Getting the forestry message out


I am writing a presentation that I will deliver at one of the breakout sessions at the Tree Farm National Leadership Conference, in Albuquerque, New Mexico – January 31-February 2. The topic is “Using more wood for the love of forests: getting the message out.”  This is background for the “getting the message out” part. I am overdoing it a bit.
Don’t worry; this is not the text for the talk.

For anybody who plans to attend the session, don’t worry. I am NOT planning to deliver this in the talk and I will talk more about forestry. All this exercise is to build the background for a couple of slides and all this will be reduced to a few sentences. BUT … I will be ready for any questions and I wanted to put this up as reference so anybody interested in more background can read it.

My method for talk preparation is odd. I write all this kind of stuff and read a lot. Then on the day before or even the day of the event I write what I am going to say – long hand – in my pocket notebook. That makes it flow, since I leave out details. I often change the talk even as I am giving it, depending on audience reaction. This was a problem for me in State Department, since my text “as prepared” was often significantly different than my talk as delivered.

My PowerPoint Presentation The slides are included below. They will change before the presentation. It is heavy with pictures, since I don’t think PowerPoint should be text heavy. But that might make it download slower.

Everything is always becoming something else
We always have always and always will live in a dynamic environment. Our efforts to understand and act within it change it, so that we never really face the same challenges twice. There is no finish line; there is no stable end goal. Success means sustainable change.

Portfolio or Toolbox Strategy (for an uncertain world)
No technique or media tool will work in all situations. That is why we need to deploy the whole panoply of tools and techniques and know which combinations are best. This is more art than science.  The key is flexibility. Don’t get too enamored with any one thing or develop strategies around one platform. We don’t want a Twitter strategy. We want a strategy that may use Twitter as one of many tools. Carpenters don’t have “hammer strategies.”  They have building strategies that may involve hammers as one of the many tools in the box.

The human equation: bridging the last three feet
When I worked in public diplomacy, our patron saint was Edward R. Murrow, the famous journalist & the greatest director of the United States Information Agency. He observed that our communication technologies could span the globe, but the real persuasion took place in the last three feet – human contact. He lived in the days before Internet. IMO, internet can (although less easily than people think) create or at least sustain the kinds of engaged relationships Murrow was talking about, but we still must build those relationships. There is a cognitive limit to human engagement. We can only keep in real contact with a couple hundred people, although new technologies may expand that number, it does not reach into the millions or even the tens of thousands. That is why we must set priorities. We just cannot love everyone equally and any strategy designed to reach everybody will satisfy nobody.

There is no garden w/o a gardener  
We cannot outsource or compartmentalize our brains or our engagement. The person the communicating must be involved in decisions involving it. There just is no way around this. If we don’t get involved, we cannot make good decisions. Too often, we just try to hire consultants.  Many consultants are good and are worth the money we pay them, but others are like the guy who borrows your watch and then charges to tell we what time it is. If we outsource our decisions, we essentially outsource our intelligence. Then THEY know what we need to know. It is a lot like hiring a guy to look after your spouse. Even if it seems to make her happier, maybe you are not doing playing your part.

BTW – be very wary of pseudo-experts who claim to “speak for” large groups of people or have some kind of inside knowledge that cannot be replicated or properly explained.  If they cannot explain it to we even in broad strokes, they probably don’t understand it themselves and often they are just hucksters protecting their phony baloney jobs.  We have too many such people hanging around us not to trip over them occasionally.

Leverage existing systems and products
Speaking of gardens, we can have a great garden w/o the walls. There are existing communities where we can participate and after we have participated maybe invite others into our own system to participate with us.  Remember that there are always more smart people outside our group – any group – than within it.

I make an effort to write comments on articles about forestry or fire. I am not usually very original or profound. I can usually use the same things over and over. It may seem banal to me, but for most of the readers it is the first time they saw it.

Give up some control
This goes with the above about using and sharing platforms. If you want to influence others, you have to be prepared to be influenced by them. My way or the highway works only in rare instances and if you demand what you think is perfection; you may soon find that you have that perfection all to yourself, since everybody else has wandered away from you.

Be platform flexible
Again speaking of platform sharing, your message is important, not the medium it is delivered on. You have to be flexible enough to choose the appropriate delivery mechanisms and not fall in love with any one of them. They pass quickly. Just ask Jeeves.

Try lots of things and know that most of what you try will fail, usually publicly, sometimes spectacularly
Revel in it. Embrace it. It is impossible to predict outcomes in the new media. Even if you had perfect knowledge of the current situation, it will change in unexpected and unknowable ways. The best strategy is a statistical one of spreading your bets and then responding to changes as they happen, rather than try to set out with certainty in advance. Those who try nothing, get nothing and it is small consolation that they are never wrong.
So, let me sum up before I move on. Technologies are new; human relations are old. Our “new” methods return to an earlier age when communication was engaged, individualized, personal, two-way and interactive. And the lessons of anthropology (people) trump technology (machines.)

How can we make this work?
Forget about mass marketing & advertising analogies. We are not selling something as simple as a can of soda (soda-pop, pop or Coke depending on your part of the country) and we do not have the resources to engage mass markets.

What I am talking about a mass networking proposition, where we build key relationships with opinion leaders and use leverage to allow/encourage others to reach out, who in turn reach out … We cannot reach THE common man (because he doesn’t exist) and we should be careful not to mistake A common man for THE common man.

There are thousands of books and experts who will point to the example of the obscure person who did something great. They are right; but it is easy to pick Bill Gates out of the crowd AFTER he has been wildly successful.  Then it is easy to explain why he succeeded. Of course, millions of others did similar things and did not become the richest man in the world.

They call this survivor bias. In many ways it is like a lottery. We can be sure that SOMEBODY will win the lottery, but we cannot tell who before the drawing. So, we have to play the odds and we cannot treat everybody who buys a lottery ticket like a potential millionaire.

Humans are social creatures who make decisions in contexts of their culture & relationships
We make a big mistake if we treat people as members of undifferentiated masses. Human societies are lumpy. There are relationships that matter more and some that matter less. And they are in a constant state of flux. People make most of their important decisions in social contexts & in consultation with people they trust. Later they might go to some media sources for confirmation or details. Probably the biggest decision we have ever made was buying a home. Did we just read some literature and make an offer? Or did we ask around and talk to people we trusted? How about our cars?  We like to explain our behavior rationally, but looking relationally will provide more reliable assessments.

