Tag Archive | "events"

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Technology and Tragedy at the Boston Marathon


This post was originally published at Publicyte and by InTheCapital on April 16, 2013.

On 9/11, I was a grad student at UC-Irvine in California. I found out about the terrorist attacks from a professor on the elevator on the way up to my laboratory. I hadn’t watched TV that morning before heading to school. And remember, I was on the west coast, so at that time I was a couple hours behind the story. When I got to the lab, my labmate MIchelle and my advisor Tony were trying to get on CNN.com – they couldn’t. Everything was jammed. Tony and I took a monitor I was using to videotape (on VHS!) fruit fly behavior from the back room, moved it onto a table in the main lab, and rigged up an antenna made out of a metal coat hanger so we could watch the news. I think we had that monitor on NBC for about a week straight. We worked a little but mainly just stared at the TV.

I don’t even remember if I had a cell phone then. If I did, I sure don’t remember really using it. It was probably a basic Nokia model that made calls. I know it wasn’t a Blackberry or anything of the kind – I didn’t get one of those until I was living in Washington, DC years later – around 2008 or so. During 9/11, there were no apps, no social media, no mobile communications, nothing really that enabled regular people to take photos of something and share them in anything close to real time.

Yesterday, I was on a conference call around 3pm EST and I got a text from a family member in Boston. I grew up in Massachusetts and a lot of my family lives in Boston area. Turns out, two of my family members went to watch the Marathon yesterday. One of them runs marathons, and was supposed to be in the race, but for an injury about six months ago. He would have finished just a bit faster than the time on the clocks when the bombs went off, if he had been running full speed.

I stopped working after that conference call, got some junk food, and flipped between about seven different news channels. I mostly watched Fox Business and MSNBC and CNN because they seemed to have the best video and breaking news and interviewees. I heard CBS was great, too. I watched them this morning. Norah O’Donnell was in Boston near the scene, seemingly on the verge of tears for two hours. I can’t blame her.

I didn’t have my Twitter feed on 9/11, and neither did anyone else. I didn’t have Facebook either (it didn’t exist yet; Zuckerberg was in middle school or so), nor anything else that we today call social media. But yesterday I did, and I tweeted. I tweeted a lot.

Social media has gotten me a bit jaded lately, but I have to admit that I’d forgotten how many people cling to it for information about loved ones and loved things. I follow a lot of very solid people and sources on Twitter and Facebook, and combined with TV coverage, I sent about 20 tweets with heavily curated and interesting news and quotes during the afternoon and early evening. I got 200-300 retweets and comments or so. My friend Tommy asked me last night why people reach out to each other with social media during a crisis. I replied that people always reach out to each other in a crisis no matter what; it’s human nature. Social media scales human nature.

Technology played a big role in telling the story of the Boston Marathon bombing. The mainstream media, of course,broke news but also argued with itself in real time, the White House used Flickr to officially show that President Obama was meeting with homeland security advisers, and short video service Vine seems to have found purposein tragedy. My Facebook feed was nothing but Boston. Somebody set up a public Google Doc so people could offer their Boston homes to those who needed a place to stay. Boston.com used their “viral video” site to post the most horrific and accurate video I’ve seen of what happened; it’s all over TV this morning. The Reddit community is curating everything here.

The last thing I tweeted before I heard about the explosions in Boston was a link to “Photos from the MTV Music Awards photo booth.” I feel a little silly. But at least now because of innovative startup companies and new social media creations, I have the ability to look a little silly in hindsight. A decade or so ago, I couldn’t do anything but watch a rigged up TV in my lab and be quiet in my thoughts.

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How Microsoft’s Director of Innovative Engagement Designs Meaningful Experiences


This post was originally published on the PivotCon blog on April 6, 2013.

Guest post written by Mark Drapeau, Director of Innovative Engagement (Public Sector), Microsoft, @cheeky_geeky


Adam Conner of Facebook dances “Gagnam Style” at the DC show in Fall 2012.

Have you ever made your Facebook profile pic a photo of you laughing with friends at a Microsoft event?

For most people the answer to this question would be “no.” However, a novel social engagement I began for Microsoft in 2010 named Geek 2 Chic has slowly but surely begun to change that answer to a resounding “yes” for a modest number of highly influential people.

One of the nuggets of wisdom I like to drop on corporate folks who ask me for advice about social media is the following: Social media is 20% about what you say you do, and 80% about what other people say about what you do. That’s not a hard-and-fast rule or anything, but it’s a good enough approximation to be an eye-opener.

You see, most large corporations think that talking about themselves and measuring how many hits a corporate blog post received or how many media outlets regurgitate the headline with a modicum of opinion attached is equivalent to “landing the message.” Sometimes it is, but in many cases it’s easy to overestimate its value.


Eric Kuhn of United Talent Agency rocks the hoodie in a Spring 2012 show in Los Angeles.

The reason for this is that even people who see the IMPORTANT CORPORATE MESSAGE do not necessarily experience it – interactively, physically, or emotionally. Thus, there’s a good chance that they don’t retain it in a meaningful way. And therefore there’s a very good chance that they don’t share it by spreading authentic, personalized word-of-mouth to people who trust them.

Geek 2 Chic is a charity fashion series collaboration between Microsoft and Bloomingdale’s which raises money for and awareness of a wonderful nonprofit called the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, or NFTE, which provides mentoring and resources for at-risk youth to start their own businesses while they’re in high school. We produce a true fashion show, featuring high-end designers from Bloomingdale’s clothing racks, and we charge for tickets. But there are no professional models in our show; everyone on the catwalk is a “geek” representing big tech companies, hot new startups, government agencies, academic institutions, and more.

