Alternative facts, social media bubbles, assortative mating/friendships and diversity

We all like to think we have a handle on what’s real — it’s natural.

However, with the pervasive nature of opinion media broadcasting 24/7 on television and now on the internet, it can sometimes be hard to get a handle on the situation. This is compounded by the echo chambers of our social media bubbles and our assortative friendships as well as assortative mating.

What this all means is that we are getting a lot of positive reinforcement from people who agree with us. So it all feels right — our opinions, our choices, our behaviours are all reinforced by friends and family and followers who tell us, very earnestly that you should “be yourself” because “you can’t be anyone else”.

It’s too bad that what this really means is: “Be like us, conform to our little bubble’s social, moral and ethical norms. We’re with you, let those who challenge you — the unenlightened or the profane — be silent.”

After all, you can unfriend those nagging voices who question your beliefs, challenge your morality and your ethics or criticize your choices. You can cut them out because they make you feel something psychologists call “cognitive dissonance” — the fact that we can’t hold two opposing propositions in our minds at once. It’s actually painful — if you believe someone is a good person and then you get evidence that they are a liar or a cheater, it is easier to dismiss the new facts because they make you feel uncomfortable.

Before social media, assortative mating and friendships, safe spaces in universities, etc. we were often confronted with opposing views and had to argue them out before arriving at a decision.

Now, the process has changed… when we feel an impulse to do something: take a political position, make a life choice, buy something, etc. we tend to go our affirming group to have our decision positively reinforced. If people disagree, then our affirming group labels them as outsiders and often as questionable morally or ethically. So we dismiss them.

Our new internet bubble and assortative mating/friendship trend have meant that many of us live in a state that used to be reserved for people who join cults or espouse strongly ideological politics. It isn’t good because there are few dissenting voices and more social pressure to conform.

All of this while we all sing the praises of diversity and difference. Too bad we rarely experience it.

Diversity and difference means actually countenancing an opposing view and then using reason to debate, discuss and then either dismiss it or change your own views.

But this implies that there is a discussion happening. I fear that our social media bubbles and assortative mating/friendships have made having that discussion inconvenient or even uncomfortable.

Time to open the debate and burst the bubbles.

Otherwise, alternative facts (from every perspective) will be a fixture in our lives, society and politics going forward.


What made Facebook successful?

I remember, in 2006, when I first started to notice Facebook. At that point, it was a basic service, allowing users to connect to one another and share updates and information. It had competitors – myspace and Orkut, amongst many others. Why did Facebook grow to be so dominant?

Facebook’s simple visual identity and early links to the Ivy League gave it an aspirational brand component, which meant that young adults adopted it in droves, which later pulled their parents into the network and then their grandparents.

As well, FB has been quick to adapt to emerging trends in social networking such as the incorporation of hashtags, trending topics and embedded video. As its members’ networks grew, FB’s algorithms that keep you focused on the friends you are most likely to interact with kept users’ feeds relevant.

The perceived rapid responses to demands from users to customize their privacy settings kept the network in its users’ good books. While the actual efficacy of privacy protection is questionable, FB was able to create the perception that it acted quickly.

As well, FB has kept its advertising scheme relevant, with relatively unobtrusive advertising that permitted easy and accurate geotargeting as well as targeting according to SES and other demographic features.

Once FB became a household name and an essential part of many people’s family, personal and work/school lives, it achieved a critical mass which has made it difficult to not be part of for most.

So, a combination of first-to-market, a clean look, prestige associations and quick adaptation has kept FB at the top of the heap.

Any thoughts?

Measurement in #PR – Social network analysis

At the heart of public relations practice is the relationship. Whether they are internal or external, relationships are the currency that we deal in.

One metric that we don’t pay enough attention to is how networks of affinity build around a brand. A network analysis can help with this. The challenge is that network analysis does require some knowledge of statistics or at least an ability to use network analysis software.

You definitely want to use social networking software app that has a good GUI. Otherwise it is can be challenging to enter everything via the command line.

