Risky Business: Online Comments & Social Media Interactions May Have More Impact Than We Intend

When Facebook officially turned 10 earlier this year, the company took the opportunity to reiterate what founder Mark Zuckerburg has long espoused as Facebook’s mission: “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.”

Social media and all Web 2.0 platforms have undeniably enhanced and multiplied our opportunity to “share” and “connect” with the world. But can we share and connect too broadly, too often, too much?  Research shows most people say the answer is “yes” – and for professionals working in regulated industries like healthcare, the answer is “definitely.”

We’ve all heard or read of cases in which licensed health professionals have lost jobs, lost spouses, been arrested or suffered other serious consequences as the result of social media indiscretion. So if you’re working in a regulated industry, consider these five tips as you engage in social media – in either your professional and private lives.

  1.  Understand your presence on the Internet.  Enter your name into a search engine from time and see what comes up (in content, images and video).  Better yet, set up a standing Google Alert for your name – you might be surprised by what you find.
  2.  Know your employer’s social media policy and follow it. Smart companies have social media policies that give employees clear guidelines about how the company is – and is not – to be represented on the Internet.  Some policies also fold in the company’s overall code of conduct, and give direction about how employees are expected to conduct themselves online, particularly in regards to online connections with patients. Wherever your employer’s policies fall on the spectrum, understand the expectations and follow them.
  3.  Maximize privacy settings on all social media sites. Be honest – when was the last time you read the fine print Terms and Conditions, on any website, before clicking “I agree”? Yet most Facebook users would be shocked to see how broadly available their posts and photos are.  Take the time to review your privacy settings and lock down everything you can – or accept the fact your future employer (or spouse, or mother in law) will see those embarrassing photos from college.
  4.  Assume nothing on social media is confidential. See items 1, 2 and 3 above, and remember that comments made to newspaper sites, online reviews, blog posts and even eBay auctions may be searchable online if you use a consistent screen name or email address.
  5.  Understand the collateral effect of your social media interactions and connections. Building on the idea that nothing is confidential, realize that people may assume they “know” a person by the trail he or she leaves on the internet.  If a Google search on a job candidate shows the applicant frequently participates in online sports gambling forums, makes posts about “losing a paycheck on the playoffs last weekend” and uses an avatar of a football with a dollar sign on it, an HR department somewhere may just conclude that the candidate displays certain behavioral risk factors.

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In Denial: AP Caves in “Over” v. “More Than”

If I’ve been slow to write about this it’s because, like many, I have been in denial.  AP, say it isn’t so!

Last month the Associated Press announced new to the Stylebook in 2014: over, as well as more than, is acceptable in all uses to indicate greater numerical value.

For those who never really understood the difference in the first place, over generally refers to spatial relationships: The mirror hangs over the mantel.

More than is used to indicate greater numerical value: More than 200 people attended the rally. We raised more than $500.

So after many years of editing my co-workers writing from “over” to “more than,” I can no longer stand on my AP soapbox although I will continue to have a clear preference.

I thought I’d see what else AP has done to us – oops, I mean clarified – lately.  Here are a few tips from AP’s editors that are helpful as we await the spring release of the 2014 Stylebook to see what other changes AP has in store for us.

Use of “under” to signify less

Interestingly, prior to the over v. more than decision referenced above, under was already acceptable in certain numerical uses:  The tank holds a little under 15 gallons. They offer free admissions for children 12 and under.

Use of a hyphen

No hyphen in nonprofit

No hyphen in whistleblower

No hyphen used with multi:  multiline, multichannel

No hyphen when used with goer: moviegoer (This is a reported change coming in the 2014 Stylebook)

Expressing numerical ranges

They have a joint income of $70,000 to $75,000 a year.

The industry generates revenues of $4 million to $5 million a year.

Our nation’s capital

Use capital in referring to the city where a seat of government is located.

Capitalize U.S. Capitol (with an “o”) and the Capitol when referring to the building in Washington.

When referencing Washington, D.C., on second reference capitalize the District.

Medical terms (also reported to be coming with the 2014 Stylebook)

First aid for the noun, first-aid for the adjective: He administered first aid. I took a first-aid course.

