Is a free press that self-censors still free?

Posted on November 9, 2009 by Comments Off

Captured by The Cydonian from

Bernard Chan wrote an excellent op-ed piece for the South China Morning Post recently (“Our press may not be fair, but at least it’s free”) in which he acknowledges that there are certain parts of the Hong Kong media whose coverage of Donald Tsang, Chief Executive of Hong Kong, is less than fair:

Certain Hong Kong newspapers are very biased against this administration – and not necessarily just to boost their readership. They have their own particular agendas, and they don’t seem to mind sacrificing professional standards as a result.

(SCMP link is here, subscription required.)

Negative coverage has recently dogged Donald Tsang regarding his perceived nepotism.

Chan compares press freedom in Hong Kong favorably with its sister Asian Tiger to the south:

What would have happened if a newspaper in Singapore, rather than Hong Kong, had suggested the senior leader might be guilty of nepotism?

It wouldn’t happen – because Singapore newspapers are under a large degree of official control. But Singaporeans and overseas media who have suggested nepotism among the leadership have ended up being sued for libel and subject to severe fines. In some cases, when top officials in Singapore have sued opponents, the result has been bankruptcy and the end of a career.

Bernard Chan goes on to say a spectrum of media bias in Hong Kong is “a mark of a free society”, citing Fox News in the US, and The Guardian in UK, as examples on both ends.  According to Chan, it behooves politicians in free societies to take advantage of this situation.

Most interestingly, he compares Hong Kong with Singapore, where the lack of press freedom has relegated it to 133rd place in Reporters Without Borders’ 2009 press freedom index. Hong Kong came in 48th. He blames self-censorship for Hong Kong’s low showing, which raises the question, “If we already have freedom in the HK press, then how can we also suffer from too much self-censorship?” This apparent breakdown in logic only makes sense if you understand the unspoken: while the Hong Kong media freely “smears” Donald Tsang, some outlets practice self-censorship when it comes to reporting on China, especially on contentious issues.

Ironic, perhaps, that Chan didn’t highlight this in his column.

Don’t claim to be a social media expert? We want to talk to you.

Posted on November 6, 2009 by Comments Off

My social Network on Flickr, Facebook, Twitter...

Image by luc legay via Flickr

Recently I’ve been traveling for business a whole lot, while busy working on a business development pipeline that’s healthier than we’ve ever seen, and at the same time building budgets and business plans for next year.  So I’ve been guilty of the blogger’s sin: neglecting my blog.  Still, it was a jolt to hear a job candidate say, in her diplomatic way, “You haven’t been updating your blog lately, have you?”

It’s gratifying that many candidates nowadays, especially those that are ambitious and smart, routinely check out our blogs and twitter feeds before they come in for an interview.  It’s partly the reputation that we’ve gained, partly our stated intention to make digital an integral part of our offering rather than a separate function.  I personally have said on Twitter that if you are social media savvy my estimation of you instantly goes up a notch. 

However, we do need to distinguish between people that think like social media users versus marketers.  Just because you have a blog, a Facebook account and tweet regularly, doesn’t automatically make you a social media savvy marketer.  It just means you spend a lot of time in front of your PC.  It’s how you can creatively blend all the communication tools at your disposal, including “traditional” PR, that matters.

I have a few questions that I like to ask, rather than the bog standard “Do you use Facebook, MySpace or Twitter?”

  • What in your mind makes a social media expert? Would you consider yourself one? Why?
  • Describe 1-2 recent marketing campaigns conducted mainly online that you like.
  • How would you integrate digital marketing ideas with offline PR and advertising programs?
  • Are you familiar with [recent high profile social media marketing faux pas by well known brand]? How would you remedy the situation? What mistakes did they make originally?
  • If you were to design a creative, out-of-the box social media campaign to market yourself as a job candidate, what would it look like?

Rather than just having accounts at all the right sites, it’s the ability to think that matters the most. 

The first question is particularly illuminating; the ones who claim not to know enough about social media usually turn out to be the best digital marketing thinkers. A benefit of being in constant learning mode, perhaps.

