Flying into a Paradox


Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Communications Network and CommA Fall 2010 Conference in Los Angeles with the help of a blog team, which is part of the conference’s 2nd annual Gorilla Engagement Squad.  This is a guest post by Lucas Held, Director of Communications at the Wallace Foundation.  Follow the foundation on Twitter:  @WallaceFdn

by:  Lucas Held

So here’s a paradox. I’m on US Airways Flight 21, flying across the continent to attend the annual Communications Network conference to better understand … yes… the emerging social media landscape.

That’s right. Not an online discussion group with threaded conversations. Not a webinar where you type in questions. Not a conference call. Not Skype, nor a Wiki.

But an actual meeting with 200 fellow communication staffers from across the country.

So maybe the best way to understand the new media is through the oldest medium – conversation. Socrates would have been pleased.

Sure, the avatars at the Communications Network are incorporating tweeting, flipcams, and a team of bloggers (of which I’m one.) And that’s great. Those channels will help insights from the Network’s annual conference reach more people. But, still, at its core – this is an in-person, face-to-face experience with the requisite conference rooms, upholstered chairs, tables, overnight stays, and too much food. And all the time and expense that getting there represents.

And that’s considerable. Five hours breathing the peculiarly sweet and sour recirculated air in an Airbus 320. Getting my bag searched twice at Tweed-New Haven because a tube of toothpaste wasn’t bagged. Navigating the unfamiliar Metro to the hotel. And coming home at midnight two days from now, adding to my sleep deficit.

Yet I’m really looking forward to the gathering. Being physically out of the office alters one’s perspective – you get (a bit of) mental distance from the tyranny of the digital “inbox.” And, more importantly, there’s the chance to talk with outside experts, see colleagues, and meet new ones.

For me, the “meeting” colleagues is key. At age 52, I’m in the so-called “transitional” generation. E-mailing people I’ve met in person is a different (and more comfortable) experience than e-mailing people whom I have known only virtually. But that may well be a function of age. My granddaughter Alissa tells me that she “knows” all of her classmates in her Northeastern University graduate course in pharmaceutical development – although she has never seen them. I wouldn’t use that sturdy Anglo-Saxon word for people I had met only online.

So here’s the paradox that is on my mind as we fly over neat squares of farmland: How can communication strategies link the new technologies of social media with in-person gatherings, and “old” media like newspapers?

A former boss, Christopher Thayer Cory, taught me a habit that’s stuck: When you travel, pick up a copy of the local newspaper. You can spot coverage opportunities, but also see what’s on people’s minds. So at my transfer in Philadelphia, I picked up a copy of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Opening it up, I was surprised to see another newspaper tucked inside. But this one, I quickly realized, was a fake. It was a mock newspaper, the “Los Angeles Post,” complete with a phony masthead in Germanic type. It was designed exclusively to promote a new show, “Law & Order Los Angeles,” that’s a spinoff from the original.

In an age when nothing is real unless it’s on a screen, why would NBC Universal go to the trouble of creating a phony newspaper to announce a new show? Judging from the tagline (“ripped from the headlines”) the marketing folks wanted to evoke an aura of realism and a specific locality – just as the original show uses real locations in New York City. So why not create a fake local newspaper?

Those obituaries for print media must be premature.

Then I read in The New York Times that TD Ameritrade has created its own TV-like web programming. It’s a “reality” show in which ordinary people get financial advice from experts. The company apparently wants the reflected credibility from a show about real people financial advice. But the connection to the trading firm was unclear enough that the Times says one of the people being advised didn’t even realize the firm was involved.

So, forgive me if I admit some mild confusion. An in-person meeting to discuss the virtual world. A TV network inventing a newspaper to establish that a new show is about the “real” Los Angeles. And an investment brokerage spending millions to create the Web-based equivalent of a “TV series” that may not be seen as connected to its core business.

And confusion begs a few questions for those working in communications: How to allocate resources between in-person and digital communications? How to manage digital media within current staffing levels? How to figure when users are likely to participate in interactive forums – and when they will just prefer to “lurk.”

I’ll share any answers I hear in this blog. (They are my reflections, not those of The Wallace Foundation for whom I’m proud to work.) And in the spirit of social media, I hope you’ll add your own thoughts.

Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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