The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, is the latest organization to have to issue a public apology for an egregious tweet by an intern or staff member. While it’s hard to believe that any adult would think it was okay to tell Amnesty International to “suck it” while writing on behalf of a serious, professional organization, this kind of thing seems to happen again and again.

Tweet Carefully!Let’s face it — social media is still a big experiment with an unpredictable ROI. Yet most companies and organizations feel, on some level, that they have to be in the game. If you don’t have a social media platform, you’re ceding that space and whatever connections and interactions it offers to someone else. If you do use social media and do it thoughtfully and well, you gain visibility at the least and new connections at best.

Too often, though, organizations abdicate their social media voice to interns or entry-level staff, assuming that their youth gives them some magical skills in tweeting, posting, or pinning that no one else has. With no immersion in the brand or understanding of the audience, they jump in without a clearly defined communications strategy or respect for the organization’s history or identity. At best, they’re without guidelines. At worst, it all goes wrong; apologies must be issued and damage controlled.

If your feelings about social media are unclear or misguided, you might end up alienating people who’ve been loyal to you. You’ve heard of too much information? I follow many museums, nonprofits, and businesses on Facebook (more than 800 FB pages, last time I checked) and I can’t tell you how many of those have lost some or all of my respect by posting too much junk — silly games and contests, pointless questions or quotes or photos that seem to have no purpose other than trying to push their way up the algorithm, poorly spelled or grammatically incorrect text, repetitive Hootsuite blasts, excessive hashtags. I know that many of these organizations have a demographic that is urban, educated, sophisticated, and eager to participate in the best that these institutions have to offer, not dumbed-down, juvenile nonsense.

Sometimes it’s just a marketing misstep. I follow a wonderful museum that installed an interactive textile studies room. It’s gorgeous and compelling and a rich resource for scholars and enthusiasts, but I only know that because I found myself there accidentally on a visit to the museum. I’d seen Facebook posts about the room, but they gave the impression of a family playroom for DIY crafts. I don’t know who made the decision to represent it that way, but I’m guessing that they haven’t looked at what their members want from them.

How do you avoid losing real existing customers in the quest for virtual new ones, or worse, having to issue humble apologies?

  • It’s fine to experiment, but do it strategically. Define what you’re going to try and follow the feedback closely. Give it a reasonable trial period. Keep what works. Take it seriously but not too seriously. If you want to try paying for sponsored or boosted posts, start small with focused expectations and see what happens.
  • Set high standards and act with integrity. Be professional, know who you are, and assign social media to responsible people who love to research, read, write, and connect dots, regardless of age. It’s about content, not SEOs or keywords or bad publicity as a way of getting seen. Most of us should not be telling our peers to suck it. Social media is loaded with some horrible stuff. You don’t have to be a part of that. Lift up the quality of content on the Internet and make your posts worth reading.
  • Be true to your identity. If you’re a serious or scholarly organization, you don’t have to be stodgy all the time — you can have fun and be dynamic and innovative. But don’t stoop to stupid. Represent your projects and initiatives accurately. Have opinions, but give people room to disagree.
  • Less is more. If you’re flooding people’s feeds, take a break or pull back. Track the times and types of posts that get good feedback (pay attention to quality of comments and shares as well as quantity of likes) and do more of that, less of something else.
  • Don’t fall for every meme. Trends reach a point of diminishing returns pretty fast online. You don’t need to post six nostalgic photos on Throwback Thursday, complete with too many hashtags, every week, week after week. Do it judiciously, when you have something great to share.
  • Squash hyperbole. Is every single thing you post awesome, amazing, stunning? You’re exhausting me. Tell me why it’s amazing, not just that it is — because the bar for amazing is pretty low online. 
  • Don’t limit social media responsibilities to the youngest on the team. Facebook users are all ages, and the average age is trending up. Know who you’re talking to and find people who will engage with them to write posts. Share interesting things, not just the same things others are sharing.
  • You don’t have to do everything. Each social media format serves a different audience in a different way. Facebook is conversational, Twitter is timely, Flickr is all visual. If you’re publishing videos, Vimeo and YouTube each have a completely different look and feel. Design a social media portfolio that’s right for you. And don’t blast everything you post to every format in exactly the same way. It’s a timesaver, but what you save in time you might lose in goodwill — it can be annoying if you’re a heavy poster.
  • Credit where it’s due. Don’t repost links without a hat tip to the source who researched, found, and posted it for you to find and enjoy.