The other point to pay attention to regard the app is its ability to visualize data – preferably generating interactive visualizations. That allows you to play with the data visually when you are doing more qualitative interpretations of the graph. Here’s an example of a data visualization generated using Netminer:

“Netminer screenshot” by Netminer – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons (click on image to see original).


You should do some research to find out more about social network analysis. It is fascinating stuff and extremely useful for understanding relationships on the web and elsewhere. This wikipedia page has an excellent summary of social network analysis software.

The main points to bear in mind when you are doing this kind of work are the following:

  • These software programs tend to store information in a database structured as a graph, rather than as a table
  • The nodes on your social network graph represent the individuals in the network
  • The nodes can be “decorated” with features such as age, gender, SES (socio-economic status), etc.
  • You can “strengthen” the arcs between the nodes to indicate the number of times that individuals have exchanged information.

Have fun learning about social network analysis!

7 Tips for succeeding at conferences

Conferences are microcosms of human society. They are opportunities to observe people of all ages interacting, performing, charming and arguing. Everyone is a little nervous before they arrive and then they reveal themselves in the few appointed days of concentrated interaction. Conferences are a great way of focusing and honing your communication skills and your identity. They are a great way of getting others to know you and your brand. On the downside, they can also be very damaging to your reputation and brand if they are not handled well.

I have attended dozens of conferences – academic, political, commercial, professional, thematic. Here are some of my takeaways for having a successful conference:

  1. Prepare for the conference using social media. Use social media to lay the groundwork for your interactions at the conference and to direct attention to yourself and your booth, as Scott Stratten points out in his engaging book, UnMarketing. Twitter (hashtags, in particular) and Instagram can be your friends.
  2. Build on relationships you already have. Every time you engage in a positive social interaction, you not only build social capital for you and the person you’re engaging with you’re also inspiring others to want to interact with you.
  3. Be authentic. Don’t treat the conference as a time to be a different version of you. Be the same person that you in everyday life while you are at the conference. The worst thing is for a group of people to begin speaking about you and shaping your reputation for you based on a performance on your part that was fake or contrived.
  4. Dress and behave appropriately. Remember that people form opinions of you within seconds of meeting you. They also form opinions of you as they gaze at you across a room. You want to be memorable, but for all the right reasons: you want to be remembered for your ideas and personality, not because of your appearance and outrageous behaviours.
  5. Plan your interactions before you converse. It is easy to get carried away in conversation during a wine and cheese, or at an after party or hospitality suite. Be careful what you say to others. Don’t be excessive in praise or criticism of others. Remember conferences are public performances to strangers. Take a few seconds an plan what you will say before entering a conversation.
  6. Blog during the conference. People are all using their computers, tablets or smartphones during the conference pretty much 24/7. Write quick, intelligent blog posts and then share them using the conference hashtag. Then follow them up in conversation. This is a quick way to build your credibility and audience.
  7. Manage your reputation. People will remember what you say to them and how you made them feel. Don’t fall prey to “What happens at the conference stays at the conference.” This just isn’t true. Conferences are reputation management on steroids. Don’t let excitement, alcohol and lack of sleep shape other’s trust in you and impression of you. People remember.

The most effective conference goers I know are those who treat them as occasions to meet people who will be new friends and professional acquaintances in the future. Those relationships are built over time, conference after conference. After a while, conferences become a place where you reconnect with old professional acquaintances and then broaden that circle as you accept others into your trust.


Community building in the emerging oral culture

Everyone seems to be talking about building and managing community these days. But what does it really mean? I think some of the answers lie in awareness of what culture is and how it works.

We used to be a print and language based culture. Things were only deemed to be “official” or legally or socially “real” if someone with authority said them or wrote them down. This is changing.

Social media has opened up access to the seal of approval. Authority is still important, but the idea of a cloistered elite holding authority is in serious decline. A quick look at the last few iterations of the Edelman Trust Barometer for Canada shows that trust in experts (except for university professors, funny enough <phew!>) is declining whereas trust in “someone like me” is on the rise or stable.

