Posts filed under ‘Web Content’

Involuntary Transparency

WikiLeaks screen shot. Hard to come by these days as the site is the top target on the Web.

The title phrase–involuntary transparency–comes from Andy Greenberg’s cover story for Forbes on WikiLeaks. A fascinating juxtaposition of the unpleasant and the noble, the term harkens to a post on this blog, “The Automated Honor System.”

Are we truly transparent or honorable when it is forced upon us? Despite the seeming revolution of Web 2.0’s power to disclose and shame, it is simply another example of the Internet providing venerable products and experiences fast-fast-fast, to adapt Anacin’s tagline from 50+ years ago. In short, the Internet is a labor-saving device for delivering consequences, the eternal tool for behavior modification.

Transparency has always been mandatory, but we don’t always follow rules, written or unwritten. Mr. Greenberg’s use of the word “involuntary” suggests the matter has been taken out of the hands of governments and corporations, and by extension all of humanity. My past post on the subject humorously assumes as much.

However, just as the old laws and standards have had a hard time keeping people in line, WikiLeaks will fare little better. “Do the right thing” has rarely been a natural strategy, even though many are calling for such epidemic honesty as the only antidote to the WikiLeaks onslaught.

I am not dismissing the newest demands for disclosure and ethical behavior. I like “involuntary transparency” in a wistful, PR professional kind of way. Nevertheless, transparency must be completely voluntary. It must come early. It must be consistent. It can’t be applied like an anti-virus program. I regularly cite PR legend Al Golin, the man who coined “the trust bank.” From his book, Trust or Consequences:

  1. Trust is the most basic element of social contact–the great intangible at the heart of truly long-term success.
  2. Trust is both a process and an outcome; it’s at the heart of dealing with every relationship.

WikiLeaks will not improve transparency because it is not a vehicle for trust. The confidential communications it has acquired from the American government result from espionage and treason. We can add blackmail to those unsavory terms as embattled WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange threatens a mass release of more damning files, all encrypted and dispersed among a network of supporters, if anything happens to him or his site.

In the end, WikiLeaks is not a game-changer for public relations, although it is a formidable practitioner of the discipline as it has driven much of the news in recent days. It is not a sanctuary for whistleblowers. It is not a virtual version of the World Court. It is simply a brand that trades magnificently on malfeasance, gossip and finger-pointing. In short, it is the greatest tabloid on earth.

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December 5, 2010 at 11:37 pm 1 comment

An Education Outside the Gates

On December 30, Bloomberg BusinessWeek posted an article by Pulitzer Prize-winner Daniel Golden, “For-Profit Colleges Target the Military,” with the subhead “Online universities are raking in millions by signing up soldiers as students. But how valuable is the education they’re delivering?”

Mr. Golden explores several themes:

  • For-profit universities are aggressively recruiting members of the armed forces, claiming 29% of all active-duty students and 40% of the half-billion dollars in tuition assistance for these students
  • Classes are accelerated and certain degree programs are notably shorter than similar ones from brick-and-mortar schools
  • Online programs are not subject to the same level of government review as classroom instruction provided at bases by traditional schools
  • Online degrees are no guarantors of career advancement once graduates leave the military and may actually inhibit placement due to their lower reputation compared to degrees from brick-and-mortar schools

While it focuses on the experiences of students in the military, Mr. Golden’s article ultimately adds to the negative coverage and commentary regarding for-profit universities and online degrees. This is a sore subject for graduates of such programs, myself included. I hold a bachelor’s degree in Business/Marketing from the University of Phoenix Online and I am currently studying online for a master’s degree in Organizational and Professional Communication from the University of Denver.

I wanted to find out more about the journalist who wrote yet another slam against for-profit schools and online learning. Daniel Golden received a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for a series of articles in The Wall Street Journal on the “admissions edge given to children of alumni and donors” at top-tier universities. The articles led to his book, The Price of Admission. Its subtitle: “How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges–and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates.”

Amid the start of Winter Quarter at DU, I read Mr. Golden’s book. Detailed and damning, it takes on the legacy system and related preferential admission practices in the Ivy League and at other esteemed schools such as Stanford, MIT and Duke. Mr. Golden gives no quarter to his own alma mater, Harvard, for bending the rules for privileged applicants when grades and test scores fall short. He is unafraid to name those whose children have benefited from the system, including Vice President Al Gore, Senator Bill Frist and mega-agent Mike Ovitz. He calls Asian-Americans “the new Jews” for being excluded from top schools as spots are saved for others. The book is an allegory of America as our ideals of meritocracy succumb to the sad reality of aristocracy.