Information is almost free, and a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention
We now must find or create social context for our message to get attention.  I always laugh (at least to myself) when I hear someone say that “we got the message out” or “We reached a million people”. I am going to start calling this the barking dog strategy, because like the dogs, we just shout “I’m here; I’m here; I’m here. It doesn’t matter what we say; it is what they hear that counts.  If our message does not say the right things, if it doesn’t fit into their cultural and socials contexts and if it is not delivered in an appropriate way, it doesn’t get through.

“Men do not think that they know a thing until they have grasped the ‘why’ of it.” – Aristotle 
Understand – Everything has rules and patterns
I mentioned Aristotle. Let’s go a bit farther east and think of Lao Tzu. He talked about the need to understand the “Tao”, the patterns and logic in all things. Understanding these things could make the most difficult tasks fluid and easy. There are usually easier and harder ways to do things. Sometimes we CREATE more resistance and make less progress by pushing too hard. We should try to understand before we try to persuade. If people have been doing things for a long time, there is a reason. Figure out what that is and persuasion becomes much easier. And always look for the links and relationships. People may not be aware of what drives their own behavior, but it is often linked to social acceptance, and a person’s outlook often changes more based on the perceived future than on the present reality. Aspirations often motivate more than current reality. Find common aspirations.
Let me digress with a fish story from my time in Iraq.  During the late unpleasantness, Coalition forces had to ban fishing on the Euphrates River to prevent insurgents from using the water as a highway. But fishermen didn’t return after the ban was lifted, even though the fish were plentiful and bigger given the no-fishing respite. We thought of helping them buy new boats, nets, sonar etc. But the reason that they weren’t fishing was much simpler – no ice. The ice factory had shut down and in this hot climate if we cannot put the fish on ice, we cannot move them very far or sell them. We helped the ice house back into operation and the fishing started again.

ENGAGE – influencing our community but also being part of it and willing to be influenced 
This story shows the importance of engagement. We also have to get out – physically – and meet people where they are.

Inform & Interpret – turn information into useful knowledge
Engaging is fun and essential, but if we are not doing what we set out to do if we don’t inform and persuade. Since information is almost free, what do I mean by inform? This means turning raw information into useful knowledge and narratives. Even simple facts must be put into contexts. What if we didn’t have any dresser drawers or hangers in our closet? What if we didn’t have any bookshelves or cabinets and all we stuff was just lying on the floor. It would be hard to find things and many things would not be useful.
Turning information into knowledge is like putting things in some order. This usually means framing and narratives.  People understand stories and until they have a story that makes sense, information just sits there, useless as the shirt we cannot find under the pile of dirty clothes. Analytical history, BTW, as opposed to antiquarianism or chronicles is depends almost entirely on framing. The historian must choose what to put in and what to leave out and that makes the story.

So, if we are talking about actual persuasion, it probably won’t help just to make information available. Providing information was a key to success in the past because accurate information was in very short supply. Today what matters is how that information is put together – the contexts, relationships and the narratives.

As persuaders we need to acknowledge what we know, what salesmen and marketers have long understood and what theories of behavioral economics are now explaining. We are not in the information business. Information and facts are part of our raw material, but our business involves persuasion that is less like a library and more like a negotiation paradigm and rational decision making is not enough to achieve success.

I mentioned framing, but I should say a little more. The frame is how we characterize information or events.  If we want to be pejorative, we can sometimes call it spin, but there is no way we can understand complex reality w/o some kind of frame. Most of our frames are unconscious, but that doesn’t mean they are not powerful or pervasive. Think of the ubiquitous sports frame. Describing something like American football, (i.e. centrally planned, stop and start with specialized plays and players) versus football other places (i.e. fluid, fast breaking with the players less specialized) makes a big difference to how it will be perceived. Or think of how we try to frame our presidents. We want our candidate to be in the frame with Lincoln and Washington, Warren G. Harding and Rutherford B Hayes, not so much.

Build a community & be part of a community
Figure out what we can contribute and do it. Remember people make decisions in the contexts of their relationships. Also make sure that we get something back.

The basis of almost all human relationships is reciprocity. All human societies believe in reciprocity. It has survival value. We want to be able to give to our fellow human and expect that he will do the same when we are in need. When that breaks down, so does civil society. It is probably a good idea to be SEEN to get something in return anyway, since if we don’t others will impute an ulterior motive anyway.

I know that this sounds crassly materialistic, but the reciprocity need not be material. We might help a person in the “pay it forward” mode, assuming that when he gets the opportunity he will help somebody else. The reciprocity might just be gratitude. But when a recipient is left w/o some way to reciprocate, a good person feels disrespected. At first, they are happy to get something for nothings, but they soon learn to despise their benefactor. And maybe they should, since his “generosity” is taking their human dignity.
A simple rule in persuasion is that it is often better to receive than to give. Let the other parties feel that they have discharged their social obligations, maybe even that THEY are the generous ones. We notice that the most popular individuals are rarely those who need or want nothing from others, even if they are very generous. And one of the most valuable gifts we can receive is advice and knowledge. Let others share their culture and experience.

Just a few more short points …

Inclusive & Exclusive 
Communities are inclusive for members and exclusive for others. We attract nobody if we appeal to everybody. We must earn membership in any community worth joining.

Personal – or at least personalized
Editors and marketers have tried for years to homogenize for the mass market. That’s how we got soft white Wonder bread and Budweiser beer. Niche markets – and social media is a series of niche markets – require personality.

Success is continuous learning – an iterative  process- not a plan – and a never-ending journey. As I wrote up top, we never get to the end. We must learn from our failures and our successes and move on. The best we can do is make our own ending worth of the start.

The problem of getting too much for free

Most of us are willing to do things we like to do for little or no money. The payoff may be simple recognition. Passionate amateurs have made many great discoveries. Crowdsourcing lets us to tap into even wider expertise. It’s great if people are willing to contribute their time to worthy endeavors like Wikipedia, the search for intelligent life or other collective projects? Maybe not. 