Stylish guests attend a recent Washington, DC show

Our event is most likely the only time that these techies, scientists, and innovators will ever be on a catwalk, so people from the community come out to experience the event, see their friends and acquaintances, take photos, and share. Spouses, employees, and gawkers alike are not immune to the draw of seeing someone transformed from a hoodie-wearing programmer to a tuxedo-wearing stud for one night only. And what we’ve found in cities across the country – Washington DC, Chicago, Los Angeles – is that people in the geek community share photos from the events enthusiastically, on Twitter, Foursquare, Facebook, and Instagram. They tag them. They become Facebook profile photos, sometimes for months and even years.

Don’t misunderstand my earlier comments about traditional PR metrics – We love mainstream media stories. Geek 2 Chic has received coverage from Vanity Fair, Bloomberg, BBC News, the Washington Post, a host of local news outlets, and a bevy of glossy magazines and fashion bloggers.


Jabious Williams, a recent NFTE program recipient, walks the runway in a tuxedo

But while it’s tempting to point to a slide show on VanityFair.com, pat ourselves on the back, and conclude “we done good,” the real value is not the quantitative fact that we landed a headline in a particular publication, but the underlying qualitative story that the photos tell – people smiling, having fun, celebrating geek culture, highlighting a good cause. And the reason people far away from the cities where we actually do the events know about them is mainly because someone they know was tagged in an interesting photo on Facebook, not because they read a recap of the event on a fashion blog.

Think about it this way. Seeing a headline or a retweet or reading an article quickly forms a short-term memory in your brain: I am temporarily aware that something happened. After 20 minutes or so, you start to forget. Other information infiltrates your brain’s frontal lobe. The details of that headline suddenly…become…fuzzy.

Experiencing something remarkable, interactive and pleasurable, however, forms long-term memories, deeply implanted memories, things you think about while you’re sleeping, facts that literally rewire the neural connections in your brain resulting in a semi-permanent state of change. Microsoft could merely write blog posts about the opportunities we’re providing for youth around the world with our YouthSpark initiative, or about the support we provide for new startups with our BizSpark program, but events like Geek 2 Chic take the storytelling about these topics to a deeper, more meaningful and memorable level.

The next Geek 2 Chic show will be in San Francisco on May 15th. Tickets now on sale.

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Hearst Hosts Fashion Week Hackathon Amid an Evolving Publishing Industry


This post was originally published by PBS MediaShift on February 13, 2013. I reported live from the Hearst Fashion Hack, during Fashion Week, during a blizzard. Totally ruined my shoes.

Picture this: You’re waiting in line at your favorite local drugstore or grocery store and have two minutes to kill. What do you do?

Five years ago, many people would flip through one of the many magazines positioned near the checkout counter: Cosmo, maybe, or Esquire.

In 2013, we still browse and buy magazines in checkout lines, but customers are much more likely to whip out their smartphones — checking text messages, updating Twitter or Instagram, maybe a quick game of Angry Birds. But not so much reading sex tips in Cosmo anymore.

That’s a big problem — not just for your spouse or significant other, but for the traditional magazine publishing industry in general, which has seen it’s single-issue sales plummet because of scenarios just like I described above. Why buy four magazines and a newspaper for a cross-country flight, when you can get lots of media on your iPad or Kindle?

“We do find a number of people, if stalled for a minute, will steal a look at their email or news feed. Everyone that has products at checkout has to battle for consumer attention,” David Carey, president of Hearst Magazines, was recently quoted as saying on the front page of the Financial Times. You see, Hearst Corporation publishes Cosmopolitan and Esquire and a number of other popular titles like Elle, and you’re not buying as much of them as you used to. Roughly 18 percent less of them in the U.S., in fact.

Not coincidentally, I found myself sitting in the auditorium at Hearst Tower the very day after that quotation appeared in the FT, listening to Carey kick off a hackathon with roughly 150 hackers, designers, and fashionistas in attendance to compete for cash and prizes for the best new pieces of software designed in a frenzied 24-hour session focused on fashion and mobile.

If you’re going to look at your phone at Whole Foods, Hearst wants to be in your phone. As Carey said in the Hearst Fashion Hack kickoff, “We are blessed with so much IP.” Now the only question is, what are all these geeks going to do with it? It’s easy enough to come up with some applications of Hearst’s API, but will the new apps be truly relevant to readers as they move from print and across screens? That was the question posed to the hackers by Hearst’s creative CTO, Phil Wiser.

Creativity compressed

Hearst is an old company — over 100 years old, in fact, founded in 1886 by an American icon, William Randolph Hearst. The company is still, to a large degree, controlled by his direct descendents, which is great for control and stability but not necessarily for creative destruction. Regardless, the face of media and publishing is evolving rapidly, and Hearst and similar organizations (think: Conde Nast, News Corp., large book publishers like Pearson) need to experiment with new technologies and business models for their very survival.

And so an experiment began with these hackers and their technology company partners and sponsors, including Microsoft (which I work for), Google, Amazon, HTC, Klout, GILT, and more, fueled by Red Bull, coffee (writer’s note: the coffee in the Hearst Tower lobby is actually pretty great), cookies, and a phalanx of beefy, suited security guards watching over more nerds in one room than they’ve probably seen in their lifetimes.

At some point during the Hearst Fashion Hack, the VP of Engineering at Hearst, Jim Mortko, commented, “There’s nothing quite like the feeling you get when you have to get something done in a compressed time period.” And compressed this hackathon was, down to only about 24 hours due to, oh nothing, a Fashion Week blizzard that befell the city the evening before. But passionate hackers arrived on time in the snow and slush, ready to create fashion and mobile applications drawing on Hearst’s API and those of the tech partners present.