Now I’m upset that Mr. Golden has trained his sights on my educational bastion–for-profit/online–just as many Ivy League alums and administrators were undoubtedly enraged when he produced his Wall Street Journal series and The Price of Admission. But in considering the varied college constituencies Mr. Golden has stirred up in his career, a phrase on his book’s dust jacket becomes poignant: “Outside the Gates.”

For-profit schools and their defining offering, online degrees, are the educational salvation for people who are the farthest outside the gates. These are the students already committed to a life-path, be it military service, or families, or careers (usually stymied by lack of a degree). These are the students called “nontraditional,” from a 19-year-old Marine in Afghanistan to a 42-year-old single dad in Southern California (yours truly when I enrolled at University of Phoenix Online in 2004). These are the students who become the graduates who hit new barriers to their career advancement when their degrees are disparaged.

Putting it mildly, it’s ironic that anyone would consider an online degree less valuable or genuine than the traditional variety as we move our lives to the Internet. You can work, play, shop, socialize and seek a soulmate online. Just don’t get an education there. Admittedly, this is a hard argument to win if you never get an interview because HR reflexively hits “delete” on certain résumés.

In an example of this practice, Mr. Golden quotes Mike Shields, retired USMC colonel and current HR director of Schindler Elevator who consistently rejects military candidates for his company’s management development program “because their graduate degrees come from online for-profits.” Mr. Golden reports that the ex-colonel will send such candidates to the front lines in non-management positions.

I know directly that blind rejection of online degree holders denies companies smart, industrious and qualified employees. Setting aside personal bias for myself and my wife (we met as online students), I cite my former and current classmates (including people in the armed forces) and online graduates I have met outside of my classes. “Cajun” is a member of the latter group, a blogger who gives unvarnished accounts of distance learning under a nom de plume. He is bright, passionate, deeply informed on education and business issues, and going for his second master’s degree from an online school, Bellevue University. Cajun rebuts Mr. Golden’s BusinessWeek article on numerous points.

Ultimately, online degrees are a convenient target because they are the distinctive symbol of for-profit universities, the institutions that have led this form of learning. The complaints against for-profit universities center on their very description: businesses with a profit motive, seemingly more beholden to stockholders than students. The problem with such noble umbrage: money is at the heart of higher education, from private schools placating donors to public schools appeasing budget-controlling legislators and tending their own endowments.

Still, the detractors continue, the profit motive debases the curriculum and culture of schools like University of Phoenix. The focus is on vocational majors like Business and IT. Professors do not have tenure and most are adjuncts. A hurry-up mentality replaces the rich immersion of the traditional college experience.

Exactly.

For-profit universities distill a college education to its essentials and deliver it efficiently to people who need its benefits as soon as possible. Military. Minorities. Dropouts. Never-wents. Career changers. People outside the gates.

Prejudice against online degrees and for-profit schools is the new educational elitism and warrants the same scrutiny as unfair college admission practices. I’m optimistic that this prejudice will decrease over time as more people earn degrees from such programs and more brick-and-mortar schools offer online learning, such as my current school, University of Denver. But how much time will it take? How many more job applicants will be arbitrarily shut out after spending years completing degrees at accredited schools?

Going back to the article that triggered this post, I agree with Mr. Golden’s premises:

  • For-profit universities and online degree programs must be academically rigorous
  • Recruiting and financial aid must be transparent
  • Members of our military deserve a quality education subsidized by the country they defend

I disagree with his slant, exemplified by the title of the print version, “G.I. Bill of Goods,” and the line in his lead paragraph, “…for-profit colleges making money off active-duty military with subsidies from American taxpayers.” Mr. Golden does present quotes and anecdotes supporting for-profit/online, but it’s fair to say they are not the takeaways of his piece.

As a journalist on an education beat, Mr. Golden has advocated for those “outside the gates.” Giving for-profit universities and online degrees their due would be a proper addition to that advocacy.

January 7, 2010 at 10:56 am 11 comments

The Facebook “Shocker”

Louis: I'm shocked--shocked! Rick: I thought this was the beginning of a beautiful Facebook friendship.

Louis: I'm shocked--shocked! Rick: I thought this was the beginning of a beautiful Facebook friendship.