I take lots of pictures and post articles. All my stuff is “creative commons.” Sometimes people ask my permission to use my words or pictures; sometimes they just use them. I am happy just to be useful. Many of us are like this and it has been good. But the Internet’s capacity to aggregate information and make it available on massive scales may be making this virtue into a vice.

Think about those pictures. Some people used to make a living as photographers. Most of them really liked to take pictures, which is why they were in the business, but they WERE in business. They got paid for what they did.  Those at the very top of the photography world still make lots of money. The rank and file photographers are being pushed out of the business by people like you and me providing similar quality at an unbeatable price – free.

This goes for lots of other creative people, such as writers, musicians or speakers and even teachers. The Internet dynamic here is similar. People don’t need to pay for the middle quality writing or music because it is all free on Internet. On the other hand, the Internet enhanced the power of the superstars. With the cost of each additional iteration of the product approaching zero, everybody will buy only from those they consider the very best.

There once was a market for artists who were imitative of the star musicians or writers. This niche is gone with the electrons. These semi-talented artists were subject to ridicule; they supplied the characters for comedy shows or Twilight Zone episodes, but they were able to earn a living. Today they give it away on Internet in the usually futile hope that their talent will be recompensed.

They may get significant numbers of fans or followers, but the currency of Internet fame rarely translates to real bucks in the pocket. There are enough winners in this game to keep the legions of suckers running the rat race, but it is a lot like basing your retirement planning on lottery tickets.

The danger is coming to teaching and universities with effective distance learning. We love the concept of being able to learn at our own rates, maybe to do so for free. This is great. But consider how it works. Take the Khan Academy. This is a great step forward in many ways. Millions of people will learn things they would not otherwise have known. A talented teacher like Sal Khan can reach millions of people. Never in a lifetime could he reach as many people as he can in a half-hour of recording. And this recording will never get tired. It can go on almost into infinity. It replaces millions of math and science teachers. It replaces millions of math and science teachers. Few of them were as innovative as Sal Khan, but they were part of a math and science community. The community which was once networked and diverse is now gone. Advocates will say that the Khan students are networked to each other and that is certainly one of the great strengths, but they are tied to the top.

Perhaps resistance is indeed futile and we should all assimilate into the greater good. More people will learn math or science. More people will hear great music or see great writing. But fewer people will be creating it. More correctly, lots of people will dronishly be creating things that nobody appreciates enough to pay for. A few, happy few, will be reaping the rewards of all this Zuckerburg style. Millions of Facebook users work for him and don’t expect to get paid. In fact, most don’t even know they are working for big Mark. I am not sure that Zukerberg knows they are working for him. He thinks he is giving them a free service. It is a perfect deception when even the deceivers are deceived.

I don’t have a solution to propose. I am guilty myself; I am an enabler. A few hundred people will read this blog. I have never met most of you; none of you would be willing to pay me for what I write and I don’t expect it. But I am aware of the dilemma. I am writing essays that in an earlier age would never be read by anybody at all. If I wanted to be “published” I would start with short essays or stories that few people would read, but my goal would be to find a big enough audience to make some money from writing. There would be a vetting process, but some people would make money for the type of thing I give away for free. I have a good job that makes me a “gentleman of leisure” who can engage in the luxury of writing w/o expectation of profit. But is it perhaps immoral NOT to make a profit? We dilettantes put would-be professionals out of business. Wouldn’t it be better if some poor suckers with talent but w/o a day job could aspire?

Those of you who were amused enough to read to the end perhaps can answer the question. You spent a few minutes with me. Thank you. We shared ideas. That is great. But maybe the hour I took to write this and the minutes dozens of you took to read it put some poor slob out of work. Not only that, it used to support an industry of others who were paid for what they did, critics, editors, printers etc. Now it’s just you and me. You can tell there is no editor. You can be a critic if you want, but you will get paid the same as I do and if you want to print this for any reason just push the button.

One of the promises of technology was that everybody could be published. But technology cannot promise that everybody will be read much less appreciated or paid.

I think we are seeing a kind of “Show businessization (new word)” of our world. Some actors and singers make fantastic fortunes, but the average actor or singer makes little or nothing from the profession. Many waitresses are aspiring singers and cab drivers have dreams of acting fame. The vast majority never succeed. It is not lack of talent alone. Many talented people never make it and some talent-free individuals become famous. There is a big element of luck, being in the right place at the right time. This is why all these aspirants spend time trying to be seen or kissing the asses of people who might give them a break. It is not pleasant and it is not a good society.

When you get this kind of competition, you end up with a tournament society where a few winners get fabulously successful and most of the others get bupkis. It is great in sports, movies and American Idol, but it is no way to live for most people.

BTW – I have been reading a book called Who owns the Future. That is what stimulated lots of these ideas and I suggest you read the book too. Give the guy a little money for his work and don’t depend on the free media.

Maybe we should be willing to pay a little for what we take and don’t expect somebody else to give it to us for free.

Facebook envy

Envy is one of seven deadly sins for good reason.  It harms both the object of the envy and the person feeling it.  And there is no doubt about its power.  Veja reports on a study that shows that Facebook is accentuating envy and making connected people less happy.

It makes sense.  You can feel envious only if you know that others have something you want.  Facebook provides ample raw material for envy by providing outlet for another of the deadly sins – pride.  People write about their successes and their good luck, sometimes about the stuff they acquired.  Of course, envy can be provoked by the mere knowledge that someone seems happier than you are or are getting more attention. Most people think they deserve more than they have, so it is easy to cloak envy in the feelings of injustice.

According to the study, the thing that annoyed people the most by far were pictures of people having a good time while travelling or partying.  Of course, this is one of the most common things on Facebook.

Facebook teaches something that most people know but in the absence of direct evidence can ignore.  It shows us that our experiences are not special.  No matter where you go or what you do, somebody has been there and done that already.  We are not wired for this revelation.  In a small group, the kind we lived in for most of human history, each of us can be unique. Get enough people together, however, and we start to look like statistics.  It is unsettling.  

It is worse in Facebook because it is more personal than mass media. If you read about it in the paper, it is them; Facebook is us.  We feel it more personally when we think we know the people.

