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UNL News Blog

Archive for July, 2010

UNL research examines cost of protecting foreign oil

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

Remember my post from a while back about how you had to put yourself out there to get traction in today’s fast-moving media landscape? How pitching yourself based on your C.V. — simply saying “I’m an expert on X” or “I have years of experience researching Y” — isn’t good enough? It sounds simple, but you have to stretch your expertise and moreover, take a stand if need be, to get your voice out there into the national mix.

Well, here’s another good example of that.

UNL biological systems engineer Adam Liska and Richard Perrin, an agricultural economist who works on East Campus, recently published an article in the magazine Environment. In it, they point out that an often-ignored source of greenhouse gas emissions — the military protection essential to getting oil here from the Middle East — should be considered and evaluated by the EPA every year to get a clearer picture of its environmental impact.

In the paper, Liska and Perrin spell out their case for EPA action based on their best scientific estimates: that emissions of heat-trapping gases resulting from military protection of supertankers in the Persian Gulf amount to 34.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent a year. In addition, the war in Iraq releases another 43.3 million metric tons of CO2 annually, they estimate.

This is why, they contend, that in the national discussion on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the environmental impact of oil-related military emissions must be included in comparisons of gasoline and biofuels such as ethanol.

Topics like foreign oil, the war in Iraq, global security and alternative biofuels tend to create enough controversy on their own. Liska and Perrin, however, sought to further the debate by drawing conclusions and suggestions from their work. This is in stark contract to the all-too-common academically detached practice of “Well, here’s my findings … I’ll leave it to others to decide.” For those of us working to get UNL stories, research and faculty into the national media, Liska and Perrin’s approach makes it much, much easier to get reporters’ attention.

As a footnote, here are a few of the dozens of places that Perrin and Liska’s work has appeared over the last 10 or so days. It first showed up on the New York TimesGreen Blog, after which we followed with a news release that got picked up far and wide. The UNL professors’ assertions continue to rattle around the blogosphere this week and will undoubtedly be cited in future discussions for or against military action in the Middle East.

Don Draper and PR

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, you know that AMC’s hit show “Mad Men” has returned for its fourth season. And wouldn’t you know it, the first episode of the season was entitled “Public Relations.”

For the uninitiated (all six of you), “Mad Men” is about advertising in Manhattan in the 1960s. This season is about new beginnings, with the core of the cast having left their old firm to establish a new one, before their old haunts were bought out by McCann Erickson. So the new season starts with main protagonist Don Draper — one-fourth of the nascent Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce advertising firm — being interviewed by Advertising Age and being, for want of a better term, a bit of jerk.

Of course, that leads to a lousy article that, later in the episode, indirectly causes his fledgling firm to lose a major account. His fellow partners, particularly senior partner Bert Cooper, urge him to pitch himself to other publications — perhaps, Cooper says, to his man at the Wall Street Journal. Don’s curt response is that his work, by damn, should speak for itself. Why does he have to spend time courting hack writers for trade publications?

But by the end of the episode, he begins to see the writing on the wall. After a presentation for a nervous client goes south, he’s forced to shed the attitude that his work, and his work alone, should speak for itself. In short, Don came to the realization that reputation management was an invaluable part of his responsibilities in growing and sustaining his enterprise. So, moments after the climactic office run-in with the clients, Don stomps from the conference room and snaps to his secretary: “Get me Bert Cooper’s man at the Wall Street Journal.”

And, in a nice piece of symmetry, the episode’s final scene shows Don, humble and engaging, charming the writer from the Journal. We’re left to assume that the subsequent article would gush about the new firm. Bottom line, even the great Don Draper had to learn the value of getting some good press.

Hey, we love “Mad Men” for its style, writing and complexity alone. But we really love it when it’s making some of the same points we do right here on this blog. To wit:

Public relations = more bang for the buck. What are the benefits of public relations? Ask Don Draper. His lousy interview with Advertising Age caused at least one client, after seeing the dour piece, to pull their million-dollar account. Instead of creating a nice buzz about their agency, they got a disgusting thud.

