Author Malcolm Gladwell made waves this week with a New Yorker essay called “Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” in which he makes the case that activism movements are effortless and perhaps even meaningless in the world of social media.
We’ve been debating Gladwell’s thesis in the office the last few days. Here is part of the discussion from Colin Moffett and Victoria Baxter.
Colin: My biggest issue with Gladwell’s piece is that he assumes that somehow social media is something completely new. The technology itself is new and allows us to connect with people and share information farther and faster than ever before, but the activity of using the technology is nothing new. The technology doesn’t replace strong ties, hierarchical organizations or the mass media — in fact it helps fuel mass media by encouraging the spread of media content.
The technology also does not replace traditional advocacy and organizing. It is a tool, a highly effective tool in fact, that can help organizations reach large numbers of people in consistent and efficient ways. These loose ties, as Gladwell characterizes them, build on each other over sustained periods of time and create strong ties that are effective at helping people make the sacrifices needed in successful movements. He tries very hard to label social media as trite and ineffective and yearns for the old but in reality completely ignores that we aren’t talking about something that is altogether new.
What do you think, Victoria?
Victoria: My biggest issue was the suggestion that deep, committed high-risk advocacy is always the “better” advocacy. The story of young college students risking almost certain violence to sit at a lunch counter and start a revolution gives me chills. How could it not? But there are many different ways people can impact the world.
Advocacy – and I would also argue participation – is needed on lots of causes, especially those that happen half a world away. Quantifying Darfur advocacy by number of Facebook likes, divided by money raised misses the mark for me. It’s measuring the wrong thing.
I agree with Colin that Twitter doesn’t replace activism, strong ties or even the media. Instead of pro- or anti-Twitter debate, let’s have a more nuanced conversation that starts at encouraging and valuing participation. Participation is a much-needed starting point. Social networks help curate information, cutting through the ever-increasing clutter we face every day.
I’m reminded of the recent Nick Kristof article and the recent Melinda Gates TEDxChange speech on marketing causes. We do ourselves a disservice by assuming that everyone knows what we know – or that everyone will automatically care. Social networks extend conversations beyond your immediate friends and provide an opportunity to start talking and start participating. That’s what happened in the dorm room in North Carolina A&T. It’s what’s happening online right now.
Colin: I completely agree. I think if there is one bit of warning we need to heed from Gladwell’s piece it is that organizations need to make an effort to create varying levels of action so that advocacy doesn’t devolve into a series of “likes” on Facebook. But again, this challenge isn’t new. Organizations have been under pressure for years to drive levels of participation from mailing lists and email lists. Large numbers of people will only give an email address or like something on Facebook and be done with it, but the same number of people as always can be compelled to become more heavily involved. And we will always have the special few who will make the personal sacrifices to sit at the lunch counter.
Victoria: Exactly! That’s exactly the nuance that is useful for advocates. The common “ladder of engagement” has a few missing rungs. Yes, we will need people to donate or send a letter to Congress. But why do so many campaigns stop there? Twitter makes it easy for friends to inform each other, talk about issues within networks and generally become more aware and engaged.
Here are some of the other reactions to Gladwell’s article that we’ve been reading:
A. Fine Blog: "Malcolm Gladwell Strikes out on Activism" | Sept. 28
Beth's Blog: "Social Media for Good and Evil" | Sept. 29
Yglesias: "Facebook and Freedom" | Sept. 30
Chronicle of Philanthropy: "Can Activism Be Fostered Through Social Networks?" | Sept. 30
New York Times: "Can Twitter Lead People to the Streets?" | Sept. 30
What are your thoughts on the power and limitations of social media and creative ways we can move people to take action?
At the 33rd Annual National Food Policy Conference yesterday in Washington, D.C., speakers such as White House Chef and Senior Policy Advisor Sam Kass and Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) dove headlong into the fascinating paradox of the twin U.S. epidemics of childhood obesity and hunger.
Thinking about these problems from a five-year-old’s viewpoint sharpens the understanding of the need for both nutrition education and the availability of healthy food options.
How can we have so many children who are hungry and at the same time so many who are overweight? Perhaps this is one single issue – and problem – of good nutrition and health, and it should be approached as such.
Speaking on behalf of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative, Kass spoke of the great challenge of tackling the issue of child health community by community, school by school, family by family. But he also noted that part of the solution comes if we “tap into the energy and power of kids.” When kids get energized about nutrition, they may pick a banana over a sugary breakfast treat themselves — which can be an easier route than changing the behavior of the parents.
Nutrition education can sometimes come from a garden, such as the White House garden where Kass and Obama have staged a number of press events. At one recent gathering with local school children to harvest ripe vegetables, Kass feared the kids wouldn’t be interested in eating them but found to his astonishment “a little girl took a third of the raw cauliflower and had a mouthful of it,” and kids were eating raw rhubarb (tart!) and other vegetables. It’s a teaching tool that Obama’s program will try to help replicate in thousands of schools across the country.