I recall an old advertisement that showed a professor telling his class that they could not all get published because of the tyranny of the publishers. A student stood up and explained the publishing potential of the Internet and that they could all be published. Social media – the Internet in general – let’s everybody be published. We all have the freedom to talk and write. But the numbers of readers and listeners has not increased. Frustrated authors can now publish, but they remain frustrated because nobody reads. I also recall a note written in a computer lab when they still had those big mainframes and card readers.  It said, “To err is human, but to really mess up you need computer support.”  Social media magnifies individual reach but also accentuates defects.

WWW beats muddy roads

There is a strange mixture of connection and isolation among the  Huni Kui in Acre. On the one hand, they are physically isolated. The dirt road would effectively cut them off from the rest of the world many rainy days of the year. On the other hand, they are connected.

When you drive the road from Rio Branco to Taraucuá you can easily mistake progress for problem.   The road is not good.  There is long stretch that is about the width of an American driveway that runs between two broad clay shoulders. The driver told me that this part has only been in service for about two years. Before that, the trip that took us five hours would have taken at least two days because the road would have been impassible when wet. The driver said that you just had to wait until the sun came out to dry the mud.

We got a taste of this on the road to the indigenous village of Pinuyá.  We got to the village easily. That was before the rain.  After the rain, the four-wheel drive vehicles dared not come back all the way to pick us up. We had to walk about a mile through the mud to meet our vehicles, as you can see in the picture.  It was an especially clinging mud that clung to our shoes a couple inches thick.  The grass along the road was not better in most places.  This has vegetation, but it is still a quagmire. You sink deeper into that than you do in the mud of the road.  So we took the road. This is what the road recently asphalted that I mentioned above was like a few years ago.  The narrow ribbon of asphalt makes it passable in all weather.

The people we visited in Pinuyá are isolated in many ways. As we learned by bitter experience, there are times when you cannot use the dirt road to access the asphalt road that leads to the wider world. The founders of this band came to this place in 1972, in fact, the get away from the wider world. The chief told us that at that time the town was far away. I can imagine and the whole town was farther from the wider world until they paved that part of the world.  Of course Rio Branco was more isolated.  The band didn’t move to the town, but the down moved to them. Today their land in encroached upon on all sides and the town is within the distance of a long walk.

When the elders were telling the story of the tribe, a couple guys were recording their comments on their mobile phones. They are clearly within the net of world communications, but not able always to get there physically. You see an interesting anomaly below. The guy talking is telling about traditions and singing traditional songs. The two guys on the side are using their mobile phones to preserve the tradition.

Taking a tangent, I think this is why Brazilians are so interested in distance education.They can reach these villages more easily with Internet than any other way. I spoke to the Acre State Secretary of Education, who told me that they were considering changing the school year to take advantage of the dry season. Acre has distinctive wet and dry seasons.It would make sense to work within the seasonal imperative than to try to ignore them or overcome them.

New media: scouts v quants

A few years ago there was a big conflict in baseball between the scouts and the quants, or maybe you could call it the jocks v he nerds.  The dispute was whether the scouts, with their years of judgment and powers of observation could pick better players than the quants, who had developed complex programs based on statistics.  Baseball is probably the most statistical rich sport. Presumably, if you could harness all the power of the numbers, machines could better predict the trajectory of any player than could a human.  Somebody even wrote a book about that called “Moneyball” which extolled the virtues of the numbers. I didn’t read that book and I am not much of a sports fan, so I know only what I read in other places and I am interested in this only as an illustration of the larger issue of forecasting. Evidently the war between the scouts and the quants is over and both sides won.  

So what does this show?  The source I read about this concluded that both were useful and that numbers are made meaningful by human judgment while human judgment is improved by numbers.  While I think that is definitely true, I also think there is the element of time. The older generation of scouts had to adapt. Actually, many probably just died out. The conflict became meaningless as everybody started to use the quants as the tool it was.  Ironically, after digesting the quants, human judgment became even more important, informed as it was by the quants which took some of the randomness out and maybe a little of the insider game.  Information became available to all, or at least to most, and those who could best use it did better. This is the bigger story.  

I think we have gone through a similar evolution concerning new media at State.  I will be immodest to claim that I got there before many others. I paid for that, as I was seen as an apostate to the new media, or more likely just thought too old and staid to really understand. But when I was last in Washington to take part in a new media strategy session, I found the environment much more accommodating to my ancient ways.  

Our war between the scouts and the quants is also over and both sides have won. There still will be skirmishes, as the latest new technology will promise to change everything, but I think we have reached equilibrium.  The new media/social media is an essential tool of all public affairs, but it is just ONE tool and it is not the objective in itself.  The object is as it was and always will be: to reach human beings and help them change their minds. Some strategies will lean heavily on social media; others not so much.  

We just had an interesting situation with social media. Because of an extended strike at the Federal Universities in Brazil, summer vacation dwindled to a few weeks. Because of this, students who had planned to go to the U.S. to work at places like Disney were unable to go. The unhappy kids set up a Facebook page where they framed the issue as a visa denial problem.  Indeed, we could not issue summer work visas, since there was no summer vacation to work.  But the impediment was not our visas; it was the vacations, or lack thereof. The issue leaked into the newspapers and television.  It was very unpleasant.  

In the old days, we would have crafted a press strategy to get our narrative into the press. The problem was that our best narrative still looked bad.  The bottom line is that kids cannot go.  Their dreams are put on hold.   There is no scenario where we are better off.  If you cannot win, don’t play.  New media made this possible.  The number of aggrieved kids was small and most of them were on social media. We engaged them directly.  We could not offer them any solutions, but we could listen to their complaints and explain the situation, our narrative, yes, but precisely targeted. Our goal was to make the story as banal as possible, so that no media outlet would care to cover it.  Our strategy worked. The kids involved lost interest in making trouble, since they understood that the situation was what it was.  We told them that they could apply next year, which is true although not immediately useful.    

Social media allowed us to precisely address the people who really cared without irritating a much larger community. I would liken it to those new surgical techniques that can get at the problem with minimal invasiveness.

