Parallels with ‘Fake’ Mandela Signer Hiring Problem?

fake-signerWhat do the South African government officials who hired the “fake” sign language interpreter for Nelson Mandela’s memorial have in common with U.S. military commands charged with contracting communication firms for information operations (IO) and strategic communication efforts?

Apparently, hiring people without the necessary expertise because they have no background in the area.

According to a fascinating report by the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College (tip of the hat to the Public Diplomacy, Networks and Influence blog), the IO and strategic communication efforts the U.S. military funded in places like Afghanistan were bungled for this very reason:

“Concurrently, there appears to be an absence of intelligent customers. While staff colleges and military academies prepare military officers and diplomats for career service, experience shows that corporate understanding of even the most basic principles of influence are exceptionally weak. This is not a criticism of individuals, more a statement of fact…. Unfortunately, the operating environment has now changed radically from that which prevailed during [commanding officers’] formative years. This unfortunately makes them highly susceptible to very persuasive and convincing sales talk from communication contractors. Why would you NOT buy an IO program from a company that, say, boosted sales of a particular car by 30 percent? Superficially, it seems logical, but the nuance of the type of communication, and the precise effect sought, is lost on busy military people who have no background in this area,” writes the author, Dr. Steve Tatham, Great Britain’s leading military expert on strategic communication and IO.

Assuming everything he writes is true, and I have no reason to suspect otherwise, I hope the report becomes required reading for U.S. military commands involved in strategic communication and IO. Besides the revelation frighteningly parallel to the Mandela signer fiasco, the report does an excellent job explaining must-know information about the differences between various disciplines within the science of communication. Dr. Tatham breaks them into three models:

  • Informational communication: For the military, these are “no spin zone” public affairs officers charged with being first with the truth while balancing the need to constantly and promptly keep target audiences informed of current events. In U.S. federal government contracting circles, this is also a must-have skillset for people charged with communicating to the U.S. Congress and senior policymakers to avoid crossing the lobbying, “self-aggrandizement,” or “puffery” line.
  • Attitudinal communication: Dr. Tatham categorizes commercial marketing and advertising as attitudinal communication—focused on reinforcing positive attitudes or dislodging negative attitudes rather than behavioral outcomes. He cites frighteningly wasteful examples of U.S. military contractors using an attitudinal communication model to influence foreign audiences while paying little attention to measures of effectiveness or target audience analysis (in my personal observations, crossing the lobbying, “self-aggrandizement,” or “puffery” line is another major pitfall when contractors targeting U.S. audiences only understand this model). He also notes U.S. and NATO doctrines are based on an attitudinal communication model and, as a result, are entirely top down (quite scary considering information and communication technologies power bottom-up communication and organizing). The problem, Dr. Tatham says, is selling something like toothpaste is simplistic next to selling U.S. military objectives, such as reducing the number of insurgent recruits or opium poppy growers in Afghanistan, and the impact required to make a difference is vastly greater:

“[I]t is important to remember that the consumer, by their presence in the toothpaste aisle of the supermarket, has already made a decision in their mind to make a purchase; their behavior has already been set. Indeed, that behavior would have been pre-determined by their upbringing (always clean your teeth before bed), their education (not cleaning your teeth will cause you painful medical problems), and other social or cultural factors (for example, guys with bad breath don’t get girls!). All the advertiser has to do is switch the consumer’s behavior from one brand to another—the key is that the consumer was already going to buy toothpaste…. A conversion rate of 10 percent (i.e., 1 in 10 buying a different brand of car or toothpaste) would be considered outstanding and for a large company may well prove highly profitable. But in military operations achieving a 10 percent change in the behavior of, say, an insurgent group or a hostile community is highly unlikely to be game changing in the context of the wider conflict,” he writes.

