Chronicle of Higher Education offers free news blog

The news blog is a new free service from the Chronicle of Higher Education. According to the Chronicle, the new blog “offers short reports of higher-education news and summaries of news reported elsewhere, with links to the original articles.”

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Wal-Mart: working the blogs

Retail giant Wal-Mart, home of the “everyday low prices,” is enlisting the help of bloggers to shore up its public image. Somehow, I don’t think this approach is going to help much. But it also points to the growing influence of bloggers as new avenues for entities to bypass the mainstream media. The problem for Wal-Mart, though, is that it is taking the wrong approach. Instead of working with bloggers to promote a product or service, Wal-Mart is worried only about putting a positive spin on its image, and that approach is certain to backfire in the blogosphere. As the New York Times reports:

What is different about Wal-Mart’s approach to blogging is that rather than promoting a product — something it does quite well, given its $300 billion in annual sales — it is trying to improve its battered image. Wal-Mart, long criticized for low wages and its health benefits, began working with bloggers in late 2005 “as part of our overall effort to tell our story,” said Mona Williams, a company spokeswoman. “As more and more Americans go to the Internet to get information from varied, credible, trusted sources, Wal-Mart is committed to participating in that online conversation,” she said.

Yeesh. It’s quotes like those that give us spokespeople a bad name. I don’t see a problem with PR folks working with bloggers. But I do have a problem with this approach:

In the messages, Wal-Mart promotes positive news about itself, like the high number of job applications it received at a new store in Illinois, and criticizes opponents, noting for example that a rival, Target, raised “zero” money for the Salvation Army in 2005, because it banned red-kettle collectors from stores.

Here’s one example of an exchange between the Wal-Mart PR guy, Marshall Manson, and Rob Port. (Via Wake-Up Wal-Mart Blog).

We can’t lay all the blame on Wal-Mart, or on Manson, because some of the bloggers who were regurgitating the retailer’s info didn’t cite their sources, thereby violating one of the unwritten codes of bloggery: the hat-tip, or giving credit where credit is due. (BTW, thanks to Lance for pointing me to the NYTimes article.)

As infOpinions? points out, “These are enthusiastic bloggers. They want to be evangelists for Wal-Mart.” What’s most “unfortunate,” from infOpinions’ perspective, is that Manson didn’t encourage bloggers “to reveal that they communicate with Wal-Mart or to attribute information to either the retailer” or its reps.

A couple of days ago, I posted my thoughts/review of the new book on blogging, Naked Conversations. I pointed out that the authors, Scoble and Israel, “give marketing and PR folks a rough way to go” but added that “I can’t fault them for that. For the most part, this criticism is deserved. Many marketing and PR pros are behind the curve when it comes to blogging.” Some of us are worse than behind the curve, it seems.

Book review: ‘Naked Conversations’

Last weekend I finished this year’s must-read book about blogging, Naked Conversations: How Blogs Are Changing the Way Businesses Talk With Customers. The book is the work of a couple of A-list bloggers, Microsoft’s Robert Scoble (job title: technical evangelist) and tech consultant Shel Israel. Although written for a business audience, the book’s message should resonate with bloggers of all stripes — including those of us involved in higher ed PR and marketing. The title says it all: blogs should be about conversations (remember thesis No. 1 from Cluetrain: “Markets are conversations”), and those conversations should be naked. Not forced. Not false. Not driven by marketing departments or mission statements.

In Naked, Scoble and Israel do a good job of promoting good blogging practices. They cite numerous examples of how blogging has helped a wide array of companies in a variety of ways — from softening Microsoft’s public image as “the Borg” to helping tailors, attorneys and PR consultants build their customer bases, to giving Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban a forum to chat with fans and gripe about officiating.

The book is not an impartial, dispassionate look at blogs and blogging. Scoble and Israel are true believers who wear their love of blogging like a badge. But they also point out that there are right ways and wrong ways to blog, and show — again, using real-world examples — how blogging the wrong way, or ignoring the blogosphere’s impact on a company’s public persona, can harm a company’s reputation.

Scoble and Israel also offer some valuable insight into the cultural aspects of blogging. They devote an entire chapter to the national influences on blogging: why some cultures (France, the USA) seem more attuned to blogging than others (Germany, China). (It turns out that blogging takes root and thrives in nations with a history of freedom of speech, debate and the marketplace of ideas.) They also point out the irony of Google and Apple — two companies often lauded for their innovation but that restrict employee blogging much more so than the stodgier companies (at least that’s how I tend to thing of them) like Sun or Microsoft. But these are digressions from the main gist of the book, which is that blogging — the best blogging — must be rooted in conversation. The beauty of the blog is its conversational tone, its openness, its interconnectiveness with other blogs, and the two-way street nature of comments and trackbacks. Businesses that embrace these aspects of blogging, Scoble and Israel say, will enhance their public persona by giving online customers a view inside the corporation.