The hacks

I write in some detail about the best apps (and particularly about the best Microsoft platform-based projects) elsewhere at Publicyte.com, but here’s a sampler of some that I liked, in general:

  • Co-Fashion correlates static content from Hearst’s magazines with trending social conversations (on Twitter, etc.), filtered and curated by influence and theme. For example, I could pull up all the Esquire articles about coats from 2012 and cross-reference that with what coats influential people are sharing photos of online; I may find that Esquire recommends bold, plaid coats, but that influencers I follow outside of New York City and Boston haven’t bought into the message yet.
  • Zine helps you self-publish your own magazine based on Hearst’s content. Their tag line is “Ziners gotta zine.” For example, if I wanted to I could publish a zine that deciphers women’s fashion trends for urban men (I’d call it Mysterious.)
  • Shop Up extends the retail experience by empowering you to pull up Hearst content about a specific item of clothing. If you’re like me and one dress shirt looks a bit like the next one, you can actually scan the bar code and learn that Esquire recommends, say, the Ralph Lauren dress shirts but never discusses Hugo Boss ones, and that may influence your purchasing decision. (This one would be nice to see on kiosks in in retail stores too, perhaps.)

One new app even projected Hearst’s magazine content onto the inside of an umbrella (how apropos in the bad weather) — take that, smartphones!

With startups like ModCloth, StyleSeat, Birchbox and others merging fashion and technology and making Fast Company’s “most innovative companies in technology” list for 2013, it’s more important than ever for fashion brands, media companies, and other entities in the space to be building relationships with tech-savvy idea people, developers, and established entrepreneurs.

By that standard, Hearst Fashion Hack was a success for its namesake. Wiser summed it up nicely for me just before the final app judging on the stunning 44th floor of Hearst Tower, overlooking Central Park and midtown Manhattan: “This event has already exceeded our expectations…Everything is upside from here.” I’m looking forward to seeing if Hearst Fashion Hack becomes a yearly New York Fashion Week staple.

Mark Drapeau, Ph.D. is the director of innovative engagement for Microsoft’s public sector division, is a member of the Microsoft Office of Civic Innovation, and is the producer of the Microsoft-Bloomingdale’s charity fashion show series Geek 2 Chic. You can follow him on Twitter at @cheeky_geeky.

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5 Lessons About Social Media Engagement From the Embassy of Canada’s Inauguration Tailgate Party


This post originally appeared at the Microsoft blog Publicyte and on Huffington Post DC, January 30, 2013.

Seems like forever, but President Obama’s second inauguration was just a week or so ago. I was fortunate enough to spend most of Inauguration Day at the Embassy of Canada. If you’re not that familiar with the layout of Washington, D.C., there aren’t that many private buildings to have an inauguration party near the Capitol or White House or along the parade route. There are a few hotels, the Newseum, the Canadian Embassy, and a few residential apartment buildings. That’s it. Otherwise you’re on foot, in the cold, where there’s not a lot of food and drink to be had.

In true Canadian style, the embassy threw a tailgate party for about 1,000 guests. It was terrific fun. But they didn’t just engage their audience at the party in the real world; they also had a small team of people engaging the attendees and people who weren’t even there in the virtual world. Here are the five secrets to their success.

Step One: Throw a remarkable event to get the right people to engage with you in the first place.

In the planning stages, it’s possible to get so wrapped up in debates about decisions like “what software will we use to display hashtagged tweets with” that not enough attention is paid to real-life aspects of an event to make the overall engagement remarkable (in the Seth Godin sense of the word). That wasn’t a problem at the Canadian Embassy tailgate party. There were friendly staff, quick check-ins, free mittens, hot coffee and cider, hot dogs and hamburgers and pastries and soup, Crown Royal and Molson and wine and soda, Mounties posing for photos, heat lamps, Blackberry giveaways, special messages from Ambassador Gary Doer, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird, astronaut Chris Hadfield (the first Canadian to walk in space) videoconferencing from the International Space Station, and more. It was simply an outstanding party, the right kinds of people showed up, and wanted to stay all day.

Step Two: Create and utilize a memorable hashtag that lives beyond the initial event.

When I produce charity fashion shows for Microsoft and Bloomingdale’s, we use the hashtag #Geek2Chic. It’s short, it’s catchy, and it is not strictly tied to a certain day, location, or even event. It has a meaning beyond the Geek 2 Chic event proper. Likewise, the Embassy of Canada used the hashtag #ViewFrom501 to conjure up feelings about watching the inauguration, and especially the parade, from their building (the address of the Embassy of Canada is 501 Pennsylvania Ave., about five blocks from the Capitol and 11 from the White House). “View from 501″ is elegant, easy to remember, in the active voice, and can be used for pretty much any future event at the embassy. When somewhat forgettable embassy events in a capitol city are a dime a dozen, the Canadian Embassy is in a position to launch “View from 501 Hockey Happy Hours,” or any similar such thing and have the idea stick in people’s heads.

Step Three: Use a dedicated staff to curate and deploy social media from official and audience sources.

Staff at the Canadian Embassy left little to chance with social media, leveraging their existing Connect 2 Canada (”Canada’s network in the United States”) team to watch what people at their event were tweeting, find the best remarks and photos, and then curate that into a stream that was not only online but also on a very large screen set up at the tailgate. This didn’t surprise me — I wrote about C2C using social media for “public diplomacy” in an Oct. 2009 article for Washington Life — but it’s great to see them implementing better than ever. Attendees could watch CNN coverage with sound on one jumbotron, and simultaneously look at people’s quips and pictures on another one, adding an entire other dimension to the event. To my eye, the C2C team seemed to choose a lot of tweets with photos, which made the content more visually appealing. At one point, CNN began showing viewers’ Instagrams taken from the National Mall and tagged with #CNN next to the C2C-curated tweets. It all got very meta. Particularly on a day when phone and wi-fi connectivity was sometimes hard to come by, embassy staff using old-fashioned computers and large screens for this work was a very wise choice.