Of course, we could only do this because we had already developed and deployed our social media acumen, but I think we can call this a success story for social media and the principle of limited appropriate response.  

It is generally true in public affairs that any story that comes looking for you will be bad.  Good stories are the ones we have to go out and push.   If a story comes to you, it usually implies defense.  We used to have to take these lemons and try to make poor quality lemonade out of them. We sometimes could stop them by our own engagement with journalists, but usually not if they were interesting. Social media allows us to get at the source of the problem.  Our challenge remains identifying the true source but this is a step forward.  

Maybe I am not as much as an apostate as I let on.  

My picture is the Charles River from the Courtyard Inn in Cambridge. I am here to attend a Harvard seminar on getting more Brazilian students to the U.S. for advanced degree, one of the best public affairs programs possible. 

Matters of Fact

People like me like facts. I like to quote John Adams who said. “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Or even more practical from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” But facts are not what they used to be. The latter quote illustrates that. It is likely that Moynihan did not say that, or at least he did not originate it.

I was a nerdy kid. I used to read the “World Almanac” and then I would dazzle/baffle/bore my friends with my ersatz erudition. Knowing lots of facts was seen as a sign of intelligence back in the halcyon days of my youth. In the intervening time, however, I have noticed that facts change. Some change is unsurprising. Populations grow and cities change. The facts of these things are ephemeral by nature. But I have seen lots of hard realities change. I used to know a lot about dinosaurs. Many of those facts are now wrong, as are many things I learned about biology, ecology and even physics. Textbooks full of “facts” written in the 1950s are now obsolete and these were supposed to be the hardest of all hard facts, the product of our proud science. Our current “facts” are unlikely to do age any better.

The fact about facts is that they often come with an expiration date and they do not travel well. Brazilians credit Santos Dumont with inventing the airplane in 1906. An airport in Rio is named after him. Americans know the Wright Brothers did it three years earlier. Both things can be “facts” because the fact about facts is that they are usually not facts, but rather constructs that most people in a particular time and place agree should be true. Worse yet, what makes a “fact guy” like me profoundly dejected is that we are leaving the “age of facts” and entering or reentering an age when what we know is more fluid and open to interpretation.

Facts as we know them today cannot exist is a mostly illiterate society and did not really exist at all until the invention of the printing press. Let me be clear. I am not saying that truth did not exist, but facts, in the sense of a checkable specific requires writing. Without something in writing, you have to depend on human memory, which is notoriously mutable. Even when people are trying to tell the whole truth, they will get “facts” wrong. Worse yet, human memory changes in response to changing conditions and requirement. Memory is not like a book or a movie. It is not stored in your brain as a file. Instead, you have to recreate memory each time you want to use it. Past events, present conditions and future aspiration mix, so your memory of things past isn’t only about those things past.

This is why oral history – as history – is not worth the paper it is printed on and also why oral history tends to seem more logical than the real thing and makes a better story. Especially if it has passed through many minds and maybe many generations, the stories have been rationalized and coordinated with prevailing cultural norms. Legends are always more entertaining than the facts.

Thanks to Internet and greater diversity of our populations, we are reentering the age of legend, as opposed to fact. We left the age of legend – at least in the West – when Gutenberg’s invention became widespread. But if printing created the concept of fact, how can the much more widespread use of the equivalent of the printed word destroy it?

The Internet “printed word” is not the same thing as a word on paper. The Internet word is mutable and often anonymous. A printed word on paper has a source that you can find. There is a publisher, who you can trust … or not. Whether or not you trust the source, you can judge it. Furthermore, there are a limited number of publishers. Finally, your book will not change if the author changes his mind. This is not true of other sources.

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have changed aspects of “Star Wars” or the Indiana Jones films to fit in better with their later films or with changing societal mores. I saw “Return of the Jedi,” formerly Star Wars #3 now #6 in the eponymous Saga. I remember the original with the ghost of Darth Vader. He was an old, bald guy. Now he is the young long-haired actor who played Darth Vader in the prequels. Lucas claims he had the whole idea thirty or forty years ago and he altered the historical record to support his claim. (The “first” three are really crappy, BTW, and I can well understand why Lucas feels the need to support them any way he can.)

You really cannot tell for sure what they have done if you have no comparison. I rely on my imperfect memory. Others have the concrete “proof” of the picture on the screen. (Ironically, this is exactly what the dystopian totalitarian state did in George Orwell’s 1984. Ingsoc (English Socialism in newspeak) theorized that all knowledge belonged in collective mind of the Party and they have had right to change history as they change their collective mind. “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” Winston’s (the main character) job was to systematically alter the past to fit the current needs of the party. But in those days, he had to physically destroy paper.)

Of course, you still can check in some cases. For example, on a recent episode of “Glee” (which Chrissy likes, not me) I noticed that when they sang “I feel Pretty” from West Side Story, they sang that “I feel pretty and witty and BRIGHT.” In the original, Maria feels “Pretty and witty and GAY.” The word didn’t mean homosexual back then. Modern writers feel the need to go with the PC meaning rather than the dictionary.

On the other hand, I have a copy of the “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” that my mother gave to my father before I was born. When I look at those yellowed pages, I am morally certain that nobody has altered a word to make it fit in better with current prejudices.

Most of what the Internet has done to spread information is good, although my own results are mixed. I feel a little less smart today because of it. My encyclopedic knowledge used to be admired. Now my son just tells me that I have “wiki-intelligence” which he can duplicate or surpass on his computer. He is right. But I do worry about matters of fact.

Sometimes on the Internet, I find things that are just wrong. It is especially true when somebody asks a question and then chooses the “best answer”. Sometimes my old books, written and printed closer to the fact in question, tell me a different thing. The Internet makes difficult or almost impossible the formerly reliable, if painstaking, process and analyzing texts. Not only cannot you find the physical source, you often cannot tell where the source comes from and have no way of even guessing whether it has been altered.

