Waiting around for definitive ‘proof of harm’ won’t keep us safe anymore

“Further studies are necessary to determine if _________ is indeed harmful to human health.”

“There is no definitive evidence to suggest that _________ has negative consequences.”

How often have you read something like that in the news? To me, it seems like every day.  When it comes to testing, the gold standard has always been the randomized, double-blind study. The problem is that these studies often cost millions of dollars and take years to execute and analyze.

The crisis we face today is that potential threats to human health are cropping up at an exponential rate:  in our food supplies, in our water supplies, from electromagnetic radiation,  from the myriad medications we take.  Over time, the number and frequency of these potential threats will continue to increase. Randomized, double-blind studies simply can’t keep up with this onslaught.

The conventional wisdom is that we should accept that all of these “advances” are harmless until they are proven otherwise. We should leave it to the corporations that stand to profit from the sale of these products to design, implement and analyze the testing and to assure us of  safety.

There is a strident orthodoxy to the conventional wisdom that defies reason.

Vaccines, for example, are all commonly lumped together into one giant ball of virtue that can do no wrong.  Since vaccines can do no wrong, the more vaccines you take, the better off you will be.  If you question this orthodoxy in any way, you will be widely dismissed as an evil, nutty person who hates children.

The measles and mumps vaccines have been used for decades. We know that they are effective and very safe. But question the logic of vaccinating a pre-teen boy with a $360, three shot Gardisil treatment for HPV, a sexually transmitted disease, and people will get very angry at you. Why? Because vaccines are always good and never bad.

Besides, Gardisil hasn’t been proven to be harmful. 

Cell phone radiation hasn’t been proven to be harmful. GMOs haven’t been proven to be harmful. Move along. There is nothing to worry about.

Ironically, one of the oldest known drugs, marijuana, is the latest medical cure-all to grab the headlines. As legalization efforts sweep the nation, a whole industry is sprouting up to capitalize on this.

Not too long ago, a study suggested that marijuana can cause “structural abnormalities” in the brains of young people. The study’s authors were careful to say that “further study is necessary” to conclude whether this means actual brain damage takes place. I’m going to go out on a limb as say that “structural abnormalities” are enough of a red flag to be concerned about what pot does to developing brains. As marijuana goes mainstream, this is a serious public health problem.

We just can’t wait around for “further studies” anymore, with marijuana or any of this. The onslaught is too great. The double-blind study is too little, too late.  We need to integrate information from multiple sources and make informed hunches. We need to rely on common sense. Finally, we need to be skeptical whenever an organization or entity that has a vested interest in the sale of a product, whether direct (revenue) or indirect (campaign funds), dismisses our questions and concerns about its safety  based on all that we know.

This is the new reality.  The scientific method still matters. But a gut check just might end up saving your life.



Junk News Goes Mainstream at Boston.com

So today on the front page of Boston.com, near the top, is a story titled, Lefties are apparently having better sex. The prominent placement of the story made me think we might have something here. Having worked at Boston.com for quite a long time (1997 – 2006) and also being left-handed, I thought it would be worthwhile to click on the story to learn more. Boy, was I wrong.


The story cites an online, unscientific survey conducted by a sex toy manufacturer who just happens to be peddling a sex toy “that claims to ‘give the North paws a little taste of the South paw sex drive’ by stimulating a right-hander’s underused right-side of the brain by clenching a vibrating ball in their left hand.”


My, how the mighty have fallen.  I’d rather read a National Enquirer story than this drivel. At least you know where you stand with the National Enquirer. With Boston.com, I’m just not sure anymore. After all, this isn’t the first time I’ve felt used by the site. It’s part of a recent pattern. Call it the Upworthification of mainstream news.

Pageviews are like crack, I know from personal experience. It’s addictive to see those numbers go up. You start looking at them every day. Then every hour. Than a few times an hour.  But the eyeballs-equals-dollars formula was proven to be a failure a decade and a half ago. Besides, it’s one thing to whore yourself out with “cutest puppy dog” or “Halloween baby” photo galleries to get the numbers to go up. But to post fake news?

