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Thursday, November 10, 2011, 1:39 PM
Last month, we announced that ProfNet Connect had won the 2011 Web Marketing Association’s WebAward for Outstanding Achievement in Web Development.
This month, we’re excited to announce that ProfNet Connect has won another award -- the 2011 Internet Marketing Association Award!
ProfNet Connect, an online community where PR practitioners, experts and media professionals can connect and share industry knowledge, was awarded Best Website: Overall Content by IMA. With more than 150 contributed blogs each week from experts in a variety of industries, it’s not hard to see why.
Take a look at our Blogs section to see for yourself. You’ll find blog posts on a variety of topics, from the science of press releases, diversity in the PR industry and how social media changed branding, to tips for landing your first PR job after college, how to get the attention of travel editors, and many, many more.
We’d also like to congratulate our colleagues at PR Newswire’s Twitter account, @prnewswire, for winning IMA’s Best Twitter: Tweet Consistency award. Victoria Harres and her @prnewswire team were recognized for engaging with followers on industry topics in a way that is consistently approachable, knowledgeable, attentive and responsive. Congratulations, Vicky, Tom, Christine and Brett!
And thank you to every one of you who has contributed, and continues to contribute, your industry knowledge via blogs on ProfNet Connect. It is because of you that the network has been such a success!
Wednesday, November 9, 2011, 2:38 PM
“Brands as publishers” is a relatively new concept, but one that is gaining traction as brands start to realize the value of creating and sharing content to establish themselves as thought leaders. The content they post influences what people search and find about them, helping to make them influencers in their subject matter and industry. But content curation is a science, and to do it successfully requires not just sharing information, but sharing it thoughtfully and adding a unique point of view to distinguish yourself from the crowd.
This was the topic of our latest #ConnectChat, held Tuesday, Nov. 8, on Twitter. Angela Dunn (@blogbrevity), a content strategist who specializes on content curation and building digital thought leadership. Her post on "Content Curation for Twitter: How to Be a Thought Leader DJ" has helped more than 50,000 people. She recently launched CurationZen, a community for those interested in learning more about content curation and best practices.
Dunn shared tips on how to find, organize and share information that adds value and encourages engagement for the audience you’re hoping to influence. Following is a recap:
ProfNet: Angela, thanks for joining us!
Dunn: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here and share ideas on content curation!
ProfNet: I attended your presentation earlier this year at #RLTM. Very impressive and thought-provoking. Definitely one of my favorites.
Dunn: You did an amazing recap post of my talk. Recap posts are great content to share! bit.ly/kHw9HE
ProfNet: Thanks! Ok, let’s get started. First, for those who may not be familiar with the concept, what is content curation?
Dunn: Content curation is the art and science of finding, organizing and sharing information that adds value on a topic. Your goal with content curation is to build a community and engagement around a topic in your industry.
@Hoovers: Content curation = continually finding, organizing and sharing relevant online content that caters to a specific audience.
@Colleen_Young: @andrewspong is another talented content curator.
ProfNet: Why does content curation matter? What are the benefits of being a content curator?
Dunn: Content curation is a great way to build thought leadership and a digital brand. It helps you build community -- the 21st century way of doing business. Almost 79 percent of companies curate for thought leadership (bit.ly/tTTBY5). Your interest graph is built around topics; content curation helps you rule your interest graph.
@Hoovers: Content curation matters because others' words and ideas can help establish you as a value-added resource/information destination.
@Colleen_Young: Content curation matters in health to help tailor good content for specific audiences. Why create what already exists? Curate and editorialize. Content curation supports knowledge brokering and information adaptation.
@Tonia_Ries: Content curation is one of the reasons I love open networks like Twitter – it lets you connect with people around shared interests.
@GnosisArts: We curate primarily for lead generation and creating brand visibility/buzz.
ProfNet: Is content curation the same as content aggregation? What's the difference?
Dunn: Curation is selective; aggregation is collective. Curators don’t just collect information, they distill it to find great nuggets and add their point of view. Think of museum curators -- they bring a point of view to a subject matter and curate the best bits.
@GnosisArts: I think curation also involves the notion of checking and reviewing data for accuracy, revising and tweaking. A member of our wiki community supplied a pretty good definition of curation: gnosisarts.com/home/PR_Dictionary
@andrewspong: Curation infers selection/point of view/”taste.” To me, aggregation is collation/redistribution/syndication, and need not infer value-adding.
@Hoovers: But does thought leadership come from curation alone? Doesn't a company need to create something of unique value?
Dunn: Yes! Content curation and creation are both important parts of a content strategy.
@jonmertz: My take would be "yes" -- it is still a community. Companies need to contribute and share.
@Colleen_Young: Is curating for health equivalent to thought leadership or vetting according to expertise?
Dunn: In healthcare, you are organizing a body of thought leadership built on experts for your curation.
@andrewspong: That's a great question. Curation =/= a static exercise. Through content presented, new perspectives can be engendered. That's why I think the museum metaphor doesn't quite work, to be honest. Curation can be put to work challenging the precepts of a given subject area, as well as expanding them. Curators aren’t, of necessity, cheerleaders. Curation can be a radical exercise too.
Dunn: Curation may also involve showcasing opposite points of view in presenting your thought leadership.
@jonmertz: Yes, even in one post.
@colleen_young: Agree. I'm not keen on the equation of content curator = cheerleader, nor muckraker, for that matter.
@Hoovers: Agreed. Curation can be a platform for deconstruction -- opening up previous assumptions to reveal new questions.
Dunn: For example, you may curate several blog posts on a topic and then write a post with your point of view.
@jonmertz: Curation is thought leadership, I believe. More sharing = more thought leadership = expanding and engaging community.
@andrewspong: Curation should resist being defined as “entropic librarianship.” In my opinion, it can be more of a vital force.
@jonmertz: I think I agree. Curation needs to be an expanding, additive, active process.
Dunn: It is always additive!
@colleen_young: Content curation has parallels with community management in your definition, @jonmertz. I like that.
@jonmertz: Glad I am joining this chat! I’m getting all my words for the day in! Education at its best!