Having a decent hashtag and tweets displayed in near real-time on a screen is not unprecedented, of course. However, diplomats don’t necessarily have a reputation as adventurous technology and social media users, either. I reached out to the embassy to get a sense of what their social media strategy was at the tailgate event. Alexandra Vachon White, the Canadian Embassy’s deputy spokesperson related by email, “As the Embassy offers a unique vantage point to Inauguration festivities, we thought social media would be a great vehicle to provide access to our C2C followers on Twitter and Facebook who were not in attendance. Secondly, the screen featured at the tailgate party provided a vehicle for attendees to share their experiences in real-time. We also thought it was a great way to encourage guests to take full advantage of the activities and offerings of the event.” To briefly summarize that: Engage in-person attendees, share valuable information, and spread the story to a wider audience.

Step Four: Identify and interact with influential people engaged with the event

The tailgating party had a “main event” on the ground floor and in the expansive courtyard, and then a smaller VIP event hosted by Amb. Doer on a high floor of the embassy. Both portions had people of note walking around and enjoying themselves. Not only did the C2C team curate a lot of content from “average people,” but they also had some more specific goals in mind. It was not lost on them that numerous media reporters and editors were invited to the event. Thus, when they noticed tweets from, for example, Steve Chenevey of ABC 7, Brian Bolter of FOX 5, and Garrett Graff of Washingtonian magazine, they retweeted them, interacted with these relatively influential people, and amplified the fact that they had “VIPs” at the party to a wider audience paying attention from elsewhere.

I had drinks with public affairs officer Alexi Drucker, a longtime member of the C2C team, after the event. I asked her how they kept track of the most pertinent information in real time during what must have been a hectic day for the embassy staff. She told me, “In advance of the event, we identified Twitter handles for all confirmed partners, guests and participating media and actively followed their tweets throughout the day. The feed displayed on the screen in the courtyard was curated to showcase a diverse range of content from a variety of sources. We aimed for a healthy mix of images, Canada-U.S. trivia and guest feedback.” Most interesting to me was what must have been a lot of preparatory work prior to the event — Studying attendee and vendor lists, searching for, confirming, and saving people’s public social media accounts, using software to track social sharing, and then using that knowledge to execute a plan in real-time during a six-hour window. No doubt, the work in the week or two before the event saved a lot of time on the day off and removed some of the ambiguity and confusion that social media can contribute to.

Step Five: Promote the brands of your partners and friends in a fun way

Go figure: A lot of the food and drink at the tailgate party was Canadian in origin. But if you’re not Canadian, there’s probably a lot you don’t know about the history of various companies — perhaps how they’ve made inroads into the United States (most people at the party were American). After all, a primary goal of embassy outreach is to inform the locals about their country back home. So, we were treated to bits of info about Blackberry (Research in Motion’s CEO was apparently in attendance; I didn’t meet him), TD Bank (I think there’s a TD Bank pen in my swag bag, too), Molson (and I can neither confirm nor deny that I had two to three delicious Molson beers at the party), and Tim Horton’s, the beloved donut maker (who also provided warm coffee for attendees). This style of content + “advertising” makes both the main communications team (”stay on message”) and the sponsors (”thanks for the shoutout!”) happy, without being annoying to the audience that, let’s face it, mainly came to the event to stuff their faces with free poutine.

Cross-posted from Publicyte, a blog about technology, entrepreneurship and culture impacting the public good.

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4 Tech, Social Innovations at the RNC — And One Clever Tweet


This post was originally published by PBS MediaShift on September 4, 2012. I served as their correspondent on the ground at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, FL.

TAMPA, Fla. — For those who haven’t experienced it, a national political convention in America is something like a post-apocalyptic police state crossed with the Super Bowl and an Academy Awards red carpet.

Here at the site of this year’s Republican National Convention, bomb-sniffing dogs, Secret Service agents, and a tropical storm all made it hard for people to connect with each other. But social media probably made people feel more connected than ever. Twitter confirmed that more than 4 million tweets were sent during the GOP event — a one-day record for political conventions.

But we’re somewhat past the era during which merely using a social media platform is considered interesting. Whether it be Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Foursquare or any number of other platforms or apps, people are using them. Republicans, Democrats, and Independents can agree that they like social media.

Guests in Tampa were immediately greeted by a gigantic sign that boldly stated the official hashtag: #GOP2012. Times have changed since the John McCain/Sarah Palin campaign of 2008.

The convention officials themselves were using social media: conducting interviews with media via Skype, monitoring the hashtag. But this is what we have come to expect. It’s not particularly interesting.

(Note: Skype is now owned by Microsoft, my employer.)

Innovation in the shadows

Here’s what I did notice was standing out a bit at the GOP’s big event: collaborations between some unlikely bedfellows, overtly or presumably serving to show both partners in different lights. This took place in what one might call the “shadow convention,” the space outside the official proceedings with delegates and votes and state delegation breakfast meetings, where a melange of media and tech companies hold policy briefings, interact with convention VIPs, and underwrite after-hours parties. The shadow convention with its corporate stalwarts got fairly innovative in comparison to the convention proper.