For her part, Rep. Fudge gave a passionate appeal for making sure kids have access to plentiful, healthy food. “I never went to school hungry,” she said, adding that her family all cooked and ate together. “It’s killing us slowly to eat bad food.”
For Kass and Fudge, it may be politically safer in a mixed audience of food advocates and industry representatives to stress the role of the individual in making healthy food choices for their families. But it’s also a compelling argument that harkens back to how we ourselves learned about how to eat right – usually at home, from our families. Fudge made it a lesson in civics: “It’s the responsibility of all of us to be healthy,” she said.
And, by extension, to help young children to be healthy.
Last night the Social Impact team was thrilled to be with our client The National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) as they hosted their first inaugural fund-raising dinner featuring Meryl Streep. Many are surprised to learn that this museum doesn’t already exist. The NWHM has been fighting for years to get legislation through Congress allowing them to purchase federal land near the National Mall to create a permanent home. After a rousing speech that brought the crowd to its feet, Ms. Streep surprised all by pledging $1 million to support the Museum. She also urged the crowd to call Congress and let them know legislation granting the Museum permission to buy the land must pass soon. You can register your support by signing the online petition. As we heard last night it is time we head Abigail Adams words and remember the ladies! Thanks NWHM and Meryl for letting us be a part of this great night.
Watch the video below to hear what Ms. Streep had to say:
Most people know what they should eat, but they often don’t know how to translate that knowledge into action at the dining room table. At the upcoming Center for Food Integrity 2010 Food System Summit, I’ll be among a group of nutrition experts speaking on ways to help consumers bridge the gap between what they know they should eat—and how they can eat better. Listen here for a preview of some of the topics that I plan to discuss with others in the field including Esther Myers of the American Dietetic Association.
Powell Tate co-founder Jody Powell passed away on Sept. 14, 2009. In the year since we lost him, the pain of the sudden loss has gradually given way to profound gratitude for having known this amazing man. I have thought a lot about what I learned from him during the years I was proud to call him my boss, mentor and friend. There was so much more, but here are 10 nuggets of wisdom that stick with me about communications, management and life:
1. Sometimes, a client has an indefensible position rather than a communications problem. Helping them get to sounder ground isn’t easy, but there is a gracious way to do it, and it’s worth doing.
2. Clients occasionally have overly inflated senses of what we can do for them. They are better off, and we are better off, if we level with them from the outset.
3. The right thing to do almost always winds up being the smart thing to do over the long haul.
4. Being pissed off is not a strategy. Help clients get from anger to something more productive.
5. There are few pieces of writing that don’t get better by being made shorter. Some time for reflection and a good, sharp pencil are essential.
6. Storytelling is one of the oldest and most important of all human activities – one of the very things that makes us human. In essence, we are storytellers for our clients. Make ‘em ones you’d want to hear.
7. The human voice is an amazing instrument, and it’s not just for singing. Don’t underestimate how much you can convey by your tone, pitch, pacing and style. (If anyone doubts this, listen to some of Jody’s voiceover work in Ken Burns’ Civil War as Stonewall Jackson and Baseball as fellow-Georgian Ty Cobb, or old tapes of Jody at the White House podium.)
8. Be humble enough to let people know your failings and what you’ve learned from them.
9. Treat everyone with dignity, respect and loyalty, and they will never forget it. He was fond of saying that our most important corporate assets walk out the door every night.
10. Work is important, but family, friends and faith are even more so. In Washington, it can be very easy to lose sight of what really matters. Don’t.
Thanks, Jody, for all you meant to us and for the many ways you shaped so many of us into the professionals and people we are today.
Jody Powell passed away one year ago today.
His middle initial was “L” and to me it stood for loyalty. Intense loyalty.
In simple terms, his loyalty was his legacy to Powell Tate. Jody never forgot the folks who helped him through life. He was a loyal son of the South – nobody knew more Civil War Confederate history than Jody – and the loyal and loving son of his parents. He was a loyal husband to his one-and-only wife, Nan. He was a fiercely loyal father and even fiercer grandfather. Jimmy Carter gave Jody his professional life, and he repaid his debt to the president every chance he could. His loyalty never flagged.
Here at Powell Tate, his loyalty was equally intense. If you worked at Powell Tate, he was your friend, your mentor, your defender.
In the early days, unencumbered by much bureaucracy, Jody broke our HR rules regularly. He sent an employee to an alcohol treatment center, he lent money to more than one strapped employee, he encouraged folks with serious personal problems to take whatever extra time off they needed. No need to write it down on any time sheet.
Jody worked hard but seldom before 10 a.m. He worked late, often still at his desk at 8 p.m. or later, wondering where everyone else was. He believed in office attire, hated summer casual and fought it as long as he could. Ditto voice mail. He did not like talking to a machine.
He disappeared for long stretches of time during duck hunting season. That’s when we returned his loyalty and regularly covered for him.
Jody liked his “libations” and his cigarettes. You knew he was in the office when you walked down the hall between our offices — it was a distinctively perfumed hallway in spite of the heavy duty fumigation system we installed. Because he knew how concerned we were about his health, he tried multiple times to quit. Sadly, he was just too loyal to tobacco.