Thanks for reading! ~ Elaine


Train, Loveland, Colorado. Photo by Elaine Lipson.

Train, Loveland, Colorado. Photo by Elaine Lipson.

Between my Twitter feed, Facebook, LinkedIn, and favorite blogs, I’ve seen dozens of posts about the Amtrak Writer’s Residency in the last week or so—each with a comment of amazement at such a great idea, a yearning to participate, or just sheer enthusiasm and excitement. I haven’t seen one negative comment. With the announcement of a simple, relatively low-cost program, Amtrak went from 20th-century low-tech has-been to viral success. By recognizing our longing for quiet spaces, the romance of the road, and our collective need to do some meaningful, creative work, by requiring only “a passion for writing and an aspiration to travel” (along with some legal terms and a background check), Amtrak has turned its brand around almost instantaneously. “How cool,” seems to be the go-to response to this project—and Amtrak hasn’t been cool for a very long time.

I can’t predict what kind of return Amtrak will get on its investment, but at the very least, the company has endeared itself to writers and artists, reminded people that train travel is still an option (with possibly very interesting traveling companions), and racked up a lot of website hits. I’d venture that there will be long-term follow-up interest too, as people wonder what the trips inspired and what it was like. And I’m quite sure some intrepid publisher is already contracting for a book of text and photographs about the writer’s railroad. For millions of people who have never traveled by train, it’s surely awakened some curiosity, and from the perspective of artists, it’s a wonderful opportunity for adventure.

The arts and fine crafts are booming in America—but arts funding and art education are not. Since the Great Recession began in 2008, people have been suggesting a new kind of Works Progress Administration program to put artists to work, but that hasn’t materialized. In the absence of secure government funding, corporations and organizations can step in and find appropriate ways to bring the arts into their dynamic and foster connections. Companies have always sponsored museum exhibitions, classical music and dance, and other traditional arts projects, of course, but the Amtrak initiative suggests that innovative, dynamic, and small-scale connections between companies and artists can have positive results that go beyond a company logo on an e-ticket for an event.

In the organic foods and sustainable farming world, a community I’ve worked in for years, I’ve been tracking connections between art and agriculture for years. Now I’m part of an impressive group that’s exploring a nonprofit to foster these connections and support art that supports sustainable agriculture. What’s been striking and exciting is how many grassroots arts projects already exist with a sustainable agriculture theme. I now hope to see organic foods companies begin to create meaningful arts programs (and if I can help, please contact me). The moment is ripe to integrate the arts with every kind of community or organization.

In my next post, I’ll look at some specific ways that companies can begin to create and support arts projects and artists that are appropriate to their size, mission, and culture.

From Quietroom, a branding language consultancy in the UK, comes The Santa Brand Book, a hilarious, charming, sly spoof on corporate branding. If you’ve ever been in a branding or marketing design meeting, you’ll laugh and cry. And bookmark Quietroom’s blog for excellent posts on language, writing, and why word choices matter. Remember: Live the Santa brand—snap it, clap it, wrap it!

From the very funny McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: Like and Literally Make a Deal

Jane Friedman, a well-known publishing educator, has published an excellent infographic comparing four paths to book publishing: traditional, fully assisted, DIY, and community publishing. As she points out, definitions in each of these categories are fluid, and you don’t have to limit yourself to only one publishing vehicle. (In each case you should be conscious of your copyright and permissions; in some venues it’s easy to give away more rights than you realize, or to agree to restrictions in how you can distribute or share your own work.)

Self-publishing is an appealing strategy to promote your expertise and your brand as a consultant or corporation. Guy Kawasaki‘s APE (Author • Publisher • Entrepreneur): How to Publish a Book is a good resource. The first thing that you’ll notice is that it’s almost 400 pages, and that’s a pretty solid indicator of how much work it takes to self-publish a book-length manuscript with professional results.