Meanwhile, in the same episode, Don’s protege, Peggy Olson, orchestrates a stunt to get client Sugarberry Hams’ product flying off the shelves. She pays two actresses a pittance to go to a local store and pretend to fight over one of the hams. It results in a news article that gets wide play. The Sugarberry people, none the wiser, love the results. OK, OK, questionable ethics aside, here’s the larger point: A well-placed news story that puts your product in a good light is priceless.

But be honest. The Sugarberry ham example, though, shouldn’t be misconstrued to mean we think you should construct a ridiculous exaggeration of yourself or your work to present to the media. In the long run, it won’t work: In the age of savvy news reporters and readers, authenticity is the only viable route. Sure, the Sugarberry ham trick got some short-term bang for its buck. Problems still persisted with Peggy’s stunt, though — and we suspect there may be more trouble in the future from it — simply because it wasn’t honest.

Don, meanwhile, was tone-perfect during the Journal interview at the end of the hour. It was clear he truly believed in what he was saying — he was being straight-up with the reporter, and he was being true. We’re pretty sure Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce will get their coveted framed article at its office entryway now.

Prepare, prepare, prepare. Here’s one instance where you should not try to be like Don. Never go into an interview cold, and always practice and hone your story. Let me say that again: Never go into an interview cold. Practice and hone your story. Our hero had to learn this the hard way … but by the time Don was sitting with the Journal reporter, he was again the suave, cool cat who is used to owning the boardroom. This is mainly because he knew the story he wanted to tell, recognized how that narrative cast his agency in a desirable light, and carried it out relentlessly in the interview. He drove the discussion instead of being reactionary and evasive.

There are a ton of tips and tricks to offer when contacted by the media, and if you or your department or college hasn’t been through a media-training session, seriously consider scheduling one. But, those tactics and skills are all are still predicated on one principle: Before you sit down with the journalist, you must work through what story it is that you wish to convey. The rest is just details.

One last thing. When it was over, we found ourselves wistfully wishing that it was still that easy to pick up the phone, call the Wall Street Journal, and BAM — get a story placed. We’ll have to work on that.

The Book List: Who Counts as an American?

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Want to get a better understanding of what has driven the Birthers, the Tea Party and the rise in domestic hate groups since Barack Obama became president? Check out Elizabeth Theiss-Morse’s latest book, Who Counts as an American?: The Boundaries of National Identity. While not tackling those specific hot-button topics directly, the book does more to explain and bring into context the nascent formation of white minority politics in the United States — and the paranoia that comes with it — than any work out there right now.

In Who Counts as an American?, Theiss-Morse — chairwoman of UNL’s department of political science — draws on social identity theory to examine the dynamics of national loyalty and commitment. She develops a social theory of national identity and uses surveys, focus groups and experiments to explain why national identity is such a powerful force in peoples’ lives.

Her results show that the mixture of group commitment and the setting of exclusive boundaries on the national group clearly affect how people behave toward their fellow Americans. Those who strongly identify with the “national group” care a great deal about it — they sincerely want to help and to be loyal to their fellow Americans. But by limiting who counts in their minds as a “real” American, those same strong identifiers place severe limits on who benefits from their generosity. Help and loyalty are offered only to “true Americans,” while others are relegated to the edges of the national group.

One stark example from the book is an experiment, conducted well before the 2008 campaigns swung into gear, that asked respondents to examine three photographs. One was of Hillary Clinton, one was of Barack Obama, and one was of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Researchers asked their test subjects which of the three looked the most American. Obama finished a distant third behind both Clinton and Blair.

Don’t take our word for it. Who Counts just won the Robert E. Lane Award, given annually for the best published work in political psychology. She’ll be in Washington, D.C., in September to accept the award during the national meeting of the American Political Science Association. Congratulations, Beth!

Of forecasts and frames

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Once in a while in the midst of a grindingly slow summer, it’s nice to go after some low-hanging fruit. To wit: The latest Business In Nebraska report by the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Council.