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Here’s a rundown of some innovations I saw:

1. CNN had a “CNN Grill” at the convention, as they typically do at large events like the conventions or SXSW. It serves as a combination working space for staff and full-service restaurant. Because you need a special pass to even get into the CNN Grill for one day, it’s a popular place to hang out. But CNN was also using social technology in the midst of all the hamburgers and beer. Deploying Skype, they created what they call Delegate Cam, and enabled people following from home to be able to talk to their delegate representative casting their vote inside the security perimeter.

2. Time partnered up with social location service and fellow New York-based company Foursquare on an interactive map that helped conventioneers find each other. I asked Time about why they thought this was an interesting experiment to deploy in Tampa. Time.com managing editor Catherine Sharick told me, “Time partnered with FourSquare for the political conventions in order to help solve a common problem: Where are people and what is happening?” Writing elsewhere, I gave it a “B” for usefulness (if I know where Time writer Mark Halpirin is, what exactly should I do with that information?), but an “A” for creativity.

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3. Mobile short video service Tout collaborated with the Wall Street Journal to launch WSJ Worldstream, an effort by more than 2,000 global reporters who post vetted real-time videos from a special Tout iPhone app. The new video channel was launched in conjunction with the RNC. Reporters posted video interviews with delegates, protesters, and so on. Some of the videos will also be incorporated within longer online written pieces.

4. Microsoft (my employer), for its part, allowed me to use Pinterest to post real-time photos of the behind-the-scenes efforts of my colleagues. That included powering the IT infrastructure of the convention, conducting cyber-security monitoring, running Skype Studios for media and VIPs to conduct HD video interviews, and live-streaming the event on Xbox Live. Interestingly, Pinterest as far as I can tell, was not a popular medium during the GOP convention. I’m not sure if that’s significant, but I couldn’t easily find many pins from the convention.

Toward the end of the convention, social media watchers knew that the Republicans had a success by the numbers — millions of tweets and countless uses of the hashtags, photos uploaded, YouTube views of individual speeches, etc. But that’s expected now. One thing that was missing? A truly creative use of social media that involved more wittiness than brute force.

One Clever Tweet

There were a couple of clever uses of social media by a prominent politician during the Republican convention. That politician just happens to be a Democrat by the name of Barack Obama.

The most popular tweet during the Republican National Convention wasn’t tweeted by a Republican. In a reference to the now-infamous Clint Eastwood “talking to an empty chair” speech, Obama’s account tweeted three simple words: “This chair’s taken.” It was retweeted more than 50,000 times and favorited more than 20,000 times. More importantly, it’s smart, it’s art, and it’s memorable.

Obama also hopped on the somewhat-edgy, somewhat-underground “front page of the Internet” Reddit to do something Redditors (as they’re dubbed) call “Ask Me Anything.” In a half-hour chat, the president took on all comers in a broad Q&A.

Heading into the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., I’m curious to see how it compares. I’ll be Pinteresting, CNN will be Skyping while they’re grilling, and the WSJ will be posting short videos. What’ll be the surprise there, if anything?

Mark Drapeau is the the director of innovative engagement for Microsoft’s public and civic sector business headquartered in D.C. He tweets @cheeky_geeky.

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Corporate Public Diplomacy: Engaging and Improving Stakeholder Communities


This post was originally published in Public Diplomacy Magazine (a publication of the University of Southern California) on July 14, 2010.

Usually, when someone hears the word “diplomacy,” they think of the government. Who can blame them? Diplomacy has long been the province of old men in dark suits and red ties, and before that of elite members of society trusted by presidents, emperors, and kings. But now, particularly with the rise of inexpensive personal communications technology, vast changes in the mainstream and other kinds of media, and an evolution in how consumers interact with and make decisions about “brands,” this is changing.

Public diplomacy is the formal and proactive practice of governments communicating with citizens in foreign countries through diverse forms of media, events, and other engagement. Such activities may include broadcast radio, specially tailored films, and educational programs. But while public diplomacy is still widely thought of as being performed only by governments, there is a good deal of value in applying many of its principles to corporations and indeed other entities like non-profits. It especially makes sense when a brand (broadly defined) could be perceived as large, monolithic, and out of touch with the common person.

While my job title is not formally “public diplomat,” I have been incorporating some of these ideals into my new role at the Microsoft Corporation, by any standard a large entity with a global reach into science and technology, research and development, jobs and commerce, a wide range of government policy and related issues, and numerous philanthropies, causes, and movements. Yet despite this influence, while the company has a tremendous number of customers and fans, at the same time a fair amount of other consumers have a negative perception of the company for a variety of reasons, or they simply don’t think about it very much. One of my roles is to conduct positive activities of value for communities of consumers in order to, yes, change the perception of Microsoft – but also to improve those communities in the process.

Diverse Backgrounds Yield Good Public Diplomats

For a good part of my career, I was a scientist researching how animal behavior is controlled by genes and neurons. Building on that foundation of critical thinking and an understanding of complex behavioral systems, I received a fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2006 and was able to conduct science and technology policy research at the Department of Defense for a few years. That experience opened my eyes to everything from the inner workings of military organizational behavior to how social technology is changing how the government conducts its operations.

After my three year stint at the Defense Department, I did a lot of thinking, reading, and writing. I taught a university class about “entrepreneurial journalism,” and consulted some private sector clients about how emerging technologies are changing and democratizing media, marketing, and other specialties. During that period, I also consulted with Microsoft about what I now see as a public diplomacy effort run out of their U.S. Public Sector division based in Washington, D.C.. The division is responsible for Microsoft business across federal, state and local government, higher education and K-12 markets, as well as a significant portion of the U.S. healthcare market.

