Out Of An Abundance of Caution

My work as a school public relations practitioner often has me trying to figure out how best to communicate exactly what it is I do. A few years ago, I started telling students, teachers, and parents alike, that I’m the one who calls your house to cancel school. That answer usually gets a few laughs and is a great icebreaker for public speaking.

Stakeholders associated with my school district claim that there are six words they long to hear when school officials determine school should be canceled due to inclement weather. Apparently, my catch phrase letting people know that the decision was made was done so “out of an abundance of caution.”

I now have my very own catchphrase mug that I plan to use in the event of inclement weather.

That phrase became so popular that I stopped saying it for about three years, fearing it was a joke. Recently a colleague gave me with my very own catchphrase decal as a gift, which another colleague placed on a coffee mug for me.

The phrase is now back in the rotation. Earlier this month, I used a mobile-first strategy to cancel school for families and employees, sending messages to their voicemail, text message, app, Facebook, Twitter and our website at the same time. In less than five minutes, I sent that message to more than 10,000 stakeholders, including members of the media.

In this week’s Modern Retro PR, we’ll examine the means of the messaging and how organizations can use it as part of a mobile-first strategy.

Modern: Predictive Dialing

In just over a decade, the number of Americans with a cellphone of some kind has increased more than 30 percent, according to Pew Research Center. That number now stands at 95 percent! Beyond that, the same survey found that almost eight in 10 use a smartphone. For communication practitioners, these are key pieces of data. This means communicators have the ability to reach audiences nearly instantaneously!

Predictive dialing is the technology behind automated phone messages.  It is the very same technology school districts around the nation use to cancel school in the event of inclement weather. Recently, there has been a rash of winter weather, which prompted many school districts to cancel school using their automated phone messaging systems.

An organization’s representative can log into web-based system, determine which people associated with the organization need which messages and the means in which the messages can be disseminated.

This (some-times annoying) technology got its start in the late 1980s.  This technology has morphed into being able publish content across multiple platforms simultaneously to specific audiences.  Additionally, communicators can use the technology to identify a geographic region in which to broadcast a particular message.

Retro: Calling Trees

As a child, I remember well what the experience was like to get the call that school was canceled. My parents, who were both schoolteachers at different schools in my hometown, would each receive a phone call from a designated coworker and then be expected to call their own small groups of coworkers. Not terribly efficient, but it could be effective as long as the message was relayed correctly.

Because branches of the phone tree can be broken (i.e. contacts leave the organization or no longer want to participate), it’s advised to test the phone tree at least once per year make sure it works effectively and to fix any broken connections.

This is about as low-tech as one could get.

But as an elementary student, I didn’t care: the message got through loud and clear that we had no school that day.

Curious how to build your own phone tree? Learn more.

Final Thoughts

In this day and age, organizations should include a mobile-first strategy in their communications efforts. There’s good reason, too: interconnectivity. Author Priya Viswanathan summed it up this way in a 2017 blog post: “The mobile user is always online and can access the Internet from wherever he or she may be.”

This level of connection allows audiences to build trust with an organization, and trust can build brand loyalty by improving the level of customer service offered. Additionally, organizations are finding that mobile-first is a “necessary means to communicate and remain competitive.”

So, why not embrace it?

The trends point to mobile-first capabilities as becoming big business to include mobile commerce. A 2016 survey by Business Insider “forecast that m-commerce will reach $284 billion, or 45% of the total U.S. e-commerce market, by 2020.”

This is a huge opportunity for business: to be in the back pocket (or pocketbook) of their consumers. These kinds of mobile-technologies offer real-time data points for businesses: likes, location, demographics and more.

Fifteen years ago, some consumers were wary of mobile technology in favor of bricks-and-mortar businesses. Today, my family and I visited the local mall where many of the storefronts and food court restaurants were empty and dark; one of the anchor stores was having a going-out-of-business sale offering upwards of 60 percent off the regular price.

Times are clearly changing. While it was once understandable that consumers were cautious about this trend, it’s time for businesses to cast the caution to the wind and fully embrace mobile first. Failure to do so could mean those businesses and industries will find themselves in their last days.


It goes without saying that mobile-first technology can be an effective strategy as part of crisis response. Just this week, I had an emergency at work that including my need to call multiple families at once to make them aware of the situation and to provide an update to the status of their children. Thankfully, all was well, but that was the most terrifying call I have ever had to make.

In that moment, our public relations department, which has a solid reputation among our stakeholders, needed to determine how we communicate this very important message and quickly. We ultimately decided to use the automated messaging system to call multiple families and text them with the basic details: their children were safe and my direct line phone number.

The parents, with whom I spoke, appreciated our communication efforts and the fact that we reached out to them through a variety of means.


Love It or Hate It: Big Data

Big data—you either love it or hate it. As a public relations practitioner, I have come to fall into the category of loving it! I have found that it just makes me that much more effective at accomplishing communication goals. In fact, I think I have carved out a niche for myself working in school public relations for using data generated by the school system to inform my decision-making. Plus, it makes it easier for me to determine whether or not I have been successful. For me, the use of data by communicators is a hallmark of a practitioner being on his or her game. Fail to use it and I want to read into what one is presenting to understand their (lack of) methodology.