ProfNet: What makes someone a good content curator? What skills are involved?
Dunn: With content curation, you need to narrow in on a specific topic, and cast wide for sources and people. A good content curator sees patterns in the information, connects the dots to distill the best. A good curator is a polymath, inquisitive and passionate about the topic.
@Hoovers: Content curation skills: research, analytical thinking, a good ear for language, a good eye for detail, big-picture perception.
@andrewspong: Ultimately, a curator is no more than the sum of the content they marshal and their competence in excerpting its value. Curators need to be great sub-editors, for one thing. Great source content can be killed by lousy titles with sub-optimal SEO.
Dunn: Yes. Knowing how to craft titles and tweets is a key skill. Here’s a great video on why you should follow a lot of people to be a good curator: bit.ly/rX5SFN
ProfNet: How do you go about finding great sharable content? How do you wade through all the noise?
Dunn: First, find people by searching keywords by hashtag. Find the leaders in the conversation. Engage and cross-pollinate ideas. Create and curate “how-to” information, which is always popular. Share your experiences/methods. Find content with curation tools like @pinterest, @scoopit, @thoora, @twylah, @storify, @flipboard. Curation tools are services that curate or organize tweets based on Twitter lists or keywords. They help you collect information; it’s the job of a great curator to select the information.
@Hoovers: We're constantly reading, searching and bookmarking content! There's no easy way -- you just have to love finding hidden gems.
@andrewspong: The platform chosen can determine output -- narrative (Storify) vs. layout (Scoop.it) vs. taxonomy (StumbleUpon), for example.
Dunn: Share great content from your industry’s conferences by following conference hashtags on Twitter. Search and share slide presentations from @slideshare and @scribd on your topic.
@GnosisArts: "Truth has as much to do with what is selected as with what is omitted." -- Howard Zinn
ProfNet: That’s a great quote!
@jonmertz: How does Tumblr fit in to a curation strategy, or does it?
@andrewspong: Another good question. The rich media possibilities of Tumblr (as well as great sharing options) make it a great curation prospect. What stops me using Tumblr more personally is a lack of clarity around growing community on the platform.
Dunn: Tumblr is great for its brevity and ability to link to all types of content quickly. You need to curate the written word and visual elements -- videos/pics/infographics.
@andrewspong: Automation is the antithesis of great curation, in my opinion. I'd rather publish nothing than “fill a hole” in a schedule
@GnosisArts: Agree. I think that's another way curation differs from aggregation. Aggregators tend to be fully automated.
@andrewspong: Stats suggest that Tumblr is beginning to exert a significant influence as a platform of/for content discovery.
@GnosisArts: How does curation intersect with content marketing?
Dunn: Curation is about building a community and providing value; content marketing involves a bigger picture.
@andrewspong: It’s a complex question. Curation can be viewed as a means of delivering value whilst manifesting one's credentials as an authority. Such benefits as curation may confer upon the curator are indirect rather than direct from a marketing perspective. My POV: Social Web credibility will come to hinge upon factors such as curatorial aptitude. bit.ly/rrgbvC
ProfNet: How does curation affect online influence?
Dunn: A content curator builds trust first, then influence. You build trust by helping others. Mix great content that others will want to share, comment on, like, reply and retweet so they look smart.
@andrewspong: Influence metrics are the first fruits of social metadata. Curated content elements with URLs are worker drones for your influence.
Dunn: Also, your influence is determined by your "role." Many people find that when they leave a position, they do not carry over all the social capital they built for the brand.
ProfNet: What are some good examples of brands doing content curation?
Dunn: Some examples of CEOs who know how two curate and tweet include @CommunispaceCEO and @gcolony. Using @twylah, @wholefoods showcases seasonal interest: www.twylah.com/wholefoods. Also, creating a separate hub curating on a topic is a great brand strategy. For B2C, @TiffanyAndCo does a nice job with this romance site: bit.ly/tiffanyromance. For B2B in healthcare IT, see @corepointhealth and its @healthstandards site, bit.ly/hl7standards. I will embarrass him, but @andrewspong is a master on @scoopit: www.scoop.it/t/pharma. @Nordstrom groups its products according to themes on @pinterest: pinterest.com/nordstrom/. These are just some examples of what some folks are doing.
ProfNet: We only have a few minutes left. Before we go, can you tell us a little about CurationZen?
Dunn: CurationZen will be a community where everyone can share their methods, resources, expertise and tools regarding content curation. All are invited.
@GnosisArts: Congratulations, Angela! CurationZen must be a really exciting accomplishment for you.
Dunn: Thank you! It will be a labor of love! I am always curating for others.
ProfNet: Ok, and it's a wrap. Thank you so much to everyone who took part in #ConnectChat. I hope you found it interesting. Angela, you are brilliant. Thank you for being our guest. I hope you enjoyed it.
Dunn: Thank you, #ConnectChat community and ProfNet for all your support and knowledge sharing!
@GnosisArts: @ProfNet, This was a good chat. Thanks to @blogbrevity for sharing her curation wisdom!
@andrewspong: @profnet Thank you for moderating.
Dunn: This was a great chat -- my first 90-minute one! I enjoyed every minute.
Wednesday, November 9, 2011, 10:01 AM
I’m working on a tips piece for journalists on best practices for using ProfNet to find expert sources. If you’ve successfully used ProfNet to find experts, I would love to hear your tips for other journalists who have not yet used the service or have not been as successful in finding sources. For example:
- How far in advance of your deadline do you send in your queries?
- Do you cloak, or do you include the publication/outlet name in the query?
- How specific are you about the expertise you need?
- Have you used ProfNet Connect to search for experts? If so, do you have any tips on searching through and choosing experts to contact directly?
- Do you subscribe to Expert Alerts? If so, what subjects are you subscribed to and how do you decide which ones interest you?
If you have any tips you’d like to share with other journalists on how to use ProfNet to find experts, I’d love to hear from you. You may remain anonymous, if you prefer.
Please email me at email@example.com with any tips you’d like to share.
Friday, November 4, 2011, 1:43 PM
Although the presidential election is still a year away, the political circus has already begun. We asked Bruce Altschuler, professor of political science at SUNY Oswego, for his insight on the role of the presidency, approval ratings, and the impact of social media on politics.
