Friday, April 28, 2006

Media Frenzies

Well, I’ve been through some mini frenzies, but the frenzy over an allegation of rape at a lacrosse team party is major. However it turns out, it won’t be pretty.

Nearly everyone in Durham has anecdotal stories about how friends and associates outside Durham are reacting and, as a result, glum predictions about what it will do to perceptions of Durham and its image.

Anecdotes are just that… extreme, given to hyperbole, fear…. It’s the opposite of reading and believing too much of the clippings during accolades, e.g., rankings of best places to live, visit and do business, etc.

But anecdotes are dangerously unreliable. It was reassuring, when national public opinion polling by Opinion Research Corporation, revealed that nearly two-thirds of the nation hadn’t noticed that the media frenzy was taking place in Durham and that about as many people had an improved image of Durham as those whose image of Durham had declined (and only 8% had a negative image of Durham).

The biggest obstacle remains lack of knowledge, and as branding experts often warn, image is long-term balance, no matter the momentary ups and downs from media coverage.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Overcoming “NWOM”

Years ago, scientific diffusion research pinpointed that the Durham brand is heavily undermined by negative word of mouth (NWOM), centered among residents in nearby communities. Some is overt dissing, much is "damned by faint praise."

In non-marketing circles, especially when it comes to cities, towns and counties as visitor destinations, it is often conventional wisdom that positive word of mouth (PWOM) trumps or effectively counters NWOM. That would be great, but many studies show that’s just not the case.

Word of mouth and the marketing that generates it have been studied for decades if not centuries, but two great reads, The Tipping Point and a great new book entitled Connected Marketing, have made many more people aware.

One of the authors in the latter book reviews a 2005 study by Informative, Inc., on the financial impact of NWOM on airline profits, which documented that, while respondents were roughly split as to the power of PWOM or NWOM, negative comments were found to have 2.5 times more financial impact.

While the study found very little correlation between the amount of PWOM and operating profits, it documented a very close connection between NWOM and profits, meaning when NWOM increased, profits decreased and vice versa.

Two authors in the book cite the importance of intervening with the sources of word of mouth, in addition of course, to making every improvement possible. Addressing misinformation was found to create a "perceived justice" effect, inoculating others to NWOM.

Unfortunately, traditional advertising isn’t the answer. Separate studies show that ads have the effect of entrenching both negativists and positivists equally. Other types of marketing are needed to address NWOM.

DCVB has many initiatives to address NWOM, but one takes a two-pronged approach with tools like the 300+ Great Things About Durham flyer, used to energize PWOM, and 25 Common Misperceptions About Durham, used to inoculate potential visitors and newcomers, so they will "perceive injustice" when they come in contact with NWOM, and used with positive opinion leaders, empowering them to overcome NWOM.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Will Durham Recover?

Durham is, and historically has been, a very diverse community where residents have openly and passionately shared differences, shared power and worked well together. These attributes have always mystified many in nearby communities and across the state.

But the current media frenzy over the allegations about members of Duke’s men’s lacrosse team have some worried that it may drive wedges of distrust so deeply that the community may never recover. Using extreme contrasts and hunting rabidly for story angles, the news media can be viewed as often inciting behavior, e.g., if you’re repeatedly asked if you’re angry, and if not then why not, eventually human nature is to become angry.

But I believe the inherent core values of this community will survive the intense arc of this news story. Oh, it will take years to repair misimpressions across the nation, and some people’s lives will never be the same. And individuals invigorated by accentuating divides may be disappointed and attempt to refuel the adrenaline rush.

But the community will rebound and be better for it. The core values that make Durham unique have survived generations, and they will survive this.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Unmediated vs. Mediated Information

The serious allegations and investigations surrounding members of the Duke men's lacrosse team and an exotic dancer have reinforced a new paradigm about where people get information about current events and how that information is disseminated.

The day and age when mediated information, either through official news outlets and reports or paid advertising, was key are gone. Even when these media were the only source other than person-to-person word of mouth, there were concerns, e.g., news reports were often based on fragments of information as the reporter or editor or even headline writer made connections, laid out the story, made sense of complex topics.

This worked well at its best and still does, but it’s called mediated because someone else is controlling or interpreting. Of course at its worst it is sensational, agenda-driven and full of hyperbole. Advertising too can be misleading or over-promise.

Today, though, people may first learn fragments from mediated sources, but this is quickly overcome by listservs, blogs, and yes, the grapevine. If the issue is emotionally charged…well, most folks have seen the pros and cons.

What it means, though, for communication professionals is that one can’t rely now solely on official statements based on thorough evaluation of the facts then mediated by traditional media. People either get information and feedback in real-time, or the viral nature of unmediated outlets will fill in the blanks, and things can get out of hand in a hurry.

People’s lives and reputations can be destroyed, perceptions can be shaped on fragmentary information or no information at all and instances requiring full facts and justice can be overwhelmed by the need to make a statement.

Not sure we’re headed into better times for information. But things are definitely changing and so will how and where information is disseminated.