Is Multitasking A Myth?

Like many PR professionals, I consider myself a decent multitasker. I find plenty of ways to justify my surface-skimming ways, including the most obvious excuse, the nature of the agency business. And, yes, I’ve occasionally had a superiority complex about my juggling act. I used to work with someone who never tried to take on more than one thing at a time. He moved methodically from each task to the next in tunnel-vision mode. Nothing – no rings, pings, beeps, or people rushing to the doorway signaling frantically- seemed to distract him. To me, his work habits were anachronistic, and, on occasion, wildly frustrating.

A new study might just give multitaskers our comeuppance, however. Communications professors at Stanford University divided a group of undergraduates into “light” and “heavy” multitaskers and assessed them on essential skills, like memory and focus. Their conclusion? Those who multitask the most are by far the worst at it. The heavy multitaskers had particular trouble switching from one task to another…pretty significant, considering that’s the very definition of the term. Even more damning, their ability to filter was far inferior to that of the other group. In fact, the uber-multitaskers were in every way inferior to the light multitaskers.

Clearly, the study has implications for all of us who think we’re getting by with an attention-deprived approach to everything. And, it contradicts the New York magazine story I blogged about only last spring. The story defends our national distractability and outlines the benefits of overstimulation – creativity, efficiency – even something called neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to adapt to more and more information over time.

Now, as with most studies like the Stanford one, are there plenty of unanswered questions. Where do cause and effect come in? Is the poor cognitive functioning caused by too much stimulation, or is there something in multitaskers’ brains that make them want to watch TV, listen to music, and write their thesis while texting friends? The research team implies that heavy users of media and information might have a voracious hunger for information for its own sake, not in order to process and use it. (Do I smell Multitaskers Anonymous, a 12-step program in only three easy steps?) At any rate, the Stanford researchers profess to be so astonished by the result of their study that they’re planning new ones designed to identify what multitaskers might be good at and probe more deeply into the reasons for their behavior.

But, does the study really surprise anyone? It’s pretty obvious that we reach a point of diminishing returns when we take on too much simultaneously. When I really think about it, my most effective technique isn’t continuous partial attention, but the task-by-task, out-of-my-way urgency that’s my default under extreme time pressure. It feels like juggling, but it’s really ruthless unitasking, like a machete that cuts a swath through thick jungle growth.

What I find most entertaining about the study, however, is the researchers themselves. They don’t mince words. For an academic, Professor Clifford Nass uses pretty casual language, and he’s not afraid of a sweeping statement. “This shocked the heck out of us,” he keeps saying. He tells The New York Times, “high multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy” and sums it up by calling them “lousy at everything.”

Ouch. No cautious research-speak here. Could this guy be a unitasker with a grudge? More likely a savvy professor with a flair for PR.

Genius PR Move Of The Week

Normally I think creative job titles (Chief Enjoyment Officer?) in a corporate setting are contrived, and so, well, nineties. Not so for the lastest post at the National Railway Museum in York, England. The museum gained a new director recently, and along with it, a nice public relations boost.

It was a golden opportunity, and they were quick to run with it. Six-year-old Sam Pointon, whose mum calls him “train mad,” wrote to the museum to apply for a director’s post after hearing that one of its officers had retired. The next thing he knew, he was invited to the museum to meet the top brass, where Sam’s passion and enthusiasm set the internal wheels turning. Sam was promptly offered a position on the museum’s board as “Director of Fun.”

Sam accepted the job, and his debut was well-documented by the UK media, including a charming BBC piece that depicts his busy first day of board meetings, tours, and a crush of media interviews. Kudos to the National Railway Museum for the savvy move, and who can blame them for, um, tooting their own horn a little bit?

Besides being genius PR, the story made me think of the classic movie “Big” in which Tom Hanks stars as a kid inside a 30-year-old’s body who brings a youthful joy and insight to his job as a toy company executive. It’s a useful reminder. Many studies, including those by pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, have consistently shown a relationship between playfulness and the flow of creative ideas. Yet, under pressure or the brunt of routine, our original passion can be easily sidetracked or even derailed. We can literally run out of steam. There are times when we simply need to be a kid and go out and play.

The Face Of Online Anonymity

After becoming a parent, I was briefly obsessed with the anonymous online community UrbanBaby. UB was ostensibly about parenting, but it became known as a place where sleep-deprived moms would confess embarrassing secrets. As New York magazine put it, the anonymity was like a blend of “truth serum and a very strong cocktail.”  Beyond the oversharing, UB could be snarky, even nasty. Insults flew over issues like social status, income, race, and – that hottest of hot buttons – school rankings. (Yes, even that.) I doubted if the moms posting hateful or bigoted comments would dream of such behavior in real life. Who were they? Could the jealous troll behind those noxious barbs possibly be anyone I knew?