The report, which is released through UNL’s Bureau of Business Research, is done semi-annually and provides both short and long-term economic forecasting on a U.S. macroeconomic and statewide microeconomic scale. Usually the economic predictions go no further than two years out, although this one reached all the way until the end of 2012. If you’re interested, see the current report here.

Naturally, this week’s economic forecast pulled down extensive local and regional coverage as reporters zoomed in on the Council’s slight ratchet-back of its January job-growth projections. Also not surprisingly, the Council’s forecast also got an excellent ride around the national wires, landing in major outlets such as Bloomberg BusinessWeek,, and dozens of daily newspapers around the country.

This happened, in large part, because the report was excellently timed. National discussion about the economy, after slowing down for some time in spring and summer to obsess about oil spills and the World Cup, has begun to pick up again. This is in part because of politics, but also because U.S. economic growth isn’t roaring along at the breakneck pace to fit some analysts’ narrative.

In the diametrically framed world of the national media, in which gray area and nuance is hard to locate, the fact that the recovery isn’t happening at light speed clearly means the United States is in for a double-dip recession, right? So, reporters and editors around the nation are looking for any evidence of that to further that particular story frame. This latest UNL report provides some good talking points within that frame.

UNL economics professor Eric Thompson, who heads the BBR and who is certainly no stranger to working with the media, emphasized in this latest report that the U.S. and Nebraska economies are both continuing to grow and move in the right direction, despite the persistence of difficult headwinds. And, while there are reasons for optimism on the economic front, he and the Council believe it would not appropriate to be absolutely bursting with optimism right now.

In other words, Thompson wanted to get past the “boom or bust” mentality that tends to permeate the national discussion when it comes to the economy. We kept this in mind when framing Tuesday’s news release, which eventually went out under the headline of “Forecasters: Nebraska economy still on pace for growth.”

In the end, we got decent, but mixed, results on that front. Most writers focused on one figure from the report — that overall job growth is projected to be 0.3 percent by the end of 2010, instead of the 0.9 percent growth projected in January. Nothing inaccurate about reporting that, but it wasn’t exactly the way we framed the story.

Of course, we’re not stomping and screaming about getting good, national exposure on our Bureau for Business Research. Bottom line, this is a win for UNL. It also is one of those clear and necessary reminders that, once the story’s out our door and delivered to our friends in the media, there really is no way to predict how reporters might treat the information, and what might result from their treatment of it. We might have a good initial idea of how things will be framed, but in the end, we have no real control over that.

Kind of like forecasting the economy, eh?

Is social media a fad?

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

Um, no.

Serve it up … or get passed over

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

I’ve made this point before, and it sounds so very simple. But in light of a recent example of a national news appearance, it bears repeating: To get media exposure, you’ve got to put yourself out there.

For some, that might mean stretching one’s research to fit a current news event. Consider, for example, an economist who has written a book about the economics of immigration expanding on his work to comment more pointedly about the current situation in Arizona, which has more angles than a carpenter’s convention. Or perhaps a space-law professor giving a unique, nuanced reaction to President Obama’s recent announcement that advocated international science missions and the limitation of space junk and weapons above Earth. Neither of these examples are precisely in the faculty member’s wheelhouse, but if they’re willing to stretch to offer their knowledgeable opinion, the chances of getting national exposure instantly begin to climb.

And then, of course, there’s the web. For faculty and administrators at UNL, the easiest — and most accessible — way to put themselves out there is by blogging. And blogging. And blogging some more.

That’s what UNL political scientist Ari Kohen does. In addition to having a popular Twitter feed, Kohen hosts the weblog Running Chicken, which addresses any number of topics, from sports to academia to politics to human rights to popular culture. It’s a great mix of content that, combined with Kohen’s wisdom and festive writing style, comes off as a one-of-a-kind experience for readers.