But here’s an easier way to begin: Create a free downloadable PDF of about eight to ten pages, with images, for your audience. Key it to the start of the new year as everyone begins to think about their 2014 goals. It will still need editing and formatting, but it’s a manageable size for both you and your readers. List forms are always popular, but be sure your list is relevant and focused. A chef might put together 12 Healthy Recipes for the New Year. A consultant might review their ten favorite books of the year in their subject area, or outline six top leadership strategies to implement. These topics are not wildly original but they’re endlessly popular, and it’s a good way to stretch your writing beyond the blog post and offer something to your readers while exploring the process of producing high-quality e-publications in the realm of what Friedman might call a blend of DIY and community publishing. Contact me if I can help you with writing, editing, researching, or formatting.

Philip B. Corbett’s most recent  “After Deadline” column in the New York Times continues his review of changes to the paper’s style guide. Believe it or not, a lot of people pay close attention to the guide’s changes, and some decisions are pretty controversial in the language and usage world. Because the Times is considered a paper of record, its style choices are influential and authoritative.

Outside of the publishing world, most people aren’t familiar with style guides. If you’re generating any amount of published material, including websites, a style guide helps make your work more professional and elegant. Best of all, it reduces some of the decision fatigue that comes with writing and editing by defining much of the minutiae that goes into formatting a document. In just a sentence or two, for example, you might have to choose whether or not to use a serial comma; whether to spell out a state name, use a traditional abbreviation, or use a two-letter uppercase abbreviation; whether you can acceptably use impact as a verb; whether to use email or e-mail; and how to treat the title of an important executive. A good style guide will answer all those questions so you don’t even have to think about it and you don’t have to keep asking them over and over.

AP Stylebook and Chicago Manual of Style (14th edition)

Style Guides

A style guide is not a dictionary or grammar guide, though it may steer you toward good choices. Its purpose is to create clarity and consistency in all of the documents you produce. There are widely accepted style guides that you can use as a baseline; the two most used in non-specialized writing are the Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style. Both are updated regularly (the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style is the most recent). Most newspapers and popular magazines use AP style, while books and academic journals are more likely to use Chicago style. Press releases should almost always be written in AP style to minimize the amount of editing that a publication will have to do. Specialized professions often have their own stylebook, as do large corporations such as Microsoft.

If you’re producing a lot of documents or writing a book-length manuscript, an editor can help you develop a custom style sheet for the particularities of your work, in addition to recommending a standard style guide for most usage.

The pendulum always swings back. As everything was digitized, we began to covet vinyl albums, handmade books, craftsmanship. It’s not just nostalgia; it’s our need for complexity and character, soul and tactile experience. So I was intrigued to read this profile of Evan Williams, a founder of Twitter, who you might say is partly responsible for rewriting all the rules of language for at least a portion of the population. Williams’s latest venture is Medium, a site intended to foster long-form writing (or at least, as the article says and the site name suggests, medium-form writing) — a swing back from micro-form tweets.

I’ve seen some good writing on Medium and look forward to seeing where it goes. It’s a good reminder that communicating well requires versatility and a thoughtful assessment of the best medium for the message.

U Roberto Romano was a photographer and filmmaker who worked closely with my client GoodWeave, a nonprofit working to end child labor in the handmade carpet industry. He also made the documentaries The Dark Side of Chocolate and The Harvest/La Cosecha about children forced to work in agriculture. Robin, as he was called, died last week unexpectedly. It’s a tremendous loss for the humanitarian community and for his many, many friends and colleagues. From one of Robin’s blog posts: “Nelson Mandela once said “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” What I have known for a decade is that where children in American agriculture are concerned, the soul of America is languishing.”

Thank you to a man I never met in person but appreciated enormously for his courage and commitment, as well as his eye for beauty and truth. A friend who knew him well called him “an intense creative caring artist.” I can think of no better way to have lived. Rest in peace and condolences to my colleagues who mourn him.

Human Rights Watch Fields of Peril brochure

GoodWeave Faces of Freedom Exhibition

John McIntyre calls himself a “mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper,” and he writes a wonderful column for The Baltimore Sun on language and usage. Here’s his warning against holiday clichés.

(And incidentally, if I were one of Santa’s reindeers, I’d be Vixen.)

Bitten Gingerbread Man

I love the New York Times‘s After Deadline weekly column, and recommend it to anyone who loves words and wants to improve their writing and usage. From this week’s column:

pixelated. Note the spelling of this word, which refers to the blurred or blocky appearance of digital images whose smallest components — pixels — are enlarged. (And note that a similarly spelled word, pixilated, refers to enchantment by fairies. Preserve the distinction.)”