Cue Capt. Renault from “Casablanca.” Many are shocked–shocked!–that Facebook friends are now for sale, thanks to Brisbane-based uSocial. Industry and general media (from AdAge to the Christian Science Monitor) have been flush with stories about the audacious Aussies who will sell you friends, fans, or Twitter followers for a set price that works out to mere pennies per pal.

uSocial has already stirred Web unrest with its earlier campaign to juice rankings on Digg, the social news Web site that allows visitors to rate articles and content on the Web. Digg issued a cease-and-desist against uSocial, echoing Facebook’s denouncement of its latest service to attract friends and fans to clients’ Facebook pages. In all instances, uSocial’s CEO Leon Hill has responded defiantly, which means the company has to be eating up this latest brouhaha and the resultant coverage.

Deirdre Breakenridge, co-author of Putting the Public Back in Public Relations and president of PFS Marketwyse, gave me her take on uSocial’s Facebook services:

I’m still a firm believer that you can’t buy your friends. The real value of the social economy is in the social capital gained through our deep connections and relationships. In Web communities, less is more and customers are appreciative of those brands that listen and approach them to engage meaningfully, as opposed to those that buy friends to ‘sell’ them inappropriately.

uSocial is promising clients that the deliberate process of social media can be circumvented or at least accelerated. To many, this flies in the face of the premise of social media, the “meaningful engagement” that Deirdre emphasizes. Leon Hill asserts that his company merely searches Facebook for people who might be interested in befriending a client and makes the overture. At first glance, this seems more benign than his Digg manipulations that quickly boosted clients’ content rankings, attracting more visitors who would then hopefully continue the Digg spike on their own.

uSocial is simply a highly visible constituent of the army of “experts” who find ways to bend and break the rules on the Web. Search engine optimization is one such Web activity that can swing from judicious (White Hat) to unethical (Black Hat). Examples of white hat: frequency of keywords in well-written content; link popularity as other sites create inbound links. Examples of black hat: keyword stuffing, loading keywords in micro or invisible fonts; link farms, sites that artificially boost incoming links.

The “shocker” of uSocial’s Facebook program is that anyone treats it as a shock. The Web and marketing overall are full of short-cut artists. It may be comforting to think of social media as a safe haven from such manipulation, such marketing “tricks.” Capt. Renault would know better.

September 7, 2009 at 9:46 pm Leave a comment

The Automated Honor System

Breaking News: The Honor System is now automated.

Instituted when an apple core was found at the Garden of Eden, the original Honor System was the personal sense of responsibility, ethics and sincerity used to guide individual behavior and assure others of positive intent and actions. Until now, the Honor System has been a voluntary, do-it-yourself program. The new Automated Honor System–powered by Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and the blogsophere–uses digital content to substantiate the keywords “Trust me.”

Text messages, electronic fund transfers, “behind-the-scenes” cooking shows, and pre-pageant photo shoots are all components of the new Honor System. (Never fear…grainy videos, spotty tax returns, DNA samples and “reply to all” e-mails are there too.) Media, bloggers, and plenty of easily outraged people on Twitter are on 24/7 standby, ready to spread uploaded content far and wide and give the system some real teeth.

Although the Automated Honor System has emerged successfully from its beta stage, it remains to be seen if it will have a greater effect on personal behavior than the previous, voluntary method. At least, it solves the age-old question, “Who’s gonna know?” Answer: “Everyone…and quicker than you think.”

May 7, 2009 at 4:03 pm 1 comment

Contented Content

Organizations are placing increased emphasis on Web content. SEO–search engine optimization–is driving this emphasis as the presence of keywords, frequent content updates, and inbound links from other sites entice the invisible spiders that crawl across the Web gathering information for search engines. It’s all about the content, the written word, the depth of information, the relevance of the material to the target audience and their needs. Strong Web content is a fact of 21st century marketing and it warms this writer’s heart.

Keyword strategy is vital to Web content. There are tools such as Wordtracker that reveal the most popular keywords relating to your products and services. Continued research will determine search rates for selected keywords and competitor usage  (or lack thereof) of such terms.

Then comes the actual integration of keywords into Web content.  Some SEO specialists and Web site operators use formulas to ensure a set percentage of total content comprises keywords. Here’s where math must step aside for English (or the language of your choice).  There is one sure “formula” for Web content that will attract visitors: well-written, informative, relevant prose. Use keywords vigorously, but without ratios, artificiality or tricks. Also remember the Web is a multimedia experience. Photos, graphics, charts, video and/or audio should be deployed judiciously and artistically.

David Meerman Scott, author of The New Rules of Marketing & PR, urges everyone who communicates and markets on the Web to “think like a publisher.” We are directly engaging our audiences. Treat Web content like the end product, just as a publisher does with its offerings. This is the first step in SEO.

May 5, 2009 at 10:17 pm Leave a comment


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