And for media types, too. Recently at Running Chicken, Kohen put down his thoughts about a debate about whether contemporary political science is becoming irrelevant. Kohen’s blog entry was spurred by another blog entry at Foreign Policy, written by Stephen Walt, who suggests that the problem is ”the tendency of many scholars to ask smaller, less significant, and less controversial questions and to produce what he describes as ‘analyses of jewel-like precision that … generate only minor findings and arouse little interest beyond specialists.’”

At Running Chicken, Kohen disagreed a bit: “I would argue that many political scientists are engaging with such questions, but that the way in which the answers are being delivered is problematic. When we rely on advanced statistics to speak for themselves rather than explaining our findings in clear prose — or when we choose not to translate key quotations in French, German, Latin, or Greek into English — we do a disservice to our potential readers, or chase them away completely. These are choices that don’t have much to do with tenure or with controversy … and, ideally, political scientists will choose to do better.”

You know how the story goes from here: Kohen’s post came across the screen of Max Fisher of The Atlantic Monthly, who writes an excellent blog called The Atlantic Wire. And as bloggers tend to do, Fisher quoted Kohen’s thoughts on the topic and linked back to the professor’s blog, giving Running Chicken a nice new platform and certainly a host of new and first-time readers.

This is a success story for UNL, as well — and food for thought for those faculty members who wish their expertise could be tapped in relevant debates more often. You have to put yourself out there. You must weigh in on the topics of the day to which you can bring unique knowledge and wisdom. In a roundabout way, that was part of Kohen’s point regarding political science’s modern-day relevance — he  suggests academics need to improve their method and execution of communicating their findings so they remain relevant. In this humble communicator’s opinion, getting online, writing for general audiences and stepping out of the protective fold of one’s narrow research interests is a good start.

In the national-news placement game, it’s common knowledge that the more lines you have in the water, the more chances you’ll land a big one. When we have faculty members who are able and willing to maintain one of those lines, we know that the chances of them getting national exposure go up exponentially. It’s not terribly complicated, but it does take time and energy. But it’s worth it, because reporters read blogs. They read them a lot. They read them for story ideas, for source suggestions and for help framing their stories before they sit down to write. We at UNL would be negligent if we didn’t encourage and promote our faculty, administrators and staff who blog and blog well.

If you don’t follow blogs, start. Then, start one of your own. Then, keep at it. Your audience will grow — and eventually, perhaps with a little nudge, the media will find you.

Art imitating life

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

Any time you get a real-life news story intersecting with the timing of a film along the same general subject matter, you get stories wondering whether the news event will help the film’s popularity. I remember, in 1998, getting handed an assignment shortly after U.S. warplanes attacked Iraqi targets during the No-Fly Zone era in Iraq. It was during the Lewinsky scandal, which caused endless comparisons to a movie that came out a few weeks earlier called “Wag The Dog.” Such Cinematic Serendipity — real-life news intersecting with Hollywood — is a regular entry point into which to punch an enterprising and well-spoken film-studies professor.

In UNL’s case, it’s the ever-resourceful Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies, who was recently tapped by to discuss whether the recent capture of a Russian spy ring would have a beneficial impact on the new Angelina Jolie spy-thriller “Salt.” Dixon, as he always does, gives a well-reasoned response to the story’s central question — that a movie can have box-office success if it’s, well, of good quality, features strong performances and has some star power to boot.

Dixon gets quoted a lot nationally. One main reason — besides his ever-growing list of published books on the history of film — is because he is not afraid to share his opinions on all matters in his area of expertise.

In a given month, we may send Dixon a half-dozen to a dozen queries on how film and culture intersect, and he gives direct, clear answers to reporters’ questions. Sounds simple, but it’s not. Nonetheless, it’s helped give him a very solid batting average when it comes to getting quoted by major news outlets.

Here are a few of our recent Dixon favorites:

Why are there so many movies that put emphasis on an anti-hero? From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

What makes a “real” superstar? From E! Online.

Sizzle surrounds “Avatar” as industry anticipates new phase for movies, from The Christian Science Monitor.

Horror films reflect the times, from the San Jose Mercury News.