I studied historiography many years ago. Those who know what that is, know that it is not history. It is the study of the creation of history. In one of my seminars, we studied Polybius and not only traced back to his sources but also looked forward to historians who used Polybius as a source, sometimes w/o even knowing it. It was a truly fascinating few months and it made an impression on me that lasted (so far) a lifetime. I learned that the weight of sources is less important than their lineage. Some of the most elegant narratives are just not based on reliable sources and it doesn’t matter how popular they are or how logical they sound. They are wrong. If you find the weak link in the source, you don’t have to argue anymore about details. All those analysis that depend on the source are wrong too. Of course, nobody will really believe you if the story is good. The legends are more fun.

Somebody might even “fact check” you using one of those weak link sources.

A Banda-Larga Public Diplomacy Success

Our Information Section did something really great with social media. I find it almost unbelievable. It came, as many things do, at the intersection of preparation and changing conditions, with a little bit of luck. Let me explain.

We launched our 9/11 commemoration campaign a couple days ago. Our theme is “superacão” or resilience & overcoming difficulties. My colleagues prepared a poster show. We did some media interviews & generally reached out to Brazilian media and people. There is no shortage of attention to 9/11 in Brazil. We don’t have to create a demand.  But we do prefer that the narrative be one of superacão and resilience rather than destruction.  We want to remember and honor the victims, but emphasize the resilience of America.  

Among the things I find most appealing is a program we have set for September 12. Ten years ago, after the attacks of 9/11, a school in Ceilândia, just outside Brasilia, made an American flag for us. All the students contributed part. It was very touching and we still have their work. We will return to the school for a ceremony and have invited the original students, now young adults, and their teachers to join us. Response has been great and I look forward to taking part. But I am drifting. Let’s return to social media.

We launched the campaign this weekend and as of this writing we have more than 106,000 responses. We might have had a few more, but the initial surge crashed our server and we had move to a bigger server. Our theme of superacão was popular with our audiences. They were invited to write their own feelings about 9/11 and/or their own stories of superacão. And they did. Our Facebook page has almost 10,000 new members and we have gained another 38,000+ on our Orkut platform. Orkut is popular with non-elite audiences in Brazil. A video of Ambassador Thomas Shannon talking about 9/11 has garnered 9,260 views as of this morning, but I figure more than 8000 by the time you read this. Today we were getting almost 1000 new comments every hour. I say comments, not visitors and not “hits”. A commenter has to take the time to write something. 

Our initial demographic analysis indicates that participants are coming to us from all over Brazil, even interior towns indicating that Internet has penetrated far into Brazil. Many of our participants are from the less-privileged social groups. This is because the Orkut component is providing them a forum, we believe.    

I want to emphasize again that these are responses, not mere “liking”. Of course, we have been unable to look at all 100,000+ responses, but our sampling indicates that most are thoughtful. Most are also favorable to the U.S. Many of the personal stories of resilience are moving.   

We will follow up with social media and with boots on the ground. I remain a little skeptical of social media that doesn’t yield physically tangible results. One of our initial ideas is to take representative groups from various cities and invite them to programs or representational events when we visit their home towns. This will create a good media opportunity both in MSM and new media, especially in those places were we rarely tread. It makes it more concrete and exciting for the participants and fits in well with our plant to reach out to the “other Brazil”, i.e. those places not Rio, São Paulo or Brasilia. As I wrote earlier, we had planned to reach to the 50 largest cities.  I had to add a few extra so that we could encompass all state capitals, even in places with thin populations and some cities of special significance, such as an especially good university, for example. I ended up with 61, but I think I will find five more so that I can call the plan “Route 66”.

I don’t know how many Brazilians we will have touched by the time we are done with this campaign, but I think we are doing okay so far. As I have written on many occasions, this is a great place to work. The only problem is that we might get tired taking advantage of all the opportunities. 

Up top I mentioned the intersection of preparation, good luck and changing conditions. Preparation is what my colleagues did and have been doing. They built a social media system ready to be used. It needed an opportunity. They also prepared for what they knew would be a big anniversary. But this program would have gone nowhere had not Brazil expanded its internet network, so that people could respond. I don’t think this success could have happened last year or even six months ago. One of the Portuguese terms I learned was “banda larga”. It means broadband. Many Brazilians were learning the term and its meaning the same time I was. Now they have the capacity to log in and they are doing it. New fast-spreading technologies have allowed Brazilians to jump over a digital divide that we thought was as wide as the Grand Canyon. We are lucky to have these conditions.

Notes on Social Media & Public Diplomacy

A more mature understanding of the social media

It is no surprise that our early forays into the media felt a bit like returning to high school.   Much of the social media was for and by teenagers and catered to their motivations and predilections.   We followed through that door, looking for that ever elusive youth market and we were about as successful as adults always are when they try to “hang around” with teenagers and young adults.

This is one of the impressions I got from participating in an open discussion about how we (State) use social media in Washington and at posts at the tail end of the FSI course on using the social media.  In addition to teaching techniques this course was also designed to assimilate experience from those who actually work with the social media on a regular basis in real world public diplomacy, making, as course organizer Bruce Kleiner characterizes it, a “why-to” as well as a “how-to” course. 

Bruce ran what amounted to an informal expert practitioner focus group and since Bruce and I had worked together to design this module, I got to be there to take part and take notes.
The good news is that everybody is now using a wide variety of social media methods and platforms in public diplomacy.  We no longer have to do the sales job.  And we are maturing.  You can see the changes month-by-month.  Not much more than a year ago, it was enough to be on the media. 

At first we looked to the social media for numbers.  In many ways adopting the teenage paradigm of popularity, we measured our own worth and that of our programs by how many people put their names on lists, called themselves our friends or said they approved of our comments. We learned how to build audiences and found that it was easy.   But we don’t have the audiences we want and we don’t really have the audiences that want what we provide.

Several people complained that they were pressured to create and populate Facebook or Twitter realms w/o specification about the kinds of audiences they were supposed to get.   The result was massive, unsegmented groups of fans or friends, with little commonalities of interests.  We indiscriminately push our messages to these groups and call it a success if we reach a million people. But  we are now exiting this stage of development.

The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on

It seemed fairly unanimous that audiences and content count.   The social media can get people’s attention, but we have to hold it once we got it.  This is harder.  I compared some of the social media to barking dogs.  The bark says “I’m here; I’m here; I’m here.”  Our audiences are acknowledging our presence and now asking what is it we want to say?   If the content that follows is insufficient or not well targeted, we will be about as effective and maybe as annoying as a barking dog.