HPV is acceptable on first reference for human papillomavirus

Lowercase: in vitro fertilization (IVF acceptable on second reference)

Use of a comma before “as well as”

No comma in an adverb construction: The boy played the guitar as well as his teacher.

Comma when used to mean in addition to:  He cleaned out the closet, as well as the cabinets.

Are you an AP Stylebook nerd, too?  What’s your favorite or least favorite AP guidance? And for more updates as they’re announced, follow @APStylebook.

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Tapping into March Madness: Lessons from Garden and Gun Magazine

Southern lifestyle magazine Garden and Gun has absolutely nothing to do with college basketball. Its readership isn’t likely to have a particularly high level of interest in the sport, either.

But we’re all aware of the March Madness phenomenon – the anticipation that accompanies NCAA Tournament bracket selections and pools. Whether or not the games turn out to be as exciting as this year, the true appeal is seeing how the teams match up and guessing which teams will advance in the tournament.

And that’s where Garden and Gun comes into play. It was a couple years ago the magazine cleverly created a March Madness-inspired social media campaign, forming its own unique “brackets” and engaging followers to anticipate winners matched in a bracket format.

The first year, the “final matchup” was between grits and barbeque, with grits taking home the first place honors. Last year, face-off between Krispy Kreme and Coke, a choice few anticipated ever having to make. Which you consider to be better may be a “toss up,” but that’s the fun of it – you still want to know.

This year, in a move away from food match-ups, the magazine is asking followers to select their favorite southern town. There were 32 contenders at the start of the competition; now we are in the final days of the madness. Choosing the 32 qualifiers was surely no easy task, considering how many unique places there are in the south. Each town’s population had to be less than 150,000. This was the only qualifying criteria. 

Magazine Editor David DiBenedetto said, “We spent a lot of time going back and forth. Not too many college towns, not too many coastal towns, not too many in one state. It wasn’t scientific, but we tried to be fair.”

With the change from its food focus to towns, Garden and Gun ignited a rather surprising social media frenzy between the residents of the competing towns, the magazine providing a platform to show passion – and they’re doing so in great numbers via social media, promoting Garden and Gun in the process. With thousands of tweets containing the hashtag #SouthernTowns, it’s clear people have become obsessed with seeing their town win.

“We had no idea how passionate they would be,” Garden and Gun’s DiBenedetto said.

Garden and Gun not only conceived a clever social media campaign to help promote its magazine, it has in turn become the unofficial promoter for 32 small southern towns. That just goes to show that tweaking an already successful marketing strategy can take you from being just another team in the tournament to a respected player in the big game.

Close to home here in Tennessee, the town of Franklin may not be a Cinderella story but it has made the brackets final match-up against Savannah, Ga…and the people of Middle Tennessee couldn’t be more thrilled.

People may vote once a day at http://gardenandgun.com/article/southern-towns-bracket. Click “view results” to see real-time vote percentages.

What’s your opinion of Garden and Gun’s social media strategy? Slam dunk?

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Exactly what is Native Advertising?

The buzzword native advertising came on the scene a few years ago but didn’t really gain traction until last year when it began being thought of as the savior to publishing. It’s now one of the hottest things in the online advertising industry. Sorry banner ads, you aren’t what you used to be.

I don’t usually like to use Wikipedia as a source but honestly, it has the best definition for native advertising. It defines it as–an online advertising method in which the advertiser attempts to gain attention by providing content in the context of the user’s experience. The advertiser’s intent is to make the paid advertising feel less intrusive and thus increase the likelihood users will click on it.

Native ads provide valuable, relevant content and, to some readers, might appear like real editorial. Content marketing, a more commonly used term, is a form of native advertising.

A study conducted among more than 4,700 people last year found that native ads were viewed 53 percent more often by consumers than banner ads, and the attention people paid to native ads was nearly equivalent to the visual engagement of original editorial content.

So, are popular well-respected publications jumping on the native advertising bandwagon? The answer is YES.

Forbes Magazine created BrandVoice, described by one of its reporters as an innovative, efficient publishing platform, or brand newsroom, that is built on the belief that all content can be treated equally if its originating source is transparently identified. The reason for the formation of BrandVoice was the notion that marketers know their business better than anyone and they need new ways to reach their audiences. Statistics show that some of the native ad posts on Forbes.com are generating considerable more views, tweets, retweets and Likes than traditional editorial content. An effective revenue stream for publishers and a successful tool for advertisers…win-win.