I quit UB, but I’m still fascinated by how we behave if we’re incognito – or think we are. The recent lawsuit brought by Liskula Cohen is a reminder of the hazards of crossing the line, online. Cohen brought charges against an anonymous enemy who posted vicious insults about her on a blog called “Skanks in NYC.” The judge ultimately ordered Google, its Web host, to give up the blogger’s identity. More interesting, though, is the countersuit — the outed blogger is now suing Google for $15 million for violating her right to privacy.

The case is troubling for a couple of reasons. First, it doesn’t bode well for online privacy, even in situations where it might be considered essential, like political dissent. Second, Cohen will forever be publicly associated with the so-called “skank suit,” which is probably not what she intended when she set out to identify her antagonist.

Most of us have experienced Web discussions that get out of hand under cover of online pseudonyms or no identification at all. Studies call it “disinhibition.” More like the online equivalent of a barroom brawl. The barroom effect, however, is both good and bad. Anonymous discussions are far more likely to deteriorate into gossip, trivia, and worse. But, they tend to be livelier, more interesting, and more robust than those where real names are used. Bottom line, they’re more fun.

So, what to do? There are practical suggestions known to many of those who manage Web communities. In most cases, tight guidelines and effective moderation of online discussions help. Mandatory registration also tends to screen out the truly disruptive players. A club, it seems, is better than a mob. But, as the digital culture and technology increasingly push the limits of free expression, one thing is clear. On the Web, very little is secret, and no one is truly anonymous.

Whole Foods, Healthcare, And The “S-Word”

Partly because it’s in my building, but also because I like and admire the company, I feel bad when Whole Foods is attacked. I’m referring to CEO John Mackey’s Wall Street Journal editorial that has many customers threatening to hang up their reusable shopping bags for good. The piece, which essentially argued for fiscal restraint and individual empowerment, has generated a firestorm among progressives.

So, let’s break it down. Many in PR have said that CEOs have no business taking on controversial issues. I strongly disagree. For a chief executive to take a stand on a matter of national importance, even a contentious one, can be a powerful differentiator and a strong expression of corporate and personal values. I admired Howard Schultz for advocating for healthcare reform several years ago. Schultz’s position dovetailed with a key aspect of the Starbucks workplace culture; it offers healthcare benefits to part-time employees. My rule for this kind of advocacy is to be general in public, specific (or partisan) in private.

Still, there was nothing wrong with the thrust of Mackey’s piece, which contained reasonable suggestions like tort reform and tax benefits for private health insurance, along with a call for a healthier lifestyle.  Mackey’s reputed to be a libertarian, and several of his ideas seem consistent with that philosophy, but that’s beside the point. Here’s where he veered off the path.  His article led with a quote, “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”  The original author of the quote? Margaret Thatcher.

That’s right. The Iron Lady and the “S-word.” It doesn’t take a PR genius to see how likening the current reform proposal to “socialism” might strike a sour note among the Whole Foods crowd. It’s kind of like invoking Bill Clinton at a right-to-life meeting…confusing at best, offensive at worst.

Since the food fight erupted, Mackey has stated that his views are personal and don’t reflect the values of the corporation. He also protested that the paper’s editorial staff had added the subhead, which refers to Obamacare.  (This is true, but irrelevant.)  What is relevant – and regrettable – is that that Mackey showed a surprising lack of sensitivity to the values of his core customers. He should apologize for politicizing the debate with the reference to socialism and focus more on his company’s own commitment to employee healthcare – which makes his argument for individual empowerment very nicely.

For me, the whole thing leaves a bad taste, because the backlash will have a chilling effect on other corporate officers who want to express a well-reasoned point of view about a critical national issue. In my view, we actually need more CEOs like John Mackey to participate in the public dialogue. It’s also regrettable that one of his major arguments – that diet and lifestyle can address the root causes of poor health – seems to have gotten lost in the (organic) sauce. Now, there’s a credible position. Who better to make the case for individual commitment to better health than the CEO of a company that helps people make better food choices?

In late 2007, Mackey, a very wealthy man, announced he would forego further cash compensation, saying he no longer wants to work for money, and citing a call to service. That’s admirable. So is his passion for the brand he built after so many years. But, as CEO, he still personifies that brand, and he would do well to remember where his (whole grain) bread is buttered.