This transition will not be easy.  We have developed general social media audiences but we want to pass messages about specific topics.  It is unlikely that any particular people will be interested in all or even most of our topics and few people will sift through all of what we send to find the nuggets of gold. 

Segment the audience and sell to the segments

Skilled marketers know that marketing is not selling.  It requires understanding your customers, your products and your potential products and putting these things together.  It is easy to take marketing analogies too far, but this one fits public diplomacy well.

The first imperative is to segment our audiences.   This may mean trimming them to smaller and more interested proportions.   A community that allows everybody in quickly becomes a mob, where important ideas and messages are lost in a sea of inanity. This actually fairly describes much of the social media.  If we want to make this medium useful, we have to tend to our audience segments.

Of course addressing a market segment implies that you have some product particularly appropriate for that audience.   This means content and often very specific content.   An individual interested in climate change, for example, will not long remain satisfied with simple information aimed at a general audience.   This will apply to any subject we can think of and it will happen even if we are trying to talk to experts.  An informed layman will quickly move beyond the general information and demand more.   If they don’t find it with us, they will move elsewhere.   Information is easy to find on the web.

Social media exacerbates a classic sales temptation.  An aggressive salesman can sell products his organization cannot reasonably produce or deliver.   A good salesman ensures that customers get what they want and his organization can produce and deliver what he promises.   This is often the difference between short and long term success.  

Another temptation is to use the social media as a conduit to unload our products into the market.   I asked how many people would actually read the various speeches or watch the videos we send out.  The response was not overwhelming.   If we, who are more interested in such things than a most people, will not be interested in these things, why do we think others will want them?   We have an important role to play for sources or archiving.    Most people will not read through a whole speech by the Secretary of State or the President, but many people want to have it available as reference.   They essentially mine out the nuggets of information they want.   Filling this need is a web 1.0 function or even just an archiving task.   We might use social media to remind audiences that these things are available, but regularly sending out texts is probably a waste of time and may even morph into the barking dog mode of annoyance.

Culture matters

It was clear from the discussion that people at our posts have many similar problems and successes with social media.  It was equally clear that there are substantial differences in what is possible or desirable based on local cultures, environments and priorities.   There is no such thing as a global product and we need our people on the ground to tailor and modulate our messages.   BTW – it is also very important to have up-to-date information from people on the ground.  Conditions change rapidly and what worked last year may be a disastrous failure this year.   There is no substitute for local expertise.  Social media can leap borders, but it still has to appeal to local people when it arrives.

Answering criticism

Another audience question concerned responding to criticism.   Sometimes we just have to repeat the same answers over and over because there is nothing else to say. This may not be satisfying to us or others but it is the way it has to be.  We agreed that we should welcome legitimate criticism and answer it truthfully and forthrightly.   There is a danger, however, of getting too deeply involved.  We don’t know how many people are really involved in an online discussion and/or if it may reach a wider audience.   We also don’t know the level of commitment.    For example, there might be only a couple individuals criticizing us.  Maybe they have thousands of friends “involved” but these people don’t really care.  Remember the difference between involvement and commitment can be seen in a ham and eggs breakfast.  The chicken is involved; the pig is committed.

We can never be as efficient or nimble as a private firm

We talked a little about the differences between what we (USG) can do versus what private firms, or even smaller governments can do.  Much private effort in the social media is to simply build awareness or name recognition.  Unlike most private firms, the USG has no need to build awareness of itself.  Everybody knows who we are.   We also must recognize that people may see even our innocent effort as menacing.   I told the story about my recent experience with  I checked out a few books on ancient Greek literature a few days ago. Now is sending me updates on books in ancient Greek.  Their machine has noticed and categorized me. I don’t find this offensive and it may help me find things I might want.   Now imagine that you are a citizen of a country where America is not universally liked.  You learn that we have the kind of information on you that has on me.  Are you happy about that?   What if you find out that the U.S. Government wants to “help” educate your kid?  We have to recognize that we are not a normal organization and that our embrace is not always welcome.   That means that we can almost never just copy what others are doing successfully and we will never be as efficient or nimble as private firms because we cannot let ourselves be so.

Somebody has to do it

There was mention of the problems of staffing.  Social media duties tend to get tacked onto the workload.  Since most posts are already working with reduced staffs and already “doing more with less,” this can be a strain.  There are no easy solutions to the staffing problem.   All of them involve priorities.  We agreed that posts need to identify who will be doing the new work and how much time it will take.  Then they have to ask and answer the question whether the new duties are important enough to displace old ones, and if so what.   Of course, social media will sometimes automatically displace older duties.   The need to copy, collate and distribute is vastly decreased because of the social media, for example.   As with most management decisions, it might be better to reengineer and/or eliminate whole sets of tasks rather than tinker around the edges.  

A flatter hierarchy might be very helpful, since a great deal of time is spent getting clearances and making fairly meaningless cosmetic changes to documents.   The old saying that you shouldn’t spend a dollar to make a dime decision goes for wasting time too. 

The medium is not the message

Finally, we have to recognize that the advent of social media may be less immediately revolutionary than we initially thought.   Most people still get their information through traditional media, especially television and radio.  When President Obama spoke in Cairo, for example, it was hailed as a social media success but almost everybody who saw the speech, saw it on television.   Even people who saw it later on Internet saw it essentially through the television lens, just delivered differently.  And following up on social media has not proven as successful as the original excitement would have implied.  You still have to have something to say and you still have to maintain relationships.   Social media will become increasingly important as components in the toolbox of public diplomacy, but it will never be a standalone technique.   Social media can support programs, but it never can be the program itself.  The medium is not the message.  

BTW – I gave the keynote to this course.  The PowerPoint is available below.

Computer Revolution #4 (and counting)

I am doing my FSI talk again on Monday.   It is very similar to the one I did in February, but there are some additions and changes.   The new PowerPoint is below.  I was thinking through the slides and about the impact of new media this time.  Below are a few ideas.  I don’t know if I will use them in the very short presentation, but maybe if somebody asks.

