Autism badly served by “Communication Shutdown”

Am I the only person offended by tomorrow’s “Communication Shutdown”.

The campaign website says the event is a global initiative to “raise much-needed funds for autism groups in over 40 countries. By shutting down social networks for one day on November 1, we hope to encourage a greater understanding of people with autism who find social communication a challenge.”

So, this slick PR campaign encourages people to raise funds and awareness by superficially mimicking the social isolation experienced by those with autism. This tribute-form of autism is to be manifested apparently by swearing off Twitter and Facebook for a day.

Did no-one give this campaign a test-run before launching it globally? Did no-one wonder whether this clumsy attempt at empathy would be perceived as counter-intuitive, patronising and offensive?

Social media is in fact a godsend for childen and adults with autism, as well as their families and friends.

Jean Winegardner’s son Jack has autism and she blogs on Autism Unexpected. I was particularly taken with the blog Jean wrote on social media and autism earlier this year. Jean said:

It’s easy to make fun of social media. How many ways do you need to broadcast what you are doing right this second? For parents of children with autism and people with autism themselves, however, social media can be a lifesaving conduit to a social world that is too difficult to interact with IRL—in real life. For people like us, social media is real life. Having a child with autism can be extremely isolating. Friends who don’t understand what you’re going through or who don’t want to be around a difficult child may fall away. It gets harder to take an unpredictable child into public. It can be hard to plan playdates ahead of time if you don’t know how your child will be feeling at a specific time in the future.

Activities that typical kids enjoy may be too overstimulating for a child on the spectrum. Sometimes even when your child wants to and is capable of participating in the social sphere, the invites just don’t come. Some days it’s just too hard to face the stares and judgments of onlookers, so parents end up staying home.

This is where the beauty of social media lies. When there is no one in your life to turn to in the middle of the day (or the middle of the night), Twitter is there. When you have a question about a treatment and you want to know others’ experiences, blogs are there. When you just need some adult contact to take your mind off of all that is so difficult, Facebook steps up. For people on the spectrum themselves, online communication eliminates the pressure to respond immediately in conversation and lets an individual choose what conversations they want to take part in. Web conversation is also more black and white, reducing the need to understand all the non-verbal parts of communication that can be so difficult for those with autism.

Undoubtedly, the organisations that research autism and provide support to families coping with autism would benefit from greater public awareness and better funding.

But is abstaining from social media the right mechanism to achieve this and does it send the right message?

The Communications Shutdown campaign would appear to be yet another philanthropic gesture badly advised by PR and social media “experts”. I place the Generation One campaign in the same boat.

Tomorrow, let’s raise awareness of autism by reading blogs such as Jean’s and tweeting them to others in our Twitter communities. I truly believe more will be achieved by doing so.

Hate mail may drown out real learning from Howard years

Judging by the early mail on Twitter, there could be a lot of pollie-hate brought to light this week by the launch of John Howard’s autobiography. The overturning of this slimy rock is likely to expose a mass of blind and seething hate that may momentarily mesmerise or repulse before it quickly disperses and plunges back into the shadows.

Anticipation of this event has led me to ponder why Australians love to hate politicians. Conversely, it’s occurred to me that not many politicians have ever been popular in Australia, and even less of them have been Prime Minister.

The esteemed journal Wikkipedia shows that, since 1972, only two Prime Ministers have enjoyed what we might call popular acclaim. Hawke’s peak approval rating was 75%, a record that remained untouched until Rudd’s heyday (74%).

Somewhat surprisingly Howard comes in third, with a peak approval rating of 67%. Keating (40%) comes last after Whitlam (62%) and Fraser (56%).

What does this say about Australian voters? Undoubtedly we are a cynical and pragmatic lot, so maybe this is why we don’t particularly like politicians.

Ironically, dislike of a politician doesn’t seem to prevent us from entrusting them with the Treasury benches. The popular Hawke is our longest serving Labor PM, and third longest overall, with 4 election victories under his belt and nearly 9 years in office. However, the fourth longest is the unpopular Fraser who nevertheless won 3 elections and served as PM for just over 7 years.

It’s no secret that Howard was not loved as Prime Minister, indeed at times he was loathed, yet he is the second-longest serving PM ever. Howard remained in office for nearly 12 years and won 4 elections. Why is that? I believe it’s because pragmatic Australians ultimately vote for the politician they think will best run the country.

For many years that politician was John Howard. While he was never a popular politician, Howard had the ability to secure the votes of people who didn’t like him or who didn’t usually vote Liberal. These people didn’t necessarily agree with Howard but trusted him to make the right decisions for the country. Admittedly Fraser also won elections while unpopular, but Howard did so after making some very unpopular decisions.