Random Internet memes in China

Posted on July 30, 2009 by Comments Off

Molly, from Waggener Edstrom’s digital PR team in China, today sent us this email on a recent random meme reported on

On Baidu Tieba [a popular online forum in China] during the morning of July 16th, an anonymous user made a post titled “Jia Junpeng, your mom wants you to go home to eat” [original post, 贾君鹏你妈妈叫你回家吃, Chinese]. Just like this, an internet post with only a title and no content swiftly became popular on the internet receiving, within a little over a day (by last night [July 17] 12am), 7.4 million netizen views and 300,000 netizen comments.

This funny phrase, within a few hours, attracted over 390,000 views and nearly 17,000 comments. This reporter also say that there were netizens who changed their online screen names to “Jia Junpeng’s mom”, “Jia Junpeng’s grandpa”, “Jia Junpeng’s maternal aunt”, “Jia Junpeng’s paternal aunt”, and so on, forming an abnormally huge “Jia Junpeng family”.

This reporter saw a netizen with the name “Jia Junpeng” reply on the thread, “I will not go home to eat today. I am eating at the internet bar right now. Tell my mom for me.” However this netizen named “Jia Junpeng” was very quickly exposed by other netizens who discovered that his ID’s registration time was July 16th 11am, one hour later than the original post and therefore “definitely ‘egao’ [parody, imitation]“, other netizens said.

This post attracted hundreds of thousands of netizens’ attention, with many netizens on the thread questioning just who is “Jia Junpeng”, and hoping that someone could explain the cause of the “Jia Junpeng, your mom wants you to go home to eat” matter. However, there has yet to be an “insider” to come forth to explain.

Some netizen started a human flesh search using the original poster’s IP address. The search discovered that on the internet there are two matching identities, one who is presently in Haidian of Beijing selling books, and the other is in some construction group in Zhenjiang of Jiangsu province. However, neither can be verified.

The Baidu Tieba [Post Bar] was the World of Warcraft tieba. Right now, World of Warcraft is changing companies from the9 to NetEase and many Chinese WoW players cannot play.

One reason why this topic became so popular is because a new internet phrase/meme started when one commenter on the original WoW Baidu Tieba thread wrote:


[What we are following is not a post, but loneliness.]

After this comment appeared, many people copied it. For example:


[What I am posting is not a post, I am posting loneliness.]

我买的不是新电脑,是寂寞 [KDS]

[What I purchased is not a new computer, but loneliness.]

你看的不是妞,是寂寞 [KDS]

[What you are you looking at is not a chick/girl, but loneliness.]

There are many many examples. Why did it become popular? Probably because it is so exaggerated so it is funny. Why “loneliness”? Maybe because many WoW players cannot play right now and are very bored.

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Security in the Age of Social Media

Posted on July 18, 2009 by Comments Off

A thought related to my previous one about the leaked Twitter docs, it could be interesting if a follow-up story was done about how the hacker got his hands on the confidential documents in the first place. 

Apparently he hacked into the Google Mail account of a senior Twitter executive using the Password Recovery question function.  This is the security measure that allows you to recover a forgotten password by responding to a question that supposedly only you have the answer to, such as “What is your mother’s maiden name”, “What is your favorite pet’s name”, and so on.  

An argument against keeping your documents in the Cloud? Or a wake-up call to have password recovery questions that are extremely hard to guess?

How easy is your password recovery question?

Confidentiality in the Age of Social Media

Posted on July 17, 2009 by Comments Off

Topic of the week in social media was TechCrunch’s decision to publish confidential internal documents from Twitter, sent to them by a hacker:

On Tuesday evening more than 300 confidential Twitter documents and screenshots landed in our inbox. We said we were going to post a handful of them only, and we’ve spent much of the last 36 hours talking directly to Twitter about the right way to go about doing that. We’ll have more to say on that process in a couple of days.

The documents include employment agreements, calendars of the founders, new employee interview schedules, phone logs and bills, alarm settings, a financial forecast, a pitch for a Twitter TV show, confidentiality agreements with companies such as AOL, Dell, Ericsson, and Nokia, a list of employee dietary restrictions, credit card numbers, Paypal and Gmail screen shots, and much more.

