Spirited Communication

Category: Journalism

VR, AI Will Be Mainstream Soon Enough (Part 2)

My previous post summarized the growing attention to virtual reality (VR). This post focuses on another breakthrough technology that is gaining interest and acceptance: narrative science and artificial intelligence storytelling.

Kristian Hammond explains AI and narrative science during the G&S Global Street Fight business communications conference.

Kristian Hammond explains AI and narrative science during the G&S Global Street Fight business communcations conference.

When I joined VW Credit, Inc. in 2004 as its first (and only to-date) IT Communications Specialist, my boss told me that they were looking for me to help communicate the “value of IT” and other messages. One of the biggest difficulties that IT leadership faced then, he said, was that they were “data rich, but information poor.”

In other words, they didn’t know how to extract deeper meaning and narratives out of the massive amount of data to which they and the organization was privy. I did a good job, I believe, but we would have benefitted from the analytical and narrative text-generation systems developed by one of the presenters at the April 17 “Global Street Fight” business communications conference in Chicago!

At the Global Street Fight conference organized by G&S Business Communications, Kristian Hammond, chief scientist and co-founder of Narrative Science, explained that human beings aren’t built for the kind of data analysis that so many employees within financial services and other fields toil.

“There is a phenomenal amount of data today; way more data than we can understand,” Hammond said to Global Street Fight attendees. “There is a gap between the data and the end-user. We don’t want the data; we want the analysis derived from the data.”

Humans don't want data that we aren't built to analyze efficiently. We want the analysis from that data.

Humans don’t want data that we aren’t built to analyze efficiently. We want the analysis from that data that machines can process for us.

Although humans are not built to analyze data efficiently, machines are, he said. That is why he has spent decades working on the science of extracting narrative text from data and creating a system that automatically and efficiently creates accurate, useful narrative text for reports, press releases and other publications.

Hammond founded the University of Chicago’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in 1986, and formed Northwestern University’s Intelligent Information Laboratory (InfoLab) in 1998. Lately, he is marketing Quill™, an “advanced natural language generation (Advanced NLG) platform.”

According to the Narrative Science website, Quill “goes beyond reporting the numbers—it creates perfectly written narratives to convey meaning for any intended audience.” Hammond told us that Quill can create a financial analysis report in a professional, conversational tone literally within seconds. Compare that to the days or even weeks that some financial firms devote to their reports written by human analysts—who, as Hammond pointed out, don’t tend to like creating those documents.

One aspect that remains important in the AI narrative business is human oversight, Hammond said. He gave an example of a future in which he might enter a self-driving car and tell it to take him to the airport. “If it suddenly diverted to the nearest medical facility rather than the airport, I might be upset…unless the car told me that it detected, by monitoring my vital signs through a device on my wrist, that I was having a cardiac issue. We just want to know why it is making the decisions that it makes.”

Hammond’s belief in the need for human understanding of the software’s decision-making is a relief. Especially when I read that he most recently has been part of a United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) team that is working on shaping policy “regarding the control and regulation of the weaponization of autonomous devices.”

As my fellow Terminator fans would agree, we don’t need a real-life Skynet!

VR, AI Will Be Mainstream Soon Enough (Part 1)

VR Demo by Matt Overbey at VCI IMG_4265Two presentations focused on “breakthrough” topics during the April 19 “Global Street Fight” business communications conference in Chicago, organized by G&S Business Communications

The topics, virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) narrative science, were fanciful ideas just a few years ago. They have become nearly mainstream, but awareness and adoption by communication and business leaders is just now accelerating.

No better sign of that move toward the mainstream is possible than a photo of U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel geeking out on VR during a tour of the Hannover Messe trade fair.

Rather than discussing world leaders engaged in VR activities, two presenters at the Global Street Fight shared how VR is becoming part of news coverage by media organizations.