Altschuler, a regular commentator for WRVO-FM, has written numerous books and articles on the presidency, especially polling and presidential elections. His latest book, “Acting Presidents: 100 Years of Plays About the Presidency,” examines 50 plays depicting historical, fictional and even musical presidents, and examines how, as the public's trust in government has declined, the heroic presidents of the first half of the 20th century have been replaced on stage by such antiheroes as Nixon and Harding. Altschuler is also currently at work on a book about Shakespeare and politics.
How has the role of the president changed in recent decades?
The question of the changed role of the president is so large, it's impossible for me to answer briefly. Among the major changes is the growth of the public presidency – that is, the presidential role in traveling around the country and the world promoting his legislative agenda and personal popularity. Recent presidents, often after being stymied by the failure of Congress to enact legislation they propose, have often turned to areas where they can act unilaterally -- foreign policy or executive orders are two such areas. We saw this during both the Clinton and Bush presidencies and are now seeing Obama do the same.
What do approval ratings actually mean in terms of a president's popularity? They seem to change based on current events. Do the ratings numbers ever actually reflect the true or long-term public opinion?
Approval ratings have been taken for such a long time that we can use them to compare public perceptions of presidents going back more than 60 years. The performance of the economy seems to be the most important factor in those ratings. Because they are snapshots at a particular time, changes in economic conditions or international crises can, at least in the short term, result in significant changes.
How can voter turnout boosted? Should we consider changing Election Day to a weekend, or making polls available in shopping centers, etc.?
There are a number of ways voter turnout can be increased. One way would be to make voting registration easier. For example, Minnesota allows Election Day registration and has a turnout of about 10 percent higher than average.
Another possibility would be to automatically register everyone to vote when they turn 18. It would be easy to do for young men, since they have to register for the draft, but we'd need to find a way to do something similar for women. Several countries such as Australia and Belgium have 90 percent voter turnout because voting is compulsory, but most Americans would likely find this too much of an abridgment of their liberty.
As for a weekend election, I don't think it would increase turnout by all that much.
Finally, since the lowest turnout is among low-income people, the lack of a party representing their interests may be a factor, since the Democrats and Republicans tend to cater to the middle and upper classes, people who currently vote.
What impact has social media had on politicians, and on politics in general? Thinking back to the recent case of Anthony Weiner, will we see less or more interaction from politicians on mediums like Twitter, Facebook, etc.? And is it good for politics?
Social media is changing politics in ways we are still exploring. It has accelerated the 24-hour news cycle even more and made average people into reporters. Unfortunately, that also means that a lot of very unreliable information is floating around. Social media was certainly an important factor in President Obama's election, so Republicans are scrambling to catch up. Sarah Palin has certainly made extensive use of Twitter.
The Occupy movement is making a lot of headlines, but will it actually affect what happens at the polls? And what does the movement say about the current state of politics?
Part of the Occupy movement’s focus has been what it sees as the failure of electoral politics. They see both Democrats and Republicans as serving the interests of those wealthy enough to finance campaigns and hire lobbyists at the expense of average people, the 99 percent. The result is bailouts for banks that use the money to reward stockholders and pay large bonuses, while average people are burdened with underwater mortgages, unemployment and debt from student loans. That's why they don't have a specific program. Instead they want to change the terms of the political debate.
What would you say to someone who isn't engaged in politics because they're fed up with how things are today?
Find like minded people and get organized. You can't get much accomplished as one person.
Have you ever considered running for any kind of office?
I'd never run for office -- I'm too much of an academic and would be too likely to correct misstatements by potential voters rather than saying what they want to hear. I'm not that good at selling myself to people I don't know, which takes a real skill. Bill Clinton, for example, is terrific at it.
Thursday, November 3, 2011, 9:00 AM
Earlier this year, I attended the RealTime NY conference (formerly known as TWTRCON) that explored mobile, social and real-time Web. One of the workshops was presented by Angela Dunn (@blogbrevity), who talked about how to curate content on Twitter for thought leadership. Dunn’s presentation was so informative, I thought she would make a great guest for #ConnectChat.
Join us on Tuesday, Nov 8, from 3 to 4:30 p.m. EST, as Dunn will share her insight on the art and science of content curation on Twitter.
Dunn will share tips on how to find, organize, and share information that adds value and encourages engagement for the audience you’re hoping to influence. It is a cyclical process: What you find and what you post influence what people search and find about you.
“Your goal is to grow a community,” says Dunn. “People will engage with you if they find value.”
To join the chat, just follow the #ConnectChat hashtag to view all updates from @blogbrevity, @ProfNet and the rest of the chat participants. We'll start off the chat with a few questions for Dunn to get the conversation going, but feel free to ask away at any time.
If you do not have a Twitter account or won’t be able to make it to the chat, you can find a recap on ProfNet Connect the following day. To view past #ConnectChat recaps, click here.
About Angela Dunn:
Dunn is a "happy connector of people and ideas." She is a content strategist who specializes in content curation and building digital thought leadership. Her post on "Content Curation for Twitter: How to Be a Thought Leader DJ" has helped more than 50,000 people.
Dunn is launching a new community, CurationZen, for those interested in learning more about content curation and best practices. A global speaker, Dunn covers content curation, Twitter chats and business blogging -- all keys for developing a digital brand.
Dunn is the founder of #ideachat, a monthly Twitter chat about "ideas." She is also an analyst who does market research and blogs about digital and mobile trends for the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry. Early in her career, Dunn actually was a DJ and the creative catalyst behind one of the top clubs in the world.
You can follow Angela Dunn on Twitter at @blogbrevity or via Google+.
Wednesday, November 2, 2011, 2:58 PM
The Publicity Club of New York hosted a luncheon, “PCNY Tours the Travel Beat,” Tuesday, Nov. 1. A great panel of travel editors talked about their outlets, what they cover, what they do and don’t like in pitches, and how best to reach them.