Some comments have been very critical of TechCrunch’s decision to publish the documents, in spite of them having apparently consulted with Twitter before publishing.  (I’m willing to bet NOT publishing was not an option on the table during those discussions.)

Here are two typical negative reactions from bloggers:

Daring Fireball wrote:

What you may ask, is the dilemma, since it is clear that any decent human being would simply refuse to have anything to do with something so lurid? Arrington’s dilemma is that he’s unsure how to clean the stains from his pants, incurred during his excitement at the opportunity to publish as much of this material as he can get away with.

He is a very sad excuse for a man.

Too Much Nick wrote:

I’ve never liked TechCrunch, but before now it was mostly personal preference or distaste. Now it’s major. IF YOU EVER, EVER, EVER READ OR LINK TO TECHCRUNCH, YOU ARE NOW SUPPORTING A SITE THAT UTTERLY DISRESPECTS ALL PRIVACY AND RULE OF LAW. THEY ARE SCUM.

If you want to vote for whether TechCrunch should have published the documents, here’s a quick Internet poll.

Interestingly, in a post this week on Marketing Magazine’s blog, M&C Saatchi Asia head Chris Jaques asked readers to tell him in confidence which agencies have secretly laid off staff recently, under the reasoning that agency management are lying when they say they have fired people for being “not good enough”:

I promise to keep your name and personal details completely confidential.

But I would like you to let me know approximately how many people have been made redundant from your agency in 2009?

Everyone needs to know the truth: the real facts, not the agency management’s PR-controlled bullshit.

Because agency management throughout the region are lying, and it’s the agency staff who are suffering. Management are telling the media that they have made no redundancies, so that they can preserve a false image of success and resilience.

Which means that they are happy for their staff to suffer for the sake of their own reputation. Which makes me screaming mad, for one critical and undeniable reason:

If agencies are denying that they have made any redundancies because of financial reasons – then those people who have been made redundant, must have been fired because they are not good enough. Which, in most cases, is simply not true. I’ve personally interviewed many, many talented people this year who have only lost their jobs because their bosses are losing money.

(I took offense at that “PR-controlled” bit, but hey he’s an advertising man.)

We always say that Transparency and Authenticity are the currency of the social media age, but where do you draw the line? Some would say TechCrunch’s decision to publish crossed the line, and since Chris Jaques’ mission is to uncover the truth, he did not break any ethical standards.

Are newspapers dying? Only if they don’t innovate.

Posted on June 28, 2009 by Comments Off

Many major newspapers, especially in the US, are closing down, going online exclusively, or entering Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The reasons for this challenging state of affairs are fairly well known, including:

  • High Internet penetration and freely available news content online is causing a decline in overall print readership.
  • Online is a more prevalent environment to break news than print, diverting valuable eyeballs.
  • Drastic decline in advertising revenues since the economic downturn began.
  • Many publishers are struggling with large debt loads they took on before the downturn. They can’t invest in talent or resources to improve their product as much as they used to.

A Twitter conversation with ex-colleague @r_c led me to ponder: could newspapers have done things differently to avoid what is happening now? Tom Foremski of Silicon Valley Watcher doesn’t think so:

I was asked recently, “what could the newspapers have done to survive this disruption?”

I answered: “nothing.” Even if newspapers had done everything right: started blogging five years ago, offered free classified online advertising as Craigslist, etc. It would not have been enough to avoid the continued disruption of their business models.

This is an important point. What’s happening to newspapers, and other media companies, is not a business cycle. It’s not their fault. When an industry faces a disruptive trend there is nothing that can be done — except a complete reinvention of your business. You can’t just tweak a few things here or there.

I agree that if newspapers did nothing they would be “toast”, but many news organizations are transforming themselves in ways that may yet allow them to survive and even thrive.  In other words, a “complete reinvention” of their business is already ongoing.  But at the end of the process, whether they could still be defined as news organizations might be up for debate.

Then there are the news organizations that have modified their business model, but retained their original identity and modus operandi.