Raymond Soto, Gannett creative lead of applied technologies, and Holly McCall, Midwest vice president at the USA Today Network, led a discussion of how media companies are warming up to the idea of virtual reality journalism.

The Des Moines Register and its parent company, Gannett Digital, were awarded an Edward R. Murrow journalism award last year for coverage of dramatic changes in a rural community using VR technology. The Harvest of Change series included a 3D tour of an Iowa family farm, possibly the first example of VR journalism.

Global Street Fight attendees could download a USA Today VR app that, along with free VR goggles distributed by the presenters, allowed attendees to experience VR on our own.

During a Q&A sessions, my hand shot up and I asked whether people with motion sickness can comfortably watch VR videos. (I had a bad experience with the Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts 3d ride at Universal Orlando, and didn’t want a repeat experience.)

Soto said VR video creators are sensitive to that issue now, and use techniques such as zooming in and out, rather than panning left to right, which brings on motion sickness.

He was right, because later at home I was able to enjoy a VR ride along with Blue Angels as we made several maneuvers, without me needing an airsickness sack!

As the above photo of a work colleague shows, the VR videos were a big hit when I shared them with coworkers the day after the conference.

NEXT POST: VR, AI Will Be Mainstream Soon Enough (Part 2)

‘Leadership Amid the Battleground’ Panel Hits Close to Work

Global Street Fight study cover graphicThe purpose of the final session of the 2016 “Global Street Fight” according to its organizer, G&S Business Communications, was to “explore public perceptions of CEOs in today’s hyper-competitive global marketplace.”

As a communicator who receives a paycheck from Volkswagen Group of America, Inc., I connected with the session title: “Leadership Amid the Battleground.” In fact, Volkswagen came up several times during the opinion panel led by Steve Halsey, managing director of G&S Business Communications, and featuring Carol Gstalder, Nielsen senior vice president of consumer insights.

Comments hit uncomfortably “close to home work.”

During the panel discussion, Gstalder and Halsey referenced results of the “Fourth Annual Global Street Fight Study,” and provided context for some of the findings.

The Global Street Fight Study, Halsey said, has tracked the trends and issues that impact our expectations and perceptions of leaders in the C-Suite.

Findings from the 2015 Street Fight study indicated that major U.S.-based corporations were focused on “reputational triage” a year ago, Gstalder said. This year, although some notable companies are dealing with a reputational crisis, more senior leaders are described by Global Street Fight study respondents as “bold,” “innovative” and “strong.”

Gstalder attributed that shift to factors including an improving economy, greater consumer confidence, and C-suite engagement and comment in popular social issues that resonate with employees.

Then the panel discussion hit close to work. Gstalder said the type of crisis taking the forefront in survey participants’ minds changed this year.

Last year, the crises that came to mind included General Motors’ quality issue and recalls, and a rash of data breaches that required senior leaders to calm customers and regulatory agency concerns about customer privacy and data protection.

This year’s study uncovered a high emotive level of concern regarding potential corruption and wrong-doing by organizations including FIFA, pharma company greed, corporate tax diversions through the Cayman Islands and Volkswagen.

“When we asked the public this year what potentially would be the most damaging crises, it’s lying or corporate wrong-doing,” Gstalder said. “It goes to the “code of conduct, and what some of the other conference speakers here talked about this morning: A culture of compliance and values, and the importance of senior leaders to be living by those values.”

In the months since the Volkswagen diesel issue broke, I’ve been asked many times from family, friends and acquaintances “how are you doing?” and “what will this mean for Volkswagen?”

Let me be very clear here: I do not represent Volkswagen A.G. or any of its subsidiaries when I write this blog. These are my posts, my thoughts and feelings.

You may know that Volkswagen is not commenting publicly about its ongoing efforts related to the diesel issue, except as it posts information on its diesel issue website. According to that site, “Specifics of the agreements in principle are still being finalized. Until finalized, details remain confidential in accordance with the Court’s direction.”