In my role as Director of U.S. Public Sector Social Engagement, I conduct a number of activities, not all of which are germane to this article. But with regard to my public-facing activities, I think of much of it as corporate public diplomacy. From a business point of view, my role differs in many ways from traditional public relations or public affairs, which despite a recent influx of new technologies still mainly involves “providing information for the public” at its core. Corporate public diplomacy, on the other hand, involves actively shaping the communications environment within which corporate activities are performed, and reducing the degree to which misperceptions complicate relations between the company and its customers. In my view, this complex mission is conducted using what I call “innovative social engagement.”

I don’t think I could have arrived at this role through more traditional routes like studying technology, business, journalism, or marketing. None of those routes provide the skill set that, in my opinion, are required for corporate public diplomacy. One must understand enough business to work within one, but not so much that one loses empathy for outsiders. One must have enough knowledge of technology to use it for various purposes, but not so much that one is unable to speak to people at a basic level about it. One must have public speaking and writing skills, but also be able to adapt those to company goals. A corporate public diplomat should be an insider and outsider, independent and dependent, creative and conservative, all at once. And they must above all be agile enough to know when to switch between behavioral states.

When people ask me how I got where I am with a doctorate in animal behavior, I often think, “Really?” – It’s all animal behavior.

What is Innovative Social Engagement?

When people ask me to explain my job, I often tell them that they can get the 30 second version, or the 30 minute version. That’s largely because corporate public diplomacy, as I see it, amalgamates many aspects of other people’s jobs, re-packages them in novel ways, and then adds some unique skills on top of that. Simple, no?

The simple way to start is to tell you what it is not. After observing many people whose jobs variously involve public relations, marketing, communications, advertising, technology, sales, and “being digital natives,” let me describe what corporate public diplomacy is not “merely”:

  • It’s not merely leveraging my personal brand to promote a corporate brand, though that’s part of it.
  • It’s not merely using social media platforms to connect with audiences in the public sector, though that’s part of it.
  • It’s not merely making social connections with influential people in real life, though that’s part of it.
  • It’s not merely engaging people complaining about the company online and conducting after-the-fact customer service, though that’s part of it.
  • It’s not merely creating public relations events to get people’s attention, though that’s part of it.
  • It’s not merely developing word-of-mouth marketing campaigns or helping the company go against type and poke fun at itself, though that’s part of it.
  • It’s not merely chasing the coolest, latest trends and incorporating them into strategies, nor reviewing cutting-edge tech gadgetry, though that’s part of it.
  • It’s not merely reporting live from events nor interviewing people inside the company on video (something like what Robert Scoble famously did for Microsoft), though that’s part of it.
  • It’s not merely being a product evangelist, though that’s part of it.
  • It’s not merely measuring the effect of online communications on customers, though that’s part of it.
  • It’s not merely creating a blog and writing about the best ideas or latest news or providing the most value to the most people, though that’s part of it.
  • It’s not merely creating new online opportunities for product sales, though that’s part of it.

My vision of corporate public diplomacy via innovative social engagement includes many if not all of these things, but it is not simply one or a few of these things. My charges include creating lasting and meaningful experiences for audiences, engaging willing participants in my work-related social activities, creating emotional responses with Microsoft brands of relevance to the public sector, volunteer sector, and general public good, transcending brand expectations to add value to people’s lives, and generally being remarkable (in the vein of Seth Godin) to specific people I desire to engage with and even influence.

Some Examples of Corporate Public Diplomacy

About a year ago when I wrote a blog post announcing and describing my new Microsoft role, I wrote that I’d be doing at least seven things immediately:

(1)  Interacting with and socially empowering the other members of the seven-person Applied Innovations Team;

(2)  Discussing my opinions about science and technology in the public sector and continuing to be a thought leader there;

(3)  Experimenting with new pre-sale information and social technology, often beta or free products that potentially have a public sector role;

(4)  Showing the human side of Microsoft and engaging audiences through multimedia channel content production and other online activities;

(5)  Participating actively in the public sector communities of government, education, and healthcare;

(6)  Measuring and understanding public sentiment about Microsoft using innovative techniques;

(7)  Acting as a competent resource for senior Microsoft decision makers, corporate partners, and customers, and public sector decision makers.

To some degree or another, I have been doing all of these things. But life in a newly-created role is always a bit different than you imagine after you take time to understand what is, and is not, happening inside a huge organization, and figure out your role within it. Thus, during the past 10 months or so, in something akin to a “think-and-do tank” mode, I’ve been creating and promoting fresh, innovative ways of engaging different audiences. These engagements – online and offline – tend to leverage Microsoft’s existing strengths, applied in novel ways. Here are three examples, in brief.

An online magazine, SECTOR: PUBLIC

While there is certainly some good writing on different aspects of new technology and the public and volunteer sectors, I recognized a need for an overarching publication that leveraged Microsoft’s natural intellectual assets to provide thought leadership on all aspects of technology and innovation, and how they are changing the business of the public and volunteer sectors and empowering new forms of public service and social change. I edit this online magazine, named SECTOR: PUBLIC, and manage a group of writers from the company. We are obviously pro-Microsoft, but the stories are written with the audience in mind, and encompass ideas that go beyond strictly Microsoft products and initiatives.

An event series, Geek 2 Chic

This initiative recognizes that while Microsoft is very good at reaching certain kinds of customers – mainly very large, complicated institutions – we don’t necessarily do a good job of reaching out to certain types of influential communities, artists and fashion mavens, for example. Geek 2 Chic began as a fashion show to attract Washington, D.C. fashionistas to us in a genuine way – by showing off great styles in partnership with Bloomingdales, and having a fun social event around that (which also raised money for a good cause). But the trick was that all the models were “geeks” and we were able to highlight their terrific work during the show. This is evolving into a more general series that may involve cocktail hours, fashion shows, and intimate workshops, all designed to help “chic” people learn how to be more geeky in ways that help them with their careers. Here, our natural strength is that through Microsoft networks, we know many of the geeks that can give advice to chic people; thus we can structure creative networking opportunities for all involved that are also fun.