  • Behavioral communication: Dr. Tatham terms communication focused on mitigating or encouraging specific and pre-determined behaviors as behavior communication. The U.S. military’s IO (at least when practiced without user error) and social marketers from the health and environment sectors fit within this model. He notes, without referencing cognitive dissonance theory, that “behavioral communication can also be surprisingly effective in changing attitudes.” He also notes, unlike the attitudinal communication model, this model necessitates solid target audience analysis and attention to behavioral measures of effectiveness. For this reason, he recommends the U.S. military refocus on behavioral communication and rethink the commercial marketing contractors it employs:

“Commercial marketing is not the kind of discipline that is equipped to deal with behavioral outcomes or scenarios that are more complex or require more nuanced definitions. It is this author’s view that marketing principles are simply not effective enough to drive U.S. military capabilities and development; and that the end of that road will only be failure. Further, it is this author’s view that only a scientific approach will do. This approach must be based on the sciences pertaining to human behavior, in all its myriad manifestations and with all its bewildering complexities, and not the limited perspective of consumer behavior, or the misguided assumptions of attitudinal psychology,” he says.

Fingers crossed any new revelations about U.S. military communication contractors do not have any additional parallels with the fake Mandela signer. That story has gone from bad to worse.

P.S. Don’t have time to read Dr. Tatham’s report? Then view the 6-minute YouTube video below with a take similar to his on the three models.

Visualizing the Disruptive Power of ICTs

Here’s a graphic showing why information and communications technologies (ICTs) represent the power to influence behavior and affect large-scale change at a reasonable price for the first time.

Success PowerPoint Table2

The graphic’s four cells show how ICTs represent a disruptive technological shift to public communications:

  • Cell 1: Until recently, most traditional advertising and public communications campaigns used the approach shown in Cell 1. Because stakeholder groups were too large to engage efficiently or cost effectively, you set objectives and defined solutions with minimal or no input from stakeholder groups. This often proved ineffective, especially when behaviors being addressed were high risk or high cost.
  • Cell 2: Many funders of public communications campaigns focus on harnessing influencers to affect desired change from within the systems of stakeholder groups. This is the second most effective way to bring about change. Until ICTs’ recent user-customization and responsive designs, however, a debilitating obstacle was mass producing campaign materials at a reasonable cost responsive to stakeholder groups’ diverse solutions and needs.
  • Cell 3: Some funders of public communications campaigns focus on responding to the needs of stakeholder groups with solutions that have worked elsewhere. The major problem with this approach is stakeholder groups often feel little ownership over—and motivation to carry out—solutions you dictate, especially in the absence of influencer champions within the system. Like with Cell 2, a debilitating obstacle in the absence of ICTs was mass producing campaign materials at a reasonable cost that were useful and appropriate.
  • Cell 4: The approach for Cell 4, the opposite of many traditional advertising and public communications campaigns, allows stakeholder groups, not funding organizations, to set their own objectives, define their own solutions, and customize their own ICT-based campaign materials. Involving those who would benefit most from a good outcome is always a strong motivator, representing the optimal strategy to affect lasting change. Alcoholics Anonymous and Neighborhood Watch organizations are good examples of this approach in action. Only with ICTs, however, is this approach possible without infinite funding.

Of course, Cell 4 also means understanding and rethinking why and how you do things (especially if you are still stuck, even partially, in Cell 1) to create a web of engagement fueling lasting change with many hands.

We certainly live and work in an exciting time.

Editor’s note: The graphic is adapted from a similar one I recall seeing at some point on why affecting large-scale change via communications is nearly possible without grass-roots support.  It’s basically an after thought from last week’s post on 3 Ways ICTs Remove ‘Classic’ Barriers to Action.

3 Ways ICTs Remove ‘Classic’ Barriers to Action

19900100 Berlin Brandenburger Tor Mauer MenschenUsing public communications to get people to change their behaviors and routines can be hard. If it were not hard, there would be no smokers, drunk drivers, overweight people, new HIV/AIDS infections, etc. But thanks to information and communications technologies (ICTs), some of the barriers classic communications theories pointed to as repressing behavior change are today smaller or, in some cases, eliminated.