What this says to me is that McLuhan’s idea that electronic devices would “re-tribalize” society was accurate:

I would alter this slightly. I prefer Harold Innis’s idea of “oral culture.” In fact, I think we are very much returning to an oral culture. That means that to build or manage communities, particularly online communities, we need to draw our inspiration from the rules and norms that govern interpersonal communication. That means changing our thinking as professional communicators from a comfortable “broadcasting” mentality to a more challenging and engaged “dialogical” mentality.

A fascinating and exciting challenge, if I ever saw one.

Just published: New issue of the Journal of Professional Communication!

The new issue of the Journal of Professional Communication (volume 3, issue 1) is published. You can read it here.

It is almost had dot believe that we have now been publishing for three years. During that time, we have  showcased Canadian professional communication research in both official languages. We have also had research reported from the United States.

Canada has never had a peer-reviewed publication that documents and features the state of the various professions of professional communication in Canada. We are proud to provide that venue in the Journal of Professional Communication.

Here is the table of contents for the current issue (all links lead to PDF file of article):




Research Articles

Practical Paper

Book Reviews

Editorial Advisory Board


Stay tuned for the next issues, full of research, opinion, interviews, academic research and practical papers that will help all of us better understand the practice of the various disciplines of professional communication!

In fact, be sure to look out for our upcoming special issue on Art/Science Hybrids, to appear on March 1, 2014, edited by guest editors, Steve Gibson (Northumbria University, United Kingdom) and Stéfan Müller Arisona (ETH-Zürich Future Cities Lab, Singapore). We are in the midst of editing the final manuscripts for the issue – it’s going to be great!

Finally, be sure to contact me if you are considering submitting a manuscript to JPC. I would love to hear from you and provide any guidance that I can!

The future of communications is interpersonal

I began teaching communication studies in 2001, when I was hired out of my post-doctoral fellowship to be the first professor in the new communication studies program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. My first week was marked by the first great tragedy of the 21st Century, when the World Trade Centre was bombed and everything changed. Suddenly, the world seemed smaller and more interconnected. Cable news network, cellphones and email gave us a sense of being there and participating in the events as they unfolded in New York City – a feeling that was only intensified by the advent of social media and ubiquitous mobile computing.

The technologies of communication have always had a big impact on our society, culture and business. The printing press ushered in a new age of knowledge sharing and standardization that culminated in the industrial revolution. Now social media, smartphones and tablet technologies are binding us into a tightly knit network that doesn’t so much resemble an orderly grid, as it does the heaving surges and flows of communication in a town square packed with people, awaiting an event. If anything, social media have turned daily life into an unmissable event which captures the poetry of the everyday. We have all heard the complaint that “no one wants to know what you had for lunch” and yet we share this information on Twitter and Facebook and we are inspired by it, wanting to meet the challenge posed by knowledge of what another has done. Indeed, social media have begun to transform our culture, politics and economics.

Our world is no longer as it was. Our world is no longer as even I – with my 39 short years on this Earth – remember it to be. My father often speaks wistfully of a rural Northern Ontario world that is long gone and mostly forgotten. I always thought that I would not be in his position, that the world I lived in was always vital and real and true – that it would persist and exist forever. It has not. The world I grew up in during the 1970s and 1980s is as remote to the digital natives of today as the world of my father’s youth in the Northern bush camps was to me.

Truthfully, we are in the beginnings of a move from the print and broadcast model of newspapers, book publishers, terrestrial radios stations and broadcast television networks to an age of self-publishing and interpersonal sharing via social media. This change is a shift from a culture of gatekeepers, editors and experts to a culture of storytellers, rhetoric and persuasion. This means a move from understanding culture and business through the lens of mass communication theory toward thinking of mediated communication as a primarily interpersonal phenomenon.

While this might seem to many to be a largely academic distinction, having little bearing on the world of motion and action outside the university, in fact it is a phenomenally important distinction to begin to fathom. Mass communication privileged experts and gate keepers. It had very high production values that demanded significant investment on the part of media companies to create content that was fit to print or broadcast. It was a world of hierarchy, rules and constraint. That world is rapidly disappearing and being replaced by a place where the human voice, the story and the village are of primary importance.