Think I haven’t done it? Just Ask my #schoolPR colleagues with whom I regularly participate in a moderated Twitter chat with that can be found by searching the hashtag #k12prchat. If you could see and hear them when you asked the question about me, you’d probably get an eye roll and a collective groan.

Yes, put me in the “love it” category!

If you work for a large organization, then you know your company collects many, many pieces of data no matter what industry for which you work. It’s no different for the love industry. In this week’s Modern Retro PR, I am drawn to a case study I first learned about through a now-canceled podcast, called “Undone,” and produced by Gimlet Media in 2016.

The episode, “Operation Match,” billed itself like this:

“Before Tinder, before eHarmony, before the internet, there was Operation Match. This is the story of the roots of online dating, when, in 1965, a computer the size of a van helped people find their perfect dates.”

Click to listen to this episode of Undone here.

Modern: Online matchmaking apps and websites

At the turn of the century, online dating had a stigma—that something was “wrong” if you needed to go online and find a date. I recall two people I went to college with who used me as their cover story for meeting when they really met online. (During their process of getting to know one another, they each realized they both knew me.)

These days, no one would think twice about telling others they met their partner online. In fact, Pew Research has seen the momentum shift since they first began measuring this topic in 2005. Since that point, 13 percent fewer people would categorize “people who use online dating sites as desperate.” See table below as indicated by three separate administrations of the survey by Pew in 2005, 2013 and 2016, respectively.


Unfortunately for my friends, they met prior to Pew’s first popping the question of American adults, and hence the way they told their story of how they met.

But for all those looking for love on websites/apps like e-Harmony, Match, Tinder, Grindr and the like, endless amount of data are needed to find the perfect match. In 2017, Pew Research found that 15 percent of American adults have used online dating services. Consider that each person shares vitals like name, photographs, height, weight, age, dating preferences, vocation, etc., that is copious amounts of data!

Each keystroke or click of a mouse represents data that someone is hoping to find them “The One.”

But it hasn’t always been as easy as to swipe right or left for love.

Retro: Operation Match

In the 1960s, college students looking for love would attend a mixer and hope to meet someone. Unfortunately, there is a lot of variables at stake with a mixer. Let’s face it, it was probably not ideal for an introverted college student or for someone who lived in an area with what they felt to be limited options.

survey question

Interested to see what matchmaking looked like in 1965? Here is one question from the questionnaire developed by Harvard University students. Want to see more of the survey? Click to view

In the spring of 1965, a group of college students from Harvard University decided to create shake up the process and let a computer do the work. It all started with a 100-question survey that yielded information on a potential suitor’s background and attitudes. Those answers would be put into a computer which would generate a list of names and phone numbers of possible dates.

According to an article published in The Harvard Crimson in 1965, the number of approximately 70,000 American students who sent in “three dollars and a completed questionnaire” was cited.

Final Thoughts

Although I didn’t meet my mate online, more and more people are. In fact, the popular wedding website The Knot found that in 2017, 19 percent of brides had met their mates online. Statistically speaking, that number could easily increase.

Love is, apparently, big business. A 2017 report from IBISWorld indicated that the online dating industry is now a $3 billion a year business. That number could increase as Pew Research found in 2016 that the trend for online dating increased slightly, with 12 percent of Americans ever having used a dating site.

When considering Moore’s Law and the idea that the “power of technology hardware doubles every 18 months,” a great example can be found in the world of computer-assisted matchmaking. The number of people looking for their match has been multiplied more than 500 times as compared to the statistic cited in the Retro example in The Harvard Crimson. The rough math of the number of people using online dating help tops more than 37 million people! That number mushroomed in just more than 50 years!

At this rate, the technology has to continue improving with an uptick in the number of users—that’s with only 15 percent of the population using the services. What happens if more year for tugs of their heart strings via an app? The technology must continue to improve.

However, online matchmaking isn’t all just science, it’s art, too. Data aside, even with a computer-calculated odds of a successful match, there is one thing a computer just can’t replicate: an on-target strike of Cupid’s arrow to the heart.

Media Mania & Emerging Technology

I learned how to be a journalist in the late nineties. One of my class assignments was to use a telephone book and a curly-que-tailed phone to find and call sources. At my first job, I was expected to know how to navigate my way around the city using a large map book in the news vehicle.

Six months after graduation, the reporters in my shop were being asked to become “convergence journalists” and report on television, a regional newspaper, and the internet at the same time.

Some of my colleagues balked. “We are TV reporters,” some declared. “Why would I put my work on the internet at lunch when the news doesn’t come on until 5 p.m.?” others asked. It was no better at the regional newspaper where the print reporters would refuse to share their story on television because “nobody brought a brush” to brush their hair before going on the evening news.

Three months later, 9/11 happened.

That was nearly 17 years ago and I was on the front lines of a shift in journalism and clearly remember the panic it caused in my newsroom. Now, a reporter needs smartphone with a strong signal and a full battery.