As a communications professional who has received training in crisis communications, I would love to be more involved. However, my role with VW Credit, Inc., the financial services subsidiary of Volkswagen Group of America, Inc., is as an internal communications specialist. The fact is that I learn about this issue the same as most people inside or outside of the organization: through the company website and occasional email updates, and through media posts from people outside of the VW organization.

I work with many wonderful people who remain passionate about the company and its brands. We want the issue to be resolved fairly, and we want to do our part to help restore trust in the VW Brand.

It was difficult to bite my tongue during the Global Street Fight Conference when VW was mentioned. That’s as much as I can say, even though it doesn’t feel like nearly enough.

NEXT POST: VR, AI Will Be Mainstream Soon Enough (Part 1)

Highlights of the 2016 Global Street Fight

The Fourth Annual Global Street Fight Study is being released next week by G&S Business Communications, and earlier this week, study highlights were made available to attendees of the G&S “Global Street Fight” business communications conference in Chicago.

The study, conducted in March by Harris Poll on behalf of G&S Business Communications, queried 2,018 adults online. Study highlights provided to me and other conference attendees, focused on social media patterns and preferences. Some results were broken down by generational categories of Millennials and Generation X, as well as the “General Public” and “Opinion Elites,” which G&S defined as “a sub-segment of the main survey respondents who are more informed, engaged, involved in current issues and exert influence on the general public.”

In subsequent posts, I’ll share some of the great content provided by conference panelists who covered global trends in:

  • Corporate compliance and diversity challenges in the C-Suite
  • Reputational and economic challenges that are plaguing organizations
  • Breakthroughs and advances in narrative science and artificial intelligence storytelling
  • Virtual Reality in journalism and media
  • Leadership and crisis responses

Here are three slides from the G&S 2016 Study Highlights:

Global Street What They Should Post

Study respondents (46%) want senior business leaders to share information about their company’s business activities.

They DON’T want senior leaders at large companies to share personal opinions on social media (64% of all respondents and 71% of opinion elites).

Global Street What They Want From Leaders

More than one-third of study respondents want senior leaders to use social media to address company vision, company products and services. Low on their list are posts focused on advice on running a business (13%), personal stories and anecdotes (15%) and professional development tips (18%).

Global Street Why It Matters

It matters, to somewhat varying degrees, to each of the study subgroups because large percentages of the study respondents use social media to familiarize themselves with a company before deciding whether to purchase that company’s products or services.

They tend to place more trust in information about a company when they get it through social media. And they tend to believe that senior leaders who are transparent on social media are more trustworthy.

NEXT POST: Leadership Amid the Battleground

Journalists, PR Pros Benefit When They Meet

John Puterbaugh, editor of the Pioneer Press chain of weekly newspapers, addresses 30 attendees at the April meeting of the PR Council of Lake County.

John Puterbaugh, editor of the Pioneer Press chain of weekly newspapers, addresses 30 attendees at the April meeting of the PR Council of Lake County.

It’s no secret that the journalism profession continues to change, as media companies work through shrinking demand for print publications and the growing popularity of mobile/online news outlets. What CAN be somewhat mysterious, or at least challenging, is how public relations professionals can stay abreast of changing roles and editorial focus within newsrooms.

Puterbaugh chats with Carolyn (Waller) Gordon, president of the PR Council of Lake County, prior to him addressing the PRCLC.

John Puterbaugh, editor of the Pioneer Press chain of weekly newspapers, chats with Carolyn (Waller) Gordon, president of the PR Council of Lake County, prior to a PRCLC meeting.

When 30 public relations professionals gathered this morning to hear a presentation from the editor of a local newspaper chain, I was reminded how beneficial those kind of sessions can be, both for the PR pros and journalists.