Does Twitter’s Pointless Babble Remind You Of Anything?

Just about any half-baked study claiming to be about Twitter seems to generate lots of attention lately. Cue the salt shaker.

But, I was entertained by a recent example of Twitter insight.  A market intelligence company called Pear Analytics had the idea to analyze 2000 tweets over a period of two weeks’ time, grouping them into six categories. Their conclusion? Fully 40 percent were considered “pointless babble.”  I know, shocking.  A close second, at 37 percent, were tweets that were termed “conversational.”

But, here’s the good news. Tweets considered “self-promotion” were counted at 5.85  percent. Most surprisingly, “spam” was way down on the list at only 3.75 percent of all tweets.  You could have fooled me.

Now, the study’s usefulness is limited, for many reasons.  The categories are completely subjective.  I’m no expert, but I doubt they conform to good research practice. I mean, could “pointless babble” have possibly been coined to make a catchy headline? More importantly, who’s to say that my “conversation” isn’t your “pointless babble”?  And, where’s the line between self-promotion and spam?  The sample and timeframe were pathetically small when compared to the Twitter universe….I could go on.

But, still. Despite my mixed feelings about Twitter and the hype that surrounds it, the Pear study was interesting. It offered one of those moments I can only call a blinding flash of the obvious.  The categories and the analysis – contrived though they may be – seems to mirror my daily social interactions in the offline world.

There’s plenty of meaningful conversation, but it comes with a fair amount of random nonsense. And, along the way, there are nuggets of news, passed-along information (i.e., gossip), and, yes, even useless garbage.  Often, I have to repeat myself or ask for clarification, because my family and I don’t actually always listen to one another. Could it possibly be that Twitter is a lot like…well, real life?

The Humane Society Makes It Real

Since the news broke that Michael Vick would rejoin the NFL and work with The Humane Society on its anti-dogfighting campaign, speculation about his true state of mind has gone into overtime. Is he sincerely remorseful? Does he regret only that he was caught and suspended, or has he actually changed? It’s impossible to tell if Vick’s rehabilitation is real, of course, but in my book his brand image has nowhere to go but up. He’s been granted an extraordinary second chance, and he seems to know it. His performance on “60 Minutes” may have been a bit scripted, but it was adequate, partly because James Brown‘s questioning was so tough. It’s in everyone’s interest that his commitment to anti-cruelty education be genuine, so my guess is that the dogfighting messaging will be equally hard-hitting.

Which brings me to the impact on the Humane Society brand. Since it was initially floated that PETA might join with Vick, I’ve called it a crazy – but crazily brilliant – move that could soften PETA’s fringe-y image and help take its message mainstream.  PETA ultimately chose not to embrace Vick, but to remain harshly critical of him, questioning his remorse and demanding a psychiatric examination to prove sincerity, emotional stability, or something.

For The Humane Society, the move makes sense, but for the opposite reason.  First, its brand is strong enough to take the heat if the Vick partnership backfires. Apparently it’s already lost more than a thousand members since the announcement. But, as one of the most trusted not-for-profit names and a community presence for over 50 years, it can afford to take a calculated risk.

What’s more relevant here is its image. To put it bluntly, it’s a white-bread group.  As the Society’s president, Wayne Pacell blogs, if it’s serious about eradicating the dogfighting culture in major cities, it needs to go urban.  And with Michael Vick, a kid from the Bad Newz housing projects who’s lived and lost the dream on a spectacular scale, it has a credible figure to run the ball.  For me, the choice of a spokesperson with a tough history is refreshing and authentic. In our culture of faux reality stars and rent-a-celebrity cause endorsements, this campaign has real, um, teeth.

PETA hasn’t gone away, of course. It’s still speaking out against Vick, the Eagles, and the team’s fans, billboarding and threatening protests at games.  PETA’s track record gives new meaning to the phrase “blood sport,” so it’s not to be underestimated.   But if it does beat up on Vick and his new partners, it just might help tip the balance in his favor. Out-of-bounds insults could evoke sympathy, while making The Humane Society more relevant than ever.

America hasn’t yet made up its mind about Michael Vick, but we do love the underdog.  I’m betting it’s a win all around.

Astroturfing Is PR’s Dirty Battleground

If social media is the PR industry’s shiny new object, then fake-grassroots activities – known as “astroturfing” is its dirtiest open secret.