This is the forth computer revolution that I have personally experienced

The first was when I was still too young to have much of an understanding.   This was the one where computers were going to take over the world.  Science fiction movies had computers just usurping the thinking of humans.   There were “evil” computers like Hal on “2001: a Space Odyssey” (funny, 2001 came and went w/o that Jupiter mission) but mostly they were just better than we mere humans.  The irony is that the actual computing power was so low in those days that we just laugh at the perceived threat.

I was part of the next revolution, proud and excited.  This was when young people (like me at the time) were going to use computers to change the world and displace all the accumulated wisdom of the ages with our raw young intelligence bolstered by computer power. The problem was that we really didn’t know how to do anything.  The computers just helped us do nothing much faster than before and leveraged our mistakes.  I recall a saying on the wall the University of Minnesota, where I got my MBA. It said,

“to err is human, but if you really want to mess up you need computer support.”

The other MBA epitaph was, “Often wrong but never in doubt.” Harness that to the power of computers and see what you come up with.   The third revolution was the boom of the late 1990s.  This is the one we have to pay close attention to because it has lessons for today.  The idea of the is that you didn’t really need any content or products. The race was for attention – eye balls.  People set up web sites supposedly selling all sorts of things, but all they really cared about was exposure.  Money poured in to investments in It wasn’t until around March of 2000 that people noticed that the emperor had no clothes. The demise of the pulled the market down with it and also much of the economy.  The NASDAQ still hasn’t fully recovered. Some firms like came out winners. The difference was their organizational skills and the fact that they delivered real products.

We have our own special cautionary tale. We (the USG, State, USIA) messed up big-time in the 1990s in relation to public affairs, or at least the concept did.  Many were taken in by the promise of the Internet and there were those who thought we didn’t need a real presence on the ground in other countries. We could do it all from Washington.  During the 1990s, we closed posts, shut down most of our libraries (made them into Information Resource Centers), eliminated many of our centers overseas and generally let our public affairs capacity atrophy. A simple but telling statistic is that there were only about half as many public diplomacy officers in 2000 as there had been in 1990.  After the attacks of 9/11, we really didn’t have the people on the ground or the experience needed to communicate with world publics. The website “air war” was a bust. You can reach millions of people, but you are just wasting your time if they aren’t paying attention or your message doesn’t appeal.

BTW – Rebuilding American diplomatic capacity began soon after 9/11. Colin Powell spearheaded a diplomatic readiness initiative to help compensate for the damage done during the 1990s Results are starting to show but rebuilding networks will take a while longer. U.S. diplomacy has a very peculiar age structure because of the nineties neglect. There are many new employees (>10 years experience) and many old employees (20 > years experience), but not many in the middle.  This will be a challenge in the next five years, as much of the experience will go out the door through retirements. (Career diplomats can retire after 20 years.) It will be a good time to look for a job in the Foreign Service, but our government will be paying for mistakes of the 1990s for the next ten years. You cannot turn these things on and off like a light bulb. Think of public affairs like a forest. Things take time.  The trees you plant today determine the forest years from now and you cannot expect to walk in the shade of your trees that you didn’t plant 15 years ago. Some things just take time.

Now here we are in revolution #4. I don’t know how this story will end.   My earnest hope is that we will remember that we are always and everywhere talking to people.   People are funny.  They don’t always do what you think they will.   You still have to understand them before you can expect them to understand you.   In this latest age of new media, reaching out with the newest tools is necessary, but not sufficient to achieve our goals

Empowering Posts

I was cleaning out my old files and I discovered this.  I wrote it last March, but it makes sense still.  In fact, it makes more sense to me now that I have experienced Washington’s reach and as I anticipate going overseas again.  I post it in unedited (since March 27, 2009) form.

We inevitably have a Washington perspective when we live in Washington, but we have to work to get beyond it because it is more dangerous than ever.   The new media gives us tools that can reach anywhere in the world in seconds.  We can bypass gatekeepers and some of them deserve to be bypassed.  But we can also bypass friends.  I am thinking of our colleagues in posts overseas. 

It is temping to just get it done; pass that information; make that connection.   We CAN do it and in making a direct connection from Washington to the journalist or blogger in the field we undoubtedly improve the short term efficiency and effectiveness of our information operation.  But this short term success comes at the expense of damaging the system that makes us effective in the long run.

When you look at the whole system, you quickly realize that the main product of a public diplomacy operation is not information.   Information is nearly free in today’s interconnected world and there is very little that we can give anybody that they cannot get somewhere else.   If information is not the key, what is?  The answer is relationships.  We are working to build relationships of trust and reliance.   Our relationships are what makes our information stick and helps put it in the proper contexts.   Our relationships are the basis of our reputations.   The connections count.

From Washington we can build electronic relationships and a type of customer base, but at best we have a relationship akin to a book lovers’ relationship with   It is not multifaceted and may not be robust enough to endure really hard challenges.   When Barnes & Noble offers a better price, I abandon Amazon. 

Most of the effective long-term relationship building is done on the local level, i.e. our posts.   We can help them from Washington by providing backup and materials.  We can help coordinate our programs among posts.

But we can also harm and uncut the post and we will probably do that with the best of intentions.  When we bypass the post and reach directly into their audience, we are weakening their ability to maintain their contact network.   The worst case scenario is when powerful Washington directly provides important local media outlets with information, interviews or editorials.   It makes the people at the post look ineffective in the eyes of the recipients.   They want to eliminate the middleman.

We can also do similar things with our electronic programming.  That is why we have to be especially careful to involve posts.  I don’t believe that there has been a problem so far.  In the case of a CO.NX program, for example, we get participants from all over, but we are careful to keep the posts in the loop.   It works like a cooperative and I am convinced that IIP programs to date have enhanced and expanded the reach of our posts overseas.  But as the new technologies and methods develop, this coordination may become more difficult. 

Web 2.0 presents lots of challenges of management, coordination, communications and control.  The spontaneity, inclusiveness and reach are strengths of the new methods but also its weaknesses.  We have made a very bad trade if we create a Washington-centric network of relationships at the expense of those based around out posts in the host countries.   We have to always be aware of what we are doing and sometimes choose to be “less effective” in a particular transaction in order to maintain and grow the effectiveness of our total system.