Jody always let you know when he thought you’d done a great job but he truly detested the formal review process. He once told an executive vice president when she entered his office for her review “I ain’t got no complaints.” That was the extent of her review. She didn’t really need one, truth be told.
More than anything Jody wanted the young people at Powell Tate to know he was their loyal supporter — they could approach him and count on him. He set up get-togethers with interns and new hires that evolved into storytelling and whiskey-sipping for hours at the end of the work day.
And did I mention he was a brilliant PR practitioner? Not a bad legacy.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last week made good on its long-promised announcement to subpoena the marketing records of 48 major food companies. The subpoenas will require companies to assess their advertising and communications to children, aged two to 17 years, on everything from in-school activities to online games The goal: for the FTC to gauge how well food companies have adhered to their self-imposed guidelines to limit food marketing to children.
So how are food companies doing? A 2009 analysis of the nutritional quality of products marketed by members of the Children’s Food and Beverage Initiative found that 83 percent of ads were for foods with nutrients or food groups that often are in short supply in children’s diets. More than a third of ads promoted products with at least eight grams of whole grains, more than a quarter promoted apples and milk, 12 percent were for yogurt products and seven percent for vegetables.
Congress is not convinced these steps at self-policing go far enough. A year ago, it formed the Interagency Working Group (IWG) made up of representatives from the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the FTC. The IWG is tasked with writing new recommendations on food marketing to children. The recommendations were due to be released in July but have not yet been issued. Once published, they are not expected to be binding.
Find more about the steps leading up to last week’s FTC subpoenas on the Powell Tate food policy practice page as well as a report from an FTC meeting on Food Marketing to Children.
Crowdrise, a social networking site that generated some good buzz in May when it was launched by Edward Norton and three partners, was the subject of an interesting article in Sunday’s New York Times.
Crowdwise makes it easy for people to create pages in support of causes they believe in and rally people to join their teams, showing support through small dollar donations. It’s also a way to organize people around volunteer projects.
For nonprofit organizations, it’s an appealing new option for recruiting supporters – and inviting them to energize their networks in support of a cause. The site distinguishes itself with a healthy sense of irreverence (always good), and opportunities for participants to earn points, and ultimately, prizes. It’s not the only platform of its kind (see: Facebook Causes or Change.org), but it stands apart with its lively personality, clear focus on engagement and a fun mix of celebrity participants.
As we head into the last quarter of the year, a season of many fundraising requests, I’m curious to see how organizations integrate Crowdrise into their outreach in creative ways, as well as how people (just like you and me) use the platform to draw attention to causes they’re passionate about. Ultimately, that’s what’s most appealing about the site – how easily it can help people become fundraisers. That, and of course, Crowdrise’s tagline: “If you don't give back no one will like you.”
The nation’s capital is a city where political parties, ideas and people ebb and flow. It can also be a place of great dissension. For the past 33 years, the National Food Policy Conference has shown that sharing ideas among those who feel passionate about a topic can help move the ball forward, even when there’s disagreement.
Coordinated by the Consumer Federation of America in cooperation with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the conference is an example of consumer advocacy and industry collaboration at its best. Several hundred people attend annually. They come from the White House, the federal government, Capitol Hill, advocacy groups, the corporate world, trade associations, academia and the media. They talk, learn, and yes, sometimes debate, about nutrition and food policies.
This year’s conference focuses on improving child nutrition and health. It’s a topic that’s been elevated to the national dialogue by both the on-going obesity epidemic and the First Lady’s strong interest in battling childhood obesity through her Let’s Move program. As in past years, I’ll be at the conference along with other Powell Tate colleagues to exchange ideas and learn with food policy thought leaders. You can also find me moderating a panel on the upcoming 2010 Dietary Guidelines, slated to be released in December. I’ll be the one asking an expert panel how we can use these new guidelines to help consumers put into practice the advice to live healthier lives.
Among the other topics on this year’s agenda:
• Meeting the HealthierUS School Challenge—a gold standard set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that just 650 school districts have managed to meet. That number falls short of the doubling of participation that the Obama administration has set as a goal for the year. To help bridge the gap, the conference will highlight programs that have met the challenge with the hope of increasing school participation.
• New opportunities in the SNAP program. Formerly known as Food Stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) serves 28 million low-income Americans who are “food insecure” and often don’t know where their next meal will come from. New incentive and education programs are being piloted to help increase participation in SNAP. For example, just 32 percent of eligible seniors now participate in SNAP. The conference will examine how to measure the impact of SNAP activities and what the program should like in the future.
• Food innovation. Food companies are working to cut calories, added sugar, salt and unhealthy types of fat in their products as well as to increase nutritious ingredients including whole grains, fruit, vegetables, fiber and healthy fat. In March, the First Lady challenged the food industry to go even farther. But what are the hurdles to reformulation? And how are consumers responding to the changes? That, as the saying goes, is the $64,000 question.
Read the full agenda and register for the conference here.
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