The Wall Street Journal Online’s success is an example.  In this guest post on Alan Mutter’s blog, Bill Grueskin, former managing editor of WSJ.Com, describes the paper’s (now prescient) insistence on charging for content and the payoff of 1.1 million paying subscribers today.  He also disputes some myths about how WSJ.Com achieved its unique success, such as expense accounts paying for subscriptions, high cost of acquisition, and business content slant. I found his ideas about what readers of a news site would pay for, especially intriguing:

How about a daily email that told them what traffic spots to avoid, or an authoritative reader-generated guide to the best and worst public schoolteachers? Or a regularly updated site that told readers how much and why local real estate listings had dropped or risen in the last few weeks, along with examples of how certain homeowners got appraisals lowered? Or innovative coverage of local government, providing sample bills every time property taxes go up and video clips of commission meetings intertwined with analysis and context? In other words, content that is truly of online, not just posted there.

So what can news organizations do to reinvent? 

  • Go where the readers go. Readers went online because of the Internet, so newspapers went online too (but didn’t charge for content.) Today’s consumers are untethered and access the Internet on mobile platforms, so news must go mobile too.  But let’s not forget that nearly half of US adults still read at least one newspaper daily, so print is not going away soon. 
  • Create new content to charge for and gradually lower investment in content you used to offer for free. Don’t ask readers to pay for content that was previously free. 
  • Create content that cannot be easily disintermediated or devalued. (see above)
  • Adapt to lower margins and reinvent the business accordingly. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was recently quoted as saying advertising revenues will not bounce back to pre-downturn levels, and that the global advertising economy has been “reset.” (Disclosure: MS is a client.) Food for thought: paying a roomful of editors and reporters is more expensive than managing a network of freelance journalists, or an amorphous community of citizen journalists.  Do you need an office building, or can you run a newspaper completely virtually?
  • If it makes sense, going online exclusively is an option. When does it make sense? Questions to ask include: Are your content and readership global or local? How large is your print readership base, is it going away soon and can you successfully shift their access online? Can you open up and reach new audiences online? Going online can also make a lot of business sense from a finance perspective. According to this USA Today article:

Digital media evangelists say the future will be much different. About 85% of a newspaper’s costs go to things such as presses, paper, ink and trucks. Without those costs, even modest ad sales could support lots of people to provide local news and information without charge.

Reinvention means actively tearing down existing practices and experimenting with new business models. We require nothing short of Innovation in Audience, Business, Content, and Delivery.

I also believe, in spite of the hand-wringing over how newspapers should reinvent their business in the face of disruptive technologies, that quality content will win out eventually.  The Economist’s rise in advertising revenue and readership, in spite of its perceived lack of digital savvy, is a great example. Read this excellent article in the Atlantic about why The Economist is succeeding. In particular the writer says:

The Economist has never had much digital savvy. It offered a complex mix of free and paid content (rarely a winning strategy) until two years ago and was so unprepared for the Internet that it couldn’t even secure as its Web domain. (It later tried, unsuccessfully, to claim the URL.) Today, access to the site is free of charge, excepting deep archival material, but while editors have made some desultory efforts at adding social-networking features, most of the magazine’s readers seem to have no idea the site exists. While other publications whore themselves to Google, The Huffington Post, and the Drudge Report, almost no one links to The Economist. It sits primly apart from the orgy of link love elsewhere on the Web.

If the Economist, as a global “weekly newspaper”, can thrive and see advertising revenues rise by 25% in 2008, and if WSJ.Com can build a paying online subscriber base of 1.1 Million, then clearly there are ways to survive the disruption.  It would be a shame if the current decline continues, since newspapers are an essential part of modern society, especially as watchdogs. There’s even talk of government bailouts, which would certainly compromise the watchdog role.

Real Time is On Time when it comes to news

Posted on June 28, 2009 by Comments Off

I’m starting to get fatigued from all the Michael Jackson coverage, but couldn’t resist being impressed by this post on the Loosewire blog about the online timing of MJ’s death reports and the gap between online media such as TMZ (who broke the news), and the mainstream media, who appeared flatfooted and trailed online news sources by over an hour in announcing Jackson’s death. The chronology of how the news broke online is fascinating, and he notes the difference in approach between online news sources and mainstream media:

It’s a strange new world where information travels this quickly. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing that traditional media tries to confirm stories the old fashioned way.