It’s a matter of record that Howard threw that trust away. He squandered the electoral asset that he’d carefully built over years in high office with acts of indulgence and hubris. People lost faith in Howard as they watched him put personal political philosophies ahead of the public interest, and refuse to consider succession planning in the Liberal Party.

As the hate mail starts to flow next week, it will drown out the real learning from the Howard years.

John Howard’s story should be a compelling and inspiring one. Having failed once as a leader and been assassinated by colleagues, he eventually rallied and brought his party back from nearly 14 years in the political wilderness. He then kept them in office for nearly 12 years.

Perhaps more importantly, Howard showed that a successful leader does not need to be popular, but must be seen to be making decisions that put the public interest first, on every occasion. Howard’s model was studied closely by Rudd but replicated poorly. It will be interesting to see if Gillard chooses to take a similar course.

This post appeared on ABC’s The Drum – Unleashed.

Not all spin doctors use their powers for evil

Being an effective communicator is a lot like having the Force – you can either use your power for good or evil. To illustrate, I’d suggest that JFK and Martin Luther King Jr used their power for good. I would place Anthony Robbins and the Shopping Television Network at the other end of the spectrum (yes, my definition of evil is non-Catholic to say the least).

Others would place the dreaded spin doctor (or public relations practitioner) in the same quadrant as the insistent voice telling you to call with your credit card details right now to get not one, but three pedi-eggs for the price of one.

I will state up front that I am a communications (ie. PR) professional, and have plied my trade for over 20 years. My training is in communications theory and practice, which is not the same thing as journalism. Yes, I learned how to write in a clear and (hopefully) compelling fashion. I also learned how people pay attention, listen and learn. I understand the relationship between people’s values, beliefs, attitudes and perceptions and how these ultimately shape behaviour.

This knowledge is stock in trade for communications professionals. We build strategies from these robust theories to help people and organisations effectively communicate with their audiences.

Much of this communication is done for good not evil. Sometimes the messages help people find or use something, or to be safe, or informed about their rights and entitlements. For example US authorities look at Australia’s seat-belt wearing rate with envy and attribute our success to a combination of regulation and effective communication.

These theories and strategies are changing over time to keep pace with the evolving nature of communications and how people interact with it.

However, journalistic distrust of the communications profession does not appear to have changed at all. I can remember in the 80s, when working as a novice media adviser in Canberra, I quickly learned not to tell journalists that my background was in PR. It was made crystal clear to me that PR flacks were considered to be much further down the credibility chain than media hacks.

Ironically, it seems that today the prevalence of former journalists in the role of media adviser and resulting obsession with the 24/7 news cycle has done more to put the spin doctor role into disrepute than any shonky PR type might have done.

I was reminded of this by a newspaper story today on government “spin doctors” that was retweeted by a couple of reputable journalists on Twitter. What struck me was the amount of unbridled spin in the article about spin.

The article authoritatively tells us that each state and territory, as well as the federal government, employs a minimum of several hundred people dedicated solely to generating the best possible angle on stories for public consumption, that taxpayers fund an army of at least 3000 media advisers employed to “spin” political lines and that public servants are hired to craft messages and keep the secrets for governments and their departments.

There are two spins clearly at work here. One is that governments are avoiding public scrutiny by being profligate in their employment of communications personnel. That is a fair point from a political and newsworthiness perspective. However the other implication is that any communications professional working in government is devoted to distortion or corruption of the message. This allegation is patently untrue and an insult to the hard-working communicators in the many government departments around the country.

I realise there is an uneasy relationship between the media and its news sources these days. There is incredible pressure on journalists to find unique and compelling stories to maintain sales and keep advertisers happy.

Being students of human behaviour, some communications professionals have used this to the advantage of their clients but perhaps at a cost to their own credibility.

I’m not suggesting that all communications professionals are angels. On the contrary, it can be very tempting to use the Force for less-than-good deeds.

All I ask is that next time the sobriquet “spin doctor” is flung at a communications professional, take a moment to check who it is that is really using their communications knowledge for nefarious means.

This post appeared on ABC’s The Drum – Unleashed.

4 Corners “The Deal” more Jersey Shore than documentary

I was prepared to come away from watching tonight’s 4Corners program “The Deal” with an extreme emotion. To be frank, I thought that emotion would be exasperation, based on the knowledge that a similar process would be followed for each and every important policy decision brought before these men during this parliamentary term in order to secure passage through the House of Representatives.

I was correct, to a point, but my exasperation emerged from another source altogether. It struck me while watching the program that it was well cast and had a killer plot, but was hollow and jangly in its execution. It occurred to me that the program had the distinct feel of those semi-reality shows, such as The Hills or Jersey Shore, where you can’t distinguish the fact from fabrication.