The panelists were:
- Sara Clemence, a travel editor at the Wall Street Journal who oversees the weekend lifestyle section, Off Duty;
- David Kaufman, freelance travel journalist whose work appears in the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, TIME magazine, Travel + Leisure and many others;
- Laura Begley Bloom, deputy editor, Travel + Leisure; and
- Peter Greenberg, CBS News travel editor; host of a radio program syndicated to 400 stations; contributor to AARP, PBS, the History Channel, the Travel Channel and PeterGreenberg.com.
Following are highlights of the discussion:
Off Duty has been around for about a year and is extremely popular, with 1.5 million paid subscribers. The audience is high-end and affluent, and the section features lifestyle coverage, with 2-5 pages of travel coverage, including:
- A city guide, with “inside” experts on a certain city;
- Feature stories that are “very experiential” with a special twist -- e.g., a few months ago the section published a story, “The Starvation Vacation”, on a “detox” retreat in California where guests can lose weight;
- Trend stories
- Small news items, e.g., new developments at hotels, occasional packages -- if they’re interesting.
Clemence said she prefers email correspondence. Don’t send her a message on Facebook or LinkedIn; she prefers to keep those for personal communications.
She also said never answers the phone. “Most of the people are pitching me things.” She does read all email, but only answers the ones for she wants to follow up with. If hasn’t emailed, she’s either really busy or not interested, she said. If you don’t hear from her, one friendly reminder via email is OK.
Clemence said her biggest pet peeve is when people are eager for the coverage but haven’t bothered to read the section. “That irritates me,” she said.
Due to Wall Street Journal policy on accepting gifts, Clemence does not accept any comp trips or any kind of freebies.
When pitching, “keep it short and to the point,” she said. Also, big files usually get blocked by the paper’s firewall – but if you email her ahead and she says it’s something she’s interested in, she can make other arrangements.
“I think what most people forget about freelancers is that we don’t have a job,” said Kaufman, “so when I’m thinking about a story, I’m thinking about whether I can sell it. Remember, this is a job, not a hobby.”
After a while, press trips become less alluring, said Kaufman, and what become more interesting are the people you meet – “the cast of characters.”
“I want to write about the people behind the places. That’s what I find most interesting and, I think, those are the stories that get placed.”
Generally, the publications for which Kaufman writes do not accept comp trips.
Kaufman prefers to be contacted by email, but do not include large attachments. “I will get back to you quickly if it’s something I’m interested in,” he said.
Kaufman added that he is working on a lot of different things all the time, and is open to multiple topics.
Laura Begley Bloom
As deputy editor of Travel + Leisure, a monthly magazine with a circulation of 1 million, Begley Bloom is involved “in just about everything.” She oversees coverage on destinations, hotels, the Style and Cruise section, and a variety of themed issues.
Travel + Leisure is more than just a magazine, said Begley Bloom. In addition to the print publication, they also produce a vibrant website and about three books a year. They are also now on iPad monthly, and are found in airport stores via an agreement with Hudson News.
“We’re not just a magazine,” she explained. “We’re really a 360-degree news outlet.” So keep those in mind when pitching.
Begley Bloom said the magazine does not do press trips – “at all.”
Her biggest pet peeve is when people aren’t familiar with the magazine, or pitch a section that is actually in another magazine. “Look at the masthead and know who does what,” she suggested.
She also said she gets “too many” emails, but does read those that have a subject line that is directed specifically at her.
If you really want to get her attention, send your info via snail mail. “I get so much electronically, so a handwritten note can get my attention.”
Greenberg said he covers travel as news. “If my audience can understand the process,” he explained, “it helps them understand the product.”
“Travel editor does not mean holiday editor,” he added. “The bottom line is, it is about news. The people behind the stories. I’m far more interested in what the maid or the skycap is doing than what the sales manager is doing.”
Greenberg said not to pitch him festivals, events, etc. – for example, don’t send him a notice that the Garlic Festival is taking place. But if you can go outside the box and tell him an interesting story about how the garlic got to the festival, that’s interesting to him.
“Give me an example of a great story I don’t know about,” he added.
Q: Are you interested in seeing video produced by a destination?
Clemence: “It depends on the quality of the video. It also has to be specific and distinctive and not just another PR video.”
Begley Bloom: “We don’t really use PR video for the website, but when we’re doing TV, for sure. Now, with the iPad content, we are producing videos, and we also do interactive maps, slideshows. We’re not using destination-produced video. We do sometimes use pickup photography, so you should be thinking like editors when lining up photo shoots.”
Greenberg: “Anytime we see B-roll by a destination, we burn it because it’s just not relatable to our audience. We like real, not a size-0 woman shipping champagne. However, we can always use great B-roll if it’s not Ken and Barbie. There are a lot of freelance TV editors out there that know how to shoot for networks. [The story] dies if it’s not visually supported.”
Q: Are you active on Twitter?
Clemence: “I do have a Twitter feed (@SaraClemence), and it’s a hybrid of personal with some content promotion. I don’t want pitches on Twitter; only by email.”
Begley Bloom: “I don’t tweet enough (@laurabegley), but our magazine has a Facebook page and a Twitter feed, so it’s a good idea to follow there.”
Greenberg: “We tweet every day: @PeterSGreenberg”
Kaufman: (@transracial) “If I tweet that I’m going somewhere and you tweet suggestions, I’m ok with that.”
Q: Does it help you to know if the story I’m pitching has gotten other press?
Kaufman: “Knowing previous press is good because it can help me know if it’s newsworthy.”
Clemence: “If something has been in the New York Times, it’s not really a good reason to pitch the Wall Street Journal. But remember, the same place is not always the same story.”
Q: What are you looking – or not looking – for?
Greenberg: “What I don’t want: Anything having to do with the Olympics. What I do want to know: What is there if you don’t like to ski, or don’t like cruises?”
Begley Bloom: “Right now, I’m looking for people for the hotels issue -- people with some notoriety who are not traditional hoteliers and are getting into the hotel industry.”
Kaufman: “I write a lot about business and political cultural stories. I write a lot about real estate for Financial Times. I always need ideas about interesting people living abroad.”