A networking space, Project Pivot

Another need I recognized is that entrepreneurially spirited people often don’t have great places to work. These people are also often interested in public good and social change, and are tech-savvy to some degree. In a few cities like San Francisco and New York, this group is better catered to, but in many others like Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles, they are less so. Leveraging the excess office space and wi-fi that Microsoft has in many of its buildings, I am just about ready to launch something I’ve tentatively named Project Pivot, which is a private, invite-only entrepreneurial co-working space (starting in Washington, D.C.) that also has members-only benefits like luncheon speakers and a private discussion board. Not only does this provide great things for this community – office space, networking opportunities, free coffee – but it also helps Microsoft better understand what this group of talented young people is doing in their communities, and how our technologies might help them as well.

Corporate Public Diplomacy: One Year In

It’s a little too early to say how successful these efforts will be. But I have been forming a set of mental “design principles” which govern how I decide what a given engagement might be. I’m not prepared to write them up at the moment (and they’re outside the scope of this article), but one of them certainly is that I think about what the audience needs before I think about what Microsoft needs. Once I know who an audience is, and understand what their needs are, I look at how Microsoft’s assets – financial, human, other – might be deployed to serve those needs.

It’s one thing to talk to audiences and try to influence them. Anyone can say whatever they want. But the way to gradually change the communications environment around a brand that many people already have an opinion about, is to be somewhat selfless and provide genuine value which resonates with that audience. Actions speak louder than words.

Mark D. Drapeau, Ph.D. is the Director of U.S. Public Sector Social Engagement for Microsoft Corporation, where he engages audiences at the intersection of technology and innovation and the public and volunteer sectors. He is the editor-in-chief of the online magazine SECTOR: PUBLIC, which provides thought leadership on these topics. Prior to joining Microsoft, Dr. Drapeau was an adjunct professor at The George Washington University, an Associate Fellow at the National Defense University, and a Postdoctoral Fellow at New York University. He has a B.S. and Ph.D. in animal behavior from the University of Rochester and the University of California – Irvine, respectively.

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Gov 2.0 Event – “Open Government: Pages From the Playbook”


Today I’m attending a Government 2.0 unconference called Open Government: Pages From the Playbook at the MLK library in DC. If you’re not here, you’re missing out. Attendees are hearing from govies and contractors about how they are adopting the Administration’s directive on open government. I hear and read a lot in this area, and I’ve definitely heard some new stuff.

My favorite five-minute talk so far was from Virginia Hill of NIH-NIDA, who spoke about a project called “Drug Facts Chat Day,” which leverages the brand and scientific expertise of the National Institute on Drug Abuse to answer teens’ questions about substance abuse. It’s hard to reach audiences (of citizens) that are, shall we say, “shy” but they seem to be doing a great job.

Primary organizer Lucas Cioffi tells me that many govies who wanted to speak couldn’t make it for this initial event, and so there almost certainly will be another one. This is not only a great opportunity to hear a lot of quick talks from people working on open government in the trenches, but also a great opportunity for sponsors to get involved at a modest level.

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My Philosophical Review of the Audience Conference


Loren Feldman. 1938 Media. Audience Conference.

That’s about as much of a summary as you’ll find about the Audience Conference held in New York last Friday. That’s because there were no open laptops allowed during the performances. There was also no Wi-Fi, no video streaming, no tweeting, and no blogging. Something akin to omertà joined the members of the Audience Conference together.

This bond of silence was at the core of the Audience Conference, and it goes against everything that technology and Web 2.0 events normally stand for: openness, transparency, and participation. You would be hard-pressed to find any information anywhere on the web about any of the Audience Conference content. Tweets during the event were generic (“just arrived at the Audience Conference”) and posts after the event were vague (“loved the conference, got to meet Calacanis”). Nobody knows what happened unless you were a genuine member of the audience.

Many other features of the event were also unfamiliar. There were no sponsor booths, banners, and signs all over the place, the speakers had no slideshows, internet connections, or videos to keep us interested, and there were no press or even questions from the audience allowed. No problem.

Read the rest of my new post, “Quarantined Conferences: Claustrophobic Technophiles or Attentive Audiences,” at O’Reilly Radar today!

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Quarantined Conferences: Claustrophobic Technophiles or Attentive Audiences?


This post was originally published on O’Reilly Radar on November 11, 2009. It’s still one of my favorites – I like the notion of a “quarantined” event during which you’re not allowed to use social media and are forced to enjoy the performance in the moment (like watching the opera or a symphony or something).

Loren Feldman. 1938 Media. Audience Conference.

That’s about as much of a summary as you’ll find about the Audience Conference held in New York last Friday. That’s because there were no open laptops allowed during the performances. There was also no Wi-Fi, no video streaming, no tweeting, and no blogging. Something akin to omertà joined the members of the Audience Conference together.

This bond of silence was at the core of the Audience Conference, and it goes against everything that technology and Web 2.0 events normally stand for: openness, transparency, and participation. You would be hard-pressed to find any information anywhere on the web about any of the Audience Conference content. Tweets during the event were generic (“just arrived at the Audience Conference”) and posts after the event were vague (“loved the conference, got to meet Calacanis”). Nobody knows what happened unless you were a genuine member of the audience.

Many other features of the event were also unfamiliar. There were no sponsor booths, banners, and signs all over the place, the speakers had no slideshows, internet connections, or videos to keep us interested, and there were no press or even questions from the audience allowed. No problem.