Just like Forbes’ BrandVoice, the Washington Post created the platform BrandConnect to connect its advertisers with its readership, and earlier this month the Wall Street Journal launched its own native ad studio called WSJ Custom Studios.

You can scroll through the home page of most of the publications I listed and you will find an example of native ads. See one example below.

As long as publications and other online sources are transparent about native ads versus original content, I think it’s an incredibly effective use of ad dollars. What are your thoughts?

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First Kiss with Success: The Powerful Effect of Viral Video

If you haven’t seen the latest viral video sensation, stop right now and watch “First Kiss” before reading any further. Sixty-four million views on YouTube and landing on the first page of Reddit is the last thing filmmaker Tatia Pilieva, or Melissa Coker, founder and creative director of the clothing company WREN, were expecting. Coker was on a shoestring budget but asked Pilieva if she could help create something to showcase her clothing line’s fall collection.

Pilieva’s idea came from doing something she enjoys when she needs to be cheered up—looking through photos of her husband and her kissing in spots around the world. Her story behind the idea for the shoot can be read in this Huffington Post blog, in which she admits that she wasn’t sure if this was the best or worst idea she had ever had. Lucky for her it turned out to be a pretty good one. 

WREN, a seven-year-old label based out of Los Angeles, just hit the jackpot. Online sales spiked and this “no-name” brand has effectively gained more PR in one video than they may in their entire lifespan. Many have questioned whether or not this was done as an adverting stunt since the article featured models, musicians, and actors, but all of them are actually just friends of Pilieva who were free for the morning. WREN explicitly stated their involvement too, as you’ll notice in the opening scene the video shows “Wren presents,” as well as in the credits under “Styling by WREN.”

Viral video is extremely powerful in today’s ever changing media environment. A good viral video is everlasting. It’s distributed through multiple media networks, it ignites social media, is discussed during daytime morning shows, skits are crafted on shows such as Saturday Night Live and Jimmy Fallon, often leading to interviews and stardom for those involved. Why are they so powerful you ask? They tend to evoke an emotional response out of people and it gives them something or someone they can relate to. Often, most viral videos are not created with the mindset that the video will go viral. It has to be funny, engaging and give people that emotional response causing them to share with friends and family.

What are some other viral videos that are your favorites? What made you want to share them with others?

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150 Clichés to Avoid in Copywriting

Last month The Washington Post released a list of 150 “verbal crutches, stock phrases, filler words, clichés and perpetually misused expressions” that the writers of its Sunday Outlook section try to avoid.

For professional communicators who — like our team at Lovell — spend a lot of time writing, the list of “Things We Do Not Say” is a good reminder of what lazy writing can look and the importance of choosing clear, descriptive words and phrases.

Here are a few of my favorite offenders from the list:

  • Be that as it may
  • Needless to say
  • Begs the question
  • At the end of the day
  • The new normal
  • Raised questions
  • Poster child

To read the full list, visit the Washington Post story at this link. Additionally, the Oxford Dictionaries “Language matters” blog provides a list of common clichés, as well as tips for eradicating them from your writing.

What clichés do you dislike the most? Tell us about it in the comments section.

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Cloudy and Cool in our Nation’s Capitol

The Nashville Health Care Council has closed the book on another highly successful Leadership Health Care Delegation to Washington, D.C. The NashvillePost, as always, did a great job of covering highlights of the Delegates’ discussions with numerous elected representatives, business leaders, regulatory officials and ‘inside the beltway’ journalists with whom the group met.

Our firm was delighted to serve as a sponsor of the trip for the third consecutive year.  We couldn’t help but notice mood in D.C. was similar to the weather: partly cloudy and predicted to stay that way.  Though several speakers expressed optimism about the bi-partisan, bi-cameral agreement reached regarding the Sustainable Growth Rate, everyone acknowledged that getting it paid for will be another tough climb. There’s not much optimism – or much fun – in our nation’s Capitol, these days.    