Clemence: “We keep our editorial plans close to our vest. We don’t reveal what stories we’re working on. I can say we work anywhere from one week to six months in advance. Generally speaking, right now I’m looking for December/January ideas.”
Q: Are you interested in products for travelers?
Greenberg: “Yes, we do it all the time on the website -- but we talk about the good and the not-so-good.”
Begley Bloom: “We do tons of products, especially for the Stylish Travel section. We have a books editor, a beauty editor, a new digital travel column. It’s all about knowing who does what. I don’t like to receive samples because then I either can’t accept or I have to worry about returning them. I like a description with a link to pictures.”
Kaufman: “I like products but it has to be really useful and interesting.”
Clemence: “I like products, especially books and smaller items. I’m surprised at what doesn’t get sent to me. Also, we’re very visually focused, so we like to shoot things in our studio.”
Friday, October 28, 2011, 11:32 AM
Halloween is the time of year that conjures up images of pumpkins, exorcisms and ghosts, but what's behind it all? How much of it is real and how much is a Hollywood creation? And what would possess someone to make a career out of those things?
We sat down with Joshua Gunn, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin, to find out.
Gunn conducts research at the intersection of rhetorical and cultural studies, currently in pursuit of two, interrelated projects: the integration of psychoanalysis and rhetorical/textual theory; and a demonstration of the relevance and ubiquity of theological forms in public culture and daily life.
His latest published research has focused on the role of theological form, from the apocalyptic, occult, and paranormal to the mundane religiosity of the "theory wars" in the humanities. His teaching interests include courses in rhetorical theory and criticism, rhetoric and religion, and rhetoric and popular music.
Gunn recently published a book, “Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century” (2005, University of Alabama Press), and has also published in a variety of journals, including The Journal of Communication and Religion, Popular Music and Society, The Quarterly Journal of Speech, Telos, Text and Performance Quarterly, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, and Visual Communication.
We asked Gunn a few (not-so-scary) questions about his fascinating area of expertise:
What led you to teaching about this topic?
The answer to this question depends on how far I go back in my personal history. If I were to stay in recent history, I started teaching a course on the paranormal and occult because I find the topic fascinating, of course, but also for pragmatic reasons. I’ll explain.
For my first job as an assistant professor at Louisiana State University, I had to teach the courses of the person I replaced. One of them was titled “Rhetoric and Religion,” a course I would have never taught by choice. The more traditional or straightforward course about the discourse of religion engages the sacred texts of mainline religions and various theories for interpreting them. I found, however, that this risked Bible-battles in the classroom. During graduate work, I learned that when I or others taught about religious topics, students would sometimes get into verse battles with each other or challenge the teacher by quoting scripture. I just didn’t want to be on the defensive as a teacher, nor did I want my students to feel defensive about their faiths. After all, one’s religious convictions are often at the very core of her identity -- especially atheists.
Because I was finishing a book on occultism at the time, I decided I could still achieve the goals of the course -- cultivating a respect for different viewpoints, understanding the character of faith and how we talk about it, and so on -- by going at the topic slantwise. I soon realized that having students read about more unusual beliefs ironically helped them to maintain an open mind. Then, at the end of the course, I ask students to think about how strange their beliefs actually are. Yes, Whitley Strieber’s alien abduction story is very strange; however, so is the narrative of the deity who came to earth for the purpose of being tortured to death. Students really seem to dig this approach -- the devoutly religious, especially. I teach courses on celebrity culture, popular music and rhetorical theory. My course on the supernatural and paranormal has been and remains the most popular. I think that popularity says something about the purchase of the supernatural in our culture and, more specifically, two persistent human obsessions: mortality and the problem of evil.
So, I teach about these topics because I find it is a great way to reach students for the sake of the “bigger picture.” And, of course, owing to our longings for immortality, the supernatural intrigues people because it flirts with some confirmation of life after death. In the end, the supernatural and paranormal are implicated in religious belief. These topics seem tangential, and are often culturally coded that way, but I think they are in fact central to the “big questions” of life.
Now, if we go way back in personal history, my interest in researching and teaching on these topics is rooted in childhood. I grew up in an evangelical church that taught young people that any interest in the supernatural and occult was “of the devil,” even that one could be possessed by seeing a horror film or enjoying heavy metal music. I believed in spiritual warfare until my early or mid-teens (cars and sexual awareness were the route of my growing doubt). So, part of my interest concerns wrestling with my own “demons,” deep-seated fears about what I once thought was a supernatural force, but now believe is essentially human: evil. Popular culture narratives about the paranormal, supernatural and so on help us, as a culture, to work through the stark and often disheartening realities of adulthood, as well as help us to craft something or someone else to blame (aliens, the devil, reanimated deceased pets, the in-laws). I think working through is good, and that’s how I teach material on the supernatural and paranormal. Still, as much as the spooky stuff represents a culture working through its traumas, it can also be used for harm and displace responsibility (e.g., did the devil really make you do it? Is the person you want to execute really possessed by a supernatural force?). Too much concrete evil is done in the name of fighting an abstract evil. As a species, humans routinely turn other people into monsters. It makes them easier to kill. This is the ugly side of the supernatural, and that needs to be taught as well.
Was this something you studied before or after you became a professor?
Perhaps because the paranormal, occult, and so on were taboo in my youth, I’ve always found these topics interesting, but I did not formally study them until graduate school, however, and mostly as topics for term papers.
What really pushed me to start writing and publishing about these topics was the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. Many journalists in the mainstream news media were reporting the gunmen were practicing Satanists or occultists; I noticed an explosion of discourse on the Internet (at that time, newsgroups were big) about demonic forces, the apocalypse, and so on connected to the shootings. Most of these sorts of claims turned out to be patently false, and I wanted to understand the larger, cultural processes that set them into circulation. Why was the claim that the gunmen were practicing Satanists credible in the first place? That’s an interesting cultural question to me. As a communication scholar in a college anchored by a journalism school, I know a little bit about how journalists are trained; that a journalist would publish that sort of thing says as much about our culture as it does the journalist.