Tough on marketers

They give marketing and PR folks a rough way to go, for the most part. But I can’t fault them for that. For the most part, this criticism is deserved. Many marketing and PR pros are behind the curve when it comes to blogging. There are a few bright spots out there, a few PR and marcomm folks who get it, and Scoble and Israel give them props.
Again, the best advice Naked Conversations offers readers — whether you’re blogging for business, pleasure or that broadly defined purpose of “evangelism” — is this:

[B]e real. If you are going to blog, be authentic. Keep your conversations naked. Let people know who you are and where you are coming from. … There may be no rulebook or designated enforcement squads, but the blogosphere is filled with members committed to keeping it a “clean channel,” unadulterated by clever, cute, or contrived entries.

Much of the groundwork for Naked Conversations was laid over the previous two years at Scoble and Israel’s Naked Conversations weblog. There, they shared drafts and ideas and garnered input from various bloggers about the project.

The rise and fall of Lawrence Summers

As expected, Lawrence Summers, the former U.S. treasury secretary who took the helm at Harvard University in 2001, has announced his resignation, effective at the end of this academic year.

Best known for his comments last year in which he suggested that gender differences between the sexes might explain why few women pursue studies in science and math, Summers was also under seige by the faculty. The Harvard faculty were expected to give Summers a vote of no-confidence next week — a vote that stemmed as much from his leadership style as from his comments about women in science.

The Boston Globe‘s coverage of Summers’ announcement points out that his management style may have helped elevate Harvard’s reputation in the eyes of many. As the Globe reports:

The boldness and bluntness that contributed to Lawrence H. Summers’s downfall as Harvard University’s president also enabled him to alter the course of an often self-satisfied institution, prodding it to make changes that were long overdue, said many of those who observed him up close.

When the Harvard Corporation chose Summers to lead Harvard in 2001, there was a sense among its members that the nation’s most prestigious university had become complacent. Summers was brought in to shake things up, and he didn’t disappoint.

Among other initiatives, he jump-started the university’s expansion into Allston and decided that the new 200-acre campus on the other side of the Charles River would focus largely on science. He called for a new emphasis on undergraduates and argued that their curriculum should focus more on actual knowledge and quantitative disciplines and less on ways of thinking. And he took bold steps to make a Harvard education more accessible to low-income families.

Summers was also outspoken in his belief that Harvard and its scholars should be players in the public arena, not just intellectuals in an ivory tower. That belief led him to step into thorny public debates such as divestment in Israel and a perceived lack of patriotism among university professors, but it also led him to push Harvard to elevate disciplines such as public health and education with a direct impact on people’s lives.

But, as Lawrence Summers found out, leadership in academia presents its own set of thorny issues.

RSS feeds? What are those?

According to a recent MarketingSherpa report, some 75 million business people in the U.S. and UK use RSS feeds to get information. “However,” says the Sherpa, “depending on which study’s stats you believe, only 17-32% of RSS users actually know they’re using RSS.

“That’s right — roughly 50 million regular RSS users would say, Huh? if you asked them what RSS was.”

To find out how to get people to pick up your RSS feeds, read on.

Hat tip to Emergence Marketing for the link.

Managing (filtering) choices

A few years ago, Bruce Springsteen sang of the agony of too much choice — and suggested a Luddite response — in the song “57 Channels (and Nothing On).” These days, as Little Judy points out on the Media Center blog, 57 channels ain’t nuttin’. We’re drowning in choice. MySpace alone is fast approaching 57 million channels (personal websites), each one contributing some microscopic piece of data to the online mediasphere.

“There’s so much entertainment to choose from,” writes Little Judy, “that once in a while I miss the days when my viewing options were Combat!, Daktari, Gilligan’s Island and a hockey game, and I listened to music on a transistor radio.” The proliferation of online sources just adds to the muddle.

Judy goes on to ask: How do we manage all this information?

In a word: filters. We’re becoming experts at filtering out information and honing our web searches. But in so doing, are we missing out?

Breathing life into online communications

What a big difference spending a little bit of time to truly communicate with customers can make. Seth Godin recently shared a real-world example of how lifeless much emai from a corporate service department can bel, and then shared a possible remedy to that far-too-widespread problem. It involves spending a few minutes to compose a simple note that sounds as though it comes from a human being — because it does. And that can make all the difference.