Next time I’m thinking of clicking on Boston.com link bait, I won’t. Moreover, I’ll probably miss real stories just because I have reason to doubt their truthfulness. Truthiness just isn’t enough to hang my hat on.

Finally, I curse Upworthy and the countless misleading, hyperbolic headlines it has spawned in its wake.

That is all. </rant>



Checkmate, Ford: ‘Cadillac Man’ Goes Down in Flames

Ford just came out with a brilliant parody in response to Cadillac’s perversely obnoxious “Poolside” ad. The Cadillac spot features a self-satisfied materialist leisurely lolling around his mansion boasting smugly about how he owed it all to hard work. Ford’s ad features an earnest young black woman talking about how it’s important to “try, try” to make the world a better place. Cadillac Man makes me want to take a shower. Ford Woman makes me proud to be a human being. Well done, Ford!

When it comes to businesses, can we stop calling what they do ‘social media?’

What businesses do is “digital marketing.” It is not “social media.” There is nothing at all social about a business using Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Pinterest to generate revenue. They aren’t trying to be your friend. They are trying to make money. That’s what businesses do.
Microsoft Word - web 2.0 logos.doc

Perhaps they are using social channels to provide a special offer to you, or to talk about their product or service in a way that makes it seem different and better than the competition. They may also want to share their expertise with you, to show you that they know what they are talking about in case you are interested in purchasing their product or service now or in the future.

If you go to a car dealer and the salesperson is super-friendly and super-helpful, is he being social? Nope. He is being a good salesperson. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. On the contrary. Good, honest salespeople make life better for consumers.

But being “social” means visiting with friends and family, and interacting on an honest, human level with no strings attached. It does not involve commerce. It does not involve brands. There is no quid pro quo. Being “social” is not about selling, it’s about living. There’s an important distinction.

Why most reporters hate most PR people, and 10 ways to fix the problem

Reporters get pitched lousy stories all the time. The sad truth is that most people that work in PR have never been on the other side of the pitch, so they have no idea how awful it is to hear the following: “Hi Tim, do you have a few minutes to hear about a product launch?”


No, I do not have time. No, I do not care about your lousy product.  And if you continue to bombard me with emails saying it’s the best/first/newest, it’s not that I will care less. I will actively despise you.

In conventional, bread-and-butter PR (i.e. 95 percent of the industry), the law of numbers takes precedence. Get me hits. Don’t be concerned about what these hits will do for the company, or if they serve any purpose, or help meet any objective. Pretend it will matter, and tell your client the same.  Smile and dial, spray and pray.

This is a brutally soul-sucking endeavor for several important reasons. Why? Reporters will hate you for it. These PR pitches and the people who are responsible for them are like swamp gnats.  The reporters tries to wave the gnats away, either by checking caller ID or not answering email, and they still keep coming at them.  Burning a bridge with a reporter is a cardinal sin in PR.  Repeatedly pitching dumb stories to reporters is the most efficient way of doing it.

And another thing, it doesn’t do a company any good. Sure, there will be a few pats on the back around the office, with people saying, “Well gee, look, WidgetBiz Today picked up our story about our new product!” This is more of a vanity play than something that will actually result in any practical benefits. Why? Because chances are, very few of your potential or current customers read this drivel. If you weren’t in PR, would you? Of course not.

How do you help your reporter and help your client at the same time? It’s pretty basic, but here you go:

1. Define your business objectives. What are your goals for the PR program? What are you trying to achieve? What’s the vision for a year from now? Where do you want to be? It’s incredible how little attention is given to this by typical PR flacks, because it’s the most important part of the program.

2. Define your product and company messaging. This, too, is often glossed over in traditional “law of numbers” PR, even though it’s a critical element of a strategic program. Most just plunge into an account without giving a moment’s thought. Putting thought and care into messaging enables a company communicate clearly about itself and how its products and services fit into the marketplace, and this helps the reporter.

3. Define your audience. Who are you trying to reach? Why are you trying to reach them? With B2B technology products, in some cases it may make more sense to reach out to the business side, in others, the technology side.  Each case is unique.

4. Define your media target list. Who are your target reporters, bloggers, and outlets? Follow them on Twitter. Use an aggregator like Feedly to follow the outlets that matter. Read, read, read. Get to know who they are, how they write, what they like to write about. You don’t want to pitch reporters who aren’t a good fit, because it won’t do you any good, and they’ll hate you for it.