I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t followed the policy details of the healthcare debate, yet. it’s driving me crazy. Not just the ballooning price of coverage for my employees. Or even the $4500 I spent on dental work…though I’m grinding my teeth just thinking about it. It’s the coverage and counter-coverage of massive fake-grassroots protests, and the fact that it’s routinely referred to as PR.

Of course, I mean the eruptions of emotion, even rage, by supposedly ordinary Americans at the Town Hall meetings about healthcare reform. Democracy in action, right? Free speech getting a workout? Maybe. But, connect the dots, and the outbursts seem a little staged. Often they’re managed by political operatives with a corporate or legislative agenda. Those innocuous-sounding citizen groups are nearly always funded by partisan organizations or corporate interests. Which is fine, as long as they’re legitimate, and we know exactly who’s getting their hands dirty down in the faux weeds. But too often, we don’t.

And, though it may seem minor in this context, the reputational impact on public relations makes me cringe. In MSNBC’s 10-minute segment about the firms and groups involved in the healthcare protests, they were dismissed over and over as “pure PR.”  If so, it’s the dark underbelly… huge, hidden, and when it pops up, really, really ugly.

There’s a big difference between legitimate grassroots mobilizing, and the synthetic stuff, I know.  And, I’ve worked with many lobbying and public affairs professionals who counsel their clients wisely and with integrity.  More importantly, this isn’t a partisan problem. No political party – or industry – has a monopoly on deception.  But, that’s precisely what bothers me. Faking it is so ubiquitous that even the watchdogs seem pretty powerless to do much about it.  The PRSA explicitly prohibits deceptive practices in its code of ethics, but how is the code enforced? Violators are subject to expulsion from PRSA. Does anyone think that’s a deterrent?

Call me naive, but I think it’s ironic that our industry obsesses about transparency, and regulators worry about Mommy bloggers who accept gifts, while millions are spent on subterranean tactics to change public opinion.  The only remedy I can think of, and the best reason for political and corporate interests not to engage in fakery, is that it’s so easily exposed….at least, I hope so.

The erosion of public trust in big media (and big government) that we blogged about so passionately following the death of Walter Cronkite may have a positive flipside. Everyone’s skeptical of just about everything today. I mean, even my 89-year-old mother knows a staged photo op when she sees one.
Still, it’s got to be someone’s job to try to unearth the truth, and that brings me back to the mainstream press. We need them, warts and all. We’d all better hope that those nonpartisan – or openly partisan, but skilled and honest – working journalists can keep on rooting out the real story, while those who engage in fakery will just dig themselves into a hole.

Penny Pranks Pay Off For Office Max

Back-to-school campaigns make me anxious. They evoke that Sunday-night-and-I-haven’t-done-my-homework feeling in a sure sign that the summer’s waning.  This year, despite some encouraging economic reports, it’s looking like a depressing September all around. Forecasts suggest that shoppers will keep their wallets zipped, and major retailers are responding with uninspired price promotions and coupon drops. There’s even evidence that the kid “nag factor” has lost potency (though not in my house, unfortunately.)

That’s why the whimsy of Office Max’s “Penny Pranks” is appealing.  I admired the “Elf Yourself” holiday campaign  from a couple of years ago, because it actually sucked me in…or, more specifically, had family members from three different states suck me in, which, naturally, is the whole idea. Penny Pranks isn’t interactive like the dancing elves, but its videos have racked up over a million views since the first batch launched a year ago.

The new videos are more polished than last season’s – not necessarily a good thing – but they again feature the talented improv actor Matt McCarthy. This time he’s in a ritzy townhouse, posing as the quirky guardian to a 10-year-old boy who’s heir to…never mind.  The point is that the Punk’d-style payoff is still there. After comic haggling with unsuspecting sellers of rare collectibles, the duo reveal they intend to pay with – you guessed it – bags and bags of pennies. The orange-haired McCarthy is silly, but also sly, like the pudgy love child of Carrot Top and Borat.  And, he wears a kilt as well as any guy I’ve seen.

The campaign fits nicely into these penny-pinching times, and the prank videos mesh well with the store promotion offering various products for a penny.  The YouTube channel also does a good job of melding a Depression-era-type price promotion with social media in all its contemporary coolness. It remains to be seen whether it actually creates traffic for Office Max. But, it does differentiate it, stealing ownership of the one-cent sales that are ubiquitous in the category.  And, while it hasn’t exactly banished my back-to-school blues, it candy coats the sales pitch – and the dreaded return to reality – with a little levity, which is the kind of viral thing you’re glad to see going around.