As the world around us changed, the newspaper industry stayed the course, belatedly posting content in text-laden, visually uninteresting stories and giving away the proverbial milk for free.

I am most likely at the midpoint of my career and the traditional news industry is fighting for its life. Media companies are rethinking the way they are doing business. Nowadays, to see a print reporter on television is commonplace; in fact, many journalists have built followings by offering live updates to their reporting throughout the day via Twitter. This was unthinkable when I started my career (and to be honest, some of my colleagues would have out-right refused!).

The use of mass notification during crisis has been a topic for this blog before. In this edition of Modern Retro PR, I noted a correlation between two incidents of causing mass panic through the medium of the day.

Modern: Hawaii Ballistic Missile Push Notification Alert

This weekend, residents and visitors in Hawaii were informed through mobile push notifications that a ballistic missile was headed their way. People in Hawaii thought the world was coming to an end, sheltered in place, and told their loved ones goodbye.

People in Hawaii waited for more information from the state government through the channel that sent the first harrowing message: their cell phones. But nothing came. So they turned online to glean any information they could, only to learn that 38 minutes after the initial text message, their lives were never in jeopardy.

It turned out the push notification was sent as the result of human error—a mistake.

Error or not, it was a panic-inducing event playing out in real time, online.

Taylor, et. al, noted that during times of crisis, social media is key to offering “connectedness; both to loved ones and to the broader community, providing reassurance, support and routes to assistance” (2015).

This time the panic was caused by an accident, but something like this has happened once before—on purpose.

Retro: Orson Welles War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast

On Halloween in 1938, actor/writer/producer Orson Welles did a radio adaptation in to the 19th century book, War of the Worlds. The production suggested to a nationwide CBS Radio audience that Martians had invaded America. Welles opened the program with a disclaimer and followed up with one two-thirds through the program that this was a production.

While there are reports of panic, it that has been mostly attributed to lore. Ironically, it wasn’t radio that was to blame, it was the ensuing newspaper coverage of the radio production, according to a duo of writers from Slate.com.



“Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted,” (Pooley & Socolow, 2013).


Interested in reading the news of the day? Click here for the 1938 New York Daily News article following the broadcast.

Final Thoughts

Incidences like these only raise skepticism among already-questioning publics. This isn’t necessarily a cause for concern for the media industry, but it should be taken as a warning signal.

Modern-day assertions that news is “fake” parallel with those of newspapers in 1930s America that radio couldn’t be trusted.

A 2016 survey from Pew Research indicated that fake news causes confusion among citizens.

Communication is key, especially during crisis.  In both cases, it is evident that “communication is one of the fundamental tools of emergency management” (Simona, Goldberg, & Adini, 2015, p. 610). Like push notifications in the modern example and radio in the retro example, both were considered newer (emerging) forms of media in their day. While it is important for the industry to embrace change to remain relevant, it is more important to embrace the responsible use of emerging technologies through the use of strategic thinking of what are the possible outcomes.

The misuse of any communication channel can erode the public trust. In both examples, the Federal Communication Commission weighed in and issued responses to a questioning public.

That is why it is crucial that those working in communications-related fields use all the tools at their disposal to find appropriate sourcing and provide corroborating evidence of the information being shared.



There is no secret to this success; the foundational skills which have served journalists well will continue to do so well into the future.


Pooley, J., & Socolow, M. J. (2013, October 28). The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic. Retrieved January 14, 2018, from http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/history/2013/10/orson_welles_war_of_the_worlds_panic_myth_the_infamous_radio_broadcast_did.html

Simon, T., Goldberg, A., & Adini, B. (2015). Socializing in emergencies—A review of the use of social media in emergency situations. International Journal of Information Management, 609-619. doi:https://ac.els-cdn.com/S0268401215000638/1-s2.0-S0268401215000638-main.pdf?_tid=b3bd74ca-f98a-11e7-858d-00000aacb35d&acdnat=1515976157_1245c9557d422f6c388d9f02b742870

Taylor, M., Wells, G., Howell, G., & Raphael, B. (2012). The role of social media as psychological first aid as a support to community resilience building. The Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 27(1), 20–26.

Welcome Back.

A new year always brings new opportunities and 2018 is no different. I don’t think that I am same-old Lesley I was just a year ago. I am smarter. I am wiser. I am grayer. I have a better sense of purpose and of myself. I have worked in communication-related fields for more than 15 years now, meaning most likely, I am nearing the midpoint of my career. Ironically, I am starting over though, as I have headed back to school to earn a degree in strategic communication.

Previously, when I blogged in this space, I enjoyed comparing and contrasting public relations campaigns from two different eras–one modern and one retro, like the title of this blog. I hope to continue exploring this this time around as writing about strategic and emerging media allowed me to build a knowledge set surrounding strategic communications.

I found that what I learned here I was able to put to use in my “real life,” working in school public relations. I don’t expect that to change as I write weekly in this space. I learned a lot about myself blogging here: I learned that this is a time for me to invest in myself and my professional growth. I am even more convinced that good writing is always in style.

I hope you’ll grow with me at Modern Retro PR, too.  Be sure to bookmark it at https://modernretropr.wordpress.com/