In addition to the key takeaways reported in the Post, I found a few other items worth noting:

  • Kentucky Senator Rand Paul declared that independent physician practice is essentially “over.” Administrative and regulatory requirements are too onerous and margins are too slim for private physicians to maintain their own small businesses.
  • Paul also opined that the political mix in DC – even after the mid-term elections later this year – makes repeal of the Accountable Care Act unlikely.
  • A representative from the American Hospital Association predicted that some hospitals will inevitably close as providers continue to consolidate – though he was quick to dispel the myth that a handful of “super systems” will take over the industry in the next five to 10 years.
  • Personalized medicine and gene-based therapies and diagnostics will become increasingly relevant and commercially available.  That would be good news for companies like 23andme, the genetic testing company whose health-related genetic testing services were effectively shuttered by the FDA last November.

And as a professional communicator, I was struck by how many of the Delegation’s discussions circled (if peripherally) on the topic of communications.  The need to educate the newly insured on how to access care.  The need to make healthcare quality and cost data not only transparent, but understandable. And the perennial need for both systems and individuals to connect – virtually and personally – to better share data with the end-goal of improving patient care and enhancing the patient experience.

If ever there was a time when healthcare communicators could make a difference in our society, I’m optimistic the time is now!

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Honoring Confidentiality Agreements: The Price of Failure

Facebook is an excellent way to get a message out to 1,200 friends fast – just make sure it’s a message you want public!  Patrick Snay told his daughter about a court-approved $80,000 settlement he won against a former employer for age discrimination.  Unfortunately for him, he was not allowed to do that according to the confidentiality agreement attached to the settlement.  What would be the harm in telling his daughter?  No one, of course, would know about the private conversations of a family.  Mr. Snay’s daughter, however, decided this exciting information was worthy of mention on her Facebook page for the 1,200 friends who follow her.  This public news travelled very quickly back to the former employer, and they argued that now they didn’t owe Mr. Snay his settlement.  The Third District Court of Appeal for the State of Florida agreed.

While this particular situation refers to a court situation around a personal issue, confidentiality agreements and non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) are a routine part of the business environment as well.  They protect companies from having proprietary trade secrets, unique internal operations, and privileged corporate information released to the public by advisors, consultants and business partners or contacts.  Because NDAs are so routine, we often forget how important, and legally enforceable, they are.  As in Mr. Snay’s situation, it can be tempting for individuals to share interesting – and even more often, not-so-interesting – tidbits with people we think will keep the very secret that we were entrusted from sharing with anyone.

As innocent and harmless as this may seem, sensitive information has an innocuous way of travelling that can be very big news when it finds its way to the right person – such as a business competitor or a reporter, and this can have dire consequences for the company whose secrets we promised to protect.

When companies ask us to sign confidentiality agreements, they do so for a reason.  Along with competitive and industry considerations, companies have significant regulatory burdens.  The disclosure of sensitive information can lead to regulatory intervention and oversight that can delay meaningful corporate activities such as IPOs, acquisitions, product development, or market expansion.  The financial consequences and legal implications to the company in these situations can be drastic.

Once the NDA is signed, the signer has a moral and ethical duty to respect the professional integrity of non-disclosure.  The NDA is a statement of trust.  By honoring the NDA, you create a productive environment that encourages the free flow of information and interactivity that benefits everyone involved, and this trust enables businesses to grow.  With confidence in the NDA, both businesses and their advisors can contribute fully and productively to maximize the successful outcome of the corporate project.

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Treat the Cause, Not the Symptoms

With technological advances come new perils for the workplace that have both operational and brand protection implications.

  • A physician office manager posts a comment on social media inquiring about a patient’s specific medical condition, resulting in a HIPAA violation.
  • An unencrypted flash drive with protected health information (PHI) is stolen from the vehicle of a physician practice employee, costing the practice fines of $150,000.
  • A health plan’s photocopiers are returned to a leasing agent still containing PHI stored on their hard drives, resulting in a $1.2 million settlement.

Incidents like these examples result in ramifications from negative publicity to hefty fines and other enforcement every day.

So what’s an organization to do?

Unfortunately, some organizations approach the issue by treating the symptoms instead of the cause, banning social media in the workplace altogether (good luck with that in the era of the smartphone, by the way) or locking USB ports to prevent users from plugging in removable flash drives. (The latter in no way prevents an unscrupulous employee from simply uploading data to the cloud or emailing it, of course.)

