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November 30, 2005

Soldier Blames Government, Not Public, for Poor Morale

Is public criticism of the war in Iraq hurting morale among the troops there? Here's what one active-duty officer in Iraq told me:

Morale is pretty lousy where I am, but I don't hear guys complaining about the lack of support back home. By "morale," of course, I don't just mean "I feel good." Morale describes how much troops believe in the mission at hand.

Now if the mission at hand is actually to bring democracy to this country, than frankly morale was shot a long time ago. The first time I was down here I heard troops saying that we just needed to bomb this country into oblivian and go home. That's a standard gripe and not entirely serious, but then, it does show that there is a certain lack of faith in the idea of spreading democracy here.

I have actually tried to ask fellow soldiers, "So do you think we're really spreading democracy down here?" That question elicits various responses from blank stares to outright laughter. Not once have I heard a soldier answer in the affirmative.

Morale is poor for a number of reasons, and it's true that support from home plays a role. But it's not the support of the common American people that we are lacking most, but the support of our government leaders who have repeatedly undermined -- and are still undermining -- this war by failing to provide the proper numbers of troops, training, and resources that we need.

So if we're going to dick around instead of treating this mission seriously -- and empty platitudes to "stay the course" don't count as taking the mission seriously -- we might as well go home.

November 28, 2005

Of Bloggers, Hollywood, and Unpopular Wars

Conservative bloggers are buzzing over the news that Bruce Willis is set to make a pro-war film about the conflict in Iraq based on the dramatic reportage of blogger Michael Yon.

Says blogger and screenwriter Roger L. Simon (who gave a fascinating interview for my book):

Finally a pro-democracy, pro-US involvement feature film about Iraq. I'm placing a bet right now this movie will go through the roof, to the consternation of many of Willis' peeers.

Now, I respect Roger, both as a blogger and as a novelist/screenwriter. But I think he's letting his frustration with the public's declining support for our Iraq mis-adventure get in the way of his better judgement here. For as Roger ought to know better than any of us, the last time Hollywood tried to pump up support for an unpopular war, the result was a disaster.

Remember The Green Berets, the 1968 pro-war epic starring John Wayne? Critics at the time called it "unspeakably stupid," and not just because it substituted white men in blackface for the dreaded Vietcong, Georgia pine forests for the tropical jungles of Vietnam, and a sun setting to the east off a beach in Da Nang for the usual place where the sun sets for the rest us in the real world (i.e., the west). The script was godawful, the characters aburd, and as a piece of political propaganda it was about as effective in generating public support for the war as General Westmoreland's "light at the end of the tunnel" speech -- which is to say, not effective at all.

Plus, it was a box-office yawner which, despite its big-budget special effects, generated only $21.7 million domestic compared to such 1968 hits as Funny Girl ($58 million), 2001: A Space Odyssey ($56.7 million), The Odd Couple ($44.5 million), and Bullitt ($42.3 million).

To be fair, Simon hedges his bet a bit by noting that his faith in the success of the forthcoming Bruce Willis flick is "a risky prediction in the movie and political worlds." But he says that given a new poll of public opinion showing that 70 percent of people surveyed say criticism of the war by Democrats hurts troop morale, he "feels pretty secure" about the film's ability to tap what he feels is a deep vein of latent popular support for U.S. involvement in Iraq.

Simon, however, is mis-reading the meaning of those poll numbers. Of course most Americans -- including that majority of Americans who oppose the war and believe that the Bush administration misled us into it -- recognize that lack of public support for the war is bound to hurt troop morale. How could it be otherwise? If you're a soldier on the ground in Iraq and you realize that you're risking your life for a cause that the majority of your countrymen no longer believe in, how could this not affect your morale to some degree?

But the alternative is to allow this futile war to continue without question or criticism, and thereby sacrifice many more troops than would otherwise be lost if only the current war policy were changed to reflect the reality of conditions on the ground in Iraq -- including the reality that it's the presence of U.S. troops itself that is fueling much of the insurgency and chaos in that country.

At bottom, I think what's driving Simon's enthusiasm for Hollywood's latest attempt at war propaganda is the mistaken belief that it's the media's unflattering portrayal of the situation in Iraq that is responsible for the declining public support for the war.

The same was said about the media's role in the loss of public support for the Vietnam War, of course, but in neither case was this true. In fact, a slew of studies -- most especially this one -- have demonstrated conclusively that while media coverage can have some modest, short-term effect on public support for a war, its impact pales before what Clausewitz, in his seminal work On War, viewed as the only two truly decisive determinants of public support for a war -- 1) whether or not the government has a clear and decisive war policy, and 2) whether the objective situation on the ground is getting better or worse.

If either or both of these are going against you, then no amount of gung-ho media coverage or pro-war cinema is going to maintain public support. And the real-world proof of that lies in the distance we have traveled since May of 2003, when it seemed (for a short while after Saddam was toppled) that Bush and his neocon planners really knew what they were doing in Iraq -- and when, as a result, 76 percent of the public supported the war effort.