We are morphing into a society shaped and organized by the tenets of oral culture – fluid, chatty, playful, emotional and mistrustful of expertise and authority. Its rhythms are in tune with the flow of conversation, rather than segregated by the categories and boxes of print and broadcast. The operative skills, identified half a century ago by Marshall McLuhan, are pattern matching and fit. Statistics and probability reign in this world, while rigid logic fades. It is a world of relative and local understanding, not universalism. It is world where people are motivated by principles rather than constrained by unenforceable rules.

It’s a whole new world and I will be back at regularly writing this blog to explore it with you.

McMaster-Syracuse MCM February Residency: Record Cohort and 7 Capstone Defenses

Another successful residency of the McMaster-Syracuse MCM program drew to a close on Thursday afternoon. We had a wonderful time sharing ideas, debating the latest industry challenges and opportunities and simply building friendships and professional collaborations.

This residency saw three key events:

  • Seven students successfully defended their capstone research projects. The capstone project is the culminating event in the MCM. Most of the successful students left on Sunday for a well-deserved “new MCM alumni trip” to the Mayan Riviera in Mexico.
  • Terry O’Reilly, founding partner, Pirate Radio, a major advertising firm, and creator and host of two successful CBC radio shows – The Age of Persuasion and Under the Influence – gave an insightful and engaging speech at the Saturday MCM Gala dinner that is held at the start of every residency.
  • John Clinton, president, Edelman Canada, a major public relations firm, presented the lunchtime keynote on the findings of the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures trust levels in different sectors and countries globally.

This residency also saw the record-setting first-year cohort of 23 new MCM students finish their first term and head confidently into their second term of six. Now they are old pros and full of excitement at the positive difference that the MCM is making for them by boosting their professional careers and enriching their personal lives.

To ‘cap it all off’ our graduating class offered a wealth of new insight and research directly applicable to practice, and continuing in the MCM tradition of leadership. The following abstracts showcase the talent and innovation, of another successful round of graduate capstone presentations.

From Enrolment to Alumni: Relationship Marketing and Measurement of University-Student Relations (Katherine Blanchard, Supervisor: Dr. Alex Sévigny)

A study that included 17 U.S. and Canadian universities, looked at the application of relationship management theory and relationship marketing to University-student relationship. Examining key components of relationship management, and relationship marketing to develop best practices for university-student relations. The research developed a comprehensive view of tactic and strategy for community building and adding value to the student experience.

Natural or Misleading: A content analysis of media coverage and consumer comments on product labeling and impact on reputation and the bottom-line. (Rosa Damonte, Supervisor: Dr. Terry Flynn)

​The prominence of media attention to a particular product is something that marketing departments strive to achieve when introducing a new product to market. Whereas conventional wisdom suggests that any publicity is good publicity, does the media cross the line when they are aiming to persuade in some way? As in this case study, agenda setting by reporters and editors can influence the public’s perception of companies through their selection and display of the news. This case study explores consumers’ reactions to the news coverage of a major food producer’s product line that were reported extensively in major newspapers and television networks in order to determine the impact the coverage had on the company’s reputation and bottom line.

Best Practices for Media Relations in a Shifting World (Susan M. Emigh, Supervisor: Dr. Philip Savage)

Public relations practitioners are key in media relations and as the variety of media sources and digital media continues to evolve, the role is becoming more complex. Through surveying 18 influential players in politics, journalism and public relations, it was found that traditional media sources are no longer the sole-gatekeepers of “agenda setting” but have maintained most of their viewership and authority in influencing public policy issues. Although the fundamentals are maintained, additional understanding of new media streams is needed as they continue to gain credibility.