This suspicion rang true for me most when Windsor beseeched Katter to let the cameras stay to record the momentous decision. It was as if capturing the moment (and its participants) for posterity was more important than having a private, no holds barred, discussion to ensure that the right decision was being made. Indeed, after Katter’s departure, Windsor and Oakeshott obliged the cameras with useful columns drawn on paper and “discussion” of the pros and cons.

My feeling of semi-reality was exacerbated by the absence of Tony Windsor’s cousin, the Labor Party’s spin-meister Bruce Hawker, from any of the footage. Being a former spin doctor myself, I know that the golden rule of PR is to never leave your fingerprints on your work. I read many times during the hiatus that Bruce Hawker was advising Windsor, so why was he not on our screens tonight? Was he stage managing the three media-tarts? Did Katter spit the dummy as a result? I guess we will never know, because the 4 Corners program wasn’t a documentary after all.

New media prejudice based on fear of the unknown

It’s human nature to dislike, even hate, what we fear and to fear that which is foreign to us. These drivers underpin many of the entrenched prejudices that exist in this world, to humanity’s great shame and dismay. Prejudice and its implications can occur on a grand scale or at the micro level. The most profound cast a shadow over people’s gender, sexuality, colour and religion.

At the micro level it may be the cut of your suit, the ink on your skin or even the way you speak that fans the embers of ignorance into the flames of prejudice. While these biases are nothing compared to the ones mentioned above, they still exist and should be challenged.

Well, at least that’s what we always say about prejudice – that it should be challenged. Perhaps it’s more a matter of deconstructing prejudice through personal experience. Attitudes are very hard to shift, but they can be altered with knowledge gained through first hand experience. There are many (but clearly not enough) examples of people relinquishing their prejudices once the unknown becomes the personally known, either through a friend or relative coming out, or by getting to know someone of a different colour or religion.

It’s the micro level of prejudice that I’ve pondered since attending the Media140 social media conference last month. Quite a number of mainstream media journalists participated in panel discussions and I was struck by the disdainful way several referred to social media platforms. One explained that they didn’t often tweet but monitored the Twitter stream to plunder it for stories. Another said they used Twitter mostly to publicise their own stories. At one point in the discussion, Facebook was summarily dismissed as being the place where you post your holiday snaps to satisfy the extended family.

It occurred to me then that many working journalists just don’t get social media and it may be for this reason that they’ve formed negative attitudes toward it. Apart from the few journalists who actively blog and engage in conversations on Twitter, it seems that many mainstream journalists see social media as a fad, but nevertheless a potential threat in the identification and reporting of news. I’m not suggesting they’re luddites, but that their unwillingness to personally experience these online phenomena has created a negatively biased perception.

I suppose I could challenge this prejudice by saying that the world has changed and people are no longer using the old ways to shop, talk, promote, research, learn, share, celebrate or mourn. I could show how models for business, advocacy and information exchange are constantly mutating in an effort to keep pace. Or even point to the fact that 54% of Fortune 100 companies have a presence on Twitter and 29% are on Facebook.

I could challenge the prejudice by showing that Australians in particular have embraced social media; that 70% of all Australian internet users visit social networking sites, and we also spend more time on these sites than our overseas online colleagues.

I could point to Facebook as another case in point. It’s not just a place for happy snaps but inhabited and regularly used not only by individuals but hundreds of thousands of businesses. Facebook has 500 million members who spend over 500 billion minutes per month on Facebook pages. Over 9 million people on Facebook are Australians, and these are not just kids sharing fart jokes or embarrassing photos; 43.4% of all Australians on Facebook are aged 26 to 44. The communities that exist on Facebook are a marketer’s dream. Any kind of demographic or interest group can be reached cheaply and on a targeted basis using Facebook ads. Facebook is also used by NGOs, advocates, companies and individuals to build communities of support or loyal customer followings that would otherwise be impossible to create or maintain.

Sadly, any challenge would not be enough. There is no way to understand social media platforms “in theory”. Understanding can only be gained through direct experience. Mainstream journalists will never get Twitter until they actively join one of the many communities that exist in the Twitterverse. They can’t just monitor the Twitter stream or broadcast into it but truly engage in conversations as they would with friends at the pub or a dinner party to understand the dynamics and attraction of this medium. Twitter is not just about politics either; its communities are numerous and incredibly diverse. For my part, I participate in Twitter communities that are interested in politics, social media, science fiction on TV and in films, fashion and rugby league.

The reality is that social media is not a fad, it won’t fade away and its influence on the corporate, policy and political worlds will grow even more with time. Mainstream media journalists would know this, and perhaps even accept it, if they engaged fully with social media platforms and joined with the rest of us in exploring their seemingly limitless potential for information, creativity, relationships and dialogue.

This post appeared on ABC’s The Drum – Unleashed