5. Don’t pitch crap. Pitching donkey dung burns valuable bridges that can never be rebuilt. Acknowledge that straight product pitches almost always suck, and make sure you tell your client early in the process.

6. Answer this question: “How does my company help people?” The best stories reporters love are about people, not products. Case studies are a beautiful way of doing this, and reporters usually love them – or at least they won’t hate you for sharing them. Form and protect relationships with partners and customers who are willing to talk to the media.

7. Follow the trends. Fitting into a larger trend story makes both your client and the reporter look great.  Your client becomes part of a larger conversation and is featured in a story that people are likely to actually read – not usually the case with product launch stories.  Equally important, the reporter doesn’t look like he’s whoring himself out to a single company with a lousy, one-source story.

8. Reporters love it when people read them. That’s why they do what they do. Follow up with reporters after they write something that’s relevant to your client space, but ONLY IF YOU CAN HELP THEM.

9. Consider picking up the phone, but ONLY IF YOU CAN HELP.  Have you heard of this invention called the telephone? It’s a way of conversing with somebody in real-time regardless of geographic location.  Mornings are usually better.  It’s usually best to follow up on a story that they’ve recently written. Know what you are going to say beforehand, and keep it BRIEF.

10. Never, ever pitch on Friday afternoon. Morning pitches Tuesday through Thursday are best. Enough said. This may seem a trite simple, but the point is that reporters are people too. They have lives, friends, families, trials and tribulations.

Lazy reporters ignore all PR, no matter how compelling it might be, because it’s just easier and less work that way. It’s a waste of time and energy even trying to pitch these slackers. Bad PR flacks think only of hits, not business objectives. Hits, not reporters. Hits, not truth. These are the ones who give the industry the bad name that it so often (and unfortunately) deserves.

On a positive note, good reporters actually like and respect good PR people – and visa versa – because we can help each other do our jobs better.

What’s not to love about that?

A Key Difference between the Seventies and Today: William Shattner & ‘Rocketman’

At the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards, William Shattner performed Elton John’s song, “Rocket Man,” in spoken word while smoking a cigarette … and no one in attendance apparently thought it was funny enough to laugh out loud. I have to believe that many people in the audience wanted to laugh, but they didn’t, not so much because it would have embarrassed Shattner, but because it would have embarrassed them. Today we are so conditioned to be voyeuristic that life can seem like a movie to be watched and critiqued. Thanks to our collective post-doctorate levels of mass media consumption, we have become expert observers and shamelessly outspoken analysts. This performance today would result in spasms and waves of loud and uncontrollable laughter.  The man who immortalized Captain Kirk is laughing all the way to the bank in 2011, with an estimated net worth of more than $1 billion thanks to his role as a self-mocking pitchman for Priceline.com. Now Shattner is in on the joke, and it’s paying off. 



You Have More in Common with Strangers than You Know

I find this short film by Luke Rudkowski to be very moving. He asks random people on the New York City subway some pretty heavy questions about life, success, what it means to be happy, and the meaning of life itself. Their answers are powerful in their wisdom and humanity. 

I appreciate the opportunity to talk to strangers because it almost always makes me feel a lot better about the human race.  You’d think we were all selfish, cold-hearted cretins by the way people are portrayed in the market-driven media, or by how “success” is so commonly and erroneously defined. People who get rich by driving banks over cliffs, or by building nuclear reactors that cut corners on safety, or by peddling pharmaceutical concoctions they know cause more harm than good  – these are deemed “the winners” when materialism is the measure and “selfishness pays” is the message. The fact is that most people don’t buy this garbage. We are naturally inclined to care about each other. In our hearts we know the true measure of success, of what it means to be human. It’s a pretty simple formula, and people everywhere are much smarter about this stuff than we sometimes realize. 

We’re all spinning around on the big blue ball at the same time and occasionally it overwhelms me how close we all are in time and space, no matter who we are or where we live, regardless of whether we know each other or not.  

Go ahead, just ask anybody on the subway. There are heroes all around us.