Since that time, the best answer I’ve come up with to questions like these is simply this: We have a rather large vocabulary for discussing good things. We have a very poor and limited vocabulary for discussing the negative -- for discoursing on evil. Television shows, movies, and stories about strange goings-on are, in some sense, a kind of cultural compensation for this poor vocabulary. Or, alternately, these have become our vocabulary for giving expression to that which we fear and have difficulty talking about. In this respect, the occult, supernatural, and paranormal are a kind of poetics, a human striving to make sense something ineffable that we all feel but cannot name.
Do you incorporate horror/subculture studies into your classes? For example, do you assign your students horror movies to watch for homework?
Yes, but just for my paranormalism course (“Rhetoric and Religion”). The class covers the topics of spiritualism and psi phenomena, demonic possession, apocalyptic cults, and alien-abduction narratives. I don’t require students to watch the films (they are, after all, scary), but I suggest if they can bear it, they should see “The Legend of Hell House,” “The Exorcist,” and “Close Encounters” before the appropriate week, because I draw examples from these films (and many others). Films are profoundly important for providing the collective imagination with images that circulate and, in a way, anchor narratives about the supernatural.
For kids today, Halloween is all about dressing up and trick-or-treating. What else should they know about the holiday? What are its origins?
I am going to assume by “kids,” you are not referring to anyone’s age. Halloween is precisely a holiday for kids, especially the middle-aged! I’ll come back to this.
A lot has been written about the date of Halloween, its links to various harvest festivals (Samhain) and so forth. What a lot of folks don’t know is that, like a lot of things imported to the United States, we have made Halloween our “own.” We know the celebration comes to us from the Irish and Scots, which may explain why Halloween was originally a class affair. David Skal, in his 2002 book on Halloween (“Death Makes a Holiday”), argues the holiday has a lot to do with class division. The Great Depression ended the largely upper-crust practice of ladies carving pumpkins and getting glimpses of their future beloveds at midnight when disgruntled, rock-throwing youngsters started “tricking” them. As Skal tells it, in New York City and related areas in the northeast, it became common practice for poor kids to beg for change on Thanksgiving. For some reason, the previously generous upper classes stopped giving handouts, and the “ragamuffins” started pranking and vandalizing rich folks’ homes. The story goes that the more well-to-do got the idea to open their homes on the night of the pranks, feeding the young people apples and cider and so forth to avoid vandalism. Offer a treat, or you’ll get tricked -- and how! The practice drifted toward October over time. Of course, that’s just an explanation for the practice of trick-or-treating, and a lot more feeds into the way the holiday evolved to the way it exists for us today.
Regardless, I think the class-based tension underlying the holiday is still with us, both in terms of its association with the working class, but also psychologically. On what other day is a young person empowered to demand a gift? It’s the only holiday I can think of when a young person -- the most disempowered of almost all cultures -- gets the upper hand on the grown-ups. This power play is part of the joy, and perhaps why so many of us “regress” to our childlike selves when celebrating the holiday, or when reliving it through our children’s eyes. It’s the same dynamic that makes Maurice Sendak’s children’s books so enjoyable to children-kids and adult-kids alike: Max, denied dinner, becomes King of the Wild Things and commands all of them to have a “rumpus!”
Have you ever witnessed an exorcism/demonic possession?
Yes, many times. Bob Larson, the head of the Spiritual Freedom Church in Denver and the most visible exorcist of the Deliverance Movement (an off-shoot of Pentecostalism), routinely holds weekend seminars and forums in cities across the country in which he exorcizes people. Many of the seminars and forums are free and open to the public, and I’ve been to number of the forums in which he exorcized people. For a fee, you can also take a class to learn how to do it yourself. I’ve not taken a class because I’m cheap. Still, it’s quite something to witness -- folks behave much like the possessed do in Hollywood films. Notably, the exorcisms are much less profane than the ones often portrayed in films. The possessed rarely drop a curse word.
I was once contacted by a student who believed she was possessed; we had a very unusual series of email exchanges and phone conversations. I gave her the name of a Shaman who performs exorcisms in town, as well as encouraged her to seek medical attention. I also contacted her dean, who got in touch with her parents. It turned out she was schizophrenic and had gone off her meds.
I mention the Larson exorcism and the woman who contacted me together for a reason. Many people have asked me if I believe in demonic possession. Personally, I am an agnostic on the issue of angels or demons. But really, what I believe is beside the point. The fact is that people do believe that they are possessed, and they are seeking help. Someone who reaches out for help is someone who can be helped. I don’t doubt that those who have exorcisms feel better, or that some are moved to happier lives. And that’s why I offered the troubled woman my Shaman contact. I admit, as an educator and as a person, my preference is psychotherapy and psychiatrics for possession cases. Even so, most therapists will tell you that you do not help someone who believes she is possessed by denying her reality. For the possessed, the demon is real, and one must start with that assumed reality.
Do you have personal stories of experiences with ghosts, hauntings, etc.?
Yes, but I’m always the reticent, open-minded-but-skeptic in these stories. Because my interest in the supernatural and occult is as a cultural critic, I tend to “read” stories of hauntings or alien sightings as the manifest narrative for something else. For example, a man contacted me once pleading for help concerning his haunted house. There was a persistent feeling of dread, strange noises, bursting light bulbs and so on. I usually do not get involved with those who contact me for help regarding this sort of thing. Other than listen to these stories, what I usually end up doing is providing contacts to paranormal investigators (there’s more than one ghost-hunting group in town), which I did for this man. After a second conversation, however, I suspected the haunting was about a marriage on the rocks. Still, I put him in contact with a local paranormalist and that was that. I tend to pull out of invitations to “investigate” the paranormal on a first-hand basis; it’s just outside of my domain of expertise. Because I think so much of this is psychological in origin -- that is, because I tend to believe there is a secular explanation -- getting involved would require a scientific or medical training that I do not have.
I will say, however, there are many times in my life I have been “spooked,” especially as a young person. I used to get “night terrors” as a kid, and although in retrospect I know my hallucinations (of seeing demons, ghosts, and so forth) were psychological or biological or what have you, that did not make the experiences any less terrifying. That we all experience terror or feelings of panic is one of the reasons stories of the supernatural have such a common purchase. We can all relate to the feelings these stories inspire, and they can anchor and validate our personal experiences. It is often comforting to have a label and explanation for an intense feeling of fear, dread, or shock.