Here are three ways ICTs make affecting change a little easier:

  • Precise notifications and reminders. According to the Theory of Reasoned Action (TRA), every single instance of behavior involves four specific elements: (1) a specific action (2) performed with respect to a given target (3) in a given context (4) at a given point in time. An example would be a mother in a developing country taking her child to a health clinic when vaccination stocks are available and the child needs a vaccination. Without ICTs, it would be impossible to notify the mother about her child’s opportunity to get a needed vaccination at the ideal time, and a mother’s promise to a healthcare provider to get her child vaccinated would be easily forgotten if made weeks or months before the vaccination was necessary. With SMS text messages and/or email, notifications and reminders can more easily be delivered with ideal real time precision in terms of action, target, context, and time.
  • Community support. Both TRA and Diffusions of Innovations Theory stress people are likely to act if they perceive community support/social pressure to do something. Online communities—whether ad hoc like Occupy Wall Street or organized like professional communities of practice—can boost the perception “I am not in this alone,” “people I respect want me to do it,” and people like me are doing it” necessary to invoke action. Further, online communities can point people to ways to (1) overcome perceived barriers to action and (2) enhance their sense of self-efficacy—two crucial elements for invoking action according to the Health Belief Model and Social Cognitive Theory.
  • Bridging opportunity and motivation. ICTs not only can empower people with precision in terms of action, target, context, and time (see bullet one above), designed correctly, they also can reward people’s intrinsic motivations—both personal (e.g., autonomy and competence) and social (e.g., membership and generosity). Without ICTs, it is harder to bridge opportunity and motivation, decreasing the odds of eliciting the behavior you want (it probably goes without saying that all kinds of theories, not just ones related to communications, recognize the importance of rewards in invoking desired behavior). As Clay Shirky writes in Cognitive Surplus:

“Users will only take advantage of opportunities they understand and that seem interesting or valuable… It doesn’t matter how much you want users to behave a certain way. What matters is how they react to the opportunities you give them. If you want different behavior, you have to provide different opportunities.”

Bottom line? Realizing the full potential of ICTs means understanding the value-added they bring—built on the basics of timeless communications principles.

Facebook’s ‘Simplistic’ Analytics Failing Marketers?

Data mining by Brittany Hammonds on FlickrClaiming “Facebook is failing marketers,” a report by research firm Forrester unleashed a social media firestorm this week. The report documented the results of a survey of 395 marketers in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. The marketers were asked to rank the business value derived from digital marketing opportunities from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to onsite ratings and reviews to branded communities and blogs.

They rated Facebook dead last.

In an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg published on the Forrester blog, Forrester analyst Nate Elliot explained the two main reasons behind dissatisfaction with Facebook:

  • The lack of engagement brands see via their Facebook pages
  • The fact Facebook’s is not “good enough” at pure advertising, even though Facebook is trying to shift its business in this direction

Based on my knowledge of big data and data mining, I have to wonder how the marketers surveyed measure digital marketing success. Unfortunately, we do not know which companies the 395 marketers represent. So we can only assume Forrester’s research expertise would lead it to select subjects with opinions based on objective quantitative data versus subjective guesses and opinions. Without knowing the basis of their assessments, I am unsure what to make of the Forrester report and the resulting controversy (I did not pay $499 for the full report).

What I do know is that many social media experts seem to measure Facebook marketing success using vanity metrics such as likes, fans, or views. But they do not seem to know much about their clients’ fans and followers. Are they customers or donors? Are they potential customers or donors? Or are they bots? Many avoid answering whether digital marketing activity results in sales, donations, or other measurable actions. While you hear a little about the importance of measurement (often using spreadsheets) or data mapping, rarely do you hear any discussion about data mapping in the context that matters for data analytics (no, I am not talking about data visualization mapping, such as Ushahidi).