You wouldn’t ban office supplies because you had an employee who was stealing them, or rid the office of computers because of an employee who prefers video games to work. You’d warn, discipline or dismiss the employee. New-age disciplinary problems need to be treated similarly by addressing the problem employee behavior, not the digital platform via which it occurred.

While there’s no easy fix to certain high-stakes risks, smart organizational leaders ensure they have proper policies, procedures and plans in place, that employees receive proper training and periodic re-training, and take the appropriate disciplinary actions against employees who violate policies.

How many of these policies and plans does your organization have in place to help protect itself from reputational harm?

1. A clear, strong social media policy, updated regularly as the world of social media evolves. If large, publicly held companies like Coca-Cola can have both a social media policy and a robust social engagement strategy, your organization can, too.

2. Healthcare providers and other “covered entities” as defined by HIPAA will find a social media policy is just as important as its other HIPAA-related policies and procedures. These policies are essential to ensure the organization is doing everything it should to safeguard protected health information (PHI).

3. Beyond PHI, data breach is a constant concern for organizations from national retailers to local school systems that hold personally identifiable information (PII). Along with adequate data protection protocols, any organization with records that contain PII should establish a clear data breach response plan to ensure a prompt response and mitigate negative consequences in the event of a breach.

4. Speaking of responding promptly and mitigating consequences, does your organization have a crisis response plan? “Unimaginable” crises can range from a shooter in the workplace to major fire or flood damage to allegations of criminal activity or the unexpected death of a high-profile company executive. Smart organizations don’t leave such things to chance; they have a thorough plan for how their team will react in a time of crisis to minimize impacts to customers, employees and reputation.

If you have all the applicable policies, procedures and plans in place, congratulations. You’re on the right track. But don’t forget, without the proper employee training and retraining to go with them, they’re just taking up space on your bookshelf…or your server. Do your policies – and the way you use them – need a check-up?


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How To Say “No Comment…”

Companies often find themselves in situations where they are not in a position to make public statements, and the challenge is always how do you say, “No comment,” without saying, “No comment?”  PR consultants, who focus on corporate and brand reputation, and lawyers, who focus on corporate legal exposure, often give conflicting advice.  Lawyers like, “No comment.”  The non-commitment that comes from that statement makes their job so much easier.  “No comment,” however, does not make the story go away.  Those two words actually say, “I know a lot; I’m just not going to tell you!”

“No comment” encourages the journalist to go around management to find an answer to the question from other sources.  That answer from other sources is frequently inaccurate, and it can not only generate misinformation about the company, but it can also fuel further damaging speculation.   In constructing a response when you are prohibited from providing substantive information, consider the following scenarios:

1) Speculative questions:  Sometimes rumors circulate on a very low level.  These rumors can relate to a potential IPO, financial transactions like a merger or acquisition, or a new technology or product the company is developing.  Rumors abound, and it is reasonable that companies cannot speak to every issue raised by a journalist.  Management can often deflect these questions by saying, “As a matter of corporate policy, we do not comment on rumor or speculation in the market.”

2) Persistent rumors:  Rumors, good or bad, can grow and take on a life of their own.  Investors can trade on recurring rumors, or consumers may make purchasing decisions about a company’s products based on rumors.  Once rumors begin to influence the media’s coverage and perception of the company, management needs to contain the issue as quickly as possible.  If the company needs more time to address the rumor completely, acknowledge the issue when asked by a journalist and give a realistic timeframe when the company can provide more clarity and details.  Be committed to your timeframe, and contact the journalist in a timely manner.

3) Crisis:  Occasionally, the media will have the story before you do.  You may not have complete information to give.  In this situation, provide as much accurate information as you can, even as limited as it may be; explain how the company is addressing the situation; and provide a timeframe to get back to the journalist with more information.

Any “No comment” response should show respect to the reporter asking the question.  Sometimes you will just not be able to discuss a matter in public, but if you explain the reasons why that is so, you enhance your credibility with both the media and your company stakeholders. If management demonstrates a willingness to work with the media on providing timely and accurate information, journalists will more likely respond in a reasonable fashion.

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