Has your perspective on all this changed since you started a career in this field?
Absolutely. Just like any profession, academics can be hardheaded and just as closed-minded as the most dogmatic, religious zealot. When I started researching in this area (focused mostly on popular culture -- films, books, and so forth), I was told indirectly and -- sometimes directly -- that taking the supernatural, occult, and paranormal seriously was a “career destroyer” and a waste of time. In part, that attitude is the legacy of a very long and often bloody history of freethinkers trying to make sense of the world without persecution (Galileo, for example, was accused of practicing witchcraft).
Thankfully, that attitude has changed a lot since I entered the academy over a decade ago, but it still remains. Research on the supernatural is sometimes described as a waste of time, or trivial, or of interest to marginal publics. Recently, outside forces, mostly political, have been critical of academics studying this kind of thing as opposed to, say, something better suited to the marketplace (vocational and professional topics). But these attitudes are precisely backwards: Who isn’t intrigued by things that go bump in the night? And why are we intrigued? Cultural narratives about the supernatural and occult permeate our culture, providing not only enjoyment but also meaning for many, many people. The supernatural does things for people, helps them make sense of the world, it helps them interrogate themselves, and, sadly, it helps them demonize others. Isn’t that worth studying?
I think we need to continue examining our superstitions and fears and how we choose to represent them because doing so tells us something about “human nature.” Representations of the supernatural can evoke powerful emotions in us and are more influential than many folks realize. For example, after Sept. 11, President Bush delivered a number of addresses to the nation that utilized the language of spiritual warfare. Spiritual warfare is a growing belief system among many Christian faiths. The core idea is that demons exist among us and possess people. In many of Bush’s Sept. 11 speeches, the “terrorists” are described as demons or possessed with demonic forces, and whether it was accidental or deliberate, the fact remains that an analysis of those speeches shows an exorcist-like narrative of purging a foreign body of its evil. I think that supernatural beliefs influenced, or at the very least justified, foreign policy. Why should we study the practice of exorcism? My answer is that it tracks a form of discourse that justified war.
Incidentally, this discourse has not left the political scene. The much discussed “Day of Prayer” headlining Texas Governor Rick Perry was sponsored by the Texas Apostolic Prayer Network, a group that is at the forefront of the spiritual warfare movement. Whatever Perry’s political beliefs, the fact remains that the rhetoric of demonology is in our political discourse, often indirectly or at a barely noticeable level. But it’s there. It’s not just “at the movies.”
What impact have media (film, TV, books, etc.) had on public perception of the supernatural?
Well, I think the assumption of the question is a false one; publics are constituted by “media.” A public does not exist without mediation.
But in the spirit of the question: Because I tend to think about the occult, the supernatural, the paranormal, and related “spooky” things are fundamentally based in image and narrative, the media have been central -- they are the force of impact! The story here is one of circulation.
Many 19th and early 20th century thinkers prophesied the end of superstition (even religion), but that has not come to pass (and I don’t think it will). Rather, we’ve seen an explosion of interest in the supernatural, the emergence of new religious beliefs, and the proliferation of conspiracy theories. This has to be, in part, a consequence of the speed of information flow, the way in which the speaker and screen can distribute a singular image to millions upon millions of ears and eyeballs at once. Stories move quickly and can engender widespread belief before any critical apparatus can come into play (e.g., “fact-checking” what politicians say in a debate, for example). Lived experience is an increasingly collective one. This entails all sorts of things, not the least of which is the erosion of the trust in authorities, a person (or institution) who can say “that is false” or “President Obama is a U.S. citizen.” The democratization of information entails a price; one of them has been a resurgence of belief in the paranormal and supernatural. As images and stories circulate to more and more communities, certain images can become ubiquitous and stay in one’s mind. An image, such as that of the World Trade towers in smoke, can come to represent and anchor as “real” the belief that Satan’s reign on earth has begun.
I realize this all rather abstract, so let me use a concrete example -- a pre-Internet example, the 1973 film “The Exorcist.” In his book “American Exorcism,” Michael W. Cuneo shows how, prior to the film, it was very rare for the Catholic Church to authorize an exorcism. After the film, the practice steadily grew. The film’s overriding message of a spiritual battle between good and evil was so powerful that it ended up providing a vocabulary (and diagnosis, really) for making sense of the cultural malaise of the ‘70s. It was powerful enough to inspire the Deliverance movement -- the practice of “amateur” exorcisms and, I would argue, the spiritual warfare movement. Before that film, folks simply didn’t know how the possessed behaved. Before that film, certain folks didn’t have demonic possession as a possible, spiritual explanation for this or that self-destructive behavior (remember, in the film, the mother pursues every possible medical explanation before she goes to the Church). It’s interesting to note here that when Bob Larson holds his seminars or freedom forums, he often shows a videotape of himself performing an exorcism on someone, a sort of preview of what is to come. It makes for good theatre, but it also makes for good priming. After the audience views the video, they know how to act possessed -- or at least, an unconscious part of them knows.
That said, mass media, broadly construed, have the biggest impact today on beliefs concerning the supernatural (or anything, really); without the circulation made possible by contemporary media technologies, folks wouldn’t be on the same page -- or better, image or sound -- about da spook.
Thursday, October 27, 2011, 9:52 AM
One of the first rules of Twitter is: Be generous to your fellow tweeters. If you see something interesting or informative, retweet it (with proper credit, of course).
But for those of us who are a little (ahem) anal retentive, that can cause a conundrum: To edit or not to edit?
Let's face it, not everyone pays a great deal of attention to grammar or punctuation on Twitter. I'm never sure whether it's appropriate to make corrections when I'm retweeting. On one hand, it's their tweet, their voice, and all I'm doing is forwarding it along. On the other hand, if I retweet a glaring error, a tiny little part of my heart breaks. (I know, it's pathetic. Welcome to my brain.)
Where do you stand on this issue? Do you correct grammar on retweets? Or do you leave them alone, knowing others will understand it's not your error?