Now -- post-failed WMD intelligence, post-Abu Ghraib torture, post-daily suicide bombings, post-political gridlock in Baghdad, and post-an insurgency that never really is on its "last legs" like the war apologists keep assuring us -- we know that the White House's war policy was really no policy at all. It was all just hubris, combined with the neocons' willingness to sacrifice the lives of working-class men and women to their ideologically-driven and negligently-planned campaign to remake Iraq and the Middle East into a pro-American bastion.

All they've accomplished -- apart from the deaths of 2,100 Americans and about 50,000 Iraqis -- is to transform Iraq into a factory for the mass production of Jihadists and the Middle East into a cauldron of anti-Americanism.

And because those are the facts on the ground, all of Hollywood's action stars together can't put this humpty-dumpty war policy back together again or reverse the majority view in America that this war is a lost cause.

November 16, 2005

More on the "Use Value" of RSS

NevOn has a smart report about a UK supermarket chain called Tesco that is now sending out an RSS feed for its "Deal of the Day."

Says Neville Hobson, the man behind NevOn:

So my prediction is - more RSS feeds by consumer-focused businesses such as supermarkets. It's getting easier for people to use RSS (often without realizing it) and will get easier still as more businesses offer information via RSS, as simpler ways of describing it emerge (like 'live bookmarks,' for instance), and as it becomes ever more easier to get the information offered via RSS.

Like minds think alike: Five weeks ago I suggested in a post entitled "Use Value: The Money Shot in Syndicated Content" that just such a move by retailers was imminent:

November 15, 2005

Two New Blog Book Deals

According to Publisher's Marketplace (subscription required), the first half of November has already yielded two new book deals related to blogs and bloggers.

Brooke Parkhurst's BELLE OF NEW YORK, about a beautiful Southern debutante who comes to New York and lands a job in the news room of a conservative cable network while reveling in the hedonisitic pleasures of the city, is based on the blog BELLE IN THE BIG APPLE. It sold to Sarah McGrath at Scribner.

Then there's Jonathan Yang's ROUGH GUIDE TO BLOGGING, which is billed as "everything you need to know and didn't think to ask about the blogosphere and your place in it." It sold to Andrew Lockett at Rough Guides.

November 11, 2005

What's in a Name? Rights and Responsibilities!

Mary Hodder hates the term "consumer"-generated content and suggests we call it "user"-generated content instead.

Robert Scoble doesn't like the term "user," though, and prefers to be called "participant."

Kevin Marks and Dave Winer, meanwhile, both like "amateur" -- as in amatuer-generated content.

Me? I like "citizen" -- as in citizen-generated content. It connotes the same non-professional status as "amatuer," but it suggests more -- a person endowed with rights and responsibilities to others in his social domain.

Not that my vote counts for a wholle helluva lot, but there it is.

November 10, 2005

Can Bloggers Design Products?

You bet.

For some time now I've been arguing that business blogs should not simply be marketing vehicles but also product development tools. In other words, instead of just telling your customers what to buy, why not let them tell you what new products and services to build?

Powerful support for the notion of blogging and other forms of online customer contact as tools in product development now comes from an article in the new issue of Business Week entitled "Shoot the Focus Group." Here's an excerpt:

"My research department doesn't know it, but I'm killing all our focus groups." So spoke Cammie Dunaway, chief marketing officer at Yahoo! Inc.

Yahoo has been getting little useful information from such groups, says Dunaway. She prefers "immersion groups" -- four or five people with whom Yahoo's product developers talk informally, without a professional moderator typical of focus groups. That leads to work sessions in which a few select consumers work together with Yahoo staffers to actually design a new product.

"The outcome is richer if they feel included in our process, not just observed," says Dunaway. One recent result: Yahoo is testing a new online community for car buffs who want more member-to-member opportunities to chat.

It's not only focus groups that are coming under increasing corporate scrutiny. Conjoint analysis -- asking consumers to pick between two "baskets" of product attributes -- and other traditional market research techniques are also increasingly seen as rather blunt instruments for determining customer wants and needs. That's because even when traditional market research tells you what customers want -- and it often doesn't -- it usually doesn't tell you why they want it. And it is here, in understanding the deeper motivations and emotional drivers behind people's buying decisions, that the greatest opportunities for building winning products and successful brands are generally found.

As I said in Tough Love for Business, the day is not far off when trusted customer representatives will be brought into marketing and sales and R&D; meetings -- and even onto the company's board. After all, smart companies are realizing that their customers are, one way or the other, ultimately the key decision-makers in the enterprise.

November 09, 2005

"Tough Love" for Business

A new Intelliseek study on consumer trust in news media and advertising -- or rather, on the lack thereof -- highlights just how dramatically corporate America will have to change in order to compete in the new world of blogs and other consumer-generated media (CGM).

Herein, some hightlights from the study:

Consumers are 50 percent more likely to be influenced by word-of-mouth recommendations from their peers than by radio/TV ads.

In fact, notes the study:

[Word of mouth and consumer-generated media] has more impact on consumer attitudes about products than either positive or negative news coverage.

In sum:

Word-of-mouth behavior among "familiars" trumps all forms of advertising and is more trusted than news or "expert commentary."