John Puterbaugh, editor of Chicago Tribune Media Group’s network of 32 Pioneer Press suburban Chicago weekly print and daily online publications, met today (April 2, 2015) with members of the PR Council of Lake County. In a lively discussion, Puterbaugh outlined how Tribune Publishing’s purchase of the Pioneer Press chain and six suburban daily newspapers has impacted local journalists and the PR professionals who engage with them.

In October, the parent company of the Chicago Tribune newspaper completed a purchase agreement that brought six daily and 32 weekly suburban newspapers into the Tribune fold. The six dailies included the SouthtownStar, Merrillville Post-Tribune, Aurora Beacon-News, Elgin Courier-News, Naperville Sun, Lake County News-Sun and the weekly Pioneer Press newspapers.

Puterbaugh told the attendees at today’s PR Council of Lake County Meeting that Tribune bosses said they don’t intend for the acquired newspapers “to become mini Tribs.” He said the value of the acquired properties is that they extend Tribune Publishing’s coverage, and provide a new source of news for the Chicago newspaper.

This meeting helped the PR professionals in attendance get up-to-date information regarding the editorial contacts they need, and how to submit news ideas and content to increase the chance that it will be published.

One insight that Puterbaugh shared is that Chicago Tribune editors and the editors at the suburban news properties are still sorting out how best to coordinate suburban assignments to their full-time reporters and freelance journalists.

“They told us that we are communicators, and it’s been left up to us to communicate with each other,” he said. “We obviously don’t want to send two reporters to the same event.”

One tip that Puterbaugh offered was for the PR professionals, when contacted by a freelancer, to confirm whether the story has been assigned by an editor. That way, the source avoids having to provide similar information to a freelancer, and then to a different reporter assigned to the story by an editor. Two of the attendees at the PR Council meeting had that situation arise recently.

Other tidbits from the discussion:

  • Almost all of the content that appears in the print editions is published first online. “The site comes first,” Puterbaugh said.
  • One attendee inquired whether the Pioneer Press or Chicago Tribune had considered offering “red-eye” editions at suburban commuter train and bus stations. Puterbaugh said he liked the idea of reaching a “captive audience,” but that the cost of staffing sales teams at the stations would be prohibitive, compared to the potential return.
  • The best quote from the meeting was, “If you mess with the crossword puzzles, you will hear about it.” Puterbaugh said that was a lesson learned when Pioneer Press editors experimented with adding and removing content.


Journalist Walks the Talk Regarding Social Media Use


Photo (c) Robert K. Elder. All rights reserved.

In preparation for a recent workshop regarding the use of social media in crisis communications, I invited a Chicago-area journalist to join our panel. That journalist, Robert K. Elder, was entertaining, informative and provocative—exactly what I had hoped he would be.

Elder was one of two journalists on the panel. The other was Teresa Schmedding, managing editor for digital at the Daily Herald Media Group. Both Elder and Schmedding attracted the bulk of questions from among the 50 attendees of the May 17 workshop, “Crisis Communication Planning in a Social Media World.” But Elder’s obvious interest in, and comfort with, social media tools and techniques resulted in the opportunity for attendees to see how they could incorporate social media into their communication planning and personal use.

The workshop was organized by the PR Council of Lake County. I’m a member, and was a bit embarrassed when Elder (kindly) pointed out privately at the beginning of the event that we didn’t have a Twitter account. Fellow PRCLC member Donna Antu quickly registered @PRCLakeCounty, and we were tweeting before the workshop ended.

I appreciated Elder’s desire for PRCLC to “walk its talk” about social media. He obviously does, as evidenced by his Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc., etc. accounts. I felt that Elder was encouraging  workshop attendees to experiment with social media tools. In the context of crisis communications, he pointed out how journalists are monitoring social media sites for news tips. It obviously behooves company public relations professionals to be ready to engage in online conversations.181455_503850032997599_406437246_n

After the workshop, I enjoyed digging a bit online into Elder’s professional pursuits outside of his day job as an editor for Sun-Times Media. He is an author of several popular books and teaches journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School and Columbia College. Read his bio.