Exploring the Relationship Between Personal Experience, Word of Mouth and a Community Hospital’s Reputation, (Anne Marie Males, Supervisor: Prof. David Scholz)

Looking at the importance of corporate reputation building and reputation management in the context of community hospitals. The importance of reputation is recognized by hospital administrators, and this study illustrates that standard models of corporate reputation do have direct application to the community hospital setting. Personal experience and word of mouth, and in particular the appeal to emotion, came out as prominent influence in patient evaluations of treatment. The results suggested that “feeling cared about” and a positive experience positively influenced how patients and families evaluated outcomes of treatment. Good experiences in hospital translated into a positive hospital experience, even when clinical outcomes where poor.

Thought Leadership in Canadian Professional Service Firms (Wendy McLean-Cobban, Supervisor: Prof. David Scholz)

A new reputation based economy and increasing value of intellectual capitol create the opportunity for Canadian service firms to gain a competitive advantage through Thought Leadership. Becoming ‘leaders in the field’ is an important goal and strategy in reputation management for professional firms. There is an opportunity for implementation of long-term strategies that will position the leaders in those firms as experts on the topics and industries most relevant to their existing and potential client base. This study examined the need for a holistic approach and mechanisms for tracking reputation and thought leadership strategy.

The New Lobbyist Rolodex: PR, (Jennifer Tomlinson, Supervisor: Prof. Michael Meath)

An in-depth inquiry on lobbying in Canada through a communications management and public relations perspective. The findings indicated that PR and Communications intersect in the practice of Lobbying, with “soft lines” of separation between them. Social media is breaking down the traditional singular networks of power in government relations, increasing the need for public relations and communications strategy to play a more strategic role in lobbying.

Reputation and Perception of Value: Online vs. Traditional Degrees (Amber Wallace, Supervisor: Prof. David Scholz)

Online education is becoming increasingly more popular, with the rise of online universities and the increasing number of traditional “bricks-and-mortar” post-secondary institutions offering online courses. It found that educational programs based solely online are poorly perceived, lacking institutional reputation. Established classroom based institutions offering online education benefited from a “halo-effect” based on their established relationship. The study found that the executives, administrators and hiring managers expressed concern for the “un-tested” nature of online learning. That is, that online education programs are a relatively new development and the graduates looking to enter the workforce don’t have the long-standing reputation of classroom based programs and established universities.

Dr. Al Seaman teaching MCM students about how financial market trading works in our McMaster Trading Floor Simulator.
Dr. Al Seaman teaching MCM students about how financial market trading works in our McMaster Trading Floor Simulator. (photo: Sarah Parent)
A candid moment during the MCM Saturday Gala Dinner.
A candid moment during the MCM Saturday Gala Dinner. (photo: Sarah Parent)


Terry O'Reilly in conversation with MCM Exec. Director, Alex Sévigny.
Terry O’Reilly in conversation with Alex Sévigny, MCM Executive Director. (photo: Sarah Parent)
John Clinton, president, Edelman Canada presenting the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer.
John Clinton, president, Edelman Canada presenting the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer. (Photo: Sarah Parent)
Students who completed their capstones successfully.
Happy moment, post-capstone defense! (Photo: Sarah Parent)
Alex Sévigny, MCM Executive Director, giving a capstone briefing for 2nd year students.
Alex Sévigny, MCM Executive Director, giving a capstone briefing for 2nd year students. (photo: Sarah Parent)


McMaster launches a new Bachelor of Professional Communication (BPC)

Our world is changing at light speed and it need a new class of highly qualified, well-educated, ethical professional communicators.

This change is creating the need for highly competent and well-educated professional communicators, whose role in winning battles in the court of public opinion will work in parallel with lawyers who fight in the court of law.

McMaster University, in partnership with Mohawk College, is responding to this need for highly qualified, entrepreneurial leaders in professional communication by launching a brand new, highly selective Honours Bachelor of Professional Communication, pending ministry approval.

Business, government, culture and the not-for-profit sectors are being transformed from top to bottom by digital communication technologies like social media and smartphones. All of these sectors require a new class of professional communicators who combine public relations, communications management, journalism, advocacy and market research.

Media, digital communication and mobile smartphones are transforming the way we do business, practice politics, raise money, create culture and are governed.

