are we living in a Cartesian world of  “I think, therefore I am.”   Today, it’s  “I tweet,  therefore you’ll know me.”

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Filed under Politics, Public Relations, Technology

The New Public Relations: Strategic Alliance

I couldn’t have entered PR 2.0 (Gathering the Light blog) without my wife’s  tech knowledge and skills.  And this sort of strategic alliance is what I think our PR concentration needs (as the cliche has it) “going forward.”

Digital influence hasn’t replaced PR, but it has become PR’s cutting edge — so we have to incorporate it into the entire program from principles and writing through media relations and crisis com.

The advantage we have is that the kids are already swimming in digital influence and won’t resist it.  The disadvantages we have are academic decentralization: different teachers, syllabi, standards, as well as separate programs for day and evening PR classes).

I like the strategic alliance approach because it’s more realistic and pragmatic than the institution’s fervent fantasy that throwing money at “professional development”  will turn old school frogs like me into cyber princes.  Ain’t happening — at least, not that fast.

What has occurred to me under the pressure of “Stop Talking!” commercials and propaganda from well-meaning colleagues and IBM ads is this: What continues to distinguish public relations from its rivals — advertising, marketing and digital influence itself — is rather simple.  It’s all about writing. Here’s what I mean.

Yes, social media is a collection of technologies.  But those technologies depend to a significant degree on writing — which is itself a collection of technologies, most notably grammar, syntax, orthography (spelling), rhetoric &persuasion, etc.  These technologies are based on still other technologies: critical reading among them.

Without mastering those technologies, students prove time and again to be incapable of keeping a PR job, even if they manage to gain entry to one.

And it is this nexus of writing/reading/rhetorical/persuasion technologies that define the boundary between the effective practice of public relations and the practice of advertising, marcom, marketing/packaging and digital influence.

We humans have developed a highly complex system of words — of languages — which we use to communicate with each and, indeed, form social and professional relationships with each other.  Public relations is a practice with the capability not only to communicate basic utterances, but articulate complex concepts with all their associated subtleties and nuances — which is why new words and phrases are continually emerging into the language, and old words and phrases (“bailout,” “truthiness,” “maverick”) are reframed.

There is no denying that we live in a visual age, an age of screens, images and moving pictures. I’ve written about this in the PR Review. But just as computing machines didn’t produce the oft-promised “paperless office” but a cascade of paper from a single press of the SEND button, so our visual/video age has not put an end to writing, but rather given rise to an avalanche of writing: a seemingly bottomless, disconnected thread of email, blogs, IM’s poured into the visual frames of Facebook, MySpace, Linked In, Plaxo, Xing and a hundred thousand pile  of apps mounting daily.

The techno-utopians, would-be visionaries and apocalyptically minded tribe of gurus may not have grasped the significance of writing and writing-related technologies, relegating it breathlessly to the trash heap of history. But they miss the point — and most certainly miss the point about public relations as well as propaganda. No one doubts that pictures and video are not only powerful but now virtually ubiquitous. However, without writing-related technologies — not to mention the other fundamental communication skills of speaking, reading and listening — visuality can take communication and relationship-creation only so far.  The photographic is more and more necessary in the internet age, but can never be sufficient.

The implication for public relations is the approach business has known and used throughout history: strategic alliance. Partnerships. Pooling — of knowledge, skills and experience.

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