The Costa Call


Robert Costa
Source: Wikipedia
Credit: Gage Skidmore

Some things in life you can’t escape.  Last night, I celebrated another March birthday with a friend, whose birthday is a week later, at Le Diplomate restaurant on 14th Street in Washington. Both communication specialists, my friend and I talked about everything but politics, for awhile. When the subject came up, we both sort of shook our heads. My friend remarked that it was hard to believe some of the developments happening in politics and the media. If anyone had told us years ago the things happening now in the political landscape, we wouldn’t believe it. We both admitted to working consciously to resist the urge to keep up with the rapid-fire political news pushed to us via our cell phones. We knew such restraint was necessary to manage our own daily lives.

But the next day,  I succumbed to the pull of the cell phone’s news flash once again. I couldn’t help it. The Washington Post had released its journalist Robert Costa’s account of a cell phone call from our 45th President about his party’s replacement bill for the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

I have a number of opinions about that call, but I will keep the personal and political ones to myself. To stay true to the purpose of this blog, however, I feel compelled to focus on how the call speaks to the consequences of digital media in our modern political era.

Transparency: What is most revealing about the call from the 45th President of the United States to Acosta is that it gave the appearance of flouting established communications protocols for persons who hold the high office. The call also went to a journalist at a publication that has been vilified by the current Administration (and its supporters) as a bastion of the “elite liberal media.” The consequence is that it will undoubtedly spark an open discussion about whether the call was part of a planned communications strategy or an executive whim that diminished and devalued established executive branch communications protocols.

Truth: Never before have individuals been so challenged to sift for the truth, based on the myriad news sources that interweave news and opinion. A conscientious effort to decipher truth from fiction, “spin” and accusation presented by digital news media will require diligent objective reasoning abilities that diverse demographic and political groups may be increasingly challenged to adopt. This could have grave consequences for our democracy and others. On the flip side, the immediacy of journalism in the digital age gives rise to the facade of unfiltered reporting and the impression of veracity. Taking the Acosta call as a case in point, we tend to believe that the 45th President repeated three times that House Majority Leader Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) was not to “blame” for the replacement bill’s demise. We believe it, not just because a reporter said it, but we also believe it because it’s fresh off the phone call, with little filtering, we suppose. We also believe the Acosta account because his Wikipedia bio suggests that Acosta is least likely to put a liberal slant on his account of the phone conversation because he used to work for a conservative publication, The National Review. Never before has the phrase, “consider the source,” carried so much complexity in the business of information curation and dissemination.

Compromise: One and not done. On the surface, the 45th President’s call appears to be a simple admission that just one of his proposed campaign initiatives will not be achieved in the short term. That new opportunities for “wins” will abound in the months and weeks ahead. But a deeper analysis suggests that high-level communication via digital and social media has become the norm and carries a double-edged sword that may increasingly contribute to the calcification of political gridlock and the erosion of party allegiances. It seems that our digital media universe is not conducive to finding middle ground or fostering political discourse that might produce compromise leading to common-sense public policy.

I have been a purveyor of digital media technology for many years. I marvel at the positive changes it has brought humanity. But I am not alone in the belief that we must harness and guide it for political good. The Acosta call from “45” may be a blip on the digital political news radar, but if we fail to heed its warnings, we could be in a heck of a mess no matter who holds the reins of power. Like birthdays, we can’t escape technological advances, but we can determine how we manage them.


Mobile Goes Grassroots

I get my share of social and digital media newsletters to keep pace with the rapid advances of online communication. Most of the discussion these days is about the move to mobile. This month, Forrester, the pre-eminent online research group, predicted mobile shopping, known as “m-commerce” will hit the $6 billion mark this year and grow to $31 million in five years. While the story gives retailers insights for directing their marketing efforts in the future, there is little to advise nonprofit and government communicators about strategic directions. However, the report does point to expanded use of smart phones. That alone is something all communications experts can use to get the best mix in future marketing communications campaigns. That has not always been the case for mobile.

Two years ago, mobile marketers had few case studies to promote for social marketing. Advertisers experimented with mobile for their clients who could afford it and whose target audiences—primarily working professionals at the upper-middle income strata–used smart phones more than free phones. But times are not just changing, they’re moving at warp speed when it comes to mobile. No longer do the major wireless giants, Sprint and Verizon, have a monopoly on the spectrum wavelengths on which ring tones and millions of conversations ride. Upstarts like Cricket and other low-cost carriers are leveling the monthly payment field to allow poorer people to afford smart phones and the access to instant information they provide.

That is music to my ears, given the needs of budget-conscious, but underserved audiences I have sought to influence in the sectors of health, education and welfare. When Cricket advertises a $50 monthly payment plan for Internet access, texts and more, the masses have arrived in smart phone heaven. Even middle-income professionals should pause to reconsider they’re carriers after racking up wireless phone charges that look like car notes. Low-cost wireless carriers clearly recognize that “underserved” does not mean under- motivated to participate in as much of the American-turned Global “Tech” Dream as they can muster. Evidence points to both the Pew Center for Media Research and Arbitron research about Hispanics and African-Americans, being early adopters of new technology and particularly heavy users of mobile. The latest data should clearly point social marketers to the need to get moving on the mobile informing tip when putting together plans for multi-cultural and underserved outreach.

So thumbs-up to Baltimore Harbor Hospital’s communications team for tapping upstart mobile advertising company Mobilozophy, a Tampa-based company with offices in Atlanta, Boulder, Colo., and Chicago, to help reach residents within their closest zipcodes by using mobile advertising. Using mobile banner ads, SMS (text responses) and “call now” options, Harbor Hospital and Mobilozophy were able to demonstrate to nearby potential customers they were just a phone call away in a medical emergency. In other words, the hospital was sending the message that it welcomes mobile phone users making a personal plea, such as “I’m sick and I’m calling ahead to the emergency room.” Whether you’ll ever need such a service or whether wait times at Harbor or any inner-city hospital will be favorable is another story. The point is Baltimore Harbor Hospital made its closest potential customers know they wanted to be engaged, that they cared about being engaged. That’s the stuff of powerful branding in a city where the poverty level is among the highest in the nation.

If Baltimore is doing it, why not other urban centers where grassroots marketers are looking to influence behaviors of smart phone users? Mobilozophy is trying to answer that question with out-of-the-box mobile ad strategy, customer support and pricing packages that meet target audiences and clients where they are. They are backed up by low-cost (with the exception of reported phantom cell phone fees the Federal Communications Commission is investigating) wireless companies (as in Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, Metro PCS) that are putting handheld computing on cell phones within reach of an important critical mass—the working poor.