The BPC will combine several things:

  • Training in finance and accounting, marketing, communications management and entrepreneurship
  • A rich liberal arts approach to professional communication, steeped in ethics and a critical understanding of our culture
  • Extensive training in communication measurement: polling, audience research, cognitive and behavioural, content analysis, surveys, focus groups, ethnography, semiotics and many more.
  • Cutting edge training in photography, videography, mobile app and web design, professional/journalistic writing and project management
  • A mandatory full-term, for-credit work placement in the government, not-for-profit or private sectors
  • An honours project tied to research or a campaign in the real world of professional communication practice
We are convinced that the first graduates of the BPC will not only be market-ready when they graduate, but that they will be market leaders among junior practitioners of public relations.

The characteristics of a successful applicant to the BPC:

  • High Academic Achievement is a MUST
  • Demonstrated ability in writing or another form of digital or print creative production such as photography, video and audio
  • A mature personal outlook and a desire to make a difference in the world
  • Personal qualities of leadership, enterprising and/or advocacy and activism.

Who can apply?

  • Applicants completing their high school diploma.
  • Applicants who have completed a university degree or college diploma
  • Applicants who are in the midst of a degree and who wish to transfer into the BPC
To gain some insight into the thinking that went into the creation of the BPC, please click on our white paper, published in the Journal of Professional Communication.

We invite you to spread the word about the BPC to anyone you think would be an ethical, enterprising and bold professional communication practitioner.


Students don’t read anymore. What does this mean for democracy?

I have spent most of the last week marking papers. As professors, we sometimes grumble and complain about this task, but it is important to consider how vital evaluation and feedback is to student growth. The thing is, marking work is a two-way street.

I have been thinking a lot about the value of assignments and marking papers over the last little while. What kinds of assignments are appropriate? What do students learn from a particular assignment? Should assignments be on hypothetical situations or should the examples be drawn from the real world?

I have settled upon a compromise in the courses I teach, particularly at the fourth year level. I ask students to work on assignments incrementally, handing in a draft, which I mark up and then a final version, to which I assign a grade. I find that this is the only way to encourage a culture of constant improvement and self-evaluation. I also walk students through the elements of research methods and theory in every class I teach. It is a challenging balance to maintain, but it is valuable, since by the end of the seminar, they have produced a piece of work that they are usually proud to include in their portfolios, for presentation to potential employers.

The thing is, this strategy requires a commitment of effort and good faith on the part of the students. They have to commit to doing the readings and working through the theoretical components of the course, so that they are ready to come to class and have wide-ranging and profound discussions. There is a problem, however: many students have to work long hours to pay for their tuition and there seems to be a culture of “work hard, play hard,” which leaves very little time for reading, reflection and deep thought.

This is worrisome, because it downloads all of the learning onto the actual time students spend in class, which is not considerable. University seminars are two or three hour sessions, once a week. That just isn’t enough time to cover all of the material that would need to be covered to assure the depth and breadth of learning expected in a university level class. This means that students are leaving with a piece of paper that says “Honours Bachelor’s of Arts/Science/Commerce/Engineering/Etc.” but it is a degree that doesn’t represent what it once did. I can attest that student attitudes to reading and reflection have changed from even a few years ago, in 2001, when I started being a professor.

Whose fault is this? I don’t know. Students tell me they simply don’t have time to read, between work, internet and social commitments. They tell me that there is no culture of political, ethical or philosophical discussion – only a constant chatter about celebrity news and lifestyle information that is pulled from various outlets online. They explain that there isn’t really a desire for more heady conversation, either; that they get shut down by peers if they try to talk politics or current affairs.

This will not lead our culture, our economy and our democracy anywhere good. An uneducated, unreflective public, tuned in largely to passing fancies and trivialities can’t make good voting choices, smart investments or career and lifestyle choices. This can only lead to a two-tiered society, where people who are “tuned in” make all the decisions and have all the know-how and depth of understanding to pull the levers of power and influence, while the rest – both men and women – are chatting about celebrity gossip and dieting/workout tips.

How do we repair this situation and right the good ship education? Or is it our culture that is broken?