Data mapping, the step before data mining, involves identifying all possible structured and unstructured data elements collected or available on potential customers, donors, or other study subjects (e.g., digital information from web sites, mobile devices, software logs; verbal conversations; hard copy records, etc.). Then you find ways to link different data sets to find classes, clusters, associations, outliers, sequential patterns, etc. Just as successful social media implementation requires the attention of senior leadership across “silos,” successful data analytics requires the collection, analysis, and sharing of relevant data across “silos.”

Many firms analyze big data with propriety software, such as SAS, and some do this with free open source software, such as Hadoop, MATLAB, or the R programming language. Data analytics is how Amazon knows to recommend items that would make perfect presents for your relatives. Due to Amazon’s obvious data analytics expertise, I am positive an Amazon marketer could analyze quantitatively why or why not Facebook and other digital marketing opportunities are working for Amazon and its commercial customers.

Take a look at all the big data offerings available on Amazon Web Services. In comparison, Facebook Page Insights analytics can accurately, to quote  Forrester, be labeled “simplistic.” You don’t have to understand how the marketers Forrester surveyed measure digital marketing success—or even agree with their opinions—to see that.

Crowdsourcing USAID Monitoring and Evaluation

090728-A-6365W-093Crowdsourcing! Big Data! International Development! A recent Washington Post article on future U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) monitoring and evaluation (M&E) activities in Afghanistan piqued many of my interests.

According to the article, after coalition forces withdraw from Afghanistan next year, only 20 percent of U.S.-funded reconstruction projects worth billions of dollars will be in areas safe enough for U.S. officials to visit and directly inspect. For this reason, USAID “intends to use satellite photos and ‘crowdsourcing’ experiments that will solicit feedback on progress from Afghans who are supposed to benefit from U.S.-financed work.” These experiments are to supplement the work of Afghans with engineering and program-monitoring skills, who will be tapped for the majority of onsite M&E activities.

My first thought was “Wow! Fascinating!” My second thought was why limit the satellite photos and “crowdsourcing” experiments to Afghans? It’s easy to imagine scenarios, for example, combining the best of the South Sudan Satellite Sentinel Project, USAID’s crowdsourcing initiative to geocode and standardize its Development Credit Authority (DCA) loan guarantee data, and the U.S. Civil Air Patrol’s crowdsourced aerial imagery assessment following Super Storm Sandy. Crowds worldwide could easily view online photos of, for example, USAID-supported construction or agriculture/irrigation projects. In the latter example, digital volunteers could view a photo and select (a) for pink/red poppy flowers, (b) for violet/light purple saffron flowers, (c) for light green or tan wheat, or (d) for other.

Click on figure to enlarge.

Click on figure to enlarge.

Due to the high levels of corruption in Afghanistan and the critical levels of insecurity, such an approach would likely be more accurate and safer than sending in potentially bribable and frightened Afghans with GPS- and timestamp-enabled digital cameras and smart phones to monitor and evaluate corruption-prone USAID-supported projects. Such an approach also could possibly improve accountability (or at least keep it from plummeting after coalition forces withdraw) and help make a dent in the recent rise in opium production in Afghanistan (yes, despite USAID assistance and the U.S. military presence). Online transparency often breeds self-correcting behavior since government officials, businesses, and individuals (including USAID-funded monitors) do not want to be publicly caught doing (or be associated with) something embarrassing or illegal.

After reading the draft USAID Remote Monitoring Project Indefinite Quantity Contracts (IQCs) Request for Proposals, however, I could see involving non-Afghans in crowdsourcing M&E is not currently envisioned or was at least not mentioned in the draft (the final solicitation has yet to be released). Any global crowdsourcing scenario would have to fly with the Government of Afghanistan, who might perceive online satellite and aerial imagery provided by the U.S. National Geospatial Intelligence Agency differently than something like the South Sudan Satellite Sentinel Project and its Harvard University-provided satellite and aerial imagery.

The draft solicitation did offer other interesting tidbits:

I look forward to learning more about this M&E project as it develops. With billions of dollars at stake, the incentive is great for interesting and creative crowdsourcing, big data, and international development M&E innovations to take shape.