That’s because the content and experience was so damn good. It was technology. It was performance. It was even culinary. Loren Feldman, our MC for the day, treated the event not as a conference so much as a 20-act play that he directed from start to finish. Inside the historic Hudson Theatre in New York, the members of the audience acted like precisely that – an audience. We watched, listened, and learned. We didn’t talk, text, or tweet. We sat in comfortable chairs facing the stage, not at round tables facing at all different angles to it. We retained the information we heard instead of regurgitating it for our own audiences. We learned that the essence of having an audience is performing for them on a stage – perhaps a digital one – and telling great stories.

What was the Audience Conference? From the website: “Audience is a conference aimed at those who recognize the need to reach engage and influence audiences of all kinds, an investigation into how this is changing, and a look at how technology has in the past and is now, through new media tools and the social web, changing audience participation and interaction.” I would love to tell you about what I learned from Jason Calacanis and Rachel Marsden and Rae Hoffman and Andrew Keen and Jeremy Schoemaker and Joe Jaffe and Melanie Notkin and others. But I won’t. Half the philosophy of the Audience Conference was that events are ephemeral experiences that people attending can share with each other – and people not there cannot experience.

In my opinion, casually live-tweeting conferences is overrated because to a large degree it doesn’t serve an external audience very well. When 30 people are tweeting 10 times during each of 10 talks at a conference, and then people re-tweet the tweets (on a delay, naturally), the hashtag stream is a jumbled mess of disjointed quotations that don’t tell a coherent story. I’ve written about why I think tools like Posterous might be better for summarizing thoughts from events; they serve the audience better.

That said, I disagree with the notion that everything needs to be live streamed, live blogged, and live tweeted merely because we can. I recently attended a conference that was about the size of the Audience Conference, and I had a fine experience there so there’s no need to call them out. But strange to me in hindsight was that the audience’s tables were arranged at 90 degrees to the stage, and furthermore that nearly everybody at the tables was staring into a laptop nearly the entire event. Who is that a great experience for?

Now, I am not going to start calling for a ban on Twitter at conferences. I do it sometimes when I think it provides unique value and perspective. I’ve live-blogged some events myself. Furthermore, banning these technologies at an event like the upcoming Gov 2.0 Expo would probably result in an all-out revolt. But what Audience Conference taught me was a new perspective on the actual value that all of the technology adds; if you’re planning an event and you’re more worried about power strips and Wi-Fi than content and experience, you’ve got a problem in my opinion.

The comments on Nicole Ferraro’s blog about Audience Conference might lead you to believe that being able to film and tweet from a private, closed door event was some God-given right of Those Who Possess An iPhone. Sorry, it’s not. Loren Feldman took video of the entire event from six different angles (including a small cam pointed at, you guessed it, the audience) and he will decide how and what and when you get to see anything. Why not? It’s his show, not yours. Can you stream video from a live production of Wicked?

The other half of the philosophy of the Audience Conference was that it’s okay that people are better than you at something. And it’s perfectly alright to just sit back and watch them perform. And we watched performances, to be sure – not just tech talks but also personal stories, poetry readings, and musical acts. (Yeah, musical acts.) Not everyone is good enough to be the best financial blogger, or best personality, or best musical act – that’s a dream. Maybe you’re great at something, but can’t you sit back and relax the rest of the time?

I liked this too. With all the talk about how everyone is a citizen journalist and everyone is a content producer and everyone needs a digital media strategy it’s easy to forget that most people are horrible at all of this stuff. And that’s not necessarily because people don’t understand whatever shiny object has come along, it’s because many people are not gifted communicators. New media, at its core, is old-fashioned because the instinct to communicate with other individuals predates man. But some are way better than others at it. And that’s okay.

So are quarantined conferences more likely to result in claustrophobic technophiles or attentive audiences? While some in the tech community clearly think that a lack of engagement is a violation of some imaginary social media code and in an age where even live music isn’t sacred it may seem like heresy to sequester people participating in your event away from their new media toolbox. And maybe sometimes it is. But having experienced the Audience Conference myself, I can also say that in some situations people are not entitled to break out the social media toolbox, because they will genuinely gain a more valuable experience without it. In my opinion, if one event wants to encourage new media use and another discourages it, who are we to argue? We’re only the audience.

What do you think? Were people at the Audience Conference correct to obey Loren Feldman’s requests? Should they deliberately continue “hiding” the content of the event from people that chose not to attend? Should other Web 2.0 events disallow Web 2.0 usage in real time??

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Social Networking: the Two Dirtiest Words in Government 2.0


Next week I’ll be speaking at a Sweets and Treats event called Social Networking: The Two Dirtiest Words in Government 2.0, which has been organized by Debbie Weil and is sponsored by Neighborhood America.

Sweets and Tweets features leading voices from DC’s diverse technology community talking about the use of social media by the public and private sector, from the White House and federal agencies to local startups. Previous events featured Mark Walsh on crowdsourcing and Andrew Wilson, who runs Flu.gov.

Neighborhood America is a terrific enterprise software company that has been doing cool things in the Gov 2.0 space before it was Gov 2.0, and Neighborhood America’s CIO Jim Haughwout will fly up from Florida to attend the event and mingle.

This is a private, after-hours event at the very cool Baked & Wired store in Georgetown. Attendees get free cupcakes, lots of time to mingle, and hopefully some food for thought about how social networking – those two dirty words – fits into the workplace, both within the government and beyond it.

Sweets and Tweets is Tuesday, November 17, 2009 from 7:00 – 8:15 PM, and you can get your tickets here: http://sweetsandtweets3.eventbrite.com/ (If you read about it here, use special discount code “sweeter3″ when you register!)

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