Another great professional connection made, thanks to PR Council of Lake County.

Six Principles of Crisis Communications from the CDC

The Center for Disease Control is no stranger to crisis communications. At a workshop on May 17 organized by the PR Council of Lake County, Barbara J.Reynolds, CDC Crisis Communication Specialist, ticked off the list of issues and emergencies that she has dealt with over the past 20 years, among them: pandemic influenza (H1N1), vaccine safety, emerging disease outbreaks (SARS) and bioterrorism.

Barbara J. Reynolds, Center for Disease Control Crisis Communications Director, shares information remotely from Atlanta to attendees of the PR Council of Lake County social media workshop on May 17.

Barbara J. Reynolds, Center for Disease Control Crisis Communications Specialist, shares information remotely from Atlanta with attendees of the PR Council of Lake County social media workshop on May 17.

The CDC built its crisis communications around six principles from its “Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication” (CERC) training program. The training program draws from lessons learned during public health emergencies, and incorporates best practices from the fields of risk and crisis communication.

The six principles are:

  1. Be First: If the information is yours to provide by organizational authority, do so as soon as possible. If you can’t, then explain how you are working to get it.
  2. Be Right: Give facts in increments. Tell people what you know when you know it. Tell them what you don’t know. Tell them if you will know relevant information later.
  3. Be Credible: Tell the truth. Do not withhold information to avoid embarrassment or the possible “panic” that seldom happens. Uncertainty is worse than not knowing. Rumors are more damaging than hard truths.
  4. Show Compassion and Empathy: This lets people know that you care, that you recognize the pain they’re going through. It is not sympathy, which implies that you know what the person is going through. Chances are, you haven’t experienced what they have.
  5. Promote Action: These are recommended actions for people to do; e.g., check on neighbors, hold a memorial service, consider preventative vaccinations. The actions move people from simply sitting, thinking and worrying. It helps them psychologically and it helps the community return to a “new normal,” after any kind of crisis.
  6. Show Respect:  People have different beliefs, whether they be cultural, familial, religious or based on a perspective related to the person’s age. By being respectful in  your messaging, you improve the chances that those various audiences will believe in what you are doing. That hopefully will lead to changed behavior and compliance with whatever actions or decisions your want them to support.

Reynolds then showed examples of the CDC’s social media sites, and how they responded to comments from the public. As a governmental organization, the CDC only removes comments from the public that are obviously obscene or that threaten someone, she said.

The results of the CDC’s social media practices and policies indicate that they are on the right track, Reynolds said. People who comment or otherwise access CDC through social media:

  • Have higher satisfaction ratings (84 out of 100) than those who do not use CDC social media tools (79 out of 100)
  • Are more likely to return and recommend the site to others than those who do not use CDC social media tools
  • Rate CDC as more trustworthy than those who do not use CDC’s social media tools

Here is another slide from Reynolds’ presentation that shows the CDC scoring higher than its federal agency peers in the areas of perceived collaboration and trust. The 12-point difference in collaboration correlates to a belief that people who use social media do so because they feel it is important to be a participant in their spheres of influence and daily lives.

Trust, Transparency and Participation in Goverment

What is a journalist to do?

(from left) John Ryan, Jim Tidwell and Rick Popely

The graphic to the left features (from left): John Ryan, advisor of Student Publications at my alma mater, Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, Ill.; Jim Tidwell, chairman of the Journalism Department at EIU; and Rick Popely, reporter at the Chicago Tribune and an EIU journalism alum.

The latest CommaKazi Speek podcast features interviews of these two former and one current journalists (the two former journalists teach journalism at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Il). We discuss the current state of journalism and what the next wave of journalism graduates may face.

I conducted the interviews on July 18, after a charity golf outing at EIU, my alma mater, to benefit the Gene Seymour Journalism Scholarship. (No thanks to me, my foursome managed to win third place.)

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