But the problem is the gap it leaves.

Jeremy further wrote that Twitter is the last piece of the puzzle, offering real time search for information that feeds the public’s need for information in a way that search engines (which still need to crawl the web) and traditional news sources cannot. This is a point my colleague David Patton (formerly of WSJ.Com) also made in this post, entitled “Search Engines Need to Get Into Real Time.”

Of course in spite of all the celebration of how online media is scooping mainstream media, there are instances when the web gets it wrong, sometimes deliberately.  Witness the number of reports about the supposed death of Jeff Goldblum, Harrison Ford and Natalie Portman, and most remarkably, the number of gullible people who believe them.

On the flip side of the coin there are the cynical ones such as celebrity blogger Perez Hilton who caught a firestorm when he thought Jackson faked his death. (“Perez Hilton’s Despicable Coverage of Michael Jackson’s Death”)

Strange new world indeed.

Apology from Langham Hotel

Posted on June 18, 2009 by Comments Off

Received this in email today:

Hi David

Just a quick not to acknowledge you comments on Langham Hotels International ‘Big Deal’ campaign.

In case you haven’t seen our apology interview, you may want to take a look at the link:

The videos were wrong.  You were right to tell us so, and we’re sorry.

Best regards


GM Shawn Campbell portrayed the incident as  “disconnect”.  It was great to hear him say his company remains committed to using social media.  The timing of the Youtube apology is a bit late, but as the first step in a long term rehabilitation of Langham Hotel’s image it’s a solid start.

Twitter is not a news source, deal with it

Posted on June 18, 2009 by Comments Off


Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

Thanks to WE colleague Tac Anderson who pointed to this John Dvorak piece about how Twitter is fundamentally flawed as a news source. Dvorak listed seven flaws with Twitter as a provider of news, including incompleteness, inaccuracy, vulnerability to hoaxers, lack of analysis, skewed priorities, and so on. 

I agree with Dvorak’s views because they refute the oft-held position that Twitter is an emerging news source. Most culpable are the media pundits who breathlessly trumpet Twitter as some form of new journalism.  Most Twitter content about current events is biased, immediate, partial, opinionated.  Sometimes they are firsthand or on-location, especially at the onset of an occurrence.  Its content creators are not vested in ensuring the accuracy of facts and usually do not fact-check.  Their personal opinions matter most and they are not shy about leading with them.  In other words, Twitter is as far away from time-honored journalistic principles as you can get. 

When it comes to conventional journalism a dose of healthy skepticism and broader understanding of the writer’s context and slant is important, whether you’re reading the New York Times or the Straits Times. I doubt many intelligent consumers of reputable news sources regard every word as absolute truth.  Why should we expect the same of Twitter?

If taken for what it is—personal, in-the-moment impressions of an event that convey sense and color—Twitter has its place. 

There is an added bonus.

Due to the sheer number of personal opinions shared, sentiment measurement on Twitter is becoming a rising business nowadays. Twendz is a great tool in that regard. [Disclosure: Twendz was developed by my employer Waggener Edstrom.] I fully expect more such tools to be launched in the coming months.

After the coming wave of sentiment measurement tools such as Twendz abates, we will begin to see tools that predict future sentiment, or even outcomes, of events.  Twitter is a perfect incubator for experiments in the wisdom of crowds.  I can’t wait to see where this leads.

Singapore’s first Twitter Wedding, or Twedding

Posted on June 1, 2009 by Comments Off

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of attending my colleague Melvin Yuan’s wedding in Singapore.  This was billed as Singapore’s first twedding, and there was even an article written about it in the Straits Times, the country’s main paper. 

Go here to view the actual Twitter feed of the wedding.  The most recent tweets are about the coverage itself, but if you scroll down far enough you’ll see the realtime tweets during the wedding.

Other pics are here, care of Calvin Siew, another colleague.

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