Interestingly, the study also notes that positive word-of-mouth from a personal acquaintance carries just as much impact as negative word-of-mouth. According to Intelliseek CEO Mike Nazzarro, this has "critical implications for brands that nurture evangelism, brand loyalty, and advocacy."

What's it all mean?

For starters, the study suggests that most American companies are woefully unprepared for the managerial, marketing, customer relations, and product development challenges of a new business environment in which customers trust bloggers and each other more than they do traditional corporate marketing. Unfortunately, the modern corporation is built on a solidly-hierarchical "push" model in which customers (and their friends) are at the bottom of the totem pole -- mere passive recipients of whatever the company chooses to deliver to them.

But that's going to have to change. And the change certainly won't come easily, not to a generation of executives and managers who were never trained to deal directly with customers who can now make or break their businesses.

To the next generation of business leaders, perhaps, it will no longer be unthinkable to bring trusted customer representatives into marketing and sales and R&D; meetings -- and even onto the company's board.

But in the meantime, it's going to be "tough love" for business until they learn how to deal with the new marketplace in which customers have become key decision-makers in the enterprise.

November 08, 2005

Media Praise for Blog Book

Sunday, November 6, was a red-letter day for my book. Three newspapers ran favorable reviews:

From Clive Davis, writing in the Washington Times:

"If you want to gauge how far we have actually traveled, "Blog!" does a fine job of assembling a road map. [It's] a valuable introduction to an uncharted realm. The main lesson of this book is that blogs, whatever their ultimate future, have given individuals a voice all their own. Oppressive governments and fast-buck corporations are still struggling to find a way of silencing them."

And from Carlin Romano of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

[Kline and Burstein are] savvy, sensible survivors of previous bubbles of irrational exuberance. [They] dub their approach "real-world futurism." They're excited by blogging, but alert to market-driven puff. As a result, blog! -- an anthology that mixes smart previously published pieces with interviews on its subject and guiding essays by the pair -- provides a sophisticated intro to [blogging].

And finally, from Hugh Hewitt, author of his own book on blogging, writing in the New York Post:

"You will want to read this book if you are in anyway connected with information and especially with politics, marketing or media. The book comprehensively surveys the business implications of the blogosphere's rise, including seminal articles on the growth of the blogs as well as informative interviews with big thinkers in the blogging world. There's also a fine set of essays/interviews on blogging and media. The conversation with blogger Jonathan Schwartz, president and COO of Sun Micro systems - the company has encouraged all of its 32,000 employees to blog - will more than return the price of the book to any executive with a marketing department (no matter how many copies that executive buys). To find out why, buy the book."

Oh yeah, lest I forget, there was this Publisher's Weekly review back on October 17:

"In this dense and entertaining analysis of the 'new paradigm for human communication,' journalists Kline and Burstein examine the notion that weblogs, or "blogs," are redefining journalism and media consumption and conclude that, while blogging may not signal the death of big media, it has measurably impacted everything from political campaigns-as evidenced by Howard Dean's presidential bid-to the life of former child star Wil Wheaton, who found his "second act" in a tell-all blog about the humiliations of show business."

November 04, 2005

Free Speech Scares (Some) Progressives

DailyKos has a nice riff exposing the histrionic fears of liberal reform groups such as Common Cause and Democracy 21 who worry that unless campaign finance laws are applied to blogs, we'll end up with "billion dollar Halliburton blogs" exercizing mind control over the brainwashed masses.

Free speech has always been scary stuff for ideologues of the left and right. But in recent years, it seems that while rightwingers has been content merely to question the patriotism or morality of those who challenge their views, the left and so-called "progressives" have borrowed a page from the old-time reactionaries of Scopes Trial days and have either pushed for outright bans on so-called "hate speech" or have just stuck their heads in the sand and refused to address issues with which they are uncomfortable.

Whether it's their refusal to truly engage the right over what real "family values" mean -- e.g., which would be more helpful to America's families, banning gay marriage or getting affordable health insurance? -- or its apoplectic freakouts whenever someone like Bill Cosby challenges conventional wisdom on what African-Americans in this country truly need, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party shows that it lives in fear.

Fear of debate. And fear of rolling up its sleeves and truly battling it out in the marketplace of ideas.

The result is that they have ceded to the rightwing a monopoly on addressing the crucial moral, spiritual and political questions of the day. That's a much bigger problem, it seems to me, than whether some companies fund a few more pro-business or anti-labor blogs.

November 03, 2005

Good Night and Good Luck, Aaron Brown

According to a late-breaking story in Media Daily News , Aaron Brown has left CNN's Newsnight and will be replaced by co-host Anderson Cooper. Brown's departure was described as a "mutual decision" -- a euphemism for being forced out but getting a nice severance package in the process.

I'm all in favor of the TV networks' recent efforts to humanize their broadcast coverage. And I like some of Anderson Cooper's reporting, especially his exposure of government ineptitude during the Katrina disaster.

But as a CNN anchor, Aaron Brown provided something that has become increasingly rare in TV news today: thought leadership. He explored issues deeply, and he made you think.

Now the networks just want their anchors to make you feel, not think.

Could Edward R. Murrow even get hired in today's news business? Very doubtful.