When Brands Try To Be Cool

Recently, RadioShack announced that it’s changing its name. Or, more precisely, it wants you to use its nickname. In what’s billed as an informal move, the retailer has launched a campaign inviting us to call it “The Shack.”

I can understand wanting to lose the dated “Radio,” which connotes a bygone technology era.  And, the chain is known as “The Shack” by regular customers and employees. But, if the name of the stores doesn’t change, which isn’t yet clear, it’s a confusing, halfway measure. Plus, it’s a bit like your boss calling you by an embarrassing childhood handle, or my mother telling me her new sofa is “fly.” Even if the expression is hip, when it’s coming out of your parent’s mouth, it’s… well, not.

In perhaps a similar quest for its own slice of cool, Pizza Hut went the extra distance and removed the “P-word” from some of its stores so that they’re now simply “The Hut.”  The signs feature a new typeface and the red-roof logo redone to look even more like a hat. The company says the new moniker “ties in nicely with today’s texting generation.”  Um, as the kids say, IDTS. Pizza Hut later issued a statement that the name will not change after all.

In the most interesting branding experiment, Starbucks is dropping its name from three Seattle stores. One has already been remodeled in a new, rustic style and reopened as “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea.” According to the The Seattle Times, the unbranded stores will feature a traditional coffeehouse ambiance, complete with poetry readings, live music, and wine and beer. Starbucks has been accused of “stealth branding“, but, having worked with the company, I get the idea here, which is to “blend in” with the community and give each store a local personality….and, perhaps, a touch of that indie cred. Since the company has been open about the test, transparency isn’t the issue. It’s really about authenticity. If the un-Starbucks can offer an authentic experience, “glocalization” might be our next retail trend.
Cool retail brands in non-cool categories are usually born, not re-made. Despite its recent battering by the recession, I still think Target takes the prize. Many assume Tar-zhay got its chic from its hip merchandising deals (the Michael Graves housewares line was inspired), or the iconic bullseye ads.  But, as author and Target biographer Laura Rowley points out, it really goes back to the retailer’s department store roots, and its blend of design, merchandising, and value. It was also about the reverse-snob appeal.

From the start, Target was authentic, and like that cool kid in junior high, it rarely appeared to be trying too hard.

Finally, it took time to build the brand persona. In fact, Target’s former president, Douglas Dayton, says he first heard the faux-French pronunciation of the name, not on a Coast, and not in the nineties, but in Duluth, Minn. when the first Target store opened in 1962. Now, that’s cool.

Don’t Get Mad, Get Online; Social Media As Bully Pulpit

Social media has become not only a way to connect with friends and contacts, but a bully pulpit about customer service. Today’s Wall Street Journal features yet another story about large companies who act fast to avert PR disaster when someone complains publicly about their service or brand.

And, why not? Who hasn’t used social media to air their ire?  A couple of years ago, I went berserk on a customer service rep for a major retailer that wouldn’t allow a furniture return as promised.  I ranted that I would use my PR skills and media contacts to make sure everyone knew about my terrible experience. I even mentioned the name of a national consumer reporter I knew in high school (and whom I haven’t seen or spoken to since.)  My tirade was ridiculous…but, for whatever reason, the store sent a truck for the furniture the following week.

Coincidence?  Maybe, but taking our grievances public is becoming more and more common, for two reasons. First, many companies offer poor or nonexistent customer service.  Two, using social media as a complaint platform can produce a response. Cable not working? Blog about it!  Airline lost your bags? Take it to YouTube!  On hold with customer service? Facebook it!

But, lately, I worry that we’re tipping the balance. It’s like crying wolf; abuse your influence – however little or large it may be – and people stop listening.  Even worse, there are those who would use their social media influence or SEO skills to settle petty scores, or get something for nothing.  Case in point:  the now-infamous Crocs “blogola blackmail” event where a blogger threatened to post negative comments if she didn’t receive free shoes.  The incident is very troubling…but not very surprising.

I’m not saying we should keep quiet about bad business or deficient customer service practices, but maybe the full-court press (or stupid threats about it) should be more of a last resort than a default behavior.  Besides, pulling off a last-laugh-style stunt like Dave Carroll‘s video complaint against United Airlines, requires getting over your customer rage…it takes patience, creativity, and deft humor.

What’s particularly useful, and every bit as empowering, is to post about companies when things go the other way – at those rare times when a product or service is actually above expectations.  And, until then…well, we’re in good company.