- Yes, always. Even though it's a RT, I can't tweet something with an error in it.
- Sometimes, but only for the most egregious errors.
- No, never. It's their voice; I'm just retweeting.
Please feel free to elaborate in the comments below. Thanks!
Monday, October 24, 2011, 1:08 PM
If you haven’t checked out the Blogs section of ProfNet Connect lately, you’re missing out on some really great posts. Here’s a link to some of last week’s most popular blog posts:
- In her weekly answer column, “Dear Gracie,” ProfNet Editor Grace Lavigne enlists the help of experts from the ProfNet Connect community to answer questions from readers. In last week’s post, five PR experts addressed the topic of “Managing the Client-Agent Relationship.”
- In “Six PR Starter Tips, Care of the MBTA,” Sarah Cunningham, an account coordinator with InkHouse Marketing, shares tips for PR newbies that she has learned through her experiences with her MBTA bus rides.
- In “The Art of Pitching the Media,” InkHouse Marketing’s Beth Monaghan shares her advice for crafting a pitch that will get the media to pay attention.
- In “A Brief Blog Profile: Mobile Cuisine,” Thomas Hynes tells us about the website dedicated to bringing us info on “every must-read street food, food truck, food cart and food stand story bubbling up across the Internet.”
What were some of your favorite blog posts this week? Which ones did you find most helpful, interesting?
Friday, October 21, 2011, 2:24 PM
Our Interesting Expert of the Week is Linda Webb, aka The Fraud Dog.
Webb, who ran AIG’s Global Fraud operations, is president of Contego Services Group, a provider of insurance services, including fraud investigations and cost-containment solutions.
Webb specializes in the most complex organized crime rings and anti-money laundering, including insurance fraud, mortgage and financial fraud, and Medicare and healthcare fraud. She has managed more than 20,000 investigations and over $1.2 billion in exposure.
Some of Webb’s complex investigative cases include: an organized crime ring involving doctors, attorneys and clinics; a counterfeit retail product crime ring; a $300 million fake insurance ring; a $10 million fake death ring; and a money laundering case, with D&O exposure to a U.S. company.
Webb is also a frequent speaker on fraud and the investigative industry, and travels with her canine sidekick, Buster, to help increase fraud awareness.
We asked Webb to tell us more about her job – and, of course, Buster:
How did "The Fraud Dog" become your nickname?
You have to be “tough as nails” to fight the fraudster. I’ve had a gun put to my head and a knife put to my throat in fighting criminals my whole life. I’ve been fighting fraud around the world 30+ years. Fighting fraud is my life. People tell me I chase criminals like a dog with a bone. I don’t stop until I catch the fraudster.
What is your most memorable fraud case?
I am compassionate about helping children and the elderly. The faceless fraudster preys upon all ages, including the elderly and the young. For teenagers, it is the Craigslist babysitting scam (reverse sell scam), and for the elderly, it’s viatical life insurance fraud.
Viatical life insurance fraud targeting the elderly is my most passionate case, because any time I can stop a crooked insurance agent who tries to sell viatical life insurance fraud scams in an elderly community, it could very well save lives. In this scam, if the insured (i.e., the elderly person) doesn’t die soon enough, they are murdered. In most cases, this goes undetected because people think they just died of old age, and the relatives don’t know about the viatical fraud life insurance policy, because the agent made the benefactors a bunch of investors, organized crime rings or modern day mobsters.
What is it like being a woman leader in a male-dominated industry? Have you ever felt your personal safety was at risk?
I would be the first to admit that being a woman in this investigative field wasn’t easy when I first started, but that is nothing compared to being face-to-face with a leader of an organized crime ring who has stolen millions from people due to fraud. I don’t have time to think about fear when fighting the fraudster. I do not fear death. My legacy is to stop fraud around the world – end of story.
What's the most rewarding part of your job?
Saving someone from getting killed is always first and foremost. Fraud can result in people getting killed, getting hurt, and losing their life savings. For every faceless fraudster I stop, I have hopefully saved a few lives, prevented people from getting hurt, and stopped someone from taking another person's life savings.
What's the most frustrating part of your job?
When I was in Times Square, two elderly ladies told me some horrific stories about how their life savings got stolen from a fraudster. Imagine: You work your whole life to finally retire, and then a fraudster steals your retirement money. Wake up, America! This is happening and we need to get the word out. When we educate the public, they become aware and cannot be victimized. Fraud awareness must be a priority, hence the reason for “The Fraud Dog” television show: to inform the public about the latest fraud scams.
How does fraud affect us as a society/nation?
Within the next two years, every person will experience some form of fraud. One in three people per year will experience some form of identity theft. Every child in America will be victimized by some form of fraud. Fraud is here to stay, and cyber fraud will consume our business industry in the next five years. We cannot afford to sit back. We need to educate the public as the most preventive way to stop the fraudster.
How can we, as individuals, protect ourselves from fraud?
If someone tells you, “Pay me cash today for services tomorrow,” beware! During catastrophic fraud, the fraudster loves to prey upon those victims in areas stricken by hurricanes, floods and tornadoes. Don’t be victimized twice. Do your due diligence. Turn to the Internet. Ask for references. Ask friends, neighbors, the Better Business Bureau. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
Are there any telltale signs?
Faceless fraudsters do not want to be identified, so if you feel you are confronted by a fraudster, take the fraudster’s picture with your cellphone! Be sure to ask the fraudster for identification. If the fraudster does not want to be identified, or tries to hide their identity, then something is not right. Fight back, America! Be proactive and fight against the fraudster!
Buster is a cutie. Can you tell us more her? What’s her role?
Buster is my sidekick when fighting the fraudster out in the field. Buster’s amazing agility and Fraud Dog senses helps the Fraud Dog team in fighting fraud.
Buster also wants to teach children fraud awareness around the world. Buster will help kids understand that they can also be victims of fraud scams like cellphone texting, social-media fraud scams and Internets scams. Buster asks parents, families and communities to teach our kids to also become Fraud Dogs when they grow up.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Help us stop fraud by reporting fraud scams to 855-FRAUD-DOG. The more scams we learn about, the faster we can tell the public.